Category: ActiveHistory.ca

History in Grease Stains and Pencil Marks

I just want to thank everyone for the fantastic response I’ve had to my recent Globe and Mail article, “History in Grease Stains and Pencil Marks” (29 September 2012, pg. F7). Although it hasn’t been posted online for some reason, enough readers have found their way to my website that I’ve received dozens of emails and comments sharing really lovely stories about the importance of cookbooks in the readers’ own memories of friends and loved ones. Most of these have arrived by email, but you can read a few here, here, and here. I’d love to hear more, and encourage your emails and comments.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read the Globe article, it’s based upon my earlier post “Speak, Recipe: Reading Cookbooks as Life Stories.” The main difference is that the Globe version is much more readable after being worked over by the able hands of a professional editor  – which was a wonderful experience, by the way – and includes an additional hint about Ben’s career.

Speak, Recipe: Reading Cookbooks as Life Stories

Cross-posted with ActiveHistory.ca

As a historian of food and nutrition, I’ve amassed a substantial collection of cookbooks, old and new, over the years. But one cookbook I often find myself coming back to amidst the hundred plus dusty volumes cluttering my office is a 1930 edition of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Meals Tested, Tasted and Approved: Favorite Recipes and Menus From Our Kitchens to Yours. I purchased it for $12 from a Toronto vintage shop and consider it one of my favourite purchases to date.

On the surface, at least, the cookbook seems unremarkable. Good Housekeeping cookbooks from the period are common enough, and like many others in my collection it’s well worn and smells vaguely of mildew and decades-old flour. Its spine is broken and held together with clear tape. Its pages are stuffed with dozens of handwritten recipes on cards as well as a number of others cut from newspapers and magazines. These include a fading recipe for Dandelion Wine written in pencil on a piece of scrap paper and a Campbell’s Soup can label with a recipe for Oven Glazed Chicken. In other words, it’s a cookbook like hundreds of others that could be found in kitchen cupboards in households across the country, and my personal collection includes its own fair share of similarly well-worn, well-loved volumes.

But what makes this particular cookbook remarkable – to me at least – is the inscription in the front cover left by its original owner, Jean Stephenson.[1]

My first cookbook, I was 18 yrs. old, living on my own employed, as an artist. This book was sent to subscribers of the Good Housekeeping Magazine that was full of information for the young, starting life together in the 1930 yrs.
Jean Stephenson
Still very good in 1997.

Then, with a different pen,  likely written later on:

Engaged to Ben at 19
Married at  . . . . 21 in 1932.
We had 57½ good years. Together…

And, finally, with another pen altogether:

Ben [passed] away
No illness at 84½ yrs.
In 1989.

I’ve always found this inscription very sweet, more than little sad, but also a powerful example of how even the most utilitarian cookbooks can become something more than just a simple directory of recipes. During my doctoral research, I became well acquainted with reading the multiple narratives embedded in cookbooks of all kinds. Of course, most of my sources were generally not as personal as Jean’s. But I could still read community cookbooks, for instance, in order to examine how they were often used to articulate and even define the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion within the church group, voluntary association, political party, or city that they were claiming to represent. I also quickly became well attuned to the ways in which mass-market cookbooks published by celebrity home economists or popular magazines did more than simply provide interesting recipes, but also tended to include extended meditations on women’s appropriate behavior in and outside the home through chapters on etiquette, table manners, and economical and scientific shopping practices.

But, as Jean’s inscriptions suggest quite forcefully, cookbooks tell us something much more personal about their readers, as well. The problem is, we often only come about this information by inference – particularly when we know nothing about the original owner. Still, many cookbooks do offer at least a few tantalizing clues who owned them and how they were used.

For instance, the pages showing the most use in Jean’s cookbook – i.e. the stained, dog-eared, discolored, and heavily annotated pages – are primarily in the baking section, particularly those with recipes for cookies, breads, and cakes. The recipe for Popovers, for instance, shows almost all of the above-mentioned signs of use, including annotations. The penciled in question “Yorkshire Pudding?” above the recipe appears to have been answered later on with the more confident words “Yorkshire Pudding” written over-top in blue ink and with a number of additions like “beat very well” written in pen over the original instruction to “beat eggs slightly.”

