Note to self – check the publication date on books you borrow from the library. Sometimes you just don’t want to go there.
This note to self is provoked by a recent library acquisition that wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. The Great Canadian Literary Cookbook, while definitely Canadian, in a way only Canadians can be, is unfortunately, not Great. Not by a long shot.
I grabbed this book originally because I thought it would be a bit more… literary, in its content. I’ve had an idea to create an anthology of food memoirs by Canadian authors and sort of expected this would be along those lines. And certainly, there are some great food-related books by Canadian authors out there – Austin Clarke, for instance.
Let me start from the beginning. Every year in Sechelt, British Columbia, Canadian writers and readers come together for The Festival of the Written Arts. It’s now called the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, and no, I don’t know where Sechelt, BC, is exactly, although somewhere along the BC coast is my best guess. After one festival the organizers came up with the idea to do a cookbook with contributions from festival participants. In 1994, they published the cookbook.
It’s a nice idea, no doubt, and most definitely a keepsake for the folks who were there and experienced the festival. (Not so much for the original owner of this particular book, though. The inscription on the first page indicates it was a Christmas gift to “Al” who, it appears, donated the book to the Toronto Public Library when he tired of it, which was probably somewhere around Boxing Day.) But the result turned out to be more like one of those spiral bound community cookbooks where locals get together and create and sell cookbooks to raise money for charity. This one looked nicer, but the content was pretty much the same.
See, the problem with the great Canadian Literary Cookbook is that the majority of the writers included are not particularly well-known. There are no secret cookies recipes from chez Atwood, no thoughtful stews from Ondaatje, no Richler family chicken soup. There’s clam chowder from Pierre Burton, beef stew from Ben Wicks, other people’s recipes from Carol Shields, and a recipe for chicken fajitas from that Vinyl Cafe guy. Plus a whole lot of really not outstanding recipes from a bunch of unknown poets and writers, mostly from British Columbia, who no one has ever heard from again.
The other issue, as was the case with the contributions from Carol Shields, is that not everyone knows how or likes to cook. Many of the recipes included are attributed to friends, family or neighbours. Many writers didn’t submit recipes at all, but rather essays on how they can’t cook and have no recipes to contribute. In many cases these were better reading than anything else in the book, because one can only take so many recipes for welsh cakes (3 in total) or dry writer’s bios before one needs a little something amusing.
Of particular note was a piece from BC writer Christie Harris who recounts her attempt at making 7 minute icing by adding gelatin. Harris was born in 1908, so the request for the particular cake and frosting likely came at the heyday of its popularity in the late 40s or early 50s. When, after much whipping and cooking, the frosting wouldn’t set, Harris added gelatin:
So I quickly slathered the cake with the 7 minute icing until it shone like the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I stuck in the candles before it could change its mind. […] Only… as the knife went down, down, down, the icing went down, down down with it. So she pulled the knife up… up, up, up and the icing came up, up, up with it. Like elastic. Her sister slashed across the gummy strand with her knife and proved that this elastic had two-way stretch.
Honestly, that passage was the most interesting in the whole book. The recipes are mediocre dinner favourites that almost everyone has in their own repertoire. The writer photos that accompany each biography show ladies with nice perms and those owlish 80s-style eyeglasses, even though the book was published in 1994.
So if you happen to come across the Great Canadian Literary Cookbook in your library travels (because I don’t suspect you can buy it new anywhere), my advice would be to leave it on the shelf. There are no recipes that will blow your mind and unless you like giggling at people with bad perms and outdated accessories, it’s a dish best left alone.