Eat Your Culture: History Cookbooks

Destination: Nova Scotia

Books: From the Hearth: Recipes from the World of 18th Century Louisbourg by Hope Dunton


Ás an Abhainn Mhóir: English-Gaelic Recipes from Pictou County

Fortress Louisbourg
French waitress at Fortress Louisbourg Restaurant on a sunnier day.

As winds from the Atlantic roared outside, we ducked into the shelter of the L’épée Restaurant in the Fortress Louisbourg.  Seating us at a wooden table with two strangers, the waitress, dressed in homespun with a cap on her head,  handed us a large spoon and warned us “This is your spoon. Do not to lose it. It is the only utensil you get.” She then handed over an enormous  napkin and instructed us to tuck it into the collar like a bib.

Ft. Louisbourg Restaurant
Waitress in Ft. Louisbourg Restaurant

We warmed up over bowls of vegetable soup that had been prepared in a brick fireplace, with bread baked in ovens at the on-site bakery at the Fortress of Louisbourg. We poured water from a common pitcher in the middle of the table where we were seated with strangers, and drank strong tea from pewter mugs.

On my recent road trip through Nova Scotia, I stuffed myself with the fresh seafood available everywhere.  I also plunged into the cultures that predominated in that Canadian province. Those cultures include strong influences on what people eat, and here in Louisbourg, we were getting a taste of a 18th century French settlement.

Of course I looked for books to document the experience! And luckily, I found two cookbooks I could bring home to remind me of how I “ate the culture” of Nova Scotia, one French colonial and one Gaelic.

Cannons at Fortress Louisbourg
Cannons at Fortress Louisbourg

The French and English contended for control for decades. Ultimately, the English won and expelled the French, sending the French Acadians scurrying to safer places–including the Cajun home in Louisiana–but that did not mean that all of Nova Scotia automatically took on an English tone. Many pockets of Acadian culture remain, as some of the French Acadians returned years after the expulsion and settled in places like Cheticamp.

This National Historic Park turns back the clock with a living history museum in the rebuilt French fortified town of Louisbourg. You can visit with the soldiers, the tavern keeper, the workmen and the wealthy merchants as you wander around this beautifully rebuilt fortified town.

Book Cover: From the Hearth
Next door to the Louisbourg restaurant, in the gift shop, I looked over the collection of books–some novels set in the historic Fortress of Louisbourg, children’s books, and cook books. The one that caught my eye, From the Hearth, by Hope Dunton with A. J. B. Johnston, provides recipes that would have been used in the 18th-century at Fortress Louisbourg.

This book is solidly researched. In the introduction, the author explains that although there are no surviving individual recipes from Louisbourg, we know what ingredients they had available (lots of dried peas and lots of cod, but no tomatoes or potatoes yet) and what cook books they might have brought from France.

There are some delicious sounding recipes here–beet fritters, cucumbers farcie (stuffed with veal and mushrooms),  gâteau de savoie (a lemon flavored cake), or doughnuts. Plenty of sauces, as one might expect with French cooking. The book simplifies the old directions, but sometimes includes them for information. For instance, the original doughnut recipes says, “Place fourteen eggs on a scale and on the other side an equal weight of fine sugar; take off the sugar and put flour in its place to the weight of seven eggs.” The modern translation is

  • 14 medium eggs
  • 4 cups extra fine sugar
  • 2 cups cake flour


Flags of Nova Scotia
The Nova Scotia Gaelic Flag, Canadian Flag and Nova Scotia Flag

A few days before our visit to Fortress Louisbourg, we visited Pictou where the ship Hector, known as the Scottish Mayflower, landed with the first boatload of Scottish settlers in 1773. There I spent the morning at the  McCullough Heritage Center and the home of an amazing early settler.

McCullough Heritage Center, Pictou
McCullough Heritage Center, Pictou

Gaelic CookbookThe Heritage Center is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Scottish settlers on Nova Scotia, and in their small gift shop, I found a cookbook with recipes in English on one side and in Gaelic on the facing page.  Ás an Abhainn Mhóir (English-Gaelic Recipes from Pictou County), 2011 is a spiral-bound cookbook assembled by The Pictou County Cookbook Committee. I do not know where it is available, but you could contact the gift shop of the McCullough Heritage Center if you are interested.

