Jean Paré (pronounced “Gene Perry”) is the one of the world’s top selling cookbook authors, with 30 million copies of her books sold as of 2017 Bain, Jennifer. What happens when you collect 6,700 cookbooks. Toronto, Canada: The Toronto Star. 22 November 2011.. Her writing career didn’t begin until she was 54.
Each of Jean’s cookbooks covers a single subject, which appeals strongly to collectors. Her first book in the early 1980s was called “Company’s Coming 150 Delicious Squares”; it had 150 recipes in it. Her next two books were “Company’s Coming Casseroles” and “Company’s Coming Muffins & More.” As of 2011, she had completed over 200 cookbooks in all. Ibid.
The core of her books has remained homecooking, though she branched out in the late 1900s to include the new foods becoming common in North America at the time (while still sticking to her principle that her recipes should only call for ingredients that people could easily get at their neighbourhood supermarkets.) At a public reading she once gave, someone in the audience complained that some of her recipes called for tins of mushroom soup (instead of calling for a proper sauce to be made.) Jean responded by starting to give directions on how to make a mushroom sauce from scratch. The audience member interrupted her and sputtered, “I’d never have time for that.” “Exactly,” Jean replied.
Jean’s books provide a realistic record of Canadian cooking in the 20th century, reaching from couscous and curry at the end of the century back to what farm women cooked at the start of it. Her cooking knowledge comes from a time before refrigeration, when in making a pie, how long you planned to have it around the house determined whether you would make a top crust pie: double-crust pies were better keepers, and fruit pies beat cream pies hands down by staying good for up to four days on a shelf in the back porch. Some of her books have their foundations in the fancy occasions in small-town Canada, where desserts were oodles of squares, arrayed on three and four tray stands, to be served with coffee and tea in the good china cups, with everyone having donned both their Sunday clothes and manners.
While other Canadian writers were teaching people about cooking in other lands, Jean re-taught new generations how to make molasses snaps, hermits, brown betty, strawberry jam and baking powder biscuits. She was the small-town, practical voice in the kitchen, unabashedly giving advice on how to “doctor up” tins of bought baked beans to make them your own.
One of her favourite smells was that of old-time Canada, the smell of chow-chow simmering on the stove during canning time (chow-chow though is not a tradition in the western part of Canada where she lived; this may have been brought there from east-coast Canada by her mother’s parents. ) She was not a fanatical purist, though: she had no problem eating at McDonald’s, where her favourite food was a Chicken McGrill (she also liked their pizza but they only carried it for a few years.)
In many ways, her tastes, likes and dislikes remained those of many North Americans of her era. She was raised a teetotaller, and didn’t have her first alcoholic drink until she was thirty-three. She never allowed her kids to swear for any reason. She didn’t like shrimp; they reminded her of cutworms from the front lawn. She didn’t hold with any of the now-fashionable trendiness about fiddleheads, and wouldn’t touch them. She thoughts oysters were slimy and that mussels looked like “chicken lungs”, and wouldn’t touch offal. She didn’t like undercooked vegetables. “I want my vegetables cooked… I never liked those barely warm carrots crunching in my teeth.” Schultz, Judy. Jean Paré: An Appetite for Life. Edmonton, Alberta: Company’s Company Publishing Limited. 2006. Page 68. She didn’t believe in rare beef. She cooked it all in a low-temperature oven for a long time in a roaster that had a lid on it, “to avoid oven splatter” and clean-up. She dismissed escargot, saying that anything cooked in that sauce, even a mouse, would taste good. However, she included escargot in her Appetizers book at the urging of her children, though she made them do the taste-testing.
She had a sweet tooth, and liked jellied salads. On planes, when the meal came, she always ate the dessert first. A working mother, she never had anything against cake mixes, and in fact lamented that Betty Crocker only made its chiffon cake mix for a few years. She owned that it came close to being as good as hers.
Jean never accepted requests to judge cooking contests. It’s not that she was a snob about amateur recipes: in fact, she considered the real cooks in North America to be the women who are now disparaged — the ones who sent their recipes into the church, community and Junior League cookbooks. But she thought she’d make a lousy cooking contest judge because, she said, “If it was chocolate, it would automatically win.” She never kept her recipes secret, and believed in recipe sharing both ways, but she would never pass on a recipe before trying it herself and knowing it was good enough that she would make it again. Julia Child’s recipes were always far too fancy for her, but she did share common ground with Julia on their common dislike of cilantro.
When travelling somewhere only for the food, her favourite destination was New Orleans, followed closely by London.
