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Joël Mayotte in the role of donné, or lay brother, in the cookhouse at a recreated Jesuit mission, circa 1640. Photo: Lucy Martin
JoŽl Mayotte in the role of donnť, or lay brother, in the cookhouse at a recreated Jesuit mission, circa 1640. Photo: Lucy Martin

Three Sisters Soup: Thanksgiving at Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons

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Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada and the U.S.

In Canada,Thanksgiving comes in October and is more of a harvest festival, without any stories about pilgrims and Indians sitting down to feast together. Even so, across North America, early European settlers improved their chances of survival by learning about native foods and techniques.

Last month Ottawa correspondent Lucy Martin was in the Georgian Bay region of Ontario where she visited Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons. The historic site re-creates a Jesuit mission established in 1639, as an outpost of New France. She spoke with costumed interpreter JoŽl Mayotte while he served "three sisters" soup to visitors on Canada's Thanksgiving weekend.

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Joël Mayotte: “My name is Joël Mayotte. I'm a local, come from Penetanguishene. We're dating between 1639 until 1649 – with the original. And then the reconstruction you're seeing today took three years, dating from 1964 until 1967, to honor Canada's 100th birthday.

As per modern health regulations, this soup is prepared in a certified kitchen, before being served out in the replica cookhouse. Photo: Lucy Martin
As per modern health regulations, this soup is prepared in a certified kitchen, before being served out in the replica cookhouse. Photo: Lucy Martin
JM: “Where you see a building today, there was a building there, back in the 17th century. Unfortunately we don't have any kind of plans or blueprints or anything like that of Sainte-Marie. So some of the buildings we're not sure about the true nature of them. But we do know that a very common practice – as we are standing in the cookhouse – is the cook would have had a trap door, as you can see the trap door here. So you just have your own compost, beneath your building, right? Food remains fell on the ground, you open up the trap door, you sweep it in there. So when our archeologists were doing digs here, they found remains of, like, seeds, bones, eggshells, right? And it's a mineshaft of information for our archeologists because it lets us know what they were eating. Which definitely is an important part of it.”

JM: “It's really good, (clang of ladle and soup pot lid) especially what with educating the very young, because that's part of our curriculum that we have – school groups come by. And they are just kind of like: 'There's no way! There's no way that this actually happened!' It's like, well, yeah. These were building blocks for what society is today. Right? So, all things told, I'm a teacher. This is my classroom. This is my costume.”

JM: “We have our own library that has books and books about everything that is 17th century – you name it: clothing, building, carpentry, 17th century religious ideas, 17th century language. And it's kind of a challenge in itself to go and read some of these books and then think 'How can I use that as interpretive material on this site?' Like, they encourage us to read the Jesuit relations, which are the books that the Jesuits would have – the letters – that thy are sending back to Europe. A lot of it is very biased, right?”

Lucy Martin: “Well, it's of the time. (Joël Mayotte agreeing “It's of the time.”) And of the culture.”

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons really existed on this very site. Buildings have been reconstructed based on archeological evidence. Photo: Lucy Martin
Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons really existed on this very site. Buildings have been reconstructed based on archeological evidence. Photo: Lucy Martin
Joël Mayotte: “Yeah. Right. And then, reading it, and being like 'Wow, you know, that's sort of derogatory, or that's kind of offensive', right? Another problem too, is sometimes we're reiterating something to people, and then somebody will pull up a document from – somewhere! And say what we said isn't exactly correct. You think like, 'Aw, man, we've been telling people the same thing for years and it's not exactly 100% precise!' Which historical actors see in itself as difficult, but we try our best to be historically accurate as possible.”

JM: “It was a simple life. You know? You wouldn't have known better. You know, the only thing you're really worried about is having a hot meal and a place to sleep at the end of the day. Nowadays I gotta to worry about my car insurance! (Visitors laugh) I have to worry about all this other stuff, right? So, it's ah...(clomping sounds as Mayotte strides to the fireplace and carries the soup pot back to the trestle table.) ...I would say – as we say here at Sainte-Marie – it's subject to interpretation. Because that's what we are, is interpreters.”

JM: “There's a lot of misconceptions. People think that natives are actually living here – because there is a longhouse. Whereas, the Huron are not living here. Because, well, they're scared of the French. They know if they hang out with the French they will probably catch a disease and die. And people think that this was like a fort, and a military base. It's not at all! Its a bunch of guys wanting to convert some natives. That's why the reason why they came here. (young boy asks “Could we have soup?”) I'll give you another common misconception is that people think, like the palisade walls? They are peaked for defense purposes. Not at all! They are peaked at the top because if rainwater was to fall on it – and if it was flat – it would rot, right? So it's peaked at the top so the rain just falls off it.”

