The mind of a grade seven History student is a very strange place.
Mine was in 1977. Once a day for 45 minutes Mr. Elliot would relate another aspect of Canadian history to a roomful of confused and curious tweens. He told us how the Indians in scant skins walked here all the way from Asia. The badass Vikings came from the other direction in crude boats from Greenland but, despite notorious fortitude, couldn’t make a go of it. And then there was a dandy parade of Europeans: Cabot, Cartier and Champlain, each one dressed in an absurd combination of shiny metal and weird textiles.
Samuel de Champlain was the standout character for me because he was the undisputed father of New France, a renaissance man and a pioneer bon vivant.
The more I learned, the more I admired him. The foppish looks belied a man capable of great adventure and leadership. That ridiculous facial hair and those crazy boots -- I wanted to be right there with him on a cartographic odyssey. Hell, I wanted to be him. Was this a man crush?
I can say with certainty that Champlain created something worthy when he founded “L’Ordre de Bon Temps” in the winter of 1606. The Order of Good Cheer was the first gourmet food club in North America. This summer, only 402 years later, I officially became a member.
At the start of the 17th century there were no established European settlements north of Florida. An earlier attempt at winter camping went horribly wrong for the French under the command of Pierre Dugua de Mons who had been granted a Royal Commission for a Christian crusade in New France. On a tiny island in the St. Croix River that separates Maine from New Brunswick, Champlain was lucky to survive when half the colonists died of scurvy. He couldn’t have known what caused all that death but surely better food would’ve helped. They decided to try a new spot across the Bay of Fundy at Nova Scotia’s Port Royal, birthplace of Acadia.
Moving agreed with them. The Annapolis Valley offered everything a fledgling community in wild North America could need. They grew herbs and vegetables for potage, and they had access to a whole whack of fish and fresh game. They brought flour and wine from France. Things went well in the summer of 1605. Winter was better than before, but it was still very long and another dozen settlers died from scurvy.
The next year Champlain came up with an idea “to keep our table joyous and well provided."
We spent this winter very pleasantly, and had good fare by means of the Order of Good Cheer which I established, and which everybody found beneficial to his health, and more profitable than all sorts of medicine we might have used. This Order consisted of a chain which we used to place with certain little ceremonies about the neck of one of our people, commissioning him for that day to go hunting. The next day it was conferred upon another, and so on in order. All vied with each other to see who could do the best, and bring back the finest game. We did not come off badly, nor did the Indians who were with us.Brilliant! Stave off boredom and enrich the diet with a friendly cooking competition. Each man would get a shot as Chef du Jour and a chance to earn bragging rights. It’s not known exactly what made it to the banquet table but there’ve been many scholarly guesses.-- Samuel de Champlain, The Voyages, 1613
L'éclade, or mussels cooked under pine needles? This was not uncommon back in Champlain’s old world neighborhood.
Faisan en casserole? A braised pheasant isn’t a stretch.
Pâté de chevreuil, or venison pie? You bet.
Confitures aux canneberges, potage à la citrouille, or anguille à létuvée? That’s cranberry marmalade, pumpkin soup and steamed eel, candidates all.
There would’ve been moose, caribou, beaver, otter, bear, rabbit, porcupine and raccoon. Plenty of ducks, geese and partridge in addition to an abundance of seafood meant a ton of possibilities. And hey, these guys were French.
If you go there today you’ll find the Port-Royal National Historic Site of Canada, simply known as The Habitation. It’s a best guess replica of what once stood four centuries ago. The original compound was looted and burnt in 1613 by the Virginian Samuel Argall, the same guy who kidnapped Pocahontas -- now there’s another piece of work.
I told the girl at the entrance kiosk that this summer’s visit to The Habitation was thirty years in the making. I’d built a damn popsicle stick diorama of the place back in the seventies long before she was born. It was time to see how the experts made out with the full scale monty.
I saw a silver gray wooden palisade wall wrapped around several steep Norman roofs with a grassy cloister hidden in the center. The whole thing is a square maybe a hundred feet per side. There isn’t any signage, just a few students in period costume who’ll answer your questions in French or English. I had lots of questions.
We saw stretched pelts and black bits of iron everywhere. There were hewn logs overhead and roughly cut planks of knotty pine underfoot. The walls were loaded with rustic filigree. Sitting at the large imposter table I reached out and held a young pewter spoon and thought about all those tough bastards trying to make the best of things. It was like making a long overdue connection with a very old soul. This was a sacred spot.
After the tour we drove a half hour south to Digby in order to have ourselves sworn in and receive the official Order of Good Cheer certificate. Anyone can do this, there’s no fee and no meetings. The only requirement is to visit the province for at least three days and promise to come back, according to the Tourism Bureau.
I now regard Champlain as a great man but, like all of us, not without flaw. In his early 40’s he married Hélène Bouellé -- a twelve year old girl from France. That’s the age gap between me today and me in grade seven. He was also a big part of the Jesuit agenda hell-bent on converting the savages. What could be more offensive than a Black Robe buttinski telling me my faith tradition is all wrong? Four centuries is indeed a long time.
Those mornings before grade seven History we had music class complete with ukuleles, recorders and sing-a-longs with Mrs. White. I can’t remember her voice, only her challenging appearance. She was sturdy, pale, had lots of hair, and always wore her famous leather vest. I thought about last week’s drive-in movie featuring Charleton Heston as an astronaut, and I wondered if my music teacher was really Doctor Zaius in drag.
Mrs. White showed us the ABC’s of music, and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. She also taught us a different version of the Woody Guthrie classic, the one sung north of the 49th parallel, throughout Upper and Lower Canada, and here in the Maritimes:
From Bonavista, to Vancouver Island
From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters,
This land was made for you and me.
Peter Gamble is an eater, a husband and a father to 3-year old twins. His origins are in Toronto but he now runs a building design company from his home in Shad Bay, Nova Scotia.
Illustration by the author.