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Episode 11: Family Foodways

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Tuesday January 26, 2021

Listen here:

Foodways are cultural dietary habits - The things people eat, and WHY they eat them. Part of how we answer the Why is through a history of our food. The history of food is a popular trend in historical research. So why not take advantage of this moment, to appreciate the histories of some of your favorite foods, and the foods your families enjoy. One of my all-time favorite foods is soup. It is like taking a big bowl of a flavorful liquid vitamins. You take that first sip of soup, and you can feel your body soaking it up. That is what makes foods so important, is its ability to nourish, and when someone you love takes the time to make you nourishing food that you like, well, that is what makes sharing food one of the ties that bind us together. If culture had a recipe, one of the main ingredients would be making food for and with the people you love. On today’s episode we will be discussing family recipes. Making the food of your people and sharing it with your loved ones. It’s one of the easiest and best ways to connect people to their past.

Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse, Episode 11: Family Foodways. I am the host, writer and producer – Kael Sharman. Thank you for taking the time to be here. It means a great deal to me, to share not only my family stories, but their larger meaning. I also want to thank the Haudanosaunee and the Aderonderonk peoples whose traditional lands my family have occupied for more than 300 years. From the mouth of the St. Lawrence to this land surrounded by the Great lakes I acknowledge and seek to continue the peace, caring and sharing on and for this land.

I want to give a quick shout to Brian Nash before I get started because it was an episode, HE did over the Holidays that inspired THIS episode. Brian’s show is called: How we Got Here: A podcast exploring genealogy and family history from and through Atlantic Canada, Episode 3. In this Episode Brian goes into detail about the food his family makes for their celebration of Christmas. He describes in detail his memories of the food his family made, and shared, as an act of caring for each other. Thanks Brian for the inspiration. If you like Maple Family Treehouse, you will love How We Got Here. Check it out on Spotify, or at .

So Brian’s holiday episode got me thinking about a birthday dinner I am planning for my partner Theo. And I wanted share the food history of what we will be eating.

There are three things on the menu for this birthday feast: French onion Soup, Homemade Tater-tots, and Caramel Cake. As indicated by its name, the onion soup is a traditional French dish, and the caramel cake, my partner Theo requested, is a traditional southern dish. I threw in the tater tots because every time we go out to a local restaurant in our neighbourhood, Theo orders tater tots, so I thought I would try to introduce a new favorite into our house. In accordance with the established law of my kitchen, that if someone you love, loves a particular food, you should learn how to make it.

My goal for this episode is to craft a story about the food I am making, so that whoever I am making the food with and/or for, I can share those stories and tell the people I am sharing food with who I am, where I come from, and about how my family lives. Food in a sense becomes not only a part of culture, but how culture is passed on.

So here we go –

Since I first tasted French onion soup as a child, I have always associated this dish with special occasions. In fact, French onion soup is a very COMMON starter for meals in France. And according to some histories, the popularity of the soup is owed to its simplicity and accessibility as a soup one can make even when the cupboards are bare. Regardless of the varied history of French onion soup, one thing is certain, it is delicious.

I will post my recipe in the show notes. Fair warning though it will not be my mother’s recipe. I am breaking with French onion soup tradition and eliminating the beef broth so it meets Theo’s vegetarian standards. The loads of onion should be flavour enough, and besides the story of your food is also a story of you, not only where you came from, but who you are now. And as the current author of your story, YOU have the power to break with tradition.

And any recipe that has been around long enough has been through many changes. Onion soup is most certainly a soup with a history. There is evidence that the Greeks and Romans were consuming broths with onion and breads more than 8000 years ago. One of the earliest recorded recipes for Onion soup was recorded by the French cook Francois Pierre La Varenne in1651. This recipe was entitled “Pot of Onion” – and he described it in the following way: “Cut your onions into very thin slices, fry them with butter, and after they are fried put them into a pot with water or pease broth. After they are well sod, put in a crust of bread and let it boile a very little; you may put some capers in it. Dry your bread, then stove it; take up, and serve with one drop of vinegar.”

So, indeed the original recipe for French Onion soup may have been vegetarian after all. It makes sense if as I stated earlier, the popularity of this soup is owed both to its full flavour and accessible simplicity. Indeed, the beef broth, and cheese, are fancy additions. And the origins of the fancier version, have royal roots.

