The Women Who Stayed in Winnipeg

The lady of the house, 1890. If your great great amma worked as a domestic she worked for this lady or her friends.
When the 285 Icelandic settlers of 1875 arrived in Winnipeg, around 50 of them who were able to find work stayed in the city. Little did they know how good a decision that would become.
 Your great great amma looked like these cooks and maids in 1890.
 Coming from Iceland where farms did not have stoves, your great great amma had to learn to use one of these. This looks like the one in our kitchen in Gimli when I was a boy. My mother made wonderful meals on it.
The settlers who went on to New Iceland were towed down the river in flat boats, were cut loose before reaching their destination at the White Mud River (Icelandic river, Riverton), arrived late in the season without enough stoves for each family to have one. Instead, they hastily built cabins of logs, something they’d never done. They were not woodsmen as there were no trees in Iceland large enough to use in building. One cabin to each stove. In Iceland, none of them had stoves. In spite of the name, Iceland, the weather is so much more moderate that people could survive with thick turf and rock walls, body heat and the fire used for cooking. In Manitoba, they would have frozen to death.
In 1875 there was a surplus of men. Employment for men, except seasonally (harvest time, for example), was hard to come by. However, there was a shortage of women both as wives and as domestic help. Although Winnipeg only had 5,000 residents, women could find jobs in the city.
 Bread. Bread. Magical bread. Wheat, rye, oats, barley. Grain. Lots of it. Affordable. None of these breads made in Iceland. Great great amma had to learn to make bread like this.
In 1876 a group of 1200 Icelanders arrived in Winnipeg. Some of these also stayed behind in Winnipeg.
These people, the ones who decided to remain in Winnipeg, formed the nuclease of the Winnipeg Icelandic community. This community, with more emigrants coming from Iceland, plus people leaving New Iceland and moving to Winnipeg, by 1890, was large enough to hold the first Icelandic Celebration at Victoria Park.
By 1890, fifteen years had passed from the arrival of the first settlers in Winnipeg. During those years women found jobs in non-Icelandic households. With some staying in the city and some going to New Iceland where the goal was to have a separate colony, the same drama was being played out as had gone on earlier with some leaders saying settlers would be better off integrating, working on the farms of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians who were established. That way they would learn how to farm. On the other side were those who wanted, at any cost, to stay separate, to keep to themselves and recreate a new Iceland.
 Life in New Iceland started hard with no cows, no milk, dreadful living conditions, and got harder when smallpox broke out.
Those in Winnipeg managed to avoid some of these hardships that we hear so much about. But what was life like for them?
First, they had to adjust to seeing non-Icelanders every day. To working with non-Icelanders every day. To being employed by non-Icelanders every day. They had to learn English. Having non-Icelandic employers demanded it. Even harder, perhaps, they had to learn new ways of doing everything. Everything. Living to a different code of cleanliness, behaviour, thinking, relationships, customs, food, clothes. Everything. Right now.
Pounding dried cod so it could be eaten, knitting endlessly or weaving, taking care of sheep, raking hay didn’t prepare anyone for being a good housemaid. If your great amma or great great amma got a job as a housemaid, these were the duties she was expected to perform. This is what she had to adjust to, had to learn.
 “A good housemaid will rise at six, and have her grates cleaned and rooms swept by seven. She will then go upstairs, wash her hands, and make herself tidy for taking to the bedroom hot water if required to do so. In the meanwhile the dust will have settled, and the rooms will be ready on her return to be finished by eight. By nine o’clock breakfast ought to be cleared away and the housemaid ready to strip the beds, empty slops, and set the bedrooms in order. By eleven o’clock the up-stairs work ought to be done, unless extra cleaning is in question. Washing up china and glass, dusting the drawing-room, and other light labour of the kind may take till twelve or one o’clock, by which time a housemaid ought to be dressed for the day, fit to answer the door, wait on the family, and do needlework. Any work required of the servant after mid-day should be of a nature not to soil her garments. At dusk, it is a housemaid’s place to close all the windows at the upper part of the house. Before going to bed she has to turn down all the beds of the family, replenish ewers and water bottles, empty slops, and put everything in its place. If she has the charge of the plate-basket she carries it to the master’s room, together with hot water. Considerate employers will dispense with a housemaid’s attendance by ten o’clock, bearing in mind her morning duties.
 “The day before a wash is intended, all the dirty linen should be looked up, sorted, and entered in a book with the same precision as is observed when things are sent out. Any articles that are in excess – owing to the state of the weather or what not – should be thoroughly dried, folded, and put away, under lock and key, till a convenient season. Saturday afternoon is the best time for the above preparation; the clothes can then remain in soak till Monday, which greatly facilitates the removal of stains, &c.
   