There’s other evidence that Jean adapted the recipes to her tastes over time and was willing to experiment with recipes that didn’t seem to work. Among the most stained pages is one with a recipe for Fruit Cake and, tucked in among the other recipes and cooking ephemera, is a day-planner page filled with the results of Jean’s research on how to improve the recipe, with handwritten notes on the variations of the recipe she found in the American Woman’s Cook Book (1947) and Ana Lee Scott’s Cooking Secrets (1934). The fact that such addendums were included along with a number of other “improvements” on recipes already in the cookbook, either written on paper or cut out from magazines and food packaging, suggests that Jean was always looking for better recipes, particularly for holiday baked goods.

But what I like best about Jean’s cookbook is how much it meant to her, beyond being simply a handy source of tested recipes. Her short biography written in the front pages makes this clear. Not only did she connect some of the key moments in her life to this particular book, but the fact that she added to her inscription on three separate occasions suggests that reading the cookbook acted as a powerful trigger for these memories of her youth, of her long and happy marriage, and of her husband’s death. I never knew Jean, so the actual content of these memories are lost, but I imagine that they flooded back to her every time she picked up the book from her shelf – just like my own do when I look through the cookbook that I helped my mother put together using recipes from my childhood.

This is what, I think, makes the inscription carry a note of sadness, separate from the death of Ben. This book clearly meant a great deal to Jean yet, after her death in 2009, it was not seen by those close to her as something worth holding on to. And this, I fear, is probably the fate of many such cookbooks. Much of their meaning is attached to their individual owners but, when this connection is lost, the memories associated with them are probably gone forever, as well. Jean left a few hints about her life in the front pages of the book but, as I know from experience, this is quite rare. Few cookbooks contain even the name of their owner, let alone information such as when they came into possession of it or how long they’ve been using it.

One reason why I think Jean’s cookbook may have been given away is related to the lack of value we, as a society, assign to cookbooks and women’s culinary literature more generally. Libraries and archives – the official repositories for Canada’s print heritage – typically afford little respect to cookbooks. Leading culinary historian Elizabeth Driver, for instance, found in the course of her research for Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (2008) that more than 1000 of the 2275 cookbooks she was able to identify from the period were not in libraries or archives at all but, instead, could only be found in private or personal collections.[2]

While some libraries and archives are working hard to remedy this situation, I would argue that our longstanding failure until now to protect Canada’s culinary heritage has always been a reflection of the lack of respect afforded to women’s work in the kitchen, more generally. Cooking has always been a key component of a broader set of gendered expectations placed upon women as wives, mothers, and daughters. As Diane Tye and others argue, the sheer weight of these expectations meant that, during most of the twentieth century, cooking became a form of women’s seemingly unending “invisible labour” – the constant, unpaid work that sustains the household and the family but usually receives little in the way of comment or acknowledgement, particularly when it is being done well.[3]

To a certain extent, I think that this discounting of the importance of women’s labour in the kitchen is one of the reasons why food history is often perceived as being less ‘serious’ than other areas of inquiry. I can’t tell you how many times another historian or colleague has told me that my research sounds ‘fun’ – at times seeming to imply that it’s somehow easier and less challenging than other areas of scholarly inquiry – even though most women during the period I study would likely associate cooking with work more than pleasure.

I don’t know how Jean felt about cooking but, after a bit of online sleuthing, I can tell you that it was a big part of her life. After having children, she gave up her career as an artist and, in all of the obituaries and tributes I read, there are references to her warmth, hospitality, and how she was well known for welcoming with open arms the guests from around the world that – because of her husband’s particular line of work –regularly passed through her home. I feel lucky to have found this cookbook and, through it, learn about more about her fascinating life and times.

Perhaps I’ll leave you with this thought: taking care of our cookbooks – within our families and in our archives – is an important component of celebrating and affording respect to the lives and work of ordinary women. It is therefore very much a feminist project and it’s one that social historians, in particular, should be spearheading. If you have any interest in sharing your cookbooks or stories, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment or send me an email at imosby (at) uoguelph.ca.


[1]Both Jean and Ben Stephenson are pseudonyms.

[2]  Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. xx.

[3] Diane Tye, Baking As Biography: A Life Story in Recipes (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) 96. My favourite work on women’s household labour in the Canadian context is Meg Luxton’s More Than a Labour of Love: Three Generations of Women’s Work in the Home (Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1980).

