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A new edition of The Female Emigrant’s Guide provides modern cooks with historic context

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Catharine Parr Traill food writing featureCatharine Parr Traill’s iconic 1854 title, The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping, offers a rare glimpse into the domestic lives of pioneer women. Fiona Lucas, co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Canada, and Nathalie Cooke, an associate dean of the McGill Library and professor of English at McGill University, collaborated on a new annotated edition of the book, redesigned and contextualized for modern kitchens. While readers likely won’t be butchering their own pigs, Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic, publishing with McGill-Queen’s University Press in June, will appeal to those interested in the 100 Mile Diet and sustainable culinary traditions.

Why do you think The Female Emigrant’s Guide still resonates today? Fiona Lucas: There’s a real sense of place and character. It’s a very vivid account that reflects the many women who lived really hard pioneering lives. It’s a lovely book, and useable, and you can touch, in a very visceral way, what it must have been like, even if you are cooking in a modern kitchen.

Nathalie Cooke: It’s been popular for a long time in part because Traill belonged to a famous literary family. Those who have read Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush also read Catharine Parr Traill. The other thing is that we are now taking cookbooks very seriously – we understand the kind of information that cookbooks can teach us about the way people lived. Traill is interesting because she was living in the Rice Lake area [in Peterborough, Ontario], which had long been settled by Indigenous people, so we see some fascinating incidents of post-settler contact. It also gives us a history of the network of women who lived in the region. It’s a female-forward book that shows what it was like to be an immigrant, from a woman who was writing directly to other women.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in adapting the recipes?
FL: Fermentations – which is the word Traill uses for the yeast, the rising of the bread. They’re not difficult but they did take some time to understand because fermentations can be a little tricky if you’re not working with the right conditions.

NC: We talked about it a lot and then met in Toronto to test the recipes. People who are familiar today with baking bread still use dry yeast bought in the supermarket. There are caveats like don’t use tap water, because tap water is treated and so it won’t work in the same way that water would have functioned in the 19th century. As we modernized the recipes there was a need to offer those kinds of tips, many of which came from when we realized our own experiments had gone awry.

FL: Also, the recipes were very simple, and many details were left out, assumptions made, just as they are today. But the more you work with those recipes, which can at first seem quite intimidating, the more it becomes second nature as a very clear language emerges. We wanted to interpret some of those old terms so that you could work with them in today’s kitchen.

Who do you think will use this book?
FL: Hearth cooks, who already are using similar kinds of books, will hopefully take it back to their museum kitchens, but also a lot of people who just like to cook and are looking for different ideas. People who love experimenting with recipes, and who love to cook with recipes from other cultures. Historians and students of history and literature might find it entertaining and practical. Maybe even chefs will venture into the book.

NC: A lot of people who have read this book over the years have had to read between the lines. It will become a much richer read for those who have gone to seek out Traill, as it gives some explanatory notes in the annotations so you can figure out what’s going on, and better understand how people ate differently in the 19th century.