Saturday 20 June 2020

Of Unknown Things That Go Bump, Slither (or Splash) in the Night: The Curious Case of the Nith River Monster

It was 67 years ago this July.

The story began with sightings of strange three-toed clawprints that were discovered in the muddy shoreline along the Nith River in New Hamburg. Adjoining the prints were long, deeply imprinted grooves as if something heavy had been dragged along. What WAS it? Theories and conjectures abounded. Even the New Hamburg Independent joined in:

“The topic of most conversation these days is of the “thing” that has been leaving a weird trail through parts of the north and western parts of the town.”                                                          
                                                                                                                       (July 10, 1953)

Police Chief George Thomas claimed that he had witnessed the beast as it crawled onto the shore one evening. Alarmed by its lizard-like gait and size (he estimated it was about 3-4 feet long), he shot at it but missed. He claimed the creature disappeared back into the river. The “sighting” remained elusive. The only concrete “evidence” were the tracks that had been left behind. The story gained momentum and even out of town newspapers (as far away as Windsor and Montreal) ran with it.

Speculation abounded. The tracks featured long continuous grooves that were punctuated by the three-toed prints and it was surmised that maybe the creature was anything from a heron to a turtle—or even a “large lizard-like animal or dog dragging a chain.” The most plausible theory was that it was most likely an “alligator, brought back from Florida by travelers, [that] had been released when it grew too large.” Regardless, there were only tracks, a reported sighting by one man (the police chief) and no body to speak of. The creature did gain a name though—Nithy.

Tracks continued to appear throughout that summer (yes, “that” summer) and even zoologists from the University of Western Ontario weighed in but nothing was identified as a possible source animal who could have been indigenous to the area capable of making the exact track marks.

The timing of the sighting was interesting in and of itself, as the ‘burg was otherwise preparing for an important local horse-racing event which, it was hoped, would draw in crowds from afar—Derby Days. The event ran annually each August from 1936-1958 and by 1953 it had already been losing momentum. Was Nithy merely a publicity hoax? Many to this day thought so especially since the only witness to have reported a sighting was police Chief Thomas, himself. Thomas would have been a most credible source for the whole scheme if indeed it was a publicity stunt. And, stunt aside, the story was a popular one and it did bring in curiosity seekers from all over the region, hoping for a sighting. The story also put the name of New Hamburg in the current news.

 Photo: New Hamburg Independent

Locals embraced the publicity. One man, John Neilson (who was a local baker), decided to get in on the fund and cooked up a replica crocodile out of bread dough. After painting it to look authentic, he placed it in a widely visible location (there is a small island in the middle of the river near the Harman Bridge in New Hamburg, Ontario). Local kids, including the son of Chief Thomas, proudly posed with the doughy critter for a publicity photo shoot.

As a further promotion, a (then) well-known wrestler "Tuffy Truesdell" heard of Nithy and vowed that he would take on the beast if it were found. Truesdale was himself Well-known for wrestling large alligators and bears as part of his "act." In an attempt to capture said animal, Truesdell even brought one of his own alligators to the town to publicize the search. Nithy, however, was having none of it and remained at large.
Photo: New Hamburg Independent
The story lingered in the press and around town for sometime after that, and eventually disseminated as a sideline to newspapers in Oneonta, New York and Townsville, Australia. Several years after the first reports, a float in the 1957 New Hamburg centennial parade featured a giant alligator with a banner that read “myth of the Nith.”

At this point, it is nearly certain that the whole thing was concocted and chief Thomas is the most likely suspect. At the very least, he was a viable and no doubt cooperative participant. It has long been believed that Thomas probably made the tracks himself. A question remains, did the story help the ailing Derby Days event? It would seem so as the August 14th edition of the 1953 New Hamburg Independent reported that Derby Days that year was a “huge success.”

Regardless of whether it was a hoax or not the story has made an impression in the wider Waterloo Region. Today, at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum, as you enter the new building you may notice the lovely watercourse that has been constructed just outside its front door. If you look closely, you may also notice that there is a concrete creature, an alligator to be precise, positioned strategically in the centre of the pond area. And yes, you guessed it—it is the museum’s homage to that 1953 legend of Nithy. 

Perhaps he migrated a few kilometres east from New Hamburg?

Monday 24 June 2019

Book Launch Invitation At Wordsworth Books in Waterloo, ON

Hi Everyone! It has been a long journey but the day has finally arrived. Please join us on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 for the launch of Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins at Wordsworth Books, Uptown Waterloo, ON. The book is also available from a number of sources online including the publisher Dundurn Press, Indigo, and Amazon. You can also contact me directly through this blogsite, as well. Thank you for your support as local history makes its debut!

