The recipes of Rutherford House

Written by: Louise McKay and Suzanna Wagner

Many people believe the kitchen is the heart of a family’s home. At Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site, the kitchen is tucked away out of sight at the back of the house, but that doesn’t mean it was any less central to the family’s life than the more prominent rooms at the front of the house.

The aforementioned kitchen in Rutherford House. Built in 1911, Rutherford House was the home of Mr. Alexander Cameron Rutherford, Premier of Alberta from 1905-1910, Mrs. Mattie Rutherford, and their adolescent children, Cecil and Hazel. Source: Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site.

In fact, the discreet location of this vital space could be considered symbolic of the more general way women’s domestic history is so often obscured from immediate view.

The house’s grand façade, sweeping staircase, large library and impressive drawing and dining rooms leaves the visitor in no doubt about Mr. Rutherford’s prominent position in politics and as the founder of the University of Alberta. If the signs of Mr. Rutherford’s impact on his community are so clearly seen, how can we trace the impact of the Rutherford women? Perhaps the kitchen can provide us with answers.

Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site is also the steward of a little black notebook that belonged to Hazel Rutherford, daughter of Mattie and Alexander Cameron Rutherford. Hazel copied recipes from her mother in it, including instructions for making tomato relish and meat pies.

Hazel Rutherford had taken a shine to a young partner at her father’s law firm, Stanley McCuaig. Stanley would leave for service in the First World War in 1917 and not return until 1919. Hazel and Stanley got married in a small ceremony on September 17, 1919. One wonders if Hazel started copying and collecting recipes in preparation for running her own household one day.

Hazel began her collection of recipes and household tips in her little black notebook in 1916. Source: Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site.

Hazel’s recipes leave out a lot of information. Baking time is often missing, and oven temperatures can be confusing to a modern reader. What does moderate heat mean?  And what exactly is a cup measurement? Often “a cup” historically meant a teacup so replicating a recipe today may take a few tries before getting it right. 

Some of the recipes have little notes beside them. Does a “tic” beside a recipe translate to “great!”? If so, the meat pie recipe is one we should all try!  Does a slash through it mean it was a “fail”?  Or maybe little Rutherford and McCuaig family members were giving their opinion and comments on the families recipes. 

Many recipes have additions or substitutes added as well making it difficult for an outsider or next generation cook to come out with a successful result. Take Lola’s (Hazel’s aunt) Butterscotch pie.

Aunt Lola’s Butterscotch pie isn’t the only recipe from other family members or neighbours in Hazel’s book. These shared recipes give us clues to women’s social networks- after all, sharing a recipe usually means that a meal was shared, enjoyed and then copied. Reading Hazel’s recipe book makes us think about meals hosted in the Rutherford, and later McCuaig family homes, the people gathered there, and the conversations they had while eating.

A recipe book is never just a book of instructions. It hints at family ties, meals shared, conversations and maybe even at romance. What stories does your recipe book hold?

Pie crust

Tomato relish

Cut 30 large Ripe tomatoes, 6 large pears and 6 large peaches.

6  large onions into quite fine pieces (cut onions very fine).

Put 8 teaspoons of mixed spices into a muslin bag and boil with fruit.  Add 4 cups brown sugar 1 quart malt vinegar, 3 red, 3 green peppers and two tablespoons of salt and boil for 3 hours.

Meat Pie

Have beef Stew (left over roast) very hot with lots of gravy. Make a batter of 1 tablespoon butter and one tbsp beef dripping. Add about 2 tbsp sifted flour and cream.

Partly fill 1 cup sifted flour and add 2 full teaspoons of baking powder and pinch of salt.  Add 1 cup cold water to batter+ flour mixture then the rest of the flour adding enough liquids to make a soft dough. Drop in spoon fulls on meat and bake in a hot oven.

Butterscotch pie, sweet cucumber pickles

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