Cooking with Etta and Earl

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 30, 2010.

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Earl Warren and Etta Sawyer about to carve poultry on the front cover of Etta Sawyer at the House of Warren: Kitchen Capers at CFRB (Toronto: Personal Library, 1979).

 

When browsing the cookbook section of any thrift shop or fundraising book sale, it’s not unusual to find a few media-related pamphlets or tomes. Whether produced to support a charity or satisfy audience members who misplaced that roast chicken recipe they clipped or quickly transcribed, these cooking tomes provide as much lasting value as glimpses into personalities who once entertained large audiences as they do with culinary advice that may or may not stand the test of time. One such item we found earlier this year is 1979’s Etta Sawyer at the House of Warren: Kitchen Capers at CFRB, which spotlights the kitchen skills of both a popular cooking teacher and a veteran Toronto radio host.

A native of Regina, Earl Warren Segal (who dropped his last name during his first on-air gig at the tender age of seventeen) joined CFRB in 1961 after stints at several stations out west. He spent the next two decades as the station’s honey-voiced late morning/lunchtime host. Warren described House of Warren as “a real homey show” where he chatted to listeners about “anything from my kid’s measles to a fight I had with my wife.” By the early 1980s, the show’s laid-back mix of personal stories, news, and easygoing music drew 116,000 listeners, which was three times more than the nearest competition. Warren’s boss, Alan Slaight, felt that the host “came across as a really warm, natural human being, and that’s not easy to do in radio.”

Among his regular guests by the end of the 1970s was Etta Sawyer, who appeared on Tuesdays and Thursdays to lend her culinary advice to listeners. Born in Hungary, where her family had a long tradition of cooking for nobility, Sawyer began teaching night school cooking classes for the Toronto Board of Education in the mid-1950s. She was hired to supervise the Canadian National Exhibition’s Kitchen Theatre demonstration area in 1962 and first met Warren that year when he appeared as a celebrity chef. As Sawyer remembered in her introduction to the cookbook, they disagreed over what should go into a pot of fudge.

He said he liked plain unadorned fudge, while I on the other hand liked maple walnut. Among the ingredients on the tray there were walnuts so in they went! Besides, this was MY show! The Kitchen Theatre audiences fell in love with him as did I. We were all hooked on Earl.

In 1971, Sawyer established the Academy of Culinary Arts on Bayview Avenue in Leaside, where she taught thousands of students the ways of the kitchen until her death in 1987 (the retail arm of the business continues to serve cooks of all skill levels).

The recipes in the forty-eight-page book were, according to Warren, perfected during a “three-day orgy—cooking orgy that is…Etta has done the cooking and I’ve done the eating!” The featured dishes range from kitchen basics to age-old favourites from both of their families. Among the latter was a recipe for latkes inspired by those Warren’s Grandma Segal made during his childhood that he often discussed on air:

Every day after school, when most kids were having peanut butter sandwiches and milk, I came home to a big glass of chocolate milk and a plateful of hot, fresh pancakes made from potatoes dutifully hand-grated by Grandma every afternoon. I used to eat them while sitting in front of the radio, listening to a program called The Mailbag from Radio CHAB in Moose Jaw. It was then that I decided to carve out a career as a radio broadcaster. I think those pancakes inspired me.

Those looking for similar inspiration can test the simple recipe while enjoying their favourite media outlet:

2 large potatoes, grated
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
½ cup milk
Dash salt and pepper

Instructions: “Place all ingredients in a bowl and beat until smooth. Fry in hot pan, preferably in vegetable oil.” If desired, grated onions could be added to the mix. In an interview with the Star about the cookbook, Warren admitted, “I am not a top latke-maker. But I am a top latke-eater—especially when it’s Etta making the latkes.”

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The back cover.

 

As for the other dishes in the book, the name of one suggested as an accompaniment to a simple curry may have made readers unfamiliar with Indian cuisine think the authors slipped in a joke about eating man’s best friend: the “e” is usually dropped off the end when you order a rose-flavoured “Lassie” in a restaurant. While there are pictures of the authors sampling the recipes, most of the illustrations show them nurturing Warren’s beloved stable of horses.

Warren remained at CFRB until House of Warren was suddenly axed in June 1983. Station management decided a change was required to draw younger listeners and felt that Warren’s audience was too elderly for their liking to fit the station’s gradual shift to a news-talk format. He ran a travel agency, did PR work for the Constellation Hotel, and continued to dabble in radio through a big band music show based out of Burlington. His final on-air gig was a Sunday morning show on AM 740 that he hosted until two weeks before his death in 2002.

Sources: the March 16, 1980, June 18, 1983, October 25, 1987, and October 20, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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An early draft of this article combined coverage of this cookbook with The Naked Gourmet, a 1970 collaboration between soon-to-be Toronto Sun editor-in-chief Peter Worthington and cartoonist Ben Wicks. I decided that book was worth a future article of its own, which the world is still waiting for (I don’t own a copy, and never took down notes the times I borrowed it from an institution of higher learning). I’ll leave you with the bizarre cover for now…

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Introductory notes from the authors. Based on the price penciled inside the front cover, I bought this at the Elora Festival Book Sale, during a period where I bought anything historically related to Toronto regardless of what it was. After all, who knew when something might come in handy?

I’ve curbed my buying excesses since this period, gradually getting rid of materials that I’ll either never use or may have one use and are available at local libraries or archives when the time comes to use it. A few cookbooks slipped into my collection, and future posts will plow through those that remain before they find new homes.

warren horses

I wasn’t kidding when I said there were a lot of pictures of horses in this book. Over the course of its 48 pages, there are six shots of horses, along with one on the back cover. Warren’s Star obit observed that “he loved horses, but lost a lot of money on them,” which led to his other business ventures. Not surprisingly, there are no recipes for cheval.

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warren lassie

The curry recipe, along with the accompanying lassi. This is an old school interpretation, heavy on the fruit and relying on curry powder for seasoning. Once in awhile I’ll make a dish along these lines, though my preferred recipe turns it into a baked chicken casserole with almonds, raisins, and dried apricots.

If you’d like to browse the entire book, reference copies are available at the Toronto Reference Library and the University of Guelph’s Canadian Cookbook Collection.

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1980.

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Toronto Star, October 25, 1987.