Thursday 22 February 2018

Coming 2018-- A New Book!

Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins

Peek behind the curtain as Joanna Rickert-Hall unearths the controversial stories that communities own but don’t often share—especially with others. These are the stories of the marginalized, the famous, the infamous, the weird and the wonderful—real people who, by choice or by design, lived on the margins of mainstream existence in a “typical” small Canadian community.  Meet the ex-slaves, the cholera victims, the grave digging doctor, the séance loving politician, the rumrunner, and the sorcery practicing healer.

Life as we thought we knew it just got a bit weird.  What’s weirder, still….? 
OUR history is YOUR history.
Come inside. This is Waterloo You Never Knew, revealed.

Dundurn Press: Toronto, ON
Coming November 2018

Friday 4 March 2016

John Frederick Augustus Sykes Fayette & The Wellington Institute

In earlier posts about local black settlement history of Waterloo County, I have noted that some were ex-slaves who came here with the hope and prospect of a better life that would free them from the chains of enslavement. Theirs is a powerful story that encompasses the hardship of their journey here (as well as their previous life) and the humanity of those neighbours who helped them. Of those who lent aid to the newcomers, Mennonites, such as local merchant (and later Reeve) Henry Sauder Huber offered bags of seed and tools for farming since those who arrived as ex-slaves often were lacking in both money and material necessities that would enable them to survive the difficult task of clearing bush and planting crops. In other cases, Mennonites also provided employment opportunities for their black neighbours especially during the busy season of harvesting.
                                             (Reeve) Henry Sauder Huber (1819-1872)

I have also documented here in this blog some of the early schools and churches that were established in the Queen's Bush area during the first half of the 19th century but it is another school, established by a man of colour, that I am writing about today. This school was in operation for only a short period of time but its impact was significant, as were several of its locally renowned students (one of whom became mayor of Berlin. Another became the town treasurer and county clerk. More on this in a moment).....

Education per se was an important value in early Waterloo County (for both boys and girls) and schools were established early on in conjunction with the ongoing development of the growing community. Thomas Pearce, veteran school inspector for Waterloo County, gave this historical account of early schools for the 1914 Waterloo Historical Society Annual Volume:

"That desire to have their children receive a good, practical education, which is a marked characteristic of the inhabitants of this county today, manifested itself just as strongly in the pioneers in the early part of the last century. Prior to 1842 all schools were voluntary. They were kept in private houses, meeting houses, abandoned dwellings, unused shops or under any available and convenient shelter. On in the 20’s and 30’s an occasional small log schoolhouse was built and paid for by private subscription. Schools were kept open during the winter months only. The teachers were mostly itinerants—ex—soldiers or unsuccessful tradesmen—who were engaged in other occupations the rest of the year. Their scholarship was unknown, examinations and certificates being unheard of.

At first glance, these few sentences tell us a number of things but perhaps, for the purpose of this particular post, we are interested in the portions that I have underlined: that is, prior to 1842, schools in Waterloo County (incidentally similar in other areas) were voluntary and that the teachers who taught in them were most often ex-soldiers or..... and I really like this (not!) that they were "unsuccessful" tradesmen--yikes! Yup, your business isn't doing so well so why not teach? Not exactly a sterling endorsement by a long shot... Better still is the "their scholarship was unknown." Presumably, we can take from this description that teaching credentials were somewhat, shall I say, subjective?  (We can have no doubt that at least some of the teachers were excellent and learned such as Bishop Benjamin Eby who wrote numerous teaching booklets and materials for the Berlin Central School as well as others such as what we know today as the 1820 Log Schoolhouse in Waterloo, Ontario). Another case in point is that teaching, or rather the curriculum as it was taught then, consisted mostly of teaching children to read (often using the Bible), to write and to do "sums" ie add, subtract, multiply and divide. Pretty basic stuff. No standardized curriculum or coursework offerings like Geography or Grammar--only what was considered to be the most important for literacy and survival. The basics.

Around 1840, Ohio "Western Reserve College" theology graduate, John Frederick Augustus Sykes Fayette was working as a missionary and travelling throughout southern Ontario when he came to Waterloo County. It is here that he established a private school in Berlin, ON. The school was located in a building that was behind the Red Lion Hotel (which was located on King Street East). This would have been very significant to the citizens of this area for several reasons, none the least of which is that its scope was to elevate the non-regulated curriculum by offering instruction in map-reading (Geography) and the first of its kind locally to formally teach English Grammar.  In fact, Fayette was heads above many of the other teachers simply by education. He was a university graduate at a time when most students ended school sometime around the Grade 8 level! What is also significant is that, as a man of colour, he came here of his own volition and was not a slave. Pearce describes him specifically as being " a well-educated mulatto."**
**An ancestry search revealed an early marriage record for Fayette in Ohio where he is described as being "white." In fact, it was not uncommon for black folks whose features were light to live as or self- identify publicly as white.

