Edna, my hero

Edna Staebler at nineteen years old

Edna Staebler might not be a household name outside of Kitchener Waterloo, but she should be. I have a dream of one day telling her story as a documentary or a feature film. She lived past her 100th birthday, but not long enough for me to interview her, which is too bad. I think we would have liked each other.

Staebler’s best know for her no-BS cookbook series, Food that Really Schmecks. I have sat around a table with good friends pulling out the most delicious parts. And it’s not the recipes–though I get cravings for that straightforward Germanic and Mennonite fare–it’s the matter-of-fact way she talks about killing rabbits for hasenpfeffer. How lard appears in some pretty surprising places. How she writes, under the recipe for Brown Gravy for Fowl: “Don’t bother reading this if you make good brown gravy: I add nothing new.”

She’s a storyteller, and long before the recipes (which now seem trendy, thanks to the local food movement) she was a journalist for Maclean’s, Saturday Night and more. In fact, there’s a non-fiction prize in her name. Pierre Burton, Wayson Choy, Pierre Berton, W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Laurence were her good friends, and they’d come and join her at Sunfish Lake, though she disproved of Laurence’s “damn drinking.”

“The first night I met her (Laurence), we stayed up till 4 a.m. talking,” Staebler said. “She finished my bottle of scotch.”

My kinda feminist hero.

But the classic Edna story is the great cookie war, where two companies tried to woo her and in order to get at a Mennonite cookie recipe–a soft cookie with a crispy exterior. Basically it was all a copyright and patent issue between Nabisco and P&G, being fought out in a Waterloo County Mennonite kitchen. They were both using her recipe! High-rolling American lawyers tried to get Edna to go to court–even offered to stay and take care of her cats–she refused (it was setttled out of court for $125 million US), and when Jay Leno caught wind of the story he invited Edna on the show. She turned him down, too. Apparently no one ever did that. I haven’t been able to track down her essay online, but it’s fantastic. I highly recommend digging up a copy of Schmecks Appeal, if only to read the story, in her own words, but stick around for the sauerkraut.

Looking around though, I found a lot of Edna love, including this event, hosted by cardamomaddict.blogspot.com. If she has another, I’ll be there in spirit, with a batch of Rigglevake by my side.

Here’s the $125 million recipe:

Rigglevake Kuche (Railroad cookies)
Light part
1 c sugar (200g)
1 egg
1c butter (225g)
½ c milk (125ml)
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp vanilla

Dark part
1c sugar, brown (170g)
1c butter (225g)
1c molasses (275g)
½ c water (125ml)
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp vanilla

Enough flour in each part to make dough easy to handle.

Mix the light and dark parts in separate bowls. Blend the sugar and butter for both parts. For the light part beat in the egg then alternately add the milk vanilla and baking powder sifted with flour. For the dark part add to the butter-sugar mixture the molasses, water and vanilla alternately with soda and enough flour.

Break off pieces of dough from both dark and light parts, shape them into rounds and roll hem separately about 1/8 inch (3mm) thick. Put on top of the other and roll up like a jelly roll and slice off pieces as thinly as you can. Place on greased cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees (F) (170C) till done.

Just writing about all this is making me homesick. I think this is how Maritimers feel about cracking lobsters.

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