Margaret Henderson was one of several BC newspaper food writers who influenced the daily lives of thousands of women.
During Henderson’s tenure as Director of the Vancouver Province Modern Kitchen from about 1935 to the late 1950s[i], the home economics division of The Province tested recipes and produced regular cooking columns, seasonal supplements and weekly radio broadcasts on CKWX. She exemplifies the ways that home economists, in their roles as food writers, helped shape food production and consumption.
Very little has been found to date about her life. She was referred to as “Mrs.” Margaret Henderson and in one publication is called our“Hendy”. The introductory section to the April 24, 1951 edition of the Modern Kitchen spring supplement in The Province refers to her “team of home economists and dietitians”[ii] so she seems to have had some home economics education in her past. There was no post-secondary home economics education in BC until 1943 and she might have attended one of the western Canada universities or Macdonald Institute in Guelph offering home economics in the 1920s and 1930s[iii].
In 1934 Henderson was the Home Economics head of the General Electric Kitchen in Vancouver where she tested recipes for a weekly contest run by The Province [iv]. Cooking demonstrations quickly became popular. A 1943 publication that Henderson wrote for Burns and Company, a large Alberta-based meat packer emphasized war-time recipes and thrift hints[v]. It was entitled “How to Save in Your Kitchen” and promoted the use of Burns and Co.’s products, “especially Spork, canned spiced pork described as ‘the new meat sensation of the day’”[vi].
The Vancouver Daily Province Modern Kitchen focused on cooking clinics and kitchen basics. As well as a daily kitchen column, every Thursday’s Province included an afternoon “cookery page”. A weekly radio show was broadcast around BC. Free cooking schools were held periodically and people were encouraged to phone, write or drop into the test kitchen with their questions. A number of publications were written during the twenty-odd years that the Modern Kitchen was directed by Henderson.
In the Vancouver Daily Province Christmas Edition of recipes, “Tested” appears as part of the cover title. Inside, Henderson wrote: “Now, more than ever, good cooks are insisting on dependable recipes. They know that cooking failures are wasteful and waste is no longer just a personal matter”. The recipe booklet is not dated, but this statement probably alludes to World War II food restrictions.
Test kitchens required staff, and in 1951 Henderson’s staff included Winnie McLear, Food Editor, Helen Lakie, Nutritionist, and Dorothy Britton, Food technician,who shortly thereafter went to work at the Summerland Research Station in the Okanagan [vii].
At least two recipe booklets were distributed based on cooking school classes. “ABC of the Kitchen” consisted of 72 pages of recipes from instructions for roasting fowls to light desserts, with a heavy emphasis on baking. The preface indicated that the recipe book was intended for both beginning and experienced cooks: “We do not intend to enter into any technical discussions”, Henderson wrote. “If there is a woman anywhere who is not keen to find a quicker way of making this dish, an easier road to that result, a sure-to-succeed way to make something….then we have little to offer her”. The course would give beginners just what they needed, according to Henderson. “It builds up the art of cookery…because it gives a reasonable, but not bothersome explanation of the “why” and the “how””.
Daily Province Cooking Clinic (n.d.) had only ten pages and was divided into two classes. Class 1 included recipes for yeast bread, four main dishes, and four desserts. Class 2 introduced pastry, cream pies and 12 cake and cookie recipes.
In the Modern Kitchen spring supplement of 1953[viii], a recipe for Nanaimo bars is included. This is possibly the first time that the recipe appeared in print in BC. Two versions did previously appear in the 1952 Women’s Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cook Book under the title of “Chocolate Square” but Henderson’s directions are more complete and she doesn’t use any brand names. That was always the mark of a non-biased and therefore more reliable recipe.
I’d like to give Margaret Henderson credit for making this iconic recipe available to all British Columbians. It seems like that’s all the credit she’ll ever get!
[i] See Elizabeth Driver’s publication, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks 1825-1949(2008), University of Toronto Press. This 1255-page book is a must-have for all food history researchers.
[ii] Time proven recipes: Modern Kitchen spring supplement”, The Vancouver Daily Province, 24 April, 1951. p.2
[iii] For example, the University of Alberta established a Bachelor of Science degree in 1921 (https://sites.ualberta.ca/ALUMNI/history/faculties/79novhomec.htm) the University of Manitoba in 1922 (see http://www.homefamily.net/2015/07/27/faculty-of-human-ecology-closure-at-the-university-of-manitoba/) and the University of Saskatchewan in 1928. After a mis-start in 1931, UBC established its degree program in 1943
[iv] See Driver, p. 1128.
[v] See Driver, p. 1071.
[vii] De Zwart, M.L. & Peterat, L. (2013). Dorothy Britton: Home Economist. British Columbia History Magazine, 46 (1), 22-24.
[viii] Courtesy L. Peterat, private collection.