Honouring Two Cooks

  • Merrill Distad (Author) and Caroline Lieffers (Author)
    Collecting Culinaria: Cookbooks and Domestic Manuals Mainly from the Linda Miron Distad Collection. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Vince Agro (Author)
    In Grace's Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from an Italian-Canadian Childhood. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nathalie Cooke

Both of these books were written to honour the memory of women who were drawn to cooking as a way of expressing their appreciation for life and deep affection for family and friends.

For Vince Agro, that woman was his mother, Grace, whose kitchen as he describes it was the bustling and vibrant heart of the community. “Colonia” was a section of Hamilton, Ontario, where Italian was the language of communication, and delicious food the fuel for conversation. For young Vince, childhood was punctuated by church bells and regular family dinners, nourished by simple and healthy fare, and enriched by his family’s innovation in sourcing a variety of foods. We hear about hunting ducks, how delicious pigeon can be, tasty ways to cook babalucci or snails, and the potential of the common dandelion for health-giving foods and drinks. Along with the recipes are childhood stories and memories, as well as some wonderful cooking tips. Agro describes Grace’s culinary philosophy as he introduces readers to the mysteries of favourite dishes from the family repertoire. Grace wisely cooked with vegetable and not olive oil (Julia Child gave similar counsel, warning against ‘overheated virgins’), was careful not to overcook tomatoes, remembered not to add oil to pasta before tomato sauce, never added black pepper while cooking sauce (it darkens the bright colour and gives sauce a burnt taste), and would prick a garlic clove before frying it so that it wouldn’t explode. Grace was a purist, believing one herb was best for a dish, and would choose between garlic and onion when cooking. Agro agrees and urges restraint in flavouring to showcase flavours of fresh ingredients.

The woman honoured by Collecting Culinaria is Linda Miron Distad, late wife of the book’s co-editor, Merrill Distad, and donor of the more than three thousand items in the Linda Miron Distad collection at the University of Alberta. The book opens with a tribute by David Goa and Anna Altmann to the former editor and researcher explaining she was among the rare few who came to the “fullness of character” through helping others, whose “perfection was worked out preparing the table of hospitality and in the vineyard of the word.” A remarkably beautiful book with useful flaps on both covers, the volume sheds light on the treasures of the collection and one could imagine it being a handsome gift for a donor or potential donor to the University of Alberta Library. There is no table of contents, so after tributes to Linda Miron, readers are launched immediately into sections offering succinct and illustrated overviews of cookbooks of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. These are followed by sections focusing on topics and categories of books: Manuscript Cookbooks, Mrs. Beeton, Dietetics and Health, Corporate Cookbooks, Flour and Bread, Restaurants, Celebrity Chefs. The volume concludes with a selective list of books that could be of interest to readers interested in exploring culinaria.

Like a complementary website designed by Natasha Nunn (search “Collecting Culinaria: A Taste of Food History on the Prairies”) the book functions as a tasting menu, offering readers tantalizing glimpses of the Collection’s treasures, whetting appetites for a longer visit and closer scrutiny. This is an exhibit catalogue, in other words, beautifully rendered by Kevin Zak and curated by two librarians who are the book’s co-editors. Pages reproduced from the manuscript cookbooks are particularly intriguing, both because of the exquisite handwriting and period recipes (“To Roast a Swan”) and because there is no comprehensive database of manuscripts held in Canadian institutional archives so seeing even a few scanned pages provides a valuable peephole to the past.

This review “Honouring Two Cooks” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 134-135.

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