Madame Benoit was a household name during my childhood and my early married years. She was born in March of 1904 (111 years ago this month), and she contributed, in my opinion, to our sense of Canadian culture. She stood for family values, proper nutrition, and good agriculture. She delighted in preparing, tasting, and sharing food.
Madame Benoit was born and raised in Montreal. She was educated at home and in Paris, eventually opening restaurants and a cooking school in Canada. In 1973, she was made an officer of the Order of Canada. I remember her as a regular guest on CBC-TV’s Take Thirty. At the end of each show, she enjoyed sampling food with such hosts as Paul Soles, Ed Reed, and Adrienne Clarkson. Magazines featured her seasonal recipes, and she was often interviewed on radio. Eventually, she promoted Panasonic microwave ovens, enthusiastically teaching an entire generation how to cook with this appliance. She had over 30 books published, including the Encyclopedia of Canadian Cuisine.
I had a wonderful exchange with Madame Benoit, many years ago, in small town Saskatchewan. On tight budgets, and lacking many of the amenities of a city, we created our own fun. One inexpensive, inspiring activity, that began during this time, was a writer’s club. We met once a month, and we were expected to bring some writing to share. The local newspaper editor suggested we also write a book-review column. We took turns reviewing books, and I found myself concentrating on cookbooks and children’s literature.
In the early eighties, I reviewed Madame Benoit Cooks at Home. I tried several of the recipes, loved the photos, and read all of the descriptive details. I was sincere about everything I wrote in my review. The newspaper editor loved it, and it went to press.
Not long after the issue went out, the local paper received a handwritten letter from Madame Benoit, addressed to me. I was astounded. Madame's publisher had an amazing clipping agency, and had shared my review with her. She wrote, “I do not know how to thank you, because it is the best review, I have ever read, on the book. You understood what I had in mind when I wrote it, and you even made some of the recipes for your family.” My eyes filled with tears. This letter fuelled my mind for weeks. Imagine my review arriving at the home of Madame Benoit.
I knew Madame Benoit would have loved the idea of our four-couple dinner club. It was inspired by our lack of money and a shortage of restaurants in our town. Each couple, in turn, researched a country of their choice and invited the other couples to a themed dinner. While planning, we learned about the foods available in the country. We read about the traditions, history, and culture. We borrowed records from the library, sewed tablecloths, and made decorations. Some couples created maps and hand-printed menus. The entertainment was partly in the planning, plus each couple enjoyed three outings for every time they entertained.
As our next turn to cook was approaching, I talked to my husband about planning a French Canadian evening. He was born in Montreal and liked the idea. I wrote to Madame Benoit, asking for menu suggestions. Her book would have been a good resource to plan our menu, but I fancied receiving another letter from her.
Again, she wrote to me! This letter was typed, but signed by hand. The recipe instructions were clear, and the ingredients were simple. I never did create that menu, because we moved and left our dinner club behind. In 1987, Madame Benoit passed away, and all of Canada was sad. Letters are beautiful, but I wish I had met her in person.
Madame Benoit had a daughter named Monique. Maybe, Monique, or one of the Benoit family members, will see this blog. Is there a clipping agency for the Internet, I wonder? Today, I am going to make a batch of Madame Benoit’s Carrot Oatmeal Cookies. It was the first recipe I tested from her cookbook, Madame Benoit Cooks at Home. This book still inspires me to learn more about ingredients and to try new recipes. Click HERE for her delicious, nutritious cookie recipe.
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