Love potions, Sir John A. Macdonald, and the party of the (nineteenth) century

Love potions, Sir John A. Macdonald, and the party of the (nineteenth) century

Posted on February 13 by admin
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

Valentine’s Day has deeper roots than you might expect — even in the frosty soil of Canada. It turns out that our first Prime Minister may have set the standard by which all future Valentine’s Day parties will have to be judged. But since the Sir John A’s bash was all about fancy food and drink (like most of the best things in life), here’s a quick primer on the culinary history of the holiday for lovers, from Dorothy Duncan’s incomparable book Feasting and Fasting.

The tradition of giving gifts and cards with messages of friendship and love grew in popularity in the late Middle Ages as many believed that February 14 was the day that birds chose their mates, and therefore, all single folks should do the same. As Christianity and the celebration of St. Valentine spread across Europe to France and Great Britain, the custom of delivering messages of affection was often combined with food. In England a gentleman might toss an apple or an orange through the front door of his beloved’s home with a romantic message tied to it and then disappear from her sight. The tradition continued to grow as William Shakespeare wrote about St. Valentine in Hamlet, with Ophelia saying, “Good morrow, ’tis St. Valentine’s Day, / All in the morn betime, / And I a maid at your window, / to be your valentine.”

Hand in hand with the tradition of exchanging letters, cards, and gifts was the belief that certain foods were aphrodisiacs and therefore important to courting a loved one. At one time or another practically every food in the world has fallen into this category because of its shape, nutritional qualities, colour, or the folklore surrounding it. This includes herbs such as ginseng and cyclamen, flowers, vegetables such as carrots, fresh or dried fruit, seafood (especially oysters), eggs, nuts, and spices.

And what about the Canadian history of Valentine’s Day? While cynical types scoff at February 14th as a “Hallmark Holiday” ginned up to sell fancy chocolates and roses, the most spectacular St. Valentine’s Ball ever planned in Canada may have been the over-the-top affair staged by our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, in 1860. One thousand tickets at a dollar each (around $50 in today’s money) were sold to his friends and supporters, inviting them to join him in the Music Hall of the St. Louis Hotel in Quebec City. The ballroom was a spectacle of wonder, with garlands of roses, a bust of Queen Victoria, the Palms of Edward, Prince of Wales, flags, a statue of Cupid, and a fountain of eau de cologne! John A. himself, a merry host, gallantly presented valentines “with pretty little remarks” to the ladies.

At the supper hour Macdonald delighted his guests again with “an extremely large pie,” out of which, when it was cut open, burst twenty-four birds, to the surprise and delight of the crowd! Aside from the pie (which we assume went uneaten), Macdonald paid $520 for the magnificent supper. Emptied that evening were eleven dozen bottles of champagne, two dozen of sparkling Moselle wine, three dozen of sherry, a dozen of the best port, six dozen Allsops Ale, and two dozen porter, costing Macdonald $1,086.70. Really, not so huge an expenditure to delight the eight hundred guests who had accepted his invitation.

Still, cologne fountains and giant stunt pies aren’t for everyone, so here’s a recipe that’s easy to whip up for a taste of old-fashioned romance. The dates, incidentally, are an aphrodisiac.


From FEASTING AND FASTING, by Dorothy Duncan

3 eggs
1 tablespoon milk
10 graham crackers rolled
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup dates

Beat eggs with milk. Add remaining ingredients and mix. Bake in greased pan in 350-degree oven for 30–40 minutes. When cool, spread with butter icing and top with chopped walnuts. Cut in squares.