Gaelic Cook Book
Contents page of Gaelic Cook Book.

Like most community spiral bound cookbooks, the contents are uneven, but I’m eager to try some of the authentic recipes that we enjoyed in Nova Scotia, particularly oatcakes. While this cookbook does not contain the historic detail about food and cooking that the Louisbourg cookbook offers, the committee avoided throwing in modern casseroles and jello desserts. The recipes do appear to be traditional. I love the stories, sayings, poems and song lyrics scattered through the book, because we learn even more there about the way of life of the Scottish settlers in North America.

” ‘S math an còcaire an t-acras!” “Hunger is a good Cook”

“Chan fhiach cuirm gun a còmhradh.”  “A Feast is no use without good talk.”

Sometimes I read books and then go somewhere.  Sometimes I find books along the way. These cookbooks will ensure that memories of my visits to Fortress Louisbourg and to Hector will remain for a long time.

Visiting Emerson and Hawthorne

Literary Travel in New England

Book Cover: Little Women
While there are plenty of literary sites in New England, Concord is the Mother Lode for visiting the homes of authors…like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, the house described in Little Women. Within a couple of miles, you can also visit Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s House. My favorite, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home--the Wayside– was also inhabited by Alcott and others. It was the age of Transcendentalism and they all gathered here.

Concord River
Concord River from the Old North Bridge

On a recent trip to Concord, I went to the Minute Man National Historic Park. Members of my family were visiting sites connected to our relatives, and we had several ancestors who fought in the Battles of Concord and other Revolutionary War battles. I wrote about Jeduthan Stone, Minute man, at my other site, Ancestors in Aprons and it was wonderful to walk the same road he had walked in 1775.

THe Old Manse, Hawthorne lived here.
The Old Manse. One time home of Emerson and Hawthorne.

But the bookworm in me was most interested to realize that The Old Manse, a house with a strong literary history, stood on a knoll just above the Concord’s North Bridge.  In fact, the inhabitants at the time–the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather– could have looked down and watched the battle from the second story window.

Emerson's Desk
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Desk at the Old Manse, where he wrote the collection of essays called Nature.

Much later, the house was home to Ralph Waldo Emerson for a while, and the beautiful wooded hills and meadows around helped inspire his thoughts in the book of essays that he composed at this desk, Nature (1836). Nature is called the foundation of Transcendentalism with its emphasis on using nature as a guide to living.

As  newlyweds, Nathanial Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, an artist, rented the Old Manse and lived there from 1842 to 1845.  At the time, he was a struggling writer, seemingly unsuccessful and was supported by his wife’s painting. Thoreau, who lived nearby, dined with the Hawthornes.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's desk
Hawthorne’s desk in the Old Manse, Concord, MA.

While they lived there, he wrote a collection of short stories,  Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) which is now waiting on my Kindle, and his wife etched a poem on the window of the room where Hawthorne’s small desk stands beside the fireplace.

There is something magical about seeing the actual desk on which masterpieces were composed–imagining the now famous master, bent over the paper, struggling to find the right word.

Amazingly, the house, built in 1769, retained its Colonial look and most of its original furniture.  Among the things you can see on a guided tour is wallpaper restored to look identical to the original, and an enormous bookcase stuffed with antique books.

Battle Road, Concord
Battle Road in Minute Man National Historic Park, Concord MA

Also amazing to anyone who has ever stood on a busy street and tried to picture life 200 years ago, this corner of Massachusetts allows you to step back in time. It has been protected by the Minute Man Historic Park, State Park Reserves and other measures that allow you to appreciate the natural beauty that inspired the Transcendentalists and the landscape that saw colonists hiding behind trees to fire at formally arrayed British soldiers.

Concord Old North Bridge
British Soldier at Concord Old North Bridge

There are regular events at the Old Manse (see the website linked above.)  My grandson and I followed a young man through the house. Since we were the only two on the tour, he tailored his remarks to our interests, and amazed us with his knowledge.  At the beginning and end of the tour, you pass through the gift shop.  This is no ordinary gift shop. Yes, you can buy postcards.  But you can also choose from a large collection of writings by the great American writers who lived here.

