Art. III. Fur Fort Food — The Pantry of the Northwest, Part II : Carried at Great Expense, by A. Gottfred.
The food stuffs of the fur trade are discussed.
'Flour, oatmeal, barley and rice are all very good in their kind but when men that labour so hard as they do, comes to live upon that only it cannot be called good living.'—William Tomison, Hudson Bay Company's head of operations in North America, in a letter to the HBC's John Ballenden, July 29, 1799 (Johnson, 190)
Traders lived off the land as much as possible; their gardens gave them vegetables, the hunters supplied them with meat, and they quickly learned about wild plant foods. But some foods were carried from London and Montreal to the far reaches of the fur country. Some of these foods were luxuries. Chocolate, sugar, tea, and wine were used to celebrate holidays, boost flagging morale, and comfort the sick. Sometimes, luxuries were brought in privately by fur trade managers and consumed in secret (Johnson, 56). Other foods had to be imported into the Northwest because they could not be produced there. Staple foods like flour, oatmeal, hominy, and rice supplemented country provisions in good times and helped fill empty bellies when game disappeared.
'This afternoon we took a dish of tea with sugar...it is a great and indeed the only luxury in the NW,' Alexander Henry the Younger wrote in 1814 (Henry, 863). Tea was usually taken with lots of sugar (Moss & Hoffman, 81). In Upper Canada in 1799, the most expensive tea was Hyson, followed in price by Souchong and Bohea teas. Gunpowder tea was also available. Hyson ('Aysen') & Souchong ('Chouchon') teas were used by traders, but usually journals do not give the kind of tea being drunk (Dempsey, 41). All teas were loose leaf. (In researching this article, I visited my local tea merchant to inquire after Bohea tea. He was unfamiliar with the term 'Bohea', but did sell 'Pu-erh', a very earthy tea with a strikingly similar name. Souchong is an expensive, very pungent tea; smell some before you buy it.)
The alcoholic beverages listed below were primarily used by the HBC officers and North West Company clerks and wintering partners. The men generally drank a stronger version of the same liquor that was traded to the Natives.
Flour was carried into the Northwest, but it was used sparingly. Flour was made into cakes (galettes), and used to thicken soups and stews. A variety of spices were also brought in and were doubtless carefully rationed out throughout the year.
The following imported foods are mentioned in contemporary documents. Starred (*) items are documented in Upper Canada before 1815 and may have been used by traders (Minhinnick, 14, 34). Double-starred (**) items were used in Upper Canada between 1783 and 1867. All other items come from fur trade journals. In the interest of readability, references have been omitted from this list, but an annotated list of ingredients, showing all the references for each food item, is available. Please send your request, with a SASE, to the Northwest Journal.
Cordial, wild cherry (homemade)
Arrow Root (Beak) (Astoria)
Bacon (York Factory, Astoria)
Biscuits (HBC, Montreal, Astoria)
Butter (York Factory, Albany Fort, Grand Portage, Fort William, Astoria)
Cheese (York Factory, Astoria)
Cheese, Gloucester (Albany Fort)
Corn, hominy (Grand Portage)
Marigold (a kitchen herb)**
Molasses (Imported primarily by the HBC; NWC usually used sugar)
Oatmeal (Imported primarily by the HBC)
Sugar—brown, loaf, lump and maple sugars were all used.
I haven't found any evidence supporting the use of this drink in the fur trade, but the wintering partners & officers had all the ingredients available to them.
1/2 cup Madeira wine
1/2 cup hot water
sugar to taste (optional)
Combine wine, water, and sugar in mug. Grate nutmeg on top; stir.
In the East, milk was sometimes used to make this popular chocolate drink, but few places in the Northwest had cows before 1821. (Moss & Hoffman, 80; Sloat, 231; Farmer & Farmer, 51)
1 1-oz. square chocolate, grated
4 to 8 cups water
Sugar, nutmeg to taste
Carefully melt chocolate over LOW heat. (If practical, melt the chocolate over hot water rather than direct heat.) Carefully whisk water into chocolate. Boil for 3-4 minutes, watching so as not to let it scorch, especially if you are using milk in place of some or all of the water. Sweeten to taste, grate nutmeg on top.
'...when there is any flour, cakes are always added to [my people's] regales...' (Mackenzie, 248)
'... In the morning we breakfasted most heartily on white fish and buffalo tongues, accompanied by tea, milk, sugar, and galettes, which the voyageurs consider a great luxury. They are cakes made of simple flour and water, and baked by clearing away a place near the fire; the cake is then laid on the hot ground, and covered with hot ashes, where it is allowed to remain until sufficiently baked. They are very light and pleasant, and are much esteemed.' Paul Kane, December 1847 (Kane, 258)
Mackenzie's 'cakes' were very likely similar to Kane's 'galettes'. The English called this 'fire cake' or 'ash cake', and it was used by 18th century soldiers when bread was not available (Farmer & Farmer, 33-34). Sugar may have been added to the galettes on special occasions such as New Year's Day, since on special occasions the men received 'treats' which included flour and sugar (Henry, 161, 162, 165).
Alexander Mackenzie was familiar with hasty pudding, although he doesn't mention cooking it (Mackenzie, 336). You may also find this dish familiar, but the historic preparation has a few unusual twists (Farmer & Farmer, 46; Sloat, 147-148; Moss & Hoffman, 8, 9). This recipe makes 2-3 servings.
2 cups water
1/2 cup oatmeal (Scotch oatmeal, if available)
Salt to taste
Maple syrup, molasses, or sugar
Melted fat, drippings, or butter
Bring water to a boil. Stir oatmeal into boiling water by thirds, making sure that water keeps boiling. Add salt, if desired. Cook for half an hour, or until it is so thick that you stir it 'with great difficulty.' Serve with sugar, molasses, or maple syrup. You can also serve it with butter. Keep leftover oatmeal covered overnight (refrigerate if possible). In the morning, cut the oatmeal into slices about 1/4" thick, fry in butter or drippings, and serve with maple syrup.
Dempsey, Hugh A. 'A History of Rocky Mountain House', in Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, no. 6, pp 8-53. National Historic Sites Service, National and Historic Sites Branch, Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development : Ottawa, 1973.
Farmer, Dennis & Carol. The King's Bread, 2d Rising : Cooking at Niagara, 1726-1815. Old Fort Niagara Association : Youngstown, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-941967-09-3
Henry, Alexander (the younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Elliot Coues (ed.) Reprint : Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.
Johnson, Alice M. (ed.) Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence : Edmonton House 1795-1800, Chesterfield House 1800-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.
Kane, Paul. Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America...John W. Garvin, ed. Hurtig : Edmonton, 1967.
Mackenzie, Alexander. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Cambridge University Press : London, 1970.
Minhinnik, Jeanne. At Home in Upper Canada. Boston Mills Press : Erin, Ontario, 1970.
Moss, Kay, and Kathryn Hoffman. The Backcountry Housewife : A Study of Eighteenth-Century Foods. Schiele Museum : Gastonia, North Carolina, 1994.
Sloat, Caroline (ed.) Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook, 2d ed. Globe Pequot Press : Old Saybrook, Connecticut, 1995. ISBN 1-5640-728-4.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?