Melissa McAfee, special collections librarian at the University of Guelph, delicately opens a 1684 fifth edition of The Queen-Like Closet by Hannah Woolley, a British widower believed to be the first woman to make a living writing cookbooks.
Along with Kathryn Harvey, head of the university’s archival and special collections, McAfee has hand-picked favourites from the library’s collection of old and rare culinary tomes. There are handwritten sepia manuscripts with carefully wrought calligraphy; books that demonstrate how to prepare delicacies like swan pie; and those with more modest objectives, such as an early edition of Catherine Parr Traill’s The Canadian Settlers’ Guide. A thin saddle-stitched book commissioned by Jell-O offers harried 1950s housewives options for shortcut cooking, whereas Cory Kilvert’s The Male Chauvinist Cookbook demonstrates how 1970s men can woo ladies by appealing to their stomachs.
These titles don’t begin to cover the breadth of the University of Guelph’s culinary collection. At 14,000 volumes, it’s one of the largest in North America (Library and Archives Canada and McGill University also have significant collections). The British Library used to acquire Canadian domestic-arts books until the Second World War, when the wing in which they were housed was bombed.
The university’s archives and special collections are located in the basement of the McLaughlin Library, a building constructed in the seemingly ubiquitous Brutalist style of the late 1960s. Although much of the archives reflects the school’s early years as a centre for agriculture, domestic arts, and veterinary studies, they now include significant materials on Canadian theatre, Scottish culture, and literature. The Jean Little collection contains more than 90 diaries and other personal ephemera belonging to the beloved children’s author, while the Lucy Maud Montgomery archive features scrapbooks, journals, an original manuscript of Rilla of Ingleside, and more than 1,200 photos donated by Montgomery’s son and literary executor, Dr. E. Stuart Macdonald.
Tim Sauer, former head of information resources, and Jo Marie Powers, a retired hotel and food administration professor and founder of the Canadian Culinary Book Awards, established the collection in the early 1990s. The bulk of its holdings came from several high-profile donors. Shortly before her death in 1999, former Chatelaine home economist, author, and collector of social history Una Abrahamson donated more than 3,000 books and unpublished manuscripts, including many of the university’s rarest and oldest British, French, and early Canadian titles.
After downsizing her home in 2009, Jean Paré, author of the popular Company’s Coming series, donated 6,700 books from her personal research library. The university also acquired substantial materials from the late Edna Staebler, best known for her Food that Really Schmecks series on Mennonite cooking and culture.
Acquiring for the collection has never been an issue, says Harvey. Once you let culinary enthusiasts know that you have anything related to cooking, they come out of the woodwork. Space is the utmost concern: the entire library houses more than 1.2 million volumes in a building made for 625,000, with more stored off-site. There have been preliminary steps toward digitizing the collection, but it can be time-consuming and expensive, especially when dealing with rare, valuable volumes.
Although donations of international titles were accepted in the past, Harvey and McAfee agree that, moving forward, the focus will be on Canadian content “ a decision that brings its own challenges.
We haven’t figured out what that means yet, says McAfee. It’s a complicated issue, because Canadian cooking is a mix of cultures and different ethnic groups. You can’t say it’s about butter tarts.
One category the library is interested in is community cookbooks such as The Home Cook Book (Tried! Tested! Proven!), compiled by the ladies of Toronto and chief cities and towns in Canada. Since it was first published in 1877 as a fundraiser for the Toronto Children’s Hospital, there have been more than 100 editions, most recently in 2002 from Whitecap Books. McAfee jokes that, at some point in history, there was a copy in every household. It’s become Canada’s Joy of Cooking, she says.
Although it’s easy to get wrapped up in the beauty and novelty of 200-year-old books, the collection is not a static entity, nor is it stuck in the past. As part of the University of Guelph’s decade long role as co-host and sponsor of the Canadian Culinary Book Awards (rebranded in 2012 as the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards), the archive receives annual donations of all the shortlisted titles, which ensures that contemporary authors, such as Martin Picard and Naomi Duguid, are represented for future generations.
These books are great for showing what ingredients are available, what people’s tastes are, what they were interested in during a certain time period, McAfee says. It’s a really great way of studying communities.