Book Review – What’s to Eat: Entrees in Canadian Food History

What’s to Eat? Entrees in Canadian Food History
edited by Nathalie Cooke
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009, 310 pages

I appear to have gotten seriously distracted from “book review week” but this is the last of the lot. I saved it for last because it’s actually my least favourite (which might explain the long delay in writing the review).

I’m not saying that What’s to Eat? is bad, it’s just very, very dry. While it runs the gamut of topics from First Nations cuisine to the introduction of chocolate in Canada to the demographics of cookbook usage in Quebec, this collection of essays about Canadian food is, at its base, a collection of essays, in food studies, that are approached from a predominantly clinical, statistical point of view.

So while the topics themselves are interesting; the rise and fall of red fife wheat; the debate on whether there is a “Canadian” cuisine, and what it consists of; the history of the tourtiere in Quebec, there’s not a lot of excitement in the writing itself. And I can’t help feeling that there should be.

In the piece entitled “Stories of Traditional Aboriginal Food, Territory and Health”, author Margery Fee discusses the long history of Aboriginal cuisine, how it interlinks with Western foodways, and how it has been displaced over the years through residential schools, destruction of traditional hunting lands, the relocation of reservations by government, and by technology. Fee clearly feels concern for the situation and the practices (such as residential schools forcing Aboriginal children to eat a Western diet), but keeps her distance in terms of emotional commitment. This is the standard approach for essays such as this, but as a reader, I want more than a dry, clinical stating of facts and figures.

A comparison of historical Canadian cookbooks by Nathalie Cooke (who also edited the collection) is similar, right down to the stated conclusion at the end that determines that Canadians are not losing the tradition of the family meal, that there have always been challenges in keeping everyone happy at the dinner table. The writing is concise enough, and the author clearly knows and likes her subject matter, there’s just nothing about it that makes the reader truly care.

Ultimately, What’s to Eat? is likely only to appeal to readers with an existing interest in food history and food theory. Even though many of the topics are ones that we as Canadians should know and care more about, there’s nothing in the writing to grab readers and make them care.

My suggestion would be to read the essays selectively based on personal interest, and use them as a launch pad for further exploration into particular topics.