The day I heard that Jewish cookbook author Norene Gilletz died, her “Lighter Caesar Salad Dressing” (made with a combination of mayonnaise and plain yogurt, parmesan, crushed garlic, and fresh cracked pepper) was in a glass bowl in my fridge.
Gilletz, who died on Feb. 23 at 79, authored or co-authored 14 cookbooks and was a super star for Canadian-Jewish women decades before the concept of a celebrity chef existed. Canadian lore is that a Jewish home is not complete without at least one copy of a Norene Gilletz cookbook. My family has deep roots in Western Canada, so ipso facto I am among the legion of gushing fans.
After she died, a newspaper described Gilletz as the “Julia Child” of Canada. While honorable, I think that generic description doesn’t do the beloved chef justice. Yes, she was skilled in the kitchen. After all, in the late 1980s she taught generations how to make the best use of a new tool called a microwave (see “Micro Ways”) and “The Pleasures of your Food Processor” (1981) is iconic (more on that book later). But it’s how she organized her cookbooks and the text she included with her recipes that breached a divide between a famous chef and a home cook. I consider Gilletz less like Julia Child and more like an endearing auntie.
One of my favorite comments comes from her recipe for Passover rolls (matzah meal, lots of eggs and oil) from her processor cookbook. I bake them every year for my family. After the baking instructions she wrote, “As a treat for the children, shape into hot dog rolls.” What I love about this comment is that she doesn’t consider it a waste of time to go that extra step in a labor-intensive holiday to make special rolls for a processed meat product.
Another great one that’s very indicative of the Great White North comes with her recipe for “Onion Cheese Quiche,” which she describes as her son Steve’s favorite lunch. “He used to wrap it in foil, bring it to school, and heat it on the radiator!”
Her recipes are served with a heaping helping of nostalgia and comfort familiar to anyone who grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish home. It seemed she developed her content with hosting meals for family and friends in mind, code for recipes with realistic portions or ones that can easily be doubled or tripled so no one, God forbid, leaves hungry.
Her ingredients are simple, the recipes practical, and I appreciate the lack of emphasis on fancy presentation as I’m one who prefers eating food over staging it. In recent decades she emphasized healthy food and let the natural colors of the ingredients stand on their own.
I credit Gilletz with many of my favorite recipes, such as her hearty vegetarian soups, and she forever changed the way I make cole slaw with a vinaigrette dressing. Her secret? Heat the oil, vinegar, and sugar in the microwave before pouring over the vegetables. As she wrote underneath her recipe for “Red Cabbage Cole Slaw”: “The boiled dressing transforms the cabbage into a beautiful, brilliant magenta color.” No garnish necessary.
I own three of her cookbooks; the spine of “MealLeaniYumm!” (a low-fat cookbook released in 1999 when the turn of the millennia was on the forefront of our minds) is detaching from its colorful cardboard cover from its frequent use.
But my copy of “The Pleasures of your Food Processor” remains intact. It’s a yellow, hard-sided three ring binder with matching yellow tabs dividing the book’s sections (a 30th anniversary edition came out in 2011 with a less sultry title, “The New Food Processor Bible”). What was revolutionary about the original cookbook is that the binder is bifurcated, and when the bottom half is pulled out the hard-sided binder becomes its own stand.
In some homes (such as mine growing up) the cookbook is referred to as “the yellow one.” So when I asked my mom for her tuna casserole recipe (which calls for a box of macaroni and cheese dinner — yes, the kind with the powdered cheese) she told me to look in the yellow cookbook, and there it was behind the tab marked “Fish, Eggs & Cheese.” To me that whole category screams Jewish soul food, especially when there are five versions of blintzes and 15 recipes under the heading of tuna.
The yellow cookbook’s dessert section is extensive — I’ll credit Gilletz’s Manitoba upbringing since Winnipeg rears fabulous bakers. She has four different dessert tabs including, for example, “Cakes & Icing” and another for “Desserts & Tortes” (a torte is a cake comprised of very thin layers with filling in between that is synonymous to me with kiddushes in Winnipeg’s North End). In my collection of Jewish cookbooks, only Gilletz’s contain recipes for Canadian favorites such as sesame nothings, Nanaimo bars, and shortbread cookies.
Her passing marks the sad ending of an era, especially for those of us who value homecooked meals and the show of love they represent. Norene Gilletz was the linchpin of nurturing for at least three generations, and hopefully many more to come.
I’ll continue to celebrate her food — in her memory I baked “Easy Chocolate Cake” the Shabbat after her death and “Red Lentil, Vegetable & Barley Soup” the following one. Along with her delicious recipes I’ll retain the value she placed on cooking for loved ones.
A few years ago my cousin had Gilletz sign our Baba’s, grandmother’s, copy of the yellow cookbook and here’s what she wrote, “Treasure this book and the wonderful memories of family!”