Digging Up the Canadian Plate with Elizabeth Driver

Digging Up the Canadian Plate with Elizabeth Driver

Canadian culinary historian Elizabeth Driver chats with us about Jamie Oliver, the absolutely perfect gooey-ness of Kate Aitken’s butter tarts, and cooking with long-lost relatives.

“Anything that people eat in Canada, is how I define it,” Elizabeth Driver states emphatically when asked for the secret to Canadian food. She should know—the Toronto-based culinary historian has spent the last ten years researching the first definitive bibliography of Canadian cookery books.

We are not generally a nation prone to probing our culinary roots. We don’t have our own Larousse or Silver Spoon, and the Joy technically belongs to the Americans. In the 1970s, while working in London on a compilation of British cookbooks, Driver realized that Canadian cooking had its own subtleties and nuances which were being rapidly subsumed under the umbrella of American cooking (she chuckles over the backroom skirmishes on whether to name Oxford’s North American food encyclopedia American Food and Drink or Food and Drink in America). It turned out, no one had ever paused to think about the specifics of our own culinary heritage and food industries. But after ten years dissecting the national stomach in libraries, archives, and dusty attics across the country, Driver is probably our foremost expert on Canadian culinary history.

“An investigation of food,” it seems, “goes in all places.” From recipes attributed to Nelly McClung, to the first official nod at our multicultural heritage with a “Foreign Recipes” chapter listing Italian and Ukrainian foods (Saskatchewan, 1946, by the way), Driver brings them alive in the first definitive guide to Canadian cookbook history—Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, due out in early 2007 and containing no less than 2,200 listings, alongside descriptions, biographies, corporate histories, and an overview of trends and changes in our culinary landscape.

Culinary history is a unique field. Archaeology unearths ancient buildings, jewellery, pottery, and other objects which allow us to, quite literally, touch the past. But to taste history? Without taste, food is dead, lost to us. It is a sense history at constant risk of disappearing into oblivion. But sometimes culinary history is able to come alive like no other field.

So it’s not surprising that Driver becomes very excited when asked whether she experimented with live history. Almost every recipe she tried worked out: “First, there’s the surprise and wonder that, yes, the recipe works… that I wouldn’t have found this recipe in a modern cookbook.” She tried a ginger beer. She tried Kate Aitken—“Ooh, I tried Kate Aitken’s butter tarts. They have the perfect gooey-ness.” [She''s right, they do.] And then she tasted family.

Sometime in 1900, the Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ontario, published a community cookbook, most likely as a fundraiser. Over a century later, Elizabeth Driver sat down to a meal taken out of its pages—tomato-bisque soup (a can of stewed tomatoes with herbs, a bit of flour, and cream), turkey croquettes (to be served piled on a platter and dotted with cranberry), and a lemon bread pudding (a “very economical” dish). The recipes had come from a woman with Driver’s mother’s maiden name. “I actually made this meal, 105 years later, that one of my relatives made,” she recalls with slight awe. “On a personal level, if you’re cooking your mom’s recipes, you have an immediate connection to your family. The same thing with a cookbook.” This meal was the double-whammy.

There’s a little bit of Jamie Oliver hiding inside as well—“you can’t give people bad options, you have to actively promote change,” she insists. Indeed, Driver is a strong supporter of Oliver’s work in revolutionizing what passes as school lunch in Britain. “I will forever respect Jamie Oliver for taking on not just the cultural habits, but the government,” says Driver. And how does that translate for our own kids? “If you could teach cookery in schools, that would go a long way. But not in an old, traditional sort of way,” she explains, as one solution for our current culinary malaise. While she’s hesitant to advocate an outright ban, she sees nothing wrong with limiting availability for kids, allowing them only, say, milk or tap water.

Driver''s knowledge on things large and small is astounding, and indicative of the breadth of history a little digging into our culinary past reveals. She can rattle off details on tongue-in-cheek cookbooks by men, or the date margarine was legalized in Canada, or our love affair with regionalism and local eating, a trend Driver hadn’t anticipated to discover. Other, more telling markers of shifts in our social and economic climate also reveal themselves—such as the closure of the Canadian Home Economics Association and the dropping of home economics courses in our schools; or the disappearance of localized, regional call centres for major food companies, which, when brands were king, once allowed consumers to call in and learn about how best to serve a company’s products; or, the sweep of dominant English culture (and foods) across the country, eventually pushed aside by the cultures and foods of “the fringe.”

It seems that each detail, each fact, tucked away in Driver’s rolodex of Canadian culinaria manages to speak of something bigger than just a particular dish on the end of a fork. A bibliography of cookbooks truly does go many places: “Magazines are about introducing the new. They are fantastic for getting a sense of the food fashion of the time. Cookbooks are agents of continuity.”



Kate Aitken''s Butter Tarts - With Driver’s enthusiastic praise ringing in our ears, we had to try them for ourselves in this week''s feature recipe.

Canadian Cookbooks (1825-1949): In the Heart of the Home - Elizabeth Driver''s lecture in the Savoir Faire lecture series at the National Library of Canada, delivered January 22, 2002.

Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949
Elizabeth Driver
University of Toronto Press (2007)
1,008 pp., $175