 “All the best white linen should be put in a separate pan, or tub, and coarse things in another. Sufficient lukewarm, or cold soda and water should then be poured over the clothes.
   
“Coloured things, flannels, and woollen materials should not be laid in soak. These require washing separately, piece by piece, when the work is in progress. Pocket-handkerchiefs should be first rinsed out, and the water thrown away before they are put in with the rest of the things.
   
“The next arrangement to make should consist in shredding fine yellow soap into a jar capable of containing sufficient liquid, according to the amount of washing to be done. About a pound of soap to a gallon of water is a good proportion; no soda should be added. Having poured boiling water on the soap, cover the jar and set it aside on the kitchen stove, or range, till Monday morning, when the soap will be found to be melted to a jelly. When lukewarm, take some of this soap-jelly, and mix it in the water in which the clothes are to be washed. By this means a fine lather is easily produced without waste. About a pint of soap jelly to an ordinary tub of water will be sufficient. The clothes will require but trifling rubbing with hard soap in the very soiled places.
   
“It is a good plan to begin a wash with the flannels. No soap is required for them beyond the jelly described, except for the cotton bands and tapes. Each article should be washed separately in moderately warm (not hot) water. Having washed them in one water, rinse them in clean warm suds, shake them Out, and hang them on the lines at once. Never rinse flannels or woollens in plain water. By doing so they become harsh and shrink.
   
“The water in which the flannels have been rinsed is excellent for the first washing of the white things. If too dirty for that purpose, it should be poured on the coarse things, having first taken them out of the cold soak.
   
“The white things will require two washings, rubbing soap on the stained places, if required. The second water should be used for the first process of rubbing less im-[51-]portant articles. By the time the white things are washed, the copper should be ready for the boiling process. The water should only be lukewarm when the clothes are put in, as boiling water fixes the stains instead of loosening them. The water in the copper should contain a fair proportion of soap jelly and about two ounces of soda. From ten minutes to a quarter of an hour after the clothes have been at boiling heat, they should be taken out and plunged into plenty of cold water for rinsing. Having been wrung out of the rinsing water, they should next be put into clean blue water, one by one, passing each piece swiftly through the water to prevent the blue from settling into those unsightly streaks which are afterwards so difficult to remove.
   
“There is no waste of time in this precaution, because each article has to be wrung out separately, even if a basketful of linen be tossed into the blue water at the outset. Directly ·the clothes are blued and wrung, they should be shaken out and put upon the lines.
   
