The art of Lunenburg cooking—and eating
For two centuries the folk of this Nova Scotia-German community have been concocting their own special ambrosia from the fruits of their land and the sea. Now a widely read cookbook and gourmets who’ve been there are telling the world about
Every day in summer, soon after 11 o'clock, a visitor walking the narrow sloping streets of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, encounters a delicious smell of cooking. All around him are the tempting odors of fresh-baked pies, bread and cake, the delectable vapors of cooking fish, lobsters, curries—all mixed with fragrant whiffs of dishes that are not identifiable. A few minutes after noon, if the visitor has not succumbed and dashed for the nearest eating place, he sees the streets suddenly filled with impatiently driven cars and rapidly walking people. Within five minutes, the streets are clear again, and Lunenburg is engaged in one of its most important activities—eating.
Lunenburg has a peculiar and intemperate passion about food which is perhaps unmatched anywhere else in Canada. One well-known cook, widowed a few years ago. received six offers of marriage within a week of her husband’s death. Two former mayors once nearly came to blows in the main street, arguing about how Solomon gundy, a local version of salted herring marinated in vinegar and spices, should be prepared.
Lunenburgers love to eat and they also love to cook, particularly for their husbands. Helen Creighton, a Nova Scotia historian, once observed, “No Lunenburg wife would dream of keeping her husband waiting for a meal.” But lacking husbands, Lunenburg women are happy cooking for anybody. A local girl once got a job as a maid in a Kentville hospital. about forty miles north of Lunenburg. On Sunday afternoons, when she had time off, the corridors of the hospital would be filled with fragrant odors of cooking. She would make delicious cucumber salads, muffins, blueberry pies, rolls and the most superb coffee into which she put egg shells to give it a piquant flavor. Lottie Denney, one of the nurses, once asked her, “Why do you prepare all this lovely food for us when you don't have to?”
“I guess 1 just love to cook,” she said.
The town is continentally famous for its cooking and for its dozens of local recipes, including solomon gundy, hodge podge (cooked mixed fresh vegetables), dandelion beer, krishelo (patties made from curds, cream and caraway seeds), colcannon (potatoes, turnips and cabbage boiled together and mashed with quantities of butter) and Dutch mess (potatoes and salt codfish covered with a dressing of pork scraps and onions). The town helped the rest of the world share its gusto for good food by publishing a cookbook, the Dutch Oven, in 1953, wffiich sold so well it has grossed nearly $100,000.
Lunenburg cooking and food is the result of a state of mind rather than a string of recipes. It is hearty but subtle, tasty but ample. At church socials, private parties and various public functions, the best cooks in town vie w'ith one another with their individual (and sometimes totally dissimilar) methods of getting the most taste from the simplest ingredients. The fish and potatoes must be chopped to exactly the right size, the pans must be steaming at exactly the right temperature, and when a dish is cooked to goldcnbrowm crustiness, giving off the most mouth-watering steam, the cooks may laugh and joke with each other in their excitement.
Lunenburg food has a robust good cheer which is a reminder that it has German origins. Lunenburg was settled around I75U by German Anabaptists from Friesia, French Huguenots from Montbéliard in eastern France and settlers from other parts of the Electorate of Hanover. Not all came from areas noted for their cooking but there w'as a hard core of settlers from the Palatinate. a former German state of the southwest. where cooking was traditionally excellent. The French brought their own subtle cooking techniques.
These culinary-minded settlers were quickly influenced by Newfoundlanders, who prized pork scraps and cod tongues, and New'
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“The aroma from that vegetable dish was enough to drive a hungry person out of her mind”
Englanders who venerated fried oysters, steamed clams, lobsters and blueberries in their desserts. They found themselves surrounded by plentiful food in the sea and abundant game and wild fruit on the land. All these helped give Lunenburg cooking its peculiar character.
Today, during the summer, many small guesthouses serve this food cooked with true local skill and a knowledge of these places is prized—and sometimes concealed — by gourmets and gourmands throughout North America. Two Los Angeles sisters, Lena and Beryl O'Connor, have traveled to Lunenburg for the last five summers “just to eat that lovely food again.”
