The Great Cookie War
The Great Cookie War
I spotted Edna and the woman long before they reached our stall, and wondered who the stranger could be. I thought she might be another writer, or maybe someone from the office of the company that published Edna’s books. She moved briskly, nervously, almost as if fleeing down a track from an oncoming train. She was even faster than Edna, who, despite being nearly eighty years of age, was well-known for the spring in her step.
This woman didn’t waste any time in getting right to the point.
“Hello,” she offered, flicking a speck of lint from her skirt. She looked, and even smelled, urban; her perfume reminded me of violets I collected in the meadow, only two thousand times as intense. Before Edna had a chance to introduce her, she did it herself. “I am Paula Logan, and I need to talk to you about cookies.” (p. 15)
Beth, 12, is struggling with her traditional Mennonite family’s expectations. She wonders what it would be like to live outside the Mennonite order, “To use electric lights and ride in cars, not a horse-drawn buggy. To put on makeup, to have pierced ears. To go to the movies and out for pizza with other girls my age, and to be allowed to listen to music.” (Pp. 1-2) But most of all, she wants to paint. She dreams of becoming an artist, but her family finds her artistic interests frivolous.
On Saturdays, Beth’s family sells food products, such as maple syrup and jams, at the St. Jacobs Market to pay their bills. One Saturday in February 1984, Beth is thrilled to see their family friend and cookbook author Edna Staebler approach their booth with another lady named Paula Logan. Paula is a lawyer from New York who is involved in a lawsuit about cookies! Edna had written a best-selling cookbook based on a collection of Mennonite recipes, some supplied by Beth’s grandmother. Paula now wants the recipe for her grandmother’s rigglevake cookies. Two companies with similar cookies are suing each other about a patent for this cookie.
At first, the family is confused by the lawsuit. Why would anyone sue a company over cookies? Why is her grandmother involved? It turns out that Paula wants her grandmother’s old recipe book to prove her case. Her grandmother does not want to have her Mennonite heritage involved in any conflict and will not participate in the lawsuit. However, Beth is thrilled to talk to Paula about art galleries in New York and art education. Paula encourages Beth to pursue her desire to paint and even promises to pay for her education if she will provide her grandmother’s original recipe book.
Beth is conflicted about her Mennonite family’s lifestyle. She is thankful for her family and her community, but she also hopes for change in her life. Her grandmother, in particular, is very much against her dreams of becoming an artist. Readers will learn a great deal about the Mennonite way of life from Beth’s story. Mennonites lived a simple life that did not include electricity, cars, art, makeup, restaurants, music, or much contact with the outside world.
This novel was based on actual events. Edna Staebler published her bestselling cookbook, Food That Really Schmecks, in 1968. It was based on Old Order Mennonite recipes from Waterloo County. Eleven years after the publication of her cookbook, Proctor and Gamble sued Nabisco for infringement of copyright. Both companies were making cookies that were crispy and chewy at the same time. Edna Staebler’s recipe for “rigglevake kucha” was the basis for the lawsuit. Writer Caroline Stellings communicated with Edna and based her novel on “the cookie war”.
There are many thought-provoking issues addressed in The Great Cookie War: Mennonite culture and religion, heritage, family relationships, technology, justice, media awareness, baking, economics, pacifism, art, education, courage, loyalty, forgiveness, and responsibility. In the end, Beth realizes what is important to her: “I was proud to come from a family that could not be bought, no matter how much they needed money.” (p. 118)
Myra Junyk, a resident of Toronto, Ontario, is a literacy advocate and author.