'Food that Really Schmecks'

Karl Wells
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Comfort food recipes from the late Canadian cookbook author Edna Staebler

I own over 300 cookbooks. I've been collecting them for about 30 years. The majority are American, but I also have Canadian food and cookery books by authors like Jehane Benoit, Sondra Gotlieb, Bonnie Stern, Umberto Menghi, Anne Lindsay, Byron Ayanoglu, Rose Reisman and others. A couple of books are genuine Canadian classics, by an author many of you have probably never heard about - "Food that Really Schmecks" and "More Food that Really Schmecks" by Edna Staebler. (Schmecks means "tastes good.")

On a cold morning in January 1996, I was in my sunlit kitchen listening to the radio as Peter Gzowski conducted a telephone interview with Edna Staebler. She was on the line from her beloved cottage at Sunfish Lake near Kitchener, Ont. (her birthplace). At the time she was 90 years of age and had just celebrated her birthday that week.

I own over 300 cookbooks. I've been collecting them for about 30 years. The majority are American, but I also have Canadian food and cookery books by authors like Jehane Benoit, Sondra Gotlieb, Bonnie Stern, Umberto Menghi, Anne Lindsay, Byron Ayanoglu, Rose Reisman and others. A couple of books are genuine Canadian classics, by an author many of you have probably never heard about - "Food that Really Schmecks" and "More Food that Really Schmecks" by Edna Staebler. (Schmecks means "tastes good.")

On a cold morning in January 1996, I was in my sunlit kitchen listening to the radio as Peter Gzowski conducted a telephone interview with Edna Staebler. She was on the line from her beloved cottage at Sunfish Lake near Kitchener, Ont. (her birthplace). At the time she was 90 years of age and had just celebrated her birthday that week.

Being an iconic Canadian cookbook author and foodie, Staebler was asked to give listeners some hints on what to cook for the family when your food supplies have dwindled - ostensibly because the weather's been too stormy to get to the market.

Her interview was different from others Gzowski conducted on the topic. He treated her with more deference, which I assumed was due to her age. Quite likely that was partly the case. I didn't give it much thought at the time but later Gzowski's attitude toward Staebler was more understandable when I learned that she had been an award-winning writer with Maclean's in 1950 and was a pioneer in Canadian creative non-fiction with her book, "Cape Breton Harbour."

In fact, Edna Staebler OC (Order of Canada) was writing for magazines for over 20 years before she'd written a single word about cooking. She'd also established the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction to help promising writers.

Sunfish winter

Staebler's gift for description was evident when she told Gzowski what it was like living on Sunfish Lake in the middle of a Canadian winter. She talked about looking through her window and seeing the sunshine on her frozen lake. Then she described how she and a close friend had made a roast beef dinner with mashed potatoes and peas for her birthday, as well as a birthday cake.

"It was so good," she said, "and we had leftovers, so I enjoyed it all over again the next day!" Her voice was tiny and fragile but the exuberance in it was unmistakable.

Later she talked about how to keep vegetables through the winter. Cabbage was a favourite and she described a single giant one she was keeping in an unheated back room of her cottage. Because she lived alone, she felt she didn't need more than one. So, whenever she wanted cabbage with her supper she would tear off a few leaves from the big cabbage and cook them. To this day I can still picture that giant leafy head in her back room.

Staebler lived to be just over 100 years old. She died in 2006 at a long-term care facility in Waterloo, Ont. On Jan. 15, she would have been 103.

The other day I had to rearrange some of my books because we were installing some new furniture in my home office. It was an opportunity for me to dust off and take a look at some of the volumes I hadn't seen in a while. Two of the cookbooks I took time to leaf through and read were Edna's. In addition to the homey recipes the short introductions to them made her books treasures.

Harold Horwood

For example, she tells a lovely story about Newfoundland writer Harold Horwood (her great friend) showing up at her house one day with his family in tow. At the time, Horwood was doing a stint as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario.

He had arrived with groceries to cook Chinese food for her. According to Staebler, Horwood had learned the art of Chinese cookery while working in a Chinese restaurant - something I didn't know about our fascinating Newfoundland scribe. There was also a line or two about Harold's views on Chinese versus Japanese soy sauce. Apparently he favoured the Chinese sauce because it contained much less salt.

Many of the recipes in Edna Staebler's books came from her friends, like Horwood's recipes for Chinese clear soup, egg drop soup and foo yong. However, by far, most of them came from the Mennonite community of the Kitchener-Waterloo area where Staebler was born and raised.

She had also spent time with a Mennonite family early in her writing career while researching an article. That's when she developed an appreciation for their homemade food with colourful German-Dutch names, like her friend Bevvy's grumbara knepp.

Reading Edna Staebler's words allowed me to remember the sound of her joyful voice from years before as she described her birthday dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes on the radio. It motivated me to select a beef and a potato recipe from her famous "Food that Really Schmecks." It represents Mennonite cooking at its best.

The recipes I chose were for sauerbraten and grumbara knepp - potato dumplings. It was delicious comfort food, as are most of the recipes in Staebler's books.

Staebler was a bright light in Canadian writing and has left Canada a wonderful legacy. Decades from now eager cooks will still be trying her wonderful recipes. Thank you Edna.

Sauerbraten

"Food that Really Schmecks" by Edna Staebler

Courtesy McGraw-Hill Ryerson

Ingredients:

4 pounds beef - chuck, rump or round

Salt and pepper

3 cups vinegar or dry red wine

3 cups water

4 whole cloves

5 sliced onions

3 bay leaves

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tbsp. dripping

3 tbsp. flour

1/4 tsp. ginger

1/4 tsp. allspice

1/2 cup raisins

Method:

Rub the beef with salt and pepper. Place it in a large earthen dish. Heat the vinegar (or wine), water, onions, bay leaf, pepper, sugar and cloves together - but do not boil. Pour the heated mixture over the beef to partially cover. Cool, then cover tightly and let stand in a cool place for three to five days, turning the meat over every day.

Then: melt the dripping in a heavy pot; dredge the beef with flour and sear it quickly in the hot fat, turning it to brown on all sides. Pour over the beef the mixture in which it had been standing, diluting a little with water if it seems too sour. Reduce heat, cover the pot, simmer for two to three hours until the meat is tender and the sour mixture fairly well reduced. Remove the meat and keep it warm. Strain the liquid, skim off the fat and return the liquid (about 3 or 4 cups) to the pot. Add the raisins, then the spices and flour blended in half cup of water; cook until thick and smooth and pour hot over the sliced meat. Serve with grumbara knepp.

Grumbara Knepp

"Food that Really Schmecks" by Edna Staebler

Courtesy McGraw-Hill Ryerson

Ingredients:

4 potatoes, boiled and peeled

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

1 egg, slightly beaten

2 tbsp. milk

2 tsp. grated onion (optional)

1 tbsp. flour

Salt and pepper

2 tsp. cut-up parsley

Method:

Grate the potatoes, moisten breadcrumbs with egg and milk; add potatoes, salt and pepper, flour, onion and parsley. Form into walnut sized balls dusted lightly with flour.

Drop carefully into boiling salted water or stew; cover tightly and cook gently for 15 minutes without lifting the lid.

Organizations: Maclean's, Creative Non-Fiction, McGraw-Hill University of Western Ontario

Geographic location: Sunfish Lake, Canada, Kitchener Newfoundland Waterloo

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