Communities wrapped between two covers 

Community cookbooks carry worlds within, even for pirates

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GLENDA BARTOSH - wrapped between two covers
  • Photo by Glenda Bartosh
  • wrapped between two covers

With fall and food and all things writerly and reader-ly in the air — Canadian Library Month; writers festivals, including Whistler's, afoot like so many autumn leaves — cookbooks are on my mind once again.

Not just the idea of cookbooks themselves but also how they shape our lives and, in the case of community cookbooks, a category unto themselves in the cooking and kitchen world, how they shape a sense of community.

Community cookbooks are just that: cookbooks born out of a certain community.

They can be born from a geographical community — say, the series of cookbooks like Whistler Recipes and Festive Favourites put out by Whistler Museum and Archives. Or from a demographic community, like the kids of a certain grade or school — including yours truly — who get their moms to submit favourite recipes for a little cookbook.

I would argue that the Best of Bridge series — something started in the 1970s on a whim by a group of bridge club women on a weekend getaway who were fast friends and then went on to become a money-making bestseller — could also be called community cookbooks.

In most cases, community cookbooks are fundraisers for the sponsoring group, the earnest schools, museums and the like pinning all kinds of hopes on them to deliver in the financial department. But they are also more than that.

Community cookbooks are also a living record, a memory keeper or archive of sorts consolidating a certain place, a certain group of people, at a certain time.

I would call the lovely Home Away From Home cookbook, which graces our pantry shelves, a community cookbook lodged securely in this zone. It's published by Vancouver Tonari Gumi staff and volunteers, a group ranging in age from their mid-20s to 93, to raise funds to help Japanese-Canadian seniors retain their independence.

Filled with recipes for delicious Japanese dishes you always wish you knew how to make but never somehow do, you can easily see that Home Away From Home is actually a memory book for food and more that would be held in the hearts of older Japanese-Canadians who came here to live long ago, leaving the world of their childhoods, including all the wonderful foods they enjoyed in their mom's kitchens, far, far behind.

Comfort food takes centre stage, with recipes for dishes like chicken tessen, datemaki, tofu Jell-o salad, and even that die-hard, Canadian middle-class favourite made with miniature marshmallows, coconut, pineapple and sour cream — ambrosia.

The beautiful photographs, high paper quality and sophisticated, understated design belie that this is home cooking, Japanese-Canadian style, at its finest. "Join us at the table" urges the back book flap, and you feel that you are, maybe even a table of 40 or 50 years ago in a place most of us can only imagine.

I've stumbled on another gem of a community cookbook that transports you in time to a place wonderfully beyond modern reach. If food is the way to a man's — or woman's — heart, it can also be a way into a time machine.

In 2002, BC's Whitecap Books resurrected The Home Cook Book, a gem of a community cookbook first published in 1877 by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

On the 125th anniversary of this fine institution that's helped so many youngsters, Whitecap, under the editorial hand of Elizabeth Driver, literally reproduced the 1878 version of the first edition of The Home Cook Book.

This is a grand book to flip through, with the same type setting, the same quirky style as the original version, right down to unique touches, like periods at the end of quaintly worded or obtusely blunt titles running in chiseled all caps (TABLE SETTINGS. OUR SUSAN'S OPINION OF A KITCHEN. BREAKFAST AND SUPPER.)

Little aphorisms and bits of poems and songs from the time light up the start of chapters: "Dinner may be pleasant; So may social tea: But yet methinks the breakfast Is best of all the three. — Anon." kicks off the chapter on breakfast and supper.

Scrambled eggs; French toast; tongue toast! (yes! made from slicing cold boiled tongue and mincing it): the book is filled with the kind of recipes I like. Guidance is offered without being overbearing, so capable Cook is left to his or her own wits to create, adding a small piece of this or a handful of that. Or you're told to simply sweeten three pints of currants. As to how much sweetener or what type, it's totally up to you.

I like this world of non-proscriptive cooking, but even more I like some of the context Driver adds at the front of the book. She points out that most of the 19th-century recipes in The Home Cook Book can absolutely be made in your modern, groovy, granite-countered kitchen with the cappuccino machine. And that's just half the fun of it.

The other half is realizing that this community cookbook represents a powerhouse of some of the best things we Canadians can pull off.

First, it was a massive bestseller in our still very literate nation, selling more than 100,000 copies by 1885 when Canada's population was around four and a half million — respectable sales figures for a book even today.

It was Canada's first community cookbook and our first fund-raising cookbook, but it also became a model for similar fund-raising, community-inspiring ventures around the world.

But the thing that really strikes me about this little gem is its quirky, ironic, totally Canadian birth.

While the book "blazed a trail in Canada for a new kind of culinary manual each one an authentic expression of the unique community that produced it," an early iteration of it actually contained an alarming number of recipes from a similarly titled book published in 1874, in Chicago, namely The Home Cook Book of Chicago.

After facing charges of "piracy" from the peeved Chicagoans, the Ladies Committee of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children were undaunted. They bravely pushed on with their venture, making careful decisions to reject the U.S.-based recipes they did not want, adding more "Canadian" ones like curries and Yorkshire pudding, and making other substantive changes.

The result is the cookbook you can find in your local library today, but the bottom line for me is I'm so proud of those Torontonian women who often get dismissed as milquetoast, namby-pamby housewives. I'm even prouder to be part of their community of pirates.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who wonders what pirates eat.

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