There has been considerable buzz lately about butter tarts. The sweet treat is, apparently, a uniquely Canadian one. Their popularity has launched several festivals, including the local Best Butter Tart Festival in Midland. The earliest-known published recipe for butter tarts has been traced back to Simcoe County and, specifically, to the cookbook published by the Women's Auxiliary of Royal Victoria Hospital in 1900.
A small hospital had been established in Barrie during the 1850s but a larger facility was needed to serve the needs of the growing town. In June 1897 the Barrie General Hospital was opened on High Street, just to the north of what is now Dunlop Street. The 13-bed facility was shortly thereafter renamed Royal Victoria Hospital to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
977-08 Opening of the Royal Victoria Hospital, 1897, Copyright: Public Domain
The Women's Auxiliary's desire to raise funds to purchase “the many comforts necessary to aid the sick and suffering while they are patients in our Hospital, compelled [them] to devise ways and means to procure this money,"1 including selling a printed cookbook. The recipes had been contributed by ladies in the community and were deliberately chosen to be used by the ordinary housekeeper.
Royal Victoria Cook Book pg. 1, Copyright: Public Domain
Included on page 88, within the section entitled “Pies," was a simple, two-line recipe for making a “Filling for Tarts."
974-97 Royal Victoria Cook Book, pg. 88-89, Copyright: Public Domain
Only the barest of details were included with the recipe as it was likely expected that cooks would use the preceding recipe to make plain pastry, and would already know how hot their oven needed to be and for how long to bake the tarts (oftentimes stated as: “until done").
So now we know about the origins of the butter tart recipe, but who was Mrs. Malcolm MacLeod?
The 1901 Canadian Census of Barrie included a Malcolm MacLeod family living at 12 Toronto Street, not far from the hospital. Mrs. Malcolm MacLeod's first name was Mary and, according to the information recorded by the enumerator, she was born in rural Ontario on December 15, 1855.
Extract from the Fourth Census of Canada, 1901, Province of Ontario, District No. 114, North Simcoe, Sub-District A., Polling sub-division No. 5 in Barrie Town, pg. 1, Copyright: Public Domain
Further research found that Mary MacLeod died in Toronto on April 19, 1915, and an obituary was published on page 5, in the April 22, 1915 edition of The Northern Advance newspaper.
The Northern Advance, April 22, 1915, pg. 5, Copyright: Public Domain
So, there you have it. We can thank Mary Ethel (Cowie) MacLeod (ca 1855-1915) for contributing her recipe for butter tart filling to the Royal Victoria Cook Book.
The Women's Auxiliary to the Royal Victoria Hospital, preface to Royal Victoria Cook Book, compiled by The Women's Auxiliary to the Royal Victoria Hospital (Barrie: S. Wesley, 1900), 5.