Excerpt 1: from Lumber Kings and Shantymen

Doing hard labour in cold weather requires heavy inputs of calories to fuel the body. Shanty owners seldom stinted on quantity, but the food they provided was plain and monotonous because it was expensive to add piquancy and variety to diets in remote areas. In the early years the men lived on little more than salt pork, hardtack (tea biscuits), molasses, dried fish, and tea. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, owners made a few dietary improvements: bread, baked in the sand of the camboose, displaced hardtack; beans supplemented the pork ration; and rice and raisin puddings added a dessert to daily meals. Finally, late in the century, newly constructed railways made heavy, bulky and perishable foods more available... Beef, for example, could now be brought in on the hoof, adding fresh meat to shanty fare. Other additions included butter, sugar, potatoes for stews, peas for soups, and even canned goods. Shantymen savoured the change in diet...

Two staples - tea and salt pork - dominated shanty menus in the Ottawa Valley for more than a century... One traveller reported that shantymen insisted on a potable [tea] "strong enough to float an axe in." Another described the tea he found in the shanties as "not the effeminate trash which we drink [in the cities]. It is, like patent medicines, a double distilled, highly concentrated, compact extract of the Chinese shrub. It is, in fact, a tea soup... The taste of this tea is alkaline, and it has a decided coppery flavor... On the Ottawa there are thousands of men who drink their pound of tea per week, and some double this quantity."

The men drank tea several times a day, with sugar, no milk. Tea was probably the men's main source of Vitamin C, saving them from the ravages of scurvy. Also, since they usually had lunch in the bush, the tea they drank there was important in maintaining both body fluids and heat in cold weather...

The second staple, barrelled pork preserved in brine - provided the shantyman's main source of protein. The pork was either boiled and served directly from the pot or cooked in stews. However, in the years before beans were introduced, little more was added to the stews than flour and pork grease. The men preferred their pork fried, but shanty owners considered this method wasteful in a food that was so hard to deliver to remote areas. In 1857, a number of Ottawa Valley timbermen joined together to declare that they would no longer allow pork to be fried in their shanties; however, the prohibition provoked strong opposition among shantymen, and the policy was relaxed for a while. Nevertheless, the question of frying pork remained a source of dispute for the rest of the century... sometimes Valley shantymen were treated to fried pork on Sundays.


David Lee
19th Century
Ontario, CANADA
© 2006, James Lorimer & Company Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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