A Food Writer’s Favourite Food Books

fashionable880If you ask most people, their best-loved books about food are probably cookbooks. They likely don’t actually cook from these tomes but rather consider them light entertainment, to be read in bed, provoking dreams of meals they’ll probably never prepare. As someone who spends most of the day reading and writing about food, books have to have a unique point of view or subject matter to catch my interest, and especially to earn a permanent spot on my shelf.

These are a few of my favourites, chosen mostly for their diversity in demonstrating different styles of food, cooking and eating. There are no celebrity names here, no flashy TV shows to help sell these titles, and no well known food writing personalities, but I think they cover an interesting cross-section of food writing and food history.

bakingbioBaking as Biography – A Life Story in Recipes by Diane Tye
What if the person whose cooking you most admire actually hates to cook? Diane Tye relates the story of growing up as the daughter of a minister in 1970s New Brunswick. Her mother, responsible for preparing food for weekly church functions, drew on recipes from various sources depending on who she was cooking for. Tye’s narration is sometimes clinical, observing food trends as they related to social norms, and sometimes familial and romanticized as she discusses her mother cooking dishes for the family. The book is often uneven as Tye relies too much on interviews with family members as opposed to either strict analysis or her own personal memories, but it’s such a vividly accurate picture of foodways in Atlantic Canada that it is one of my favourite food books.

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Summer Reading – Lunch With Lady Eaton

Lunch with Lady Eaton – Inside the Dining Rooms of a Nation
Carol Anderson and Katharine Mallinson
206 pages, Ecw Press; April, 2004

When the first department stores opened across the country, they were considered to be (as they sometimes still are now) the death knell for small Mom & Pop stores that specialized in one niche market. And while some department stores like Wal-Mart continue to expand their grocery offering, higher-end shops have all but wiped out their food and grocery departments to specialize in higher-end luxury goods. But there was a time when Canadian department stores not only sold every dry good item imaginable, but they also made and sold food, both in their restaurants and as grocery items.

Case in point would be the long-defunct Eaton’s. The beloved Canadian department store chain began as a dry goods and hardware store under the guidance of founder Timothy Eaton. Early on, the store included coffee shops and restaurants in addition to a massive food hall. Eaton’s made their own baked goods on site, they owned dairies in rural Ontario which supplied the cream for the store to make its own butter, and by the early 1900s, the lunchroom of the downtown Toronto store was serving 5000 meals a day.

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The Food Emporium

When I was a wee thing, one of my greatest delights was stopping at the bakery counter at Simpson’s where my Mom would buy me a gingerbread man. Simpson’s was an old Canadian department store, at that time paired with Sears (old folks referred to it as “Simpson-Sears”), and then later bought out by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The bakery and candy counter at the Simpson’s store in Halifax was right by the main doors that opened onto the city bus depot, convenient for anyone who had to switch buses to get to where they were going.

In those days, upscale department stores stocked a huge variety of sweets, particularly penny candy, and as a kid, it was a place of true wonderment. I’d clutch my gingerbread man tightly all the way home, careful not to let an arm or leg break off before I could eat him.

At some point in my early teens, Simpson’s moved to the other end of the mall, and Sears took over the space, removing the candy and bakery counter and forcing a bit of a trek for anyone who wanted a gingerbread man or a bag of Chinese Chews for the bus ride home.

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