From nothing to something: How African-Canadians transformed ‘throwaways’ into delicacies that defined Canada’s cuisine

Juanita Peters spent her summers as a child in Weymouth Falls, an area of ​​Digby County in Nova Scotia, at her Grandma’s house. It’s where she grew up and still remains with her family de ella, carrying on traditions they’ve held for generations.

As a seventh-generation Nova Scotian, Peters remembers her grandmother, Muriel (Mamie) Jarvis, sharing stories of her great-grandmother and her Acadian influence on the family while passing on traditional recipes such as rappie pie, a dish native to Nova Scotia that Peters says is often compared to a pancake, though her family’s version was about two to three inches thick with a gummy interior.

It was one of many recipes from the province’s African-Canadian communities that would trickle down to Peters’ own kitchen.

Digby’s soil once held the footprints of the nation’s first African-Canadian Loyalists, who paved the way for families such as Peters’. It was axiomatic that the area surrounded by water would see a flourishing seafood industry, but that abundance was often considered “poor man’s food” during the days of settlement.

“You were considered a poor kid if you had a lobster sandwich,” explains Peters, who says a lot of the “throwaway” meats such as lobster and chicken wings that her great-grandmother received as “the help” are now considered common Canadian delicacies or traditional meals.

Juanita Peters spent her summers as a child in Weymouth Falls, an area of ​​Digby, Nova Scotia, at her grandma's house.  It's where she grew up and still remains with her family de ella, carrying on traditions they've held for generations.

Early African-Canadian settlers transforming throwaway meals into tasty recipes is a phenomenon that following generations strive to protect and preserve, through cookbooks and word-of-mouth, passing recipes to grandchildren hovering around kitchen counters. As many look back to their roots for answers, they find the basis to a good meal starts with their ancestors making something out of nothing.

“Our parents never wrote anything down, they just cooked,” says Peters, who explained the communal effort in bringing her cookbook, In the Africville Kitchen: The Comforts of Home, together. The book contains 23 original recipes donated by the former Africville and African-Canadian communities.

“One person would call their brother and ask do you remember what mommy used to make shortbread, then they call the next person. And then they started trying it out right and saying no idea, that that didn’t work, there’s something missing and, you know. So this went on and on and on, so it was bringing them together, but in a different way,” Peters says.

Juanita Peters remembers her grandmother, Muriel

The recipes that make up the many Atlantic Canadian communities where African-Canadian descendants migrated are prominent in Canada’s cuisine today.

Like the lobster sandwich, recipes like Nee’s Fish Cakes (found in Peters’ cookbook) were borne from a community blessed with an abundance of seafood. It calls for three or four bags of cod fish, onions, large potatoes and turnip molded together into patties and fried until golden brown.

Digby was home to a large Loyalist settlement in Nova Scotia. More than 3,000 Black Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the late 1700s, having fled the US for refuge in Canada, only to be met with smaller plots of land and lower wages in comparison to white settlers.

Chef Nelson Francis, the former executive chef at the private members club The Halifax Club, also grew up in Digby township. He says his elders of him passed down recipes innate to their community, and since he was 16 years old he has made an effort to cook the meals and develop innovative ways to keep the tradition and cuisine of his ancestors alive.

Over his 20-year career as a head chef, Francis has also become well-versed in the art of turning simple food into fine dining, such as creating his own variations of his African-Canadian ancestors’ recipes for rabbit meat and scallops.

“I did a transition from a confit but I used rabbit. Growing up, you know, we had a lot of rabbit. We always needed a fried rabbit or rabbit stew or shredded rabbit. What I did with that during college, I put that idea of ​​rabbit and changed it into a confit, which is a French dish originally used as duck that I switched it over. Later, I added that on my menu at the Halifax club for probably a good 16 years,” Francis says.

Chef Nelson Francis remembers his mother Evangeline Francis (right), and sister Margaret Cromwell (left) and Marie Thomas sharing their cooking moments with him, where he was able to learn more insight into traditional meals of the generations before him.