The Wellington Institute school opened in December of 1840 and charged what was then a reasonable rate for tuition: $2.00/student as well as a personal provision for fuel**

**Tuition rates always included the requirement that a student provide his or her portion of fuel (wood or coal, as indicated) to be used collectively to heat the classroom in addition to financial remuneration most often for teacher's salaries.

Although many of Berlin's merchant class could afford the fees for the school, there were those who could not and Fayette eventually ran out of money (and into debt). The school closed and Fayette left the area. Further investigation revealed that he went to the Hamilton area where he served as a minister for the Barton Stone United Church from 1845 to 1850. The article attached to this link describes Fayette as being a friend and sympathizer of John Brown the famous abolitionist. For a time, Fayette served as an Ontario School Superintendent before retiring in London, ON where he died in 1876. Here is a copy of the marriage record for his daughter, Elizabeth, from 1869:

As I mentioned earlier, two of his students had notable contributions to the local history of Waterloo Region, as well. The first of these was Jacob Yost Schantz who grew up to be a number of things: a businessman, mayor and later, a supporter of Mennonite resettlement from Russia into Manitoba. I have a personal interest in this man as he also was locally known for his herbal concoctions and cancer treatments, not unlike another man who I have researched extensively-Christian Eby (grandson of Bishop Benjamin Eby). More on both of these men and the practise of local folk medicine in another post. When he attended Fayette's Wellington Institute he was 18yrs old.
Jacob Yost Schantz (1822-1909) 
Another student of distinction was Israel David Bowman who attended the school at the tender age of 11. Bowman's later career included becoming the Reeve for the village of Berlin in 1858 and in 1861 he was appointed as the County Clerk as well as the Clerk for the village of Berlin. It is in this capacity that Bowman is arguably best known. You may recall an earlier photo that I posted of the 1820 Log Schoolhouse reunion that took place in West Side Park (today Waterloo Park) in 1895? Well, Bowman was also an alumni of that school and also appears in that photo (see below)
Israel D. Bowman (1830-1896)

The story of John Frederick Augustus Sykes Fayette, I think, is an important one with regard to local black history but perhaps, more so as an account of early education and how one man attempted to upgrade the quality of it at a time when standardization of the curriculum was in its infancy. Although the Wellington Institute school was short-lived, the desire for quality education was something that never left this community and in addition to the area's elementary, middle and secondary schools the region is home to 2 universities--Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo as well as one community college--Conestoga College Institute of Technology. I think Fayette would be proud to know he played a part in it all.....

Friday 12 February 2016

Upcoming Black History Talk: Community Contributions of Early Waterloo County Black Settlers

Many are aware of the contributions of the Pennsylvania German Mennonites who came to settle and farm this area in the early 1800's but few know that their neighbours included hard-working men and women who had journeyed to Canada looking for refuge from the chains of slavery. Some became successful land-owners, blacksmiths, barbers and entrepreneurs. One man ran for local office. Join us as Joanna Rickert-Hall shares some of the forgotten stories of early 19th century black settlement in Waterloo Region.

February 25, 2016 at the Country Hills Branch of the KPL (Kitchener Public Library)
1500 Block Line Road, Kitchener, ON Phone: 519-743-3558
For more information:

Sunday 21 September 2014

Local History, Some Friends and Me: A Few Memories of the Work We Do

Thinking of Joseph Schneider Haus and the 1820 Log Schoolhouse in Waterloo Park: Local History Vignette

The lovely photo that appears in the video (of me doing the dreaded 19th century version of Wash Day Blues) was taken by a very talented local photographer for the Kitchener Record whose name is David Bebee. Here is a link to the original article that appeared: Laundry Day, 19th Century Style

Lonely sentinel on Maple Sugaring Weekend....and believe me a watched pot does take a long time to boil....

Getting ready to start pickling and preserving some autumn harvest winter is just around the corner....

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Did somebody say....fresh-baked BREAD?!

