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Cooking the books

A Year with the Berlin Cook Book[Notice]

  • Carolyn Blackstock

Opening the pages of a cookbook is always an adventure for me. I begin to imagine how each recipe will smell and look and taste. Opening a cookbook from another time is an even greater adventure. Will I recognize the ingredients? Are they still available? Can I understand the instructions? Would I want to eat the result if I prepared the recipe? Every day for an entire year I opened the pages of one particular cookbook: not an ancient cookbook, nor one from some far-off place. Instead, I prepared recipes from a cookbook published in my own community. Every day I walked into a world both familiar and unfamiliar: one expressed by/within The Berlin Cook Book, published in 1906 by the Berlin News Record. In 1906, Berlin, Ontario, was a town on the verge of becoming a city with a population of 12,151. Official cityhood celebrations took place in 1912, and just a few short years later the city’s name was changed to Kitchener. To mark the 100th anniversary of cityhood in 2012, I decided to cook from The Berlin Cook Book and to write about this experience in a daily blog. I took on this self-imposed challenge, using the proposed ingredients and methods, in the hopes of coming to a better understanding of the context from which these contributors and intended audience came. Most of the ingredients and equipment were familiar – things like butter, eggs, milk, flour, sugar, frying pans, sauce pots, and cake tins. Others were less familiar or were difficult to locate. I had purchased yeast cakes, Grape Nuts cereal, and doughnut cutters twenty years ago, but they were no longer easy to find. Recipes using five cents worth of oil of lemon or a box of raisins as measurements presented other challenges. And I have yet to find a few items like sheep’s tongue ... What I didn’t expect was the emotional connection I began to feel with women I’d never met, and who are long gone. As I prepared their recipes and researched their lives, I felt I knew them. That their world was changing is reflected in the recipes. Some women came from wealthy families or were married to men with successful careers. Other women lived in or near poverty or had their lives changed dramatically when a spouse died or deserted them. Some of the women were single and worked in factories or were beginning careers in nursing, teaching, or business. There were young women and old women; women caring for children or elderly parents; women born in the United States, Germany, France, Scotland, England, or Canada; Catholic women and Protestant women; all contributing their special recipes for a fundraising cookbook. My own world was also changing dramatically. My home was turned upside down for months on end as the result of a broken water pipe in April, and so I cooked in hotel rooms, friends’ kitchens, and in my own disordered house. But every day around 7 pm I stepped back in time to select and prepare a recipe, research its contributor, and write about it. The choice of recipe and subsequent blog entry reflect what was happening in my life. This was not my original intention. I’d expected to carefully plan for each recipe. Instead I used this cookbook in much the same way a woman in 1906 might have used it. I picked a recipe based on the ingredients in my house, time available, and any special occasions. After a few months, I started to make an assessment of the recipe contributor based on her recipe. There …

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