Muskoka Serves Up Cookbooks

Cooking with Muskoka Cranberries

One, published in 1985 by the Anglican Church Women of Trinity-St. Albans in Gravenhurst, even focused exclusively on the marsh berry. Cranberry Cookbook offers so many ways to cook the tasty red berries there is something for every pallet. Although technically a "cook book," not all recipes in Cranberry Cookbook even require cooking. One I'd recommend is for cranberry and orange rind spread, a tangy raw addition to breakfast toast.

The Cranberry Cookbook also illustrates a second way that food and community unite, namely, when churchwomen pool their own recipes for a new composite guide to culinary delight. In fact, this collaborative tendency has been so pronounced over the decades that it accounts for the majority of Muskoka's cookbooks.

The other "Good Book" – Tasty Recipes from Church

Typical of this, a decade and a-half ago, was the Knox Presbyterian Ladies Aid Cook Book 128-page compilation from Gravenhurst's Presbyterian kitchens, published in 2002. A half-century earlier, Favourite Recipes, Old and New was published in 1955 by the Women's Association of Port Carling United Church. Typical of many, this one shows how local advertisers could be as plentiful as the recipes in some cookbooks: there are 74 ads in this 68-page Port Carling cookbook. Today those ads provide a vivid glimpse of an era of prosperity and healthy eating. As for its "old and new" recipes, hungry Muskoka munchers in the Fifties could enjoy cookies trading under such names as "golf balls," "porcupines," and "date rocks."

More than a quarter-century before that, in1927, Bracebridge St. Thomas Church Woman's Auxiliary issued Tested Recipes and Useful Household Hints, a handy loose-leaf guide to kitchen and household success in 50 pages. And so it went many times over – from baked tuna casseroles to carrot marmalade.

W.I. Cookbook – Local Example of a North American Model

Akin to these publications from churchwomen's auxiliaries, Muskoka's local chapters of the Women's Institute likewise produced books offering mutual support and shared recipes. The Art of Cooking in Beatrice, a W.I. cookbook compiled by members of the Beatrice Women's Institute, is one example. Yet this Muskoka cookbook was printed in Chicago by The Women's Clubs Publishing Co. Inc. of Illinois. That enterprising publisher offered an artistic design and well-written text as a generic cookbook template for any particular women's club wishing to drop its chosen recipes into the waiting spaces below such headings as "Meat, Fish, and Poultry" or "Bread, Rolls, and Cookies," between pre-printed pages on such general topics as slow crockery cooking, microwave cooking principles, and ingredient substitutions. There were also places, in the format provided by the Chicago printer, for the advertisements sold to Muskoka businesses by the W.I. members. The result was a local book with a very professional look. Counterparts of The Art of Cooking in Beatrice appeared in many other communities across North America.

Raising Dough

A number of Muskoka organizations have been drawn to fund-raising with cookbooks. Recipes from Our Friends is a collection of North Muskoka and Algonquin Park recipes from the "Friends of Huntsville's Algonquin Academy of Wilderness and Wildlife Art," published in 2002 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Tom Thomson's birth. Those craving relevant reading material while watching their "Canoe Lake Cookies" bake have at hand, in this spiral-bound cookbook, a short biography of artist Thomson.

Another such north Muskoka entry is the Cookbook published by Friends of the Huntsville Library, while south Muskoka has country food recipes in Wild Game and Fish Cook Book, a 110-page, spiral bound volume from the Gravenhurst and District Conservation Club.

Patriotism in the Kitchens of Muskoka

The most patriotic cookbook, combining recipes with support for the war effort, provided high testament to the close connection between food and community in Muskoka during the Great War.

Muskokans made a major effort to recruit and entire battalion of soldiers within the district, and in the silent aftermath of the troop train departures, the mothers and wives met in Women's Institutes, church groups, and patriotic societies to do whatever they could in supporting Muskoka's soldiers and the war effort. After Canada joined the war in 1914, "the women of Muskoka" gathered for a public meeting at Bracebridge Town Hall "to formulate some plans to assist in helping those fighting for the Empire."

They formed the Women's Patriotic League, which undertook a variety of causes across the district. One was to compile an extensive collection of recipes, published as The Bracebridge Ladies Cook Book to raise money for the Women's Patriotic League.

The Art of Self-Promotion through Good Eating

Other Muskoka organizations have simply had fun promoting themselves through food. In 1999, for example, the Gravenhurst Chamber of Commerce discovered its members and staff had, among them, some 95 pages worth of entries and published its illustrated Chamber Maids in the Kitchen: An Excellent Collection of Recipes.


