13 May 2010

Serving Up Louis Riel

A few final words on Swan Publishing. The company put out only four books by Canadian authors, but this wasn't one of them. A shame we can't claim it; Fanny aside, Strange Empire was the best book on their list. Author Joseph Kinsey Howard was a Montanan, a local historian whose interests clearly recognized no borders. The biography a very strong work and a good read, though it suffers greatly from a lack of references. Strange Empire was first published by Morrow in 1952, a year after Howard's death of a heart attack. He was 45 years old.

Swan's cover image comes from Riel, a 1961 CBC drama that featured Bruno Gerussi as the Métis leader. Forgotten today, it was a big deal at the time. One reviewer described the actor's performance as career defining, likening it to countryman Raymond Massey's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. In other words, we should be remembering Gerussi as Louis Riel, not log scavenger Nick Adonidas. Still, is the image not an odd choice? The programme aired four years before the book appeared, so it could hardly be considered a tie-in. What's more, the future Beachcombers star looked nothing at all like Riel. Swan seem to have figured all this out when reprinting the book in 1970, replacing Gerussi's photo with text, text and more text – even the title is longer. As far as I've been able to determine, the reprint marked the end of Swan as a publisher.

Digestif: Writing this I was reminded of Celebrity Cooks, the show Gerussi hosted at the height of his fame. I never watched the thing – as a kid I had no idea who these people were. Mary Travers? Wilf Carter? Judy La Marsh? The only name that meant anything to me was Margaret Trudeau. Eartha Kitt one week, Peter C. Newman the next, it was such a mixed bag. That said, the years have passed – older, taller and wiser, I long to see these episodes. YouTube only whets the appetite, offering nothing more than opening credits and eight minutes and eleven seconds of champagne-swilling celebrity cook Toller Cranston.

Interesting to see that the figure skater dressed the same whether on or off the ice. Then again, it was the 'seventies; Gerussi's ensemble is all that different.

The show spawned Celebrity Cooks, Recipe Book I (Vancouver: Initiative, 1975), Celebrity Cooks, Recipe Book II (Vancouver: Initiative, 1977) and The New Celebrity Cooks Cookbook (Agincourt, ON: Methuen, 1979). I'll be on the lookout for these. What better way to wow dinner guests than to serve them Toller Cranston's cheese cake. He calls it "Tolly's Folly".

Later that same day: YouTube has removed Toller Cranston's Celebrity Cooks appearance, thus depriving my daughter of the joy of watching the catsuited figure skater down glass after glass of bubbly. A coincidence? I like to think so – though it was on the site for nearly three years. Dare I try a second clip? Yes, I dare.

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  1. My wife has an interest in Riel and looks for books on the subject and she has that Strange Empire with Gerussi on the cover. I have never seen the reprint with text only. Thanks for the Gerussi nostalga, I had quite forgotten about the cooking show and didn't know it spawned cookbks. The Toller Cranston episode is very amusing. If i ever see any of the cookbks I shall let you know. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for keeping an eye out. I'm hoping that these things are a staple of Canadian thrift shops. As the first two were published by the show's production company, I may be disappointed. Bookseller descriptions have it that all feature black & white photos of the guests. I imagine the one featuring Eartha Kitt has particularly high kitsch appeal.