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Canada's cookbook queen has hung up her apron

Canada's cookbook queen doesn't cook anymore. Over 30 years, Jean Paré authored more than 200 cookbooks containing 17,000 recipes which have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
jean pare front page pix
Jean Paré authored more than 200 cookbooks. Photo by Chris Zdeb

Canada's cookbook queen doesn't cook anymore.

Over 30 years, Jean Paré authored more than 200 cookbooks containing 17,000 recipes which have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. But she put away her mixing bowls and cutting boards about three years ago after developing mobility issues. It's now breakfasts in the dinning-room of the very nice seniors' centre in Edmonton where she lives, microwaveable frozen foods, and occasional dinners out with her family.

"I can't do a lot of things," says the honey-haired Paré, 91, who gets around with a walker, "but I have lots of memories."

Many of those memories are connected to the Company's Coming cookbooks that line the shelves of a bookcase next to her immaculate kitchen.

Paré  (pronounced perry) was 53 when she and her son Grant self-published her first book,150 Delicious Squares, in 1981. It was inspired by 18 years of catering in the town of Vermilion, 119 kms east of Edmonton, when she was often asked for recipes or given recipes to make.

"More than one person would say 'why don't you put these recipes in a cookbook so we don't have to keep asking you for them'."

Recipes for squares that people could bring when invited out for dinner were the most requested.

The name Company's Coming came from Paré childhood.

"When I was growing up it was the end of the Depression and my mum fed more men (unemployed men riding the rails looking for work and food) who came off the train. Our house was straight north from the train and we'd sit on the couch and look out the window and when we'd see two men walking up towards the house we'd say 'Mum, company's coming!'"

Paré decided to focus on one subject per book, and originally planned on writing 10 books.

"Well, after I got two done, I said there's no limit, I'm just going to keep going," she remembers laughing.

Titles included Casseroles, Muffins and More, Low-Fat Pasta, Most Loved Brunches, The Rookie Cook and Mexican Made Easy.

The books' appeal were easy to follow recipes using readily available ingredients.

They were also easy to find. Company's Coming were the first cookbooks sold in grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, even hair salons, says Paré.

At least one of her cookbooks can still be found in many Canadian kitchens today. When the series was most popular, there were copies for sale in places like Manila, Disneyland, Singapore and New Zealand.

Growing up in the village of Irma,180 kms southeast of Edmonton, Paré dreamed of travelling around the world. She might have achieved that dream by becoming a flight attendant, but back then you had to be a nurse to be a stewardess, and she didn't want to become a nurse. She never imagined she'd travel around the world – twice – as one of the most popular cookbook authors in the world.

While running an auction house in Vermilion with her first husband, Paré stepped up to prepare dinner in her home kitchen for more than 1,000 people when organizers of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Vermilion School of Agriculture, (now Lakeland College), couldn't find a caterer. That led to people asking her to cater their wedding or their anniversary which eventually turned into a full-time job, which morphed into cookbook writing.

"It was like a door opened and I went through the door and did (what was there) and then another door would open."

The catering business helped pay the bills after her first marriage ended in divorce leaving her with nothing and two of her four children still in school.

"One thing I'm proud of is I never ran out of one thing (food). I went to some banquets where I never got dessert," she remembers. "It was all gone and I'd paid for it, or something else would be gone – no meat left – that happened quite often, but never when I catered."

A couple of years after her divorce she married electrician Larry Paré , a divorced dad with one son still at home, who before they married, struck a deal where he paid for her family's grocery bills in return for her making lunch for him and his son every day at her home. The couple was married almost 40 years before Larry's death in 2005.

For all that she accomplished, Parè was presented with a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2003 and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004. She sold Company's Coming Publishing Ltd. and retired in 2011 at the age of 83. After more than 200 books she'd run out of book ideas, she says.

Her collection of 7,200 cookbooks was donated to the University of Guelph.

Paré used to get thousands of letter from her fans. She remembers one from a boy with a big appetite going off to university whose mother had bought him a copy of Cooking for Two. He wrote that he enjoyed the book but complained that some of the recipes only served one not two. "He'd eat the whole thing," she chuckles.

The thing she misses most from those days is the book fairs where she enjoyed meeting so many people.

These days Paré gets up early every morning, socializes with other residents over breakfast, and exercises every day on her own or as part of a class three times a week. She confesses to being a "chocoholic" and a fan of TV detective shows. She doesn't watch cooking shows very often, except to keep up on the latest celebrity chefs.

Her family of four children has grown to include nine grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Her biggest achievement: "I raised four real good kids. After then it's the cookbooks I guess. The catering was good too.

"I've had a great life, I really have."

Although she won't be around for it, her funeral sounds like it should be pretty great too.

"I've got it written down that I don't want it to last longer than 30 minutes and I've suggested two or three hymns but asked them not to sing Amazing Grace because I heard some women talking about funerals one day say that you just know they're going to sing Amazing Grace." She doesn't want to be predictable.

Her family can do what they want for the reception, "but I said when you pick a time in the middle of the afternoon there's a chance for desserts - squares and things," Paré says smiling, which would bring her life nicely full circle.