CBC food commentator Julie Van Rosendaal was on the radio the other morning talking about one of her favourite vintage cookbooks. It was called The Best Little Cookbook in the West and it was written in 1984 by a self-taught country cook and restaurateur named Jean Hoare. Here’s what I wrote about her in my first book, Building a Province:
When Jean Hoare put up her rural Alberta restaurant for sale in 1974, she didn’t have to do any advertising. Newspapers across Canada did it for her. They published stories that amounted to free ads. “For sale: rustic restaurant, airport location,” said the headline in The Globe and Mail. Such was the renown of this country cook, who daringly called herself the Hoare Who Cooks, that her every move was big news.
Hoare didn’t have to do any advertising, either, during the 20 years she ran the restaurant, first as a dining room for friends and neighbours at her ranch home near Claresholm, and later in what used to be an army service corps storage depot at Claresholm’s Second World War airfield. She didn’t have to advertise because the word just got around.
Her recipe for success was deceptively simple: Serve good food and lots of it. At the Flying N restaurant — so named because of its airport location — every meal was like Sunday dinner at grandma’s place. Customers were advised not to eat breakfast — much less lunch — before gorging themselves on the hearty seven-course meals that were Hoare’s trademark.
Cooking up big meals was something she had done since childhood. At age 10, growing up in Toronto, she was encouraged by her mother to help cook Sunday dinner for the extended family. Hoare would study the recipes and the photographs of plate servings in the Ladies Home Journal, and serve meals for up to 20 people. It seemed like a natural progression to go from there to later serving meals for 200 people at the Flying N. If she could do it for 20 people who didn’t pay, she said, why not for 20 who did?
Childhood family drives through rural Ontario were another culinary influence. Signs saying “Chicken Dinners Served Sundays” seemed to point in the direction her life would eventually take. For her, country cooking would always conjure up memories of thick cream, hot bread, and lots of butter.
In her 20s, she worked at the Bay in Toronto, and heard colleagues talking about the fabulous meals served at the Marigold Hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Hoare went down to see for herself, and came home with something special — a cookbook containing recipes for all the popular dishes served at the Marigold. Decades later, that same cookbook, much thumbed and tattered, was the culinary bible of the Flying N.
Hoare moved to southern Alberta during the Second World War to live on a cousin’s ranch while husband Stan served overseas with the air force. After the war, she and Stan opted not to return to Ontario. They bought a 375-acre spread near Pulteney, a tiny hamlet about 70 miles south of Calgary.
Raising a son and daughter, and cooking for large groups of people, became the focus of Hoare’s life. She combined her love of cooking with an interest in local history, putting on big barbecues at which she and her neighbours, socialized, listened to the tales of the old-timers, and ate their fill. Those gatherings gave birth to the Willow Creek Historical Society for which Hoare served as recording secretary.
During the 1950s, Hoare’s marriage dissolved. To support her two children, she turned their home on the range into a restaurant that she named the Driftwillow. She moved the furniture out of the living room, put in large oak tables that she bought at auctions for $25 each, added seating for 40 people, and told her neighbours she was open for wedding banquets, birthday parties and anniversary celebrations.
Her first customers were her neighbours, as was her staff. They took reservations on the party-line telephone whenever she was busy, and showed up to help her whenever they knew there was a crowd coming in.
The restaurant didn’t make much money in the beginning. To augment her income, Jean worked for the Willow Creek municipal district as secretary-treasurer.
Business began picking up after a roving Calgary Herald newspaper columnist named Ken Liddell wrote a story about “the lady in the country who cooks.” Customers came from all parts of southern Alberta to sample her roast beef and sourdough bread. She put a map of Alberta on the wall, and asked the customers to stick coloured pins in it, indicating their hometowns.
By the mid-1960s, the map of Alberta had been replaced by a map of Canada. The Driftwillow had become too small to handle the growing volume of customers who wanted to try Hoare’s beef and bread.
Water became a problem. The well couldn’t handle the volume of customers who wanted to use the toilets every night. The sign on the washroom door said, “Don’t Flush Unless Absolutely Necessary.”
She sold 160 acres and bought the old supply depot at the Claresholm industrial airport. In that building, which she decorated in what she called Depression Western, she could accommodate five times as many customers. The airport location proved to be an attraction for private pilots from Montana, Idaho and other parts of the U.S. Jean replaced the map of Canada with a map of North America.
In 1971 and for three years after that, the Flying N was listed in Anne Hardy’s Where To Eat In Canada as one of the country top 10 restaurants. The publicity, she said, just about did her in. It attracted more guests than her 200-seat facility could handle, and those who arrived without reservations were invariably doomed to disappointment.
Comics Wayne and Shuster were two of the celebrity guests who made it to Claresholm to eat at the Flying N. They left an autographed picture that read, “To Jean of the Flying N from Johnny Wayne, the lazy W, and frank Shuster, the smart S.”
By 1974, the shine had worn off. Her staff had grown from a handful of neighbours to a payroll of 30. Her health began to fail. She envisaged herself and the restaurant going down together. She sold out in 1975, but unwisely provided the buyer with a second mortgage, interest-free for five years.
Four years later, at age 65, she was asked by the bankers to run the place as receiver manager while they looked for another buyer. The first buyer had amassed a terminal debt load and fled town. Hoare’s excessively generous sale agreement had cost her about $150,000 meant for a comfortable retirement.
In early 1982, Hoare parted company with the Flying N for the last time. High interest rates had discouraged potential purchasers. She held a farewell party for her friends, and talked about spending her retirement writing a cookbook sprinkled with anecdotal reminiscences.
Two years later, the book became a reality. Hoare published The Best Little Cookbook in the West with help, advice and financial backing from Calgary author Nancy Millar. “She had such life force, such willingness to get involved,” wrote Millar in The Globe and Mail.
The book sold 15,000 copies in its first printing. Hoare, at age 69, embarked on a new career as a celebrity author. She did 48 half-hour cooking shows for Calgary’s CFAC television, made guest appearances on national talk shows, and was introduced in the Alberta legislature by Macleod MLA Leroy Fjordbotten. She wondered whimsically if her book would make the Guinness Book of Records as the first cookbook mentioned in Hansard.
Her second book, Jean’s Beans, did well also. Additionally, she wrote a weekly column, “Driftwillow Diary,” for the local newspaper in Vulcan.
She wrote her final column at the end of 1996. By that point, it was appearing in the weekly papers in Okotoks, Nanton, Claresholm and High River, as well as Vulcan. “The happy memories overshadow any regrets,” she wrote in her last column. She was 82 and quipped, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Hoare was 85 when she died in January, 2000, at her Driftwillow Ranch home. At the height of the Flying N’s success, when most of her customers came from faraway places, Hoare used to say tongue-in-cheek that her epitaph should read, “I’ve come all the way from Calgary.” More appropriately now, it should read, “She made a big reputation with a little restaurant that grew up and became famous.”Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 Brian Brennan - Writer