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Remember This? We need to talk about the cook book ladies

A collection of recipes put down on paper by a group of Barrie women 117 years ago endure and will be celebrated this month
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The recipes found in the Royal Victoria Cook Book of 1900, published by the Women’s Auxiliary, were home-tested dishes comprised of ingredients commonly found in most kitchens in Barrie at that time. 

Some of the antiquated terms in the book highlight the years that have passed since its printing — forgotten ingredients like dal, pickled codfish, saltpetre and calf’s udder, all measured by saltspoon, gill or wine glass, and cooked in a farina boiler over a medium wood fire.

Everything seems to have contained eggs and butter, and was whipped, boiled, pounded or passed through a wire sieve. 

Our cook book ladies took cooking from scratch to an entirely different level; more basic than we can imagine doing today. Unless they had the luxury of some domestic help, these fine Barrie women would have been plucking their own chickens, cleaning fish, growing much of their own vegetables, preserving and pickling everything in sight and steaming puddings for hours the old-fashioned way. 

On May 27, the Barrie Historical Archive celebrates Central United Church’s 60 years on the corner of Ross and Toronto, and honours those wonderful ladies who made the Royal Victoria Cook Book happen. 

How amazed they would be to hear that their small fundraiser book, with the first known printed butter tart recipe, has such lasting fascination. 

But who were the cook book ladies?

The first course planned for the ’Birth of the Butter Tart’ luncheon is a soup submitted by Mrs. C.T. Pemberton.   She was Roberta Mary Bayley Bruce who was born in 1875 to John Bruce, a barrister, and his wife, Mary Christina Bayley, at 55 Grenville Ave. in Toronto.  At age 23, she married bank clerk George Carlisle Tudor ‘C.T.’ Pemberton in Toronto, on September 13, 1898.  

When she contributed to the cook book, Roberta was 25 years old and a bride of two years. Her first child, Helen, was born in 1900 in Hamilton, where C.T. had obtained a position as a banker. Obviously, the family moved to Barrie that same year, as Roberta sent in her recipe in 1900. They appear on the 1901 census on Theresa St., and C.T. was by then an accountant. In 1911, the family was back in Toronto and living at 63 Lonsdale Ave.  C.T., still doing well for himself, had become a bank manager. 

Roberta Pemberton passed away in Toronto at the age of 90 and is buried in St. James Cemetery. 

The main dish will be based on a recipe contributed by F. King. Although not absolutely certain, I am fairly sure that the mysterious F. King was Fanny King who lived with her family all of her life at 13 Poyntz St. 

Fanny was the eldest daughter of the close-knit English family of Robert King, a farmer turned baker, and his wife, Sarah Barrett.

Fanny never married and lived for many years, after the passing of her parents, with her well-known sister, Emma King. Younger twin siblings, Fred and Millie King, died within two weeks of each other at age 26 years from typhoid fever.

Only the youngest sibling, Ida King, married. She became the wife of Henry Partridge. Ida’s younger son, Howell Partridge, married Elizabeth Drury, a daughter of one-time Premier of Ontario, E.C. Drury.

When Fanny submitted her recipe, she was 45 years old, and living with her parents who were, in 1900, both nearly 80 years old. She lived on until 1934. After that, only her sister, Emma King, remained in the family home on Poyntz St, where she continued to live until her death in 1956 at 98 years of age.

Mrs. James Vair was born Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Johnston in 1857 and had married her young Scottish beau in 1880, when they were both 24. James was then a gardener, as were most of the men in his family, having been employed in that trade in the ‘old country'. Here in Barrie, they ran Vairville, a nursery and greenhouse near Anne St. 

BT24-4Dunlop St. in 1890, the same year the James Vair & Coulter dry goods business dissolved, and the Vairs outgrew Duloch Cottage and moved to 56 John St. Barrie Historical Archive

James was not content to remain in growing business and entered into a series of partnerships in the sales of dry goods. At times, his business was known as Coulter & Vair, Vicker, Reedy & Vair and eventually simply Vair & Sons. Having succeeded in retail and groceries, he then entered politics and was Mayor of Barrie in 1909.

While James was pouring himself into community and business life, Lizzie was caring for an ever-increasing brood of youngsters at home. By the time she sent her salad recipe in to the RVH Auxiliary Cook Book, she was 44 years old and the mother of nine children, which may explain why the dish is such a simple one!

Around 1915, the Vairs moved to Toronto, and it was there that Lizzie died in 1933. She is buried in Barrie Union Cemetery, alongside her husband, in the city where she spent some 60 years of her life. 

Margaret McLeod, wife of Malcolm McLeod, was an Oro girl her whole life. Born in 1855, married in 1883, Margaret was the mother of six children in 1900. She was also the mother of the iconic Canadian sweet treat, the simple butter tart, or was at least the name attached to the earliest recipe.  

As a Scots descendant, her cooking would have been plain fare, so it’s not surprising that her four-ingredient recipe, (eight if you count the pastry), was simple and unglamorous. The butter tart is not a showy thing, but a richly flavoured delight born of tradition and baked in kitchens where family and neighbours gather. 

What could be more Canadian? 

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.



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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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