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!


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