The time is 19th century France, the place, the kitchen of the hotel La Pomme d’Or. The chef was none other than Nicolas Appert, the inventor of food canning. It is said that Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine and former king of Poland, stayed there during a visit. Chef Appert served Onion Soup with all the fixings – cheese and oven toasted bread. The Duke was so impressed with the onion Soup that he demanded the recipe, which he shared with family and acquaintances throughout France. This story is verified in Appert’s 1831 cookbook where he honours the Duke and former Monarch by naming the dish, “Soupe à la Stanislas.”

SOURCE: 158 and Main. (2019). A Brief History of French Onion Soup.

So here I am today, ready to share this family foodway with Theo Hummer at her birthday dinner. But a birthday dinner would not be complete without cake. Theo has requested that I make her a caramel cake from one of her favorite recipe books “Southern Cakes”. I wanted Theo, who is from Mississippi, to tell me about cake as a southern foodway, so I asked her, what makes the cakes in this cookbook southern? She replied, I don’t know probably because they are decadent. So, cakes are kind of a status symbol, a luxury? I mean it makes sense, it brought to mind the famous line from Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake”. Well, we all know how that turned out. Americans though are in the camp with the revolutionaries, so what is up with the cake? And as I am tossing and turning this seemingly mysterious foodway over in my head, it dawns on me…SUGAR! It is not only a status symbol it is a power symbol with a deep and ugly past that continues to this day.

So this is when we get to the part of the show that appreciates how important it is to understand FOODWAYS. So much in the same way that I am adapting my mother’s recipe to suit a vegetarian ethic and palate, I want to be at the very least, conscious of what my sugar consumption means, to me, my family, to the people who work in the sugar production and refining industry, and the planet.

So here we go again…

The southern United States is a massive sugar producer. According to a NY Times article published in 2019, “The United States makes about nine million tons of sugar annually, ranking it sixth in global production. The United States sugar industry receives as much as $4 billion in annual subsidies in the form of price supports, guaranteed crop loans, tariffs and regulated imports of foreign sugar, which by some estimates is about half the price per pound of domestic sugar. Louisiana’s sugar-cane industry is by itself worth $3 billion, generating an estimated 16,400 jobs.”

Prior to the Altlantic slave trade though refined sugar was a luxury product, the backbreaking toil and dangerous labor required in its manufacture made bulk production unthinkable. And it may have remained so if it weren’t for the establishment of an enormous market of enslaved laborers who had no way to opt out of the treacherous work.

Before French Jesuit priests planted the first cane stalk in New Orleans in 1751, sugar was already a huge trade commodity. By the 1720s, one of every two ships in NY’s port was either arriving from or heading to the Caribbean, importing sugar and enslaved people and exporting flour, meat and shipbuilding supplies. The trade was so lucrative that Wall Street’s most impressive buildings were Trinity Church at one end, facing the Hudson River, and the five-story sugar warehouses on the other.

Within five decades, Louisiana planters were producing a quarter of the world’s cane-sugar supply making Louisiana the second-richest state in per capita wealth. And as the demand for sugar rose so to did the demand for enslaving people to keep the industry going. The end of the transatlantic slave trade forced a transition to mechanized industry. The transition though was painfully long, As a rule, the historian John C. Rodrigue writes, “plantation labor overshadowed black people’s lives in the sugar region until well into the 20th century.” From slavery to freedom, the crushing work of sugar production remained mostly the same. Even with Reconstruction delivering civil rights for the first time, white planters continued to dominate landownership. Free agricultural workers had little choice but to live in old slave quarters. As new wage earners, workers negotiated the best terms they could, signed labor contracts for up to a year and moved frequently from one plantation to another in search of better living conditions. This is a search that is still in the works. And If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend the source I used for this section of the show.

SOURCE: Khalil Gibran Muhammad. (2019). The Sugar that Saturates the American Diet has a Barbaric History as the “White Gold” that Feuled Slavery. New York Times Magazine.

It describes the continued systemic descrimination against black owned sugar farms and refineries.

And while labour issues have decreased with mechanization it doesn’t mean all is merry for US sugar workers. A Vanity Fair’s expose by Marie Brenner in 2011 implicated the Florida Crystals in large-scale wage-theft from its mostly Jamaican laborers, some of whom said they’d been treated as “slaves.”

SOURCE: Marie Brenner, (2011). The Kingdom of Big Sugar. Vanity Fair.

There IS something that we can do today though. We have to demand that the companies and business that make sweetened products use fairtrade sugar, Companies like Ben & Jerry’s manufacture products containing not only Fairtrade sugar, but Fairtrade cocoa, bananas, vanilla, coffee, almonds, just to mention a few.

We also need to use fair trade sugar in our own production of food.

