Cooking the books

"Tried! Tested! Proven!The Canadian Home Cook Book Compiled by: Ladies of Toronto and Chief Cities and Towns in Canada, 1877, 384 pages[Record]

  • Emily Weiskopf-Ball

While I had heard of The Canadian Home Cook Book when doing research for an article on community and family cookbooks, I had not realized that it was still in print until I saw a reference to it in the 2013 Fall/Winter issue of CommUNITY, a community magazine that is published four times a year in my area. Acknowledged as the first community cookbook in Canada, The Canadian Home Cook Book was originally compiled by the Good Ladies of Toronto and Other Chief Cities and Towns in Canada to raise funds for Sick Kids Hospital. Not only did this book begin a tradition of using cookbooks as a fundraising tool, but the work itself also continues to be a popular collection today. In fact, since it was first published in 1877, it has been reprinted so many times that Elizabeth Driver dedicated twelve pages of Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 to listing the various editions she had found. Despite the embarrassing fact that the Good Ladies plagiarized at least some of the text from The Home Cook Book of Chicago: 'compiled from recipes contributed by ladies of Chicago and other cities and towns: Published for the benefits of the Home of the Friendless,' their actions have not had a lasting impact the book's overall appeal. Indeed, the original purpose of the project has been lost to the modern reader. Driver noted that the explanation of the project, which appeared in the 1877 edition, does not appear in these many reprints. The version of the cookbook I used, published in 2002, is itself reprinted from a version published in 1971 and makes no reference to either Sick Kids Hospital or the Ladies' Committee. If not for the title and a few recognizable names, one would need to do research to figure out its origins. When I imagined the cookbook, I pictured a collection of recipes to meet the needs of any, and all, occasions. I expected recipes for cakes and cookies but also for dinner staples such as roasts and soups. In other words, I expected The Canadian Home Cook Book to be a valuable addition to my growing cookbook collection as a trusted, go-to text. Knowing that community cookbooks generally seek to be inclusive, I expected multiple versions of the same “tried, tested, proven” recipes. As a compilation of recipes by women intended for women, I also knew that there would be minimal directions included with the recipes. But as an avid cook, I was confident that my years of practice had given me the instinct needed to make even the most challenging recipes. In many ways, the cookbook lived up to my expectations. The 300 page book includes over 300 valuable recipes ranging from soups to breakfast items to desserts to drinks. Many of these, such as scrambled eggs and chocolate cake, are common items. But I was surprised to see that the book also included recipes for home remedies, cleaning products, and creams. Moreover, while I was aware of the didactic nature of cookbooks, I was not prepared for the boldness with which these women defended and gendered their work. The opening pages of the book argue that: The Good Ladies continued their polemic in the opening chapter to argue that housekeeping “is one of those things to be imbibed without effort in girlhood, instead of being taken up at marriage and experimented on with varying certainty for the rest of one’s natural life… By practising the same recipe carefully, all these and other points fix themselves in your mind, so that …