The MacDonalds who make punk food videos
A Port Hood woman's live-streamed baking show on Facebook has become a family affair – and a Sunday tradition for many
March 23, 2021, 11:07 am ADTLast Updated: March 25, 2021, 12:21 pm
It was a nice Sunday, the twenty-ninth day of March 2020, the year already declared the most frenzied in about a century. Two weeks had passed since the lockdown was announced and the dreadful plight of coronavirus was only starting to loom in Canada. The Atlantic coast was quieter than usual. Schools were shut. Work was remote. But kitchens in Cape Breton were busy.
Mitch MacDonald, former Canadian Idol runner-up and father of three boys, woke up at his house in Port Hood that morning full of pride and anxiety. He got ready to flat pick his guitar and play a sweet accompaniment for his mom’s baking show on her Facebook page. Mitch does pop, punk, folk, rock and contemporary music. He went with his guitar and stood in front of his parents’ house three doors away. But he could only empathize with his 69-year-old mom, a Facebook entertainer and his favourite childhood baker, Mary Janet MacDonald. She looked at her son from inside her house and couldn’t hug and greet him because of tight COVID restrictions to protect the elderly.
“It killed me,” Mary Janet says, recollecting the moment. Mitch “came to our doorstop and sang from outside for one of our shows. It was really heartbreaking, and we wanted to be with our children and grandchildren.”
Mary Janet focused on the Facebook live session she was minutes away from launching. The show had to go on. Mitch, who performed in the Top Three Tour after the sixth season of Canadian Idol, hammered on his guitar for Mary Janet’s avid Facebook followers, who will tune in to watch her bake.
Mary Janet was meticulous. Her kitchen is kept neat and tidy. She gathered all her notes and listed names of people she wanted to thank on her show. She put her iPhone on a tripod in a little room facing the kitchen. Three, two and one. Mary Janet went live on Facebook to show her followers how to cook her family’s favourite dessert – her famous cinnamon rolls – of course, with a side of mild rock and roll.
When Mary Janet’s Facebook live show debuted in late March 2020, only 300 people – wanting to learn the basics of baking from just another mamma – attended the session. But word spread about Mary Janet’s personal touch to her desserts, whipped up with her “Cape Breton hospitality” and her family’s music, and this attracted viewers from across Cape Breton. Mary Janet’s Facebook page, Tunes and Wooden Spoons – named by Mary Janet’s granddaughter, Anna MacDonald – picked up steam in just weeks as the virus kept people home. The page has more than 47,000 followers today.
The ‘virality’ of baking during a pandemic
Cooking shows have been on TV for decades, from The Galloping Gourmet to Chopped and Two Fat Ladies. The first televised cooking show in the world aired in 1946, when the celebrity TV chef Philip Harben showed how to make a lobster puff pastry. Since then, patrons such as James Beard, Graham Kerr and Julia Child have made cooking shows more established forms of TV entertainment people enjoy diving into – be it like a perfunctory rom-com or as food porn.
Canadian researcher and Dalhousie University professor in food distribution and policy, Sylvain Charlebois, said there’s hundreds of hours of cooking shows or documentaries related to food on air every day.
“It’s not climbing Mount Everest or something like that,” he said. “It allows them to dream a little bit.” And he added it’s “healthy” for both people and the economy and things have changed for the better. “With the (TV) networks in the old days, you’ve to pick and choose. A lot of them are usually in the morning or late afternoon. And most people had to be home and there’s no way to record them but it’s much more accessible in this day and age …. You get some inspiration, along with education and entertainment.”
Cooking programs have become particularly popular during the pandemic, including reality shows and competitions. The Netflix series Salt Fat Acid Heat, The Big Family Cooking Showdown and The Great British Baking Show took off even before COVID.
Social media has stormed into everyone’s lives and with COVID padlocking the masses in their homes, binge-watching has only become more compulsive. From Twitch and YouTube’s personalized “cook with me” channels to buzz-worthy TikTok food challenges, the hypnotic craving for egg-whisking and bread-kneading is only getting more feverish. Michelle Obama is the latest to join the party as her Waffles + Mochi, a family and a kid-friendly cooking show on Netflix, is kicking off in March. And to punctuate with a “cheesy” pun, that’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
The Cape Breton care and cure
For some, culinary shows are just an ever-present background sound that even treats insomnia, but for many the sound speaks solace. They would binge-devour these videos like their favourite cheddar cheese soup. For people like Holly MacIntosh, the experience is even better – almost “therapeutic,” she says. She said the feeling is calming and is nothing less than entrancing.
She’s the best ambassador Cape Breton has ever had. She promotes the culture, she promotes the entertainment, and she promotes the food.Holly MacIntosh
“I’m home a lot. And that’s why and how I decided to amuse myself,” she says. MacIntosh was diagnosed with a rare, extremely high-risk autoimmune disease in early January 2020. That was a week before COVID hit. She grew up in Dundee, N.S. and has lived all her life in her family property. At 62, MacIntosh followed her doctor’s advice not to leave her house during the pandemic. She missed visits with her children and grandchildren, who live in Halifax and Calgary. She’s been waiting for the vaccine since then and started taking to Facebook to relieve her isolation in the meantime. “It’s certainly a nice diversion,” she says.
Two months of R&R via Facebook continued. And one day she stumbled upon a Facebook page that talks baking and culture and runs with some hip music and step-dancing, hosted by a fellow Cape Breton woman – Mary Janet. MacIntosh was flabbergasted by her simplicity and relatable cooking demeanor.
