Settler Colonialism and Recipes in the Early Modern Maritimes

Edith Snook

[This is the second in a series of posts on the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database. The entire series can be found here.]

The region now known as the Maritime provinces of Canada had before 1800 a diverse population that included Indigenous, French, English, other Europeans, and free and enslaved people of African descent. That the majority of recipes included in the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database are in English, however, is a consequence of colonialism, the region’s political history, and the fact that recipe writing—though not of course knowledge-making and sharing—was a European rather than Indigenous practice. The wars, displacements, violence, and treaty-making and breaking impacting the region known to the Mi’kmaq as Mi’gmagi, to the French as Acadia, and to the British eventually as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island all informed how knowledge circulated and a textual archive of recipes could be produced and preserved.

What I am interested in here is how recipe culture is a component of settler colonialism, which Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill define as the “persistent social and political formation in which newcomers/colonizers/settlers come to a place, claim it as their own, and do whatever it takes to disappear the Indigenous peoples that are there.”[1] In the eighteenth century, recipes were a textual instrument of settler colonialism, working both to claim space and render invisible the Indigenous peoples already inhabiting it.

Many recipes in the EMMR database document the quest for understanding of English-speaking Settlers, the newcomers to the place, of how to live in Mi’gmagi. They address the practical needs of life—medicine, food, the domestic sphere, and agriculture. A component of the recipe, alongside the instruction, is the assertion of the recipe’s authority—its source and experimental history. Early modern recipes don’t just provide instructions but also avow their merits. Pre-1800 recipes from what is now the Maritimes mostly cite other Europeans and Americans—the Royal Society, the Royal Humane Society, the Dublin Society, the Royal Society of Sweden, ministers, and physicians, for example. In these instances, men with European educations have authority for recipe knowledge.

Even when knowledge comes from other sources, recipes can still reinforce hierarchies. Benjamin Marston wrote in 1791 to Ned, “information I think may be of some worth to you in NB;” he provided information about fertilizing crops with plaster of Paris learned from a farmer in Bristol (England) and attested to by a gentleman who saw very large oats produced from the technique. Similarly, a cure for the stone  printed in the Halifax Gazette in 1794 and originating with an enslaved man in Virginia is communicated by a minster, “a man of integrity and much respected.” The sources may be farmers and slaves, but the authority for the recipe’s merits is accorded the gentleman and minister witnesses. In a colonial context, this system for creating authoritative knowledge, implicated in wider social hierarchies, seems to inscribe voices, knowledges, and processes onto the land as a kind of land claim: we know how to live here, we belong.

If one aspect of settler colonialism is claiming a place as one’s own, the other is disappearing Indigenous people. Indigenous knowledge is part of the knowledge articulated in early modern Maritime recipes, but it is not cited in these straightforward, highly visible ways. To look at how Indigenous knowledge is represented, I want to consider two recipes in the Early Modern Maritime Recipe database: for “Indian Pudding” and for a spirit made from distilling maple sap.

“Indian Pudding” is a New England adaptation of the English dessert, the hasty pudding, a porridge-like pudding of flour and milk. The “Indian Pudding” replaces the flour with corn meal. There are two recipes for “Indian pudding” in the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database. One combines milk, molasses, and “meal,” and the other, from the Loyalist Sir William Pepperel’s housekeeper, water, molasses, and “Indian meal.” The name “Indian pudding,” as well as “Indian meal,” reflect the fact that maize, or corn, entered European diets because of contact with Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Theodor de Bry. Hand-coloured illustration of Theodor de Bry’s engraved illustration of the Native American village of Secoton. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. By Thomas Hariot. London, 1590.  Wikimedia Commons.

As Jane Mt. Pleasant explains, in pre-Columbian North America Indigenous peoples had developed sustainable agricultural systems for growing maize and feeding their populations; maize “occupies enormous cultural space in many present-day Native communities, a fact that reflects deeply held traditions that describe and shape our relationships with the natural world and each other.  The history of maize agriculture has immense importance to indigenous communities across North America.”[2]  In a genre that is interested in history, the pudding recipe remembers the Indigenous origins of maize, but makes knowledge of its use firmly the Settlers’ own. When credit is given, it goes to William Pepperel’s housekeeper (the gender dynamics of citation are also visible here, in that the female source of the recipe isn’t named either).