A propos of “hanging-out.” Before putting up the lines, they should be passed through a coarse cloth, to remove any dust or soils from the gravel-paths, &c. All articles set in a band should be slightly festooned from the bottom hem-never from the band. Sheets and table-cloths should be hung with the short side towards the wind, to enable the air to blow the folds apart. Shirts should be suspended from the bottom hem. A good many pegs are necessary to hang things out well, and the laundry-maid should be careful not to place the pegs at the corners, without first doubling the corners. Stockings should each have a peg, and should be turned inside out before being put on the lines. Wooden pegs are best.”
And, if she were fortunate, your great great amma was able to negotiate for one day a month off. Plus time for church on Sundays but the time was to be limited to the time needed to attend the service.
Halldor Laxness offended people when he came to New Iceland and read a story that criticized the settlers for having their wives work as domestics. His criticism of the settlers was silly. In Iceland, unless you owned land, you worked as an indentured servant with severe restrictions on your life. Perhaps he thought that if you were a landowning farmer, your wife should be like the wife of the owner of Myri (although, in Independent People, he mocked her) and everyone that worked for you should be a bonded labourer. But farming in Canada doesn’t and can’t work that way. In the early days the struggle was to get enough money to get onto the land, to get it cleared and planted. Men took whatever work they could get, on the railway, cutting firewood, harvesting, that would bring in cash. Women took whatever work was available.
This wasn’t Iceland. It couldn’t be Iceland. To try to make it Iceland was a doomed task. Trying to keep things the way they were had kept Iceland from moving into the industrial age with resulting poverty for the largest portion of the population.
Our fate is evident often in the smallest of things. In Iceland, grain was prohibitively expensive for most people. They seldom ate bread and, if they did, it was only on special occasions. In a Blue Ribbon Cookbook from 1905, 30 years after the settlers landed on a cold, windswept beach at Willow Island, there is a section called “Chart of Oven Temperature for Cakes”. Just imagine. Oven temperatures. That means there are ovens which means there are stoves which means there must be a lot of cheap fuel. There was so little fuel in Iceland that there were no stoves and no stoves means no ovens. No one needed to know oven temperatures. Also, there were no cakes. Cakes require finally milled flour and that was only available to the wealthiest farmers. Plunked down in Winnipeg, great great amma had to learn about wood, wood stoves, ovens, baking.
There are instructions on “Essentials for Success” in baking cakes. There are instructions on different methods of baking cakes. There are nineteen pages of recipes for making cakes, cookies and puddings. They all require grain. They all require stoves. They all require abundant fuel.
Bread in Iceland was usually from rye flour coarsely ground, cooked as a flat bread. In the 1905 cookbook, there are eleven pages of recipes and advice on making bread. Overnight bread, sponge bread, soft whole wheat, graham, bran, oatmeal, date, baking powder bread, Boston brown bread, corn bread, Florida pone bread, Sally Lunn bread plus recipes for rolls, biscuits and muffins.
  White bread. Food of kings. Christian IX brought white bread from Denmark when he came in 1874. In Canada, available to all.
I expect that the women who took work in English houses learned about making bread, cakes and cookies and puddings quite quickly. Learned to eat them. Learned to make them. I doubt if any of them pounded dried fish with a stone hammer. This wasn’t Iceland.

