We just couldn’t pass up the offer to be a part of this blog tour with author Lindy Mechefske. Her latest book, is an historically delicious look at Canada's first Prime Minister. We were lucky enough to be able to receive a copy of the book and then follow up with a Q&A with Lindy.
About the book
Commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald's birth, Sir John's Table is a refreshing look at Canada's first prime minister. Sir John's Table traverses the colourful life of Macdonald, from his passage as a young Scottish boy in the steerage compartment aboard the Earl of Buckinghamshire to his new home in Kingston, Upper Canada. It traces his boyhood years of stealing fish and scarfing down fairy cakes into his adult life as a lawyer, husband, father, and eventual leader of the newly founded dominion of Canada. It was a journey that began with hardtack and suspicious-looking, watered-down stew amidst appallingly unsanitary conditions and culminated in grand dinners held in Macdonald's honour.
About the Author
Author: Lindy Mechefske[/caption] Lindy Mechefske is a freelance writer and food columnist. She is the author of the cookbook A Taste of Wintergreen and blogs about her adventures in the kitchen at lindymechefske.com. She spent her early years in England and has lived in the U.S. and Australia but calls beautiful, historic Kingston, Ontario, her home. Lindy’s love affairs with food and history began when she was three years old, rolling out the pastry for jam tarts in her grandfather’s ancient Yorkshire kitchen.
Q&AQuestion 1: I know a fair bit about Canada’s first PM, but it never occurred to me to consider his dining habits. What inspired you to dive into the culinary history of Sir John A. Macdonald? Answer: I like using the lens of food as a way of looking at things. We constantly underestimate the importance of food and of culinary history. Food is paramount. It always has been. Our survival as a species depends upon it. And history informs us. It tells us who we were and who we are now. It tracks our evolution as a species. My interest in food and history began when I was my very young. I spent my formative years in the north of England, in Yorkshire, where every village is full of old stone buildings and stories, and ghosts; and every vista across the Moors and Dales is delineated with medieval stone walls and a landscape that hasn’t changed in centuries. During those early years, I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandfather, who loved to cook and garden. In my fact, my earliest memory of life is being with my grandfather in the kitchen of his beautiful, ancient stone house on the banks of a river in the West Riding of Yorkshire, rolling out a little lump of pastry for jam tarts. I was three. Thus began my enduring love affair with both food and history. When I got to high school I couldn’t believe how boring history was – rote learning the names of the early explorers and dates of the battles. I wasn’t interested in the politics or the wars. I was interested in the real lives of people – the architecture, the social history, and especially the food. The only time I perked up was when we started talking about pemmican or bannock or how the early settlers survived- how they were taught to use corn and grow pumpkins and squash and make maple syrup from the First Nations. But it wasn’t until much later when I was travelling elsewhere in the world that I realized that so many countries honour their culinary heritage so greatly. A couple of years ago I heard that UNESCO had honoured France, Japan, Turkey, and Mexico for preserving their culinary heritage under their Intangible Cultural Heritage list. That got me thinking about our Canadian culinary heritage. And given that I was already writing about food and that I live in Kingston, where the whole history of Canada AND Sir John A.’s presence both loom so large, the book was a natural fit for me. I was having lunch with a friend when the idea came up and we thrashed it about – wondering if such a book were possible. Of course it happened over lunch!
Question 2: How do you feel about the difference between modern-day recipe standards/formats and those of yesteryear? Answer: I love the whole freeform notion of cooking but I have to say, things don’t always turn out as expected! I made the recipes in the book, and some of them were pretty unusual by today’s standards. For example, the baked black bass recipe calls for eight onions. That’s an awful lot of onions for one fish even if it was a mighty-sized fish! It made me wonder if their onions were much smaller than contemporary onions – that is a very real possibility. The “Bengal Recipe for Making Mango Chetney” made me laugh out loud. As if the spelling error in the title wasn’t enough – the recipe calls for 30 large unripe sour apples, ¼ lb dried chilies, ¾ lb of salt, ¾ lb of powdered ginger! But best of all – there are NO mangoes in the recipe despite the title! I made a scaled down version of this and it was really delicious and quite spicy. One recipe which I wanted to love was “The Old Currant Sauce.” I made this to go with the roast duck dinner that saved the nation. I loved the idea – currants and a glass of port wine. But when I added the “small tea-cupful of breadcrumbs” and stirred it in – I was pretty disappointed. The sauce lost its lovely port wine colour and became quite thick. I would use a very very small teacup of breadcrumbs and a large glass of port wine if I were to make this again! Interestingly this was a classic sauce of the era. Bread sauces of all kinds were quite common and served with roasts. Bread sauce is currently enjoying a revival as chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson have been embracing some of the old classic recipes.
