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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

1905 cookbook an imperfect glimpse of eating habits

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


On Labour Day weekend one of the visitors to the Elora Festival Antique Show was Mrs. Ruth Hodgins of Toronto.

She dropped around for a short visit and a chat about Elora history. (Her father and uncles were the Carswell brothers, important figures in Elora business circles many years ago.)

She brought with her an old cookbook, published in 1905 by the Blue Ribbon Manufacturing Company.

This is the oldest promotional cookbook I have ever seen. It also has a local connection: it once belonged to Mrs. J.C. Mundell, wife of the furniture manufacturer.

Most households contain at least one of these promotional cookbooks, put out by a flour or spice company, or the manufacturer of a kitchen appliance.

I have a 1932 Purity Flour Cook Book that I still use from time to time. The early history of these books, though, was a mystery to me.

I was certain that someone must have researched these books, so I began making phone calls. Our local cooking expert, Anita Stewart, put me on to Elizabeth Driver, who is compiling a catalogue of early Canadian cookbooks.

Mrs. Driver told me that promotional cooking literature began in the 1870s, but these early publications were in the form of leaflets or brief pamphlets.

The 1905 Blue Ribbon Cookbook was the first true book (hard cover and 154 pages in length). Others followed, particularly after the flour companies picked up the idea. The Five Roses Cookbook, first published in 1913, was eventually used in tens of thousands of Canadian households.

These cookbooks were distributed free or for a nominal charge. Many had coupons inside for additional copies or discounts on the product being promoted. The recipes inside invariably specified the product.

Most of the recipes in Mrs. Mundell’s Blue Ribbon Cookbook call for Blue Ribbon spices, baking powder or flavourings.

There are many difficulties with the study of old cookbooks. The most popular ones rarely survive: they are used until they literally fall to pieces.

Mrs. Mundell’s book has certainly been used. The cover is badly worn around the edges, and is covered with what appears to be bits of dried batter and flour. There are loose pages, and many stains from water and grease.

The recipes in this book are presented in a form that differs from a modern cookbook. Ingredients are listed in paragraph form, and the information is incomplete by modern standards.

Baking instructions are usually absent, and several cake recipes tell the baker to “add just enough flour.”

The editors of this cookbook obviously believed that users already had a good grounding in basic cooking and baking. The book would serve as a convenient list of ingredients and particular details for each recipe.

In most respects the 1905 Blue Ribbon Cookbook resembles the cookbooks published by regular book publishers of the time. There are tables of measures, and lists of cooking times for various vegetables and meats. Many pages are devoted to preserving and pickling. One chapter gives instructions on food preparation for invalids.

Overall, the recipes in this book offer a bland, unexciting diet by modern standards. Vegetable salads are mentioned only in passing, and diners are advised to remove the seeds from tomatoes. Vegetables, including lettuce, are invariably boiled, and the times specified are in hours, not minutes.

Overcooking seems to have been accepted practice 90 years ago. Macaroni, for example, should be boiled for 45 minutes. On the other hand, the cake and pastry recipes are virtually identical to what is in a modern cookbook.

There are some amusing passages in this volume. Home refrigeration had yet to be introduced in 1905, and methods are offered for dealing with food that has “gone off.”

Unpleasant smells from meat can be minimized by soaking in warm soda water. For tainted fowl, “first a thorough washing in soda water, then a rinsing in clear water to which a little vinegar is added, then either bake or roast it, as that mode of cooking drives away bad odors from meat better than any other way.”

Blue Ribbon, its competitors, and the flour manufacturers must have viewed these cookbooks as successful promotional tools, because they formed a major part of their marketing efforts for more than half a century.

They also suggest many questions.

Did they change the way we cooked and ate, replacing cooking methods passed down in families? Did they merely add new dishes and foods to traditions within families?

Because these cookbooks were distributed nationally, did they erase or modify regional cooking and baking traditions? Why did cooks try certain recipes and reject others? For example, the section on layer cakes appears to be the most used one in Mrs. Mundell’s book. It is possible that she used only a few recipes in this book, but returned to them regularly and repeatedly.

Mrs. Mundell’s 1905 cookbook gives an imperfect glimpse of cooking and eating habits nine decades ago.

Few would want to return to those days. Our diet has become more varied, tastier, and nutritious since then.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Sept. 11, 1996.


Vol 50 Issue 36


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