Another recipe for preparing a spirit from maple syrup disappears Indigenous origins of knowledge in a different way. This recipe reports on a technique a “gentleman” learned in Goa (presumably but again not explicitly from a person indigenous to Goa) for the readers of the Nova Scotia Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser in 1769. The report indicates “they” make sap of a cocoa tree into a liquor and suggests the same could be done with maple sap. The writer then proposes: “I found that there was a tree which they call the sugar maple, which they usually tap in the Spring, and let out its juices or sap by boring a hole in the trunk: they brew this with us into a sort  of drink, and sometimes they boil it into sugar.” The referents for the pronoun “they” are not named, and in both cases, “they” seems to refer to both a colonizer and Indigenous population. In any case, with respect to the maple sap, “they” historically must include the Indigenous peoples of eastern north America who made maple syrup and sugar first and whose example Settlers followed.[3]

Lafitau. “Planche VII, Maniere de faire le sucre d’Erable.” Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquans. Tome Second. Paris, 1724. p. 154.

The “they” is inclusive but again does not credit Indigenous peoples with authority over their knowledge, which is represented as free for the taking and extracted from its cultural context—one that, for the Anishinaabeg, for example, involves stories, gift-exchange, sovereignty, and diplomacy.[4]  The gentleman recipe writer’s emphasis instead is on his own agency in knowledge-making: “nobody, till my time, ever thought of making any other use of it.”

In recipes circulating in what we now call the Maritimes, the Indigenous origins of techniques learned by Settlers across the Americas are obscured, filtered into the region through Settler reporters. The EMMR recipes do not cite local knowledge of the Mi’kmaq or Wolastoqey, as such, either. This is purposeful. As Eve Tuck and Wayne Tang put it, “settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a homemaking that insists on settler sovereignty over all things in the new domain;” in settler colonialism the most important thing is the land.[5] As a Settler scholar who lives and teaches on unceded Wolastoqey territories, I am interested in drawing out these hidden knowledges and assigning credit—as a way of disrupting the structures by which Settlers also claimed land.

Edith Snook is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.  The Early Modern Maritime Recipes research project has been supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the UNB Harriet Irving Library and a Dalhousie Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Undergraduate Research Assistant Award. You can find her on Twitter at @Pamphilia2.


[1] Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck and Angie Morrill, “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialsim and Heteropatriarchy,” Feminist Formations, 25, no. 1 (2013): 12.

[2] Jane Mt.Pleasant. “A New Paradigm for Pre-Columbian Agriculture in North America.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13, no. 2 (2015): 374-412, esp. 380.

[3] Virgil Vogel, “The Blackout of Native American Cultural Achievements,” American Indian Quarterly, 11, no. 1 (1987), 11-35, collects earlier European reports of maple sugar making by Indigenous people and highlights sugar-based Aboriginal names for places and stories. One report exemplifies another form of disappearing. A Royal Society publication from 1684-85 records that the “savages of Canada, in the time that the sap rises in the maple, make an incision on the tree, by which it runs out; and after they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor there remains one pount as sweet and as much sugar as that got out of the canes” (quoted in Vogel 20). While the Royal Society acknowledges Indigenous origins of the technique, it calls people “savages,” despite the obvious evidence of culture in that very same report: the maple sugar. The naming refuses to give credit and this erasure makes the knowledge available to claim.  See also Krista McKracken, “Colonialism, Maple Syrup, and Ways of Knowing,” ActiveHistory.ca (July 9, 2018).

[4] Alan Corbiere, “Ninaatigwaaboo (Maple Tree Water): An Anishinaabe History of Maple Sugaring” GRASAC (July 28, 2015).

[5] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, 1, no. 1 (2012): 5.

Featured image: Theodor de Bry. Detail from a hand-coloured illustration of Theodor de Bry’s engraved illustration of the Native American village of Secoton. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. By Thomas Hariot. London, 1590.  Wikimedia Commons.

Continue the conversation ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s