“It’s fun, laid back time. There’s no pretense. No putting on. She’s very genuine,” MacIntosh says. She got hooked that Sunday and has never missed another show since. She feels that learning recipes was only a part of it, and she was intrigued by the live session, which according to her was non-controversial, community-like and cultural. She calls the Sunday live event “the highlight” of her week that helps pick up her spirits.
“There’s a lot of good things that came out of COVID and the Mary Janet Show for me is right at the top,” she says. She believes the music in the shows – in resonance with Mary Janet’s natural tone – is a cherry on the cake. “It’s like going to a free concert every Sunday afternoon because there’s almost always entertainment.”
“She’s the best ambassador Cape Breton has ever had. She promotes the culture, she promotes the entertainment, and she promotes the food.”
Mary Janet shares the same amount of pride when it comes to Cape Breton. She thinks the island exemplifies hospitality and music. In fact, she’s partnered with many guest musicians from the area, including her most recent collaboration with the Mi’kmaq fiddler Morgan Toney, and tries to feature them on her shows. The land might also have something to do with Mitch becoming a star singer. Mitch said he felt the music has paired well with the food on the show. The slogan of the Inverness County municipality is, it’s the musical coast, Mitch boasted with a grin. Cape Breton “has a lot of talent per capita, a lot of success and musicians from the area,” he said. “People just latched on to that.”
Mary Janet will always have her musician picked for the week. Her shows run for a couple of hours on average. And she was the first to recognize her show was more than just baking. Her Facebook followers range from cancer patients to NASA scientists. And all the way from Europe, Australia and New Zealand to Ontario, Halifax and Cape Breton.
“So many are saying it’s giving them a little peace during times it’s so scary for so many,” Mary Janet says. “I’m getting as much out of it as I’m giving them.”
Tracey McGuire lives in Ailsa Craig, Ont. and she’s never been to Cape Breton. She says Mary Janet has inspired her and she can’t wait to visit the island after the pandemic. She says Mary Janet’s warmth and sociability reminds her of the host of the Food Network program Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, and her baking takes her back to her days with her Scottish grandma.
“It was very familiar to me. When you make it with love, everything turns out and it doesn’t matter,” McGuire said. “It’s like sitting with an old friend in a table even though you’re on the internet.”
Every Sunday I’m either grinning or crying watching the show because I’m spending time with her and I’m thinking, in the pandemic on the other side of the country that I get to visit mom’s kitchen. How lucky am I? And it all started with just a little Facebook post.Margie MacDonald
McGuire is 57 years old and had a series of personal losses in her family last year. She says the pandemic has meant a constant fight against loneliness. “We’re missing everybody, we’re missing hugging. We’re missing getting together as a family – things we took for granted.” McGuire also liked learning about Cape Breton food. And Mary Janet’s special Christmas pork pies – made with no pork whatsoever – are still an enigma in McGuire’s mind. Mary Janet’s live show acts as a stress buster for her that she watches the show every week with her husband. “My husband likes it because he knows how happy I am,” she says.
“She’s a born hostess and she’s there to entertain … she’s got just a lovely way – ‘nothing too much trouble,’ ‘c’mon I got an extra plate,’ kinda thing.”
Her family is all she kneads
Mary Janet stands as a true inspiration and is always on the lookout to make the world better, says her daughter, Margie MacDonald, who lives in Calgary. Margie missed Cape Breton and her family when the pandemic began. So she posted a message on Facebook, asking her mom to make her cinnamon rolls virtually. She tagged her mom on Facebook and soon the family reacted to it. Everybody helped set the stage and Mary Janet performed on Facebook – live – for the first time. Initially, Mary Janet wasn’t the most comfortable on Facebook. “I’m not a tech person but I’ve learned a lot. If I’ve a tech issue, I’ll master it the next time,” Mary Janet says.
What the family perceived as a one-off event turned into a Sunday afternoon routine. Sundays meant only church, but soon there were cinnamon rolls as well. She has baked – cookies, cakes, desserts and breads – all her life because she wasn’t able to afford to buy desserts for her seven children. She worked for 30 years as a secretary for a school board in Cape Breton, moved to Calgary for a couple of years and returned to Halifax to work as a caregiver for a home health care service provider.
Margie teaches math in high school and likes being the initiator. “It’s like this Facebook grandma came along at the right time to just make Sunday even brighter for so many of us,” Margie says. “There’s so many baking shows that have higher production quality. And here you’ve my mom going live with her phone …. Every Sunday I’m either grinning or crying watching the show, because I’m spending time with her and I’m thinking, in the pandemic on the other side of the country that I get to visit mom’s kitchen. How lucky am I? And it all started with just a little Facebook post. And I think it truly shines away on what one person can do.”
The first time Mary Janet ever thought of spicing up the show with music was when she threw her bread into the oven for 20 minutes and wasn’t sure what song to play next. Mitch, with brothers Gordie MacDonald and Brennan MacDonald and sister Kelly MacDonald, decided to pitch in. Her husband, Cecil MacDonald – a shy customer – helps Mary Janet in everything from lighting to furniture. Margie minds merchandising, and Mitch’s wife does administration.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this had it not been for each and every one of the children,” Mary Janet said. “They all have different roles to play.”
COVID was a scary thing for Mary Janet’s family, but the Facebook show “was godsent,” she says. “It opened up a whole new world.”