A Mid-Victorian Food and Drink Sampler

What a great time we had at Upper Canada Village’s Pumpkin Inferno!

Historic sites seem to come alive in the Fall. Their heritage buildings have a special stillness about them, and it’s the time of year when one can visit by lamplight or candlelight, hear a few ghost stories and sip cider or mulled wine.

Cook's Tavern_Peter E. Snyder

Every heritage building has a special story to tell, but I have a particular soft spot for taverns, inns, half way houses, and hotels.

I like the idea of a busy tavern with passengers arriving and departing, farmers with their families catching a meal on the way to or from market, and young people enjoying a drink after a buggy ride, sleighing party, or bicycle jaunt. As one enters, the smell of cooking permeates the air as does the smell of fires roaring in the winter to counter the opening doors. In the bar, around the hearth or stove, are armchairs in cozy arrangements and carefully placed spittoons.

In Mixed Company_Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts’ In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada reminds us that taverns marked early settler landscapes in more ways than perhaps schools, churches, or government buildings. Taverns stood every 6-8 miles along country roads. In towns and villages, they were the most accessible public buildings, open around the clock because tavern licenses required owners to serve travellers at all times of the day. Tavern beds cost six pence a night, but a space on the floor could be had for much less in most establishments.

As well as serving travellers, the better inns were gathering places for the local community: places to do business, to talk about news and the weather, and to play cards. Before there were town halls, lodges, theatres and court houses, hotel ballrooms were used for political gatherings, lodge meetings, lectures, concerts and as courts of law.

McCarthy's Ale & Porter Poster

Roberts shares many interesting stories some of which have, as a central figure, Prescott’s Thomas Robinson. A mid-19th century tavern-keeper on King Street, Robinson kept detailed books. His comprehensive records tell us that his tavern served as a clubhouse for some years for the Town’s Union Cricket Club, that he offered regular cash loans to patrons, and that he subscribed to two Kingston papers with differing political views: the British Whig and the Patriot.

In one case, Robinson’s customers expressed differing politics through a bet. “The keep bet a keg of oysters with T. Fraser, Esq. that Mr. Patrick Clark gets 50 votes over Dr. Jessup. John McMurray, witness.” My guess is that Mr. Fraser enjoyed a fine meal because Dr. Jessup served as Grenville’s member of parliament in the Province of Canada’s Second Parliament, 1844-47 and Mayor of Prescott in 1856, 57, 60, 61 and 65.

“The staple tavern meal,” Roberts writes, “consisted of wheat bread, butter, boiled potatoes, fried pork, pickles and tea. On a journey, a traveller stopping at taverns along the way might well get the same meal two, even three times a day.” Supplements could include steak, poultry, eggs, ham, cheese, pies and cakes. Visitors asked for breakfast, dinner or supper and, and for an average cost of a shilling, ate what was served.

Just past Fort Wellington and across the road, is the Duffy Hotel (circa 1840) — an apartment building today. It serves as a reminder of Prescott’s past as a bustling rest stop for those travelling by steamer, train, or stage.

In the late 1840s, Sylvester Duffy received a tavern licence and established a small shop. To take advantage of the expected boom brought on by the railway, he expanded his business in the early 1850s into a full-service tavern. For a short while before Duffy’s death in 1868, daughter-in-law Mrs. John Duffy is listed in directories as proprietor but shortly after, the tavern was sold to James Dunn who operated the business for several decades as the Union Hotel.

I mentioned in an earlier post that a group of travellers from Bytown rode the rails from Kemptville to Prescott in 1854, before the official opening of the Bytown and Prescott Railway. Thanks to The Canada Directory 1851, I now know that the brandy they enjoyed was served by none other than J.S. Gilman, owner and manager of the Commercial Hotel…”stage house and livery stables. Main St. — travellers will find this house comfortable and charges reasonable — a livery stable is attached and conveyances are furnished when required.”

When choosing a tavern for a stage stop, fresh water and good feed for the horses were at the top of the list, along with a large drive shed for overnight stays, and a nearby blacksmith and wheelwright, if possible.

1859_Godey's Lady's Book

In keeping with the lavish mid-Victorian dinners of the growing middle class, a special mid-century meal in Prescott would have been a multi-course affair consisting of soup to open the appetite, several meats, a cold salad or two, a game dish, several desserts, celery to help digest, and fruit and cheese to finish. The following fashionable dishes might well have been on the October 19th, 1853 menu at the wedding in Prescott of James Patton, lawyer from Barrie, and Martha Marietta Hooker, daughter of prominent forwarder Alfred Hooker:

  • Oyster Soup
  • Roast Beef and Boiled Pork
  • Mashed and Browned Potatoes
  • Onions in Cream Sauce
  • Chicken Salad
  • Game Pie
  • Blancmange and Fruit Pudding
  • Nuts
  • Celery
  • Crackers, Cheese
  • Fruit

A quick check of some early trade directories fully confirms the availability of provisions in the Fort Town. Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer of 1846 tells us that Prescott had 11 grocers, 2 bakers, 1 confectioner, 3 butchers, 1 brewery, 3 distilleries, and 8 taverns — including the Commercial and the North American.

Photo of Cook’s Tavern and Livery: http://www.snyder-gallery.com/painting/cooks-tavern


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