Gathering the Roots


Seeking the ori­gins of African Nova Sco­tian cui­sine in coastal Hal­i­fax

It’s damp and chilly out­side, but it’s toasty in Wendie Poitras’ kitchen, where ren­dered pork skins siz­zle and pop in a cast-iron pan. Poitras—a teacher and artist who has be­come a vo­cal ad­vo­cate along with schol­ars and ac­tivists to help de­fine and com­mem­o­rate African Nova Sco­tian cul­ture—is cook­ing tra­di­tional dishes for a few friends and rel­a­tives. She’ll even­tu­ally add the pork to boiled pota­toes and flaked salt cod. Yel­low-eyed beans bake for hours to a deep brown, the ham hock in the cen­ter of the pot fall­ing softly apart. Ox­tails swim in a rich sauce next to a pot of rice and beans and a pan of corn­bread.

This is Nova Sco­tia, a vaguely lob­ster-shaped penin­sula that juts, with its sur­round­ing is­lands, east out into the At­lantic, one time zone far­ther than the rest of Canada’s east coast. We’re in Dart­mouth, just across the har­bor from Hal­i­fax, and in the win­dows, the fog is thick like milk. Ever­greens stand out like emer­ald-robed fig­ures in the gray-white mist.

I’ve come with my mother and daugh­ter—my first time here since I was a teenager—in search of a con­nec­tion to my an­ces­tors, my roots. I was born in Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia’s cap­i­tal, but my grand­mother’s fam­ily had lived in the re­gion un­til mov­ing to Mon­treal in 1955. My mother re­turned at age 21, when she was a pri­vate in the Navy. It was then that she met my fa­ther, a Que­be­cois, in the forces, and after I was born, we left per­ma­nently for Que­bec. My par­ents took us back to visit Nova Sco­tia ev­ery few years, a 12-hour road trip back­ward into my her­itage.

In my grand­mother’s adopted city, peo­ple spoke a dif­fer­ent lan­guage and ate dif­fer­ent foods, so many of the in­gre­di­ents she was ac­cus­tomed to were not avail­able. Rather than cling to the past, she chose to adapt to her new life and en­cour­aged her five chil­dren to do the same. They left be­hind many of the African Nova Sco­tian recipes she was raised on. Ev­ery now and then, she would crave some­thing from home—fish cakes, or “boiled din­ner” (an old Irish sta­ple of corned beef and cab­bage adopted through­out Nova Sco­tia), or the salt cod and pork scraps she was prac­ti­cally raised on—and seek out what was needed to cook up the mem­o­ries.

Blacks have lived in Nova Sco­tia since the early 1600s, but Canada’s black his­tory is un­known to most Cana­di­ans—even to many black Cana­di­ans them­selves. “We’re in the process of doc­u­ment­ing and col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion about our his­tory,” says Poitras, who likens cul­ture to an ice­berg: Food, mu­sic, and lan­guage are among the parts vis­i­ble above the wa­ter’s sur­face, but the vast, deep bulk of it—val­ues, be­liefs, shared ex­pe­ri­ences—can be hid­den be­neath. In the case of African Nova Sco­tians, even much of what’s tra­di­tion­ally above the sur­face has been lost or ob­scured over the years. It can feel like we’re still, as Poitras puts it, “try­ing to legitimize the cul­ture. We’re fig­ur­ing out the food piece. We’re still work­ing on the other pieces.”

I met Poitras after I’d read about her ef­forts to pro­mote African Nova Sco­tian cul­ture by shar­ing her fam­ily’s recipes. She has cooked for her third-grade class and helped de­sign menus for African Her­itage Month events. “There is no one dish that’s par­tic­u­larly African Nova Sco­tian,” she ex­plains. “It’s the col­lec­tion of recipes from all th­ese dif­fer­ent places that make up the cui­sine.” In­deed, African Nova Sco­tian food is heav­ily in­flu­enced by the places black set­tlers came from, the land­scape and cli­mate of the prov­ince, even the cui­sine of Bri­tish colo­nial­ists and Irish set­tlers.

