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Community Cookbooks in the Prairies

  • Kristine Kowalchuk

Corps de l’article

Every Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, one dish always graces my family’s table: beet rolls. Like cabbage rolls, beet rolls are filled with pearl rice, sautéed onions, and dill, but their beet-leaf wrapping offers a beautiful fuchsia spine, and they are baked in cream and more sautéed onions rather than tomato sauce. Beet rolls are even more finicky to make than cabbage rolls because beet leaves are generally smaller, but my mom likes this kind of work with her hands, and she’s good at it. I have also seen references to beet rolls by Alberta cooks online, as well as in We Eat Together, published in Edmonton in 2009, which includes a recipe for loboda rolls (also called green holobsti).[1] Loboda, I found out, is orach, similar to spinach, but the recipe notes that beet greens could be substituted. And really, all of these recipes are just variations on cabbage rolls, which almost everyone in Alberta eats, and for which nearly everyone has a family recipe (which they argue is best).

My mom, like many people who make cabbage rolls in Alberta, is not Ukrainian. But when she was growing up in Regina and Edmonton, her German family often had Ukrainian and Polish neighbours, and they shared traditions and recipes back and forth, and they often intermarried (hence my own last name). At twelve or thirteen, my mom tasted beet rolls for the first time when her third cousin’s Ukrainian mother-in-law made them; the recipe then became part of my mom’s German family’s traditions. Such sharing of recipes is typical of many Prairies families in the first half of the 20th century. Prairie cookbooks from that period reflect these exchanges—the ubiquity of certain recipes even suggests the development of a kind of intercultural Prairies cuisine.

The story of cookbooks in the Prairies is still largely untold, although that is beginning to change. Elizabeth Driver was the first to pay scholarly attention to Prairies cookbooks, in her foundational Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks 1825–1949, published in 2008.[2] This past winter (2012–2013), my colleague Caroline Lieffers and I used Driver’s book as a base in curating the online exhibit Culinaria: A Taste of Food History in the Prairies, at the University of Alberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. I focused on cultural community cookbooks, while Caroline took on culinaria relating to business branding, war and politics, and health and education. Our findings supported two related points Driver suggests about Prairies cookbooks: firstly, the cookbooks story here is distinct from other regions of Canada, and secondly, this story is mostly one of cultural community cookbooks. These points are connected both to the Prairies’ settlement history and to its climate.

Settlement happened later in the Prairies than in eastern Canada, and when people did come, it was almost always to farm. This is not to say that farms were not prevalent in the East, but, rather, that Prairies cities, few and far between, were comparatively small and less cosmopolitan. This settlement pattern made for a number of differences in terms of both cookbooks and food in the Prairies. First, the Prairies cities were not the professional printing and publishing centres Toronto and Montreal were, so few commercial cookbooks were produced here. Second, the region’s predominantly rural makeup and isolation, combined with the harsh, dry climate, necessitated a certain self-sufficiency. Fewer foods were locally manufactured than in the East. At the same time, while staple items were widely available and purchased in stores, very few fresh items were imported—and those that were rarely made it to small towns or onto rural tables. Most farmers grew their own vegetables, and the unforgiving climate determined which vegetables these might be (fruit is a similar story; until the 1950s, when hardier varieties were developed, even apples were rare). Cabbages and beets, staple ingredients of the Eastern Europeans who arrived by the tens of thousands in the 1920s, simply grew well here, and so these were the foods that were eaten and the ingredients in the recipes that were shared. Thus, while Doug McCalla’s research has shown the limits of self-sufficiency in rural Ontario in the early 2oth century, the situation in the Prairies was very different. As Peter A. Russell notes in How Agriculture Made Canada, the Prairies posed “specific challenges . . . to all [new]comers,” and

even as Ontario and British settlers changed the political landscape [i.e., so that the third wave of Eastern European settlers to the Prairies arrived into an English, rather than French, context], the literal landscape and climate forced those settlers and all others to adapt their balance of subsistence and market-oriented production to severe new realities on the Prairies.[3]

As beets and cabbages were not favoured to the same extent in Ontario or the areas of the United States where commercial cookbooks were widely published, Prairies cookbooks, like the region’s cuisine, also developed somewhat independently.

