Recipes for Social Change: Cookbooks as Agents of Transformation

The Home Cook Book

Cover, The Home Cook Book, Collection of Halton Region Heritage Services, 1975.705.188.1

When flipping through your grandmother’s favourite cookbook you may find sauce stains, dog-eared pages and her scribbling in the margins. Perhaps the book will remind you of the smell of her famous chicken soup boiling on the stove, or the Sunday roast your mother made while you were growing up. Halton Region Heritage Services rather conventional collection has many such cookbooks from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of these books is the seventieth edition of The Home Cook Book, printed in 1889. The book is hand-bound in calfskin leather using wove paper, stitched and glued together at the spine. The exterior is predominantly olive green, marbled with swirling hues of black and splashes of red. The title on the front cover was blind-stamped in black ink giving the book an appealing aesthetic. 

This edition of The Home Cook Book has 300 pages and contains more than 300 traditional recipes ranging from breakfasts to soups, desserts and beverages. The book also includes recipes for home remedies, including “how to beautify teeth” (p.357) and “making a good starch” (p.361). The preface includes chapters discussing proper etiquette for dinners, social observances and commentary on a woman’s place in the domestic structure, typical of cookbooks from this era. 

The first edition of The Home Cook Book was published in 1877 by Rose Publishing Company and quickly became the best-selling Canadian community cookbook of its time; as such, it may very well be found in other community museum collections. The Heritage Services copy was a seventieth edition, suggesting just how popular that book was only 12 years after its initial publication. What is interesting about this seemingly generic book is the history of its publication and the insight it provides into the socio-political climate of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

The Home Cook Book was compiled by a group of women in the Toronto and surrounding areas as a fundraiser for the Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The idea of the publication was based on The Home Cook Book for Chicago, an 1874 fundraiser also organized by a women’s group. Its astounding success inspired women’s groups across the country to publish for charitable causes, setting off a community cookbook phenomenon. Thus began the tradition of using these books as a fundraising tool.

The Home Cook Book

Title page, The Home Cook Book, Collection of Halton Region Heritage Services, 1975.705.188.1

In the early 20th century, many women’s groups outside of the church started to use cookbooks as fundraising tools for local charities. Other groups used such publications for political purposes; for example, in the early days of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, progressive women’s groups started to publish cookbooks to raise funds and support to gain the right for women to vote. Peppered throughout the pages of these books are recipes with titles like “Rebel Soup” and “Mother’s Election Cake”. 

Although The Home Cook Book was published with more modest intentions, it was part of the effort to empower women beyond the home. Publishing these books was done with little to no involvement from men, both in writing and publishing the works, allowing women involved to collaborate, create, and have a voice in a time when they had few outlets for individual expression and social activism. 

Community cookbooks hint at the idea that women could have an active role both inside and outside of the house. In the article How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion, Nina Martyris notes that women used the tools they had to champion their causes and cookbooks would have been one of the tools used to empower them outside of the domestic sphere[2]. While the community cookbook in our collection raised funds for the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, it also serves as an example of women using the resources they had to advance a cause they cared about in a kind of social activism that married both domestic and public spheres.

Recipes for Social Change: Cookbooks as Agents of Transformation