Ottawa Room Treasure: Community Cook Books

09/08/2017

What did Grandma (or Great-Grandma) have for dinner?  If you’re lucky you might have her handwritten recipe cards, but if not, community cookbooks of Grandma’s day will tell you a lot.  Like us, women of earlier generations didn’t necessarily make the recipes in big fancy cookbooks, but they did have their own favourites and trade them with their neighbours.  And some of those favourites found their way into the cookbooks that church and other groups published to raise funds.

The Ottawa Room’s collection of community cookbooks not only reveals the changing eating habits of Ottawans over the past century, but also provides a peek into the city’s personalities and history.   

Church cookbooks collect their parishioners’ favourite recipes, and it’s interesting to see how favourites have changed over the years.  The Capital Cook Book, published by the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society of St. Andrew’s Church in 1905, contains no less than 10 different recipes for marmalade (yes, from scratch), plus an intriguing “Short Cut in Marmalade Making” involving a carpenter’s plane.  Browse through recipes for everyday staples that you may never have tasted, like Milk Toast (p.185), Galantine of Chicken (p. 43) or Sweetbread Salad (p.62).   By the second half of the 20th century, church cookbooks like Favourite Recipes from Westboro United or MacKay United’s Centennial Cook Book reveal the era of the casserole, unfailingly based on a tin of soup.  Happily, they also contain hundreds of dessert recipes familiar to those of us who can remember community functions with refreshments home-baked by the “church ladies”.

Celebrity cookbooks give a glimpse of the lives of the famous – or formerly famous, as we try to identify minor Ottawa celebrities from the past century.  But what Ottawan of a certain age wouldn’t want to try Ken Grant “The General’s” Ultimate Baguette or Wayne Rostad’s Goulash from Canadian Mothercraft’s Celebrity Cookbook (1991)?  From Ottawa Kitchens: Recipes from Ottawa Hostesses (1954) gives us “Le Coq Au Vin” from Mme. Guerin of the French Embassy, and Senator Cairene Wilson’s dubiously-named “Unusual Meat Pie”.  The Prime Ministers’ Cook Book (1976) relates some domestic and humanizing anecdotes about former Prime Ministers along with recipes, and surprisingly claims “Pierre Elliott Trudeau likes bread and dripping” (p. 41)

Stories from less famous but not less interesting Ottawans go along with the recipes in many other cookbooks.  Firefighters’ tales in the Ottawa Firehouse Cookbook: Recipes and Stories (2008) are at least as much fun as the recipes themselves.  Beckwith Then and Now: Celebrating 200 Years, 1816-2016 is fascinating as much for the historical photos and residents’ memories of the township as for the great recipes.  Even without anecdotes, the recipes tell their own stories.  The political preoccupations of ordinary Ottawans are obvious in the Good Neighbours Cookbook’s recipe for “Watergate Cake”, topped, of course, with “Cover-up Frosting” (p. 130)

MacKay United Church’s Centennial Cook Book says it well: a community cookbook is not just recipes.   “It is a cookbook, but something more.  It is a book of memories. . . [and] It is a book about sharing” (Foreword).