1864 Feasting and Drinking (and creating a country)

The Fathers of Confederation, conviviality, and commensality

Canada may have been born out of deliberated consultation, but it gestated in a sea of Canadian Champagne.*

Prince Edward Island grabs hold of the title “Birthplace of Confederation” in the way a tenacious drunk holds on to parking meters. We can not let it go. When the Charlottetown Conference delegates from the Province of Canada arrived here in September 1864 they were well provisioned. Their ship, the S.S. Victoria, had a full to bursting larder, a seasoned chef, and $200,000 (in today’s money) of alcohol including five tuns of Champagne (a tun is a type of barrel for liquor usually holding 250 gallons). Perhaps the delegation led by Sir John A. MacDonald and George Brown thought that if they couldn’t woo us with words they would get us drunk and take advantage.

Despite the fact that the host city was unprepared for their arrival, Charlottetown quickly proved that it could measure up to the finest dining that Victorian ladies and gentlemen would expect from Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Quebec and the likes. If it swam, flew, crawled, or walked it was on the menu.

The Charlottetown Conference of 1864 was initially convened to discuss a Maritime Union. The politicians from the Colony of Canada (present day Ontario and Quebec) got wind of this meeting sometime that summer and notified the Privy Council in London they would be attending. The message was never communicated to the hosts in Charlottetown, who were embarrassed that they hadn’t prepared.

But they rallied. Once settled, the first big dinner was held at William Pope’s cottage on Mount Edward Road, known as Ardgowan. The delegates ate oysters, and lobsters, and drank Champagne. A later meal on the S.S. Victoria included more Champagne and lobsters, and featured jellies, fruit, and Charlotte Russe, a dessert made from ladyfingers, Bavarian cream, and fruit sauce.

But the highlight of the Conference happened on September 9, 1864, when the host delegation (in an effort to make up for the lack of hospitality when the Canadians arrived) held a dinner and ball at Colonial House or, as it’s known today, Province House. After seven hours (!) of dancing, the delegates and their wives and companions settled into a truly outrageous dinner at midnight.

Perhaps to gird themselves for the hours of toasts and speeches that would follow (the event didn’t end until the early morning hours of September 10) the guests ate rounds of beef, ham, salmon, lobsters, oysters, fowl of all kinds, fruit and vegetables of the season, and every type of pastry, cake, fruit, and wines. Light refreshment was also served including tea, coffee, sherry, claret, more Champagne, and wine. It’s no wonder Sir John A. MacDonald is sitting on the steps of Government House in that famous photo rather than standing.

The actual menu from that fateful evening is lost to history, but the following week a banquet was held in the Halifax Hotel in Halifax for the Conference delegates. That menu, printed on fine linen and saved by delegate George Brown, has survived and now hangs on the wall of the formal dining room of Massey College at the University of Toronto. This can be presumed to be typical of a large Victorian dinner where the goal was to serve more food than could be possibly eaten, although guests made a valiant effort at eating as much as possible.

The meal from September 12, 1864 lists 30 items which were all matched with complementary alcohols. It started with turtle soup. The fish course offered salmon, mackerel, and lobster. The entrees were delicacies—lamb, rabbit, veal, chicken, and, oddly to our modern palates, macaroni.
But that’s not all. Two courses of meat were served—one boiled, one roasted—and included beef, mutton, turkey, more chicken, ham, and corned beef.

Then came the second course of partridge, lobster salad, wild duck, and jelly.

Finally, the dessert consisting of plum pudding, blanc mange, Charlotte Russe, ice cream, Bavarian cream, pastries, and plum cakes, was served.

The Conference delegates set out to forge a new country and to do so in a way which would avoid the tribulations of a revolution seen south of the border nearly a century earlier. And whether it was due to eloquent speeches or ample Champagne they mostly succeeded.
Canada was born after dinner.

*While true Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, in 1864 folks happily dubbed their bubbly wine with this moniker, regardless of where it had been made.

About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also like writing about food. Go figure.

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