There are few foods so intrinsically tied to the human heart, stomach (and nose, for that matter) than bread. Anyone who has caught the distinctive and alluring smell of bread as it is baking in the oven knows exactly what I mean. Your mouth absolutely waters and addictively, you want MORE. In days gone by, this is a smell that I believe would have solidified what is meant by the word "HOME". If home is a place of safety, love and security then bread is its tummy tickler--the ultimate comfort food. Back in the day, it would have been mama's or grandma's job to bring out the doughbox to mix up a week's worth of dough, fashion it into small loaves for rising (the Pennsylvania Germans used rye coil baskets for this purpose) and ultimately would have baked their precious cargo in a brick bake house oven. Oh my-can't you just smell it!
Standing on guard behind the cast iron oven in Joseph Schneider Haus is the wooden doughbox (or Bokmoi as it was known to the early Pennsylvania German Mennonites). A household tool staple at one time, the doughbox took many forms--sometimes on legs so it could stand independently while the Hausfrau worked her dough, other times it was without legs, as above, so that it could rest on a table or bench. (see a compendium of different doughboxes here) Take note, as well, of the rye coil baskets that are holding the rising bread dough balls. The balls of rye bread dough have been coated generously with none other than lard and are then wrapped loosely in linen as was the fashion in the 19th century (and earlier). Wheat bread dough was risen in a similar fashion but was not coated in lard, rather it was brushed with melted fat and then coated with a light dusting of flour. It was similarly wrapped in linen while it rose. More curious are the redware jugs that are covered with linen and that sit ready on top of the doughbox. Wonder what these contain.....? The answer in a minute...

Something else to consider is--where are you going to bake the dough once it has been risen? In this case, the answer is: the Bakofen or Bakeoven in the outdoor Bake House. These types of ovens, like the doughboxes, differ from culture to culture and from region to region, depending upon such variables as weather and whether or not the bake oven is privately owned or shared by a community. In fact, some bake ovens are (and were) communally owned whereby women would bring their unbaked bread to the oven and someone--the village baker--would bake it for them, most commonly for a price. Such activity would allow women the comfort to converse and visit with one another in public (something that many women did not often do, since many were most commonly engaged with their families and home, only. Men were more likely to venture some distance from home and their farms as they took goods to markets for sale or conducted business in another town). To this end, community bake ovens could provide women with a socially-sanctioned reason to be alone and in public at a point in time that this was a rare occurrence.
    Bake ovens were most commonly made from stone or brick that could be heated up enough to bake all sorts of things like pies, breads, etc., in quantity and all at one time.To begin the process, a nice roaring fire was needed to distribute the heat throughout the bake oven cavity...

Once the wood has burned down to glowing coals, they are broken down with a metal rake (a Kich) and the contents are taken out of the oven. Sometimes this meant that they were scraped onto the floor and swept into a nearby hearth (yes!), other times they were scraped into a waiting metal container. This outdoor oven has a metal chamber door that is visible in the centre of the photo, above. Once the glowing coals are removed, the interior floor of the oven is washed with a rag mop (or my favourite Pennsylvania German word a Huddel Lumpa) and the dampers are closed to hold in the heat. These are the wooden boards that are visible at the top of the photo. Unseen and at the end of them, they have flat metal damper sheets that slide into crevasses in the brick wall and act to close off the oxygen to the oven ensuring the end of any flames (but not the heat, which is effectively held by the hot brickwork floor, walls and ceiling of the beehive cavity inside the oven, itself).

A Pennsylvania German favourite: Zwiebelkuchen or Onion Pie, a popular German flatbread similar to modern pizza that has a cream base but no tomato sauce. 

 Any number of goodies were prepared for the coming week. Yes, this would have meant that the Hausfrau had to have a certain amount of meal planning in mind to prepare everything in advance to feed her family for the next week. Contingency plans would have had to also include entertaining guests so extra food would also be baked in anticipation.
Once the baking was arranged in the hot bake oven, the door was closed for about an hour, depending upon what was being baked and then the door was opened to reveal.....a wonderful display of fresh delicacies for the family and friends who would gather at table.
With the baking done, there was only a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee before getting on with the tasks at hand. A woman's work is definitely never done....especially in the early 19th century!
Ahhhh, but before I forget, remember that redware pitcher that was covered and sitting on top of the doughbox? Well, it contained liquid home made yeast (thanks to airborne 'wild yeast" from the air around us that occurs naturally) and that was fermenting over the course of several days. This is what the average woman would have been using to leaven her bread instead of our modern commercial yeasts. All homes had some form of a yeast crock (Sotzcrok) that would have contained live yeast cultures that were similar to what we know today as sourdough.  Over the centuries, many forms of leavening could have and would have been used such as: brewer's yeast (a by-product from brewing beer), hartshorn, pearlash and the aforementioned wild yeast to name a few. For more information on these substances see this downloadable free e-text from on leavening agents: Historical Leavening Agents

Last year, I participated in a wonderful day long workshop at the Waterloo Region Museum called the Forgotten Foods Symposium. I enjoyed facilitating the bread-making workshop in the Peter Martin House and would like to share with you some of the recipes I made with the participants.

