A new live cooking program broadcast their first show last Friday from right in the heart of Merrickville. Maggie Runacres and Derek Smith live in a small house on Drummond Street. Their dining room was full of lights, cameras and cables on Thursday when I visited them, just before the dress rehearsal of their first show.
Maggie and Derek took a break from figuring out the set and camera angles to tell me a little bit about themselves and what pushed them to create their new show, Mrs. Calabash Cooks.
Maggie has been in food production and demonstration her whole life. Originally from England, she trained as a home economist and food demonstrator in an exclusive program at Sheffield College of Technology (now Sheffield Hallem University) in the 1960s. She has had a varied career in the food industry, which included developing her own line of condiments (jams, chutneys, marmalades) and owning her own British restaurant in the Loire region of France.
In 1995 she emigrated to Canada with her then husband, Norman and their youngest daughter, Kate. They settled in Brockville and Maggie started a career working in various grocery store chains as a cooking school coordinator and demonstrator. Unfortunately, Norman passed away from cancer soon after they came to Canada, and Maggie has also survived her second husband, Jean, who passed away after suffering from dementia.
A couple years ago, Maggie was living alone and working at the Independent in Carleton Place. On a whim, she joined an online dating site and soon found Derek, who was also living alone, in Ottawa. It was a whirlwind romance and, within two months, they had merged their lives and bought a house together in Merrickville.
Derek has a background in broadcasting, having produced several popular TV shows in the 1970s and 80s. His show, Celebrity Cooks, was syndicated for 12 years, and another show, Do it For Yourself, was the first “fix it” show to have a female lead on TV.
It was Derek’s long-time colleague, Terry Deriger, who came up with the idea of creating a television show staring Maggie. Derek jumped at the idea because, as he put it: “Maggie is the cooking Queen of the West.” Maggie also has some broadcast experience, having been on cooking shows on the radio in both England and Canada. With Derek’s experience in TV production, and Maggie’s affinity for teaching and speaking about cooking, they thought it would be an excellent project to take on in their retirement. “I’m looking forward to interacting with people, and I enjoy teaching,” Maggie says.
Mrs. Calabash Cooks had its first show on Friday, April 5, at 6:30pm. Streaming on Youtube, Pariscope and Facebook, the plan is to air one roughly 45-minute show a week, with Maggie sharing many of the great recipes she has collected over the years, while having fun in the kitchen. Pariscope is a unique platform, in that viewers can interact with Maggie in real time. “That will be totally new for me,” she says about using the technology. “I have always done that, but with a live audience.”
Maggie wants to make sure to promote the area’s local producers, and already has plans to use Chili Chile’s hot sauce, Smokey Ridge Wines, and Perth Brewery beer in her cooking. They also plan on having local-area chefs on the program as special guests, as well as a live music portion of the show highlighting local talent.
If you’re wondering about the name Mrs. Calabash, I was too. Derek says it is from the great comedian, Jimmy Durante, who always said: “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are” at the end of his performances. “I just really like the name,” Derek says. Calabash also happens to be a type of gourd, which fits perfectly in with the cooking theme of the show.
At the end of our interview, I was introduced to both Terry and the other member of the technical crew, Francois Desormeaux. As I was gathering my things, Terry and Maggie were chatting excitedly about the best ways to film her cooking on the stove. It’s obvious that this unique endeavour is a labour of love and will be worth tuning into on a Friday night.