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Book Reviews

The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork, Edited by Christina Palassio and Alana Wilcox, Coach House Books, 2009, 36 pages

  • Carolyn Levy

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The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork describes how by winning the geographical lottery, Toronto matured into a complex network of food producers, suppliers, and distributors. This collection of essays invites us to eavesdrop on the dialogue that has been taking place between the City of Toronto and its diverse food community. Present in the dialogue are strong voices that reveal the sometimes difficult relations between food entrepreneurs and producers and city policies. In “City of Snacks,” Janice Wolfe decries the typical law-abiding Torontonian for not rebelling against the city’s control of food carts in terms of what can be sold (originally only hot dogs) and how food is delivered (important to note is the fact that Toronto now has a thriving market for food carts). In “Revisiting Victory: Gardens past, present and future,” Lorraine Johnson reveals how an attempt to plant 24 fruit trees in a public park was thwarted by “naysayers” who feared fruit stains, an onslaught of mosquitoes and rats, and an increase in taxes to pay for the water to keep the fruit trees alive. What seemed like a good idea—to bring food production into public spaces—turned out to be a hair-pulling exercise in policy and community negotiations.

Food activism is the focus of this collection. The book’s editors hoped to “root the talk of food in [their] own city” (9) and focus that talk on “What can I do?” rather than on “What are other people doing?” (9). The essays in this collection do encourage the reader to ask what can be done. Chris Nuttall-Smith writes about quasi-legal city eggs that taste substantially better than their grocery store counterparts. Jason McBride describes how The Stop (a community food centre) fights poverty with food. In “Not Your Grandmother’s Pantry,” writer Amanda Miller outlines the garden and food tasks to be undertaken in order to eat seasonally and locally. Complete with recipes and website addresses for local food suppliers, Miller’s essay challenges us to cultivate new relationships with our pantries.

Reading through these essays, I often wondered what my own food community (Vancouver) would sound or look like compared with Toronto. What voices would be raised in Montreal? Halifax? The idea of capturing the diverse voices that make up the Toronto food community is a good one. I just wish that the individual essays were organized in a way that promoted more dialogue between them. To use a dinner menu to organize the essays seems, at first glance, an appropriate organizing principle. But using categories such as “antipasto,” “primo,” “secondo,” “cortono,” and “dolci” is confusing. The reader feels a lot like a diner sitting down to read a menu in an unknown language and trying to make out where to start or what to have. The essays in The Edible City, however, are worthy of much more than running an imaginary finger along the menu selection. The voices in the collection beg to intersect with one another. Rather than a menu, I would like to see a map of Toronto included in the collection. Is it perhaps a little Toronto-centric to assume that the reader knows where “the Danforth” is located? As outlined in Brendan Cormier’s essay “Bringing food to the street: Strategies for ubiquitous food markets in Toronto,” the geography of the food community is just as important as its members.

Wayne Roberts’ (Director of Toronto’s Food Policy Council) excellent essay, “How Toronto found its food groove,” unfortunately comes at the end of the book, listed under “dolci.” This is a misstep on the part of the editors, as Roberts’ essay could also provide a way to formulate a dialogue within the collection. Just as Roberts longs to see someone take on a leadership role in what he calls the complex “mobile food web,” these essays seek a way to relate to one another beyond a gastronomical designation on a menu card. But this is a minor quibble. The fact that Torontonians care enough to talk about food in their own community, regardless of political, economic, or social position, is something for all of us to think about.

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