Flatbread (Onion Pie—German “Zwiebelkuchen”):

Many cultures have produced their own versions of flatbreads. Some of these flatbreads were more sophisticated than others—meaning some were leavened and others were not. Unleavened flatbreads were most commonly made from 3 basic ingredients such as flour, salt and water (without the addition of yeast or sourdough starter). One of the advantages of flatbreads in early pioneer farming communities was that a hearty meal could be made from a simple flatbread and could be carried into the fields for lunch. One such example is the Swabian German Onion Pie (from the south--central area of Germany).  

1 cup of warm water
1 tsp of sugar
1 ½ tsp granulated yeast
½ cup of warm water (2nd amount)
3 ½ cups flour (approx.)
½ tsp salt
¼ cup butter, cut into pea-sized pieces
3 eggs

Mix: 1 cup of warm water with 1 tsp of sugar. Stir. Add 1 ½ tsp yeast to the liquid and let sit in a warm area for about 10 min. or until mixture gets bubbly. Set aside.
In another bowl, sift flour and salt and mix together. Add butter and rub mixture to form fine crumbs. Make a well in the centre. Beat the eggs into yeast mixture and pour into well in the middle of the crumb mixture. Add ½ cup warm water, stir and work into a stiff dough. Knead 5-10 minutes on a well-floured board until dough is no longer sticky. Cover with a clean towel and let rise until doubled in size (about 90 minutes). Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190C) and lightly grease a baking sheet. Press down the raised dough with oiled hands and roll out to about ¼ to ½ inch thick. Spread an even layer of sour cream over the entire surface of the dough in pan. Keep the layer on the thin side (about ¾ inch thick). Toppings may now be added.
Note: If you have a bread machine, you may substitute any bread dough recipe for the crust in this recipe—just set your machine to dough. When it is completed, remove the dough from the case and cut into two halves. One bread dough recipe will make 2 crusts for an onion pie.


Sprinkle the top of the pie with 2 cups of shredded white cheddar cheese (I prefer extra old). Chop about 4 cups of onions and, after frying them in butter, evenly distribute over the top of the pie. At this point, chopped herbs may be sprinkled lightly over the pie, if you wish e.g. parsley, chives, thyme, oregano, etc. Finally, cooked and crumbled bacon may be sprinkled generously over the top (about 1lb of bacon). Bake in oven until crust is golden brown. Cut and enjoy!

Scripture Cake (also called Bible Cake):
The earliest Bible Cake recipes were found in British cookery books published in England during the late 1700’s. Even the war between England and its American colonies in 1776 didn’t dampen the enthusiasm that women had for Bible Cakes. Dolly Madison, wife of US President James Madison, was a prolific hostess and was apparently quite fond of Scripture Cake—so much so that it was a favourite feature on her hostess table! The recipe is always written in the form of a riddle that is meant to be both instructive and practical. One can solve the riddle by looking up the listed Bible passages thereby finding the specific ingredients needed to make the cake. (Use a King James Version.) This forms a dense fruitcake that is similar to a spicy German Königskuchen or Kugelhof that one often sees around Christmas. Recipes for Scripture Cakes differ on amounts of ingredients and occasionally the Bible verses used to find them; this particular recipe is based on a recipe that was found in ‘Key to the Pantry’, published by the ladies of the Church of the Epiphany in Danville, Virginia in 1897.

Note: This cake may be baked in two 9-by 5-inch loaf pans, with a reduction in cooking time of about 15 minutes (as opposed to making it in a bundt pan). Adjust your cooking times accordingly.
¾ cup Psalms 55:21 (butter)
1 cup Jeremiah 6:2 (sugar)
3 Jeremiah 17:11 (eggs)
¼ cup Judges 4:19 (milk)
1 tbsp. I Samuel 14:25 (honey)
2 ¼ cups Leviticus 6:15 (all-purpose flour)
1/4 tsp. Leviticus 2:13 (salt)
1 tbsp. Amos 4:5 (use baking powder)
1 tsp. II Chronicles 9:9 (
pumpkin pie spice blend or can use 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp allspice)
1 cup I Samuel 30:12 (raisins)
1 cup Numbers 13:23 (chopped dried figs)
½ cup Numbers 17:8 (chopped, toasted almonds)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour 2 loaf pans (or one bundt pan, if desired).

