When Mum moved into a retirement home she gave me two of her original cookbooks. They were falling apart at the seams. I put them aside at the time and just recently reviewed them. The Wimodausis Club Cook Book (the name stands for wives, mothers, daughters and sisters), was published in 1934 and the Canadian Woman’s Cook Book (part of the American Woman’s Cook Book) was published in 1952. If I ever want to know how to make a sandwich or how to set a table or see recipes from female society leaders, I now know where to look. But, upon closer inspection, both books provided precious insights into how women were schooled into the proper way of being good spouses, hostesses and mothers. So much has changed!
The Canadian Woman’s Cook Book is lavishly illustrated to show all the essential basics for success. “Strike up a warm acquaintance with your oven and its special temperament,” it notes. “Time and your oven await the occasion and the man,” is another plum piece of advice. The importance of monogramming takes four paragraphs, including what the bride should do for her trousseau linens. How to measure for the placement of monograms for table cloths, napkins and where to put finger bowls are carefully and earnestly explained.
It would be easy for me to dismiss these descriptions while rolling my eyes at the same time (and yes, I did a bit of this). But the books gave me some insights into the time and culture of postwar white middle-class society in North America, and what people wanted and needed to know to be socially adept. This was my Mother’s world, these were the expectations placed on her and her generation. Even today, in her ninth decade, Mum is very particular about ironing her pretty table linens, keeping the silver clean and setting a table that is gracious and welcoming. Nothing wrong with that. The concept of hospitality, good food in a convivial setting is not dead, and I hope it never dies.
The Wimodausis Cook Book is firmly Canadian-centred with recipes contributed by Lady Eaton, Mrs. Lawren Harris and Mrs. L. Bertram, among other luminaries. Again, some eye-rolling on my part. Did Lady Eaton really mess around in her kitchen – somehow I have my doubts. Yes, the leading society families were undoubtedly civic-minded, and it didn’t hurt to contribute to a worthy cause. Of course, the contributors were listed by their husband’s name – a lot has changed. Were these women early influencers, and if so, were they any different than what exists on social media today?
So, how has this influenced me, and what is the legacy that these cookbooks have left? Recipes for bridge suppers and afternoon teas are lovely, and antiques and consignment shops are filled with hundreds of cups and saucers that are relics of bygone days. They are still attractive, but some still sit, unused, in my sideboard like paleolithic remnants found in the Burgess Shale. Mum still drinks tea in a cup but I am firmly into mugs. On the one hand, we toss millions of tons of paper cups into the garbage (while trying desperately to recycle), while on the other, we could enjoy and appreciate the look and feel of lovely, creative housewares.
Are paper and plastic the best we can do in our generation? Washing and reusing linens keeps them out of landfills and when they become a bit stained or worn, they make great lint-free drying cloths for the windows. This is not going to reduce our landfill problems by any stretch, but perhaps we can become a little more creative in how we approach enjoying the small delights of life.
It takes approximately two minutes to iron a linen hand towel – I’ve timed it. Uh oh, am I revealing my true colours while masquerading as a modern woman? Can I successfully straddle both sides of the fence?
When I look at some of the recipes, roast pigeon, for example, I think, “You’ve got to be kidding! What do I do, bag a few birds downtown, prepare them, stuff and then cook them in the oven?” But wait, is this any different than food fads and plant-based meats, that we see in the specialty aisles today? Presumably, proper hostesses had their husbands bring home such exotic delicacies back in the day.
Old family recipes can be a part of our DNA, a time transport to our youth and a reminder of the smells and tastes and love built into each morsel. It’s also a challenge to see if I have the right stuff to appreciate what it takes to turn a series of raw ingredients, spices, sifting and stirring, baking or roasting to morph into a dish that is a tribute to the past and still tastes the way I remember it. I will put myself to the test when I make my first attempt to cook braised lamb shanks for a special dinner using one of Mum’s recipes. It has always been a favourite and will take me out of the short-term cooking that I am used to. Mum will be the judge, and hopefully, I will do it – and her – justice.
Yes, life and society has changed, but then again, some recipes are for the ages.
Alwyn Robertson lives in Toronto.