What sets Manitoba’s cuisine apart from the rest of Canada? I asked that question of Christine Hanlon, author of the new cookbook Out of Old Manitoba Kitchens, which arrived on store shelves in September. It’s chock full of old recipes that characterize the early cuisine of the postage stamp province.
Some of the recipes are recognizable across the Prairies, such as potato perogies, bread and butter pickles and saskatoon berry pie, but many others are unfamiliar to me even though I am born and bred just across the border in Saskatchewan. This reflects the shared and divergent histories of Manitoba and the rest of the Prairies — differences in settlement patterns and in the foods passed through the generations to become the cherished family recipes of today.
“History has influenced the food we eat, but the food has influenced our history,” says Hanlon, whose family came from Brittany, in France, in the 1920s to homestead in the region of Swan River.
For instance, she points to flour, one of the most common ingredients in a Manitoba kitchen dating back to the fur trade. Scottish fur traders loved their bread so much — particularly the quick bread called bannock — that they lugged sacks of flour with them. They passed that love of bannock to their children, the Métis. Early on, bannock was made with suet from bison, but with the arrival of farming, suet was replaced by butter and lard. Currants and raisins were a nice addition, too.
Soon the settlers were growing wheat for use in their own kitchens. The Selkirk settlers brought their heavy hand mill “querns” with them from Scotland to Manitoba so they could grind their wheat into flour. Eventually, the trickle of homesteaders became a rush, as the demand for flour grew into an international market and the Canadian Prairies became the breadbasket of the world.
Manitoba’s cuisine is also marked by the influence of Icelanders, including many recipes for pickles and fish. “It’s the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland. Their influence is huge,” says Hanlon. “That’s why we’re all fond of eating pickles and our baseball team is called the Goldeyes. It’s named for a food!”
And no cookbook of Manitoba cuisine is complete without mention of Mennonite foods such as farmers’ sausage, zumma soup and, something I had never heard of before — jreeve and rebspaa (crackling and ribs).
Since Christmas is nigh, I’ve decided to include a recipe from Manitoba’s (and beyond) Ukrainian heritage. Kutya is one of 12 meatless dishes served at supper on Christmas Eve. It’s the first dish eaten after the blessing, however, everyone takes just a spoonful so as to leave plenty of room for the 11 dishes that follow.
Kutya (or kutia) has family variations; this recipe was provided to Out of Old Manitoba Kitchens by Mary Marcinkow, who is devoted to preserving her Ukrainian heritage and its traditional foods. It comes with a bit of folklore: “It is also traditional to throw a tablespoon of kutya at the ceiling. If it sticks, it is a sure sign that you will have peace and prosperity in the year to come.”
Peace and prosperity to you all!
- 1 cup wheat kernels
- 4 cups water
- 1/2 cup poppy seeds
- 1/2 cup honey(buckwheat is best)
- 1/2 cup boiling
- 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, finely chopped
Soak the wheat kernels in 4 cups water overnight. Simmer in soaking water for 4 to 6 hours until tender, adding more water if necessary. Meanwhile cover poppy seeds in warm water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain well then grind to a fine texture. Add honey, poppy seeds and 1/2 cup boiling water to cooked wheat, stirring gently. Sprinkle with chopped nuts.