On Sunday, March 23rd I attended an afternoon potluck open to a community of people that I’ve come to know over the last 6 years at my job working at The Cookbook Store. Jen graciously came along, “in the name of Crustcrumbs”, to document the last occasion we’d get to meet at 850 Yonge and talk about cookbooks. Working at The Cookbook Store has been one of the few jobs I’ve felt at home in. When I started I never imagined I’d stay on as long as I did, but I also had no idea what kind of people I would get to meet.
The store was a well-known hub for visiting authors and chefs. A strip of corkboard running behind the cash area that faced Yorkville Avenue was filled with sun-bleached and pin-holed photos of author visits going back to the store’s first years. I got a kick out of seeing the pictures of James Barber, Ken Kostick and Mary Jo Eustace because their shows were the ones I grew up on, for better or worse, and I liked how they were at one time part of The Cookbook Store’s community.
I got to meet people that truly made up Toronto’s culinary scene through the 80s, 90s and 00s, beyond the celebrities whose photos were on that corkboard. These were the people that made the job interesting. I didn’t know Toronto had a butler school and that the man in charge, Charles MacPherson, aka Charles the Butler, was a regular of the store from its early days. I also found it fascinating that Charles and Ted Reader, Canada’s barbecue king, used to work together as caterers. Ted Reader became a regular at the store when he was a George Brown culinary student, like so many Torontonians, including myself have been. Ted Reader also cooked for one of the store’s first pop-up dinners, balancing hot plates and serving dishes behind the cash desk.
The last of the store’s pop-up dinners I’m proud to say I got to be part of because it gave me a chance to collaborate with several creative and talented people, including chef Matt Kantor and food stylist Janice Poon. Janice Poon, another long-time friend of the store, having owned a boutique down the street in the 80s as well as working with Dinah Koo, who still has Dinah’s Cupboard on Cumberland street not far from The Cookbook Store, called to tell Alison Fryer (manager of The Cookbook Store for 31 years) about the success of her new blog Feeding Hannibal, which detailed her experiences food styling for NBC’s Hannibal. Out of that one phone call, the Hannibal pop-up dinner was born. Alison gave me the chance to make the cocktail for that dinner and I’d say it went over fairly well because when season two started to shoot, Janice asked me if I’d like to work on the show with her.
If you were to make a flow chart of all the people that have connected through that store over the last 31 years, you’d see the kind of incestuous city Toronto really is. Having an open door to the food and publishing industries for that long has created an invaluable network of people that I’m extremely grateful to know. That’s why when Alison called to tell me they’d decided to close the store, my first thought was that I’d miss meeting all the different people that shared the store as a community centre for food and publishing professionals, far more effective than the most connected LinkedIn profile.
Now that they’ve been closed for just over a month, I realize how much I miss being surrounded by cookbooks. There were so many books, too many that I didn’t yet buy. Backlist titles such as Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking and Julia Child’s The Way to Cook were staples of the French section and I enjoyed reading through them during my shifts but I never ended up buying them. Like a lot of people I took advantage of the idea that the store would always be there. I will miss the British section the most with all its special import titles that were unavailable in most other stores. The British books always had better covers than their North American editions and contained the original measurements that use weight rather than volume. You need a scale to cook from them and as a store employee I was all too eager to tell you to go buy a digital kitchen scale, just as I am here on this blog.
Jennifer Grange, who had been working at the store since three months after they opened in April 1983, has a fondness for the Brits. I believe it was Jennifer who got to know Nigella Lawson’s writing first while reading her column in British Vogue. That’s when they decided to start importing Nigella’s first book, before Canadian publishers knew who she was. Jennifer and I share many of the same tastes in cookbooks and food. I’m sad now that I can’t go into that store to find Jennifer behind the cash, ready to pile books in front of me to tell me which ones to buy. That’s how I got to own many of the cookbooks in my collection, including Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
It’s true, Jennifer and Alison put Ottolenghi in front of a lot of people and it was met with considerable enthusiasm. When I was working at the store I was happy to bombard customers with Jennifer, telling them what recipes we’d made from the book and why they needed to buy it, despite the lousy conversion rate from British pounds to the Canadian dollar. The first Ottolenghi and Tamimi book—not to be confused as their third, as it was just re-released in North America with a different cover after the success of Plenty and Jerusalem—represents some of my best memories working at the store. Later when Yotam and Sami were promoting their book Jerusalem, they came to the store for an event and I used my iPhone video skills to shoot this interview and then I got them to sign my book.
Saying goodbye to the store but not the people, Alison decided to throw a potluck to celebrate, a bit like a wake at a funeral, a couple weeks following their last day in business. I had been in the store helping to remove the bookshelves and demolish the cash counter. I also helped to empty the dreaded upstairs storage and prop room—a room packed to the ceiling with props (some of which will be making their way onto Crustcrumbs) from the past 30 years of window displays. It wasn’t a shock to see the store hollowed out like it was on the day of the potluck but it’s a sad thing to see now whenever I pass by the intersection at Yonge and Yorkville.
To single out just one recipe to make for the potluck, after having so many discussions about food and cooking in that store was impossible. I decided to make something from Ottolenghi knowing that anything from that book would be a crowd pleaser. “Crushed New Potatoes with Horseradish and Sorrel” is what I went with and yes, it’s essentially potato salad but it’s one of those classic Ottolenghi and Tamimi recipes that takes familiar vegetables and ingredients like potatoes, horseradish, and yogurt, and combines them in a way that seems entirely exotic. Besides, potato salad is the quintessential potluck food, comforting and food safe enough to sit out for a few hours.
It was good to see everyone from former staff, to customers and authors all congregated for one last time in that space, sharing recipes and reminiscing over experiences tied together by cookbooks. I don’t know that another place like The Cookbook Store could exist. The boom of independent bookstores we saw in the 80s isn’t likely to happen again in this city. That said, Alison continues to plan special events, without the bricks and mortar store, such as lunch with Ruth Reichl at The Chef’s House, which offers a chance for writers, chefs, and readers to connect over a meal with one of their culinary heroes. And that sense of community that The Cookbook Store helped build will prosper through new channels that encourage people to cook and love food. I already see it in blogs like Joel and Dana’s WellPreserved, the work Mardi Michels does cooking with Les Petit Chefs, and Joshna Maharaj’s work with Sick Kids and Ryerson University. It all comes back to getting people together to get them cooking, which is something I first learned to do at The Cookbook Store.