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A taste of Canadian history

New exhibit examining unique cookbooks explores Canadian history.

Queen’s University history professor Steven Maynard has cooked up a unique exhibit that examines the social history of Canada. Using cookbooks found in the Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections in Douglas Library, a group of Professor Maynard’s students brought history to life using the rare tomes.

From vintage Jello cookbooks popular in the 1920s to Jewish and Mennonite recipe books from the mid-20th century to the oldest cookbook in Canada published in Kingston in 1831, The Taste of the Library is a new exhibit researched and curated by students.

Learning about Canadian history in this unique project are (l to r): Ashley Anderson, Jack Wilson and Jessie Cook.

“The collection at Queen’s is very extensive,” says Jack Wilson (ArtSci’18). “It made doing the research necessary very easy.”

The idea behind the project was to explore interesting themes in regards to food and what stories cookbooks tell.  Themes include cooking on a budget, preparing meals before there were grocery stores and food trends through the decades.

“We looked at local cookbooks published by community groups, to books that were widely published, to books published by large companies. We looked at one cookbook that had an advertisement on every other page,” says Ashley Anderson (ArtSci’19).

Mr. Wilson added it was also interesting to learn about rationing during the wars as the cookbooks during that time were very basic. Studying a cookbook from 1899, he adds the focus of that book was sustaining the family - nothing more exotic than that.

“We also got to see other ways that recipes changes, including how they were written,” says Jessie Cooke (ArtSci’19). “Early books told more of a story without listing specific ingredients as they took for granted women already knew how to cook. Later cookbooks really focused on exact measurements and making the food perfect.”

Another student in the class loaned to the exhibit her grandmother’s Mennonite cookbook. Those recipes showed more of the cultural history of Canada, as did a number of Indigenous cookbooks contained in the collection.

“These books explained a lot about Canada’s history and also how the Canadian family has changed since the mid-1800s,” says Professor Maynard. “My approach to teaching is giving history a public face and I think this year’s projects achieved that and more. Now students can bring their work to the public so others can also learn something new.

The exhibit opens Thursday, March 30 at 3 pm and is located on the second floor of Douglas Library.

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