The power of a rolling pin

26 Jan

I’ve just finished a great book called A Museum Called Canada.  It’s like a Canadian specific A History of the World in 100 Objects, with a rich and often surprising collection of objects with which to tell Canada’s story from trace fossils 2 billion years old to a Sun Photometer from the 1980s.  Its sub title is 25 Rooms of Wonder and indeed the book is laid out like a museum, with each chapter taking on the function of a museum space, bringing together sometimes seemingly disparate objects to tell a episode in the story of Canada.  I like the sense of discovery and unexpectedness that the word ‘wonder’ suggests and the way in which the book reinforces the amazing stories which can be told by using objects.  That’s not to say that this book doesn’t have great text; the concept and choice of the objects came from Sara Angel and the twenty five essays in the book were written by Charlotte Gray, who is author of a range of books on Canadian history including another I read recently, Sisters in the Wilderness about the two Canadian authors and sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie.  But like the rest of the book, the essays privilege the objects, each essay focused on the engrossing and fascinating tale which a single object has to tell.  These rich, intriguing and thought provoking essays rely 25 powerful stories all highlighting the way in which an object can act as a springboard for a much wider narrative.


I especially enjoyed Charlotte’s obvious empathy for objects, highlighted a tale she tells in the book’s introduction ‘No matter how commonplace, obsolete, or insignificant, an object can permit our empathy and imagination to vault the gulf of time and recapture vanished experiences.  When I pick up old glass rolling pins or chipped 1950s Melaware bowls at a local flea market, I am transported into the kitchens of other, earlier women.  I can almost feel flour on my fingertips and smell the pie baking in the oven as I reflect on how different the owners’ lives were from mine.’  For anyone coming from a museum background this clear feeling for the power of objects will ring true.

It’s perhaps not surprising that in the wide ranging assembly of objects there are few items of food, given the difficulties of keeping food over a long time (though having said this I’m always amazed by how long some foodstuffs can last, even in museum collections; pieces of royal wedding or christening cake from the 19th century spring to mind, or the tiny jars of jam in Queen Mary’s 1930s dollshouse).  Nevertheless, given the importance of food to the story of human survival and development there are a number of food related objects scattered throughout the ‘rooms’ of this Canadian museum. The earliest are the Paleoindian stone tools unearthed by archaeologists in Nova Scotia and evidence of the hunting habits of Canada’s earliest humans, moving forwards to a Huron wooden bowl, used in festivals celebrating the growing of corn, an early example of tinned food which probably helped to poison men on Franklin’s 1840s attempt to discover the Northwest Passage (the food inside would have been contaminated by the lead solder and probably was full of bacteria too) to a post Second World War advertisement for baby products, including a jar of the bestselling food for infants, Pablum.


Pablum page


The advertisement featuring Pablum comes from the Fall/Winter 1948-9 catalogue of one of Canada’s best known retail companies, Eaton’s and is the subject of one of Charlotte’s essays.  She uses the uninvitingly named baby food to chart explore the post war baby boom and the rise of consumerism but as she relates while the world of the 1950s is one often portrayed as a riot of bright plastic colours and pastel enamels, behind the excitement of the new products of this consumerism was much tedium and blandness for the housewives of Canada … all neatly represented by the jar of Pablum.  Her description of Pablum is enough to put off any self respecting baby ‘stone-cold mush tasting of soggy paper’ made from ‘a flaky grey powder consisting of wheatmeal, oatmeal, cornmeal, wheat germ, bone meal, dried brewers’ yeast, and alfalfa’.  It doesn’t exactly set your taste buds racing and little wonder that it has come in Canadian lexicons to refer to any writing bland and insipid!  And yet, the impetus behind the conception of Pablum was the altruistic, pioneering work of Dr Fred Tisdall of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children who wanted to produce an easily digested food, perfectly suited to the growing needs of babies, with the aim of significantly reducing infant mortality from digestive complications.  For 25 years the Toronto hospital received a royalty for each jar of Pablum sold (the brand name was sold to Heinz in 2005 and seems no longer to be used).  Thus encapsulated in one simple advertisement from a retail catalogue is a story that encompasses Canadian invention, radical social changes and the evolution of language.  Just one of the many ways in which this book, jam packed with incredible tales and poignant narratives, illuminates the power that even well worn rolling pins and melaware bowls have to connect us with our past and the people who lived there.


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