Joe Beef and the Invention of Culinary Tradition

[Originally published at ActiveHistory.ca, 14 June 2012]

Charles McKiernan, the original Joe Beef ca. 1875. McCord Museum, UAPT5014

As countless Canadian undergraduates have learned after reading Peter DeLottinville’s classic 1982 article, “Joe Beef of Montreal: Working-Class Culture and the Tavern, 1869-1889,” Joe Beef’s Canteen was more than just your ordinary tavern. Described as the “Great House of Vulgar People” by its larger-than-life proprietor Charles McKiernan – or Joe Beef as he was popularly known – a nineteenth century visitor to this ramshackle Montreal institution would likely have seen a brown bear named Tom drinking ale in the corner, two human skeletons hanging behind the bar, and piece of beef that had caused the death-by-choking of an unfortunate customer on display for all to see. For middle class Montrealers, it was a source of drunkenness, criminality and moral hazard. But, as DeLottinville argues, McKiernan’s working class patrons saw Joe Beef’s Canteen as more than just a place to find food, alcohol and sociability. McKiernan’s support for the unemployed, hungry, and sick – as well as for striking workers – saw the tavern become a kind of makeshift safety net for Montreal’s workers during hard times and, partly as a result of this function, a “stronghold of working class values and culture.”[1]

Although the recently published The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts (2011) begins with selections from DeLottinville’s article – albeit with the discussions of working-class politics and culture noticeably absent – it quickly becomes clear that the form of living described within would be much more recognizable to the educated leisure class that makes up today’s ‘foodie’ universe than the original Joe Beef or his clientele of “sailors and longshoremen, unemployed men and petty thieves.”[2] Written by the founders of contemporary Montreal restaurant Joe Beef – which has been described by celebrity chef and tastemaker David Chang as his “favorite restaurant in the world” – the ‘cookbook’ establishes its distance from this world of unskilled labourers and thieves by presenting the reader with the decadent “Fois Gras Parfait with Madeira Jelly” as its first recipe and by including an entire chapter dedicated to fine French wines.

For me at least, this led to two connected questions: why are the restaurant and the cookbook alike named after this (in)famous character from the rough world of Montreal’s working-class history and, more importantly, what does this tell us about the current, and very strange, moment in food culture? As it turns out, this surprisingly lively, funny, beautiful and thought-provoking book provides a fascinating glimpse into the way that food traditions are invented and sustained and, in the process, reinvents Montreal as one of the world’s top culinary destinations.

The most immediately striking thing about The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is its almost manic eclecticism. In addition to the expected recipes, it also includes everything from a short essay on the history of food in Quebec, a PEI travelogue, instructions on how to build a restaurant scale smoker from scratch (with technical drawings), a list of (mostly crackpot) food theories (!), instructions for putting together a fake Scandinavian smorgasbord, detailed descriptions of the best train routes in Canada, instructions for “building a garden in a crack den” and I can’t even finish listing what else. Oh yeah, “winemaker questionnaires” and instructions for making your own absinthe are also included.

But perhaps more than most cookbooks, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is self-consciously grounded in history. In addition to including an essay titled “The Builders, the Brewers, the Bankers, and the Gangsters: A Brief History of Eating in Montreal”, an essay on the nostalgic romance of rail travel in Canada, and Delottinville’s essay, the recipes themselves are interspersed amongst old maps, train schedules, historical photographs, old menus, archival documents, drawings, and postcards. From the beginning, restaurant co-founder David McMillan is introduced to the reader as a gregarious history buff who, from his position behind the bar, tells stories – “You know who else had a good Bordeaux list? Samuel de Champlain, on his boat, over 350 years ago…” – which are apparently lubricated often by more than one bottle of quality French wine. As he tells the reader at one point, with a wink and a nod and a bracketed aside: “Please forgive any embellishments. They seem quite natural when accompanied by dramatic hand waving and swearing: I’m a bar storyteller, remember?”[3]

To this end, McMillan’s history of Montreal’s culinary traditions reads like a series of tall-tales and campfire stories. Instead of the biggest fish ever caught or the most harrowing escape from an angry bear, it’s built on exaggerations about what gives Montreal its unique culinary identity. Apparently, for instance, the restaurant’s namesake “ran the old port of Montreal like the fictionalized Bill the Butcher ran the Five Points in Gangs of New York” and the old port, itself, “was built by men who ate oysters by the barrel, a trait that was passed down through the old families of the builders, brewers, bankers, and gangsters.”[4]

