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The Forgotten Parts of Food Culture: Unpaid Labour and Drudgery

A food historian explores his grandmother's cookbooks for clues about her everyday life. 

Book Cover Food Will Win the War

Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Dr. Ian Mosby is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University’s L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History.


In the past two years, my 92-year-old grandmother’s world has become enveloped by the fog and confusion of dementia. Not only does she sometimes forget the faces of her own children and grandchildren but she’s often trapped between the past and the present, unable to differentiate between the two. Lucid moments are too often followed by fear, confusion, and uncertainty.

As both a grandson and a historian—a person whose life and work involves engaging with and trying to understand and even reconstruct the past—this is deeply unsettling. I never knew my grandmother very well and now, it seems, I likely never will.

The last time I visited my grandmother I tried to make up for a lot of lost time and bombarded her with questions about the two things that I’m most interested in: food and history. I’m a historian of food and nutrition, after all, and wanted to understand what place food played in her own life story. She did her best to answer these questions—to humour me, really—but I got the sense that she had spent her life thinking about food as a necessary evil, something that she needed to concoct or consume in order to get on with the other things that she wanted to do.

Unlike my dearly-departed Doukhobor grandmother on my mother’s side, I have almost no food-based memories of my dad’s mother. There’s this one chicken dish that I remember eating on a number of occasions when my family drove the eight or so hours to visit her in White Rock. But it wasn’t a particularly great dish; it was the kind of dish that got the job done, that put food on the table. I dreaded it when I was a kid.

The best story I know about my grandmother provides some insight into her relationship with food. It’s a story deeply ingrained in Mosby family lore and I’ve heard many versions told by my dad and my uncles. I believe the story took place in the late-1960s, when her five boys were in their late teens and even 20s. 

The story begins with my grandmother making dinner after an already long day of work (she became a real estate agent when she was in her 40s). After rushing to throw something together—preparing the whole meal while everyone sat around watching TV, reading the newspaper, listening to music, etc.—she received not even a word of thanks or acknowledgment. Instead, everyone grabbed a plate and went back to whatever they were doing.

This was the last straw. I’m not sure how she worded it at the time—whether she calmly confronted her ungrateful family or yelled it from the top of her lungs—but that day she told her husband and boys that she was on strike: if they wanted dinner, they could make it themselves. And so it went: from that day forward, by many accounts, she simply stopped cooking and the Mosby boys had to learn to fend for themselves.

When I asked my grandmother about this story she told me that she arrived home after a long day, looked around, and saw everyone acting like they were helpless baby birds—their mouths open wide, chirping incessantly, hoping for someone to drop food right in there for them. She doesn’t remember it as being a particularly important event but, for me, it’s a crucial insight into my grandmother’s personality. She was tough and stubborn and didn’t take any bullshit. And, while my grandmother would balk at ever being even associated with feminism (her politics tend to veer hard to the right on most issues) this was a brave and bold act of feminist resistance after decades of doing the difficult, unpaid, and underappreciated work of being a housewife and mother.

All of this makes it more ironic, then, that the only heirlooms I have from my grandmother are three cookbooks, the oldest of which bears the inscription in my grandmother’s handwriting, "From Mum, My first wedding present." This particular cookbook is a common one—the 1938 edition of the Blue Ribbon Cook Book—but, along with my grandmother’s 1945 Purity Cook Book and her 1967 The All New Purity Cook Book: A Complete Book of Canadian Cooking, it’s one of the few means I have of understanding my grandmother’s everyday life in the decades before I was born.

* * * * * * *

My grandmother was born in 1922 in Swan River, Manitoba, and was the daughter of Icelandic and German settlers. She was also a direct beneficiary of Treaty 4, which was negotiated between the Crown and a number of Cree First Nations whose traditional territory included my ancestors’ farmlands—though that is something that I doubt she ever knew or would willingly acknowledge.

My grandmother told me that she met my grandfather when she was just a girl. He was a teenager at the time and was one of many men, young and old, helping to move her family’s farmhouse a few miles down the road. These "reciprocal work bees" as they’re often called were like barn-raisings. Local men would be invited to help with a big job requiring lots of labour and, in return, would be fed a big celebratory meal and be assured that—when they needed help on their own major project—their neighbors would respond in kind.

Whether my grandmother thought much about the older boy helping to move her house that day, they eventually got married in 1942 following my grandfather’s enlistment in the Air Force. When I asked where my grandfather served, my grandmother joked that he fought the "Battle of Saskatchewan" where he served as an electrician working on the planes that were used to train, not just Canadian pilots, but pilots from all throughout the British commonwealth.

My grandmother remembers these years fondly, despite the fact that she gave birth to and raised her first child on her own while my grandfather was doing his military service. Then again, she was also very lucky. Her new husband wasn’t killed overseas, or wounded in body and mind, having lived through horrors that no-one should ever have to experience. Instead, my grandfather came out of the war with a useful trade, his health intact, and excited to start a new life in the small mill-town of Port Alberni, BC, where she would give birth to four more boys over the next decade or so.

