I had a great idea for a column, but a vital piece was missing. A book. An old book, of little value. My usual way of getting special books is through the library system. I tell Inter-Library Loans what I want, and if it’s in a B.C. library it will eventually arrive on-island.
This time I got a quick callback from our ILL person. The book had been located, at Vancouver Central Library. Good. But it must not leave the premises. Bad. I am welcome, however, to consult it in the library. Possible?
I struggled for a while, because I don’t usually enjoy the round trip to Vancouver, but I solved that by inventing a list of urgent shopping chores, and off I went.
My awe is always inspired when I enter the Central Library. It’s huge, it’s busy, and at the same time, it’s quiet. Just a gentle hum of computers and minds at work. I explained myself to a lady at the fourth-floor control centre, and she found the book for me. Why could I not borrow it? I asked. She explained that for them it was not a book, it was a government document, deposited at the library to be held available for consultation by the public, in perpetuity.
What do you think it is — this document so important to the nation, and me? It is the Canadian Fish Cook Book, published in 1959 by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, priced at $1 a copy. It introduces itself as “a handbook on how to buy, prepare and serve all kinds of Canadian fish and shellfish at every season of the year.”
More important for me is that it introduced the world to the “Canadian Fisheries 10-minute rule.” That’s what David Wood calls it in his Food Book, but it has other names. The rule is this — whatever the kind of fish, and whatever the method of cooking, you should give it no more than 10 minutes for every inch of thickness.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans created the book because at the time, people were choosing not to eat fish. They felt it was difficult to cook it right. And, indeed, fish needs special attention. It is not steak, it is not bacon, it is fish. Too much cooking and fish turns dry, loses flavour and nutritional value. The ministry reasoned that if it could introduce people to simpler ways of cooking fish well, everyone would benefit — the families who ate it, the retail stores who would sell more fresh fish, and the fishing industries on both coasts and on many lakes in between.
The book itself is a modest production, and it doesn’t make a big thing of the 10-minute rule, just slips it in to simplify each recipe. Mark Bittman, one of today’s cooking gurus, believes that the rule is “an oversimplification, but an effective one.” Meaning that it helped home cooks to overcome their fear of cooking fish, and then learn by experience how to adapt the rule when necessary.
Where the Canadian Fish Cook Book fails, to my 21st-century eyes, is in the recipes given to show how the 10-minute rule should be used. Some are quite unpleasant, a reminder that the late ’50s were not a high point in food appreciation. I doubt if the suggested banana topping for sole really caught on. And it would have been a brave hostess who featured Halibut Oriental, in which my favourite fish shares plate room with dill pickles and pineapple.
More than 70,000 copies of the Canadian Fish Cook Book had made their way into Canadian homes by 1974. By that time, it must have looked quite old-fashioned. Poor photography, dull typography — and those weird recipes.
The 10-minute rule benefited from the support of an early admirer, James Beard. Unlike Bittman, he had no reservations; in his many cookbooks, columns and classes, he presented the rule as the only way to cook any type of fish. Sometimes, but not often, he might tip his hat to the originators, the civil servants of the Canadian Department of Fisheries.
© Copyright 2013