Remembering Edith

By Eve Johnson, former Vancouver Sun food editor
Originally published in The Vancouver Sun, Saturday Oct 30 1999

Just two weeks before Martha Stewart turned herself into a publicly traded corporation, Edith Adams, at 87, lost her last toehold in The Sun’s Wednesday food section.

Any rational person would dismiss this as pure coincidence. But when it comes to Edith, I am not rational. My mom, the house I live in and Edith all entered the world in 1912, and now only the house remains.

Edith disappeared without fanfare. She hadn’t been showing up regularly in the paper anyway, so it’s hard to put an exact date on her departure. The first issue of her replacement, a questions and answers column called By Request appeared on Oct. 6.

edith-signIt makes me sad, but I do understand why Edith was canned. The Vancouver Sun is far too sophisticated a newspaper to keep an imaginary friend on staff, no matter how long she’s been around. For the sad truth is that Edith Adams never really existed, any more than Betty Crocker did. Her name was made up by a Mr. Gates, who was by some accounts an editor, and by others a typesetter. He chose the name Edith Adams because it has no descenders — a boost to the typesetter theory.

From these humble beginnings, Edith grew to be the Martha Stewart of her day. By 1947, when her “cottage” opened in the old Sun tower with a staff of five home economists and its own private Beatty Street entrance, Edith was the last word on any homemaking inquiry.

It wasn’t just recipes then, but how to decorate your house, plan a big party, knit, tat, crochet, get stains out of anything, and make multi-colored Christmas “logs” out of rolled up newspapers and chemical salts, to burn in the fireplace over the holidays.

Edith sponsored cooking demonstrations and, in the early 1960s, could sell out the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for a demonstration of the newest advances in cooking and home appliances.

The slight absurdity of having five real women pretend to be one fictional one did not go unnoticed. In 1966, columnist Paul St. Pierre felt called upon to explain: “When The Sun advises readers to ask Edith Adams it is like an Arab sheikh saying `Meet my wife.’ There are many girls there. They are Enid Adam, Dawn Adam, Isobel Adam, Theresa Adam and Helen Adam, and we don’t know what we’re going to do if one gets married.”

Home economist Brenda Thompson is the last remaining member of the food section to have answered the phone as Edith. Like all of the Ediths, Brenda is a practical woman. “When a person dies, no matter how hard it is, you eventually have to move on,” she says. “Edith was never even alive. Get over it.” I will, of course. But not before saying good-bye. And not before I point out that Martha Stewart and Edith Adams, seen in relation to each other, say suggestive things about the world we live in and the one we’ve left behind.

Yes, they are both homemaking authorities with old-fashioned names. But Edith functioned on the scale of the city. You could get closer to Edith, who didn’t really exist, than you can to Martha, who does.

Martha is a continent-wide phenomenon. No matter how many times you see her on TV, it would be a waste of time to call her up in the midst of jelly making to find out why the damned stuff won’t set. You can, it’s true, connect with an editor of one of Martha’s publications on her Web site — for a pre-scheduled talk on a pre-determined subject. Somehow it’s not the same.

And how real is Martha anyway? When we read her calendar for Nov. 7, and find that she plans to “turn off outdoor faucets and chicken-house water,” we know she does not inhabit the same world we do. We’re just puzzled spectators, asking: What are the chickens supposed to drink now? Is it possible that (gulp) the chickens are soup, and next spring there’ll be new chickens?

Edith Adams Cottage EntranceMartha promises the joy of homemaking. Edith offers help with the job of homemaking. Martha suggests that we restore our own cane chairs, make “turkey trivia” place cards for Thanksgiving dinner, buy fabric and make our own theme napkins for a baby shower. Edith’s world was a place full of families to feed on a limited budget, stains to remove and green beans to can.

Edith’s goal was to help you feel adequate, up to the task. It seems to me that Martha’s is the reverse: she wants to demonstrate how inadequate you truly are, and therefore how much you need to buy her cookbooks and magazines, watch her television show and visit her Web site.

Even though she wasn’t, no one ever thought to ask if Edith Adams was living. As far as I know, there were no spoofs of Edith. There was a bit of gentle ribbing, yes, and I’m as guilty of making Edith jokes as anyone else. My favorite was pretending to have sighted the inebriated ghost of Edith, drifting through the department with a can of cream of mushroom soup clutched in her spectral hand.

Edith has had the dwindles for some time now. She lost her separate entrance when The Sun moved to Sixth and Granville. In 1979, after a prolonged newspaper strike which was clearly none of her doing, Edith was relegated to Edith Adams Answers.

I never answered the phone as Edith, but I did, off and on for 10 years, write her Answers and, truth be told, many of her questions, too.

We were always happy to use a real letter if we could, but the odds were against us. One of the recipes had to have a picture. All of them had to be in season. And while Edith had plenty of mail, much of it asked for advice too specific to frame as a general question. Other letters asked for recipes that had already been reprinted 100 times, or for recipes you never wanted to see in print again — the ones with lime Jell-O and rainbow mini-marshmallows.

Over the years, Edith gradually came to have a fusty, behind-the-times air.

Those who feel affection toward her, like Pat Pederson, an Edith for 23 years, tend to think of her as “dear Edith.” Will Martha some day become fusty and out of date? The people who bought shares in her presumably don’t think so. I’m inclined to agree with them, at least in the short term.

Money is an essential part of Martha’s package. No one is ever going to smile patronizingly at her estate in East Hamptons, or even at a life that allows you to keep chickens, without having to pencil “scrub out hen house” in your daytimer every month.