Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, Marlene Epp (Eds.), Edible Histories, and Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History

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Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, Marlene Epp (eds.), Edible Histories, And Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History. University of Toronto Press, 2012, 456 pages. ISBN 978-1-4426-1283-9, $34.95 (paperback)


In this substantial volume of multidisciplinary studies of food in Canada, the editors begin with a thorough and frank introduction outlining the promise and pitfalls of this burgeoning field of research. They address the increasing popularity of food as a subject in popular films, literature, and social media, as well as in scholarly study. Acknowledging at the outset that "Canadian food" is impossible to define, they do not set out to create a "Canadian culinary tradition or history," but to explore "Canada's diverse food cultures" from the research perspectives of their large group of contributors. The editors have organized the twenty-three essays into eight categories: contact zones, regional identities, ethnic groups, gender, commodities, politics and protests, national identities, and marketing or prescriptive programs. They also provide the background of the symposium that brought together this diverse group of scholars and their equally diverse works: some longer essays, others shorter case studies.

In their introduction the editors offer an excellent review of important recent Canadian food history publications, including, What's to Eat? Entries in Canadian Food History, edited by Nathalie Cooke for McGill Queens University Press in 2009. Edible Histories can be considered a companion piece to What's to Eat? as the editors of both works sought to bring Canadian culinary histories into the growing international conversation about food by engaging a group of Canadian scholars in a workshop on food history and then publishing their collected papers. While the 2009 volume contains earlier and perhaps more coastal works, Edible Histories is more central and prairie-driven and strongly 20th century: only two essays are pre-20th century (both 19th century), one essay addresses Atlantic Canada (Newfoundland), one British Columbia, and only two focus on francophone Quebec. Clearly there is much more research to be done in the many regions of Canada. Of course the editors of Edible Histories did not claim or aim to be representative or definitive, but are situating this work in a historiography in its early years, with a long way to go.

The history of foodways in Canada brings attention to sites of encounter, of exchange and adaptation, or of dominance and oppression. Food production, service and consumption are also crucial sites, if not at the centre, of gender history. As Marlene Epp wrote in her essay on Mennonite cookbooks, "For the first generation of immigrants in Canada, regardless of which historical era saw them arrive, foodways were the site at which old and new worlds met" (p. 174). Different essayists explore women's roles as keepers of their culture and as the central figure in the process of adaptation and survival, instrumental to the well-being of the family. From an examination of Catherine Parr Traill's experiences in Upper Canada to a study of Quebec school girls in the mid-20th century, we see women either empowered or oppressed by this role. The weight of this responsibility kept Quebec girls in their places, or was meant to, whereas, in discussing the community power of female keepers of (culinary) culture in Toronto's south-Asian community, Julie Mehta communicates a sense of a positive aspect of this role for immigrant women by citing one student's revelation, "I understand why my grandmother insists I eat her gheeladen rotis and converse only in Punjabi ..." (p. 157). Other authors examine the fight of women's organizations for fair food prices and safety, and the skill of immigrant and Aboriginal women in making do with little, highlighting the capacity of studies centred on food to valorise women's agency.

As one reads through the collection, the tensions between second-wave feminism and health food advocates, marketers, and the proponents of traditional cultural expression emerge. …