Summer bounty in Quebec, 1749

August 21, 1749

The meals here are in many respects different from those in the English provinces.  This depends upon the difference of custom, taste, and religion, between the two nations.  French Canadians eat three meals a day, viz. breakfast, dinner, and supper.  They breakfast commonly between seven and eight, for the French here rise very early, and the governor-general can be seen at seven o’clock, the time when he has his levee.  Some of the men dip a piece of bread in brandy and eat it; others take a dram of brandy and eat a piece of bread after it.  Chocolate is likewise very common for breakfast, and many of the ladies drink coffee.  Some eat no breakfast at all.  I have never seen tea used here, perhaps because they can get coffee and chocolate from the French provinces in America, in the southern part, but must get tea from China.  They consider it is not worth their while to send the money out of the country for it.  I never saw them have bread and butter for breakfast.

Dinner is exactly at noon.  People of quality have a great many dishes and the rest follow their example, when they invite strangers.  The loaves are oval and baked of wheat flour.  For each person they put a plate, napkin, spoon, and fork.  (In the English colonies, a napkin is seldom or never used.)  Sometimes they also provide knives, but they are generally omitted, all the ladies and gentlemen being provided with their own knives.  The spoons and forks are of silver, and the plates of Delft ware.  The meal begins with a soup with a good deal of bread in it.  Then follow fresh meats of various kinds, boiled and roasted, poultry, or game, fricasees ragouts, etc. of several sorts, together with different kinds of salads.  They commonly drink red claret at dinner, either mixed with water or clear; and spruce beer is likewise much in use.  The ladies drink water and sometimes wine.  Each one has his own glass and can drink as much as he wishes, for the bottles are put on the table.

Butter is seldom served, and if it is, it is chiefly for the guest present who likes it.  But it is so fresh that one has to salt it at the table.  The salt is white and finely powdered, though now and again a gray salt is used.  After the main course is finished the table is always cleared.  Finally the fruit and sweetmeats are served, which are of many different kinds, viz. walnuts from France or Canada, either ripe or pickled; almonds; raisins; hazel-nuts; several kinds of berries which are ripe in the summer season, such as currants, red and black, and cranberries which are preserved in treacle; many preserves in sugar, as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and mossberries.  Cheese is likewise part of the dessert, and so is milk, which they drink last of all, with sugar. 

Friday and Saturday, the “lean” days, they eat no meat according to the Roman Catholic rites, but they well know how to guard against hunger.  On those days, they boil all sorts of vegetables like peas, beans, and cabbage, and fruit, fish, eggs, and milk are prepared in various ways.  They cut cucumbers into slices and eat them with cream, which is a very good dish.  Sometimes they put whole cucumbers on the table and everybody that likes them takes one, peels and slices it, and dips the slices into salt, eating them like radishes.  Melons abound here and are always eaten without sugar. In brief, they live just as well on Fridays and Saturdays, and I who am not a particular lover of meats would willingly have had all the days so-called lean days. 

excerpted from Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America, II: 473-75 (New York:  Dover Publications Inc., 1966); you can find an online English edition from 1772 here.

Much of what Kalm reports is still true today.  Quebec traditionally calls its three meals déjeuner, dîner, et souper, and all of the summer and autumn fruit grown in Quebec is a matter of considerable national pride.  The sort of vegetable melange Kalm describes on fast days is a kind of national dish–cabbage, onions, carrots, beans, turnips, or what have you from the garden all boiled and served together.  Kalm’s report tracks with what I’ve seen in the archival records elsewhere–early Quebec residents ate well, and they made an art of observing Church fasts.

0 thoughts on “Summer bounty in Quebec, 1749

  1. “Quebec traditionally calls its three meals déjeuner, dîner, et souper…”

    Being raised in Ontario, I had always thought I was being taught Quebecois French in school, and we were taught that the three meals were petit-déjeuner, déjeuner, et dîner, but now looking at wikipedia (in French) it seems either my teacher was wrong, or I fully misremember. Either way, Quebecois cooking does tend to be tasty.