Whether it is historic roots or literary roots you want to explore, I urge you to visit Concord. Don’t miss the Old Manse.

Note: I could not visit the only house Hawthorne ever owned, The Wayside, because it was under reconstruction. I had previously visited the home of Little Women, Orchard House, and the Ralph Waldo Emerson home.  But what a feast for you when you visit. Seeing where these authors lived and worked really brings American literature alive.

Photos are all my own, and I would appreciate no reuse without permission.  The photos of the writer’s desks were taken with special permission, because photography is not permitted inside the Old Manse.

The house stands within the Minute Man National Historic Park, however it is maintained by the Trustees of Reservations that protects 100 cultural, historic and environmental treasures in Massachusetts. Check the website for days of guided tours. Prices range from $5 for children to $9 for adults.

Note:  There are links to Amazon in this post, because I want to make it easy for you to purchase copies of these books in either print or electronic editions.  I am an Amazon affiliate, so any purchases you make through my links will help support A Travelers Library. Thank you.


Dark Family Tale in Northern Ireland

Destination: Ireland

Book: Black Lake by Johanna Lane

When you travel, do you like to visit old homes–you know, the Downton Abbey kind of manor, where the titled family has had to let visitors traipse through in order to make enough money to pay the taxes?

If you have visited, or stayed overnight in one of those places, you may have wondered what it would be like to turn your home into a place of amusement for the masses.  What does it do to the soul of the place? To the souls of the family members?

In Black Lake Johanna Lane explores those questions along with deeper, more existential questions that plague the family.  She presents the point of view of each family member–mother (Marianne), father (John), son and daughter (Philip and Kate)–one at a time.  The novel moves through a year when each person tries to cope with tragic changes in their lives.

Glenveagh Castle, Ireland. Photo by Stephen Collins. Used with Creative Commons license.

Dulough, John’s family’s grand family estate stands looking out to water from a cliff overlooking Black Lake in Donegal County, Ireland, with woods behind the house. Stately gardens surround the house. The atmosphere is cold and mostly gloomy, a suitable setting for such a serious story.

Marianne, a city girl from Dublin, has adjusted to her marriage with John and the family heritage through her work with the garden.  John has hidden from her the financial problems that came with the estate.

Irish castle
Glenveagh National Park, Ireland. Photo by Raphael Schön. Used with Creative Commons License.

9-year-old Philip tries to understand the world of the grownups and is most fascinated by his father’s lessons about the ice age. Glaciers carved out this land. The effect of ice on land and the effect of the restrained coolness of emotions on family members underlies the story. Kate, at twelve, is never quite sure what she really thinks and feels. Both children are shaken when they must move out of their accustomed home and routines into a humble cottage while tourists traipse through what was once their private domain.

Lane skillfully wraps you in the landscape and magically captures just the right tone for each character.

The  book’s circular structure means thoughts of one person are echoed, generally in a slightly different key, as we move from one point of view to another.

Johanna Lane has written an intriguing book that gives you much to ponder.  Not the least, for traveler’s is the conundrum of how we peek into other people’s lives as we visit new places and how the observer affects the observed.

In the interview linked to her name in the first paragraph (above), Lane is asked a question pertinent for Travelers Who Read:

Which Irish authors do you think do a great job of capturing the countryside?

John McGahern — he wrote 10 novels set in the Irish countryside. His vision is a lot bleaker. He grew up in quite an abusive household. For him, the country is beautiful, but also a trap … I think he’s one of my favorite Irish authors. And Anne Enright, of course.

So there you go–read Black Lake, then explore the writer’s writers.

Or pop over to Ireland and visit the Glenveagh National Park, which Lane used as a model for the estate in this book.

Note:  The publisher provided me with a copy of the book for review.  My opinions are totally my own.  There is a link to Amazon here. If you’re shopping for books or anything else at Amazon, it costs you no more to use these links, and you’ll be supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks. The two photos of Glenveagh are from Flickr. Click on a picture to learn more.