The Story of a Cookbook
I received an early Christmas present from a neighbour: one of those recipe collections printed on sheets of paper held together by a spiral binding, the type put together for fundraisers. They used to be pretty popular; nowadays, they are lucky finds at garage sales and church bazaars. They often contained favourite family recipes, some used by culinarians as bases for new ideas found in trendy cooking magazines.
The one I received had an intriguing title: Cooking with Characters – A Cast of Favourite Recipes. It is presented by Characters Inc. My gift-giver did not know its origin and I needed to find out.
Characters Inc., it turns out, is the name of Fredericton’s Nashwaaksis Middle School drama club which became a song-and-dance troupe that performed for thousands of people all around the world between 1982 and 1997, from the Canada Day stage on Parliament Hill to Disney World, from Europe to Australia and Japan. The message was all about how great it is to be Canadian. The group was put together and directed by Philip Sexsmith, one of those exceptional teachers who inspire their students.
Kirk Pennell, a former Character who is now a professional videographer with CBC P.E.I., brought his camera to Sexsmith’s surprise retirement party and started filming what later became a documentary on the group, the people whose lives were shaped by their experience in Characters and a celebration of the role of the arts in schools.
In its 15-year history, the group had a cast of over 300. “Some stayed for one season, others for many,” says Pennell. “[The experience] made them a better public speaker, it gave them confidence, or it gave them friendships, or they met their spouse or whatever their story may be.” In his documentary, Pennell commented, “Some people became artists, and some people became performers and musicians, but a lot of people, they never followed the arts, but Characters really made an impact on them in other ways.”
Pennell has a copy of the Characters Cookbook. “It was a fundraising event for our 1997 tour. All of the parents and members submitted their fave recipes and cooking with Characters was born.”
Among past Characters is Meg Tucker, a former MasterChef Canada Top 25 finalist and certified professional cook, creator of the kids cook show Just One Bite and the successful online cooking program Cook with Meg. She was in Characters from 1986 to 1989 while in middle and high school; it was too early to contribute to the cookbook, but she would have otherwise. “I have loved cooking since a very young age, and that certainly inspires me to teach families today,” she says. “In fact, I have taught over 3,000 families [many in Ottawa] since launching Cook with Meg in 2020. My theatre background has certainly helped me grow my business.” Find Meg Tucker’s recipes and workshops at megtucker.com.
While fame is an exceptional outcome for an after-school club, the life-marking experience is certainly not unique to Characters. Many of us who were involved in performing arts at a young age have collected memories and acquired skills that enriched our lives beyond the stage – just one of the reasons to celebrate the role of arts in schools.
Thank you, Jenny M., for your gift! A cookbook, but also a piece of Canadian history, a chance to meet a filmmaker and a celebrity cook. One World Arts, the organization behind One World Film Festival, is now scoping the possibility of bringing Pennell’s documentary to Ottawa. Would our students recognize in Characters their experience with the arts?
Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.