Saturday, December 24, 2016

Western Canadian Christmas: Feasts and Beasts, 1847-70

Hugh Dempsey's Christmas in the West (1982) shares dozens of first-hand accounts penned by seasoned prairie-dwellers and greenhorns alike. Its pages are full of the holy nights of  early missionaries, indigenous encounters with Santa Claus, and well-seasoned stories, legends, and lies surrounding the holiday. Many tales relate to Christmas feasts. As vegetarians were few in nineteenth-century Rupert's Land, proteins are heavily featured. If you are at all squeamish about the slaughter of animals, you may wish to leave this post and throw on Alvin and the Chipmunks...on the record player, not the grill.

Paul Kane was an artist whose paintings of the West have become some of the most important visual representations
Paul Kane's painting of Fort the summertime.
of the prairies in the nineteenth century. This said, embellishment was not foreign to him, and even those in his own time suggested his work had more artistic value than documentary. He traveled across the future Canada in the 1840s, and left us both a painting of Fort Edmonton, and this account of an 1847 Christmas feast.
Paul Kane, Buffalo Bulls Fighting.

Perhaps it might be interesting to some dyspeptic idler, who painfully strolls through a city park, to coax an appetite to a sufficient intensity to enable him to pick an ortolan, if I were to describe to him the fare set before us, to appease appetites nourished by constant outdoor exercise in an atmosphere ranging at 40 to 50 below zero. At the head, before Mr. Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf.

Start not gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior.  My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow.  The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers' tails...Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc mages, shed their fragrance over the scene.
Presumably bison C-sections were performed postmortem. I'll take the fish.

Another bison-related story comes from Donald Graham, who travelled West during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70. On his first Christmas on the plains in 1872, he recalled his excitement during his first bison hunt on Christmas Day.
Next day, I said to my companions: "Is it true that tomorrow is Christmas day?"
"Sure thing, it's the 25th of December. What you think of doing? Hanging up your socks? Don't bother. There ain't no Santa Claus around here -- no, nor turkey for dinner, neither."
"Well," says I, "I'm not looking for Santa Claus, but if I could only shoot a buffalo wouldn't a roast of that make a grand Christmas dinner?" "Sure would," said he, "but a greenhorn like you could never reach one. It takes the real Indians to do that."
There and then I made up my mind to get a buffalo or perish in the attempt.
Assiniboine riding...Arabians? By Paul Kane
Graham succeeded in his hunt for Christmas roast, bagging his first bison despite his Scottish origins. Another unappetizing pot bonus was added, somewhere near the Hand Hills, south of Fort Edmonton.
After bleeding him and walking round and round before I could make up my mind to leave him, I hurried to our camp to tell the others. They came back with me, and after skinning it, we cut off the hind quarter and the tongue. Into the remainder I placed half a bottle of strychnine for the benefit of the wolves, which always followed a buffalo herd.
Next morning I was up bright and early, and visited what was left of the buffalo.  There I found two dead wolves which we skinned, and Charlie cut out the back fat, a wide strip of which extended the full length of the back. As the strychnine never leaves the stomach, this fat is considered a great delicacy and was eaten with great relish.
Wolf backstrap, with strychnine marinade or not, is no longer considered a delicacy in the region.
Wounded Buffalo surrounded by wolves. George Caitlin.

Finally a tale from the quartermaster sergeant of the Red River
Men of the Red River Expedition in camp.
Expedition.  This mixed Canadian and British force was the last British-led expedition in North-America. It marched across the Canadian Shield to Red River, only to find that Louis Riel was not going to wait around to see if the transfer of power from his provisional government was going to be peaceful. The soldiers worked up an appetite, and as they are prone to do, complained about their food. Once they were at Red River, the quartermaster sergeant (QMS) finally pulled off a feast to remember for Christmas 1870.

The dinner bugle sounded. The sergeants trooped in. My, what a spread! What a noble display of viands. What an astonishing variety. What a plentitude of everything. Beef! Beef everywhere. Beef soup, beef stewed, beef broiled, beef roasted, beef curried, beef a la everything, beef ad infinitum, beef galore!
 The men gorged on the feast and praised the Q.M.S.

"Gentlemen, have I satisfied you at last?"
Grand Chorus: "You have."

"Is there one man here present who is not perfectly, absolutely satisfied?"
Grand Chorus: "No, not one," and cheers.
"The dinner has been a great, a noble success?"
Grand Chorus: "It has."
 "And you would all like to have it repeated tomorrow?"
Rousing cheers and grand chorus, "We would."
 The Q.M.S. turned to Sergeant Hank and said, "The best thing we can do, Hank, is to go down and get the rest of that old horse."
The sergeants looked blank for just two seconds. Then the situation dawned upon them. There were two doors to the dining room. In an instant both were crammed with anxious and escaping sergeants and civilians. They all had sudden and peremptory business outdoors. A man who passed that way about that time said it reminded him of the time he came across the ocean in an emigrant ship and struck the biggest storm that had blown for centuries.
Whether it is tofurkey or bison veal this Christmas, here is to hoping you spend it feasting with good company.  Merry Christmas and bon appetit...if you still can muster an appetite!


