As George Traill Allan made his way down the Jasper Valley, at the head of the outgoing York Factory Express party, he wrote these words in his journal:
About 8 o’clock we called a halt and had breakfast — our store of eatables being now so much reduced, that having finished that meal, there only remained a few Biscuits & some tea & sugar – & not being able to reach Jasper’s House before next day it did not require a great Logician to prove that unless we picked up something betwixt that place and the encampment we should make but a sorry supper of it. [A/B/40/AL5.3A, BCA]
Tea and sugar were obvious food items, but did you know that the sugar was ALWAYS brown sugar? The supplier of this eatable item was, of course, the Wedderburn/Colvile family who owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, and imported (to England) the sugar, rum, and molasses that the HBC shipped to their posts.
George Traill Allan talked a lot about eatables, and food generally, and his journal is a good resource for those who want to know what the Voyageurs ate. The biscuits were sea biscuits — in another journal I discovered that Sea Biscuits were shipped up the Columbia River for the future use of another group of men. But that was not the only eatable available. In 1841, Francis Ermatinger got creative, and ordered some English puddings from Captain William Brotchie. As Allan wrote:
On leaving Fort Vancouver, Mr. Ermatinger, a veritable John Bull and our caterer for the grub department of the voyage, had prevailed upon Captain Brotchie, whose vessel was then laying at Vancouver, to get made for us a couple of large plum puddings, & the same puddings upon being tried on the voyage from Vancouver to Walla Walla, had been found wanting, not in quantity but in quality, and until our arrival at the last mentioned post had layen neglected and almost forgotten — while seeing me equipped for the trip on horseback from Walla Walla to Fort Colvile, Mr. Ermatinger had slipped in amongst my eatables a piece of those identical puddings. Being this morning therefore pressed by hunger, I had, I presume, dived deeper than usual into the recesses of my haversack, and finding poor Brotchie, I made, sans ceremonie & cannibal-like, a most hearty Breakfast upon his remains.
They ate porcupines, too. Soon after they set up their camp one night….
One of our Indians rambling about fell in with two Porcupines and came back for a gun which having received and being joined by his companion they went off and soon returned with their prize. Having made the Indians roast the Porcupines after their own fashion, the Doctor [W.F. Tolmie] and I tasted them & made the remainder over to the men. When in good order they are excellent eating, but at this season they happened to be poor & very tasteless.
In the Jasper Valley, the Horse-keeper shot and killed a goose and roasted it for them:
Looking anxiously from side to side we heard the report of a gun; we also fired a shot, to which another immediately responded — and in about ten minutes afterwards a man and a Boy met us on horseback and conducted us to their hut where we found the rest of the Horses and a fine fat Goose, whose death had occasioned the report of the first gun we had heard. The hunter, a half-breed of the Country, in about ten minutes had the goose spitted on a piece of wood & roasting before the fire a la fashion savage. It was then served up upon a pine branch & certainly I never tasted anything of the goose tribe so good — but a long walk, such as we had had that morning, is excellent sauce — so good, that we never once thought of salt, & Bread, of course, was entirely out of the question.
At Jasper’s House the men generally dined on whitefish, although they were also offered the meat of the Mountain Goat, or of the Bighorn Sheep. Allan noted that “There are two descriptions of these animals: White, and Grey. The flesh of the latter is excellent, but that of the former smells and tastes strongly of murk.” [A/B/40/AL5.2A, BCA]
On the Athabasca River his men shot and killed a moose and its calf:
We made for the shore & making a large fire endeavoured to console ourselves for the late murder, if it may be so styled, with a breakfast of Moose Deer stakes, then which no meat to my taste can be better — these were the first of the Moose tribe that either Dr. Tolmie or I had seen & we found them very interesting animals…
Only a short time later:
We started some geese from the sands along shore & one of the men leaping ashore brought us five of their eggs & we picked up a good many afterwards going along..
I wondered how they ate these eggs, which of course were fertile and had ducklings or goslings (or gulls) inside them. Quite by accident, I found out:
Towards evening we passed close to a small, low, sandy island over and around which gulls, large and small and of every color, were flying in circles and screaming at our approach. No sooner had we got within sounding distance of the island than a batch of halfbreeds from each boat jumped overboard, some up to their middle in water. A headlong race was commenced for the booty which I soon found to consist of caps full of eggs in every state of incubation. I scarcely thought the men would eat them, but I had evident proof of it at supper time. I have myself, since then, eaten not only a eggs — fresh of course — but the gulls themselves and can pronounce them very good fare. [E/B/P34, BCA]
The voyageurs ate these eggs by cracking the shell and pouring the birds, beaks, feet and all, down their throats. Here’s another eatable: At posts such as Cumberland House, they kept sturgeon alive for a good period of time, by stringing a rope through its gills and mouth and tying it to a post sunk in the water. Then there is rubbaboo, which is Pemmican soup, more or less:
Selecting a dry spot under the lee of a clump of willows I had my tent pitched before which a fire soon blazed. Four or five fires were also soon lighted along the shore round which the crew of each boat might be seen laughing and joking and not at all sorry for the delay. Huge tin kettles soon graced the fire and the cooks were soon also busy stirring the several messes of robbibo which consists of a portion of pemmican chopped fine in water and as it boils flour is sprinkled in and boiled to the consistency of pea soup. [E/B/P34, BCA]
I have seen rubbaboo spelled many different ways: rababa, robbiboe, Rub-a-boo, or Roobiboo. Is there a proper spelling for this word? But to return to the eatables, the food items the voyageurs ate, there is also the Beaver, of course:
Many of my readers may not have eaten the flesh of beaver. In the spring just after winter feeding, they are fat and in good order, but as the summer passes they lose their fat and become strong in taste. When roasted the flesh much resembled pork in taste and richness; but the tail, which in a full grown animal measures about ten inches long by five broad and one inch thick at the root, is the most dainty morsel about the beaver; and when boiled and eaten with cold meat is a dish worthy of a alderman. Beaver tail, buffalo boss, moose-deer nose, and rein-deer tongues are the delicacies of this country; but really, reader, I beg you to pardon! I fear I have unwittingly caused a secretion from your sublingual gland! [E/B/P34, BCA]
Maybe I should stop here, before I make you hungry!
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.
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