* * * * *

We were never very close, my grandmother and I. When I was only five years old, she moved to Vancouver (and later White Rock then Nanaimo) from the small West Kootenay town I grew up in and, by the time I was old enough to realize it, we didn’t seem to know each other at all.

Yet I have these cookbooks: these ragged and grease-stained sources of insight into the unpaid labour that took up so much of my grandmother’s time during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The first thing that strikes you about the cookbooks is the fact that—for a woman who didn’t seem to have any love for cooking—they’re very well used. Not only are they nearly falling apart from overuse but they’re filled with dozens of other recipes—written in, pasted on, and stuffed between pages—as well as many annotations. Over one recipe for Date Balls, for instance, she wrote "not very good" in pencil. A Cottage Pudding recipe, though, includes the annotation: "Dandy for rhubarb pudding etc." There are also check marks beside good recipes, exes over bad recipes, and newer recipes pasted right on top of old, clearly unused ones.

The 1938 Blue Ribbon Cook Book—which was clearly used during the early years of her marriage and as a young mother—has fascinating clues into her life as a young woman. On the back page, in careful handwriting, is a weekly menu that wouldn’t have been out of place in a high school home economics textbook of the period:

Sunday ­– Roast

Monday ­– Cold left overs

Tuesday, Wednesday – Hamburger or Eggs

Thursday, Friday – Chops, stew, liver etc etc.

Sat[urday] – Soup

And yet: pasted right on the front page is a long, chatty article from the newspaper outlining how to make cocktails like a Tom and Jerry, a Tom Collins, a Gin Fizz, a Pick-Me-Up and a Clear McCoy. This book (as well as her marriage and her life), as its first page seemed to announce in no uncertain terms, wasn’t going to be all drudgery. It was going to be fun. Which is why, pasted and stuffed in to this cookbook and the others are recipes from various periods for Dandelion Wine (which, according to my grandmother, was quite good and very popular in the late 1940s), Doris Sweeney Punch (8 oz Lemon Juice, 1 qt. Tang, 4 oz Grenadine, 1 Bottle Gin, and 1 Bottle Club Soda), Danish Glogg (a recipe that includes burgundy, port, rum, akavit), as well something called Peach Wine. I can almost imagine the parties that would have gotten a bit out of control when the Danish Glogg appeared, the kids sleeping unawares in the other room.

The family’s move from Port Alberni to my own hometown, Castlegar, is also traced in the 1945 Purity Cook Book. In addition to handwritten recipes for things like "Date Loaf (Frankie)," "Mabel’s Dills," and "Baked Beans (Esther Hickey)," there’s a typewritten recipe for Russian Borscht: a cream and cabbage-based soup that’s unique to the communalist, vegetarian Doukhobors, many of whom had settled in Castlegar and the surrounding area in the 1910s and 1920s. It’s a dish that’s a point of pride (and constant debate about proper cooking methods and ingredients) for all Doukhobors and it’s fascinating that my German/Icelandic grandmother tried her hand at it, well before one of her sons married a Doukhobor.

From a culinary perspective, what’s most interesting about the cookbooks are the ways in which they document the changing tastes of the period. The oldest is heavily annotated and is filled with handwritten recipes for mid-century classics like Green Tomato Pickle, Scones, Corned Beef, Boiled Cabbage, and Boiled Raisin Cake (often referred to as War Cake). But the other two suggest a broadening palate, both for industrially processed foods and different so-called "ethnic" cuisines. In addition to handwritten and newspaper clipped recipes for Baked Beans, Onion Bread, Xmas Cake, and other more familiar Anglo-European offerings I found in her Purity Cook Book, I also found similarly clipped and handwritten recipes for dishes like Spaghetti + Meat Balls, Seafood Curry, Chicken Chow Mein, Pizza, and even Tourtiere du Quebec. There are also hints, here and there, of the modernist, Jell-O, canned soup, and frozen fish stick-based recipes that would become symbols of the middle-class good life in Canada during the 1950s and 1960s.

* * * * * *

The main thing I learned from these cookbooks, though, is something that surprised me, especially given the near complete absence of food in my memories of my grandmother. The fact that all three books are crammed to the brim with notations, handwritten recipes, newspaper clippings, and carefully filled out recipe cards is direct evidence that she took her work as a cook very seriously. She was a recipe annotator, collector, and experimenter. She worked hard to keep her family not just fed, but well fed with modern, interesting and sometimes adventurous dishes. The layering of recipes—with new recipes pasted or taped over top of old—suggests a cook working to change with the times and to keep breakfast, lunch and dinner interesting for her boys.

Was she a good cook? I have no idea. Does it matter? Probably not, in the long run. All five of her sons left home tall, healthy, smart, and definitely a bit eccentric.

