Digestible Bits and Bites #84, April 2020

Digestible Bits and Bites

The monthly newsletter of the
Culinary Historians of Canada
Number 84, April 2020
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Delicious food samples prepared for John Ota's book launch event.
Photo by Julia M. Armstrong


  1. CHC News and Upcoming Events

  2. News and Opportunities

  3. Food for Thought (book reviews)

  4. Events of Interest

  5. Upcoming International Conferences

1. CHC News and Upcoming Events

CHC Event Update
As no doubt expected, we have postponed our event previously scheduled for May 6 with curator and book author Meredith Chilton and will rearrange the rest of this year's event plans as we know more about the progress of COVID-19 in Canada. We look forward to a return to more normal routines in the coming months.

Meanwhile, in this edition of our newsletter, we bring you a wealth of online culinary-history diversions to fill your social-distancing hours, and we wish good health to you and your family.

Call for Papers
CHC invites you to submit proposals for presentations at the Rural Women’s Studies Association Triennial Conference (May 13 to 15, 2021, at the University of Guelph, Ontario). We would like to sponsor two or three panels.

The RWSA’s theme, “Kitchen Table Talk to Global Forum,” emphasizes how conversations, relationships and food shape rural communities. CHC encourages submissions on these sub-themes:
  • Food on the rural Canadian table (food production, preparation, preservation, agriculture)
  • Food on the rural Canadian home front (war rationing, preserving, recipes)
  • Food writing for rural Canadian women (magazines, newspapers, cookbooks)
For more information or to submit a proposal, please contact Fiona Lucas ( and Julia M. Armstrong ( by May 10 of this year. Please include the following:
  • Title of paper (a working title is acceptable)
  • Length of paper (10, 15, 20 or 30 minutes)
  • 200-word (max.) description of paper
  • 100-word (max.) bio
  • Contact information (name, phone number, email address)
We will inform you of the outcome by May 20 and submit our proposed package to the conference organizers at U of G by May 30, their deadline.

Photo by Julia M. Armstrong

An Evening with Author John Ota
On March 5, CHC celebrated with member and author John Ota, whose book The Kitchen: A Journey Through History in Search of the Perfect Design has had a very successful debut—even making the Toronto Star's best-seller list! The sold-out event attracted quite a crowd (remember those?) to Campbell House, where John offered an intimate look at his journey through great kitchens of the past.

The chance to sip wine and sample snacks—featuring recipes associated with kitchens John visited—made for a most convivial post-talk gathering. Thanks to Sherry Murphy, ably assisted by Theresa Sciberras, for prepping vast quantities of food, including tea biscuits, meringues, shortbread, apple custard pie and even Elvis Presley’s favourite meatloaf (see below). Also assisting with food prep on the day of the talk were John and his wife, Fran Ota, and Sylvia Lovegren. During the event, Sherry, Theresa, Jennifer Meyer, Bernadette Pileggi and Ann Clement kept the food hot and platters replenished for the eager crowd. A pleasant rosé provided by the Otas was the perfect quaff while guests bought copies of John's book, thanks to the sales table provided by CHC member Kathy Chant.

John didn't just help cook and give us a memorable talk, however. Because of a water-main malfunction relating to city maintenance work, CHC volunteers were unable to wash the dishes that night. John and Fran Ota returned to Campbell House the next morning and helped the staff get everything shipshape! CHC is grateful to all the volunteers, as well as to Campbell House director-curator Liz Driver and staff for making us so welcome.

CHC member Dana McCauley has reviewed The Kitchen for this issue (see “Food for Thought,” below), and food writer Marion Kane posted a charming podcast about it. Also, John has generously given us permission to share a recipe from the book (one of the dishes that was served at our event.)

Meatloaf from the Elvis Presley Graceland Kitchen
(Many thanks to Graceland for this authentic recipe from Elvis's cook, Mary Jenkins Langston.)

  • 2 lbs. ground beef
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 pkg (4 oz.) soda crackers, crushed
  • 1 8-oz. can tomato juice
Bake in a 350 degree oven.

  • 2 8-oz. cans tomato sauce
  • ½ cup ketchup
Pour over meatloaf when nearly done and return to oven.

