Mary Janet MacDonald (Photo: John Gillis).
September 22, 2021
-by John Gillis
For Oran readers who may not already be aware, the paper decided this week to bring you a story feature about one of our own beloved Inverness County residents who has attracted a large following over the past year or more with a new live Facebook show and most recently, a very popular book title called Tunes and Wooden Spoons.
Mary Janet MacDonald of Port Hood is already well-known to many in Inverness County for her role in promoting Cape Breton step dancing and music, culture and tourism, and more. However, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, her daughter Margie persuaded her to do a Facebook live demonstration of a popular family cinnamon roll recipe.
We’ll let Mary Janet tell the rest and follow through with where this has all led since that time.
“Thinking this would just be seen by my own family and a few friends and having never done live-streaming, and with no one but myself to set it up – I went live from my personal Facebook account and demonstrated how to make my cinnamon rolls. The video went viral and the love received from people around the globe was overwhelming. The personal messages received touched my heart, people alone in their confinement needed a comforting distraction, people wanting to bake with their children, people who just wanted to watch, and not bake, but just listen to my ramblings, and some feeling they could connect with me and that I was a comforting presence. Due to the attention to my first little amateur video filled with technical glitches and hiccups, I (and husband Cecil) were encouraged by our children to immediately create a Facebook page and to continue every Sunday afternoon to bring a recipe tutorial to this new-found audience. I filled it with little anecdotes, conversation, cups of tea, and some of my favourite recorded music and sometimes a live performance by son Mitchell (at a distance on our doorstep) or as we went along – some or all of the rest of our children,” Mary Janet noted.
A Facebook page was born and a live Sunday program broadcast called Tunes and Wooden Spoons (named by her granddaughter Anna MacDonald, daughter of Brennan MacDonald).
From there, from their children and grandchildren, they secured domain names, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube accounts and a website, seeing that this was something that “Grandma” should do. Media attention was immediate and astounding and even a spot on CTVs Your Morning was the icing on the cake. The program went viral and currently has more than 53,000 followers worldwide. Recipes for cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip jumbles, porridge brown bread, crispy crunch squares, apple pie and pastry, butterscotch pie and pastry, and Cape Breton oatcakes are just some of her recipes you will find online or in the newly-released cookbook.
“I am happy to share with you the recipes in my Elm Tree recipe box shown in the cover image.”
The Elm Tree box is a story within itself and tells a lot about Mary Janet’s background, upbringing, formative years, and about the person she became.
“My birth mother was Margie (MacDonell) MacDonald. She passed away at 37 leaving five young children aged two – nine and there was one infant who died at one month old. She died of cervical cancer and during her two years with that she also contracted the dreadful tuberculosis, which also took her away to Kentville where they treated TB patients. More time away from her family, knowing no doubt that her cancer would also end her life. In her short life, I’m told she made a huge impact in the community, giving selflessly by helping neighbours and friends and community in any way she could. She had a scribbler with her recipes in it that ended up with my Aunt Flora Mae and when Flora Mae died, my brother Bernie ended up with a plastic container of odds and ends. Just last year (2020), while going through the box, Bernie discovered the scribbler and gave it to me. We are told that she was a wonderful baker and cook, and also a beautiful dancer and singer. It’s sad to think we didn’t get to know her or know the sound of her voice, but I was three when she passed. Before she died, my mother Margie took matters into her own hands when she knew that death was for certain and took me over to her aunt’s house in South West Mabou (my grand aunt). That woman was Maggie Ann (Cameron) Beaton and her husband Red John Beaton. They soon became my “Mama” and “Papa.” She cared for me along with her own six children. I never really left there so I ended up with two families. My own and the Beaton family who raised me. I was so lucky. Mama baked out of necessity and if it wasn’t home made bread and biscuits and pies, it was homemade cheese and curds that she was famous for.
‘When I married in 1971 and moved to Port Hood, I was a frequent visitor to my mother-in-law’s home, Marie (MacIsaac) MacDonald. We grew very close and I learned a lot of her recipes that I still make today. They were three beautiful and resourceful women who hugely impacted my life in many ways, but definitely in my baking,” Mary Janet MacDonald noted.
Mary Janet’s program has been extremely popular with such a wide audience of people all over the globe, not only due to people being confined due to COVID-19, but very likely enhanced by the fact that people enjoy not only learning the recipes but because they are often comforted by Mary Janet’s engaging personality how relaxed and natural she appears before a camera and how she is confident and humble and yet proud of who she is and where she comes from.
Doing the program baking live, Mary Janet, along with her occasional guests, offer commentary which is unscripted. That leads to some interesting moments that people can often relate to or find very interesting.
In this example, Mary Janet is explaining some of the images that are prominent in the program and later in her new book. Again, her stories reveal very much who she is.
“Those images contain precious items that are special to me – the guitar for the singing that our family loves to share; the recipe box was a homemade gift one Christmas that Cecil and I did for the children filled with recipes old and new and passed down from grandparents. The cutting board is a homemade gift received from our daughter with the image of a lemon meringue pie recipe etched into its surface – the writing of my much-loved mother-in-law Marie – long since passed. (There are) a couple of my favourite CDs that I love to listen to as fiddle music fills my soul, having taught Cape Breton step dancing for many years; a couple of much-used wooden spoons which remind me of my love for baking, the musical symbol for my family, and even the many times I ‘threatened’ our children with a wooden spoon when they were little and misbehaving. As well, you’ll see a small crystal plate, a plate that belonged to my mother who died when she was only 37 and left five children. I was only three years of age. The plate is “the cinnamon roll” that started this (program). There is also a mug filled with my favourite King Cole tea with the island I love shown on the side, which was made by a former dance student of mine, Kolten MacDonell. Three books, a craft I had made at Christmas for the kids (we do homemade crafts for Christmas) – painted and stamped with some popular Gaelic sayings – the trio shown here was a reject, so I kept it for myself and all the seven given out to the children were done perfectly. Thus, I’m left with the reject but wanted to include it because I love the language of my ancestors but can’t speak it. Yet, it reminds me of them and finally, the fabric underneath it all is Cape Breton tartan, representing our beautiful island and so much of its history that paved my way on this earth. So, that is who I am, what I love, and it’s my story (although there is a lot more). Thank you for being on this journey with me,” says Mary Janet.