Our Icelandic North American Heritage: food

 Icelandic Canadian perogis with high bush cranberry jelly
Our Icelandic food heritage is greatly different from our Icelandic North American food heritage. How could it not be?
Ingredients in Iceland were severely limited. With one crop, grass, with meat and milk as staples, with fish that had to be preserved by drying, with no grain except what could be imported and that was nearly always rye, with even the hay crop failing sometimes because of cold summers, Icelandic women had few resources. Throw in a lack of fuel and, as a result of that, no stoves or ovens, and what Icelandic women did create bordered on the miraculous.
In the beginning, New Iceland was a food disaster. Nets too big, a lake that froze over, no cows for milk, land overgrown by thick bush, no experience hunting.
But that didn’t last long. With aboriginal help, hunting was learned, fishing under the ice was learned. Ground was cleared, root crops were planted. Grain was planted. Cows were obtained. There was lots of wood for stoves.
Right from the beginning, New Iceland wasn’t exclusively Icelandic. There were non-Icelanders already settled there. The most obvious were the local aboriginal people. There were Scots and Orkney men. They could not be expelled and the boundaries of New Iceland could not be hermetically sealed.
The first Icelandic settlers arrived in 1875, followed by the big group in 1876. In 1887 in the origins of the population were 835, Icelandic, 31 Scottish, 7 English, 1 French, 12 Scottish Metis, 1 Swedish and 1 Danish. In 1897 this dominance of Icelandic settlers would end. Icelandic immigration had fallen off and many Icelandic  settlers, attracted by better land and greater opportunities elsewhere, left New Iceland. The government opened up the area to anyone. Immediately, the first Ukrainian settlers arrived and settled in the Foley and Willow Creek districts. These were followed by Poles, Ukrainians and Germans.
The first Ukrainians to settle in the New Iceland area had come a long and difficult way. Emigrants who left the village of Kopychentsi, traveled by train to Lviv. From there to Antwerp. Then to Liverpool and, after a two week crossing of the Atlantic, to Halifax, then by immigrant train to East Selkirk. From there to Gimli. Their arrival made them part of our New Iceland heritage. By the time I was born in the late 1930s, while Gimli still had an Icelandic character with Icelandic being spoken in many homes, my school mates were from all the groups mentioned and many students, like me, had one parent who wasn’t Icelandic.
My Gimli food was the smorgasbord of a new land. My meals were made of rabbit, venison, beaver tail, moose, pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked sunfish, smoked Goldeye. I ate Ukrainian, German, Polish food. My mother cooked, not on a hearth in a stone floor but on a wood stove with an oven and every year someone brought cords of wood to stack in the back yard and, then, someone else came and sawed it and split it. Once I was big enough, it was my job to throw the wood into the basement. I took it for granted that we had a basement,  that our house was made of wood, the roof shingled, instead of being made of layers of rock and turf.
Cookbooks reveal society and one of my mother’s locally made cookbooks reveals our culinary heritage. It’s made up of Mrs. T. E. Thorsteinson’s Apple Pie with crumb topping, Mrs. H. G. Hunter’s Pumpkin Pie (pumpkin was a new world food unknown in Europe), Mrs. S. Eyjolfsson,s Tomato mince meat, Marshmallow Delight by Mrs. E. Montague, Mrs. Vopni’s Green Pepper salad, and there is Strawberry Jam, Apricot Preserve, Cranberry Jelly. Mrs. A. Sigurdsson from Foam Lake, Sask makes Nine Day Cucumber Pickle while Mrs. F. Lindal makes Seven Day Sweet Mixed Pickles.  
There are 128 pages. Only two pages of Icelandic Dishes.  Flatbruað, Kæfa, Skyr, Mysuostur, Pönnukökur, Rúllupylsa, Fiskibollur, Lifrarpylsa, Sago Soup. Enough has changed that Mrs. B. Pell, of Leslie, Sask. felt it necessary to explain that Mysuostur is an Icelandic whey cheese.
The women nearly all have Icelandic names and those who don´t, I expect, are Icelandic but have married non-Icelanders. They’re cooking with items they could not have dreamed of having in Iceland. Lots and lots of wheat flour, canned pineapple, chicken, peppers, corn, spaghetti, apples, pears, oranges.
In our house, we ate no dried cod, no singed sheep heads, no rotted shark, no Icelandic moss, no ram’s testicles. We only ate barley in vegetable soup.
My food heritage was made of occasional Icelandic food, blood sausage, skyr, ponnokokur, vinarterta, kleinar but equally often, of perogis (although we often ate them with high bush cranberry jelly instead of sour cream), hollopchi, borscht, kubysa, poppyseed cake. It was made up of freshwater fish. Of wild game. It was made up of fruit pies (Saskatoon pie, Saskatoon pie, If I don’t get some I think I’m going to die), a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, of white bread, of green grapes and apples and oranges and, in season, plums and pears and peaches. My fondest food memories are of beef stew and dumplings, of lemon pie, of shepherd’s pie and my grandmother’s unmatchable baking powder biscuits with homemade strawberry jam.
We weren’t rich. My father was a commercial fisherman and, in the off season, a barber. But we weren’t poor, either. My Canadian food heritage has been a cornucopia from which spill out things like maple syrup, clover honey, crab apples, high bush cranberry, stuffed whitefish, morels, moss berry tarts. It includes short breads and making toffee on winter evenings, popcorn, hot chocolate after skating. Weiners roasted over an open fire, relish, mustard. Hamburgers with the works. Rolled sandwiches with Velveeta cheese and a pickle in the centre.
My food heritage, at just one level, was Canadian because the ingredients were mostly sourced in Canada. It was Canadian because it was the result of a multi-cultural mix even before the community itself had become multi-cultural, when all the contributors to my mother’s cookbook still had nearly all Icelandic names.
We tend not to think about our Icelandic Canadian food heritage but the smorgasbord of food we ate (Sam Toy’s Chinese food in the Gimli Cafe; the food we shared at Ukrainian weddings; the English, Irish and Scot’s foods we ate at the neighbours; the aboriginal foods (bannock, wild rice, blueberries) on our table are all part of that Icelandic North American heritage.  


