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The ingredients of timeless Canadian cookbooks

In the October issue of Q&Q, Melissa Buote talks to publishers and booksellers about what makes a classic Canadian cookbook.

Food is so fundamental to our culture it’s almost impossible to think of how ephemeral recipes once were, with family favourites collected in loose stacks of handwritten cards.

The forerunners of today’s commercial cookbooks were stapled booklets published by companies like Cook’s Friend Baking Powder or McAllister Milling Co., or by the Ladies’ Aid Society at a church or in a small town. In 1915, the Five Roses Cook Book, distributed by the flour company of the same name, hung on the walls of more than 600,000 Canadian households, dangling by the string that snaked its way through a hole in its top corner.

Five Roses remains popular today, in the company of vintage titles like The Laura Secord Canadian Cook Book (1966) and The Purity Flour Cookbook (1967), all three of which have been reprinted in the last decade as part of Whitecap Books’ Classic Canadian Cookbook series.

While many titles have stood the test of time, including Jehane Benoît’s Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking (1974), Elizabeth Baird’s Classic Canadian Cooking (1995), and Jean Paré’s ubiquitous Company’s Coming series, it is still difficult for booksellers, publishers, and writers to pinpoint the exact ingredients for making a classic Canadian cookbook.

“We’re a different type of country,” says Barbara-jo McIntosh, owner of Vancouver’s Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks. “We don’t have really distinct cuisine in an all-encompassing way.” What we do have, she says, is history.

While Alison Fryer, owner of Toronto’s The Cookbook Store, believes that classic cookbooks attract readers through storytelling and presentation, she says the only thing worth a thousand words is a thousand well-written words. “Classic Canadian Cooking has no photos and doesn’t have a particularly engaging layout, but the recipes resonate with Canadians,” she says. For Fryer, the reason is simple: “They are so Canadian.”

Arsenal Pulp Press publisher Brian Lam suggests classic cookbooks should speak to other aspects of the culture, beyond food. “Whether it’s a particular community or region, or that it simply reflects our sense of social well-being,” he says. “Those are the things that resonate long after the meal has ended.”

In May, Arsenal Pulp released a new edition of Judie Glick’s 1985 tome The New Granville Island Market Cookbook, which features current photos of dishes and life at the popular Vancouver market. “The original book was very much of its era: a trade paperback, black type only, no photographs,” says Lam. “We wanted the new book to be a complete overhaul of the original.”

It’s not just the cookbook’s design that radically changed: only a handful of the original recipes appear in the revised edition. “The new ones reflect consumers’ increased sophistication, as well as the influences of Asian and other cuisines,” Lam says.

Edna Staebler

Wilfrid Laurier University Press took the opposite approach this spring when transforming Edna Staebler’s 1968 Mennonite cookbook, Food that Really Schmecks, into an iPad app. Photos and video were added for interactivity, but “we did not tinker with the recipes,” says Clare Hitchens, publicist at WLU Press.

Hitchens suggests that writer Rose Murray nailed the essence of a classic – and of Staebler’s cult popularity – in her introduction to the book’s 2006 edition.

“[Murray] talks about the use of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, and the conversational tone that comes from sitting in the kitchen and learning the recipes as they are created,” says Hitchens. “Edna herself said about the cookbook that it is ‘not elaborate, or exotic, with rare ingredients and mystifying flavours; traditional local cooking is practical.’”

Hitchens adds, “A classic cookbook can be used no matter … the trends of the day.”

Patrick Murphy, managing editor at Halifax’s Nimbus Publishing, believes that timeless recipes, along with a dash of nostalgia, are key to a cookbook’s longevity. “It has to offer something unique, and it has to have recipes that have been tried and tested and loved,” he says.

In 2010, Nimbus published the 40th anniversary edition of Marie Nightingale’s Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, an East Coast staple that has never been out of print. Like Staebler’s Food that Really Schmecks, the book’s recipes have remained the same since it was first released.

“Marie has been around a long time and the book has sold over 100,000 copies, so I’m simply not going to change it,” says Murphy.

Over the years, Nightingale says she has been asked many times if she plans to update the book’s contents. “I just said, ‘You can’t change history.’”

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