 In this promotional category of cookbooks, however, few publications can rival Marty's World Famous Cookbook.In this one, cook-entrepreneur-author Marty Curtis spills the back-kitchen secrets from the Muskoka Landmark Café in Bracebridge about recipes "that have attracted visitors and media attention from around the globe." Joining in the hype, Food Network celebrity chef Michael Smith claimed in 2008 "...this is bigger than Coke giving out their formula or Tim Hortons spilling their coffee bean secret." Reference is made to "rave reviews about Marty's World Famous Café and Marty Curtis' delightful creations" in the New York Times, London Evening Standard, and even the Toronto Star. Amidst Marty's philosophy about the simple pleasures of home cooked food, this cookbook includes recipes for Muskoka Berry Pie, The Original Big Sandwich and, of course, Marty's World Famous Buttertarts.

Individual Appetites

While charitable organizations and businesses therefore account for dozens of Muskoka cook books, still more of them, again in uncounted numbers, have been privately published by solo compilers. To give just a single illustration, for Thanksgiving 1988 Mary Billingsley of Bracebridge brought out her second volume of Lifetime Favourites.Cookbooks such as these, the work of an individual instead of a committee and unrestrained by any policy of a sponsoring organization, carry the particular imprint of the author's own values. Given Mary Billingsley's religious sensibilities, for example, her several hundred favourite recipes shared space with poems and prayers, and the formulae for concocting a number of different beverages – from "Newfoundland Punch" to "The Big Bunch Punch" – were all alcohol-free.

Resorting to Resort Recipes

An entirely different genre of Muskoka cookbooks are those containing the recipes from our district's noteworthy resorts and restaurants. A Taste of Muskoka, for example, offers 133 pages of recipes "from the Kitchens and Restaurants of the Distinctive Muskoka Region" as tracked down by Gwendolyn Drew, Susanne Phillips, and Mary Gower in 1986.

Two years later, in Muskoka Memories, Cindy Maguire reproduced The Wenona Lodge Cookbook in 78 pages of appetizing meals enjoyed over the years by Muskoka vacationers.

Cookbooks Plus

Still another genre is the two-in-one combo. Muskoka Flavours: Guidebook & Cookbook, is a 128-page offering in 2000 from Brenda Matthews, with photography by Dwayne Coon. It makes the boast of presenting "the best food in Ontario's cottage country" while simultaneously providing a guide to "the best accommodation" as well.

This idea of combining two features – food and something else – seems irresistible to some authors and publishers. Muskoka Dining Guide and Favourite Recipes, edited by Alice Paré in 1992, offers a combination of favourite recipes from Muskoka, supplemented by great places to dine out for those wanting to bypass the kitchen en route to gastronomical pleasure.

Another cookbook on this "food and something else" theme is Bethune in Bloom: Family Favourites. This cookbook, issued in June 2010, mixes recipes and celebrities. In conjunction with the visit to Huntsville of world leaders for the G-8 Summit that summer, women of Baysville's Bethune United Church complied over 300 recipes from their own kitchens. Then church secretary Marlene Robinson decided, in light of the G-8 meeting in Muskoka, to get a recipe from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He offered his recipe for Mexican lasagna. With that precedent, MP Tony Clement, MPP Norm Miller, and General Lewis MacKenzie swiftly followed with their favourite recipes.

Unrivalled winner of the oddest combination of recipes with something else, however, is Dennis C. Patchett's Ghost Routes and Recipes: Travel and Food at the Dawn of the Motor Age. Although published in 2001, this wonky book draws directly from materials originating early in the twentieth century. The front cover shows the rock cut on the old Muskoka Road just north of the Severn River bridge, circa 1919. The maps and "ghost routes" for getting, say, from Rosseau to Port Carling via Falkenburg, include turn-by-turn driving instructions over the steep hills and sharp curves of Muskoka's meandering highways and tortuous byways.

Interspersed are "points of law motorists should know" (including a dubious instruction on the defence of alibi), excerpts from 1919 press releases issued by Ontario's Department of Public Highways and, oh yes – "ghost recipes" for Aunt Gertie's blueberry oatmeal muffins, watercress sandwiches, summer rhubarb cocktail, the queen's muffins (in honour of Queen Elizabeth's 1957 walk at Torrance, south of Bala, when allegedly "these muffins were a staple for both the royal party and the press corps"), and baked cranberry pudding. The recipes are taken from Patchett family cookbooks dating back to 1884.

The connection with ghosts is a second Muskoka mystery that may never be solved, unless one accepts the otherworldly notion that anything created by a person now dead is accompanied by their ghost. If that's the case, then one never again needs to dine alone.

— Review Essay by J. Patrick Boyer


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