Ac­cord­ing to the Black Cul­tural Cen­tre of Nova Sco­tia, the prov­ince has been home to 52 black com­mu­ni­ties. But over the gen­er­a­tions, mi­gra­tion to cities such as Win­nipeg, Mon­treal, and Toronto since the Great De­pres­sion has left only about a dozen in­tact to­day. Th­ese ar­eas, mostly ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and in­ner-city neigh­bor­hoods, were set­tled in waves: slaves brought by colo­nial­ists, and even­tu­ally the black Loy­al­ists who fled the U.S. at the close of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. (In ex­change for their ser­vice, the Bri­tish had promised the Loy­al­ists free­dom and land in the north­ern colonies, which in­cluded “New Scot­land”—or in Latin, Nova Sco­tia.) In 1796, a small con­tin­gent of Ja­maican war­riors, called Ma­roons, were ex­iled to the prov­ince after an up­ris­ing. Most left a few years later for Sierra Leone, where a group of African Nova Sco­tians founded Free­town. More blacks came as refugees fol­low­ing the War of 1812, and after slav­ery was abol­ished through­out the Bri­tish Em­pire in 1833, Nova Sco­tia saw an in­flux of es­caped slaves from the U.S.

As a child, I’d see 60-sec­ond ads de­pict­ing snip­pets of Cana­dian his­tory air on CBC, the Cana­dian Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion. In one, I re­mem­ber a young black man hid­den in the base of a church pew was re­united with his fam­ily: an es­caped slave who had fled safely



across the bor­der. The mes­sage was that Canada was a place of com­pas­sion and refuge, which re­flects how many Cana­di­ans view their coun­try to this day. What the PSA didn’t re­veal was how poorly the man was likely treated upon his ar­rival. Slav­ery had been abol­ished, but racism re­mained. The land promised to black Loy­al­ists, when that prom­ise was even kept, was the least hos­pitable, least arable. Early black set­tlers re­lied on fish­ing, for­ag­ing, and what mea­ger farm­ing the bar­ren land would al­low, such as keep­ing chick­ens and pigs, or grow­ing root veg­eta­bles. They salted their meat and fish to pre­serve them, canned wild fruits and berries for win­ter, and picked dried dulse—a pun­gent pur­plish ed­i­ble seaweed that grows in north­ern cli­mates—from the shore to sur­vive.

By the early 20th cen­tury, in­sti­tu­tions and busi­nesses in Canada had adopted Jim Crow–style prac­tices, and leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent racial dis­crim­i­na­tion didn’t ap­pear un­til after World War II (and wouldn’t be en­forced un­til even later). Early in 2018, when a new $10 bill was un­veiled bear­ing the like­ness of Vi­ola Des­mond, many Cana­di­ans had never heard of her. Sev­eral years be­fore Rosa Parks fa­mously re­fused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Mont­gomery, Alabama, Des­mond had taken a stand against en­trenched seg­re­ga­tion in Nova Sco­tia, re­fus­ing to move from the whites-only sec­tion of a movie the­ater in New Glas­gow. But her story didn’t make its way across the na­tion the way Parks’ did, so she never at­tained sta­tus as a civil-rights icon. It was heard in en­light­ened cir­cles on both sides of the bor­der, even cap­tur­ing the at­ten­tion of W.E.B. Dubois, but for the most part, it re­mained a lo­cal leg­end—un­til now. In re­cent decades, thanks to the work of schol­ars and grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tions, the sto­ries of black Cana­di­ans—par­tic­u­larly African Nova Sco­tians—are emerg­ing. Last year, the United Na­tions re­leased a re­port on Canada’s re­la­tion­ship with its black pop­u­la­tions. De­spite the coun­try’s im­age as a mul­ti­cul­tural haven, the re­port cited the coun­try’s his­tory of black slav­ery and dis­en­fran­chise­ment, as well as its fail­ure to rec­og­nize those black com­mu­ni­ties that have ex­isted since the coun­try’s ear­li­est days. Such rev­e­la­tions are a rude awak­en­ing for most Cana­di­ans. For the blacks in Canada, it is a piv­otal time.

