It’s Not Just Food

Reviewed by Liza Bolen

What makes talking about food so immediately engaging? How has our relationship with mealtime managed to step aside from our basic biological needs and capture our imagination so vividly? Today it feels as though we collectively have never been so conscious of what we put on our plates: there seems to be an incessant burgeoning of television shows—or, in fact, entire networks—devoted to the culinary arts; an emergence of countless blogs and magazines dictating food trends, diets, and go-to ingredients; and, in cities and small towns alike, a growing number of cafés and restaurants that attract their curious clienteles by experimenting with unique ingredients, tastes, and techniques. This fascination with food has transpired in literature: in both French and English spheres of Canadian literature, there is a rising interest in the field of “literary food studies,” in which authors integrate the culinary world into their narratives. In Quebec, for example, we are observing a growing affection for the theme of restaurants and restaurant kitchens, as demonstrated by the very positive reception of Stéphane Larue’s novel Le plongeur (2016) and Rosette Laberge’s Chez Gigi (2017). Publications in English have also shown a desire to engage with the many facets of food, whether it is used for its Proustian ability to trigger memory, as in Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes (2001), or as a gateway to discussing society and migration, as in Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill (1996).

Taking a closer look at how food can be integrated into literature might in fact be the best way to consider the true depth of the subject. Indeed, food imagery goes beyond simple descriptive narration. Discussing a specific ingredient, taste, or texture has the power to do many things: it can automatically prompt our sensory memory; it has the ability to make us travel back to an incredibly specific time; and it can effectively evoke social, cultural, economic, and even political realities. Perhaps understanding the profundity and complexity of food as a field of study is what motivated Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas to re-edit Catharine Parr Traill’s 1855 manual, The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and what inspired Janis Thiessen to embark on an investigation of the history of snacking in Canada in Snacks: A Canadian Food History. And although these two books are non-fiction and therefore not presented as narratives per se, it remains that the story they tell through our relationship with food is incredibly captivating.

The Female Emigrant’s Guide is exactly what the title suggests: it is meant to act as a guide and to help you—you being a fellow nineteenth-century settler—grasp a better understanding of local ingredients, when to harvest them, and how to cook them. Yet it would be inaccurate to qualify The Female Emigrant’s Guide as purely a niche cookbook, as it offers a mesmerizing (and frankly, quite charming) dive into the archives of everyday life in the 1800s. With its extensive definitions of ingredients such as pumpkins, Canadian hare and other local meats, and, of course, the many declinations of maple (molasses, sugar, beer, etc.), and with drawings and one map, this book has an uncanny ability to immerse its reader into the universe of those who lived and fed their families in this epoch. It provides an extraordinarily accurate snapshot of a lesser-known—yet so evocative—part of Canadian history.

Snacks: A Canadian Food History also offers a historical perspective on food. However, in this work, “homemade” and “how-to” are replaced with ready-made potato chips, Cheezies, and other snack-time favourites. If The Female Emigrant’s Guide demonstrates how, in the Victorian era, food acted as a true mirror of Canadian life, Snacks proposes a much more contemporary, but nonetheless accurate, reflection of how the social sphere can have a profound effect on what we eat. Through the tales of iconic Canadian snacks, both sweet and savoury, Thiessen explains, for example, how a large migration of Eastern European populations has impacted our taste for vinegar-based chip flavours, and the ways in which class and gender played a role in creating the association between chocolate and romance. Alternating between the viewpoint of the manufacturer, the consumer, and the researcher, Thiessen’s work provides a truly refreshing perspective on a vast and rich subject that has somehow managed to stay hidden in plain sight. It is also worth mentioning that, in addition to the author’s fun and accessible style, this book is truffled with old photos and images of product advertisements, thus making this read as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

It is striking, when putting these books side by side, just how much they resonate with how we talk about food today. On one hand, Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic echoes with our increasing desire to return to DIY and locally sourced ingredients, as discussed by Cooke and Lucas in their introduction. On the other hand, Snacks: A Canadian Food History evokes our love for something quick, easy, and comforting. As we find ourselves somewhere between the two, we are struck by a sincere curiosity about how food will continue to play such a deep role in our lives, both as individuals and as a society.

This review “It’s Not Just Food” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 132-134.

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