Every year or so, I cull my cookbook collection. It becomes unwieldy with more regularity than it used to, now that dozens of new titles are released each month; the ones that find their way to me accumulate in piles beside my bed and in the corners of my spare bedroom office. Fortunately, I love them.
There are many, of course, that have earned a permanent spot and will never be packed up for the used book sale or dropped in little free libraries while I’m out walking the dog. I’d never part with a handful of original titles from Jean Paré's Company’s Coming series, for example – 150 Delicious Squares (her first, released in April, 1981; my current copy is from the 15th printing), Muffins & More (July, 1983), Appetizers, Desserts and Cookies (1985, 1986, 1988) – even though they stick around more for nostalgia than reference.
Those of us of a certain age who grew up in Alberta were likely fed, with some frequency, dishes from Cerlox-bound Company’s Coming cookbooks. (And coil-bound Best of Bridge, launched in 1975 by seven women whose bridge club was more focused on feeding each other than playing cards.) Canada’s two top-selling self-published cookbook series originated in the same province, both introduced in the same decade by relatable home cooks who felt like (or actually were, in my case) our neighbours, who made us feel like we could actually pull off their unfussy recipes for casseroles, dips and squares.
Jean Paré passed away in Edmonton on Christmas Eve, at the age of 95. When I heard the news from her granddaughter, Amanda Lovig Hagg, I pulled 150 Delicious Squares off the shelf and made a batch of her butter tart bars. (The saucy quote at the bottom of the page: “Take huge helpings. Don’t let it be said you eat like a bird. Ever seen a vulture?”) I forget sometimes, distracted by my stacks of glossy new hardcover cookbooks, how reliable her recipes are.
What a legacy she has left, not only in our kitchens, but as a successful, insightful entrepreneur who began her writing career at the age of 54. More than 30 million copies of Company’s Coming cookbooks have been sold since her first was released – an astounding number even by celebrity chef standards. (According to his publisher, Jamie Oliver has sold more than 46 million books worldwide during his 20-year career.) Ms. Paré started big, printing 15,000 copies of 150 Delicious Squares to launch the Company’s Coming publishing company with her son, Grant Lovig. This first book has been reprinted more than 50 times since and remains their top seller. “To put it into context, 5,000 copies was considered a bestseller, and we’d print 100,000 copies a year,” said Lovig Hagg. “It had sold 1.4 million copies when the company sold in 2010.” Slow Cooker Recipes, Muffins & More and Casseroles have also sold more than a million copies each.
Born in the village of Irma, east of Edmonton, in 1927, Ms. Paré lived most of her life in Vermilion, a town about two hours east. She began cooking professionally after agreeing to cater an event for a thousand people out of her home kitchen back in 1963; that led to a catering business that helped her support four kids as a single parent. Eighteen years of catering meant frequent requests for recipes, and many clients suggested she compile them into a cookbook for ease of sharing. The now-iconic name was a natural fit – an expression everyone could relate to.
There were, of course, far fewer cookbooks published in the early eighties than there are now, but Ms. Paré managed to create a unique model – smaller-format books of about 150 pages (closer in size to the popular fundraising and community cookbooks of the day), each focused on a single subject. Not only did Company’s Coming cookbooks have a much lower price point than most cookbooks (I remember when they were $12.95), she was one of the first to move beyond traditional booksellers and approach grocery stores, drug stores and gas stations to sell her books, displayed in special racks for notable placement and to accommodate retail outlets that might not have bookshelves.
Like other prolific cookbook authors, Ms. Paré built a team of recipe developers over the years. At the company’s peak, she led a full-time test kitchen called the Recipe Factory, where research and recipe development took place alongside an in-house photography studio. In 2010, Company’s Coming was sold to Washington-based Lone Pine Publishers, and Ms. Paré retired the year after. The series now includes more than 200 titles, with themes in keeping with current eating habits – Air Frying Made Simple was released in August, 2021; Plant Based Cooking for Everyone in October of the same year.
Ms. Paré was named to the Order of Canada in 2004 for her contributions to our culinary community – and was surprised by the honour. “She asked, ‘Are you sure they don’t mean someone else?” recalled Lovig Hagg. “She was always humble and could never believe all the attention and accolades.” I never did have the opportunity to meet her, but both she and the women behind Best of Bridge (which sold rights to Toronto-based publisher Robert Rose in 2008) have fuelled my interest in how we cook at home from day to day – how we socialize, comfort and feed each other. A cookbook collector herself, Ms. Paré donated 6,700 books from her own shelves to the University of Guelph’s Canadian Culinary Collection.
Ms. Paré, a Canadian culinary icon, has made mealtimes more manageable for millions, which is no small thing, and demonstrated that you can write and publish a book (or hundreds of them) even if you don’t have a background in publishing. You can figure things out as you go, do it your way – and sell more copies than even the largest publishing houses. Perhaps most importantly, she has made us feel more capable in the kitchen, emboldening us to feed ourselves and each other – one of the highest forms of love.
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