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Canadian Postal Censorship: A Disgruntled Canadian Rant, Spring 1942

Canadian postal censorship reports of the Second World War are fascinating sources for soldierly vernacular.  There is no shortage of excerpts from browned-off soldiers grousing in their letters about the travails of military life. For all the complaints of tasteless food, freezing barracks, and pointless fatigues, those back at home would be forgiven for forgetting that the war was on!

While household-name military historians like C.P. Stacey, Terry Copp, or Jonathan Vance, have used postal censorship in the past, up-and-comer Robert Engen has recently published the most systematic look at these sources in his excellent work Strangers in Arms. Engen's book may become this generation's version of John English's The Canadian Army in the Normandy Campaign: A Study of Failure of High Command. Engen's provocative thesis challenges notions of primary group and regimental fealty as the key to combat motivation.  Where English challenged the competency of Canadian senior leadership and doctrine, Engen argues against the time-honored tradition that the bonds of the regimental family and the combat-hardened band of brothers kept men fighting in the line. Postal censors' reports are just one part of a whole range of interesting sources that Engen uses to create a sociological overview of the Canadian Army at war.

Engen largely uses the quantitative aspects of these reports and their summaries, but a whole ream of excerpts from letters also accompany Canadian Army Postal Censorship files.  Here is an example of a particularly long excerpt that officers felt deserved repeating for its vitriol. The letter was written in early 1942, as Canadians trained, and trained some more, waiting for their shot at combat.
I don't know what you are reading in the papers about England and the war etc but so help me they sure deserve to have the pants trimmed off them.  Nobody worries a damn bit about the real problem at hand, which is killing and defeating Germany, physically, spiritually and morally.  All they talk about is silly trivial stuff like 'saving waste paper' and 'we must back Russia to the utmost' with everything but men it seems.  The latest propaganda howl all over the bloody place is 'Remember Hong Kong'.  Have they forgotten about 13 other total defeats including the far Eastern stronghold, Singapore?  I was over at N.... for tea on Sunday, and they have a cousin in the Artillery, a Sarjeant.  He heard last week he may be going overseas somewhere, so has applied for a commission so that he can go to an O.C.T.U. and therby stay in England 6 months.  This from a middle class intelligent man? of 32!  And we came over here to protect bastards like that.
So much for press, propaganda, and shirkers.  Our correspondent continued with a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon (and anti-Semitic) diatribe against the black market.

WC'42 By M. Covarrubias.
After nearly 2 1/2 years at war they are trying to decide whether to pass the death sentence on those hundreds of people engaged solely in supplying the 'Black Market'. Black market, in case it is foreign, is food clothing and niceties supplied in any amount to those who can afford to pay the highest and is a criminal offence if caught in Russia, Germany, Japan and Italy, it's a firing squad, and no questions asked.  But in England the majority engaged in this illicit trade is our friend the JEW, and we, the almighty, the cricket-playing, home-loving Englishmen, cannot be accused of race discrimination.  Night clubs are always packed.  On Saturday or Sunday in London and suburbs it is next to impossible to get into a movie, those with the necessary money and connections are never without ample gasoline to run even the most expensive cars and when John Doe sees old Churchill grin and give the 'V' sign he just calmly thinks about the type of carrots he will be planting in the spring and says 'good ol' Winnie, he'll pull us through', completely ignoring the news in his own newspapers telling him the 'Empire' is unfortunately going to pieces, but it simply can't be helped, ol' boy, we just haven't got the planes.
Even raids across the Channel Coast didn't cheer our thoroughly skeptical correspondent.
The Raid On St. Nazaire, March 1942.
Order the board game today?
And then when the public begin to get a bit anxious they pull a 'huge' raid off on the French coast with about 50 men, its probably about one of the weakest spots on their tremendous frontier, but next morning great headlines of a 'daring victory'.  I heard some wag in a pub say: 'you know we really have given them a rough time on the French coast.'
At the end of it all, the war would result in nothing less than the complete destruction of Canadian sovereignty.
I have come to the conclusion the average Englishman's indifference and modesty is put on to the point of absurdity.  They make you sick, so high and mighty, instead of realising that when this war is finally over we shall have Russian and U.S.A. to thank our lucky stars that the British Empire still exists. I wonder who will have the job of rolling up the 49th Parallel Wire and dumping it in the Pacific Ocean?
It seems safe to say that not all Canadian soldiers had high morale in the first half of 1942!

Letter from "Notes on Mail examined during Period 2ndto 17thMarch, 1942," Field Censors (Home), FCH/CR 21. DND File 46-3-3/INT Vol 1, "Censorship Reports: Field Censors (Home) Sep-DEc 41 January – May 42.", 215C1.98(D332) Censorship Reports Vol. 1 Jan-May 42, RG24 Volume 10705, LAC.