They recall seeing a Lunenburg housewife friend preparing hodge podge last summer. She collected a basketful of fresh vegetables from her garden, put string beans and carrots into some gently simmering salt water and added peeled and cut potatoes. She shelled some succulent new peas and added them to the pot. Separately, with a bare minimum of water, she began simmering broad beans, sugar peas and cauliflower. The kitchen began filling with a delicate and appetizing smell of the vegetable mixture. She quickly diced some salted pork, fried it in crackling fat to a rich golden brown. Then she added a cup of thick cream, some water, chives and paprika and moved the pan to the hottest part of the wood range to bring the mixture to a boil. She then strained and served the vegetables and poured the mouth-watering pork mixture over it. "1 couldn't describe the aroma from that dish," says Beryl O'Connor. “It was enough to drive a hungry person out of her mind.
But it is hard for the tourist to find such cooking. The best places are perhaps Green Shutters, a guesthouse at Mahone Bay, east of Lunenburg, Mrs. Helen Arenburg’s at Petite Rivière, west of Lunenburg, and Gladys Hirtle's Canteen at Hirtle Bay, near Lunenburg township. But part of the enjoyment of Lunenburg cooking today for the tourist is finding his own favorite place.
When food-loving Americans arrive at Yarmouth, at the western end of the Nova Scotian peninsula, they frequently make for the nearest telephone and call their favorite Lunenburg eating place for reservations. Mrs. Arenburg, who runs what her friends call a “truly gastronomical guesthouse," says she is frequently embarrassed by this enthusiasm to reach her food. “A man once called and said there were six others with him and he was coming right down," she says. “1 told him that we were booked up for the evening but he said that didn’t matter; he would come down anyway. I had to put on a special dinner for them."
This absorption with good cooking and substantial eating tends to make Lunenburgers bitingly critical of poor food. A German word, lappisch, meaning insipid, is still used to refer to tasteless food. A short, cheerful Lunenburg storekeeper, B. G. Oxner, once took home some Scottish oatcakes for his wife to try. His wife, Pearl, who is built on Wagnerian soprano proportions (the result, she says jovially, of eating all the right things) is one of Lunenburg’s best-known citizens. She served the oatcakes to a Luth-
eran pastor who was visiting. “How do you like them?” asked Bertie Oxner.
“Well,” said the pastor coolly, “when I want asbestos shingles, 1 guess I can always buy asbestos shingles.”
To be a good cook in a Lunenburg
house is the ultimate distinction. Many captains of fishing schooners are remembered. not for their bravery and exploits in bringing fish back to the town, but for their cooking abilities. Good sea cooks are not only paid a share of the
catch but get "wages” from the grateful crew who are happy to pay extra for a well-treated stomach.
Lunenburg's mariners have had a vital effect on the town's cooking habits. “In the early days,” says B. G. Oxner, “life
was so tough at sea that you might say the men only had one thing they could really enjoy—food. They demanded the best and got it. They brought this habit ashore."
The result has been a tradition of excellent and ingenious sea cooks. A fishing schooner was judged by the luck of its skipper in finding fish and by the quality of its cook. Captain Rowland Knickle, a veteran captain with a reputation for “luck,” was stopped in the Mediterranean in 1917 by a French submarine after delivering a load of salt fish in the south of France and picking up a cargo of salt. The submarine captain demanded that Knickle surrender the ship’s cook. Chock Schwartz, a giant of a man who was then one of Lunenburg’s best-known sea cooks. “He is obviously a Boche," said the Frenchman.
Captain Knickle hunched his shoulders and growled at the French captain. “1 can tell you positively, sir. that if you take that man prisoner, you will have to take all my men. We won't sail without that cook." The Frenchman was extremely impressed by this and let the ship sail with Schwartz.
