Rediscovering Mdm Benoit
A champion of Canadian cookery
Before there was Julia Child...
Before the Joy of Cooking...
Before the rise of tv cooking shows...
There was Jehane Benoit.
Madame Benoit was a champion of good food, good cooking and Canadian cuisine. She studied food chemisty in Europe, owned a vegetarian eatery and cooking school until WWII, wrote 32 cookbooks, worked in radio and television, and had a passion for food and food history. Her cookbooks are not only treasures of wonderful recipes, but historical information and personal anecdotes that make them as much a pleasure to read as a novel.
It's time to rediscover this Canadian treasure.
Madame Benoit Cooks At Home
My introduction to Mdm Benoit
I first knowingly discovered Mdm Benoit over twenty years ago. I say "knowingly," because I had unknowingly been introduced to her already! My husband and I were married barely a year and living far from family. We had already moved several times and were finally in an apartment where we expected to live long enough to start getting furniture and stuff! At the time, it was popular for people to go door to door selling magazine subscriptions as a way to raise money for their organizations or charities. Depending on how many you signed up for, you qualified for one or more free gifts. One such salesperson came knocking and tried to sell me some subscriptions. In the list of free gifts was a cookbook. I needed cookbooks, so I figured, "why not?"
Some weeks later, I found myself holding a lovely, hardcover copy of Madame Benoit Cooks at Home.
I was immediately entranced!
Flipping through the pages, I found myself brought back in time as Mdm Benoit shared stories of her childhood. I stood with her on a chair with her grandfather under an apple tree, reaching out to select the very best apple. My mouth watered as she described the food of her youth, and felt her excitement as she discovered exotic foods in the Montreal shop owned by a pair of Greek brothers.
I read through the pages on herbs and spices and found myself itching to try new flavours. I found the beverage section and had my first encounter with the world of teas and coffees. I learned what to look for when buying cheese, and how to pick the right ones for the occasion. I learned about yogurt and bread and ways to cook vegetables.
Most delightful of all, every recipe had some personal little story to go with it. A bit of history, perhaps, or a personal memory Mdm Benoit had to share. I read the cookbook from cover to cover - something I had never done with a cookbook before!
I was no stranger to cooking. I grew up on a farm where we butchered our own meat, grew our own vegetables, and even sometimes churned our own butter and made our own wine or bacon or sausages. I learned to bake bread, make pierogi and cabbage rolls. I helped with the canning and freezing. As the youngest of five children, my biggest challenge when I first moved out on my own was to cook for just one person!
I was certainly not a cooking novice, but my knowledge of food and cooking was very narrow. Tea was something you bought in bags and stuck in some boiling water. Coffee was something you got out of a jar. Even my knowledge of herbs and spices was more medicinal then culinary. This book introduced me to so much more!
I also encountered cooking techniques I would not have thought of. One of the first recipes I tried was broiled sausage. We had made our own sausage, but these were the smoked kind. We just didn't make the breakfast sausage type, and the idea of rolling sausages in a mix of spices and... sugar?? ... then broiling them was utterly foreign to me.
They were delicious.
It was here that my love of food history, and especially Canadian food history, began to really take off. I was on the road to becoming a foodie!
Mdm Benoit gives us three ways to cook sausages. This one is my favourite. Quantities are for 1 pound of sausages. Adjust accordingly.
- 1/2 tsp (2 ml) paprika
- 1/4 tsp (1 ml) sugar
- 1/2 tsp (2 ml) sage
- savory or curry powder
- 1 tsp (5 ml) flour
- Mix all ingredients on a plate. Roll separated sausages in this mixture. Set on broiler rack or grill pan. Preheat broiler for 10 minutes. Place sausage pan 3 inches (7.5 cm) from source of heat. Broil 3-4 minutes, turn sausages, and broil 2 minutes or until browned.
A Family History
My husband's family is francophone, with a long history in Canada and deep roots in what is now Quebec and New Brunswick. After moving a few more times I, sadly, lost my hardcover copy of Cooks at Home. On returning to Manitoba, where my husband's parents now live, I discovered my mother-in-law had a pocketbook copy of her own, which she graciously lent me. It was then that I discovered that one of Mdm Benoit's cookbooks was a staple in my mother-in-law's kitchen, and that I had already enjoyed some of the fine recipes from it.
When I was younger, I signed up for recipe card-of-the-month clubs off an on over the years. Every month, I would get a package of cards in the mail that I kept in an organizer box that I received when first signing up for the club.
When my mother-in-law was younger, she had a different version available. Mdm Benoit recipes! Not in cards, but in chapters! Every month, a new chapter (all in French) would arrive in the mail. These were pages sewn together for binding. When all the chapters were collected, my mother-in-law had the sections professional bound into a hardcover book.
