Steven Laffoley: irreverent histories of food and drink in Nova Scotia

Unfiltered: An Irreverent History of Beer in Nova Scotia

Despite the fact that most of Laffoley’s books are nonfiction, until now, I have only read his novels. (The Blue Tattoo, A Halifax Christmas Carol, and Halifax Nocturne) Because I liked them so much, I was happy to give his nonfiction a try.

Beer isn’t really my thing, but I do enjoy local history, a good story, and a few laughs – all of which this book has plenty of. Laffoley sets out to “determine definitively if there was a genuine case to be made for saying that beer was fundamentally and essentially the singlar force for shaping the true character of Nova Scotia.” He describes the local establishments he visits while working on his book, and connects each part of Nova Scotia’s history with beer and a good story. He pontificates on the likelihood of the presence of beer long before the Europeans arrived, then moves on to tales of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Benjamin Franklin. And we can’t forget Alexander Keith and Susannah Oland.

In 1860, Halifax boasted a population of around 50,000 people with two to three hundred public drinking houses and any number of private venues. Drinking was central to city life.

You will learn the origins of the term “tip”, as well as the meaning of “old trousers” and “drunk as a pig.” You will also learn, step-by-step, how beer is made.

A popular clarifying agent was isinglass, a substance culled from dried bladders of fish. How anyone discovered this astonishing use of fish bladders is anyone’s guess, though I think we can safely say that beer was involved.

Laffoley will regale you with the ups and downs of the breweries and taverns in Halifax, the origins of the Temperance movement, and the results of Prohibition. In the 1940s, taverns in Halifax were still illegal, which may have contributed to the VE Day riots. And women have only been allowed in taverns since the 1970s. Laffoley even goes into beer mugs and the history of beer bottling. Remember the “stubby”?

Present day Halifax boasts a variety of bars and pubs, as well as “54 different styles of beer crafted in Nova Scotia.”

Did you know? “Somewhere on the order of 40 billion gallons of beer are produced and sold every year around the world… approximately the same volume of 60,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

Did you know? “Scotland… boasts the world’s strongest pint – something pleasantly called Snake Venom – with an alcohol content of 67.5%

My favourite quote: “Wrote one early resident of Halifax, “There are 1000 houses in the town. We have upwards of 100 licensed houses and perhaps as many without license, so the business of one half of the town is to sell rum, and the other half to drink it.””

Dulse to Donairs: An Irreverent History of Food in Nova Scotia

It took a while for me to get my hands on Laffoley’s newest book, but it was worth the wait. Again, this book has plenty of laughs, good stories, and lots of local history. This time, though, with a focus on food.

Each chapter takes us through one course of a 12-course meal, from hors d’oeuvres to the Mignardise. From luski and eel to rum and cranberry sauce. From seaweed chips and lobster rolls to blueberry grunt and maple syrup. Fiddleheads and Scottish oatcakes and hodgepodge and Rappie pie. What have I forgotten? Right. Fish cakes, Donairs, apples, and scallops. Have you ever had lobster poutine? Are you planning your trip to Nova Scotia yet?

Aside from the food itself, Laffoley tells us where the foods come from, how far back they go, the groups of settlers who came to Nova Scotia and the foods they brought with them (Acadians, African Nova Scotians, Scottish, Irish, Germans, etc.). The book includes the history of farming and fishing in Nova Scotia, as well as the history of the Farmer’s Markets, fish & chips (including the food truck Bud the Spud that used to sit outside the old Halifax library on Spring Garden), wine and cider, and the history of dessert. These things are not covered in great detail – just enough to interest you and not too much to bore. Although things of particular interest may have you turning to Google. And recipes are included for such things as “Marm’s Moose Muffle Soup,” “Haddock in Lobster Brandy Sauce,” and “BlancMange” (a dessert made from milk and Irish moss).

Did you know that the best Dulse in the world comes from the waters near Parrsboro?

Did you know that Nova Scotia held its first Farmer’s Market in 1750 and there are now “over 40 official Farmer’s Markets across Nova Scotia”?

Did you know that “the first apple trees brought to the Annapolis Valley came in 1633 with French settlers” and “by 1860, Nova Scotia was known around the world for its apples”?

Did you know that the Donair was named the official food of Halifax in 2015?

Did you know that Nova Scotia is the “world’s largest producer of wild blueberries,” producing some “65 million pounds of wild blueberries” each year?

A couple of my favourite NS foods are hodgepodge and oatcakes. How about yours?

Another favourite – oatmeal brown bread!

What are some of of your favourite regional foods?

13 thoughts on “Steven Laffoley: irreverent histories of food and drink in Nova Scotia

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve never had blancmange, and I still plan to stay clear of it. Lol
      Maple Syrup and blueberries, though, go so well together. Local chocolate makers use the flavours to make my favourite choclates!

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    That blueberry cobbler looks amazing! A lot of the dishes sound Scottish-inspired, but of course adapted to take advantage of local meats and produce. The approach there reminds me of Twain’s Feast, where the author gives the history of all of Mark Twain’s favourite foods and whether they’re still eaten or easy to find today.

    • Naomi says:

      That sounds like a good book, too!
      I guess it makes sense that a lot of our dishes are Scottish-inspired since our provincial name translates to “New Scotland”. We do love out oats! (Well, at least I do!)

  2. wadholloway says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t know Nova Scotia was known around the world for apples, I thought that was Tasmania.
    I like different brown breads, that oatmeal bread looks excellent. I like beer too, but “fat as a ..” is the saying that stops me drinking as much as I’d like.

    • Naomi says:

      And I didn’t know Tasmania was known for their apples! ๐Ÿ™‚
      Oatmeal brown bread can be as dangerous as beer in that way. It tastes good with butter, peanut butter and jam, molasses, mustard, or just as it is!

  3. Anne Smith-Nochasak says:

    Isn’t it amazing what we learn about a place through its history of food and drink! Rappie pie always brings back memories for me.

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