In large mixer bowl, beat Psalms 55:21 until light and creamy. Add Jeremiah 6:2 and beat till fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add Jeremiah 17:11, one at a time, beating well after each. Mix in Judges 4:19 and I Samuel 14:25.

In separate bowl, sift together Leviticus 6: 15, Leviticus 2:14, Amos 4:5 and II Chronicles 9:9. Remove 1/4 cup and set aside. Add half of remaining mixture to mixing bowl and blend thoroughly until well blended to make batter. Remember: Follow Soloman's prescription for the making of a good boy—
Proverbs 23:14 (beat well) and your cake will be both successful and good!

In separate bowl, combine the last 3 ingredients (plus the 1/4 cup that was set aside). Toss to mix. Gently fold this into batter. Fill loaf pans about 3/4 full and bake for about 35 - 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool on rack for 15 minutes and remove from pans. Cool completely and before serving, dr
izzle with Burnt Jeremiah Syrup.

Burnt Jeremiah Syrup:
1 ½ cups Jeremiah 6:20 (sugar)
½ cup Genesis 24:45 (water)
¼ cup Genesis 18:8 (butter)
In a 2-quart saucepan over low heat, melt sugar, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. After sugar melts, continue cooking, stirring continuously, until it is a deep golden brown. Add water and cook, stirring frequently, until smooth. Remove from the heat, add butter and stir till until it melts; allow cake to cool.
Drizzle over cooled scripture cake and garnish, if desired, with whole Genesis 43:11 (almonds).

Potato Flake Sourdough Bread

Potato flakes make an easy starter for modern sourdough bread. Where the frugal wife would have historically recycled her “potato water” to make sourdough, we will skip this step and use potato flakes to simulate the effect. This recipe is also a variation of what is historically known as “friendship starter” that would have been shared from one woman to another and would have formed the basis for many home-made breads. Sharing one’s starter with a friend would have been a very personal act that tied friendships and communities with food preparation and sustenance. In some cases, starters were passed on from a mother to her daughter upon her marriage. Other accounts tell us that the pioneers carried starters with them from their old homes as they journeyed to set up their new homesteads.

If you pay attention to your starter, you can keep it going for a very long time—there are historical accounts that claim that some starters or “mothers” were reportedly over a hundred years old and still viable for use. This starter recipe will continue to gather wild yeast from the air and will get better over time. Keep in mind, however, as with most yeast breads, you will need to plan ahead for rising time when you use a sourdough starter to bake bread—especially if you need to take it out of the refrigerator before using. And don’t forget to feed your sourdough or it will die.
Starter (first time):
1 cup warm water
½ cup sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons dry yeast
3 level tbsp instant potato flakes

Starter Feeder Mix (subsequent times):
1 cup warm water
½ cup sugar
3 tbsp potato flakes

(NOTE: the starter feeder mix does not require that you add yeast to it since it is now getting wild yeast from the air). It is a living, fermented product similar to other fermented foods/bacteria found in yogurt or sauerkraut. Yeast is bacteria.

Ingredients To Make Bread:
6 cups bread flour
1 Tablespoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup oil
1 ¼ cups warm water
1 cup sourdough starter (See below)

First Time Starter Directions:
Mix water, sugar, yeast and potato flakes.
Let ferment on counter for two days. Then feed with starter feeder (below).

Starter Feeder Mix:
Combine water, sugar, and potato flakes. Add to starter. Let stand on countertop eight hours. Refrigerate 3 to 5 days, then make bread. After using 1 cup of the starter for dough, pour one cup back into container and refrigerate. Discard any other starter you didn’t use from what you have taken from original starter. Store your starter in refrigerator when not in use.

When you are ready to make more bread or every 3 to 5 days add starter feeder mix again. Stir well and leave on the counter overnight or all day (about 12 hours).

To Make Bread:
Add flour, salt, sugar, oil, and water to starter. Mix well. Knead on a floured surface for 5 to 10 minutes. Put dough into a greased bowl. Cover with a wet dish towel and let it rise in a warm place overnight or all day (about 12 hours). Punch down. Knead on a floured surface to get any air bubbles out. Spray 3 loaf pans with cooking spray and divide dough approximately equal into the 3 pans (shaping into loaf form). Let rise 6 to 8 hours, covered loosely.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 25 to 30 minutes.

The process seems complicated but is quite simple: make a starter, use one cup of it at a time to make bread but remember to feed it (replace what you took) with the starter feeder mix before you return your remaining starter to the fridge where it will hibernate until you need to bake bread again.

And with that, next time you are tempted to run to the store to buy your bread, why not make some the old-fashioned way--from scratch! I guarantee that the smells coming from your home will be absolutely enchanting and intoxicating!

