Most Canadians, unlike many of our ancestors in their less bountiful homelands, have such remembrances about the importance of meat on the table. It is often these main dishes like the Basque Boeuf Bourguignon that effectively nail a particular culture onto the map of modern Canada.
The New World provided an extraordinary larder -illustrated in this old, scratchy photo of a mid-winter feast inside a Cree hunt tent on a trapline in northern Quebec. Particularly for those European peasants used to the monochromatic diet of grains, pulses and potatoes, it was an unimaginable feast.
The Aboriginals who were originally in the St. Lawrence Valley had fled so when the families of early French and later English settlers arrived; they had little competition for the game that they found here. In A Taste of History, Yvon Desloges and Marc Lafrance write eloquently about how the settlers were amazed “at the sight of the abundant large game in the colony.” There were a myriad of animals, many of which had never been seen, let alone consumed, by a European. When faced with such a dilemma, humans adapt. They began to think in different ways. Early Québecers, with the odd animal kingdom of New France, were able to create their own assessment of which they perceived to be delicious. Desloges and Lafrance observe:
“The taste of moose was compared with that of beef, bear to pork, porcupine to suckling pig and beaver to mutton, while marmot was said to be ‘better than hare’, and the taste of deer…surpasses that of all types of venison. Everyone spoke of the excellence of the snow geese, Canada geese, partridges, teals and other wild ducks, and of course, passenger pigeons.”
Much of the meat savoured during this era of the mid to late 18th century was wild. “Caribou and ptarmigan meant a feast, since they came down the St. Lawrence Valley only in very cold weather.” Each winter snow bunting were eaten “so plump and so delicate that connoisseurs called them ortolans. Even the strangest ingredients struck the French fancy from beaver tail, bear paw, moose muffle and bison tongue.
Québecers ate well – still do, for that matter – likely better than the peasants of the same time in France. “All we are missing is the wine and the eau de vie” wrote Simon Denys in 1651. At about the same time Baron de La Hontan observed wryly, “The peasants here are extremely well off, and I would wish such good cooking upon all our ruined nobility in France.”
From as early as 1676, urbanites had the option of buying their meat at the market in Québec City. There, the habitants, the rural farmers who were tenants on the seigneuries, sold their wares. Cattle around the city had been imported from France but because of the hard winters they were smaller in stature than their French ancestors. Nonetheless they flourished. Beef became the main dietary protein for the poor and was “as little as a quarter of the price of pork at the market.”. In 1806, one observer listed “seven types of meat, eight of poultry or game, thirteen of fish….”
The English brought their own brand of meat culture. In the early part of the nineteenth century “Grilled meat, steak, chops and croquettes, pies, especially mutton, oysters and soups…appeared on most taverns’ à la carte menus, imitating the English chop houses which specialized in grilled meats and soups.”
During the dynamic and turbulent times prior to Confederation, French voyageurs and English traders paddled into the heartland of the continent where they “discovered” a land rich in history and, unlike the St. Lawrence River Valley, already populated by three of Canada’s sixteen language groups, the Siouan, Algonquin and Athapaskan. All had well-entrenched meat cultures. For thousands of years, they had hunted and collectively slaughtered the buffalo which thundered across the open plains. But with active settlement, the picture changed dramatically.
By 1885, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, eastern markets were accessible. The railway became the conduit to the expanding packing houses in the east. By 1901 there were over 3 million cattle. Meat on the Prairies came to mean beef. Far more than mere sustenance; it was a way of life. Cattle defined power over the land, domination of one of the largest ranges on earth, a space that is well over six times the size of modern France. The cowboy was the new crown prince. Cattle, so similar to buffalo in their need of large open pasture, ranged and multiplied.