The sea cook’s ingenuity was tested by his working conditions. He cooked on a roaring iron range, fired by wood, which went for twenty-four hours a day in the cookhouse regardless of conditions. Leander Shupe. who at 93 is one of the oldest living sea cooks, recalls cooking dinner for twenty-one late one night in the 19th century off the coast of New England in a tremendous storm. The crew rated his Dutch mess that night the best he had cooked. Shupe could feed twenty-one men for six months for little more than a thousand dollars. Today, this would cost more than fifteen thousand.
The sea cook's secret was not only the simplicity of ingredients but also a high skill in judging exactly when the ingredients were cooked. To make Dutch mess, one of the most satisfying and delicious of Lunenburg dishes, Shupe would soak some salt cod in water, rip it into small pieces, cut up some potatoes and boil them in the same water that had soaked the fish. Such was his fine judgment of when both ingredients had reached exactly the right moment of succulence that he might serve the food then without embellishment, or he might mash fish and potato together and fry them into a crisp, nostril-tingling hash.
The sea cooks ' and the tough times of the early days have helped give food exceptional significance. The early settlers were so poor that for months on end families might eat nothing but dried fish and potatoes and perhaps not even the fish. They were forced to make dull food palatable and few conversations went for long without veering round to food and new ways of preparing it. in those days, the settlers found that nearby Tancook Island, with its heavy salt air and rich soil, grew magnificent and succulent cabbages for sauerkraut. Today, the best sauerkraut is still made on the island, some of it going to Nova Scotia mainland in barrels a hundred or more years old.
Funerals and flax harvests were excuses for huge feasts when better times came during the later part of the 19th century and the drunken orgies of those days have given the town a strong temperance streak today. The taverns used to open after Sunday church services so people could get a good feed and a drink after walking miles across open fields to worship. At Hallowe'en, pennies, buttons and rings were buried in colcannon. instead of in cake. At Easter, the entire town was littered with eggshells after
Lunenburgers had played a game of eggtipping in which each person had a hardboiled egg and challenged others to “tip” and see whose shell cracked first. The owner of the strongest egg got a full belly (he ate the eggs he cracked) and the title of King Tipper.
In Lunenburg the cook is the high priest of the household. “You haven't seen how keen people can be about food,” says Randolph Stevens, Lunenburg's great sailmaker. “till you’ve seen fourteen forks stabbing for a huge plate of delicious fresh-made bread.” Mrs. Stevens raised twelve children in a gourmet's paradise of homemade bread, fragrant onion rolls, colcannon, hodge podge, doughnuts, and pungent quantities of chowder, roast chicken, curd, cottage cheese, halibut, haddock and hake. She has done her cooking (fifty-four years of it, she says) on an enormous old wood range which, with its pipes and handles, makes her kitchen look like the engineroom of a ship. She is so particular about her cooking that when Pearl Oxner, the storekeeper’s wife, rang her recently to make some of her specialty— cole slaw—for some visitors, she refused. “Cabbages aren't at their very best for cole slaw,” she said laconically.
When the children were home, the Stevens house was typical of hundreds of other Lunenburg households. Meal hours were as inflexible as a railway timetable. Breakfast was served at 8 a.m., dinner at 12 noon, and supper at 6 p.m. The whole family sat at a huge table which seated seventeen, thus allowing room for a few visitors who liked good food too. “Table was always full,” says Randolph Stevens. After a day slaving over the redhot range, cooking between fifty and sixty individual meals a day, Mrs. Stevens says she used to feel tired and discouraged.
He cooked 1500 ineals
But like the fishermen, the Lunenburg cook traditionally never complains. Although Mrs. Stevens takes life easier now. there are others in the county who still perform prodigious feats of cooking. W. Guy Tanner, a sixty-three-year-old caterer who supplies all meals at the golf and curling clubs and at most public functions once got three hours sleep out of seventytwo while single-handedly cooking fifteen hundred meals at an exhibition.