My Mother’s Cookbooks

There are six of them. One’s missing a cover. They’re all well-worn, tattered edges, split spines. Two of them are actual cook-books made by someone else. Gimli Gourment Recipes published by the Johnson Memorial Hospital Auxiliary is in pretty good shape. It’s still got its cover. The recipes are identified by women in the community who donated them. Pie Pastry by Joey Thordarson. Doughnuts by Mrs. A. Kasupski. There’s Lekuchen and Snickerdoodles. Jello Graham Wafer Cake and something called Broken Glass Dessert. It’s made with lemon, lime and cherry “jellow” (sic). There are a lot of hamburger recipes. But the Icelandic quality of Gimli is evident with Kyofa, an Icelandic Meat Loaf. There’s no date on the cookbook but you know there wasn’t much money around because there are a lot of jello recipes and casseroles. People still made their own pickles. There are recipes for Bread and Butter Pickles and Fourteen Day Pickles.

It is impossible to tell where the second published cookbook came from because its cover is long gone. The pages are well thumbed and a bit stained from the ingredients of many recipes. It, too, owes its contents to various housewives, although these come from farther afield. Raisin, Date, and Nut Pie has been contributed by Mrs. T. S. Arason from Cypress River, Man. Million Dollar Pickle is from Mrs. F. A. Finson of Port Arthur, Ont. There are a lot of pies and tarts. Vinegar tarts. Lemon cheese tarts. Coconut tarts. Puddings are important. Part way through the book there is a loose page of Household Hints. “When silver becomes dull” it says, “rub it with a piece of potato dipped in baking soda.” “When making mayonnaise and the white of the egg to the mixture after the vinegar is added. This will prevent curdling.” These were the precursors to Martha Stewart, TV and the Internet.

Here, there are pages of recipes for pickles, relishes and jams. With these recipes you can make Watermelon Rind Pickle or pickle cherries. With all this chopping, kneading boiling, baking there was still a few minutes for leisure because there is one page for making cocktails and cooling drinks.

This book provided all sorts of support to the new housewife. In a tine of little medical assistance and few medications, it provides pages dedicated to Invalid Cookery. It details the contents of a liquid diet, a soft solid diet, a light diet, a full diet. It explains how to make gruels, how to albumenize milk, to make junket, and beef tea. It reveals its heritage with two pages on how to make flatbrauð, mysuostur and pönnukökur. That’s flatbread, a whey cheese and crepes rolled hot with brown sugar. All Icelandic.

But it is not these books that interest me as much as the other four my mother made for herself. Many of the recipes are in her tidy hand. Others have been clipped and pasted into the pages with her notes beside them. Although her parents both came from Northern Ireland, there are no Irish recipes here. She married at sixteen into an Icelandic Canadian family and community and became so much part of the Icelandic tradition that she even learned to make Rosettes.

