Book Review Week – Feasting and Fasting

Feasting and Fasting – Canada’s Heritage Celebrations
Dorothy Duncan
Dundurn Press, 2010, 351 pages

Anybody who has every met Dorothy Duncan can agree on two things – that’s she adorable, and that she knows more about the food history of Canada than all the rest of us put together.

Arranged chronologically through a calendar year, Feasting and Fasting looks at the foods and food-related traditions that go with various holidays celebrated by Canadians. From Robbie Burns Day, Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year to Thanksgiving and Christmas, every holiday includes specific dishes or activities that include (or exclude) food. Duncan also examines some seasonal activities that centre around food, such as the running of the maple syrup in early spring and events like picnics and garden parties in the summer.

Each entry offers a bit of history and explains the evolution of the related feast, particularly as it applies to new immigrants in Canada in colonial times who might not have access to traditional ingredients.

While there are some nods to other cultures (Chinese New Year, Purim and Passover), the content may be a bit too Euro-centric for many modern readers. This is undoubtedly based on historical context, but the inclusion of Guy Fawkes Day and the exclusion of Ramadan and Eid (a feast and a fast in which food is a central element) seems slightly out of touch with what we actually celebrate today, and may make non-Caucasian readers feel left out. Missing too are the feasts and celebrations of the First Nations peoples, likely because we have ignored them in favour of European traditions.

However Duncan is writing in an historical context, with much of her source material being from earlier eras to show how these celebrations were adapted to life in Canada, so I can’t fault her too much. But maybe a second volume featuring the other cultures that make up our country should be on the agenda.