A faded cover. A ragged spine. Well-thumbed pages. These are not flaws, but evidence of this vintage Blue Ribbon Cook Book’s untold tales. I treasure this little volume dedicated to the ‘women of Canada’ more than a century ago.
The engraved image of the Blue Ribbon Limited headquarters doesn’t set it apart. While the obscure reference to ‘entered according to Act of the Parliament of Canada’ is fascinating, it’s not what makes this cookbook special.
The lofty sentiment of Lord Lytton’s poem in the foreword praising the importance of cooks for civilized man isn’t remarkable. The recipes in tiny type with instructions that assumed a baker already knew her way around the kitchen isn’t unusual either.
Its Owner Was a Dear Soul
Knowing the cookbook’s original owner distinguishes this collectible from similar hardcovers. The lady was Elizabeth Mary Monahan, a kind, white-haired Scottish widow. She lived with her brother, Tommy McGunigal, in a small home over the hill from the Calgary Stampede Grounds in Calgary.
It was only by chance that Mrs. Mon and Tommy entered our lives. One day, fate smiled and an unexpected lifetime friendship flourished between the sister and brother and my mother.
In the 1930s, Mom was taking a dressmaking and millinery course in Calgary at the Provincial Institute of Technology-Art (later the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and now SAIT Polytechnic). Because she needed to work to earn her room and board, Mom answered an ad in The Calgary Herald. Mrs. Mon, who was recovering from an operation, was seeking a young woman to live in to help with housework, cooking and laundry.
The Scotswoman saw the young farm girl as a hardworking, honest applicant. Mom was serious, too. Mrs. Mon wouldn’t be hiring a party girl. A staunch Roman Catholic, Mrs. Mon overlooked the fact that Mom was Protestant.
Mom, who took an immediate liking to Mrs. Mon and Tommy, whose accents were similar to her stepfather’s, was happy to land the job. Over time, the relationship blossomed, first to respect, then to affection and finally to love. Although the day came when Mom left the employ of Mrs. Mon and Tommy, the three stayed friends all their lives.
To us kids, Mrs. Mon was like another grandmother. We regarded Tommy, a World War I veteran who still suffered from mustard gas exposure in the trenches of France, like a treasured great-uncle.
Although Mom didn’t go to Calgary regularly, when she did, she often arranged to see her old friends. As she made her way up their sidewalk with one or two of us kids in tow, Mom would be carrying a heavy brown paper shopping bag. Inside, wrapped in newspapers were jars of jam and pickles, plus several cartons of eggs. Always tucked in was a small jar of heavy cream from Mom’s Jersey cow, as well as portions of home-baked treats like Matrimonial Cake.
The sister and brother would welcome Mom with open arms as if she was a daughter or favored niece. With one smile, Mom could singlehandedly banish the sister’s and brother’s loneliness as they hurriedly made her a cup of tea. Then we would sit and visit.
Mrs. Mon still mourned the loss of her husband, John, who had died young. A gifted stonemason who worked on the lions on Calgary’s Centre Street Bridge, he also built the stout stone fence in front of their little wood frame home.
Mrs. Mon and Tommy sometimes shared memories of their lives in the ‘old country.’ On one such occasion, Mrs. Mon related her harrowing immigration story.
From Scotland to Calgary
Mrs. Mon and her husband emigrated from Great Britain to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1907. Their ship, the SS Laurentian, was also known as ‘Rolling Poly.’ Whether caused by the constant rocking of the ship or sickness of another sort, Mrs. Mon was ill when it docked.
The Canadian immigration doctor flatly refused to allow Mrs. Mon to enter Canada. She was abruptly hustled off to an infirmary. Meanwhile, John was sent on his way, gripping his prepaid ticket to the Canadian west in his hand.
So John traveled to Calgary. Since the city was booming, he had no trouble getting a job in his trade. He told his new employer that he would need to leave the job daily to meet the passenger train from the east because his wife would be joining him anytime.
What Had Happened to His Wife?
Every day for three weeks, he stood waiting on the platform for her. Then he turned and walked back to work.
John began to fear the worst but had no means of checking on his beloved Mary.
Meanwhile, in Halifax, Mrs. Mon gradually recuperated and finally was allowed to enter Canada. Clutching her ticket and a valise, she had no idea how to contact her husband in far away Calgary. So she got on the train and settled in for the long, monotonous, uncomfortable trip.
This was downtown Calgary in the era when Mrs. Mon stepped off the train alone.
On the day John was running late to get to the station, his prayers were answered.
When he spied his bewildered wife slowly walking toward him on 8th avenue, he wept with relief. When she recognized her husband rushing toward her with outstretched arms, Mrs. Mon said she wept, too.
Never again was the couple separated until John’s death.
Another Vintage Cookbook Tale
On a blank page in the back of the little cookbook, Mrs. Mon wrote a recipe for Matrimonial Cake that a friend had passed along to her. This scrumptious date and oatmeal square always reminds me of Mrs. Mon and my mother’s cake box where sweet treats like it were stored.
Here’s a version of the recipe with simple directions on how to prepare it.
1¼ C flour 1½ C rolled oats
1 C packed brown sugar 1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt 1 C butter
Measure flour, oats, sugar, baking soda, salt and butter into a large bowl. Cut butter into the ingredients until crumbly. Press more than half of the crumbs into a greased 9×9-inch pan. Set the rest of the crumbs aside for the topping.
½ lb. dates, cut up ½ C granulated sugar
⅔ C water (or more)
In a saucepan, combine dates, sugar and water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the dates are mushy and the water has boiled away. (If the mixture becomes dry before the dates are cooked, add more water.) Spread dates over the bottom crumb layer and sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the top.
Press down with your hand. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes until it turns a rich, golden brown color.
Have you ever tasted Matrimonial Cake? If not, why don’t you bake one and let me know if you agree it’s good old-fashioned comfort food.
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