Do You Give Presentations on Food History?
CHC sometimes receives queries from organizations wishing to book speakers. Current members who would like to be added to our list of recommended presenters should send a message to and include their contact information, a very brief bio, a description of the presentations they offer, the geographical area they can travel to and (if possible) a suggested fee.

Upcoming CHC Events

Postponed until further notice
Food Culture in the Age of Enlightenment

A presentation by Meredith Chilton, author of The King's Peas: Delectable Recipes and Their Stories from the Age of Enlightenment.

Summer (to be confirmed)
A Special Exhibit

Toronto's First Post Office (260 Adelaide St. E., Toronto)
An exhibit about food-company mail-order offers.

Saturday, September 26
CHC Annual General Meeting

November (date TBA)
5th Annual Baking for the Victorian Christmas Table
Montgomery's Inn (4709 Dundas St. W., Etobicoke)
Join the Culinary Historians of Canada!

The membership year runs from one annual general meeting (usually in October) to the next. Download a membership form here and join us today! 

2. News and Opportunities

The Folger Library Is Hiring!
The Folger Shakespeare Library seeks to hire a post-doctoral research fellow for its Mellon initiative in collaborative research, Before "Farm to Table": Early Modern Foodways and Cultures. The project is headquartered in the Folger Institute, a centre for advanced research in the early modern humanities at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

The project Before “Farm to Table” investigates the pervasiveness of food in everyday life as a window into early modern culture, addressing such issues as labour; freedom and enslavement; practical knowledge; ethics; colonization; and imagination. These perspectives from a pre-industrial world will shed light on critical post-industrial dilemmas and aspirations. For more information, visit the Folger site.

Oxford Symposium Moves Online
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trustees of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery have decided to transform the annual gathering into a virtual symposium. They will be employing user-friendly technologies to allow a broad and diverse audience (including many who might otherwise not have been able to journey to Oxford) to experience and contribute to the first "V-Symp."

The organizers see this as an opportunity to fulfil their mission to "change the conversation, expand the table and improve the plate." Expect paper-presentation panels with Q & A in virtual form; plenary and keynote presentations; chef demos and recipes; virtual tours of herb gardens and spice markets; and opportunities to chat remotely with friends old and new.

More details will be available in the coming weeks; online registration opens April 15. All registered and paid-up symposiasts have received an explanatory letter. Anyone else interested in attending virtually can join the waiting list by emailing

3. Food for Thought

Have you missed a book review? You can read reviews from all our past issues online. If you are a CHC member who would like to contribute, please contact Elka Weinstein at or Sarah Hood at

The Kitchen: A Journey Through Time—and the Homes of Julia Child, Georgia O'Keeffe, Elvis Presley and Many Others—In Search of the Perfect Design by John Ota (Appetite by Random House, 2020). Reviewed by Dana McCauley (pictured above).

When a new book written by a friend or acquaintance comes into your hands, there’s always a moment of stress before you open the cover and dip into the pages. What if it’s unreadable? And, if it is bad, how will you tell them without being hurtful? The feeling is especially acute when the book isn’t part of a bigger body of work and you really don’t know what to expect. This was how I felt moments after I agreed to review John Ota’s The Kitchen for this newsletter. I was hoping for the best, but worried the book might only be about angles and ratios or other technical details an architectural writer might share between the covers of a book about historical kitchen design.

I met John Ota a couple of years ago in a tiny Orangeville coffee shop; he had driven from Toronto to attend my talk on a historical book I had written about the food served on an Edwardian cruise ship called the Titanic. Given my own fascination with culinary history and how analyzing what people ate in the past helps me to understand their lives, I knew I’d find things to like within the pages of a book about historic kitchens, and the good news is that The Kitchen is more than just readable; in fact, I think it has broad appeal.

The trick will be for booksellers to find the correct place to shelve it, because The Kitchen spans genres: it’s a memoir by a food lover; it’s a travelogue by a tourist with an eye for light and descriptive detail; it’s a love story brought to life by affectionate letters written home; and it’s an anthropological exploration of the ways cooking and feeding ourselves can reveal day-to-day life. Lastly, at least for this reviewer, The Kitchen is also a self-help book!