Francis’ new rabbit confit recipe consists of layered onions, potatoes and carrots in a pot with beef broth and a seasoning of basil, bay leaves, rosemary and thyme. The chopped rabbit is served with a thick gravy.

Francis says he remembers his grandmother telling him that rabbit was a main source of food for her community, especially during the cold Canadian winter months. He also recalls moments with his mother, Evangeline Francis, and aunts Margaret Cromwell and Marie Thomas, sharing their cooking moments with him, giving him insight into the traditional meals of previous generations. These moments inspired him to carry on some of the traditions, as he feels they’re being lost among the younger generation.

“I don’t think there’s enough knowledge out there for people to really know the background on the unique cooking traditions that (African-Canadians) had back in the day,” says Francis.

“A lot of the traditional ways are not used as much anymore, by the younger generation, and the older generation are slowly forgetting about it too,” says Francis.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, the Buxton Museum’s curator Shannon Robbins-Prince is fighting to keep those traditions alive, both at work and at home.

Buxton, southwest of Toronto near Chatham, was an area for Black settlement and with it came more flavors that can be traced to the African diaspora that migrated to Canada.

As a fifth-generation Canadian in the Buxton area, Robbins-Prince shares her grandmother’s treasured sugar cookie and gingerbread recipes with her four children and nine grandchildren.

Constance Whilhemine Shadd Robbins, known as Con, was the creator of the tasty gingerbread recipe that is carried on for generations.  Ella's granddaughter, Shannon, continues to make with her family of 4 children and 9 grandchildren.

“She would always make (sugar cookies) in great big Tupperware containers and stored them on the stairs or in the front room where the quilting was,” remembers Robbins-Prince, adding she would try to sneak one once in a while. “For some reason she she would always know how many were there.”

When it wasn’t sugar cookies, it was gingerbread (see recipe below), a dessert that Robbins-Prince says hasn’t tasted the same since, mainly because of the way the pure molasses flavored the recipe.

Robbins-Prince also makes use of throwaways like pork hocks, a tradition that moved from her grandmother’s dinner table to hers. She says pork hocks and crackling were always considered a luxury, because her ancestors de ella always turned the throwaways provided to them into delicious meals. Now, she says, their efforts have come full circle.

Grandma Con's house, where Shannon would visit to cook with her and learn family recipes.  The house was torn down 18 years ago, but the family preserved a few pieces.  Grandma Con's great grandchild was married in the pasture behind the home.

She also says that, much like the African-Canadian settlers in Nova Scotia, seafood was considered the “poor man’s meal” and that Buxton ancestors always managed to transform the delicacies in a communal way. Most particularly through smelt — tiny fish that brought the community together.

“Everybody looked forward to go smelting or what was called smelter running,” says Robbins-Prince, explaining the joys the tiny fish brought. “That was a delicacy and a treat for us. (The community) would go down to the lake and have smelting gatherings — the men would catch the smelt and the women would get fires going and cook them. You cut the heads off and do a little clean in the back and then fry them up and it would be smelt and it would be so good.”

In the Buxton Museum’s cookbook, there are several recipes from families, community members and first settlers. The recipes range from gingerbread, hominy, casseroles and “poor man’s duck.” Robbins-Prince says it’s all about “honoring generations that have come before us but also remembering when they were enslaved and how they survived with what little they had.”

When Grandma Con wasn't making sugar cookies, it was gingerbread, a dessert that apparently hasn't tasted the same since.

“When you stop and think about what they had to eat and how they survived and how, you know, prosperous that they came and how healthy they were, using the different herbs from the ground it’s important to keep those traditions alive,” says Robbins -Prince, who says this pondering is instrumental to the growing interests of many people looking to reconnect to their roots.

Now, as her children and grandchildren visit to make their own gingerbread and pork hock meals passed down from her grandmother, she says she imagines ancestors telling Canadians “I told you so” — that the scraps and ingredients they made the most out of will now bless the palates and dinner tables of so many people across the country.

“(Our ancestors) led the way for people. They were trailblazers before their time and they should be thanked for what they have done, because they survived on (what people once thought was unimaginable).”

With files from Karon Liu


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