At one point in the 1990s, Julie Van Rosendaal, the popular Calgary-based cookbook author and CBC Radio food columnist, ran a bakery called One Smart Cookie. She eventually shut it down, exhausted by the long hours, but in 2000, Van Rosendaal self-published her first cookbook, named after the shop. It didn’t occur to her to approach a publishing house, because she believed that going out on her own was possible, thanks to the women behind the Best of Bridge cookbook series.
In its more than 40 years of existence, Best of Bridge has sold more than four million copies and become one of Canada’s most enduring and beloved cookbook brands. “I got into food writing because they were an inspiration,” says Van Rosendaal, who came onboard in 2015 as a new co-author for the series. Van Rosendaal literally grew up with Best of Bridge and its no-nonsense approach to the kitchen. The women behind the books were her neighbours and Van Rosendaal was friends with some of their daughters. “They’re not celebrity chefs at all, and I think that was a great part of their appeal,” she says.
The Best of Bridge origin story is something of a publishing legend. In 1975, eight Calgary women, all members of the same bridge club, took off for a weekend away. Their conversation inevitably turned to cooking – food was as important as the game – and how much they enjoyed preparing and sharing meals together. Somewhere in that discussion, the club decided to spread that simple pleasure – and their recipes – with others, and began planning the first Best of Bridge cookbook.
After securing a $6,000 loan (from a bank officer reluctant to hand money over to female entrepreneurs), the women tirelessly promoted their debut collection, which they self-published in 1976. The book followed a simple formula: uncomplicated recipes for home cooks with straightforward instructions enclosed in a spiral-bound cover. Uninhibited by the structure of a traditional publishing house, the co-authors found unconventional ways to build distribution networks, through places like local realtor offices and drugstores. But their biggest marketing tool was the authors themselves. The self-styled Ladies of the Best of Bridge charmed audiences with their matching red aprons and general enthusiasm.
Bob Dees, publisher of Robert Rose, which bought rights to the series in 2008, suggests its sales success – particularly in Western Canada where it remains a kitchen staple – can be attributed to a combination of personality and timing. “You had a group of extremely vibrant women,” he says. “They’re women who had a strong sense of self, but also a strong sense of wanting to achieve something together. And they were not going to take no for an answer.” Dees also believes that as Alberta was entering into a period of significant wealth thanks to the expanding oil industry, more residents were demanding homegrown products. “The sense of identity that inevitably comes with a high level of prosperity was something [readers] were buying into,” says Dees. “Albertans wanted to personally represent themselves, and food is always an expression of every culture.”
In 2015, when the four surviving members of the Bridge team (one original member moved away after the first book, and three others have died) decided it was time to hang up the red apron strings, they approached Van Rosendaal to take over. Wanting to keep the spirit of the series alive, Van Rosendaal recruited her longtime best friend, Sue Duncan, and Calgary food blogger Elizabeth Chorney-Booth as co-writers.
Dees, who admits he takes a conservative approach to change, saw an opportunity to update the brand. “It’s always challenging because you can’t duplicate what you had before,” he says. “The original Bridge ladies started in the ’70s, and they would tell you they’re not as in touch with the current marketplace as is required. You need to move on to look at achieving contemporary voices, with a tone and sensibility that is consistent with what people are looking for today, which is different in terms of ingredients, recipes, styles of cooking, idea of health.”
The first title by the new team, 2016’s Best of Bridge: The Family Slow Cooker – 225 All-New Recipes, capitalized on consumers’ revived fixation with the kitchen appliance and demands for healthy ingredients like grains and vegetables. A greater emphasis was put on photography, though the spiral binding remains. The refresh paid off: according to Dees, Slow Cooker was one of the year’s top three bestselling cookbooks in Canada. The next book written by Van Rosendaal and company, Best of Bridge: Sunday Dinners, which comes out in October, is a nod to the original authors’ ethos of enjoying communal meals. “These were collections of recipes written by people who were your neighbours. You felt like if they could pull it off, you could too,” says Van Rosendaal. “They were like every mom.”