John may be predisposed to write a book that spans so many genres because of his training. His background is in architecture—he is an architectural writer and critic who specializes in preservation—a profession that I imagine requires one to be highly empathetic not only to the needs of a building’s current users, but also to the vision and intent of the original builder. John applies this emotional intelligence adeptly to create a highly readable book that uses sensory and descriptive detail to evoke the past.

Over the course of 13 kitchen visits, he charts the evolution of North American home cooking since the 17th century. He takes us from a stand-alone, discretely situated kitchen where servants created banquets for dignitaries using imported ingredients to an open-concept, luxurious cliffside monument to modern food enthusiasm where friends gather to relax, prepare local foods and eat before a spectacular mountain view.

Along with the author, the reader visits kitchens created and used by historical icons (Julia Child, Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Jefferson, to name just three) as well as the cooking areas occupied by the everyday people whose names history has forgotten (such as Plymouth Plantation Pilgrims and Victorian tenement dwellers). He brings all of these people to life with descriptions of their homes, hearths and the foods they prepared to sustain themselves. In chapter one, John explicitly voices his mission: “I need(ed) to understand how the Pilgrims lived, what they ate, how they prepared their meals." By the end of the chapter, he’s done exactly that.

Every kitchen John visits is given a full chapter, each of which concludes with a letter home to his wife, Franny. In the introduction we learn that Franny, who has recently embraced cooking, hates their home kitchen and that John is visiting historic kitchens as part of the process of designing a cooking space that will please them both. His letters summarize what he’s learned at each location and how he’ll incorporate these lessons into the design of a space where he and Franny will find the creative inspiration to prepare wonderful meals and host celebrations.

It’s these short letters that elevate the book from a mere historical account to a useful and delightful narrative. In these notes, John reinforces the book’s utility as he distills each kitchen tour into lessons that reminded me that I should quit consulting magazines and social media for design ideas and start thinking of kitchens as places that personify their users and not their designers. For me, that insight has been transformative.

Midway through reading The Kitchen, I took an evaluating inventory of my own kitchen. As I stood there, the deficiencies I dwell on (such as having too many appliances cluttering my counters, or the fact that my stove top is so well worn that the numbers on the knobs are fading) became signifiers of a room that is well used by two passionate professional cooks. 

Obviously, I’m no longer worried about what I’ll say when I next see author John Ota. In fact, I’m excited to see him, to say “Bravo!” And I am also excited to hear the details about the kitchen that he and Franny plan to create. Perhaps that project will be the basis for his next book? I do hope so.


Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England by Elaine Leong (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).

As with many books that are based on the author’s doctoral thesis, Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is not a particularly exciting read, but it is very interesting for readers who are fascinated by the origin of recipes. Recipes today are usually culinary only and are composed of lists of ingredients with more or less exact measurements (pounds and ounces, cups and teaspoons) and with a series of instructions meant to be followed step by step to produce a uniform result. In Leong’s case studies, recipes are both medicinal and culinary, and are tried and tinkered with, sometimes over generations.  

The book draws on the handwritten recipe collections of the landed gentry in 16th- and 17th-century England, with the general thesis that the early modern household was a “site of science” that informed the creation of modern science as we know it today. Leong uses these recipe books as case studies to show how every household created a legacy for future generations through the gathering of both culinary and medicinal recipes. The elite men and women of this time period endeavoured to keep their families healthy as well as sustain their families’ ties through this work. Their activities were also supported by a network of servants, experts in households and husbandry, as well as those knowledgeable in a variety of tasks that we would mostly consider outside our own knowledge sphere today, such as brewing and distilling. 

As context for the book, in the period discussed Charles I became King of England. During the subsequent English Civil Wars, he was executed in 1649 by Oliver Cromwell, who reigned over Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) until his death in 1658. The landed gentry of England would have been the hereditary lords and ladies of the British aristocracy, a social class of landowners who could live entirely from rental income or at least had a country estate. They therefore would have had the leisure time to exchange and experiment with recipes that were passed from hand to hand. These recipes were written into books that were cherished and often passed down through two or three generations.  

Although Leong’s general thesis is not strongly supported by the case studies that she presents, some early science surely resulted from the experimentation that took place through the many iterations of medicinal recipes that are examined in the book. Several diseases that are presented as needing cures are relatively unknown today, such as scrofula, King’s Evil, ague, dropsy and flux, and some of the recipes clearly were not cures for smallpox or for other diseases that we now know to be incurable, but the persistence of the authors in their search for proof of efficacy certainly lends itself to a scientific outlook.  