The first recipe in the book gives the recipe for rosettes: a cup of flour, a cup of milk, a pinch of salt, 2 eggs and a teaspoon of sugar. It explains how to mix the ingredients but in a separate note to one side it says to “Dip Rosette iron into hot fat to heat. Shake off surplus fat. Dip into batter, making sure no batter goes over the edge of the mold. Dip into fat and fry till Golden Brown. Then remove and place on brown paper.” These Rosettes when made properly have the shape of a rose are light, crunchy and usually topped with a dollop whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The recipe floods me with memories of watching my mother holding what looked like a branding iron, making each rosette individually, while I and my brother waited away from the hot of hot fat, knowing that we’d each get one along with instructions to go outside and play.

The pages are nearly as soft as tissue. Many of the recipes are blurred from having water or milk dropped on them. The recipe for Chinese Chews, becomes more obscure as it goes down the page.

There’s a recipe for homemade Marshmallow, for Julia’s Perogies and Holopchi. The recipes are not organized as in a formal cookbook under categories. They follow one after the other as my mother discovered them.

In the three ring binder there is a recipe for Snowballs. I pity anyone who did not grow up; having Snowballs at Christmas. They were made weeks in advance and packed into small boxes and put away until guests came for Christmas. Sinfully rich, made of mashed potatoes, icing sugar, peppermint flavoring, Baker’s chocolate, corn starch, and coconut, they melted in your mouth.

My mother loved desserts. Her lemon pies were legendary. No guest could leave without having had a raisin tart or two. However, she made other things we clamored for. Many Sundays when she asked us what we wanted for supper, we said rabbit pie. Browned rabbit, baked with vegetables and gravy, sealed with a tender pie crust.

There is a recipe for pinwheel sandwiches. When my mother made these for special occasions, my brother and I would volunteer to help make round sandwiches in return for getting to eat the ends. The bread loaf was sliced lengthwise, spread with softened cheese, then rolled around a pickle so when the roll was sliced, the sandwich had a green centre and a spiral of yellow cheese.

There’s a recipe for stew and dumplings, a dish that filled the house and had us looking around the corner into the kitchen to see how soon it would be ready. It was a family meal, first just for us, then after married, for our families as well. And in her recipe books as we grew older there is evidence of our lives. My ex is enshrined with “Mary Anne’s Pancakes.” My son with “Val’s Waffles.” My brother’s teenage girlfriend is remembered with “Nina’s Icebox Cookies.”

There are recipes for puffed wheat cake and rice crispy cake. My mother made it in large pans. She kept sacks of puffed wheat under the cupboard. No matter how busy she was there was always time for making puffed wheat cake or rice crispy cake. She had a sweet tooth and it shows in her cook books. She passed that sweet tooth on to me. I have a love for cream puffs, calla lilies, vinarterta, and pies of all descriptions, including green tomato pie.

We all learned to cook. My mother was tolerant in the kitchen. It was a domain she was happy to share. My father cooked. His specialty was fresh water fish. I cook. My brother cooked. You can’t be around someone who enjoys cooking so much and not catch some of that enthusiasm.

The last hard covered scribbler stops part way through. There are blank pages but then I stumble on a recipe for pumpkin pie. There is nothing special about it. Not like my daughter’s ice cream Sunday pumpkin pie. It’s just a regular pumpkin pie recipe. But it is written with a black marker in large letters. My mother wrote it out, I realize, after she got macular degeneration. She could no longer read her usual recipes. In these large dark letters is her tragedy. Finding ways to be able to read, to be able to cook, for a little while longer before she had to stop altogether, then go into a nursing home.

It’s all there. A woman’s life. A family’s life. The memories. The people. The years when times were hard and hamburger and jello filled the pages and later, when times were better, there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipes. It’s all there.

(A slightly different version appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)