A few years ago, my mother gave me some old cookbooks and recipe cards handed down from various women in our family tree: both of my grandmothers, my maternal great-grandmother, and my grandmother-in-law.
At the time, I flipped through them quickly and then stuffed them into a filing cabinet, where they sat until a couple weeks ago. I felt a sudden urge to sort through and organize the accumulated junk. (I blame eclipse season, during which I always dive into some deep house cleaning.) I had always wanted to go through these old relics of my family’s personal food history in more detail. Seeing them again rekindled that desire.
One of the items that intrigues me most is my maternal grandmother’s old home economics manual. The official title is: Foods, Nutrition and Home Management Manual: Home Economics Circular No. 1. It was printed by the University of British Columbia’s Department of Education in 1951.
I was confused about why my grandmother had a home economics manual from BC, since she was born and raised in Alberta, and only ever went to school here. Further, she wrote her maiden name as well as “Grade IX B” in the front cover; she also wrote her married name and address (in Edmonton) under that, presumably at a later date after she married my grandfather and they moved into their first house in Edmonton (she was born and raised on a small family farm near Vermillion). So, it really does seem like this was the book she got while going to school in Alberta in the early 50s – my guess was that Alberta must have used BC’s manual for a period of time.
To verify this, I contacted the Alberta Human Ecology and Home Economics Association. Their registrar, Lisa Allen, emailed back quickly with a link that solved everything very quickly.
Turns out, this manual was indeed widely used by students in Alberta, despite being made for the province of BC. According to the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the University of Alberta, versions of this manual were used by Alberta students for over 30 years, from 1937 to 1969.
Just think how many thousands of these little red books must be hidden away throughout the province! They would have been a ubiquitous item in households for decades, and were probably the first cookbook that many of our Albertan mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers owned. My own grandmother wrote down additional recipes in the back of the book, and given that she wrote her married name and address in the cover – not to mention that she kept it and passed it down to her daughter, who then passed it to her granddaughter – this was obviously a resource that she made good use of for many, many years.
The foreword was written by Jessie McLenaghen, who was the first provincial director of home economics for the Department of Education in BC.
In the foreword, McLenaghen states that this manual was intended for home economics students in elementary and junior high, and was prepared primarily so that students could spend more time in class actually learning and practicing, and not scribbling recipes and other notes.
Several other lines of her foreword jumped out as feeling quite contemporary: “Because of the close relationship between health and careful food selection and preparation it is to be hoped that this manual may stimulate in the students a keener interest in better food standards.” Amen, Jessie.
McLenaghen was a pioneer of home economics in BC, not to mention a pioneer of women in higher education. In 1926, she became the first Director of Home Economics for the Department of Education and organized the curriculum, which included producing a recipe manual for teachers that emphasized family-sized recipes. By 1936, she managed to have home economics declared a graduation requirement.
Things changed in 1960, when home economics and some other electives were moved to the outer core, while science and math were emphasized. Thus began a steadily decline in interest and participation in home economics, as well as many other vocational subjects.
There has been a shortage of qualified home economics teachers for decades – this paper discusses how in BC, the shortage started in the 1970s and continues to the date it was printed (2010). I don’t think the situation has gotten any better since then, or was any better in Alberta.
It’s easy to scoff at subjects like home economics as superfluous in our fancy modern age. After all, women have a lot more options and freedom than my grandmother did back in the 50s.
But here’s the thing – the “homemaking” skills in this book are something that all kids should learn, regardless of gender. In the pursuit of equal rights, and especially with the over-emphasis on math and science, things like how to prepare a healthy meal and how to buy groceries were dropped. How many high school students in 2021 know how to cook a full meal from scratch – no store-bought cans, jars, or boxes allowed – using ingredients they purchased themselves? Not fucking many, I’d wager.
I took home economics in grade 7 and 9, by choice in grade 7 and because it was a requirement in grade 9. Well, technically I took CTS (Career Technology Studies); by this point, in the late 1990s, “Foods” was only one-third of the CTS curriculum. The other two-thirds were Sewing and Industrial Arts, the latter of which was a fancy way of saying screen printing and fucking around on an old computer pretending to learn about…honestly, I don’t even remember.