- 1927 — Jean was born Jean Elford on 7 December 1927 in Irma, Alberta, a town of 250 people. She had a sister, Evelyn, and two brothers, Harvie and Ted. Her parents were Ed and Ruby Elford. Ruby’s family were from Prince Edward Island, at the other side of Canada. Ed and Ruby owned the Irma Trading Company (a general store) in Irma, Alberta. He did his own butchering for the store.
- 1928 — Jean’s parents built the house in Irma, Alberta that she would grow up in. They built the garage under the house, so that in winter the car would be warm enough to get into. Growing up, the kids were allowed one piece of fruit a day, often ones from the store that were getting too ripe to sell. Ruby would stretch out special fruit such as bananas by putting them in a Jell-O salad. There was no such thing as lettuce or salad greens during the winter. Ruby cooked with two stoves, a coal and a wood one. Jean’s grandparents on her mother’s side had a refrigerator, but Jean’s family didn’t. Her mother bought sugar by the 20-pound sacks and emptied it into a dedicated sugar drawer. From her mother, Jean learned how to gauge the temperature by holding her arm in the oven. During canning season when the store was very busy selling the items people needed for their canning, her father would get Jean out of school early some days to help out in the store. The family was well off enough to have “hired girls” to help out in the house. At Christmas and New Year’s dinners, there were always fancy crystal glasses filled with tomato juice placed at each setting. But for regular meals, there were no appetizers, no pre-dinner drinks: you sat down to eat and got on with it. Jean’s family wasn’t really affected by rationing during the Second World War. Food was in such abundance in Alberta, plus so much of it was grown locally anyway, that people would just trade their surpluses. In high school, Jean, who played saxophone, joined a few other teenagers in forming a band they called the Ink Spots at first and later The Five Flats. They played at weekend dances. Jean stayed in school until Grade 12 (the end of high school in Alberta.)
- 1946 — Jean married Clarence Lovig in February. The marriage ceremony took place in her parents’ house.
- 1947 — Her parents sold the store and moved to Edmonton, Alberta to buy the Rock Oil Company warehouse. Jean and her husband Clarence moved as well; Clarence to work as a salesman for Jean’s dad. Living in Edmonton was the first time they all had gas and plumbing. Jean also got her first refrigerator in this year. Her first son, Lyall, was born in August. She wanted to drink skim milk after Lyall was born, but found out that she had to get a special doctor’s prescription, as the government made everyone else drink whole milk to support the dairy farmers.
- 1950 — In August, her second child was born, Brian. Jean and Clarence bought a house on 74th Street in Edmonton, borrowing the money from Jean’s grandfather for a downpayment.
- 1954 — Jean and Clarence had their third child, Grant. Jean bought a new house, but kept the first one to rent out.
- 1956 — Jean’s marriage started to break down as her husband slipped into alcoholism.
- 1957 — In July, Jean and Clarence had their fourth child, a girl this time, Gail. Her children all later remembered that for their birthdays, no matter how little money there was, Jean would make seven-egg chiffon cakes.
- 1959 — Jean and Clarence moved to Vermilion, Alberta (west of Lloydminster, Alberta) to be closer to her husband’s work there as an auctioneer, where he’d started the Vermilion Auction Mart. She agreed to the move on the condition that he sign their first house on 74th Street bought with her grandfather’s money over to her name exclusively. He agreed. The small income from renting this property out later proved to be the key to her future. After settling into Vermilion, Jean developed a part-time business as a caterer for people’s parties, and ran the office and coffee shop at Clarence’s auction house. For the auctions on Tuesdays and Fridays, she enlisted the kids to help make hamburger patties with a wooden press, stacking them with cut-out squares of waxed paper between them, while she made the pies.
- 1963 — A friend asked her to take on catering for the 50th anniversary reunion for the Vermilion Agricultural College. Foreseeing that she would soon need a way to stand on her own feet financially, she agreed before asking how many people. Only then did she learn she would have to feed 1,200 people.
- 1965 — Clarence’s alcoholism had brought his business to ruin, through his drinking and gambling debts. He walked out on his family, and the creditors foreclosed on both his business and the family home in Vermilion. Jean had to apply for welfare. She and her children lived for a while that summer in a tent. She talked a bank manager into giving her a $1,000 dollar business loan, and bought a small cafe called the “Rio” attached to the Vermilion Hotel, and was also able to buy a house in Vermilion. While running the Rio, she met Larry Paré, a single father with three children. He was an electrician who kept hanging around the cafe for pie and coffee, and maybe a word with Jean.
- 1966 — Jean divorced Clarence (Clarence would later die, aged 59, of a heart attack.) Jean only owned the Rio for six months, and then sold it. Running a restaurant and looking after four children, both by herself, was too much.
