Edna Staebler Award 2012: A Recap

I had the pleasure of hosting the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction Award presentation last week at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus. It was a great night, and I was glad finally to meet this year’s winner, Joshua Knelman, whose book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art I first read as a judge in the summer and the praises of which I’ve been singing to everyone I’ve met since then.

Instead of reading from the book, Knelman spoke about its origins — about how it grew out of a small, front-of-the-book article for The Walrus, where he was the chief of research at the time — and took questions from the audience. Notably, he spoke about the relationship he cultivated with Paul, the British art thief who features prominently in Hot Art and his reaction to reading the book for the first time. As you might well imagine, Knelman has lots of good stories about how the book came together, so I’m looking forward to his visiting my magazine writing class next semester at Laurier Brantford to share more of them with my students.

Everyone I spoke to at the reception remarked about how gracious Knelman was in receiving his award and how “Edna would have approved.” This was my first time meeting the many people who are known around Laurier as the Friends of Edna — those people who knew Edna and continue to work hard to support her legacy of encouraging new writers.

As I learned from some of her friends, Edna herself did not start writing professionally until she was in her late 50s or early 60s and was encouraged to keep at it after her first feature for Maclean’s, written for then-editor Pierre Berton, won a national award.

As I explained in my opening remarks, this was a side of Edna Staebler that I didn’t learn about until relatively recently, although I’d known about her for many years before that. Like many people, I first learned about her through her recipes. As a young university student, one of the things I missed most about living at home was my mother’s cooking, and one day I decided I’d try to make myself a pie.

The only trouble was that I didn’t own a rolling pin, so I called my mother to see if she could suggest an unfussy pastry recipe that didn’t require rolling. Almost immediately, she came up with Edna’s Speedy Pat-in Pastry from her Shmecks Appeal collection of Mennonite recipes. The recipe worked, and the pie was great, and to this day, it’s the only pastry recipe I use. As with all of Edna’s recipes, it was clear, it worked and the result was tasty.

It was only years later, when I started studying magazine writing, creative non-fiction and literary journalism, that I came across mentions of Edna Staebler the journalist and the award she had endowed at Laurier. I didn’t connect the dots at first: who would have thought that this famous cookbook author would be the same pioneer of creative non-fiction in Canada? But she was, of course, which speaks to the extraordinary woman that Edna was and the life she led.

You can read more about her life and legacy in To Experience Wonder, Edna Staebler: A Life, by Veronica Ross. And I’d encourage anyone interested in learning more about her to attend next year’s award presentation to hear more stories about her from the Friends of Edna directly. Their dedication to her legacy is remarkable and humbling.