rubaboo stew

Zynga is a powerhouse among gaming companies. As of last year, their Farmville was one of the world’s most played games. Their newest, CityVille, garnered a hundred million users within six weeks. That’s approximately the entirely population of Mexico, or a third of the population of the U.S.

I haven’t played either of those games, but a friend lured me into trying out one of Zynga’s other games, Frontierville, with the promise that it offered interesting food-related things. And indeed it did.

About a week and a half ago, a new in-game quest gave users the chance to make something called “rubaboo stew” as a way of welcoming a new character to the game, a French frontier trader named Jacques, complete with bad accent. The stew’s name looked ridiculous, but nothing else the game had previously offered was wholly made up, so I went to have a look for more information.

The stew is exactly what the game says it is: a stew made by fur traders and possible native peoples out of peas and bacon or, more generally, made from peas or corn and animal fat, whether bear or pig. It was often sweetened with a bit of maple syrup.

Until two weeks ago, I’d wager that rubaboo was a fairly obscure word, most likely to be encountered by those immersed in Canadiana. There was a Canadian journal for kids by that name in the 1960s. A 1976 book, Colombo’s Canadian References, says that rubaboo was an Algonquin word for the stew, soup, or broth eaten by fur traders. (The OED agrees.) 1821 was the earliest-recorded English language reference to it.

All sorts of children’s books set in frontier Canada make use of it. Here an excerpt from Willa’s New World: “‘The rubaboo? Onions, turnips, venison…whatever I have. Sometimes dried meat, though not as good as the pemmican we make back home.'” A magazine from 1907, Canadian, describes it as synonymous with pemmican stew. Water, flour, and fat is another frequently-used descriptor of what it contained. Skunks, patridges, and smaller birds could all be incorporated into it.

As of two days after the quest’s release in the game, Google hits only amounted to about 300 for “rubaboo stew”. They’re up to a thousand now. The distinctive imprint which Zynga has put onto references to it is the addition of “stew”, a word which is redundant to the original, but explains what this dish is, very briefly, for the sake of their players. Stew is again a generic word, forgiving of innumerable adjectives, which explains an unfamiliar dish without making it necessary for the casual reader to find out just what rubaboo is or was. “rubaboo” has ten times the number of references as the phrase “rubaboo stew”, but most are to the 1960s children’s magazine, rather than the foodstuff per se.

Comments are closed.

*© S. Worthen 2009