JM: “Now today we're serving you a sort of modernized version of traditional three sisters soup. So the three sisters for the natives would have been corn, beans and squash. Around this time of year, it's a very good time for celebration. Food is bountiful. As it starts to get colder people are going to want that warm bowl of soup, so. We have programs that are designated, for just talking about the importance of the three sisters, in – not only the native society, but the French society that would have been here also. Because, well, the French had to do like the natives did, right? They had to adapt with their diet and their way of life. Although the French didn't really like the corn, necessarily. For them, they thought corn was cattle feed, as opposed to human food. Actually, people ate very well, in this location. Not only is there the three sisters, but there's a lot of wild berries, wild nuts, wild rice, mushrooms and other things you can get from the environment, along with game.”

Lucy Martin: “Would you say the diet here was perhaps better than what they would have been eating in Europe?”

Joël Mayotte: “That's hard to say. I mean, life in Europe is hard, right? Not only are you suffering from malnutrition, there's a lot of poverty, and there's a lot of war and the rest of it, that wouldn't necessarily be the case here. Like there's no real poverty, because me, as a donné I was a laborer. (Editor's note: a derivation of the French verb “to give”, similar to a lay brother) I worked, I got a hot meal. I didn't make any money, right? Because money wasn't the reason why I was here. The main mission was for conversion, right? Try to promote Christianity.”

LM: “You're serving and your needs are met.”

JM: “Yeah. It would have been a simple life, right? It would have been a hard life, but.”

LM: “What made you come here, to work at this job?”

JM: “The big bulk of the people that they hire here they hire just for our busy season, which is the summer months. After working here a couple of years, there was some job openings, so I thought 'Sure', yeah. So I pretty much live my life in the past! 99% of the time people come in and they just want, they're just here to have a good time, right? And it's very much one of those things where, if you give to them, they'll give back to you, and you're just kind of feeding off each others' energies.”

LM: “What are the most common questions, the ones you know you're going to hear?”

JM: “Aren't you hot? Here in the summer time we still wear this. I could have been wearing my black robe, as a Jesuit priest too. And that's usually the common questions: “Aren't you warm?' 'Yes. Yes, I am hot.' Another common question is – we have the burial site of two Jesuit saints. And they really ask 'Are they really buried there?' 'Yes, they are really buried there.' Like, there's eight Jesuits that would have been tortured to death by the Iroquois, right? They're all canonized. It's the only burial site of any of the eight. (Small boy:“Can I have soup?”) After the Iroquois were done with them, well, (bangs spoon dry against soup pot) there wasn't much left to bury, right? (Small boy: “Can I have soup?”) And on top of that too, these guys were actually tortured in front of a live Huron audience. So we know exactly what went down. Right? Whereas these other guys, they were dragged out into the bush. Whereas, we know the spot. We know what went down, it's all documented. This is some of Canada's earliest history. It went down, right on the land we're standing on right now.”

Not everyone wants the full history lesson. A small boy patiently repeats his own mission: “May I please have some soup?”

JM: “Here's some soup buddy, soup's on! Would you like some soup?”

(Parents and small children chatter about the soup.)

 JM: “Yeah, enjoy your day folks! Happy Thanksgiving!”


A demonstration plot of the "three sisters" companion planting consisting of corn, beans and squash. Photo: Lucy Martin
A demonstration plot of the "three sisters" companion planting consisting of corn, beans and squash. Photo: Lucy Martin
Three Sisters Soup Recipe (from Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons website, media resource package)

This recipe earned Bertha Skye her gold medal in the 1992 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany. The soup is healthy, hearty and easy to make.


1 pork shoulder roast - trim fat and dice

2 cups cubed and peeled butternut squash

2 cups frozen corn kernels

1 cup chopped green beans

1 1/2 cups diced potatoes

2 tbsp. all - purpose flour

2 tbsp. softened butter

salt and pepper to taste

5 cups water

Cooking Method:

In a large pot, add pork to water and boil until tender. Add squash, beans and potatoes and simmer, covered for 10 minutes or until vegetables are almost tender. Blend together flour and butter: stir into soup. Add corn and increase heat to medium: cook for 5 minutes, until soup thickens, stirring occasionally. Season to taste. Serves 4-6

Source: Three Sisters Cookbook, Pine Tree Native Centre of Brant, 25 King Street, Brantford, Ontario N3T 3C4


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