Cookbooks, menus, culinary manuscripts, and ephemera have always been part of the collections at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. When we received a large donation of Canadian culinary material from the collection of retired Art Librarian and culinary historian Mary F. Williamson, we were immediately excited about its potential for teaching and outreach. The extensive and diverse collection spans more than 150 years and includes rare first editions of The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (the first English language cookbook to be compiled in Canada) and La Cuisiniére Canadienne (the first French language cookbook to be written in Canada), as well as an intriguing selection of culinary ephemera, early Canadian women’s periodicals, and community cookbooks from most of the Canadian provinces, including a number of Indigenous community cookbooks. Several events and a major exhibition were planned to highlight some of the treasures in the collection and to introduce it to its communities.
“Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada”, running from May 22 to August 17, 2018, will be one of the most collaborative exhibitions ever to take place at the Fisher Library, with academics, librarians, undergraduate, and graduate students working together to explore the topic. My co-curators Irina Mihalache, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information, and Nathalie Cooke, Professor and Associate Dean, McGill Library (Archives & Rare Collections) decided against a fully chronological structure, instead mixing chronology with a number of other themes and threads to explore culinary culture in Canada. Some of our primary goals were to amplify the voices and stories of women in Canadian culinary history and to explore who had agency and who did not in the creation of this shared culture. Since the exhibition is on campus at the University of Toronto and open to the public, we also hoped to convey the research value of the material and encourage the reading of cookbooks and culinary objects beyond their recipes, in order to develop a kind of “culinary objects literacy” in students and exhibition attendees.
A range of materials highlight women’s changing roles and their interactions with one another and society as they negotiated their way further into the public sphere in Canada from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. In the upstairs gallery, an elixir made with Anvil dust from the culinary manuscript of Lucy Ronalds Harris of London, Ontario shows the lady of the house as family physician; an early Canadian Jewish community cookbook containing Christmas recipes hints at the complex process of negotiating cultural identity; an army of cooks testing recipes submitted by thousands of readers through national contests show women working collaboratively, opening a form of national dialogue and having their expertise recognized.
The downstairs gallery contains culinary objects and aims to be a more interactive space. Curated by Master of Museum Studies candidates Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald in conversation with the material in the main gallery, it focuses on flavours and appropriation, changing technology and domestic labour, and the resourcefulness required to handle the myriad expectations put on the homemaker during the period. The space also includes several interactive items to engage the other senses and bring attendees closer to the experiences of the kitchen.
As with any exhibition, especially one based on a new collection, there were many stories that we were not able to tell and items that could not be shown. Undergraduate and graduate students were asked to engage with some of the material not included in the exhibition as part of their course work and research, and they share these additional stories in oral histories, blog posts, and object stories which are presented on the exhibition blog and on iPads in the main gallery area during the exhibition. We hope that Mixed Messages and the accompanying catalogue and digital content provide a thoughtful introduction to the collection and that students and researchers are enticed to continue some of the conversations started in the exhibition.
 Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: a bibliography of Canadian cookbooks 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c 2008), xxi.
 Ibid., 86.