Seventeen years ago, I lost my maternal grandmother to cancer. She was only 56. It was a great loss for all the reasons you can imagine. She was an extraordinary woman, a loving grand-maman, and an artist in the kitchen. And so it was that I found myself making dinner for my grandpa — her husband — not too long ago and her culinary prowess came up. I wondered if he still had some of her cookbooks. To my delight, he had held on to the one book she swore by. He vowed to give it to me the next time we met. And he did.
The book, a 1957 edition that originally went to press in 1926 was apparently a staple in Quebec kitchens throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. My wife's grandmother — who turns ninety this year — recently gave us some of her cookbooks; her collection includes the same book. La Cuisine Raisonnée is Quebec's version of Julia Child's Master the Art of French Cooking. Written by the nuns of Notre Dame, it is dedicated to future housewives, a generation of women who were expected to manage the kitchen and their family's well-being.
The authors took their work seriously; in some respects it is less a cookbook, more a manifesto for good food as the base ingredient for a better society. In the forward, the nuns tell us that food plays a role in society's morality.
The working poor become alcoholics, then criminals, because they are malnourished. They seek in alcohol a stimulant they can't find in their food. The old axiom holds true: "Mens sana in corpore sano." A healthy soul in a healthy body. He who is hungry is easily annoyed, envious, a worker without a bounce in their step, a pessimist.
We're told that modern women have a new responsibility: they hold the key to the prosperity of their family, the country, and to the betterment of society. Thank God I wasn't a housewife in the fifties - that's a big burden to carry!
Nonetheless, it's the first time I've heard of such a theory; that by providing better food, we can play a part in making society better. Is food that powerful? My gut instinct is to say yes. Good food brings people together. When we're together, we laugh, we cry, we rejoice. Regardless of what brings us together at the table, it is time spent in communion. And when a community bonds, the fabric of society strengthens.
So, invite a friend over and make her dinner. You'll do us all some good. Mens sana in corpore sano!