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Entrance to Miners' Village Restaurant in Cape Breton.

Gather around the table for refreshments and stories of the past at local museums and halls

One winter morning in the 1940s when he was a child, Abbie Michalik came downstairs to a surprise he still remembers. Over a cup of tea at the Cape Breton Miners Museum, Glace Bay, in a tiny house much like the one he grew up in, he tells the story.

“We had curtains for doors. No insulation. Only an old kitchen stove where Ma made bread. We’d get up in the morning and snow would be on the floor. We used to run down and put our feet in the oven. One day, my dad made a roaring fire, shut the oven door and left for work. When I came down to put my feet in the oven, the cat jumped out.” The cat survived, says Michalik, but it was down to just eight lives.

Michalik worked for 34 years in the coal mines of Cape Breton. Today, he’s a mine guide, taking visitors on a trip into the past down the mine shaft and through his stories both humourous and somber of family life and hard work at one of the most dangerous occupations. The stories of large families in small houses and of stalwart men labouring far beneath the ground are gripping, making me thankful for this comforting cup of tea and a homemade biscuit with jam.

Portals to the past

My grandmother kept a pot of tea hot on the back of the stove all day long. If visitors dropped by, there was a can of evaporated milk and a bowl of sugar on the table to add to the strong brew, the teabags filling the pot as the day went on. Visitors to the East Coast will experience similar hospitality when they gather over a traditional cup of tea at many interpretive programs like the one at Wells-Shober Cottage in Roosevelt International Park on Campobello Island, where tea is served with Eleanor Roosevelt’s ginger cookies and stories of her inspiring life.

On Prince Edward Island, tea and tales go together as naturally as a horse and wagon. No less than three historical sites on the island’s eastern edge serve tea with history. At the 1732 Roma Settlement, tea and bread from the brick oven are served with the story of how Jean-Pierre Roma ran his trading post here by fishing and trading with France and the West Indies.

In the nearby Orwell Corner Historic Village, tea is served to me with ginger cookies in the old schoolhouse. The mug-up is fuel for a day on the large property and activities like making candles, feeding livestock and forging a horseshoe in the blacksmith shop. At the neighbouring Sir Andrew MacPhail Homestead, which celebrates the Canadian medical scholar and war hero, a pot of tea goes well with bread pudding and Sir Andrew’s Grouse Sauce. The Tea Room in the Veranda Cafe is perfect for leisurely enjoyment of the quiet yard and woods viewed through the wrap-around windows.

Tea and Eleanor Roosevelt's ginger cookies at Wells-Shober Cottage.

Not just tea in the pot

It’s not just tea that prompts tales. Simple foods and other traditional drinks also serve as portals to the past. At Kings Landing, New Brunswick, when I don wool apron and bonnet, I’m ready to help the women of Lint House make gingerbread. As I measure ingredients, one interpreter explains that the spices and whole grain flour I add were standard in those days. When the batter is ready, she directs me to the big hearth and an iron pot that’s been heating. Its lid is flat and has a high edge all around. After I pour in the batter and replace the lid, she scoops up hot coals and places them carefully onto the pot. The lip of the lid holds the coals in place.

While the gingerbread bakes the interpreter tells me that the family who lived here in the 1830s were strict Baptists and practiced temperance. There was a saying at the time, that such people practiced “temperance in a teapot,” hinting at the practice of secretly serving liquor.

Twenty minutes later, the interpreter removes the iron lid and inside is a perfectly baked gingerbread that we immediately slice and serve on saucers with cream from the cow outside. I sit down with a cup of tea and dig in, feeling like I’ve just relived a small part of the past.

In Port au Choix on Newfoundland’s west coast, Audrey Pittman scoops a dozen buns from an outdoor stone oven. “There’s nothing like the smell of yeasted bread cooking,” she says. The oven is a replica of one built by French fishermen who first came to these shores in 1504. Pittman is with a local museum called The French Rooms. The name refers to the canvas shelters built by the seasonal fishermen who were forbidden to construct permanent homes. I eagerly watch with about 40 others as Pittman places the buns at our tables already set with dishes of butter, pots of homemade jam and, of course, tea.

At Fortress Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, the favoured drink is stronger than even my grandmother’s tea. “Rum plays into the economy everywhere here,” explains an interpreter, while assistants serve punch made with five ingredients: rum, water, lemon juice, sugar and nutmeg. The records of one particular Louisbourg family show that a cabaret they operated in their house was more profitable than the fishing business, their main occupation. “This is a working town,” says the interpreter. “In summer, there can be ten men to every woman. So there’s not too much to do but come to a little place like this, play cards and drink cheap rum. It was illegal to serve alcohol to a man of working age on a day of work. They passed that law. Two years later, they passed the same law again. They repeated themselves a third time because no one was listening.”

The punch is strong and delicious. There are refills. The voices in the room grow louder, soon overwhelming the guide’s stories. Laughter erupts here and there. I imagine all of us as men just off the ships, thankful for a mug of cheer after months at sea. I think maybe I should call for a deck of cards and another round, but then I laugh the fantasy away and think instead that I should call for a mug of my grandmother’s strong, all-day tea.

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