For those interested in early recipes and who have enough academic and historical background to appreciate these very early English attempts at experimentation, this book is certainly worth a read. I would have liked to see the case studies presented as chapters, since the Adderleys, the St. Johns, the Catchmors and the three generations of women in the Glyd family would be worth exploring in depth. My own inclination towards historical fiction may be influencing this wish, however, and other readers may be satisfied with the book as it is.

Review Contributors
  • Luisa Giacometti
  • Gary Gillman
  • Sarah Hood
  • Sylvia Lovegren
  • Fiona Lucas
  • Dana McCauley
  • Elka Weinstein

4. Events of Interest

Compiled by Jane Black, Julia M. Armstrong & Sarah Hood
In the spirit of this current period of social distancing, in place of our usual event listings we bring you a dozen virtual pursuits to make the most of your time indoors. Please share pictures and stories of your cooking adventures and historical discoveries on our Facebook page. (Join now if you haven't already!)
  1. Explore historical Canadian cookbooks. The CHC's website has been updated to include even more digitized cookbooks dating from 1825 to 1949.
  2. Start your own sourdough. Markus Mueller of the blog "Earth Food and Fire" offers complete instructions for capturing your own sourdough starter. He was among the contributors to CHC's 2017 Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge; you can read dozens of seasonal Canadian food stories by participating bloggers on our website. 
  3. Cook from historic recipes. In the blog "Cooking in the Archives," scholars and foodies Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell test early modern recipes (1600-1800) in a modern kitchen.
  4. Listen to a new podcast. Gastropod, now in its 14th season, examines food through the lens of science and history. Follow the link to the site and simply click to launch the latest episode; there's a smorgasbord of past “gastropodcasts” to catch up on.
  5. Reconnect with Julia. The PBS website offers free episodes of the shows “Baking with Julia” and “Cooking with Master Chefs,” both featuring the incomparable Julia Child and other culinary luminaries.
  6. Browse vintage images for fun. This Pinterest collection of old food labels is full of nostalgia and surprises.
  7. Take an armchair trip to a food museum. Dip into Atlas Obscura’s compendium of 38 museums devoted to food (we can dream, right?). And to experience an online tour, visit this Dutch website Food Museum; start at the entrance or go straight to the exhibit gallery. (At the top right, you can switch to the English version.)
  8. Binge watch some droolworthy CanCon. The CBC offers a tasty selection of past episodes of favourite food shows like "Back in Time for Dinner," "Fridge Wars" and "The Great Canadian Baking Show."
  9. Virtually visit a Canadian historical site. Your options include:
    • Nettie Covey Sharpe House, where you can tour the kitchen of French-Canadian folk art collector Nettie Covey Sharpe.
    • Food at Fort Selkirk, which offers information on the food and diet of those living in and around Fort Selkirk (north of the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers).
    • Farm Food 360, which provides online tours of Canadian agricultural sites, including sheep and dairy (available through Google Play and the App Store for phones, iPads, desktops and laptops).
    • Traditional Cooking at Kings Landing, a short video highlighting culinary activities at Kings Landing Historical Settlement, New Brunswick.
    • Roedde House Museum, a historical house in Vancouver.
    • Joseph Schneider Haus, former home to a Mennonite family living in Berlin (present-day Kitchener, Ontario), which has posted a video exploring cheese- and butter-making in the historic kitchen.
  10. Explore an online exhibit. Among the possibilities:
    • This Splendid Gift—the 1897 Canadian Historical Dinner Service: Painted to commemorate John Cabot's 1497 landing in North America, the Canadian Historical Dinner Service was presented to Lady Aberdeen, wife of the governor general, for her contributions to Canadian life.
    • Bon Appétit: A Celebration of Canadian Cookbooks/Les livres de cuisine canadiens à l’honneur: An archived online exhibition produced by CHC member Carol Martin for Library and Archives Canada. It includes books, art and artifacts representing Canadian culinary history from indigenous traditions to modern tastes.
    • Lifelines: Learn all about Canada’s East Coast fisheries at the Canadian Museum of History and the struggle to balance nature and human need.
    • From Tides to Tins: Salmon Canning in B.C.: The long and complex history of salmon canning in British Columbia is as much about coastal communities, technological innovations and environmental changes as it is about bringing food to market. Follow each step of the canning process from tide to tin as you learn what it was like to work in a cannery.
    • Harvests of Prince Edward Island: This research project utilizes the collections and resources of the Island's community museums to explore a number of the harvests that have been important to P.E.I.’s history. The major harvests represented include the Potato, the Malpeque Oyster, the Silver Fox industry, Irish Moss and Mussel Mud.
  11. Indulge in a YouTube video. You’ll find lots of culinary history in videos such as these:
    • 60 Years of Cooking: Produced by the Department of National Defence, Canadian Forces, Army Public Affairs, this four-part series (also available in French) showcases the history of the Canadian Forces cooks, a military occupation within the Logistics Branch.
    • Emmymadeinjapan: EmmyMadeInJapan combines her love of thrift shops and cooking by testing vintage kitchen gadgets in a series of three videos.
    • The Tadka Project: Toronto cook Sumi demystifies South Asian vegan cooking via her YouTube channel named for the all-important process of sizzling spices in oil to begin a traditional South Asian dish.
  12. Discover international culinary history. There's much here to keep you enlightened and entertained:
    • Culinary Historians of Chicago Podcasts: Jane’s favourite culinary history society, after the CHC, is the Culinary Historians of Chicago. Their podcasts cover both American and international culinary history. Two of Jane’s favourites are “Last Night on the Titanic: Unsinkable Drinking, Dining and Style” and “One Smart Cookie Shares Crumbs of History.”
    • Timeline: A wide variety of historical documentaries, including the “Let’s Cook History” series and other culinary history videos that span numerous times and places.
    • The Real Mrs. Crocombe: A mini-series from the English Heritage charity, which cares for more than 400 British historical sites. Featuring food historian Dr Annie Gray, the series follows the life of the Audley End House cook Avis Crocombe and her staff during the Victorian era.
    • Townsends: This American family recreates 18th-century living for YouTube. (Check out their video on Catharine Parr Traill or the one comparing historic and modern kitchens.)

