Over a century ago, when diners caught between the coasts were often forced to subsist on toast and tinned fish, eaters in Victoria had their pick of the world's bounty.
Consistent with its position as a port city, late-19th century Victoria was considered an excellent eating city, says Robert Griffin, human history manager for the Royal BC Museum. Griffin recently authored Feeding the Family: 100 Years of Food and Drink in Victoria with Nancy Oke, a volunteer who became interested in local foodways after investigating the museum's collection of branded baking power cans and spice boxes. To establish when the commercially-made items reached British Columbia, Oke scoured newspaper archives, which produced a portrait of a city blessed with edibles such as pineapples and inhabited by a scrum of eccentric purveyors.
"Each trade had its own odd person who was a little bit different," Griffin says.
James Fell, a grocer, was also a Spiritualist who warned his customers of inauspicious days for shopping. William Batchelor, a butcher, habitually neglected to put on clothes before answering his door. "He went a little bit crazy," Griffin says.
Victoria was also served by less offbeat salesmen, including the Chinese peddlers who sold fish and vegetables door-to-door and the British merchants who kept the city in marmalade. While many of the importers who established agencies in Victoria, then home to the Royal Navy, also set up operations in Portland and San Francisco, Griffin says specialists in English goods didn't have much luck unloading their wares south of the Canadian border.
A typical 1880s Victoria table might be set with bear or deer meat purchased from the butcher; currants from one of downtown's 10 grocery stores and rice just arrived from China. In addition to what the city imported from elsewhere, Victoria factories also produced biscuits, tea, vinegar and jam.
"There was a huge quantity of goods coming in," Griffin says. "We were just amazed by the variety."
Griffin and Oke are now starting work on a book about the cuisine of British Columbia's hotels, saloons and restaurants, although Griffin suspects there's plenty more to uncover about the province's food shops.
"We could have kept going on and on and on," he says.