Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus

May 19, 2015

“Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus” is a very successful event and adult program held annually in February at Fort York National Historic Site in downtown Toronto. Conceived by the Culinary Historians of Canada in 2010, the event began as a day-long workshop on historical recipes or “receipts” for marmalade and related citrus products. It has evolved over the five years it has been held at the Fort, and has become a culinary event to be imitated by other museums in the city.7c7c8006-ee25-40f3-b3d8-b6163a6ee1bf

This year was the fourth year I had attended, and though it was a very wintry day, over 100 people attended. Although I don’t make marmalade, I love citrus products (especially lemon) and I always thoroughly enjoy the day. This year I attended with a friend who entered two jars of marmalade in the competition, and won the third prize ribbon. The competition is tough, and the judges are very discerning.

A typical Mad for Marmalade day begins with a table filled with historic tea cakes and biscuits, to be eaten with tea and coffee while everyone arrives. The introduction to the event is held in the Blue Barracks (the main building for the event). Attendees are seated at long tables laden with “swag” provided by various supporters and sponsors of the event. The Florida Citrus Growers Association often donates fruit, Bernardin is a staunch supporter, and Canadian Living usually donates a bag and a magazine to each attendee, as well as many other prizes. Tables are decorated with a centerpiece, which is often a clever citrus decoration with flowers – sometimes to be taken home as a prize by a lucky winner.

During the morning, cooking and baking workshops are held in various building on the site. This year’s Italian theme was interesting, and workshops included “Italian marmalade”, “Citrus-flavoured gelato”, “Baking Panpepato” (with Elizabeth Baird – a sold out workshop) and so on. The Association of Italian Chefs of Canada was the partnering organization, and many of the workshops were led by the gentlemen chefs and restaurant owners who form the executive of the association.

SAMSUNG CSCThe workshops in the morning are followed by a citrus-based lunch, usually chicken and a side, a rice dish and a salad. Fabulous desserts, usually produced by the Fort York historic cooks from an historic recipe, are offered later, and are often the subject of a research project by that kitchen.

As a museum education program it fulfills many of the goals of successful programs – the people who attend are learning useful skills, learning something about the history of the site, and enjoying that learning – and participants return to the program year after year. I do not know whether the event makes money (I suspect it is a break-even) but it is also supported by commercial and government sponsors who make it more financially viable for the site.

There are, however, some things that would make it even more successful. The event does cater to a fairly traditional audience for museums – middle-aged, middle-class white women and (a few) men make up most of the attendees, with a sprinkling of elderly folks and participants of other ethnicities to be sure. A wider audience might be served by shifting the historical time period on occasion (we know that there were Black merchants in the city by the 1800s, and regiments stationed there certainly had Black and ethnic individuals in them). Marmalade and other citrus-flavoured foods must have been eaten in other regions of the British Empire (India or the West Indies). This year’s Italian theme was a slight departure from previous years, but the Italian community was not obviously the intended audience.

The historical aspect of the workshops could be stronger, and made more of a focus for the educational objectives that are clearly a part of the day. Fort York, a British stronghold during the 19th century, was a typical fort of its day, and very little of that attribute comes through in the demonstrators’ presentations. Some effort could be made towards strengthening their historical knowledge of the Fort and the time-period (to be fair, there was some attempt made at providing historical background by our chef presenter), and to directing participants towards learning more about the historical context for the event. Tours of the site are offered at the end of the day, but by then participants are tired and may not be receptive to more education, particularly about history.DSCF1268

Finally, the presenters are uneven, some are clearly very skilled cooks and have professional presentation skills, others are not quite at the level that one would hope for at such an event. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself, one expects some amateur presentation at a culinary event, and excellent cooking skills and presentation skills do not always go hand in hand. Here again, some effort might be spent on providing support for those presenting with less panache, a pre-event run-through, or at least a revision of notes for the presentation could be made part of the planning for the event.

These recommendations are not meant to be criticisms, but rather a way to make an excellent event even better. Outcomes for both culinary and museology would be strengthened, and the folks who attend would come away with more background on Fort York and Toronto’s history. Research on culinary history would complement and amplify the rich history that is already offered by the interpreters at the Fort. I look forward to the next “Mad for Marmalade” with great anticipation.

*Elka Weinstein, Colaboradora habitual del Máster en Museos, Toronto