Comfort food cookbook catalogues a way Edmonton coped with COVID

· The Pulse

A new cookbook launching in December captures the stories of how Edmontonians redefined comfort through food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Stories Our Food: Edmonton's Comfort Foods is an initiative of Converse and Cook. It features more than 50 recipes and stories from people who took action in their kitchens to provide comfort and hope to others.

"That's what is so special about this cookbook," co-founder Mishma Mukith told Taproot. "It holds these stories that you can keep, kind of like a time capsule."

It also reflects a diversity of experiences, added co-founder Juanita Gnanapragasam. "There are contributions from doctors, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, and so many others," she said. "It really hits home how isolating the pandemic was."

Georgette Popoff is among the people featured in the cookbook, with a recipe for sweet and sour ribs. She launched the "Happiness is Homemade" initiative on the YEG Community Response to COVID-19 Facebook page with a simple offer to cook a homemade meal for anyone who wanted to drop off their groceries. The initiative took off, and eventually, Popoff and her team of volunteers were preparing more than 100 meals a week.

"During the pandemic, I was honoured for my humanity efforts in doing my part to help others in so many ways, but THIS is an absolute honour, as I am one of 60 featured," Popoff said of her inclusion in the book. "It is a true homage to my mother, who raised me to be who I am."

The cookbook also features contributions from local chefs and restaurants, including Matt Phillips of Northern Chicken, The Hallway Café, King Noodle House, and even Blue Plate Diner, which closed last summer.

"Everyone's definition of comfort is very different," Mukith said. "It isn't a one-size-fits-all, so that was interesting to capture all these different stories about what comfort food means to Edmontonians."

The cookbook launch will take place on Dec. 4 at the Strathcona Community League's hall. Registration for the free event is encouraged, and there is an option for a $20 ticket that includes a copy of the cookbook.

"There's a story for everyone in there," Gnanapragasam said. "It's a cookbook by the community for the community."

Converse and Cook co-founders Juanita Gnanapragasam and Mishma Mukith at one of the organization's events

Converse and Cook co-founders Juanita Gnanapragasam and Mishma Mukith will be at the launch of Our Stories Our Food: Edmonton's Comfort Foods on Dec. 4. (Supplied)

Converse and Cook started at the University of Alberta in 2018 with a mandate to connect people through food. The volunteer-run organization quickly began offering cooking classes.

Gnanapragasam said there was such demand for the classes — at one point there was a waitlist of 80 people — that the idea for a cookbook was born as a way to empower people to cook at home. Our Stories Our Food: University of Alberta Cookbook launched in 2019, featuring recipes and stories from people throughout the U of A community.

"People loved it," Gnanapragasam said. "It was hugely successful, and not just in the U of A context." The cookbook was so well-received that it became one of Converse and Cook's major sources of revenue, supporting its classes and other programming.

But with cooking classes shut down due to the pandemic, Converse and Cook was unsure of what to do next. Volunteers kept hearing stories about people hosting Zoom dinners or driving around handing out food to neighbours who needed support, and the idea of capturing those stories in a second cookbook was born. The Edmonton Heritage Council provided a grant to help fund the project.

Mukith said the general theme of comfort kept coming up as volunteers began collecting stories. "It became about what has kept you going during this ridiculous time in history," she said.

The launch event will showcase several of the stories in the cookbook while providing an opportunity for the community to connect with one another face-to-face. "We dabbled with the idea of a virtual launch, but it ultimately came down to 'How cool would it be to bring people into a space together to celebrate in a similar way to the first cookbook?'," Mukith said.

Attendees will have the opportunity to share what comfort means to them in an interactive activity. There will also be a gallery wall showcasing more about the people involved, and cookbooks will be available for purchase. Mukith and Gnanapragasam said the cookbook will be available at several local bookstores, as well as at the Edmonton Public Library, with more details on availability forthcoming.

"We really want to see people in real life," Mukith said. "We'd love to have people join us to celebrate."