Toronto Threw a Party for the Bridge King

This isn’t about beer, whisky, rum, punch (except milk punch), cocktail, or anything of that nature. Such drinks, mainstays of the (drinking) people in central Canada from its inception, were set aside in favour of aristocratic wines, brandies, and liqueurs for those who could afford them or when occasion warranted.

One such occasion was a banquet held in Toronto in 1853 for Robert Stephenson (opposite), the great British engineer and bridge designer. He invented the Rocket, pictured on the menu below, an early ace locomotive.

He designed famous bridges in Britain and elsewhere including the still-standing Britannia Bridge in Wales and Victoria Bridge in Montreal (one of the team for the latter). His father was also an eminent engineer, George. The Stephensons, together with Brunel, a close friend of Robert’s, were the acme of Victorian engineering.

In August, 1853 Stephenson was in Toronto, Canada West,  or “C.W.” as the nickname went, the progenitor of the Province of Ontario. C.W. was the English-speaking part of the United Province of Canada, and Canada East was the mostly French-speaking part. With Confederation in 1867, these became the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Stephenson was in town to advise Grand Trunk Railway on a plan to create a continuous link east of Toronto to an ice-free port in Maine. Part of that involved conceiving the Victoria Bridge. Construction began in 1854 and ended a few years later but Stephenson died before its completion from Bright’s Disease, possibly connected to his work.

Also pictured on the menu (courtesy HathiTrust, the other images are from Wikipedia) is the Britannia Bridge.

The wines and foods would have done credit to any sizeable city in the world let alone the small burgh Toronto was. It hardly counted more than 30,000 people. Yet, period photos show the city developing nicely. One or two churches still stand and look the same. The central part of Osgoode Hall, headquarters then and now of the legal profession in Ontario, is virtually unchanged. Even where the buildings are altered most of the streets have a similar aspect today.

They ate up a storm at the party: prairie chicken, fish of all kinds including salmon from Scotland (why Scotland? Maybe it was salted or smoked), all kinds of game and butcher’s meats both fresh and cured, many fruits and vegetables (it was high summer), fine desserts, and much else. And look at those wines: Champagne, Bordeaux, old sherry, port, and Madeira, they had it all.

As always in such matters there are strangely modern – or modern-seeming – touches. Like patties, which you can get in many quarters of Toronto, the Caribbean version. Lobster, lobster salad, oysters – all still as popular today. Margaux, Leoville, Mumm’s, and Sandeman wines – they are known as luxury items today no less.

While it would have been nice to see an Imperial Stout ranked with the Curacao, Maraschino, and “pale” brandy, I’ll take the menu as it comes. Wouldn’t you?

Toronto knew how to throw a party. Not sure it could as well today. Well, maybe.

N.B. Should you be minded to hear Britannic music when perusing the vintage menu, a non-contemporary but still apposite touch would be the stirring Overture from Tommy by The Who. I think Robert would have liked it. The drums would have reminded him of a pounding locomotive, surely.


[Note: Part II to this post appears here].

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