My mother, Lillian Kaplun, was born Leah Slotnick, on July 21, 1909, in the town of Englehart, Ontario, where her parents, Slava and Louis, settled after emigrating from Russia.
She was one of a family of six children. Music and culture were of high priority, with most of the girls becoming accomplished pianists. The eldest son, Jack, who studied violin in Chicago, was the most proficient musician. Older sisters, Sarah and Dora, played the scores for silent movies in the theatres. Lillian played the scores of operas she loved.
At one time or another, all the children worked in the grocery store/butcher shop that was owned by their parents. This gave them valuable lessons in customer relations, as well as many moments of hilarity.
Since kosher products were not readily available in Timmins, Ontario, cooking and baking skills were central to the lives of new immigrants. Every Friday morning, Slava baked challah for the Sabbath. She was a well-known baker in the community. Her daughters had constant exposure to her techniques and her critical eye, but the kitchen was their Mother’s domain.
That didn’t leave much time for experimentation. Lil was the one who longed to master her mother’s baking skills. Whenever her parents had to be away from the house, she commandeered the kitchen. Her experiments were legendary; many a young man from Timmins could boast of a stomach ache from a failed sponge cake or yeast dough.
As she persevered, however, she became interested, not only in the end product of baking, but in the process, itself. She loved the texture of baked goods and strove to find the techniques to achieve lightness and superior taste.
In 1936, Lil met my father, Hyman Kaplun, who had come to Timmins from Saskatchewan. They were married in Montreal on July 26, 1937. On September 16, 1939, my brother, Jack, was born in South Porcupine, Ontario.
in 1941, the family moved to Vancouver, where several of my father’s brothers and a sister lived. Mother was thirty-two years old and had never been away from her family before; she needed something to occupy her time, so she started to bake. She baked yeast dough and tried to perfect it. She succeeded and wanted to open a bakery, with an eye to being the coffee-break food supplier to large insurance companies, law offices, etc.
The bakery was a going concern, with a staff of bakers, baking and proofing all night, with my dad delivering the finished product (Chelsea buns) in the morning. It was grueling work. In the midst of all this baking, I was born — on June 28, 1946. My family stayed in Vancouver until 1950, when we moved to Toronto to live with my maternal grandmother, who was now widowed.
Once again, my mother turned to baking. In our apartment building on Bathurst Street, many of the neighbours were newlyweds and the young women all wanted to learn to bake. My mother obliged and, thus, began her teaching career.
She would, at first, go to their apartments and, soon, to their friends’ homes. She found that they lacked the proper utensils and, so, decided to set up shop in our living room. So, for four nights a week, starting at 8:00 pm — and, often, with the last person leaving close to midnight — our home became an “institute of higher learning.”
From teaching baking, my mother moved into catering. She made “Tortes,” an exquisite concoction of chiffon cake, mousse filling, and flavoured whipped cream. She developed this recipe, herself, and as a tribute to her absolute willingness to share her knowledge with anyone who was interested, she included the Torte as the finale in her twelve-session baking course.
My mother never refused to give anyone a recipe and she was always outraged when she heard stories of people who would share recipes but leave out, or change, ingredients. She wanted bakers to succeed and would often go to peoples’ homes to help them perfect something they were struggling with. She knew if your oven was not calibrated perfectly and she could tell you how to adjust for that. She knew if your ingredients were not right and she would not hesitate to tell you.
Her first book, For the Love of Baking, was born out of those years of teaching baking. Over her career, she met many others who were just as dedicated to the art of food preparation, and many became good and life-long friends, as well as colleagues. These people helped her compile and publish For the Love of Cooking.
When she opened a cooking school above a store on Eglinton Avenue West in Toronto, many of these friends became teachers on her staff. They were a hard-working and dedicated lot: Sandra Temes, Lucille Lorie, Esther Schwartz, Florence Goodman, Janice Goodman, Lenore Barrett, and Anna Axler were among her closest friends and contributors to her book. Please forgive me if your name belongs here, but I was very young when all this was taking place, and I do not remember all the details. To be sure, there were legions of you out there, helping her get the books together, testing recipes, having failures, laughing, testing more, and laughing more.
I think it was a very happy time for my mother, although the work was very hard. One thing she never shrank from or feared was hard work. This is one of the great lessons I learned from her: work hard, do it right, and take pride in what you do.
My mother always seemed to be just a step ahead of what society was ready to accept as suitable behaviour for a woman. At a time when most women did not work, she longed to work and to be creative and independent. Her ventures were just a bit too early to be money-making ones, but she was the forerunner of many successful, food-related businesses. Bonnie Stern, a pupil, broke through and made teaching food preparation the highly regarded profession that my mother wanted it to be. Today, there is an entire television channel devoted to food. Those fifteen-minute guest spots that my mother did on shows such as CBC’s Take Thirty, demonstrating tortes or squares or neopolitans, no doubt set the stage for bigger things to come.
Well into her eighties, Lil was still cooking and baking and teaching and learning. When she became too frail to bake, herself, she passed on her skills to her caregiver, Aurora Suyat, so that she would not have to serve an “inferior product,” as she would say, to the many guests she continued to entertain. She loved her work and her students and she was always happy to answer a question on the phone or, in person, with a cup of tea, at her dining room table.