It should come as no surprise, then, that the story told of Montreal’s culinary tradition is a controversial one grounded in a sweeping but highly selective vision of Montreal’s history. In particular, four major factors defining the development of Montreal’s contemporary culinary landscape are identified: the early seigneurial system, the casse-croûte (snack bar) tradition, the post-WWII immigration wave, and – somewhat bafflingly – Expo 67. The latter, for instance, is explained as the moment when European chefs began to arrive in large numbers. “Its restaurants and pavilions attracted many of the world’s chefs to Montreal, and lucky for us, many of them stayed. Of these chefs, the majority were French. They came for the food and stayed for the forest, rivers, lakes, and the women (hey, it was the summer of love!).”[5]

Somehow, however, the story being told is not the incoherent mess that this description indicates but, instead, is a somewhat fantastic bricolage of images, smells, tastes, and memories that manages to give a compelling account of our current culinary moment and something of a unique commentary on Montreal’s popular self-image in the post-Quiet Revolution era. Chip shacks and delis, for instance, are placed on as high a pedestal as groundbreaking Montreal restaurants like Toque! or Citrus. Recipes simultaneously look traditional and modern, high-end and low-class, French and English (and Jewish and Irish and Haitian and many of the other groups that make up contemporary Montreal) and therefore range from the fanciful tongue-in-cheek high/low hybrids like Pork Fish Sticks or a Fois Gras Breakfast Sandwich to the more traditional and straightforward Pate en Croute, Schnitzel of Pork, or Chicken Jalfrezi.

Like many of the best cookbooks, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef seems to invent, as much describe, the culture of eating in its particular time and place. While The Joy of Cooking, for its part, presented a novel vision of American food traditions that – in a particularly white, Midwestern way – worked to bridge the country’s diverse foodways through its encyclopedic format and sheer volume of recipes, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef tries to overcome Montreal’s fractured linguistic, ethnic, and class divisions through an appeal to a common history and a common love for delicious foods that extends beyond – but also necessarily includes – the usual gravy-covered and cheese-curded suspects. (You know who you are.)

Sure, the history is often of the not-quite-true variety and most of its recipes would be unfamiliar or inaccessible to the average Montrealer, but the book presents a fascinating and compelling argument for a truly unique Montreal culinary tradition that traces its lineage from habitant culinary traditions to the original Joe Beef’s Canteen, fine French restaurants, and roadside casse-croûtes. Perhaps tall tales and half-histories are essential to the act of imagining and inventing culinary traditions across time and space. Taste is, indeed, personal and the food at the original Joe Beef’s Canteen was probably awful. This imagined Montreal – made real at the contemporary Joe Beef and through this cookbook – looks to me like a vibrant, living cuisine – grounded in Montreal’s past – and looking confidently to the future.


[1] Peter DeLottinville, “Joe Beef of Montreal: Working-Class Culture and the Tavern, 1869-1889” Labour/Le Travailleur8, 9 (Autumn/Spring 1981/82), 10.

[2]DeLottinville, Joe Beef, 10.

[3]Frédéric Morin, David McMillan & Meredith Erickson, The Art of Living according to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2011),47.

[4] Morin, McMillan and Erikson, Joe Beef, 47.

[5]Morin, McMillan and Erikson, Joe Beef, 52.

Eating Like Our Great-Grandmothers: Food Rules and the Uses of Food History

[Originally published at ActiveHistory.ca, 24 November 2011]

This month’s publication of a colourfully illustrated, revised edition of Michael Pollan’s 2009 bestseller, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, once again has me thinking about the role of historians in contemporary debates about the health and environmental impacts of our current industrial food system. As a historian of food and nutrition, I often find myself getting a bit squeamish whenever I hear anyone invoking the past to either defend or critique contemporary dietary practices. And Pollan, like other critics of the food industry, makes extensive use of history to guide his analysis of our current food choices.