The only thing I remember cooking was a baked apple (which was kind of gross) and some cookies, and I only remember the latter because I burned myself on the cookie pan and had to walk home with my blistered thumb stuck in a Ziploc bag full of snow. I think we also cooked some kind of potato dish once, because I also have a very clear memory of one of my male classmates throwing a potato across the room at another male student.
I’m pretty sure we only cooked desserts and small side dishes. I think we did one big main dish at the end of the year. I’m guessing this was due to the cost of ingredients. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a bag of apples and a sack of potatoes than 25 chicken breasts. So even though we read about cooking things like chicken breasts, we never actually cooked one ourselves.
I wish I could ask my grandmother what she cooked in her home economics class, or if any boys took the class too. (I’m guessing not, but maybe?) I wonder if they cooked anything more elaborate back then, or if it was also mostly sides and desserts. Given how much more prominent home economics seemed to have been in past centuries, maybe they had a bigger budget?
I asked my mother about this, as she took home economics in junior high and high school, in Alberta circa the early 1970s. She didn’t remember much of what they cooked, though she doesn’t think they cooked anything elaborate. Likely it was all sides and desserts as well. She did remember that their final assignment was cooking a full meal and inviting some other teachers to join them, and the students set a full table and served the teachers. I definitely didn’t do anything like that in the 90s!
In my twenty-first century hubris, I was prepared to mercilessly mock the contents in this beat-up old home economics manual. However, to my surprise there were a surprising number of useful recipes tucked in this little book. Most of them are very plain and many are rather old-fashioned. (Who wants some junket? Also, what the fuck is junket, and why does it require a “junket tablet”??)
Plain and old-fashioned is certainly how I remember my grandmother’s cooking to be, and it was the norm for white folks in mid-twentieth century Alberta. This manual helps explain the blandness and uniformity plaguing tables throughout the province for decades.
But this book also has a lot of useful base recipes. With a little experimentation – and a decent spice rack – you could feed yourself well just using this manual. I had to keep my superiority in check, because I cannot deny that this manual is surprisingly practical and useful, even now all these years later.
However, some information is pretty hilarious to read in 2021, and I hope you’ll indulge me as I lovingly mock it:
- Detailed information on the proper way to wash dishes
- Do you really need to explain how to wash dishes? Come on.
- OK fine, actually I could have used some of these tips a few years ago because I did not have a dishwasher in several of my early rental homes, and I lived with various single dude roommates over the years. The kitchen was always a disaster. My grandmother would have cringed
- Care of the refrigerator, with specific instructions about the ice-box
- Thank god ice boxes are not a thing anymore. They sound like such a pain in the ass
- Use and care of a coal stove
- Reading this section was absolutely mystifying. Even following the instructions to the letter, I don’t think I could operate one of these things.
- Cleaning silver
- Who even uses real silverware anymore?
- Granted, I inherited a set of real silverware from one of my grandmothers. It’s buried in the basement somewhere. I should dig it out and see if I can actually shine them up using these instructions.
Other fun bits include the meal planning section, which gave 15 rules to follow. Some are practical:
- #6 Select foods because they contribute most to the health of the family, rather than because they are cheap, are liked by the family, or require the least effort in preparation.
- Do you hear that, honey? Eat the liver IT’S GOOD FOR YOU.
Others are hilarious:
- #9 Never serve two foods of pronounced flavour in the same meal. The combination of salmon, onions, and prunes is an unpardonable error.
- This is so specific that you know someone once served this exact thing to Jessie McLenaghen and she made it her mission to ensure that never again would anyone have to suffer the indignity of having to partake of such a heinous food crime.
I’m just getting started with my exploration of my grandmother’s recipes. As I mentioned at the start, I inherited a trove of Albertan food history in the form of old cookbooks, recipe cards, and clippings from newspapers, magazines and ingredient packages.
I’ll do more posts on this in the future. Maybe I’ll even try cooking some of the things in this manual – the really weird things that I would ordinarily never make on my own. I’m sensing some horrifying aspics in my near future.