Like community cookbooks elsewhere in Canada, those in the Prairies were compiled mostly by women and they were published primarily by church or other community groups, often for fundraising purposes. Most of the cookbooks published in the Prairies before 1950 were community cookbooks. As Driver notes, 54 percent of the 57 cookbooks published in Manitoba were community cookbooks; 83 percent of the 126 cookbooks from Saskatchewan were community cookbooks (many of which were compiled by the Homemakers’ Clubs of Saskatchewan, the equivalent of Women’s Institutes clubs elsewhere); and 61 percent of the 127 cookbooks from Alberta were community cookbooks.[4] In fact, the predominance of community cookbooks here partly explains why the history of Prairies cookbooks has been so little studied—as inexpensive, amateur books, they have traditionally been of little interest to libraries, and instead remain in people’s homes; when they have been collected, it has been by community museums that value them as material objects. But these books do reveal much about early 20th-century Prairie life. While their numbers reflect the Prairies’ relatively rural settlement pattern and the willingness of its contributors to work together for the collective good, the very nature of community cookbooks also means that the books’ contents provide a snapshot of various aspects of Prairie life—demographics, economics, and social attitudes—at their time of compilation.

Perhaps the first thing one notices in looking at Prairie community cookbooks is that they broadly mirror the cultural demographics here in the first half of the 20th century. Manitoba’s large German community, for example, is reflected in the German-language Das Neue Nordwestern Kochbuch[5] from Winnipeg (1945), while its francophone community is at least somewhat reflected in the later Recettes des Femmes de St. Joseph[6] (1968)—even if the recipes are in English (more on this cookbook below). Saskatchewan was also mixed culturally, although a relatively large American population is evident in recipes such as Washington State Apple Pie in The Quill Lake Homemaker’s Club Cook Book[7] (1949) and in New England Baked Beans and Nesselrode Pudding (a once-common recipe popularized in New York) as well as in the single coloured ad, for Swans Down Cake Flour (from Igleheart Brothers in Evansville, Indiana), in the Assiniboia Cook Book (1925).[8] Alberta’s large Ukrainian population, especially in and north of Edmonton, means that many of the community cookbooks from this province are from Ukrainian church groups, such as St. Josaphat Cathedral’s A Cookbook Containing Recipes Tested and Proven by the Ukrainian Ladies’ Good Will Organization and Friends[9] (1941, reprinted three times through the 1940s and 1950s), which includes recipes for the 12 dishes of a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner.

All of these cookbooks contain a number of recipes carried from “the old world,” but cross-cultural recipe sharing is also evident. The Quill Lake Homemaker’s Club Cook Book includes recipes for a number of popular “ethnic” dishes, such as Mrs. Axel Olson’s Julekake and Annie Zeebin’s Holopski; it also includes an unattributed recipe for “Conserves de Poisson written in French (with just a few errors). Similarly, the Assiniboia Cook Book includes recipes for Mrs. Fogal’s Cabbage Roll and Mrs. J. K. Kerchner’s Sauer Kraut, while the Ukrainian Ladies’ Good Will cookbook includes Czech Babovka (a lemon and almond cake), Danish Coffee Rolls, (Hungarian) Strudel, and Jewish Mundelen - Soup Nuts. Certain recipes, regardless of the book’s cultural affiliations, appear in almost all the community cookbooks: cabbage rolls, sauerkraut, and baked beans or chili con carne. Ubiquitous ingredients include cabbage, beets, canned or dry beans, and rhubarb, appearing as they do in numerous preparations. The Assiniboia Cook Book includes recipes for rhubarb relish, rhubarb conserve, rhubarb jam, rhubarb marmalade, rhubarb pickles, and rhubarb wine. Meanwhile, pickles—of cucumbers, but also of cabbage (often in the form of chow chow), beets, beans, and rhubarb, and sometimes tomatoes or watermelon rind—usually fill a whole chapter. A few cookbooks include recipes making use of wild ingredients. Assiniboia Cook Book includes recipes for Roast Canadian Prairie Chicken and Rabbit Sauté,” while Das Neue Nordwestern Kochbuch includes Ragout of Venison and Roast Leg of Bear (the titles are translated to English). However, one curious rarity is the saskatoon and other wild berries, which appear only occasionally in community cookbooks, even though saskatoon preserves, jam, pie, and perogies are popular and long-established recipes in the Prairies. Such an omission, however, is telling. Wild fruits were the humblest ingredients, and perhaps women did not feel they were special enough to include in a cookbook. Rabbit Sauté and Ragout of Venison suggest an attempt to depict wild foods somewhat elegantly, in a way that fried rabbit or deer stew do not. An aspirational element is indeed evident in these cookbooks, through their inclusion of “fancy” recipes such as Assiniboia Cook Book’s A Nice Dessert and Paradise Pudding, which made use of new, yet simple and affordable ingredients such as canned pineapple and lemon Jell-O. Such ingredients allowed Prairie women to participate to some extent in the food trends advertised in popular women’s magazines.

