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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

  • Emily Weiskopf-Ball

Corps de l’article

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. [i] 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. [ii] 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. [iii] 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, [iv] 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, [v] I was not prepared for the boldness with which these women defended and gendered their work. The opening pages of the book argue that:

[s]uccess in housekeeping adds credit to the woman of intellect, and lustre to a woman’s accomplishments. It is a knowledge which it is as discreditable for any woman to be without as for man not to know how to make a living, or how to defend himself when attacked… no matter how talented a woman may be… if she is an indifferent housekeeper it is fatal to her influence, a foil to her brilliancy and a blemish in her garments. [vi]

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 success is certain.” [vii] The women made it clear that there was no such thing as luck in housekeeping. This was a serious job that required dedication and practice to master.

Many scholars have written about food making as gendered work that represents a labour of love. [viii] As a twenty-first century high school teacher, PhD student, mother of two young children, and member of a large extended family, these opening pages unsettled me. Questions I have struggled to answer since becoming a mother and starting my PhD resurfaced: Am I a bad wife and mother because my house is not perfectly clean, because I often indulge my two year old’s love of Kraft Dinner, and because I seek higher education and a meaningful career? By the Good Ladies’ standards, probably. But as I calmed down and reread the introductory chapter, I realised that the women who made the cookbook did not argue that women should be subordinate, guilt-ridden beings. Despite insisting that housekeeping be women’s top priority, they also maintained that women should be educated and handy. This all-encompassing guide tells women that they are “the engineer[s] to feed the fires, and keep the wheels oiled, and [on whom] the whole family system depends.” [ix] They make it clear that women must know how to stretch funds, manage different personalities, be able to make repairs, teach others, and plan ordinary and special events. These tasks may not be overtly public and are not associated with paid employment, but they are no less significant in terms of providing for one’s family and ensuring survival.

Importantly, the women who put this book together did work outside the home. As the members of the Ladies' Committee for Sick Kids Hospital, they managed all aspects of the hospital when it was first established. Their unpaid, volunteer tasks included "finance, hiring, supervision of nurses, approval of admissions and discharges, and appointment of physicians." [x] Importantly, "Toronto society of the 1870s and 1880s supported such womanly philanthropic work which conformed to the Victorian view of women as guardians of morality particularly in the young. The care of sick, needy children was an acceptable cause for a middle-class wife and mother concerned for the society beyond her home." [xi] While community cookbooks can work to eliminate social hierarchy by including contributions from members of various social classes, the tile of this particular work suggests the opposite. It is clear from the opening chapters that the book is written by middle-class women who could afford to volunteer outside the home because they could afford to hire help. These "Good Ladies" knew good food and may have made some of the recipes themselves, but their frequent references to servants, to grand parties, and to elaborate meals betray a standard and ideal to which others could only aspire.

As I cooked out of the cookbook, I was consistently humbled as a homemaker. Used to recipes that call for baking powder as a leavening agent, I surely would have failed Mrs. D. McCraney’s Velvet Cake had I not read the introduction to cake-making in the book explaining the need to beat the egg whites separately. Indeed, this technique explains why the recipe only calls for half a teaspoon of baking soda and cream of tartar. [xii] It was only after doing some research online that I learnt that cream of tartar, which “is formed from the sediment left over in barrels after the winemaking process,” is the common name for potassium bitartrate and that it is used “as an ingredient which will help activate baking soda.” [xiii] The cake was a huge success but I wondered how much of the scientific principles these women understood and how much came down to just doing what they had always done.

When I made Mrs. P. B. Ayer’s Chocolate Caramels, I realized just how much instinct is required to make these recipes successfully. Today, one can buy candy thermometers to determine readiness. However, these women did not and so I tested the candy using the time-honoured method of dropping a little bit of it into water to see what stage it had reached. Not given any instruction in The Canadian Home Cook Book, I consulted my copy of Joy of Cooking which provided very detailed instructions on testing candy and also on making caramels. In fact, not owning the molasses suggested by Mrs. Ayer, I substituted for the corn syrup recommended by Joy of Cooking. My candy tasted amazing and was extremely popular. However, it was a complete disaster in the sense that it had not actually reached the right consistency. It stuck to the foil I had failed to grease. Then to the greased pan to which it was moved. In the end, I had to tear it apart by hand, since it could not be cut with a knife, and roll it into small balls. Practice would certainly have allowed me to be more successful.

My experiences with most of the recipes I made were much like the two I described above. On one hand, the recipes tasted good. But, on the other hand, they were never perfect. From pancakes that nearly burnt to the pan, to puddings that remained lumpy, to croquettes that were complete mush, seemingly simple recipes proved much more challenging than I had ever expected. Generally, this was due to my own lack of expertise. With the croquettes, for example, I did not realize that they needed to rest before frying. With the chocolate pudding, I did not grate my chocolate finely enough. I still do not know what went wrong with the various pancake recipes I tried, but even my four year old understood the challenge of getting the right result when, upon taking the cookbook out for a second Sunday in a row, she said to me "y faut pas les bruler cette fois!" Easier said than done when the ingredients do not combine to give familiar results.

