Cooking the Books

Waste not, want not: Toronto Public Library (TRL)

In an era when restaurants and food shops come and go, it’s difficult to remember food trends from even a couple of years ago, let alone decades or centuries. But everybody eats – preferably three times a day – and over the years, the changes that have taken place in terms of food in Toronto are vast.

Until January 11th, 2009, the Toronto Reference Library (TRL) is offering a peek into the history of food in Toronto through an exhibit in their gallery space called Local Flavour: Eating in Toronto, 1830-1955.

Curated by librarian Sheila Carleton of the Special Collections, Genealogy & Maps Centre, the idea for the exhibit came about because of the opportunity to restore some historical cookbooks in the TRL’s collection. “In 2006, the Toronto Reference Library was invited to apply for a grant from the Culinary Trust for restoration of up to 4 historical cookbooks in our collection,” explains Carleton. “Our application was accepted and two local conservators were commissioned to carry out the work. As it is an honour to be invited to apply for the grant, we thought that the public would be interested in seeing these and other cookbooks in our collection.”

Dating back to the beginnings of the city, the exhibit includes photographs and engravings of markets and prominent shops, menus from local restaurants and hotels, cookbooks, appliance catalogues, seed catalogues and even old canning labels from locally grown produce. Carleton admits that the most difficult aspect of bringing the exhibit together was going through the large quantity of books, photographs, catalogues and documents in the library’s collection and then narrowing it down to a number easy to display.

Canning labels: Toronto Public Library (TRL)

Some unique items in the exhibit include a copy of The Cook Not Mad, the first English-language cookbook published in Canada in 1831; a World War 2 ration book; and the first liquor license issued in Toronto in 1811 to Alexander Wood (note – likely not the infamous Alexander Wood now immortalized in statue form at Church and Wood Streets).

And for the recession-wary, a look at a few old menus is sure to amuse – in 1904, the calf’s head with mushrooms was only 25 cents at Webb’s; and a chicken dinner with soup, salad and dessert, plus tea, coffee or hot chocolate was $1.25 at Traymore Savarin on Bay Street in 1925.

Cowan’s cocoa: Toronto Public Library (NYCL)

By the 1930s, Angelo’s, one of the city’s first Italian restaurants, was offering all the variations of spaghetti (with tomato sauce or with tomato sauce and meatballs), plus a number of traditionally French inspired dishes.

And it’s not just in the area of ethnic cuisine that Toronto has experienced changes. One of my personal favourite pieces in the exhibit, and coincidentally Carleton’s as well, is an engraving of the old fish market from a watercolour by W.H. Bartlett in 1838, before the city began extending the shoreline south in the 1850s. “The south building of the St. Lawrence Market now occupies the site,” says Carleton. “The engraving shows the Coffin Block, a building that was replaced by the Gooderham or Flatiron building later in the 19th century. You can also see that the shoreline appears to be along the current Esplanade. It’s a fascinating view of Toronto of 150 years ago.”

Carleton also mentions that she learned a lot from curating the exhibit, both in terms of the city’s social and cultural history and experiencing the breadth and depth of the library’s collections. “I’ve always been personally interested in good food and cooking (although not the daily grind) but curating the show gave me a greater appreciation of how difficult and time-consuming it used to be, especially in the 19th century.”

John Atkinson: Toronto Public Library (TRL)

That difficulty is obvious from viewing the collection. From the small display of scary-looking and sometimes obsolete kitchen gadgets, to the catalogues for new and innovative appliances such as electric stoves and refrigerators to replace wood stoves and ice boxes; it becomes evident that feeding a family back then was hard work.

Carleton says the reaction to the exhibit so far has been very positive. “I would like people to appreciate the continuity of the city’s history as seen through the family tradition of cooking,” she explains, making reference to the manuscript cookbooks, and also local manufacturing companies, markets and shops still in business today, as well as the places that have closed down over the years to be replaced with new businesses on the same site. “It is the constant sense of renewal tempered by tradition.”

Which in a way, is really what Toronto’s food history is all about.

Local Flavour: Eating in Toronto, 1830-1955 runs from October 25 – January 11, 2009 at the TD Gallery, Main Floor, Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge Street. A virtual tour of some of the exhibit can be seen on the website.