5. International Conferences

Compiled by Julia M. Armstrong


April 18 (York, England) - CANCELLED
The date of the next symposium is provisionally booked for April 21, 2021.

May 26 to 27 (Dublin, Ireland) - CANCELLED
Theme: Food and Disruption: What Shall We Eat Tomorrow? Disruptors in food history can include people, movements, technological advancements and disasters.
Of note: Browse the contents of past symposiums.

May 27 to 30 (Athens, Georgia) - CANCELLED

June 21 to 25 (Boston, Massachusetts) - Not cancelled to date; ALHFAM monitoring situation.
Theme: 50 Years of Living History.
Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston.
Of note: Includes a day exploring Old Sturbridge Village, New England's largest outdoor living history museum.

July 10 to 12 (Oxford, England) - Moving online (see news item, above)
Theme: Herbs & Spices.

September 23 to 25 (Antwerp, Belgium)

Organizers: International Society for Ethnology and Folklore.
Theme: Food, People and the City: Comparative Perspectives. A look at food production, distribution and consumption as cultural practices, in different periods and societies.

November 13 to 14 (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Theme: Food and the Environment: The Dynamic Relationship Between Food Practices and Nature.
Venue: University of Amsterdam.


May 13 to 15 (Guelph, Ontario)

Kitchen Table Talk to Global Forum.
Venue: University of Guelph.
Of note: The RWSA is an international association that promotes and advances farm and rural women’s/gender studies in a historical perspective.
Deadline for proposals: May 31, 2020; see conference website. See the news item above about the CHC’s call for papers for potential panel presentations by members, due May 10.

Across the far-flung regions of Canada, a lot is happening in the fields of food and history. This monthly digest is a forum for Canadian culinary historians and enthusiasts to tell each other about their many activities. This is a place for networking and conversation about Canadian culinary history happenings. Each month, Digestible Bits and Bites is shared with members of the Culinary Historians of Canada and other interested persons who ask to be on the distribution list. 
The Culinary Historians of Canada would like to share this digest with a wide audience. You are encouraged to post or forward this information. 


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