My first reaction when I read Pollan’s second rule ­– “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” ­– was therefore immediately defensive. In part, this was based on my own reading of the often strange and wonderful recipes from the dozens of early- and mid-twentieth century cookbooks that were part of the research for my dissertation on the politics and culture of food and nutrition in Canada during the Second World War.

Arguably, for instance, most of us would have trouble recognizing mid-century Canadian food celebrity Kate Aitken’s 1945 recipe for “Green Salad” as something edible. With an ingredient list that includes gelatine, green food coloring, lemon rind, mayonnaise, chopped green pickles, and horseradish, this quivering green mass from Aitken’s Canadian Cook Book would be, to say the least, hard for most contemporary eaters to stomach. (I know from experience: I was recently left with a pretty much untouched salad after my 1940s food themed post-dissertation defense party.)

Kate Aitken’s 1945 recipe for Green salad from her Canadian Cook Book (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2004), 224.
Kate Aitken’s green salad (photo by author)

“Green Salad,” of course, is just the tip of the culinary iceberg. I could list dozens of other recipes that my great-grandmother might have read in cookbooks and magazines from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that would seem alien to most of us in the early 2010s. I’m personally still not brave enough to try Mrs. Elmer Scott of Newington Ontario’s recipe for “Pork Fruit Cake” – which includes 1 lb of “salted fat pork, chopped fine” – from the 1941 Cornwall Standard Freeholder Cookbook.

In Pollan’s defense, he readily concedes that the rule doesn’t always work perfectly and he stresses that it’s main purpose is that avoid eating many of the industrial preservatives, flavour enhancers, stabilizers, and other food additives that have become the basis our modern food system since the 1940s. Pollan even adds an addendum that you could substitute your own great-grandmother if she was a “terrible cook or eater” for someone else’s great-grandmother – particularly if that person is Sicilian or French.

While it’s easy to quibble with the details of Pollan’s great-grandmother rule – pointing out, for instance, that something like Jell-O, one of the quintessentially modern, mass-produced convenience foods, was introduced in 1897 ­­– the rule itself nonetheless acts as a useful shorthand for Pollan’s broader point. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, by and large, ate far less processed and heavily refined industrial foods than most of us currently do. The great-grandmother rule therefore provides a good place to start thinking about how our diets have changed over time. And, despite its faults, it’s probably much easier to wrap your head around than the confusing “servings” that form the basis of the contemporary Canada’s Food Guide  or the recently abandoned USDA Food Pyramid.

Pollan, of course, is not alone in pointing to the past for solutions to our contemporary problems. Whether it’s the current movements promoting the 100- mile diet, slow food, or the legalization of raw milk sales, food reformers often invoke the past as both a model and justification for changing contemporary practices. The same is also often true of the proponents of genetically modified foods, who point to the post-World War II green revolution and the history of famines and food shortages in the developing world to justify current drives to increase yields through the patenting of novel plants and animals. Even fad diets like the popular “paleo diet” often claim a certain level of legitimacy for their recommendations by invoking the supposed foodways of our ancestors.

In many ways, Pollan’s great-grandmother food rule and all of these broader attempts to use our knowledge of the past to deal with some of the most pressing contemporary issues is an extremely hopeful sign – despite the cringe inducing use of history by some, such as the “paleo diet” promoters. The general public and policy makers alike are, perhaps more than ever, looking to the past to explain our present predicament and to come up with viable solutions. This means that, not only can historians provide some important nuance and detail to these contemporary debates, but they can also help to encourage Canadians to engage more broadly with their past.

Ultimately, my own hope is that these kinds of calls to examine the diet of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers is accompanied by a growing interest, not just in how they ate, but in the role that food played in defining their lives and work, more broadly. While it is often easier to draw a direct line between the work of environmental and economic historians and problems with our contemporary food system, these kinds of invocations of our shared social and culinary history offer new outlets for other groups of historians to similarly engage with the general public.

In Canada, academic social and cultural historians, in particular, have been slow to meet this growing interest in food and culinary history. But the recent publication of an edited collection on Canadian food history from McGill-Queen’s University Press and a forthcoming collection from the University of Toronto Press – combined with a growing interest at a number of libraries and archives in cookbooks and other forms of culinary literature – are encouraging signs. Hopefully, by adding our voices to these contemporary debates over the future of food in Canada, professional social and cultural historians can find new audiences for our work and a more active (and activist) role in our communities.