Getting to the root of it

Shawn Hayward
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Elliston cellar replica at national museum

Anyone visiting the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa will get to learn how Newfoundlander’s preserved food in the 1890s. 

This replica of an Elliston root cellar appears as part of an exhibition at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa, Ont. 

Starting May 13 a replica of an Elliston root cellar will appear as part of the museum’s new exhibition on food preservation. The museum used information about historic Newfoundland root cellars collected by the Agricultural History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Intangible Culture Heritage and Memorial University to recreate the replica cellar.

Museum curator Suzanne Beauvais says as a national museum they try to include artefacts and replicas from across Canada.

“We decided on having a Newfoundland replica of a root cellar,” she says. “We were lucky we got help from the historical society. They were great; also the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. They were really dynamic to provide information, photos, so we could as much as possible create a replica that was close to reality.”

Museum staff used photos of Elliston root cellars to make it look authentic, and even painted fake potatoes the same colour they would have been in 19th century Newfoundland.

The exhibit will be used to show that while humans have been using different methods to preserve food for centuries, we only recently learned the science behind it. The exhibit will describe the microorganisms and enzymes that break down food, and why food stored in cool, dark places like root cellars don’t decay as quickly.

“Usually before we do an exhibition we do focus groups and surveys with our visitors to know if it’s a topic they want to know about,” says Beauvais. “They were interested in it. They knew a fairly good amount about it but not the scientific principles about food preservation.”

The exhibit will include audio of interviews done with Newfoundlanders describing their memories of root cellars. Michael Murray said root cellars were scary places for a kid.

“It was cold, damp and dark and you know the mysterious things could be in there with the vegetables and the soil and smell and so, yeah, it was kind of a place you didn’t want to go. “It was a spooky place,” he told the interviewer.

Ross Traverse gives root cellars a more positive review – important places that made possible the self-sufficiency of outport life.

“All the people in coastal areas in Newfoundland had to have root cellars,” said the well-known horticulturist and gardening expert from Torbay. “Well even in the towns as well. In the major towns and that you had to have a root cellar because there was no source of potatoes and other root vegetables other than what you either imported in the fall or you grew yourself.”

If you’re not planning a trip to Ottawa any time soon but would like to see it, there’s no rush. The exhibit, entitled Food Preservation: The Science You Eat, will be on display at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum for the next five years. 

Organizations: Agricultural History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Intangible Culture Heritage and Memorial University, Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador Canada Agriculture and Food Museum

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Torbay Ottawa

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