150 Years of Food

150 Years of Food

This year marks Canada’s 150th birthday so we thought we’d take the opportunity to celebrate the innovations from the past this week! Canada has a fine reputation for being a melting pot of cultures due to immigrants coming from all four corners of the world and co-existing with the First Nations people in the years around colonialism, confederation and the years afterwards. This is something I have always found very beautiful about Canada, and it reflects in our cuisine. The fusion of cultures has given birth to a number of new innovations and types of cuisine. The timeline below illustrates our history with a focus on Canadian food culture and how it has shaped the food environment of today…

· 1870: Pemmican from the First Nations people

Pemmican is a mixture of pounded bison meat mixed with bison fat and occasionally dried berries. It was a staple in the Prairie Provinces because it was portable, dense and long-lasting. To that extent, it fueled many of the Hudson Bay Company’s (HBC) traders. By 1870 however, bison herds were thinning due to Indigenous tribes trying to meet the HBC’s demand for pemmican and bison hides, and by 1880, the bison were almost extinct. A few years later, thousands of Indigenous men, women and children died of starvation in the prairies because of not having access to their traditional food.

· 1876: Red Fife Wheat

Red Fife wheat became the dominant wheat variety used in Canada throughout the 70s by millers and bakers due to its adaptability to the climate of Western Canada. This attracted settlers to the prairies who had a background in farming to make a living from working the land. In 1876 the Steele Briggs Co. of Toronto received its first shipment of this wheat from Manitoba, further spreading it across Canada’s urban core.

· 1890s-1910s: Pierogis

Nearly 170,000 Ukrainian immigrants came to Canada in these years, bringing their delicious cuisine with them. They settled in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and came to define prairie food culture with their pierogis.

· 1900: Butter Tarts

Butter tarts originate from pioneer cooking in Canadian history and they are still a favourite today. They are considered one of the dishes of true Canadian origin. The earliest published Canadian recipe is from Barrie, Ontario in the Women’s Auxiliary of Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook.

Try this healthier Meal Garden equivalent:  

· 1928: Montreal smoked meat and bagels

Schwartz’s deli on the Boulevard St-Laurent in Montreal is one of the most famous places to get Montreal smoked meat and Jewish bagels. Founded by Reuben Schwartz, this deli was part of a number that opened this year to cater towards the Kosher dietary preferences of a growing Jewish refugee population fleeing the pogroms and prosecutions of Eastern Europe.

· 1931: Pablum

This was a mushy and nutritionally fortified infant food developed at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and it revolutionized infant feeding on a global scale, while also reassuring SickKids’ status as an international research institution.

· 1937: Kraft Dinner

Kraft Dinner was first released as a convenience solution for families and quickly became a symbol of Canadian Food Culture. Today Canadians continue to consume more KD per capita than anyone else in the world!

Meal Garden’s healthier swap recommendation can be found here:

· 1941: Canada War Cake

War Cake was a simple eggless, milkless, butterless and sugar-stretching dessert that appeared in newspapers across the country during both world wars. Because eggs, milk, butter, meats and other calorie and nutrient rich foods were sent to soldiers on the home front, this recipe was a symbol of the mobilization of the entire population for war.

· 1950s: Fishsticks and Poutine

Fish sticks are a symbol of the industrialization of the cod fishery. Workers could cut the frozen blocks of fish produced on factory trawlers into bite-sized strips, which could then be breaded and deep fried - and alternative to waiting for fish blocks to melt and separating the product into individual fillets.

Poutine is a purely Quebecois dish consisting of fries, gravy and cheese curds with origins in Quebec chip shacks. Today it can be found in both high-end restaurants and fast-food chains with endless variations on the French favourite.

· 1953: Nanaimo Bars

The earliest confirmed printing of a copy of this recipe is in Edith Adams’ prize cookbook and a copy of it is on view at the Nanaimo museum. Its popularity in Canada has given much pride to the British Columbia city of Nanaimo, where it was developed. It is layered a dessert with a chocolate and coconut layer on the bottom, a cream layer in the middle and hard chocolate layer on top.

· 1960s: Halifax Donair

Greek immigrant and restaurant owner Peter Gamoulakos made changes to the traditional gyro in order to gain acceptability of his dish from the Nova Scotian public. Lamb was replaced with beef and tzatiki was replaced with a sweet sauce made with evaporated milk. This donair is served with tomatoes and onion and has become a cult classic in the Maritimes.

· 1964: Tim Hortons

The first Tim Hortons opened in Hamilton, Ontario serving only doughnuts and coffee. Today it has turned into a beloved, family-oriented brand serving comforting baked, delicious goods and beverages to all of Canada. It has become a symbol of Canadian culture and phrases like “double-double” or “roll-up” are quintessentially Tim Hortons.

· 1970s: Asian Fusion – The birth of the California roll and Ginger Beef

The California Roll was Japanese immigrant, Hidekazu Tojo’s innovation to get Vancouverites to eat sushi. By putting the rice on the outside of the maki roll, he created a new favourite dish and a wider acceptability of sushi food culture!

Ginger beef was the Canadian prairie provinces’ take on General Tso’s chicken. It is a sweet-and-savoury Chinese-Canadian classic that was first developed by chef George Wong at Calgary’s Silver Inn.

· 1975: McCain Superfries

McCain started in New Brunswick and years of ads, marketing and taxpayer-funded subsidies have led the brand to now have global sales of $8.5-billion while cornering a third of the global French fry market.

· 1980: Yukon Gold potatoes

Developed at the University of Guelph by researcher Gary Johnson, Yukon Gold potatoes were an effort to develop a potato that would appeal to Eastern European immigrants’ preference for yellow-fleshed potatoes. It soon became a main-stream success and is one of the only varieties that shoppers look for by name.

· 2000s: Food Trends and FAD Diets

With the birth of the internet, knowledge sharing has become so instantaneous that users receive an overwhelming amount of information on the daily. From Atkins to Curves, to Weight-Watchers to food and juice cleanses, Canadians now have a TON of options in terms of dietary preferences and the restaurants that choose to cater to them. With increasing health consciousness, there has been a shift towards more whole food and plant-based diets over the past decade.

Let's not forget maple syrup! What would a history of Canadian food be without maple syrup? Indigenous people were harvesting maple syrup from trees long before the Europeans arrived. There are no authenticated accounts of the exact dates this process began but according to oral tradition, each spring would mark the beginning of a new maple sap season. Rituals even developed around sugar-making like the Sugar Moon, celebrating the first full moon of spring, with a Maple Dance. Today maple syrup is still a Canadian favourite and trips to the sugar bush to see the syrup-making process is a tradition enjoyed by many families!

Here’s one of our go-to maple-infused desserts: 


The Globe and Mail. (2017). We are what we ate. Retrieved from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canada-150/we-are-what-we-ate-canadas-history-incuisines/article34289538/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

Jacobs, Hersch (2009), "Structural Elements in Canadian Cuisine"Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures, 2(1)

Newman, Lenore Lauri (2014). "Notes from the Nanaimo bar trail"Canadian Food Studies. 1(1): 10–19. 

Koelling, Melvin R; Laing, Fred; Taylor, Fred (1996). "Chapter 2: History of Maple Syrup and Sugar Production". In Koelling, Melvin R; Heiligmann, Randall B. North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual. Ohio State University (OSU). Retrieved 23 September 2016.

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