Last week some bananas in our house had turned brown – very brown – and I needed to do something with them. I am a pretty terrible banana buyer. I have such high hopes that I will Eat. A. Banana. Daily. but inevitably they become spotted then brown and I turn them into banana bread or muffins or something which is not an awful way to eat bananas, of course, but I still feel like I’ve let the bananas down.
Anyway, I went looking for a recipe and rather than turning to the internet and one of the many recipes I have bookmarked, a recipe from the past flashed into my brain. Didn’t it have, like, bran? And maybe dried fruit that isn’t raisins? Yogurt too? Was this a healthy option muffin? Did I make these for the boys when they were little? Or maybe it even predates them? So many questions! And so I pulled out the oldest cookbook I own, and as I took it off the shelf, it practically fell open to the correct page: Banana-Apricot Bran Muffins.
The cookbook is none other than Smart Cooking: Quick and Tasty Recipes for Healthy Living by Anne Lindsay and it was, for a time, like a bible to me.
If you grew up in the 80s and 90s your family too may have welcomed Anne Lindsay and her heart-smart counterpart Bonnie Stern into the kitchen via their incredibly popular cookbooks. Simply HeartSmart was Stern’s and it was published with the Heart & Stroke Foundation, and Smart Cooking: Quick and Tasty Recipes for Healthy Living by Lindsay was published in cooperation with the Canadian Cancer Society. If the 1970s was the decade of cheese logs, fondue, jellied salads, and fish moulds (I am not even joking, we had a copper one and you can also look up 70s Dinner Party on Twitter and Instagram if you didn’t have the intense pleasure of living through this era) then the mid-80s and into the 90s seemed to be an attempt to usher in an era of reckoning with the country’s collective cholesterol and glucose levels.
These cookbooks were designed to promote each organization’s dietary guidelines, they raised funds, and they were developed in conjunction with dietitians and physicians from the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart & Stroke Foundation. They also worked to gently move Canadians (white, working- and middle-class Canadians mostly, if we are being truly honest here) away from the high fat, meat-based diets that were so prevalent to a lot of us who grew up with white bread on the table, lots of butter, meat at every meal, etc. This is a gross generalization of course, you may not have eaten that way, but I certainly did. And so these books were a real departure from that. In fact, Smart Cooking, published in 1986, was the first cookbook I had ever seen with nutrition information right there in the recipe. Not extended nutrition information like we see today, but the basics at least, and it was a start.
If you look at these books now, decades later, they are hugely dated, they can’t not be that way, honestly, and some of the recipes and nearly all of the photos just scream 1986. But, having said that, much of it does hold up 30+ years later, and I’ll be always grateful to the cookbook that really started it all for me.
One of the very first recipes I ever tried from Smart Cooking was ‘Hummus (Chick-Pea Dip)’. Imagine not knowing what hummus is, it seems impossible! And even more incredible that it needs a parenthetical explanation as to what it is! But again, who are these books aimed at? Exactly. And in the mid-90s when I was really starting to get into cooking, there were most definitely not 18 types of hummus in the grocery store where I shopped. Hummus, in the Hamilton I knew, was something you got at La Luna. But, I made this hummus many times and the little pencil marking that reads ‘excellent!’ with a smiley face beside it proves it. The tahini stains do too.
I went on to make so many more. Fettuccine with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil, Triple-Cheese Lasagne, Tuscan White Kidney Bean and Tomato Casserole, Broccoli Frittata, Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread, Chick-Pea Salad with Red Onion and Tomato, most of the salad dressings and some of the desserts. And after I made the muffins that I wanted, I leafed through it further and it brought back so many happy memories which I guess is kind of the point of cookbooks, isn’t it? They can spark nostalgia for grandma’s shortbread or even some random church lady’s icebox cookies. But this was a special kind of “I’m a real grown-up now” nostalgia. It was the cookbook I pilfered from my parents’ house when I got married. That lasagna I mentioned? I made it for our first real dinner party. The banana-apricot muffins? I made those for the very first school bake sale when Charles was in JK. The fettuccine dish got a thumb up from my dad (honestly, the highest honour) and the hummus was a signature dish of mine for a long time, something I brought to potlucks and dinner parties with friends. There are so many recipes with moments like that, and it was really nice just to sit with the book and flip through to see the notes, the post-its and the stuck-together pages. The hallmarks of a well-used and well-loved cookbook.
When I look at the recipes now they all seem so basic, so simple. Like why would I have ever needed a recipe to create a bean salad or a tomato sauce or a pasta dish or a vinaigrette? Don’t I just make things up as I go along? Don’t my children refer to me as the Queen of Throwing Shit Together to Make a Meal? Yes and yes. But that’s now. Back then, as a novice kitchen owner in the mid 1990s, I needed a guide and Anne Lindsay became my guide. Her recipes were the building blocks for my culinary life and when I got good at branching out, at substituting, and at knowing what works well together, I started to improvise. And going through the book last week I was amazed at how many things I learned, how many things I can chalk up to Smart Cooking and Anne Lindsay. If I have ever made you dinner you likely have her to thank (if you enjoyed it, that is. Please don’t blame poor Anne if I fucked something up really badly!)
I have branched out to newer, more modern cookbooks over the years, lest you think I am stuck in the past! Indian(ish) by Priya Krishna is a current favourite in our house right now (so many delicious recipes and fun family stories!) and I also adore my copy of Lidia’s Mastering Italian Cooking which isn’t fancy at all – no photos or stories, just delicious Italian recipes. Every so often I purge my cookbooks, too (I know! But sometimes a cookbook just isn’t very good!) but I don’t think I could ever give up Smart Cooking.
So thanks, Anne Lindsay. Thank you for a cookbook with recipes that were simple enough for me as a novice to blunder my way through but robust enough and with enough potential and staying power that they became the foundation on which I was able to base so much of my future cooking. Maybe one day I’ll be able to pass Smart Cooking along to the boys so they too can become masters of throwing shit together at mealtime. Anything is possible, I suppose.
No doubt exactly what my mother also thought about me, more than 25 years ago.