Good eating, folks, from my hearth to your home!

Thursday 29 May 2014

Keeping Things Cool in the 19th Century Pt. 3: Making Cheese, Please!

Cheese making was not a laborious or intricate procedure for the early Pennsylvania Germans who settled in 19th Century Waterloo County. Indeed, dairying is not something that particularly defined this culture group although it certainly was commonplace--at least on a smaller scale than we see today. Known more as a pork-based food culture, cheeses that were produced by these people locally were usually soft cheeses and not aged, hard cheeses like cheddar. Dialect names such as Ballekase, Hofkase and Schmierkase represent a few of these proliferous cheeses that accompanied many a loaf of home-made Roggenbrot (Rye Bread) on the Pennsylvania-German table in early Waterloo County. More often than not, butter was sold as a commodity to make some extra cash for the thrifty hausfrau and so one would find its ready replacement-Schmierkase- along with a small bowl of delicious apple butter on the table. What is apple butter? Similar to an apple jam or concentrated applesauce that is spreadable or spoonable onto a slice of bread. Like their Pennsylvania relatives, local Pa. Germans planted apple trees in record number, eventually harvesting the fruit in a variety of ways that have and often still do predominate many a local dinner table.

For more information on apple harvesting history see: 

Incidentally, we also have a well-known local festival that takes place every September. For more information on the Wellesley Apple Butter and Cheese Festival:

And finally, to make apple butter for yourself in a slow cooker, a great little recipe:

But I digress--back to my cheese making. Here I am making Schmierkase. On the wood stove, two litres of buttermilk (and that's it!) stirred once then left to sit on a back burner, simmering, until a good curd begins to form. If you look closely you will see the yellowy line running through the milk. This is the curd separating from the whey.
 The key here is to not bring it to a boil and don't stir it. Just let it sit, at a simmer, until it is clearly separated.

 At that point, pour your mixture of curds and whey into a sieve that has been lined with cheesecloth (historically they would have used linen cloth). As you can see by the photo, I also have the sieve sitting in a larger bowl so that I can catch the liquid that drains off of the curd. I upturned a smaller bowl and set the sieve on top of it to create a level of drainage space. Once you have poured the curd into the cheesecloth, tie it off and onto a wooden dowel (I just used a wooden spoon) to make a little pouch of sorts. Let it drain this way overnight--do not refrigerate it.

Sometimes, the sieve is a formed sieve like the one below in the foreground. This one is in the shape of a heart. If you use a shaped sieve, make sure to press the curd down into all of the shape so that the final dried curd will conform to it when you remove it. Historically, some of the cheeses made were special seasonal treats that included ingredients that were plentiful at that time and in season (the original Eat Local, Eat Fresh). One such recipe was for Easter Cheese which was an egg cheese (see below at bottom of blogpost for a recipe). Chickens normally slow down (virtually stop) egg laying production in the winter months yet will start producing again once spring comes (along with increasing daylight hours). Today, with the addition of modern lighting techniques this can be changed:
(see: )

Historically speaking, the increased production of egg laying was a welcome change to the rather bland winter diet for most farmers in early days. Since this also occurred on or near the Easter season, a traditional food that reflected this was to make cheese that included sugar and the addition of newly plentiful eggs. This type of cheese was also well-known throughout Europe.

For the Schmierkase, once you pour the curds into the sieve leave it to drain. And so the overnight draining begins..... Notice the butter bowl and butter stamps on the table.
The next morning, carefully unwrap the curds from the cheesecloth and set it on a plate. With the tines of a fork, mash the curds to a fine consistency. Sprinkle some salt over the mashed curds to taste. Finally, pour enough table cream into and onto the mashed curds carefully working it through the curds with the fork. Add as much as is needed, carefully, in order to achieve a consistency that can be spread onto a slice of bread. The finished product with not be satin smooth but should still be relatively creamy when finished.
A nice local touch is to serve these soft cheeses with a drizzle of locally made maple syrup! Delicious! And so, we share with our guests......

Recipe for Easter (or Egg) Cheese
 NOTE: this cheese you stir while you are making it!

12 eggs
1 litre of whole milk
1 cup of white sugar
1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg (more or less according to taste)
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs until light and fluffy. Stir in milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Stir periodically to prevent the bottom of the pan to from scorching. When the mixture looks like cooked scrambled eggs, pour it carefully into a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Carefully gather the ends of the cheesecloth and pull them together until the cheese curds form into a ball. Tie the cheesecloth tightly a top of the ball and tie ends over a wooden spoon, suspending it over a bowl. Let drip overnight. (Alternately, you can press the curds in the cheesecloth into a shaped sieve and let drain overnight. Still you will need a bowl to catch the whey that is draining. When drained, untie the cheesecloth (or remove from sieve gently) and wrap in plastic wrap before refrigerating. Will keep for about a week. Slice and serve with maple syrup for a traditional local treat!

