Made in the town of Medicine Hat, Alberta – hence its name Med-Alta – this little covered pot speaks volumes. It tells, first of all, about the development and exploitation of clay deposits. It tells of a wholly Canadian company, established in 1915 and lasting well into the 1950s, despite incredible competition from English and American pottery which was cheaper. Medalta Potteries also made many other useful kitchen items like milk jugs, teapots, bowls, jars and baking dishes; Medalta ware is now sought after by collectors.
The pot also tells of how we lived in those days by what the company sold : teapots, pickling crocks, hot water "pigs" (for warming the sheets), sugar bowl-and-creamer sets, and bean pots. What is it about bean pots?
In the early days of Canada, heating and cooking was often done over a large central fireplace which sometimes had a "beehive" oven at the back. Such an oven could also be built separately out of doors. One couldn't just run down the street for bread or pies in those days, for it might have been a day's walk to the nearest store; so a housewife would bake those things herself.
First, she would light a roaring fire in the oven, getting it good and hot. Next, she would rake out the embers. In the back of the oven, farthest from the door, she would place the bean pot, filled with beans, water, salt pork, and perhaps some molasses or brown sugar. The beans were at the back because they needed to cook the longest. Then came the pies, with a medium cooking time, and closest to the door was the bread. The door was then closed.
When the bread was done, it was removed with a "bread peel", an instrument much like today's commercial pizza paddle. If the bottom of the loaves were burned, the burned bits were filed off with a large bread rasp and fed to the stock.. Nothing was wasted. Later, the pies came out. And finally, after many hours, out came the baked beans, still simmering in their pot.
Ceramic pots were so tough they could outlast a whole generation of baked bean meals and still be passed down to the children for their family meals. No wonder they were considered to be treasures.
Text: Phil Tilney