Date Squares or
We know it as ‘Date Squares’ in Ontario, but in western Canada it’s called ‘Matrimonial Cake’.
There are a few different theories as to the origins of the name ‘Matrimonial’, and some say the meaning is as simple as the symbolism of the two layers of crumbly oats joined together as one by the date filling.
A Wedding Favour
At one time it was given as a wedding favour in the west, wrapped in plastic, then in a paper doily, tied with a ribbon, and left at the table for each guest.
The Dirty Thirties
The popularity of this cake peaked during the 1930s and 1940s. Mother always referred to the Great Depression years as, ‘The Dirty Thirties’. They were difficult economic times with high rates of unemployment, and a long-running drought in the Prairies known as ‘the Dust Bowl’. By the early 1930s, over one third of the labour force was unemployed, and in rural areas of the west almost two thirds of the population were on an early form of welfare known as ‘relief’. Matrimonial cake became a low-cost alternative to more expensive wedding cakes. In the days of coal fired or wood stoves and their uneven heating it was the one type of cake that wouldn’t ‘fall’ and lose its shape in the oven.
‘Mother’ – Audry Rutherford Stafford with her mother, ‘Granny’ Dorothy Woolsey Rutherford in front of their home in Edmonton, 1936.
Rationing and the War Years
In the 1940s, the cake’s popularity surged once again; this time for different reasons. Food was being shipped to our soldiers, and also being sent to Britain for our allies. More than half of all wheat and flour consumed in Britain during WWII was sent from Canada, along with more than a third of their bacon, a quarter of their cheese, eggs, and evaporated milk.
Sugar was the first staple food to be rationed in Canada in 1942, followed by coffee and tea a few months later, and butter by the end of the year. In 1943, the government began to ration meat.
Ration coupons from a ration booklet 1940s – Canada
A Popular Alternative
Matrimonial cake became a popular alternative to traditional cakes which required white sugar, eggs, and butter. In those days shortening was used in place of butter in many recipes. Cooks and bakers had to be creative by necessity, as there were no packaged or fast foods in those days.
After WWII Dad returned to Canada from his posting overseas in Bournemouth, England. Mother had been staying with her parents in Edmonton. By the time they moved to Lanark County in 1947, to live with Dad’s aunt and uncle, Mother had been making her Matrimonial Cake for years, and had perfected her recipe.
Stafford House, 1947, Tay Valley Township, Lanark County
In the years that followed, Mother’s Matrimonial Cake would become a family favourite. Like many of her recipes, it was a prize-winner, many times over, at the local fairs.
Audry Rutherford Stafford at Stafford House, 1964
1 3/4 c oats
1 c flour
1 c brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 c softened butter or shortening
1 lb of diced pitted dates
3 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 c boiling water
Mix dry ingredients together and press half in the bottom of a square pan
Cook filling until smooth and spread over crumb mixture
Add remaining dry ingredients and pat down firmly
Bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes
Whether you call them Date Squares, or know it as Matrimonial Cake, as they do in the Canadian west, they are a nutritious snack, rich with vitamins and minerals, and were always a popular treat at the Stafford house.
Recipe from: “Recipes and Recollections: Treats and Tales from Our Mother’s Kitchen”
Books available at The Book Nook, and The Bookworm, Perth, Mill Street Books, Almonte,