    I shall have to try that cucumbers in cream idea. 🙂


  2. This is very delicious sounding. I am fascinated both by the napkin difference between the English and French, and by the personal knife…


  3. OK, now I’m ready for brunch! Thanks for whetting my appetite so thoroughly.
    A friend of mine is a server at a restaurant with a special Sunday brunch with mimosas. That’s my plan for the day!


  4. My husband’s from Quebec and he still waxes nostalgic for the food of his home province. We can get a pretty good tortiere here at the grocers, though — one of the many upsides to living in a very francophone part of Ontario!


  5. A friend of mine is a server at a restaurant with a special Sunday brunch with mimosas.

    Last night we were at our friend’s restaurant eating dinner, and one of his waiters was experimenting with a different Sunday brunch beverage: dry champagne with freshly pureed and strained watermelon. He had us test it, and it was absofuckenlutely delicioso!


  6. Vellum–I’d be surprised if anyone in North America (Anglophone Canada included) taught Quebecois French. I’m sure you learned standard Parisian French.

    Janice–I was a skeptic of the boiled veggie melange, but if you don’t overcook them, keep everything very fresh looking and tasting, and serve it with some aioli on the side–it’s delicious. I’ve been served that mess o’veg at truck stops, fine restaurants, and even in a private home. I think it speaks to the fact that in a cold climate, the season for fresh food was short and therefore all the more to be enjoyed. Pulling together a mixed boil of whatever was on hand was a way for hardworking people to enjoy the benefits of the season without undue fuss. (And what could be simpler than cucumbers and cream, or salted cucumbers and radishes?)

    Susan: I too found the observations about the colonial French vs. colonial English interesting. (And it’s unsurprising to read someone pronouncing the English dirtier than the French!)

    I’m glad you all found this appetizing. We’ve been doing hikes and bike rides the last few weekends, which with all of the yoga I started last week is making me really famished all of the time.

    I’ll have to try CPP’s suggestion for a cocktail next time I’ve got a huge watermelon. I’ve whizzed melon wtih lime juice and little bit of honey in a blender and then strained it–much better and tastier than an energy drink or Vitamin Water. Now that I think of it, I need to make some cucumber-infused cocktails this summer. . . like a G & T with cucumber and basil essence, or perhaps lavender?


  7. “The sort of vegetable melange Kalm describes on fast days is a kind of national dish–cabbage, onions, carrots, beans, turnips, or what have you from the garden all boiled and served together.”

    Or boiled with beef, and then, for some reason, it’s known as ‘bouilli de legumes’, at least in my family. Traditional simmered dish, done at least once a week starting mid-July.


  8. My father grew up on a farm (well south of Quebec), and the late 19th early 20th century food vocabulary lingered in his voice forever, whereby it was breakfast, dinner, supper, and the last meal was decidedly the lightest. In my suburban upbringing, “lunch” was at mid-day, and whether the nighttime fest was supper or dinner, it had *better* be a major meal, to get you through the long spell ahead. Plus, we ate all the time out of refrigerators that didn’t exist on the farm, and under post-war and depression rules of engagement that would have seemed incomprehensible back there.

    I got slammed with a 9-Euro charge for “petit-dejeuner” in my dumpy Paris hotel last week that I had cluelessly conflated with the “free” breakfasts that American motel chains give you before sending you out onto the Interstate.

    Per Kalm was coming from Sweden, and it’s interesting to reflect on the combination of latitudinal similarities and cultural differences through which he would have looked at New France foodways. I think in northern places they worked with razor-thin growing season margins and really had to presume the possibility of starving times, especially with regard to the wheat crop.


  9. Kalm’s summer meal sounds delicious—imagine the entry for February-March dining would be a good deal leaner, though!

    Vellum–I’d be surprised if anyone in North America (Anglophone Canada included) taught Quebecois French. I’m sure you learned standard Parisian French.

    Students of Canada’s French Immersion programme (where the mission is to educate Anglophones in Quebecois culture) often acquire a blend of standard and Quebecois French (even when Québec is several thousand miles distant). No outright joual, of course, but we certainly learned that cars were “chars,” dollars, “piastres,” and hot dogs,”chien chauds”—expressions that sound pretty archaic to Parisian ears. Meals were “petit-déjeuner,” (or “déjeuner”) “dîner,” and “souper,” but everyone understood if you used other terms.


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