Who Is Edith Adams

Crowd lined up outside Queen Elizabeth Theatre for the cooking school. Photo originally published October 5, 1960. George Diack/Vancouver Sun

Mia Stainsby
Vancouver Sun

I confess. I am Edith Adams.
But then, so are many others. We are the composite of this elusive woman, the mystery figure behind the Vancouver Sun food pages from 1924 to 1999, when she quietly departed from our food section. The last Edith Adams impersonators were Brenda Thompson and Ruth Phelan, of the Sun test kitchen who kept the column Edith Adams Answers alive, running oldies-but-goodies recipes requested by readers. I sometimes wrote the column, often making up the request myself to resuscitate a hibernating recipe. The jig was most certainly up when Murray McMillan was installed as the first male food editor at the Sun, in 1994. There was no pretending Murray was Edith.
As the Vancouver Sun celebrates its 100th birthday, we cannot forget Edith.
Adams might have overstayed her presence by a few years but in her time, she was a somebody, equivalent to today’s Google recipe and homemaking searches and Food Network entertainment.

A microfiche of a page from the food pages of May, 1937 shows a photo of a packed Orpheum Theatre. “Here are some of the 5,000 homemakers who attended the tenth annual Sun Cooking school,” the caption says. The cooking classes ran for four days.

A 1960 Sun photo shows a snaking queue of women, many wearing Queen Elizabeth hats, white gloves and dresses or suits and sensible high heels, waiting for an Edith Adams cooking class at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Sign outside of the original Edith Adams’ Cottage

At a cooking with gas show aimed at finding a way to a man’s heart, a reporter wrote: “Starting from the moment Mrs. Linnell [Marianne Linnell, one of the high-profile Ediths of the past] came on stage to serve breakfast [in housecoat and curlers] , right through luncheon and on to a grand finale of a full dress Thanksgiving dinner, women in the audience could be heard murmuring: “I’ll certainly try this,” “try that” and “My! that looks easy.”

And: “She also illustrated the niceties of peek-through oven doors where muffins could be seen rising to full stature in full light and sight…Bells rang, buzzers buzzed as Mrs. Linne She also illustrated the new top of the stove heat control gadget which rests against the bottom of a pan and regulates the heat of the pan to the slightest degree. Mysteriously (to the female mind) the area to be heated can also be set.” (She lost me there.)

The “ladies” had a moment of superiority, the reporter says, when someone from the gas company showed what a man could do in the kitchen when left alone with gas. “He broiled steaks and tomatoes and fumble a baked Alaska in and out of the oven.”

Adams was one of many female ‘brands’ like Betty Crocker; she came to life in the Sun Tower at Pender and Beatty streets and soon acquired her own real estate (Edith Adams Cottage, not really a cottage) with a separate entrance off Beatty, complete with a small auditorium for cooking demos of less magnitude than the one at the Queen E.
A hive of staff tested recipes, wrote stories, researched, organized recipes and household tips; they answered phones, fielding questions about cooking and home making – the Google for homemakers of the day. Some callers demanded to speak to Edith and that was a tricky call to negotiate.

It was a time when women knew how to cook and didn’t require much handholding. “We’d just say ‘Put in a moderate oven and bake’ or ‘Cook until set’,” Thompson said when I interviewed her for a story some years ago.
And the ‘s’ at the end of Adams was not for naught. She was a plurality of women; a male circulation manager dreamed up with the name because of the typographical advantage of having no descending letters (like a g, for instance).
In 2005, Whitecap Books set out to publish a compilation of the annual Edith Adams prize cookbooks from the 1930s to 1950 where readers sent in recipes for a chance to win money. Whitecap sent out a clarion call to anyone possessing old copies of the stapled cookbooks and the result was a compilation of 13 years of the prize cookbooks in a publication called Edith Adams Omnibus.

The tenor of the time might be captured in one of the forwards: “The young homemaker need not expect to find here that complete knowledge of cookery that is essential to a bright career in the family kitchen. But the housewives who are at a loss for new preparations to tempt jaded appetites will find in these pages, a wealth of tasty dishes that will sharpen and renew the family’s table zest.” It’s signed by Edith in lovely forged handwriting.
Gelatin salads were the height of fashion in the 1950s but I think we’re ready for a flashback, maybe renaming it gelee, however, and adding some sparkling wine to it. And if you substitute butter for her love affiar with shortening, then baking recipes, like blueberry muffins, fresh strawberry cake and ribbon cookies, are good to go. And with sustainable, local eating all the rage right now, recipes for canning and jamming are totally hip. After a trip to the farmers’ market, her parsnip souffle or Dutch style red cabbage with apples might be just what you need; or should you be off foraging in the wild, like the leading edge chefs of today, her recipes for rose hip juice or salal berry jelly – or, who knows? the venison steak supreme – might prove useful.

Through the war years, Edith did her bit with recipes addressing war-time rationing. Canning, casseroles and cutbacks were the war measures in the kitchen.
“Butter should be used freely, if possible, but it can easily be substituted in cookery by using vegetable fats, peanut butter, dripping and lard,” she wrote in the preface to the 1940 annual cookbook.
The 1942 cover makes it a theme: “Vitamins for Victory!” it says. Inside, she explains: “It might well be the motto adapted by every homemaker in our Dominion, as with a nutrition yardstick she measures the health and ultimate strength of these free peoples. This little cookbook is the direct creation of the capable British Columbia homemakers by their contributions of seasonal and economic recipes. If it serves to assist other homemakers in their task of preparing food for the home front, then it will have fulfilled its mission.”
Inside, homemakers found recipes for pot roast, ham steak casserole, seven layer dinner, blueberry muffins, chocolate mint roll, Grandma’s sour milk cookies, blackberry buckles, jams, pickles, and Christmas cakes. A molasses layer cake contains only one tablespoon of butter, one egg, flour and molasses.
In her 1943 edition, Edith added a section called Packing for Soldiers, cooked items to send in gift packages.
Edith’s tips for care packages: To prevent a cake from breaking, try packing it in lots of popcorn. When the ink has dried on your parcel, it can be made waterproof by brushing the writing over with colourless nail polish, a slightly warmed candle or a transparent piece of gummed tape.
One can only imagine what these packages from home meant to the soldiers.
For the time, Edith was quite sophisticated. A 1955 photo shows her giving a Japanese cooking class and travelogue. Marianne Linnell (the better-than-Martha Edith of the 1950s), is wearing a kimono, serving sukiyaki and green tea. A guest, in suit, hat with netting and handbag in the crook of her arm, accepts the tea.
Edith survived for 75 years. Will Nigella Lawson or Martha Stewart, or, god forbid, Rachael Raye or Paul Deen, be around that long? Seriously?