In our conversation in her living room, Mary Janet recalls the program broadcast earlier that morning and we recall her special guest for the day, cousin Donelda MacDonell, a good friend, author and talented craftsperson and storyteller.
Mary Janet has much to celebrate and be happy about. Married almost 50 years to Cecil (MacDonald of Port Hood) they live in a beautiful home on East Street in the village. They have seven beautiful children (Tammy, Brennan, Margie, Gordie, Kelly and Krista (twins), and Mitchell in addition to 12 grandchildren (from infants to 21 years old, many pictured in photos on their kitchen refrigerator).
This week, Mary Janet was also blessed with a surprise visit from her brother and his wife who live in Michigan.
“My brother Alex Roderick and his wife Rita surprised me this week (from Romeo, Michigan) and are home for the book launch on Saturday. I cannot tell you how much this means to me that they would travel so far to be there for me. I will never forget it. Cecil and I will be married 50 years on November 27th of this year and my brother Alex Roderick and his wife Rita will be married 50 years on November 4th as well. We all went out to dinner at the Glenora Distillery to celebrate this week since they won’t be around come November,” Mary Janet added.
In late August or early September, Mary Janet also saw the first edition of 4,000 copies of her Tunes and Wooden Spoons recipe book published by MacIntyre and Purcell publishers. She was fortunate that they approached her with the interest in producing the book and also that it is already selling like hot cakes. The first edition is already sold out except for enough copies for next weekend’s book launch at the Port Hood Parish Hall to be held on Saturday, September 25th, from 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Special guests at that event will be family members and musicians Brennan, Kelly, Mitchell, and Anna MacDonald along with Dawn and Margie Beaton. Another 4,000 copies of the book are already ordered and are expected within six weeks with further launch events in the planning stages for later in the fall. Mary Janet will broadcast a show on Sunday October 24th at 2:00 p.m. from The Big Fiddle in Sydney and on Friday, October 29th, she will hold a book launch now in the planning stages at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique.
Mary Janet is always quick to note that she couldn’t have had the success she has enjoyed with her program and book without the help of many friends and family members. She noted a few, but let The Oran know that it is only a preliminary list of some of the people who have been helpful – people such as her husband Cecil, her seven children, K.C. Beaton, Shelly Campbell, Denis Cunningham, local historian John Gillies, author Lesley Crewe, MacIntyre and Purcell Publishers, and many more.
Mary Janet’s daughter Margie, on behalf of the family, summed up very well something about the attraction and draw that people immediately relate to when they meet Mary Janet or listen to or watch her program online.
“This cookbook is not just about recipes. It represents the labour of love that is Tunes and Wooden Spoons. From the very first episode to the release of this book, we have watched Mom soar through this adventure with grace, humility, and kindness. She has always had this incredible ability to find time for all who love her, and now that includes her Sunday visits with her many followers. This book is just another example of her sharing her beautiful soul with the world. We are not surprised that the world loves her, how could you not? This book will only be one of her legacies. The many wonderful ways she lives her life make up the rest. We are immensely proud of her and very thankful that we get to call the cinnamon roll lady ‘Mom’,” Margie concluded.
Other interesting facts about Mary Janet MacDonald:
Mary Janet attended the St. Joseph’s Convent School in Mabou when she was a child and finished grade seven in 1964. She then attended the “new” Mabou Consolidated School (MCS) from 1964 and graduated from the Stenography program there in 1969.
Mary Janet was also employed by the Inverness County Municipal School Board in 1969 and began as secretary to the assistant superintendent of schools, Alexander Doyle. She stayed with the school board until 2002 when she took early retirement and most of those years was as the superintendent’s secretary, but once that organization joined the Strait Regional School Board, she was administrative assistant to the director of Human Resources as well as office manager.
Mary Janet then was home for a couple of years before beginning work as a title searcher for lawyer Francis Moloney in Port Hood. Following that, she went to work for the legal firm Evans, MacIsaac, MacMillan in Port Hawkesbury in the same capacity. From there she went to work in the oil sands mostly as a document controller, which ended in 2017. Once she finished with the jobs in western Canada, she took a few months off and began working as a companion/care giver for Scotia Personnel (an agency in Halifax) and was paired up with seniors who needed care. She worked two weeks on and then two weeks off and did this until March of 2019 to return home and relax for a bit. Then COVID 19 happened and before long, the launch of Tunes and Wooden Spoons began followed by the launch of the book by the same name.
Mary Janet’s birth parents were Donald and Margie (MacDonell) MacDonald.
After the age of three when her birth mother passed away, Mary Janet was raised by Red John Beaton and Maggie Anne Beaton. Maggie Anne was her grandmother’s sister.
In the early 1980s, Mary Janet released her first of two step dancing instructional videos, One Step At A Time, which was followed in 1998 by the release of a second VHS titled, Cape Breton Step-Dancing - A Family Tradition.
You can catch Mary Janet MacDonald live on her Tunes and Wooden Spoons Facebook live broadcast every Sunday afternoon beginning at 2:00 p.m. or search for some of her clips on YouTube.
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