- 1968 — Jean married Larry Paré.
- 1970 — In January, Jean went out of Canada for the very first time, on a trip with Larry to Hawaii. She fell in love with the food there, particularly pineapple cut fresh from the fields. Jean and Larry would have about 20 vacations in Hawaii altogether.
- 1971 — Jean travelled to Europe. She liked the food in Spain and made mental notes, but when they travelled on to Morocco, she did not approve of the sanitation in meat markets there. In England, she was impressed by their style of pull-out grills (aka broilers in North America) and loved all the food except the beef: she felt the beef back home in Alberta was better. But that was the first time she had ever tried blue cheese — Stilton, in fact — and she loved it.
- 1970s — Jean did a course at La Varenne in Paris. Jean and Larry at one point travelled to India, where she loved the desserts, though she decided that rosewater and orange flower water were too perfumey for her. On these and other travels, she collected recipes and notes of her tasting experiences.
- 1980 — By this time, she had decided she wanted to write her own cookbook, though she didn’t know what kind. She felt it best to concentrate on one topic in the book, and went with the item that had always been the most popular at events she catered — her squares. She turned a spare bedroom into an office, and cut back on catering to allow writing time. She weeded out recipes that would be expensive to make or that called for hard-to-get ingredients. She decided the book would be called “Company’s Coming.” She went through a list of things that she didn’t like about some cookbooks. She didn’t like the ones that wouldn’t stay open while you were actually using them, or that called for too many ingredients that required special shopping trips. And she didn’t like cookbooks that were niggardly with the span size, make them hard to read, or that didn’t have enough pictures to act as guidelines. She decided she would go with a plastic comb ring binding that would allow the book to lay flat when open, but still show the title on the spine when on the shelf. She would have a large typeface, with page numbers on the outside corners. She insisted on realistic photography, with no faked pictures. Any “group shots” of food had to be accompanied by a clearly labelled “map” saying which recipe was which picture. She didn’t want to go to a publisher, because going to a publisher involved giving them ownership of the book. Her life had taught her that security laid in staying in control. So she hired her own printer, and ordered 15,000 copies, at a time when 5,000 copies sold of any book in Canada was considered a best-seller. She did all her own cooking for the photos, did all her own food styling, and hired a food photographer to take the pictures. She ran the book business from her home office, and paid for all the expenses involved herself.
- 1981 — 15,000 copies were ready to sell on the 14th of April. Jean was 54 years old at the time. She and her son Grant decided to sell the book in places that didn’t traditionally sell cookbooks: gas stations, drugstores, grocery stores, etc. They designed special display racks (which since then have become quite common.) At book fairs, she flogged her book at tables with plates of squares beside them for people to sample. By July, three months later, she had sold every last copy. She did a second edition in September of that year of 25,000 copies, but that, too, vanished. One month later, in October, she had to have another 50,000 copies printed. As of 2006, this book alone would go on to sell more than 1 million copies in all. Given the success of the book, and Jean’s enjoyment of it, she slowly decided she wanted to do a series of cookbooks.
- 1982 — By the end of this, fifteen months after the first print run of Squares, she hired five people to do the packing and shipping, which she had been doing herself. She brought two of her children, Grant and Gail, into the business as well, to allow her to focus on recipe testing and writing
- 1985 — Jean built a dedicated test kitchen house.
- 1985 — Jean moved the company’s administrative headquarters to Edmonton, Alberta, where her son Grant lived.
- 1995 — By August of that year, the company had published over thirty books, had sold over ten million copies of them in all, and clocked up sales of $100 million dollars CDN ($85 million US / 43 million pounds.)
- 1995 — Jean built a photo studio and new test kitchen, this time five minutes away by car from the company’s head office in Edmonton, Alberta. Sometime around this time, in the mid-1990s, two seasons of a show called “Company’s Coming Everyday Cooking” were made for the “Food Network”, but Jean didn’t translate well onto TV, and wasn’t available enough for all the episodes — on some, she only appeared for 90 seconds, and it wasn’t what the viewers were expecting.
- 1997 — For her 70th birthday, Jean and Larry stayed at Claridge’s in London, then took the Orient Express down to Venice, where she refused to eat something called “eel clams.” She said the tiramisù in Venice was as good as hers, “but not one bit better.”
- 2001 — By 2001, there were sixty titles in the company’s inventory, and over seventeen million copies of them in all sold.
- 2001 — In April, the company launched a magazine called “Cooking at Home: Canada’s Own Recipe Magazine”, but only ran it for seven issues over a year, as it was not profitable.