Besides the missing berries, therefore, community cookbooks in the Prairies do seem to reflect what people really ate: foods that grew well in Prairie gardens or were inexpensive and available in stores. Relevance and usability mattered, and, as Driver notes in “Canadian Cookbooks (1825–1949): In the Heart of the Home,” the names attached to each recipe in a community cookbook “act as a sort of guarantee, for who would submit a recipe that wasn’t useful or didn’t work?”[10] The relative isolation of most Prairie kitchens and the harshness of the climate meant that recipes that were useful and that did work were indeed of value, and their common inclusion in cookbooks reveals the extent to which they were shared. And it is clear these community cookbooks were indeed used. Quill Lake contains many careful corrections by an alert and skilled cook and baker, while, in the Scandinavian The Vasa Book of Favourite Recipes, one recipe for Pepparkakor (ginger cookies) is followed by the handwritten comment, “Like Grandma Kranenberg used to make.”[11]

These community cookbooks also point to the agricultural economy and make-up of towns in the Prairies in the first half of the 20th century. The very title and publication of United Farm Women of Manitoba Cook Book[12] (1929) is an obvious example of an agricultural focus, but a number of ads in all the books also reflect the nature of life in the Prairies. Many of the ads, such as those for baking products and beauty parlours, are directed at the housewife, but alongside these are ads for agricultural fertilizers, farm stock, grain elevators, blacksmiths, harness shops, tractor dealerships, and other farm machinery, such as “The new Massey-Harris Disc Plow,” which, “running on Timkin Bearings, is the most up-to-date. Pulls a horse lighter.”[13] Other ads publicize local insurance companies (including those that cover hail damage, presumably for crops), furriers (such as The Dominion Furriers, “the Only Furriers that Handle Buffalo Fur Coats in Canada”), dentists, shops, cafés, and theatres. These businesses were important contributors in the creation of community cookbooks, and The Vasa Book of Favourite Recipes even begins with a table of contents of advertisers. One of these is the Calgary Brewing and Malting Co. Limited, which began operations in 1893 and was Alberta’s first brewer; the ad is for Calgary Ginger Ale, for, in order to stay in operation during Prohibition, the company introduced a line of soft drinks. Meanwhile, an ad for Sam Long Laundry in the Assiniboia Cook Book also speaks of the past by reflecting a common early 20th-century Chinese occupation in Prairie towns--as well as the proprietor's interest in participating in the larger community, through purchase of this ad space. These ads thus offered as much of a snapshot of Prairies’ history as did the recipes themselves.

However, omissions relating not only to wild berries, but also to the representation of cultural groups also say something about life on the Prairies in the early 20th century. As is evident in the examples above, not all cultural groups created cookbooks. It is worth noting that Indigenous groups did not create community cookbooks, even when associated with a church group; the reasons most certainly relate to their exclusion by the settler groups and their relegation to a separate social system. But some settler groups did not create community cookbooks either. In preparing the Culinaria exhibit, I called Teresa Spinelli, whose family has owned Edmonton’s Italian Centre Shop grocery store since 1961, to ask about Italian community cookbooks; her reply was simply that there were none: “We’ve just done the same thing for generations. Nothing’s really written down.” Perhaps for such a simple reason no early French-Canadian community cookbooks appeared in the Prairies either. When Recettes des Femmes de St. Joseph from Manitoba appeared in 1968, it was written entirely in English, and it included only a few traditional French-Canadian dishes. A lack of community cookbooks by certain cultural groups does not mean that these groups did not continue to develop culinary traditions in the Prairies. Italian and French-Canadian cooking certainly continued, evolved, and influenced the cooking of other cultural groups, as is evident in Maple Syrup Pie in the Assiniboia Cook Book and Spaghetti with Meat Balls in the Jewish Hadassah Cook Book[14] (1947) from Medicine Hat. (Cross-cultural influence cannot always be directly traced—the spaghetti and meatballs recipe might actually have come from a Jewish cousin in Montreal or New York—but influence was always limited by what actually grew or was available in stores; had there not been an Italian community in the Prairies, it would probably have been impossible to buy dried pasta, and this recipe would have never caught on.) For some reason, community cookbooks were just not a part of Italian and French-Canadian communities’ culture in the Prairies, and their recipes were thus likely shared orally or, in some cases, written on loose pieces of paper and compiled in private tins or notebooks. Perhaps these groups were not large enough to undertake community cookbooks, or perhaps they raised funds for their churches and cultural centres through more direct means.

