Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Hotel Food: Home Cooking, Steak Pits and Wing Nights

Fine dining at the Maple Leaf Hotel, Maple Creek, 1914. Glenbow Archives, NA-3811-75
The hotel dining room was always a busy place in the early 1900s. Meals were served to boarders, traveling guests, local farmers and railway workers. For many years, trains stopped in small towns every day and meals were served to the crews. Annual Christmas dinners served in hotels were real banquets. Dining rooms were decorated with bunting, miniature flags and evergreens, and lighted with gas lamps and Chinese lanterns. The guests sat down to a lavish menu, the likes of which few had ever seen.  

Cecil Hotel dining room, Colgate, c. 1910. From Prairie Gold (1980)
Hotel cooks came from a variety of backgrounds. Chinese cooks were the mainstay of many hotel restaurants in the early days. The Silver Plate Hotel at Govan boasted of “an English chef who has few peers” in a 1908 edition of the Prairie News. The Hitt brothers, owners of the Griffin Hotel, brought their staff with them from the United States. “The Negro cook [Chloe] prepared the best food I have eaten anywhere,” one customer recalls in the Griffin local history book.  “[The owners] provided her with the ingredients for southern items such as beaten biscuits, yams and fried chicken.” Chloe married a “coloured” porter from Regina. When the Hitts sold the Griffin Hotel and returned to the States, she and her new husband went with them. 

Other hotel cooks were more “home grown.”  In 1923, Mrs. Mari Lewis was hired by the Vanstone family to operate the hotel dining room at Central Butte. Mrs. Lewis had spent three summers on cook cars preparing meals for threshing crews. She brought produce from the Lewis farm to help out with meals. “The turkeys came in very handy for the banquet we served to about 50 war veterans,” Mrs. Lewis’ daughter, Gertrude Lokier, recalled for the town history book. During the 1940s, on a typically busy morning at the Mont Nebo Hotel, Annette Taylor was up at 4 a.m.  She baked 25 pies – eight lemon, eight raisin and nine apple. After serving breakfast she headed for the town butcher shop, where for a dollar she bought a good sized beef roast. “By nine a.m. the roast was in the oven,” Donna Kolchuck writes in the Mont Nebo history. “At noon the aroma of roast beef, gravy and mashed potatoes was prevalent.” Mrs. Buhler, cook at the Fairlight Hotel, was a favorite with the commercial travelers who stayed at the hotel. They called her “Ma” for they knew “that regardless of what time they arrived, Ma would get them something to eat.” 

Steak pit, Whitewood Hotel, 2006.  Joan Champ photo
Today, small-town Saskatchewan hotels offer everything from bar food (chicken wings, nachos, dried ribs) to fully licensed family dining with great food. The steak pits that were added to many hotel dining rooms in the 1970s can still be found around the province today. At the Jansen Hotel & Steak Pit, for example, customers can cook their own steaks on the natural gas grill in the 22-seat steak pit area off the beverage room. 

One of the best kept secrets in Saskatchewan has to be the White Bear Hotel. People travel from miles around to the town of 13 for the extensive menu and unique décor. In the summer, visitors check out the flower gardens and fruit orchard where the White Bear Hotel grows its own pears and crabapples. In 2007, a visitor to the hotel wrote the following on his blog: “A big part of the reason we make the trip to the White Bear Hotel is the warm hospitality and good food at a reasonable cost. The couple [Wayne and Patricia Spence] who own and have run the hotel and restaurant for 29 years take pride in what they do and genuinely enjoy visiting with their patrons. What gets me is you would never expect to find good food like that in such an out of the way place. It seems to me this is why people travel to White Bear and patiently wait for 2 hours plus for their food. It is so charming and unexpected – one of those little surprises that make life interesting.”  At the time of writing this post, the White Bear Hotel was for sale.

White Bear Hotel, 2009. Photo courtesy of Ruth Bitner

© Joan Champ, 2011

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