“David Greenberg became a farmer because of a carrot” (7). So begins Margaret Webb’s Apples to Oysters. And while surely every last root vegetable matters, that particular little carrot has had a big influence; now, because of Webb’s book, its influence will be felt even more widely. Her encounter with David Greenberg’s intense desire for a truly delicious carrot (and, hence, for the perfect soil, ideal manure, etc.) prompted Webb, who grew up on a farm in Simcoe County, to begin a cross-country odyssey in search of farmers and other food producers who were looking to harvest more than an income. Many of those she spoke to, in fact, were finding making a living a very precarious business. What they do share with each other—and with Webb—is a passion for wonderful food: food that depends not on the perfect recipe (though she takes a crack at that as well) but on perfect ingredients.
She starts from the premise that “[i]n the last half century, Canadians have grown increasingly disconnected from our groceries, from our land and the people who produce our food” (3). She searched out and wrote about individuals and families who are struggling to mend that breach, and her readers are bound to finish the book with a greater awareness of where their food comes from and—one hopes—with a will to support the local, sustainable products that Webb argues are also the most delicious products available.
Over a period of two years, Webb visited independent food producers quite literally from one end of Canada to the other—one per province, plus one in the Yukon—meeting cod fishers and pig farmers, orchardists and cheesemakers. Happily, she manages to make almost all of the stories interesting, though some are more engaging than others.
One of the best is “Going Whole Hog,” which tells the story of Ian Smith, a small-scale Manitoba pork producer, who counts among his customers the province’s Lieutenant Governor. Smith comes across as a man with high standards, no free time, and not too much to say. He lives with his mother, Audrey, on a quarter-section he bought from his parents in 1994. It is clear that the author admires him (as she does all of her subjects), and is concerned about his future. I suspect that many readers will come away, as I did, wishing they could spend some time with him, wishing they could eat some of that delicious bacon he makes. The same goes for Frédéric Poulin and his artisanal cheese, and Duncan Bates’ scallops. Each reader will no doubt find favourites.
Webb is strong on the idealism, and the plain hard work, and—in almost all cases—the economic insecurity of each of these food producers. She has a gift for conveying character, as well as the bigger picture: above all she emphasizes the damage wrought by industrial food producers, whether their harvest comes from the sea or the land. She does a fine job of leading her readers through the complexities of each business as well as the economics of large-scale agribusiness. She has useful information and strong opinions about both industrial farming and its alternatives.
One bonus of the book is that each chapter features a little appendix of recipes. Though I haven’t yet tried any, many look appealing. But in many cases, the recipe is not essential. After reading about the Ambrosia apple, for example, I didn’t want a pie-full, just one crisp, shining sample in my hand.
What doesn’t she do so well? Webb was obviously faced with a dilemma about how to organize the book. The two most obvious ways, perhaps, would be geographically or chronologically. She chooses a third: the book is arranged like a menu. After the Introduction (“The Electric Carrot”) come Appetizers (oysters, dulse, scallops), Mains (cod, pig, flax, beef, potatoes), and “To Finish” (apples, cheese, and icewine). The result is a weirdly imbalanced meal, and it was hard not to think that a simpler and less coy arrangement might have given the book more coherence. Moreover, and this may be merely a personal caveat, a few of the topics left me cold: I will not be trying her recipes for flaxseed or dulse any time soon.
Sometimes, too, Webb’s self-portrait becomes intrusive. When she refers to herself, once or twice too often, as “the Food Writer from Ontario,” the intention may be self-deprecatory but the effect is pretentious. And sometimes she just told me more than I wanted to know. I’d have been just as happy not to imagine the author heading for the outhouse, clad in nothing but a pair of cowboy boots, or overhearing her and her partner Nancy discussing becoming heterosexual in order to attract the attention of an oyster-producer from Nova Scotia.
Finally, readers may find that Webb’s writing sometimes works against her. Too often the reader runs up against cliché: food is never full of goodness, but “chock full” (16); she doesn’t give up, she “throws in the towel” (52). A scallop farmer has “a boyish face and tussled hair” (55). Tousled, maybe? Too often the writing is ungainly: Webb fights a losing battle to differentiate between “who” and “whom.” But at other times the writing can be sharp and concise: “[a]s the soil starves,” she says, “so do plants” (186); and again, “[p]oor farmers, poor food, poor us” (194).
Apples and Oysters is thoughtful, well-researched, and—at best—very engaging. Whatever its limitations, it is eminently worth reading, and worth thinking about.
Gary Draper, a retired professor of English at St. Jerome's University, enjoys reading old cookbooks in Kitchener, Ontario.