- 2002 — A one-hour documentary of her life called “The Recipe on Success” was produced by Canada’s state broadcaster, CBC. Around this time, the company tried to have a chain of franchised kiosks selling baked goods from her books. Jean’s homespun recipes, however, didn’t translate well into commercial production, so the company shut that business down.
- 2003 — Jean was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal.
- 2004 — Jean was made a Member of the Order of Canada, and had it presented to her by the Queen’s representative in Canada at the time, Adrienne Clarkson. Jean approved of the meal that was served afterward (no record if she actually touched the obligatory fiddleheads that were on the menu), and even drank some of the wine.
- 2004 — In October, Jean was presented the “Growing Alberta Distinguished Service Award.”
- 2005 — In March, her husband Larry died.
- 2005 — Jean bought herself a Buick Park Avenue car.
- 2006 — By this year, her company had printed over 13,000 recipes in over 100 books, of which 23 million copies had been sold in all.
Her catering menus
The menu from Jean’s first large catering job in 1963 provides a window into North American life in the early 1960s.
The three core items on the menu were turkey, ham and potato salad.
- 15 gallons of jellied salads — you couldn’t have a party without them in those days, because they also provided decoration for the table and on people’s plates. Jean made all different colours and flavours of jellied salads, set and stored in fridge space borrowed from 5 friends at their houses;
- 20 x 25 pound turkeys (she talked the local baker into roasting them for her);
- 120 dozen dinner rolls (purchased from the baker as a return favour);
- 240 pounds of boneless, precooked ham, so she didn’t have to worry about cooking them, and slicing would be easy;
- 320 pounds of potato salad, made of potatoes, boiled eggs, green onion and radishes with a cooked dressing of flour, mustard, vinegar, sugar and egg. Jean always used her mother’s recipe, which she considered a “plate licker” (she felt other people’s potato salad was bland.) She talked 10 friends with canners into cooking the potatoes for her (in those days, most prairie women still had canners — the very large pots you processed canning jars in.) She insisted that the potato salad not be assembled until the last minute for safety reasons;
- Green salad made from 75 heads of iceberg lettuce (because it held up better than leaf lettuce), with red cabbage tossed in for colour and some dried onion for flavour, tossed in laundry-sized Rubbermaid tubs, with a vinaigrette dressing;
- 168 cans baked beans, served cold as a relish;
- 5 gallons sweet pickles;
- 5 gallons dill pickles;
- Mustard for the ham;
- 30 pounds of butter;
- 2,000 cups of coffee;
- 20 quarts of cream;
- 20 pounds of sugar cubes;
- Ice cream served in Dixie Cups (stored at the event in dry ice until they were ready to serve it up.
Jean had all carving of the turkey done in the kitchen so people couldn’t hold up the serving line by fussing over what kind of piece they wanted. She arranged the buffet bales so that there were 12 serving lines for food, at a time when no one had ever used more than 2 lines. For all of the above, she charged $1.25 a plate.
Jean would continue her catering business until 1981, when the success of her first cookbook would demand her full attention. She invested in a commercial fridge, and had a second stove put in her garage. She got a fishing tackle box and stocked it with catering essentials such as pickle forks, sugar tongs, bottle openers, serving spoons, etc.
Her catering principle was “never run out of food.” She always kept a few spare gallons of tomato juice on hand as extra supplies for emergencies, and always served two meats. The only time she was ever off on her food estimate was at a high-school graduation dinner, when the graduation committee forgot to include the actual grads in the numbers they had given her.
After the first event (with the ice cream served in Dixie Cups), she came to insist that dessert had to be special, something that required a fork to eat it with. For desserts around Christmas time, she’d serve plum pudding with a sauce, mince tarts, shortbread and some kinds of squares (she made her squares in October and froze them un-iced.)
Jean always threw in something extra for her clients that they weren’t expecting as a bonus, such as a tray of sliced fruit or a bean salad or a coleslaw.
She always firmly insisted that any beef she served was going to be well-done; she said it was too much fuss trying to deliver roast beef in any other way. She would serve pit-barbequed beef, though; she had a friend who did it for her. But refused to serve grilled steaks, as she was certain people would mess around asking for them rare, medium, etc, and she didn’t want anyone throwing her timing off.
At one event, she fed Colonel Harland Sanders (founder of KFC.)
Schultz, Judy. Jean Paré: An Appetite for Life. Edmonton, Alberta: Company’s Company Publishing Limited. 2006.
CBC. The Recipe for Success: The Life and Times of Jean Paré. Part of CBC Television series called “Life and Times”. Aired 15 October 2002.
Konotopetz, Gyle. Cuisine queen cooks up new life chapter. Calgary, Alberta: Business Edge Magazine. 27 April 2006. Vol 6, No. 9.