About ten miles west of Lunenburg town. Miss Gladys Hirtle works just as hard to make "Gladys Hirtle's Canteen' one of the best-known eating places in the district, even though it consists of a ramshackle hut huddled against a sand dune a stone's throw from the Atlantic. She cooks in a tiny space, about six feci square, and when she sears the goodness inside a pile of scallops in a pan of hot butter, the delicious smell quickly spreads through the canteen. Diners have been known to bang their forks on the tables as the rich odors of cooking fresh fish hit their nostrils.
In Lunenburg, it's one thing to cook at home, quite another to cook in public. For some peculiar reason, like many Lunenburg women. Miss Hirtle thinks it is degrading to earn her living at cooking. “I wouldn't do it if I didn't have to,” she says sadly.
Another fine cook. Mrs. Hilda Zinck. feels the same way. She does most of the cooking and general managing aí Green Shutters, a guesthouse which has Dutch ovens and antiques and is owned by eighty-three-year-old Miss Laura Strum. Guests at Green Shutters si: down to snowy white tablecloths, mostly concealed by plates of homemade pickles, relishes, cheese, barley bread, blueberry muffins, rusks, celery, cole slaw and salad.
Some have been known to fill up on this food, only to find with dismay that a sixcourse dinner is about to be served. Mrs. Zinck serves some of the most delectable meals in Lunenburg county, often preceded by a delicious rhubarb juice, yet she is depressed about having to cook all the time. “Sometimes," she confided to a friend recently, “there just doesn't seem to be any end to it." But she plans to publish her own cookbook this summer.
The Lunenburg love of good food is infectious. “I wasn't interested in cooking till I came here," says, one Lunenburg newlywed, “but the women here talk about it all the time. If you're not interested in cooking, you’re nobody." Dr. Arthur James, a food-loving doctor who retired from the army recently and settled in Lunenburg, has achieved an impressive cooking reputation.
If he had never done anything else, his culinary reputation would be immortal on the evidence of a buffet supper he prepared in 1957 for the official committee—and friends—organizing the Fisheries Exhibition, Lunenburg's great social and commercial event. He made Solomon gundy and strips of salt cod cut very thin to be eaten raw, and cheese, for hors d’œuvres. This was followed by a sea chowder, thickly based with potato, blended with thick canned milk (to avoid thinning the base too much), and liberally laced with haddock, lobster, scallops, onions, celery and pickles. One committeeman, eagerly sniffing the curling steam rising from the tureens of chowder, said. “Is this a joke, or have I gone to heaven?”
James then served two boiled salmon with salt codfish balls, along with lobster turnover pasties made by Mrs. James, and a salad made of cucumber (first pressed between two plates and salted to remove the bitterness) and slightly sweetened sour cream flavored with onion. The salmon and homegrown vegetables for the accompanying salads were garnished with two dressings, one like tartar sauce, the other of ground-up lobster roe.
James felt the meal had been a success when he noticed some people plunging spoons into their fifth bowl of chowder (one man later boasted he had managed to get down eleven bowls before the chowder ran out) and this feeling was confirmed later when George Clark, the deputy minister of fisheries, opened the Fisheries Exhibition. "If fish could always be cooked as it was at that supper,” said Clark, with obvious feeling “then the marketing of fish all over the world would cease to be a problem.”
James is actually more enthusiastic about Lunenburg cooking than many native Lunenburgers. In a society which prides itself on its traditional cooking, he is one of the few angry men who deplore how much of the art and lore of Lunenburg cooking has already been lost. He says that the old German potato soup (Kartoffelsuppe), the mainstay of all eating from the 18th century in the town, is rarely made today. This soup, despite its Spartan sound, can be made one of the most exotic of all Lunenburg dishes in the hands of a good cook. The basic ingredients are cubed pork pieces which are fried light brown, added to cooking diced potatoes in water with a sliced onion. While this is being cooked tender, some Hour is quickly browned in the pan that cooked the pork. The browned flour is dissolved in the soup and seasoning added. But this simple dish, so easy to make, can be a base for a dozen other dishes, particularly chowders.