The more that I think about it, though, the more I’ve come to understand why she went on strike that day. She worked hard at a job that no one seemed to appreciate. And this, I think, wasn’t uncommon for women of her generation. Cooking was difficult, unpaid, often boring work that was expected of women, whether they liked it or not. Given the virtual absence of food memories from my time with her over the past 35 or so years, it seems pretty clear that my grandmother probably found cooking to be more of a burden than a joy—a job that was simply expected of her by virtue of her status as a wife and mother.

My grandmother’s cookbooks and the history that they contain, then, suggest that it’s worth reflecting back on the unpaid labour and drudgery of cooking when we reflect on the history of our food cultures and traditions. Food may be love, pleasure and joy for many. But for others it’s just work.

Suggestions for further reading:

Book Cover What's to Eat

What's to Eat: Entrées in Canadian Food History, by Nathalie Cooke

About the book: How we as Canadians procure, produce, cook, consume, and think about food creates our cuisine, and our nation of immigrant traditions has produced a distinctive and evolving repertoire that is neither hodgepodge nor smorgasbord. Contributors, who come from the diverse worlds of universities, museums, the media, and gastronomy, look at Canada's distinctive foodways from the shared perspective of the current moment. Individual chapters explore food items and choices, from those made by Canada's First Nations and early settlers to those made today. Other contributions describe the ways in which foods enjoyed by early Canadians have found their way back onto Canadian tables in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Authors emphasize the expressive potential of food practices and food texts; cookbooks are more than books to be read and used in the kitchen, they are also documents that convey valuable social and historical information.

Book Cover Culinary Landmarks

Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, by Elizabeth Driver

About the book: Culinary Landmarks is a definitive history and bibliography of Canadian cookbooks from the beginning, when La Cuisinière bourgeoise was published in Quebec City in 1825, to the mid-twentieth century. Over the course of more than ten years Elizabeth Driver researched every cookbook published within the borders of present-day Canada, whether a locally authored text or a Canadian edition of a foreign work. Every type of recipe collection is included, from trade publishers' bestsellers and advertising cookbooks, to home economics textbooks and fund-raisers from church women's groups.

The entries for over 2,200 individual titles are arranged chronologically by their province or territory of publication, revealing cooking and dining customs in each part of the country over 125 years. Full bibliographical descriptions of first and subsequent editions are augmented by author biographies and corporate histories of the food producers and kitchen-equipment manufacturers, who often published the books. Driver's excellent general introduction sets out the evolution of the cookbook genre in Canada, while brief introductions for each province identify regional differences in developments and trends. Four indexes and a Chronology of Canadian Cookbook History provide other points of access to the wealth of material in this impressive reference book.

Book Cover Edible Histories, Cultural Politics

Edible Histories, Cultural Politics, by Franca Iacovetta, Marlene Epp, and Valerie J. Korinek

About the book: Just as the Canada's rich past resists any singular narrative, there is no such thing as a singular Canadian food tradition. This new book explores Canada's diverse food cultures and the varied relationships that Canadians have had historically with food practices in the context of community, region, nation and beyond.

Based on findings from menus, cookbooks, government documents, advertisements, media sources, oral histories, memoirs, and archival collections, Edible Histories offers a veritable feast of original research on Canada's food history and its relationship to culture and politics. This exciting collection explores a wide variety of topics, including urban restaurant culture, ethnic cuisines, and the controversial history of margarine in Canada. It also covers a broad time-span, from early contact between European settlers and First Nations through the end of the twentieth century.

Edible Histories intertwines information of Canada's "foodways"—the practices and traditions associated with food and food preparation—and stories of immigration, politics, gender, economics, science, medicine and religion. Sophisticated, culturally sensitive, and accessible, Edible Histories will appeal to students, historians, and foodies alike.

Book Cover Food Will Win the War

Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front, by Ian Mosby

About the book: During the Second World War, as Canada struggled to provide its allies with food, public health officials warned that malnutrition could derail the war effort. Posters admonished Canadians to "Eat Right" because "Canada Needs You Strong" while cookbooks helped housewives become "housoldiers" through food rationing, menu substitutions, and household production. Ian Mosby explores the symbolic and material transformations that food and eating underwent as the Canadian state took unprecedented steps into the kitchens of the nation, changing the way women cooked, what their families ate, and how people thought about food. Canadians, in turn, rallied around food and nutrition to articulate new visions of citizenship for a new peacetime social order.


Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes, by Diane Tye

About the book: Hidden among the simple lists of ingredients and directions for everyday foods are surprising stories. In Baking as Biography, Diane Tye considers her mother’s recipe collection, reading between the lines of the aging index cards to provide a candid and nuanced portrait of one woman’s life as mother, minister’s wife, and participant in local Maritime women’s networks.

Dr. Ian Mosby is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University’s L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History. His first book, Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front, was published in 2014 by the University of British Columbia Press. He’s also published articles examining a number of other topics, ranging from the history of the food additive MSG to the history of nutrition education and research in Canada. Most recently, his article on the history of nutrition research and human biomedical experimentation in Indigenous communities and residential schools during the 1940s and 1950s received widespread international media attention.

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