Kitchen longevity at splendid Spadina

30 Aug

I’ve arrived in Canada and am now finding my way about Toronto, visiting the local grocery store (which is only about 10 minutes away) and sampling the produce of the local bakery.  More of these in later posts.  On Tuesday I visited Spadina Museum, a late 19th century house which was built by the wealthy Austin family on the then outskirts of Toronto.  The sun was shining, the garden (complete with vegetable garden, orchard and vines) was looking glorious and the house could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Henry James novel.

Spadina Museum – the name of the house comes from a Ojibway word for a hill or rise of land

Visits to the house are by guided tour and I was taken round by the friendly and informative Anne.  The interior of the house is an diverse mix of arts and crafts, art nouveau and orientalism, all mixed together with touches of the Canadian wilds (stuffed wolves greeting you at the front door and moose heads on the stairs).  The house is shown as it would have looked in the 1920s; despite the Austin’s love of modern features like electric lights, radios, automobiles and even a heated shaving cream holder, the eclectic, somewhat outmoded style created in the 1890s by family matriarch Mary Austin, remained during the house’s heyday.

One of my favourite rooms was the kitchen.  Like much of the house it demonstrated a beguiling blend of a fascination with new technology coupled with a thriftiness, suggestive of the family’s humble roots.  The kitchen is a spacious room, with cupboards filled with authentic packages and boxes from the 1920s.  It’s been possible to get these completely accurate since amongst their other traits the Austins were natural archivists, keeping everything from receipts for party purchases to the score cards for childrens’ games and notes on all the seeds purchased for the garden.

An array of 1920s tins, boxes and packets in the kitchen cupboards

In the kitchen stand two stoves.  The solid, cast iron 19th century stove Anne told me was in use well into the 20th century.  It looks like it could quite happily have prepared meals for a houseful of guests, useful, given the number of parties the Austins liked having.  Curiously they had only a handful of staff, certainly less than you’d expect in such a fine residence owned by a member of the Toronto elite.  Apparently when they held parties in would come the caterers who they would attempt to pass off as their own staff, though I suspect that this soon became an unspoken but open ‘secret’.

The 19th century stove, just too heavy to move so it stayed in the kitchen

Next to the solid and immovable (probably the reason it’s still there) 19th century stove stands a 1950s elegant enamelled cream ‘Miss Canada’ gas stove.  It has 6 burners, a general oven, roasting oven and two warming drawers for plates – such a useful stove that it continued to be used by the Austin family right into the 1980s, a fabulous example of longevity.

Miss Canada in all her enamelled glory

Even better Miss Canada still gets regular outings, being used for demonstrations days and tastings by the Culinary Historians of Canada.

Proof that Miss Canada still works!  She’s checked out regularly by the gas board just to make sure thatno accidents occur and it’s rather fitting that a gas stove in the house of a man who made his money supplying Toronto with gas is still hale and hearty.   

In the cold room off the kitchen is an impressively capacious ice box; the tank on top could hold vast amounts of ice and had its own drainage system to draw off the melt water which was then used to water the garden – clever!  During the winter of course there was no need to maintain the ice box because the room got icily cold without any artificial aids; in fact a radiator had to be turned on to make sure that the food didn’t freeze!

The Austin ice box with more than enough room for storing party foods

It wasn’t just all the receipts, score cards and other ephemera kept by the Austins.  Their ability to hold on to, and make use of everything, means that the house is packed with items, large and small, which vividly illustrate the intriguing history of the house and its inhabitants.  Anne opened a drawer to show me the dozens of 1920s cookie cutters, augmented now by a few modern examples, which the Austins had kept and continued to use, well after another family might have thrown them away and bought afresh.  Some lovely shapes which I would be quite happy to add to my own collection.

A drawer of patisserie tins, just a few of the many items small and large left by the Austins, and slowly being catalogued by the Toronto Culture team. 

The kitchen was just one of many treats in the Spadina Museum.  I was lucky to be taken on a effectively a personal tour, since there was no one else in my group.  It would be interesting to see what’s it’s like when you have to go round in a bigger group; I imagine that it would be a little more difficult to see things, with fewer opportunities for asking less spontaneous and quirky questions.  But if Anne and her colleague on the front desk are anything to go by, these are examples of exactly how heritage staff should be; passionate about their subject, welcoming to their property and with a gift for leaving you wanting to find out more.

Spadina’s abundant orchard

There’s a cider Sunday coming up in September when Spadina, in partnership with Not Far From the Tree, will be harvesting the apples from the orchard and turning them into homemade cider and I’m just hoping that I’ll be around to go along.


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