Historian of Food, Indigenous Health & Settler Colonialism

Canada War Cake

Last night provided a perfect example of why messy, heavily-annotated and well-used cookbooks are more important historical sources than clean, lightly used ones. After my talk on the politics and culture of food during the Second World War, the Culinary Historians of Canada provided some amazing wartime snacks. And in the process of trying to figure out whether a recipe for “Canada War Cake” from a wartime community cookbook published in 1918 would have actually been used during the Second World War, we discovered that some of the pieces of newspaper that had become stuck to the back of the oilcloth cover included references to the Nazis, suggesting that – indeed – the recipes proved to be useful during both wars!

Thanks again to Liz Driver, the Campbell House Museum, the Culinary Historians of Canada, and everyone who came out last night. It was a lovely way to spend an evening. I learned a lot from your questions and our conversations after the talk. I really look forward to incorporating some of your insights into my book.

If you couldn’t make it to the talk but want to try making your own Canada War Cake, here’s a recipe submitted by a reader of the Windsor Daily Star in March 1942.

Food Will Win the War

Just a heads up for anyone in the Toronto area: on Wednesday, November 14, I’m giving a public lecture entitled “Food Will Win the War: Eating for Victory during Canada’s Second World War” sponsored by the Culinary Historians of Canada and Campbell House Museum. I’ve been told that there will be period refreshments which will include, among other things, my favourite wartime recipe, “Canada War Cake.”

Below are some of the event details from the Culinary Historians of Canada website:


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).

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.