In Poitras’ kitchen in Dart­mouth, sto­ries from the past are re­flected in the steam­ing pots of braised meat, in the bub­bling tin of ham-hock baked beans. Peel­ing pota­toes for the salt cod and pork scraps al­ways puts Poitras in mind of her mother, who would ex­pertly pare the skins off her spuds in one long, magical spi­ral. Poitras’ fa­ther—who worked the dock­yards and held a pas­toral role within the com­mu­nity—would cook ox­tail and other spe­cial-oc­ca­sion dishes; her mother did the every­day cook­ing. Poitras re­mem­bers the veg­etable man pass­ing through the neigh­bor­hood to sell his fresh pro­duce; her mother would buy 50 pounds of pota­toes at a time and store them out­side the back door. The mack­erel man also passed through, call­ing out: “Maaaaack-erel! Mack­erel-mack­erel­mack­erel!” She can hear it when she closes her eyes.

My daugh­ter is talk­a­tive, hap­pily ply­ing a piece of lac­quered ox­tail meat from a bone. My mother has grown quiet, sa­vor­ing the pun­gent salt of the cod fish tem­pered by the fluffy, pep­pery pota­toes.

She’s else­where now: her mother’s kitchen, her child­hood. “We had baked beans ev­ery Satur­day. I hated the rou­tine of it,” she says in a small voice, mostly to her­self. “But they were so good.” Poitras, too, wouldn’t fully ap­pre­ci­ate her par­ents’ cook­ing un­til later. At one of her first jobs, she of­ten traded her home-cooked meals for a co­worker’s fast food, think­ing she was get­ting the bet­ter end of the deal. It wasn’t un­til she be­came a mother her­self that she un­der­stood just how valu­able her fam­ily’s recipes were.

As guests cram into Poitras’ kitchen, a few of us find seats in the liv­ing room, plates bal­anced in laps, glasses of cold Sco­tian rosé and bot­tles of Alexan­der Keith lager, the ubiq­ui­tous lo­cal beer, leav­ing wet rings on the cof­fee ta­ble.

Talk turns to iden­tity. “Re­mem­ber that when we came from Africa, through the Mid­dle Pas­sage to the south­ern United States, our lan­guage was taken from us. Our names were taken. We don’t re­ally know why we eat cer­tain things or speak cer­tain ways,” says Poitras, a thick mop of tight curls fram­ing her face. “As a peo­ple, we col­lected recipes from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Amer­i­can South, and put our own spin on them.” Baked beans might get a dose of maple syrup. In­stead of hot sauce, the main condi­ment on the ta­ble is of­ten chow-chow, a tangy green tomato rel­ish. Boiled din­ner is some­times made with pig’s tails in­stead of beef in black homes. Ox­tails have Ja­maican roots, but with Canada not be­ing a land of hot pep­pers, the Caribbean spices be­came muted. For other dishes you might find across the Mar­itime prov­inces, such as fish cakes, typ­i­cally made with pota­toes and salt cod or had­dock, the fla­vors are revved up. “We tend to like a lit­tle more spice than our fel­low Sco­tians,” says Poitras. “And prob­a­bly a lit­tle too much salt.”

On one damp, foggy morn­ing, my mother, daugh­ter, and I set out for a place that no longer ex­ists. Africville, on the out­skirts of Hal­i­fax, over­look­ing the Bed­ford Basin, was home to a tightknit group of fam­i­lies who kept a few an­i­mals, fished and swam in the basin, and per­formed their bap­tisms in its cold, brack­ish waters. Kids even played ice hockey on it when it froze, al­though few alive

to­day re­mem­ber win­ters that cold. Life in Africville, which ex­isted roughly from the mid-18th cen­tury to the mid-20th, could be dif­fi­cult. De­spite paying mu­nic­i­pal taxes, res­i­dents weren’t pro­vided with plumb­ing, garbage pickup, or paved roads. In the 1950s, the city dump was moved nearby. A decade later, after years of threats to seize the valu­able water­front prop­erty Africville oc­cu­pied, the set­tle­ment, at its peak 400 strong, was razed to the ground. Its res­i­dents were forcibly re­lo­cated, and most ended up in pub­lic hous­ing. The city used dump trucks to re­move peo­ple’s be­long­ings, a painful hu­mil­i­a­tion still fresh in the minds of former res­i­dents. Only a few fam­i­lies were com­pen­sated for the full value of their home. The rest were given a pal­try sum and ex­pected to start their lives anew.