Most people, James feels, now cook by recipe, which is contrary to the spirit of real Lunenburg cooking. When the Dutch Oven cookbook was being prepared, James wrote a chapter called Important Principles of Fish Cookery, and exhorted his readers, even though flanked by more than three hundred recipes, to “be creative, not a slave to recipe . . .” Mrs. Andrew Eisenhauer, one of the organizers of the cookbook, recalls that when Dr. James' recipe for cooking venison was received by the publishing committee, it caused a crisis. It covered
ten handwritten pages and was so sprinkled with technical details and appetite-stimulating phrases that one committee member claimed she had to have a snack midway through reading it. “But we simply did not have space for so much writing,” says Mrs. Eisenhauer. James, who hated to see gastronomies sacrificed to publishing, reluctantly rewrote the piece.
The publishing of Lunenburg recipes w'as first suggested by Mrs. Eisenhauer at a meeting of the ladies' auxiliary of the Fishermen's Memorial Hospital. She
suggested selling a booklet of recipes at the Fisheries Exhibition. The women were enthusiastic about the idea and it quickly snowballed into a book-sized project.
Committee members quickly ran into difficulties beacuse most old Lunenburg cooks were traditionally vague about their recipes. When Mrs. Eisenhauer was trying to find out from her grandmother the recipe for barley bread, she asked how much water w'as needed.
“You can tell by looking at it," her grandmother said.
“Well, how hot should the oven be?” Mrs. Eisenhauer persisted.
“For goodness sake!” said her grandmother testily, “you can tell that just by putting your hand in the oven for a moment.”
During the preparation of the cookbook, there were rumors of fabulous, long-lost recipes which many people had heard about but none had tasted. The hottest tip was about a type of cheese, too delicious to even describe, which a nincty-five-year-old woman was supposed to make. But when she was traced, the recipe detectives found she had died a year before and there was no trace of the missing recipe.
“The cookbook caught the fancy of the town,” says D. J. Bourque, the town printer. “Everybody was trying to help us get it published. The book’s fame spread, mostly by word of mouth. Although there was no advertising, orders poured in from all over Canada, from England, the Belgian Congo, and the Brooklyn Public Library — among other places. Committee members were constantly badgered by out-of-towners knocking on their doors for copies at $3.50 each. The profits from the book—twenty thousand dollars — furnished the nurses' quarters of the new hospital.
The success of the cookbook proved that the world liked the local cooking but Lunenburgers are quick to be severely critical about their cooking when they feel it is necessary. “There are very few places, in my opinion, where you may get a well - cooked meal served in public here,” says F. Homer Zwicker, president of the oldest export fish business in North America.
Is the old art dying?
When caterer Guy Tanner tried some traditional Lunenburg dishes at a recent banquet, he was thankful when he got no complaints. “It’s a fact." he says, “that the people don’t seem to care as much for the old style of cooking as they used to.” For people like Dr. James, this is heart-breaking. “We must try and preserve as much as possible of this old art,” he says.
Meanwhile, though the coming generation of Lunenburgers may have to fight the influence of the hot dog and the hamburger. there is still enough fervid interest in food in hundreds of private homes where the best cooking is done to keep palate and stomach delighted with local dishes. On Friday afternoons, in the summer, Lunenburgers begin deserting the town for their cottages and summer homes along the coast. Many of them pack bulging bags of food into their cars and station wagons. At some cottages, like that of the Martin Eisenhauers, fifteen to twenty people might be entertained with mountains of food, swimming on a private beach, fishing and party games. At a weekend party last summer, the women—including Martin's wife, Isabel, and her mother, who is Pearl Oxner—decided to cook hodge podge for the dozen or so guests who had dropped in.
The mixed vegetables were cooked in a four-gallon bucket and Pearl Oxner ladled out liberal helpings of the dish with great gusto. “Anybody want more?" she shouted down the long plank table at which everybody was busy eating, holding the heavy bucket swinging aloft. Her husband, B.G., decided he wanted a fifth helping and he piled up another plateful of the steaming juicy vegetables. As he garnished the hodge podge with a ladleful of onions and sour cream, he said happily, "There’s one thing about Lunenburgers; they sure do love to eat!” ^