In Celebration of Edna Staebler

Edna Staebler

(Photo courtesy of University of Guelph Special Collections and Archives)

Report by Maggie Newell, Secretary to CHC’s Board

Members of the Culinary Historians of Canada and Friends of Etobicoke’s Heritage, and fans of food that “schmecks” gathered on February 22 in the bar room at Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke to honour and remember the late journalist and cookbook author Edna Staebler. Our speaker was Carrie Herzog, CHC Program Chair. Carrie has an MA in Canadian History and an MBA in Hospitality and Tourism with a specialty in Culinary Tourism from the University of Guelph. Her talk distilled research she did in 2004 as the Edna Staebler Research Fellow at the University of Waterloo.

Carrie began with a summary of the landmark events in Edna Staebler’s life. She was born Edna Louise Cress on January 15, 1906, in Berlin, Ontario, and received a BA from the University of Toronto in 1929. Her first piece of published food writing may be an article on buttermilk for the student newspaper, The Varsity, in 1929. Edna taught sCHCol between her graduation and her 1933 marriage to Keith Staebler. The couple had no children and divorced in 1962. She died at age 100 in September 2006.

When Edna was born Kitchener was called Berlin, but anti-German sentiment during the First World War caused the name to be changed in 1916. This name change did not dilute the German and Old Order Mennonite influence in the area.

During her married years Edna published occasional articles in Macleans and Saturday Night magazines. As a journalist she immersed herself in a topic, sometimes living like an anthropologist with the people she was writing about. In 1950 she received a Canadian Women’s Press Award for a story about the Old Order Mennonites. It was her relationship with the Old Order Mennonites of the Kitchener/Waterloo area that secured her place in Ontario culinary history. As a follow up to this article her publisher encouraged her to write more about their way of life. Food That Really Schmecks, recipes from Old Order Mennonites of Waterloo County, was published in 1968. It seems her timing was perfect: Canada had marked its Centennial in 1967 and Canadians had discovered the “Cultural Mosaic.” We had a new interest in celebrating ethnicity and the diverse immigrant groups that came together to create Canada. Schmecks was a great success because her anecdotal style brought the traditional recipes to life. Fourteen more cookbooks followed.

Edna Staebler became an unofficial Food Ambassador for Waterloo County, and the word “schmecks” reached a non-German speaking audience. She received many honours during her life. Today Cuisine Canada presents “The Edna” award to culinary professionals who have contributed to the promotion of regional cuisine and exemplify that region through their work.

Carrie’s lecture was followed by the reminiscences of Edna’s friends Jo Marie Powers and Rose Murray. Their stories revealed Edna’s sense of fun, and pragmatic approach to cooking. She hated to waste food and substituted ingredients to use what was on hand. Testing the recipes included feeding samples to guests to avoid waste. Her dining table was several plywood circles in various sizes; she rolled out the appropriate size and placed it on top of a card table.

The evening concluded with treats from recipes in Edna’s books, made by Mya Sangster, Jo Marie Powers, Rose Murray and Carrie Herzog. It was an evening of good food and fellowship.

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