She still uses that book today. It's torn and tattered, spattered and a little burnt in places, from many years of use. It was from this cookbook that the foundation of her annual tourtiere recipe came from. It was from this book that many a dish would grace the table for reveillon. It was fun to discover that there was a family history tied to Mdm Benoit that I hadn't known about!
The Canadiana Cookbook
A treasure of historical Canadian Cuisine
After losing my hardcover copy of Cooks at Home, I began a search for a replacement. Along the way, I found more Mdm Benoit cookbooks to add to my collection.
The Canadiana Cookbook is one of these finds. If you are a lover of food history, I highly recommend it.
This wonderful book is divided by region. Beginning with Quebec and Ontario, the book then works its way from the East Coast to the West, then North to the Yukon and Northwest Territories (before the creation of Nunavut, of course). In each chapter, Mdm Benoit shares her passion for Canada's regional cuisines and the rich history that surrounds them. She shares with us Soupe aux Quatorze Affairs (soup of 14 ingredients) and Sugar Pie in the Quebec section, How to Cook a Live Lobster in the Nova Scotia section, Fisherman's Chowder in the Newfoundland section, pemmican and wild rice in the Manitoba section, beef in the Alberta section (of course!), moose and reindeer in the NWT section and sourdough in the Yukon section. She tells us about the mix of cultures, traditions and necessities that lead to the creation of dishes that came to symbolize different regions.
Scattered throughout the book are delightful illustrations of historical note. Many are items that would have been normal in a Canadian pioneer kitchen.
Indian Wild Rice Casserole - from The Canadiana Cookbook
This recipe is from the Manitoba section of The Canadiana Cookbook.
Perfect to serve as is for luncheon or as a vegetable with venison or game birds.
- 1 1/2 cups wild rice*
- 2 1/2 cups cold water
- 2 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 large onion
- 1/2 lb mushrooms
- 6 slices bacon
- 1 cup grated carrots
- 1/2 cup light cream or milk
- 1 egg
- Place the wild rice, water and salt in a large saucepan, bring to a fast rolling boil. Boil for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let stand 30 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed.
- Brown the bacon, then add the onion and muschrooms, stir until slightly browned, and the carrots and mix will. Then add the rice and blend the whole thoroughly. Beat the cream and egg together and add to the rice mixture.
- Place in a casserole. Cover and bake 30 minutes in a 325F oven. Remove cover, stir with a fork and bake covered for another 15-20 minutes. Serve.
- *Wild rice can be replaced by an equal quantity of brown rice or packaged wild rice dinner. Then cook according to directions on package.
La salade de Jehane Benoit
A 1959 French language show, with Mdm Benoit demonstrating how to make a proper salad.
Madame Benoit's Library of Canadian Cooking
over 6,000 easy to prepare recipes
This set of books was a lucky fleamarket find for me! It's a 12 book set, though I am still missing volumes 12 and 9. On the back of each book is a list of volume numbers and what you'll find in them. Looking for Kitchen Arithmetic or Hors d'oeuvres? You'll find that in volume 1. Doughnuts? Volume 6. Home Made Wines or Menu Suggestions? Volume 11. Herbs and seasonings? Volume 5.
As I was working my way through the volumes (yes, I read cookbooks for fun), a recipe caught my eye. Was that what I thought it was? Going over it carefully, it seemed to be true. Looking up a different section, I searched for another recipe. If I was right, it should be there.
There it was!
I had discovered that this series of books was the English translation of my mother-in-law's cookbook! Which meant I now had all the recipes she had been using that I loved, already translated into English!
In our home, this set sees its most use in the weeks before Christmas. Every year, we make our traditional Christmas tourtiere. Though the actual recipe I use was passed on to me from my mother-in-law, the foundational recipe is from Mdm Benoit, and is in this set of cookbooks. Unfortunately, it's become very hard to find. Perhaps it will be published again in her honour.
Encan de Jehanne Benoit
A 2007 clip about an auction of Mdm Benoit memorabilia.
Mdm Benoit not only shared her love of food history and Canadian cuisine. She was also excited about new technology and the science of food. When microwave ovens first came on the market, she eagerly adopted the new technology, eventually writing a cookbook for microwave cookery, and becoming a spokesperson for Panasonic microwaves. She also made good use of modern appliances as they came on the market, such as food processors and blenders. Though she shared her appreciation of the old traditions, she welcomed new advances and knowledge with equal vigor.
Unfortunately, it's become difficult to find much about her, though some of her books can still be purchased. It took me about 15 years, but I finally found a replacement copy of Cooks at Home in a Value Village, just a couple of months ago!
As the 25th anniversary of her passing is noted, I am hoping that we see a rediscovery of this marvelous Canadian chef.