Question 3: I love the old-timey feel of the cover. How much influence did you as author have over the design of this book? Answer: Oh I’m so glad you said that! Thank you, although I had nothing to do with it! Goose Lane Editions were the perfect publisher for this book - in part because they are Canada’s oldest independent publisher. They are such a gem of a publishing house. They still do things properly. Every email from every staff member is lovely. They really get the books they choose to publish and stand behind their authors. And their art department, headed by Julie Scriver, are simply fantastic. Julie sent me the cover with a note, asking me very tentatively, what I thought of it. I wrote her back a one line email, “LOVE IT.” Question 4: Of the recipes in the book, which one is your favourite, and why? Answer: Oh that’s so hard – only one? It’s a lot like choosing a favourite child! So please, let me cheat just a little… I really love the parsnip soup (surprisingly good given how simple it is). You cannot go wrong with a Victoria Sandwich (Cake) – such a timeless classic. The tourtière is the best I’ve ever had. And the Medley Pie is superb. And the fried oysters and champagne are just perfect together. I’ll stop there though there’s much more I’d love to say!
Photo credit: Sir John’s Public House Traditional Scottish Shortbread. Photos by Lindy Mechefske. For the recipe visit http://lindymechefske.com/2013/09/serious-scottish-shortbread/#more-1898
Question 5: Can you tell us about your historical and culinary research methods? Answer: Yes. Thanks for asking. I did a veritable mountain of research for this book. The first thing I did was go to the public library and take out every single book on Sir John A. Macdonald AND every single book on Canadian culinary history. By the time I’d read the first six biographies of Sir John A., and made notes on them, and gone through every book I could find on Canadian culinary history, I was starting to have at least a rough handle on things. From the beginning, I started developing a timeline as a way of keeping notes. This was a really useful research tool for me. A condensed version appears at the beginning of the book and includes such information as the important dates in John A.’s life but also the dates of the such things as the first cookbook published in Canada, The Cook Not Mad, published in 1831 in Kingston, and the introduction of the first wood or coal fired cast iron stove which began to replace open fires for cooking during the mid-1800s. Once I had read all the obvious books, I started going through archival materials at various different archives. I managed to meet Madeleine Trudeau, the archivist in charge of the Macdonald collection at Library and Archives Canada. She was incredibly helpful for every step of the process including procuring artwork and also at pointing me towards specific resources. I spent time in various archives around the province including the Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives, Queen’s University Archives, and Archives Ontario. In the archives I found volumes of old papers, receipts, photographs, and manuscripts. One thing would lead to another. For example, I found a reference to an 1888 book called Dora’s Cookbook, written by a woman from Eastern Ontario. There are only two known copies. One is in the USA. One is the Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives in Napanee. I went to the archives so that I could hold the book in the my hand and while I was there, the archivist Jane Foster, found me other little known resources but she also put me in touch with Patricia Beeson who wrote a charming book called Macdonald was Late for Dinner. That book is not a biography of John A., but a series of historical vignettes about all manner of people in Canadian history and all are attached to a recipe. Patricia’s publisher had gone out of business and I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me how to find her until I mentioned this at the Archives in Napanee. There’s a kind of slow magic that takes place when you spend time in the archives. The research phase is so important and yet it’s hard to know where to draw the line. At some point, you just have to start writing and then you uncover gaps which send you right back to the stacks or the boxes in archives. At any one point in time, I would have upwards of twenty-five books out of the library and a stack of about ten sitting on my desk with pages marked. From the time I started my research, I worked every single day – often for fourteen hours – until I finally submitted the first draft of my manuscript. I’m just about to start on a new book and going through the process again… a very different but still food-related book. I believe that when we’re writing about food, we’re really writing about so much more – about character – about humanity – about ritual -and about powerful emotions like love and need. It’s my contention that food stories are the real stories of our lives.
One of our lucky readers can enter our contest below to receive a copy of Lindy's book. Contest will be open from August 24-28, 2015. One winner will be randomly selected.