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Book Reviews

The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook

by Elizabeth Baird, ed.

A Year in My Kitchen

by Rose Murray

Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumière

by Rob Feenie

What’s the value of tone in a cookbook? By tone, I mean the figurative song delivered through design that indicates to a prospective audience that, yes, this book and its recipes are for them. Close examination shows how three new cookbooks use tone to create trust in readers, and thus continuity from bookshelf to dinner plate.

With recipes from over 40 contributors, The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook is a pillar of research meant to stand beside respected volumes like The Joy of Cooking. It offers 350 of the best recipes published in Canadian Living Magazine over 25 years. The recipes are very homey: breakfast strudel, Old Favourite Lasagna, Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake, perogies, roasts, potato salad. Canadian Living is known for such stuff. It’s also known for its demanding test kitchen. Before allowing recipes into the magazine, editor Elizabeth Baird and her team test them three times, aiming to make them “as tasty, attractive and easy to make as possible.” They also do nutritional analyses likely to satisfy any hospital.

Amazingly – and here’s Canadian Living’s strength – the recipes are not killed by such dissection. While they’re never wildly adventurous (ie: putanesca pasta sauce, traditionally bawdy and spicy, calls for only 1/4 tsp of hot pepper flakes) they’re always undeniably solid and reliable.

And so is the book.

The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook displays its mountain of recipes one rock at a time. Clearly written and easily followed, all but a few appear on a single page, each surrounded by an array of nutritional stats, cooking tips and info-icons (clocks equal preparation times, snowflakes equal freezable). Two-Cheese Tomato Tart, for example, contains 5% of the “Recommended Daily Intake” of folate, can also be served as an appetizer, and is a “quick” “budget-wise” “classic.” The tone: “We’ve done our work, and most of yours too.”

Over the years Canadian Living has birthed a subgenre of cookbooks by home-economist chefs like Anne Lindsay and Bonnie Stern, both regular contributors to the magazine and both represented in Complete Canadian Living. Let’s call that genre “CanLiv.” It’s hyper-healthy, frugal, and rarely adventurous. It’s also trusted by readers because these chefs know uncannily how to stop just short of crowding creativity completely out with industriousness. It’s no irony that the photos in Complete Canadian Living show almost exclusively spotless kitchen tools, with only the occasional egg or lemon thrown in; these folks have taken care of business and you could almost cook from this book asleep.

A Year in My Kitchen, by Rose Murray, is a much less stringent greatest-hits collection. Another regular contributor to Canadian Living Magazine, Murray has written seven of her own cookbooks and contributed to dozens of others (including Complete Canadian Living). A Year in My Kitchen gathers her best work, from 22 years, into four main chapters – one per season – and a fifth containing “year-round” recipes.

Like other CanLiv alumni, Murray appeals to homemakers because her recipes are reliable, easy, and require few “exotic” ingredients. A Year in My Kitchen, however, has added appeal: It is unusually attractive for a book of this genre. These books usually have bland, beige covers and uninteresting interiors. The cover photo of A Year in My Kitchen shows a yellow ceramic bowl, holding a mound of flour and entangled with a yellow tea towel in a shaft of light on a red table. It is colourful, pleasing, and peaceful. It sets the book’s tone, which could be called “genteel suburban.” Inside, true to CanLiv fashion, Murray offers excellent “homestyle” recipes – casseroles, Broccoli-Brie Soup, Cranberry Chicken, scalloped potatoes, Bistro Burgers, Nanaimo bars – but the presentation is softer than Canadian Living’s. Murray’s text is gracious and quaint, the graphics show clean fields of colour with floating, iconographic photos (asparagus bundles equal spring, apple bushels equal fall).

More icons. They are important to CanLiv. CanLiv is not about challenging people. It takes your hand and directs you between signposts. Icons in Complete Canadian Living are officious, saying, “Look what work we’ve done!” In Murray’s book, they’re friendlier, grandmotherly, saying, “Such a beautiful peach! It must be summer. Let’s cook.” Either way, CanLiv broaches the age-old question of what’s for dinner, and provides dependable, simple answers.

Rob Feenie hovers much further along the artistic spectrum. Where Baird, Murray et al. are journeymen of the very highest order, Feenie is a master. In Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumière, his first cookbook, Feenie answers questions few others could even imagine existed.

Lumière is the name of Feenie’s Vancouver restaurant. The food he prepares there is heralded internationally. It’s very different from CanLiv food. Take, for example, Butter-braised Atlantic lobster with lobster bisque and mascarpone risotto. After CanLiv’s meatloafs, roasts, and dessert bars, this recipe is akin to poetry. No, the language isn’t frilly or purple. It’s all expertly clear. Any home chef could follow it. The poetry comes with the complexity of the dish; there are over 40 steps in its preparation. For most people, lobster with clarified butter is challenge enough, forget bisque and risotto. For a chef such as Feenie, however, classically trained in Europe, this recipe embodies the sum of his skill and knowledge. Like a poem, it contains a world. Every recipe in Lumière shares that quality.

There are few other chefs of this calibre cooking in Canada. (Susur Lee comes to mind.) As befits such artistry, Feenie’s book is gorgeous. There’s no clutter of folate counts, cooking tips, or icons. Exquisite photography makes you swoon. Elegant layouts exude confidence. Readers who buy such books trust them because they, like Feenie, understand that cooking as art has little or nothing to do with eating. Just as a writer does not write to read, great chefs do not cook to eat. They cook to cook. Lumière’s tone: “Here are the most delicious, expensive, and challenging recipes you are ever likely to cook.” Unlike CanLiv, you had better be fully awake.