As a kid, I looked forward to the arrival of Canadian Living in our mailbox every month. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in my group of friends who read it. I cooked as much as I could, and read about food, and flipped through recipe boxes on my babysitting gigs. My idols were food writers; not the glossy celebrity chefs of this generation, but the home cooks who shared recipes in newspaper columns and magazines – the ones with the cheesy headshots you could write letters to and request recipes of, back when a Google search wasn’t an option. At a time when career choices seemed limited to Teacher, Nurse or Firefighter (and, crazily enough, my guidance counselor’s evaluation determined I should be either an English teacher or a DJ), I wanted to be Elizabeth Baird when I grew up. I even schemed to dye my hair silver and cut straight bangs, but my mom wouldn’t let me.
I found comfort in reading recipes; Elizabeth and Rose Murray and the familiar writers of that generation seemed like they could be relatives, so much like the aunts and neighbours people used to get recipes from. They were the type who instilled confidence, who made you believe that what they were cooking you could cook too, because they were just like you. Even though they had their own test kitchen. I miss the days before reality TV, when hosts of cooking shows actually cooked (I know, some still do – but they seem to be the exception to the rule), and there were no food wars – no cupcake wars, no dinner party wars. (Wining, dining and undermining? Really??)
Collectively, ELizabeth Baird and Rose Murray have written 40 Canadian cookbooks. Over lunch last week, when I asked how the landscape has changed over the decades they have been writing about food, Elizabeth mentioned that the year her first book came out, in 1974, 6 cookbooks were published. Six.
It’s not an exaggeration to give Elizabeth and Rose credit for my career path – I love these ladies. (And Gwendolyn, on the right, is pretty awesome too.) I’ve met Elizabeth before, many times, but not Rose. She has a great laugh, and loves Scotch. I wish I could adopt her as my own aunt. I’ll take both.
In their new book, Canada’s Favourite Recipes, the two have connected with food writers, producers and chefs across the country, gathering recipes and the stories behind them. It’s the perfect cookbook to read in bed, if you are the type to stack cookbooks on your nightstand, and I love that it’s pure Canadiana – a great way to learn about and reconnect with the idea of Canadian cuisine. Think: real Canadian Butter Tarts, Braised Lamb Stew with Rosemary Dumplings, Quebec Tourtière, Nova Scotia Oatcakes, Maple Walnut Fudge, pies and pastries and seafood and shortbread. I see a lot of cookbooks, but this one will get used. (That’s it above, in my arm, beside my very first cookbook, The Canadian Living Cookbook (circa 1987), whose spine can no longer be doctored by tape.
I thought, since everyone loves a cheesy baked soup, that I’d share their recipe for French onion – is this stunning or what? (Scroll up and take another peek.) I want to shrink myself and dive in. Rather than the traditional Gruyère (which, truth be told, makes W gag when I bake it) they use smoked cheddar – I’m partial to aged white cheddar and aged Gouda, but whatever you have and like that melts, works.