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Pork and Beans

April 24, 2023

Meal Time at A. Tiers Lumber Camp

A Nineteenth Century Workers’ Meal

Today, practically everyone takes for granted pre-packaged non-perishable food. Whether it is Shreddies, frozen dinners, potato chips, canned soup, granola bars, pudding cups, premade pasta sauce, or Kraft Dinner, not many people make it through the day without partaking in mass-produced food that is easy to store and transport.

In the nineteenth century, none of these marvellously convenient modern meals existed. Whatever their walk of life, most families spent a lot of time and energy preparing to eat. While this might have made sense in the context of a family, producing many cherished memories of mothers’ specialities, big businesses needed a less laborious alternative, as they sought the efficiencies that would make them financially viable. In the nineteenth century Kawarthas, forest industries were the largest enterprises. To keep their lumberjacks ringing their axes, they needed meals that were cheap, easily transported and non-perishable.

For those who did not provide for themselves by hunting, fishing or farming, salt pork was the cheapest meat available. Canned beef was also used, but was not as common. Large companies, like Mossom Boyd’s, would import pork by the rail car, from major American markets like Chicago—it could be conveniently shipped straight to Kinmount, and be cadged (as transport by horse or oxen teams was then called) to the shanties. Pork came in large barrels, often close to 350 pounds each. In those days, long clear pork—like bacon its name reflected its high fat content—was a preferred grade of pork, though not typically sold in strips. So, the greasy chunk of pork in a modern can of beans is to some degree authentic. Dried white beans and flour were also relatively economical and easy to transport.

In those days, pork and beans was not a dish that was typically prepared using a formal recipe. The cook and his devil (as an assistant was called), would make a meal with the ingredients they had on hand, and the proportions might vary depending on the cook and supplies. This meal was customarily prepared in an iron vessel, with bread (often sourdough) on top of the pork and beans, baked in the hot sands with live coals under the shanty fire that blazed round the clock. Yeast or cream of tartar, might used for leavening, and perhaps hops for flavour. But it was primarily the salt pork that lent its flavour to the other components of the dish. The cook retrieved the pot using an Irish-style mining shovel.

Back then, prepared tomato sauce was not available, and if additional flavouring was used, it was typically maple syrup, which was then more common than imported cane sugar. The men, by and large, ate off their laps, on tin plates, using their knives for cutlery, with a dish for their green tea—brewed “strong enough to float an iron wedge” or “peel the tongue of a buffalo.” Black tea was introduced at the very end of the century. Like tobacco, men would typically have the cost of these luxuries deducted from their wages. Cooks were careful to see that food did not go to waste, though each man could eat all he wanted, and they were even expected to salvage tainted pork as best they could. While the meals tended to be monotonous, years later, some lumberjacks would nostalgically recall the caramelized bread that was unique to pork and beans baked under sand.

While pork and beans were standard camp fare, the workers often tried to have some variety in their diet. For supper, the men might eat boiled potatoes and beef (perhaps an old camp ox), with turnips, onions, carrots, peas, cabbage or sauerkraut. The standard dessert was dried apples (perhaps made tart with tartaric acid), perhaps with rice and currants, seasoned with cinnamon or nutmeg. Camp foremen and clerks purchased all the fish, venison and other game they could procure from locals, and shantymen might hunt or fish on Sundays. It was said in 1877 that “deer is so plentiful that it is used to the exclusion of beef” at one of Mossom Boyd’s shanties. On rare occasions corn was served.

As the century wore on there was more variety in the fare, with mutton, pickles, vinegar, lard, sugar, corn syrup, butter, eggs, fresh pork, steak, evaporated peaches, figs, raisins, sage, ginger, pepper, mustard and allspice. Workers also came to expect better conditions—in 1883 William Ritchie’s workers at a Boyd shanty “refused to work without having beef” instead of pork, prompting five men to leave their jobs. But even as companies brought in beef for part of the rations, to the end of the century, pork and beans remained the most common meal in the shanties and many other remote work places. They were anything but fine cuisine, and most families could come up with something better if they set their mind to it, but pork and beans were indispensable. In many ways, they were a nineteenth century equivalent of the processed convenience foods that are so popular today.

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