Look for the fair-trade label, when you buy sugar or any product for that matter. The Fairtrade label means that you’ll be eating sugar and sugar-containing products that are not genetically modified, that support smallholder farms, with workers who are paid fair wages and the label also insures that supplies do not use forced or child laborers.

Fairtrade products are also mandated to improve soil fertility and water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and take measures to protect biodiversity.

For these reasons, both Trader Joe’s and Tate and Lyle, stock Fairtrade third-party-certified organic sugar that provides assurances of fair working conditions.

Without demand for ethical sugar, the demand for low prices will continue drive continued exploitation of workers and our environment.

SOURCE: Lela Argi. (2020) Searching for Ethical Sugar. Food Print.

And Canada is not off the hook either, according to Kyla Hewson and Kristen Pue of the podcast, Pullback.

About 4,000 out of the 12,000 Japanese-Canadians who were interned during WWII were sent to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba to fill labour shortages. And from the 1940s to the 1980s, thousands of Indigenous families were recruited to work on sugar beet farms across the prairies. Essentially, farmers would go into northern Métis reserves to offer families work, harvesting sugar beets. Labour conditions were horrendous – 12-14 hour shifts with no access to food or water and very low pay. Living conditions were just as bad. In some cases, families received no accommodations and slept in their trucks. In other cases, they slept in tents. Even with these awful conditions, families continued to return season after season because they had few alternatives. The Department of Indian Affairs would cut off social assistance and apprehend children if work on the sugar beet farms was refused. This practice only stopped in 1975, when journalists with the Winnipeg Tribune exposed the labour conditions. After that, Indigenous farm workers organized to demand better conditions. That struggle, in combination with the availability of farm machinery, ended the practice in the mid-1980s.

The producers of Pull back come to the same conclusion: The best you can do is, reduce your sugar intake, and to use fair trade sugar.

SOURCE: Kyla Hewson & Kristen Pue, (2020). Episode 10: Sugar. Pull Back.

So given all this information about sugar, It looks like I can still make a caramel cake for Theo AND tell her all about its perks for us and the environment. You can find, local fairtrade brands across Canada by going to:

On this website I was able find a sugar brand I can get locally…and that is the sugar going into Theo’s cake.

Remember it is never too late to start and share a new food tradition. You are the author of your story. The choices you make today do not have to be bound by the past. And you are speaking to the future with the actions you take and the stories your share.

Thanks for listening to the Maple Family Treehouse. You can find the recipes for all three of the items in our birthday feast: French onion soup, tater-tots, and caramel cake. Just go to: and the recipes will be in the show notes for Episode 11: Family Foodways.

Hey before you go, I want to introduce you to Lowell Hummer. She is my wonderful mother-in-law. I want to introduce her in this episode because she is the ultimate foodie. Whenever we visit Lowell, we are guaranteed to go on a food adventure. We always learn something about the local food culture where she is or wherever she takes us. Or, she will just have us taste something new and we always eat extremely well when we are with her. Lowell faces some significant food restrictions, so she makes the best of the foods she can eat, and always shows gratitude for food that is artfully created and plated well. She genuinely enjoys good healthy food and her enthusiasm is contagious. Lastly, Lowell always volunteers at food banks wherever she lives. It is important to her to serve her community in important ways. Lowell, your foodways are beautiful, and so are you!

French Onion Soup

10 Medium onions thinly sliced (blend different kinds of onions together to mix-up the flavour)

1/4 cup of butter

1/4 cup of sherry

5 cups of seasoned vegetable stock (or beef if you want to go with a more traditional taste)

2-12 ounce cans of dark stout

2 tblsp of Worcestershire Sauce

3 tblsp of chopped parsley

2 cloves of garlic

1 tsp of salt

1/2 tsp of pepper

1/2 tsp of dry mustard

1/2 tsp of whole dillweed

1/2 tsp of celery seed

1/8 tsp of marjoram leaves

1 bay leaf

2 cups of croutons

2 cups of shredded swiss

Fry onion slices in butter (use the pot you are making the soup in) 25 mins stirring

Add sherry stir for 5 mins

Add all remaining ingredients except the croutons and cheese

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for 1 hour

Using oven safe bowls - fill with soup, top with croutons and chees and bake until chees is melted.

Tater Tots: note: I tried to make a few other recipes and it always resulted in tots with soft centers - yuk! This recipe is tried, tested, and true.

Caramel Cake: McDermott, Nancy. (2007). Gigi’s Fabulous Caramel Cake, In Southern Cakes. Chronicle Books: San Francisco, p. 52.

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