Book Review – Baking as Biography

Baking as Biography – A Life Story in Recipes
Diane Tye
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 260 pages, $24.95

Most of us can look to a mother or grandmother as a cooking mentor; someone who taught us the basics of home cooking, and who shared their love of the craft and inspired us to try new dishes and expand our cooking repertoires. But what of the poor souls whose mothers didn’t cook, or worse, who didn’t cook well? What of the people who mothers cooked, but hated it?

Diane Tye had one such mother. A minister’s wife in the Maritimes during the 70s, Tye’s mother was obligated to cook, not just for family, but for myriad church and community events, but never truly enjoyed it.

Tye herself went on to become a Women’s Studies professor at Memorial University, and tells her story in two distinct voices; first the clinical voice of science, observing trends in food and social norms during her childhood, and analyzing how they affected her mother, and in turn her family with regards to what she baked, when, and for whom. But when recalling specific stories about her mother, her baking for various events or a description of the dish, Tye’s voice becomes softer, more familial, verging at times on romanticized. This jump can be disconcerting as Tye attempts to distance herself from the information.

Tye’s mother had separate sets of recipes for family treats (chocolate chip cookies, biscuits), casual gatherings (pie or cake) and social or church gatherings (fancy squares for events like wedding or baby showers), and the author analyzes the meaning of each – for instance, family dishes were kept simple and cheap, while dishes for company, or events where a dish might be side by side with someone else’s, called for the inclusion of more advanced techniques and fancy ingredients.

I think this book affected me so strongly because I grew up in the same part of the country during the same time frame. Tye describes baked goods indigenous to the region (like the horrifying Maritime specialty, the gumdrop cake) and places those dishes in the same status structure that I grew up within; molasses cookies for every day snacking, pie or a cake for some special occasion at home, and the big guns in the form of things like multi-layer squares for social or community events. She also references a number of dishes and meals that might not be known outside Atlantic Canada – for instance the nighttime snack (aka. “a little lunch”) of Cheese Whiz on tea biscuits.

She also sparks memories for both myself and my husband (who has family in Prince Edward Island) by including an array of family photos of meals and baking through the years, one of which could have been taken in my Grandmother-in-law’s dining room, so similar is the decor, the array of food on the table and the general fashions of the time.

Tye complicates her story, however, by relating not just her own memories of her mother’s baking and an analysis of the same, but by including interviews with her brother and sister and her father, all of whom have very different memories of Mother’s baking. Tye’s sister, for instance, who is deaf, does not share the love of the family recipe box, and uses very few of their mother’s recipes, preferring to find recipes for her own family online. Tye prescribes this to the busyness of her mother’s life as her sister was growing up, as well as the communication barriers presented by her sister’s deafness – their mother just never bothered to teach much cooking to her deaf child.

Baking as Biography might be a bit dry and uneven for the casual reader, as it is neither wholly food theory, women’s studies or a loving memoir of an inspiring cook. It might also have less resonance to people who grew up in a different time and culture. But it should serve as some kind of inspiration – within the context of family sacrifice, and also within the context of encouraging writers. If someone can successfully produce a “food” book based on a person who didn’t actually like to bake, then writers with hordes of material in the form of great inspiring stories about family members who did love to cook should be inspired to share those stories with the world.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Baking as Biography”

  1. My mom has always said she HATES to cook. To which I always reply–but you are a fantastic cook! It was only once I had to have food on the table for my own family did I realize the difference between “braising a roast on a Sunday afternoon while I watch movies and allow the sourdough to rise” and “holy crap–its 6pm and I have mustard and an old endive in the fridge.”

    The tea biscuits and cheese whiz just might be the answer to my problems though.

    1. You know Sue, from reading your stuff in the Globe I’d have never guessed how funny you are. Welcome. Glad to have you stop by and to discover your fabulous (witty, funny) site.

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