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Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Fruitful City

The Fruitful City: Helena Moncrieff

Late last year, my friend Shirin Mandani arranged for me to participate in a book reading that Heritage Toronto organised at the St.Lawrence Hall on Toronto-themed nonfiction books. 

The books and the authors featured included The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff (ECW Press), The Missing Millionaire by Katie Daubs (Penguin Random House), The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History by Rob Bowman and Daniel Tate (Dundurn Press).

It was my first visit to the grand St. Lawrence Hall, at one time the hub of Toronto political, social, and cultural activities. The venue reminded me of my visits in the 1980s to the annual lectures on Bombay’s history at the Heras Institute at St. Xavier College.

On a Saturday afternoon, St. Lawrence Hall seemed forlornly in its old-world splendour, isolated in a city that has rapidly transformed into a postmodern metropolis eager to abandon its colonial era shibboleths. Except for two or maybe three people, the audience was almost entirely Caucasian. But I suppose that has to do with the composition of the city’s history.

The program was deeply enriching because the three authors and their works reflected the 
vibrancy and the sociocultural diversity that is Toronto’s strength. I know little about Toronto’s music scene to talk about it with any degree of confidence, and so, I’ll focus on the other two books that were discussed that afternoon.

Toronto Star’s Deborah Dundas is a master at talking about books and talking to authors. Her chat with the three authors brought out the nuances of the research by the authors.
Katie Daubs’s The Missing Millionaire is about the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Small, the owner of the Grand Opera House, in 1919. Mahrukh is reading the book at present, and will, hopefully, write about it once she’s done reading.

I found Helena Moncrieff’s premise of her book fascinating. The Fruitful City is a slim book of the different types of trees that are grown by homeowners in their backyards. Trees that reveal the homeowners’ past, their roots in a different land and an attempt – sometimes rather desperate – to replicate a culture from which they were uprooted.

One of the great losses of urbanisation is the near-total lack of knowledge about greenery and the foliage that surrounds us. Toronto, with its ravines, is probably one of the few urban centres in the world, where you are always close to a forest. Moncrieff digs deep into Canada’s history to narrate its fascinating horticultural history, the story of its immigrants and how they imported their trees with them to their adopted homeland.

The book acquired a totally different dimension when I learned from my friend Pawan Chankotra that he was planning to grow a neem tree in his backyard. Moncrieff has a number of examples where immigrants have not only brought trees of their birthplace to Canada, but take tremendous care of their trees, including providing them artificial heat.

The Fruitful City won the Heritage Toronto Book award for 2019. Here is an excerpt from the book; it’s longish only to illustrate the depth of the author’s research:

On a 1791 map from the Ontario archives, pale, watery colours of pink, green and yellow mark off sections of geography, and cartographer Henri Chatelain had covered the margins in tidy script with lists of fruits and other resources identified around what we now know as Ontario. He documented apples, pears, plums, cherries and a variety of nut trees “comme en Europe.” Four berry species are listed too: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and currants.

In fact, more than two hundred small fruits are native to Canada. That might sound like plenty, but most don’t appear in our pantries. To call them all berries is a simplification, although that’s what they look like. Blueberries and gooseberries are “true berries.” The rest fall into the categories of drupes, like cherries and elderberries; pomes such as saskatoons or serviceberries, as they are known in the East; and aggregates, like strawberries and raspberries. They’ve grown here for a long time. Indigenous people used silver buffalo berries to flavour, as the name suggests, buffalo meat. Saskatoons were a key ingredient in pemmican. Plenty more of those native fruits are said to be tart but very good in jellies. You could survive on them if you were lost in the woods, but most need a lot of sugar to make them truly palatable to today’s tastes.

The Huron-Wendat tapped maple trees, harvested berries and grew corn, beans and squash in small cleanings in what’s now Southern Ontario. The habitat was rich with wildlife, horticulture, shelter and access to water travel for many Indigenous societies. A short article in First Nations House magazine on Toronto’s Indigenous history describes the area as being not unlikely the Mediterranean, “in that many cultures and peoples met for the purposes of trade and commerce – dating back thousands of years prior to European contact.”

In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, wrote in her diary about the berries she collected – fox berries, mountain tea berries and wild gooseberries that, she reported, were excellent stewed as sauce for salmon. The Mohawks gave her young son Francis a gift of cranberries, and Francis offered apples in return. At their white pine cabin on the edge of the Don River, young Francis, whose ailments are well documented in the diary, was said to be “much better, and busy in planting currant bushes and peach trees.” The peach tree is long gone, and all that’s left of the estate is a subway station name, its nomenclature taken from the cabin aspirationally dubbed in the honour of the son: Castle Frank.”


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