Overall, the book has inspired me. I had never made pudding from scratch before this project and I was happy to realize that it is a relatively simple process. This knowledge has made me more willing to make my own custards and fillings for lemon and cream pies and has also given me the confidence to try fancier desserts such as charlottes. As I investigated the preparation methods of these foods, I thus became more critical of the time-saving, convenience items such as packaged puddings. Yet, I also realized how lucky we are. For example, I have not yet tried a recipe for bread out this book because all the recipes call for a homemade, liquid yeast made of fresh hops. I could have figured out an alternative using dry active yeast but was sure the flavour and texture would be different so did not try to modernize the bread recipes. Some recipes, such as Plainer Pastry, are very similar to recipes still found in modern cookbooks. Others, however, such as Beef or Veal Loaf, were very bland and uninspiring.

While I often thought of the women who contributed the recipes as I was making them, one day was particularly memorable. As I stood at my stove making Chocolate Caramels, I shifted my gaze between the snow swirling over the ice on the lake outside and the liquid in my pot that was changing from a light to a golden brown. My open-concept kitchen allowed me to watch my daughters as they ran around but also allowed for the light from outside to shine onto my workspace. I wondered how many other people, like me, have tried this recipe and what views they had as they went about the task. That night, as if in answer to my question, I found the chapter "Our Susan's Opinion of a Kitchen" and realized that the Good Ladies were probably not the ones making these recipes. Yet this chapter, like the opening, introductory pages, affirmed that they also lived lives filled with tensions and contradictions. In the argument that a kitchen should be like a living room, with light and a view, or else the family should be afraid that the housekeeper would run off with the milkman [xiv] and by telling women that they should never "let anybody lay it to [them] that [they] are pampering [their] family and devoting [themselves] to a low sphere of action," [xv] I was struck again with the complexity of motherhood, womanhood, and wifehood. The cookbook is filled with messages addressed to women not only about how to run a household but also about balancing personal and societal expectations. On one hand, they should live within their means but, on the other, they should spend what extra money they have on improving their circumstances with showy commodities. They should feed their families the best food possible, but should offer choice and abundance. They should host parties with elaborate menus, but, by today's standards, the food itself was bland. Women should be educated and improve themselves, but they should be masters of the house. Of course these women could afford these luxuries but that does not mean that they lived a guilt-free, indulgent lifestyle. The members of the Ladies Committee were dedicated to improving society and they did this through their work in the hospital but also through this cookbook designed as "an aid to the ambitious housekeeper in one direction only, that is, on the way to all the rest." [xvi]

Although I had initially been upset by what had struck me as a hypocritical and antifeminist message, my experience with the cookbook has allowed me to realize that the Good Ladies make important points about necessary life and social skills. In a world where many adults and children do not know how to boil water let alone make food from scratch, where social media takes away from genuine social interaction, and where social etiquette is a often foreign concept, it would do well for all of us to focus on the lessons that should be learnt at home. Making these recipes with my daughters allowed me to work on important math skills such as additions and conversions. It also allowed me to teach them critical thinking by including them in trying to figure out what size a teacup would have been and what that equals in today's measurements. We also worked on planning by making lists of the ingredients needed to make the recipes. While at four and two they have not absorbed the complexity of these lessons, repeated exposure to the concepts will eventually translate into knowledge and instinct. Moreover, using a teacup inherited from their great-grandmother sparked their curiosity and allowed me to talk to them about women they have never known. Sharing the foods we made with others gave us all a sense of accomplishment and allowed us to foster meaningful relationships. From the Velvet Cake we made for a birthday party to the caramels and donuts we shared at the sugar shack, we not only created memories but we also passed them on to others. Times have certainly changed since the cookbook first appeared in 1877 but the women's central message that “[p]eople grow refined first in their eating” [xvii] still applies today. If we understand refinement to mean not only elegance and culture but also "the improvement or clarification of something by making small changes," [xviii] then we can also accept that home cooked food shared with friends and family help to bring us together as a society.

Recipe for Chocolate Pudding

There are two recipes for chocolate pudding. The first was contributed by Miss. Riley on page 171 and reads:

"One quart milk, three tablespoons sugar, four tablespoons corn starch, two and a half tablespoons chocolate; scald the milk over boiling water; dissolve the corn starch in a little scalded milk, and before it thickens add the chocolate dissolved in boiling water; stir until sufficiently cooked. Use with cream, or sauce of butter and sugar stirred to a cream."

The second was contributed by Mrs. E. Wood on page 196 and reads:

"One and a half quarts milk, boiled, one-half cake of chocolate stirred in milk, small cup of corn starch dissolved in little water, add two eggs, with one cup of sugar, a little salt. Cream for sauce."


Having never made pudding from scratch and being confused by the differences in these two recipes, I merged them to create the following. I also consulted a modern version of this recipe for guidance and am indebted to Faith Durand, author of Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake, and More No-Bake Desserts[xix] for her helpful instructions in "How to Make Perfect Chocolate Pudding from Scratch."

Step 1: Combine 1 cup of white sugar and 3 tablespoons of cornstarch. Finely grate 4 squares of Bakers Bittersweet Chocolate. (The chocolate will not break apart as it cooks so one must be sure to grate it finely or else it will leave chunks of chocolate in the finished product.) [Figure 1]

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Step 2: Scald 2 cups of whole milk. [Figure 2]

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Step 3: When warm, add the milk to the sugar and cornstarch mixture. Add the chocolate and beat in 2 egg yolks. [Figure 3]

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Step 4: Return to stove and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until it reaches the desired thickness. Place in a bowl to cool. [Figure 4]

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Serve with whipped cream if desired.

Parties annexes