The reasons for a lack of community cookbooks by some other cultural groups is probably not quite so simple. While Sam Long bought the ad space mentioned above in the Assiniboia Cook Book, Chinese community cookbooks were largely nonexistent—the only Chinese cookbook of the period seems to be Chinese Recipes,[15] from 1947, compiled by the Ho Lem family, who owned Rosedale Cleaners in Calgary.[16] The racism Chinese settlers endured by settlers of European descent likely explains this gap, since, as Anne Bower argues, community cookbooks usually suggest themes of cultural integration and triumph.[17] While “Chinese” restaurants sprang up across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta as railway workers settled in these provinces, these restaurants were initially labeled as such because of their owners, not because of the food, and the underground city in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where Chinese immigrants lived and worked and which can still be visited today, testifies to the Chinese settlers’ exclusion from the larger, white, society. While searching for early Chinese cookbooks for the Culinaria exhibit, I came upon Janice Wong’s recent cookbook/memoir, Chow[18] (2005), in which she tells the story of her late father’s restaurants in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in the 1940s and 1950s. Wong’s father opened his first restaurant, Wings Café, in 1944, and his menu featured over one hundred items, none of which were Chinese. It was not until he opened a second restaurant, The Lotus, in 1956, that Wong’s father offered Chinese dishes.[19] As with Italian and French-Canadian dishes, these recipes were eventually incorporated into Prairie cuisine, as proven, for example, by the inclusion of a chop suey recipe in Recettes des Femmes de St. Joseph. Meanwhile, the western dishes Wong’s father continued to serve even in The Lotus were likely derived from neighbours’ recipes. Wong notes that when she was growing up, “In our multicultural neighborhood we discovered a wealth of tasty food—varenikies, kolbassa, kugel, brandy snaps, Welsh cakes.”[20]

Similar to the Chinese experience, Arab immigrants who settled in the Prairies (an immigration overlooked by most historians) did not create community cookbooks. They did, however, continue to develop their own food traditions. My mother’s friend Evelyn, who grew up in Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta, remembers her Lebanese mother wrapping bread dough inside her mink coat to let it rise. And in Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes and Recollections,[21] Habeeb Salloum tells the story, largely through food, of his family’s immigration to Canada in the 1920s to farm. They settled north of Val Marie and hunted and trapped, gathered wild plants, gardened, and grew crops. Salloum notes that he and his siblings ached to fit in with their neighbours of European descent (validating Russell’s note that “one cannot assume that every member of every group sought to preserve their ethnic distinctiveness” in the Prairies[22]). But when the Depression hit, Salloum’s family fared better than those of many other cultural groups because of their experience with subsistence farming in Syria; the chickpeas and lentils they planted grew well in the dry conditions.[23] Today, alongside beets and cabbage, chickpeas and lentils grow on commercial farms in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Community cookbooks did not come to an end in 1950. Instead, they continued to evolve along with cultural demographics, economics, and social attitudes in the Prairies. Recent Prairie community cookbooks reflect cultural tolerance and enthusiasm for culturally diverse foods. Flavours of Edmonton: Dishes from Around the World,[24] for example, published in 2011 to raise money for the Edmonton Food Bank, includes recipes for everything from Afghani Kabuli Pulao” to Thai Seafood Yum to Dakabaw from the Karen people of Burma. Alongside these recipes are Mom’s Cabbage Rolls, Pickled Beet Potato Salad, Best Bean Salad, and Rhubarb Pudding (but still no saskatoons!). Cabbage, beets, beans, and rhubarb are now traditional foods in Alberta, and they grow as well as they ever did. My family has passed on the beet-roll recipe many times (because, of course, ours is better than anyone else’s cabbage-roll family recipe), and we will continue to make them for every holiday.

Community cookbooks tell much of the story, culinary and otherwise, of the Prairies in the first half of the 20th century—through both what is included and what is left out. And while reflecting their place and time, these books also suggest hope and a willingness to work together for a better life. They are “ideologically motivated, in their form as well as their content,”[25] and enabled women to effect positive change. The recipes reveal Prairie women’s desire to make the most of what they had and to provide well for their families in spite of isolation and harshness of the climate. And the cookbooks reveal the women’s desire to improve their communities by raising money for hospitals, community halls, and other projects. In a way, cookbooks are the ideal avenue for such hope and positive outlook. “Cookbooks,” says Janet Theophano, “tell us how to make beauty and meaning in the midst of the mundane—a concept especially important for women, whose lives are punctuated by the demands of feeding others.”[26] As libraries and scholars increasingly value community cookbooks, adding them to collections and considering them as legitimate written accounts, the story of Prairies culinaria, and our understanding of the historical context within which these books were created, will only become more complete.

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