Linda Mant­ley, a former Africville res­i­dent who co­founded the Africville Genealogy So­ci­ety, gives tours of the Africville Mu­seum, housed in a faith­ful replica of the Bap­tist church that was once the beat­ing heart of the set­tle­ment. It was es­tab­lished as part of the apol­ogy and com­pen­sa­tion pack­age is­sued by the city of Hal­i­fax in 2010 for Africville’s de­struc­tion. Former res­i­dents are still fight­ing for per­sonal com­pen­sa­tion for their homes. “Our par­ents kept all that from us,” Mant­ley says of the cruel evic­tions. In­stead, she re­calls an idyl­lic child­hood in the rus­tic set­tle­ment many out­siders would have thought of as a slum. She and the other chil­dren would pluck the peri­win­kles that clung to the rocks by the sea, left be­hind when the tide went out, and cook them in a pot or a can over a fire right on the beach. A pin or nee­dle served as the uten­sil to dig the tiny snail out from its shell. They also picked ap­ples, wild pears, and blue­ber­ries from bram­bly bushes to take home for their moth­ers to make blue­berry duff, a steamed dumpling that would be served as dessert, or maybe tossed into a pot of boiled din­ner.

At 72, Mant­ley is wiry, high-cheek-boned, with a terse man­ner that be­lies her warmth. “We were a self-suf­fi­cient com­mu­nity,” she says curtly, walk­ing us through the one­room mu­seum, point­ing out black-and-white pho­to­graphs of the com­mu­nity, nam­ing the peo­ple she knew. Mant­ley’s tour of the ex­hibit—made up of text, im­ages, and a few house­hold ar­ti­facts—feels like sift­ing through a box of sou­venirs. Af­ter­ward, she hugs me like we’re old friends.

Juanita Peters, the mu­seum’s gen­eral man­ager and a film­maker who has di­rected two doc­u­men­taries on Africville, feels strongly about the im­por­tance of telling the sto­ries of African Nova Sco­tians. She re­cently moved back to Wey­mouth Falls, a his­tor­i­cally black com­mu­nity by the Bay of Fundy, about 160 miles from Hal­i­fax, where her peo­ple have lived for nine gen­er­a­tions, and where she would spend sum­mers with her grand­par­ents (she her­self grew up in Toronto). Those sum­mer meals con­sisted mainly of salted fish— her­ring, had­dock, hal­ibut head, or the dried smelts her grand­mother strung up her­self be­hind the wood stove. “She would sear them right on the stove, not in a pan,” says Peters. “Then she’d peel and eat them with toast and ap­ple­sauce. And that was break­fast.” When they weren’t eat­ing fish, it was blood pud­ding, cow’s liver, tongue, or lights (lungs). Most peo­ple had their own smoke­houses. To­day, many of the homes in Wey­mouth Falls are va­cant, and most of the farms aban­doned. With lit­tle need to smoke or salt foods now that peo­ple have re­frig­er­a­tion, many of the old recipes risk be­ing lost to time.

“My cousins say they won’t come down be­cause it’s like vis­it­ing ghosts. But I love it be­cause it’s like vis­it­ing ghosts!” says Peters. She still cooks some of the foods from her child­hood—such as smelts, fried, with a side of potato and chow-chow.

“Food is about nos­tal­gia,” Saje Mathieu—a his­to­rian and au­thor of North of the Color Line: Mi­gra­tion and Black Re­sis­tance in Canada, 1870–1955—tells me. “Mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties of­ten stay stuck in the mo­ment of the ini­tial de­par­ture.” In such com­mu­ni­ties, food acts as a tether to a place of fa­mil­iar­ity, of com­fort. Food can be home. For African Nova Sco­tians, whose orig­i­nal home might be too far gone for them to re­mem­ber, their foods can serve as a record, a map of the ar­du­ous jour­ney of their an­ces­tors. Mine came to Canada with lit­tle more than the tra­di­tions that fed and sus­tained them. But amid the emer­ald pines and damp, wet cold, a world away from their an­ces­tral ori­gins, they en­dured.


Former Africville res­i­dent Linda Mant­ley (above) co­founded the Africville Genealogy So­ci­ety with child­hood friends Deb­o­rah Dixon­jones and Brenda Steed-ross. Salt cod and pork scraps (right) is a com­fort­ing dish that many black Nova Sco­tians grew up with.

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