Monday 7 April 2014

Keeping Things Cool in the 19th Century, Pt. 2: Making Butter

It is early spring and just after dawn on the Pennsylvania German farm...
Breakfast is a memory, the cows have been milked and now it is time to get on with the morning chores.Any fresh cream that is not going to be needed immediately will be poured into clean cream crocks, covered with pristine linen cloths and stored in the cool spring house. 
The dairy cattle that were raised locally by the early Pennsylvania German pioneers did not produce the quantity of milk that we see in modern cows. Most often, fresh milk (cream!) was stored/collected for several days and kept cool in spring houses until it would have been churned into butter or made into a soft cheese that had many variations and uses (more on this in the next post). Butter making was very competitive and lucrative. As a commodity, butter was something that a proud farm wife would have been able to sell at a local market for a profit (small, perhaps, by today's standard but an attractive means to make some extra money for a woman who spent a great deal of her time on her family farm and had little opportunity to make money for herself). 

The process of butter making was relatively simple but the process of making your mark in the cottage industry was anything but. At least until the middle of the 19th century (before the advent of the milch haus or milk house, the successor to the spring house that served the purpose of a creamery), butter was often made in the spring house, itself. Meticulously clean, many early spring houses contained two rooms and cream was often strained directly through cloth into earthenware vessels (sometimes small oak tubs that would hold a couple of pails of milk were substituted for the crocks). With the milk set into the crocks, the haus frau (farm wife) would wait at least a day to let the higher fat cream rise to the surface of the vessel. (Dairying was most often the realm of the woman on the farm). Once the cream had separated and risen, floating on top of the milk, a skimmer was used to skim off the precious cream where it would be carefully removed and placed into another earthenware crock where enough could be gathered until there was enough to churn into butter. Additionally, allowing time for the cream to rest for about 3 to 6 days before churning it was believed to produce a better final product=butter!
Ventilation was a crucial element to keep the air flowing and the temperature more or less cool and balanced, even in the summer months. In addition to a water channel through which a small section of  cool spring water flowed freely, windows were opened as needed to ensure good air flow.
Dutch doors that could lock on the bottom but provided upper air flow were also commonly used:

After the ripening period, the cream was transferred to a churn where it would be agitated/churned into butter.
A dasher churn, seen on the left with its wooden "dasher" handle rising out of the metal base. A common design.
 Another popular churn design that was commonly used by the Pennsylvania Germans was the barrel churn that used a hand crank and interior paddle. Cream was placed in the top of the barrel and locked into place before the crank was turned. A relatively cleaner method than the dasher churn, some also believed that the barrel churn was faster, as well.

The process of making butter was very competitive and not always an honest one. Sometimes the cream would spoil and unscrupulous individuals would attempt to churn and then sell the unsavoury product. The wise haus frau (farm wife) who took great pride in her work and investment would take great pains to establish her own brand or mark--often by imprinting her finished product before taking it to be sold. Word would quickly circulate if your reputation had been compromised for selling tainted butter. Wooden butter prints were intricately carved and were often quite beautiful, decorated in various folk motifs. On the table below are various small butter prints displayed beside wooden butter paddles, a heart-shaped cheese mold and a large wooden butter bowl.

Folk motifs like acorns and leaves (above) or tulips (below) are lovely reminders of the great care taken to mark one's butter.
My colleague, Kathleen, carefully cradles the dasher churn between her knees. It is a good idea to place a clean cloth on top of the churn so that splashes of cream will not get on your hands or your apron. Kathleen is focused on the work ahead but the work ahead will take at least a couple of hours. Vigorous, rhythmic up and down motion is needed to agitate the fat molecules in the cream.  Finally, a delicate yellow ball of butter is separated from a clear liquid--the buttermilk. Traditionally, this buttermilk would have been a nutritious addition to a pig's food.
Transferring the finished butter into a separate bowl where it will be pressed with a butter paddle to ensure that all liquid is out of the butter. It is at this point that one can add a light sprinkling of salt to flavour the butter. I have to say, fresh churned butter is absolutely delicious and tastes nothing like the store-bought kind!

Finished butter, ready to be printed...

The only thing missing is the bread (but that's another post)! Until then, why not check out:

Coming Up: Keeping Things Cool in the 19th Century, Pt. 3: Making Cheese