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Book reviews

Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, Eds. Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J Korinek and Marlene Epp, University of Toronto Press, 2013, 459 pages

  • Barbara Santich

The editors would like to acknowledge their own involvement with Edible Histories. Nathalie Cooke, the founding editor of the journal, has a chapter in this reader. Further, its opening chapter makes reference to CuiZine and to Cooke’s own food history volume, What's to Eat? (2009). Nonetheless, we felt it important to run a carefully considered review. Notable, and notably unconnected with the project, Barbara Santich offers us a keen insight into, and critical distance from, this tightly-knit scholarly community.

Corps de l’article

The editors of this collection, illustrating diverse facets of Canadian food history, are to be congratulated for producing a most valuable and versatile classroom text. Not only do individual contributions serve as exemplary models of the food history research essay, but many include a detailed methodology and description of resources, demonstrating the vast range of possibilities available to food historians.

The 23 thematically organised chapters take the reader from the experiences of immigrant settlers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to contemporary multicultural society and demonstrate multiple interpretations of the role of food in a diversity of settings, both rural and urban, in different ethnic and social milieux. While a work such as this can never have the coherence of an over-arching chronological narrative, what it offers in return is the extraordinary richness of a series of snapshots, specifically focused as to theme or argument and also to time and place - which can be as tightly defined as Alberta in the spring and summer of 1990 or Jewish Montreal in the second half of the twentieth century. If Canadian food history can be viewed as a bushel of apples, each chapter is an individual fruit.

Such an approach, however, is consistent with the editors' aim of bringing together current research “on food topics that generate new understandings of or shed new light on the Canadian past” (9) and, through this, providing “critical contexts for assessing contemporary understandings and debates” (6). In this context, James Murton's chapter on the activities and strategies of the Empire Marketing Board in the 1920s and 1930s is not only a meticulous case study of the exporting of Canadian apples to the UK but also offers insights into the development of global food systems and the forces behind the trend towards standardisation of agricultural produce.

Given the similarities between the two countries in terms of settlement and colonisation, several chapters have resonance to Australian experiences. Ian Mosby's chapter on the introduction and promotion of Canada's Food Rules in the 1940s, and the role of scientists, doctors and nutrition experts, echoes some of the history of Australia's nutrition reforms of the same era. On the other hand, the food exchanges that occurred between indigenous inhabitants and settler society, which encouraged, according to Alison Norman, both assimilation of First Nations peoples and transformation of settlers from Britons to Canadians, occurred to a much smaller degree in pioneer Australia.

Unintentionally, perhaps, this is very much a women's history. Only three authors are male, and perhaps it is significant that their chapters take a more egalitarian approach. In most chapters, it is the roles and contributions of women that are highlighted - as cooks and providers of food, as partners in food exchanges, as promoters of a particular ideal of womanhood, as guardians of cultural identity, as transmitters of tradition and as community builders. These roles and contributions are certainly worthy of serious research attention, but the consequence is that men are somewhat marginalised and have a very shadowy presence in the book; they are absent from the kitchen, sit silent at table and play little part in many of these historical vignettes. And yet we know that men played a significant role; Alison Norman's chapter records that men learnt from the indigenous inhabitants how to find sugar bush and make maple syrup. Of course the editors had no obligation to produce a more balanced compilation and the various contributions reflect the current state of research, but perhaps in five years’ time a sequel might focus more on the roles of men in relation to food.

While recognising that the book is implicitly addressed to a Canadian readership, as an outsider I would have appreciated a map pinpointing obscure (to me) places such as Peace River and Canora, Saskatchewan. I also regret the lack of index. Cross-referencing of other chapters is a commendable feature of most contributions, but given that the same resources might be used by more than one author and that similar themes recur in different chapters, a comprehensive index would be desirable.

These minor reservations aside, Edible Histories, Cultural Politics is a worthy tribute to the robustness and vitality of food studies research and scholarship in Canada today.

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