My (not so profound) observation about writing a blog is that I am often wondering what the next entry will be about. I don’t have a stack of ideas waiting to be “published”. Often there is a pleasantly surprising convergence of ideas and events.
I am the youngest person at Tai Chi and admire the joie de vivre of members in their 80s and even older. When Jennie (82) told me she was taking her husband on a bus tour of Mennonite Country it triggered a whoosh of memories – and naturally, that involved food. Around here “Mennonite Country” means St Jacob’s and Waterloo County - the Mennonite Relief Sale (featuring unforgettable strawberry pies), the Mennonite / St Jacob's Farmers' Market – ten minutes from the Kitchener Market – a community noted for a huge Oktoberfest celebrating German Heritage. In fact, almost one hundred years ago, Kitchener changed its name from Berlin.
Converging with these memories were updates from Food52 about their 2015 Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks (I have no idea why it is called that). Over a period of three weeks, sixteen cookbooks were reviewed, leading to one winner. (A bit like a more complex “Canada Reads”.) In conjunction with that, the Food52 blog asked readers about oldest / most worn cookbooks. For me, the cookbook(s) linked to Mennonite Country are those from Edna Staebler – Food That Really Schmecks and More Food That Really Schmecks – both easily survived my cookbook purge of last year. With red-face, I confess that these days I prefer cookbooks with lots of photos – food porn, as it is now referred to. There is not a single photo in Edna’s books. She clearly announces in both books that she is not a trained cook. She said she loved cooking with “blissful abandon” (wow! Kitchen Bliss 1.0). Today we might say that she “curated” these collections of hearty, rustic and tasty (schmecking) recipes, that use local produce – saying she did not include any recipes that required some exotic import - such as kiwi - or a processed ingredient.
She must have been an impressive woman. Born in 1906, in what was then called Berlin, she achieved a university education and teaching qualifications. She was an accomplished author and wrote for many well-known Canadian publications. The cookbooks, she says, were an unplanned, but satisfying “accident”. As with many (good) cookbooks, the introductory chapters are a delight to read and I was happy to re-visit these pages, where she described friends from the Mennonite community (founded by families that migrated north from Pennsylvania - and originally from Europe). She waxes rhapsodically about her beloved Waterloo County and its entrepreneurial roots. Edna died in 2006 at the age of 100, and so she lived long enough to see her community grow – including as the home base for Blackberry / RIM and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
But I digress from the topic of food... There are many pages with folded corners in her books. Some I will return to in future, but the one that made it onto the Easter menu was Hurry Up Chocolate Cake. This cake is quick - and clean – the only thing dirtied in the making is the baking pan. Edna included it in one of the books, it seems almost reluctantly, saying “you probably have this recipe…”. I’m glad she shared it, since it has been made and devoured countless times in my kitchen.
One final “convergence”… The recipes in the “Schmecking” books are “old”. The second of the two volumes was published in 1979, and Edna’s preface outlines the venerable roots of many of the recipes, passed from generation to generation. About the same time that I was lost in reverie in this old cookbook, I stumbled across The Wacky Cake recipe. It too is a one pan chocolate cake that requires the cook to make little “craters” in the dry mix into which the wet ingredients are added – same as Edna’s! The cake was considered wacky because it uses no eggs, butter or milk – and the guess is that it dates back to wartime rationing. There are some differences between the two – she uses buttermilk (she seems to love using buttermilk or sour milk), whereas the America’s Test Kitchen Wacky Cake Recipe uses water and oil. In another entry, ATK says “We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes made with dairy had a more muted chocolate flavour.” I have had no time to check this out – but will report back!
If all of that was not enough of a “blast from the past” – this weekend we have reservations at Boralia (some reviews call it Borealia) – a TO resto that “celebrates the historic origins of Canadian cuisine. Our menu draws inspiration from traditional Aboriginal dishes, as well as the recipes of early settlers and immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Will report back on that as well!
Now… hurry up and make that schmecking chocolate cake!