Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, edited by Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, Marlene Epp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 472 p. $34.15 CND (Paperback).
This anthology of fascinating research on various themes in Canadian food history has made a noticeable splash in the historiography of the topics under investigation. It features an underlying schema of cultural hybridity (e.g. /i.e. contact zones), parameters of space (e.g. local, national, transnational, imperial, diasporic), and discourses of difference (e.g. racial, gendered) that provide analytical substance for a critical approach to the study of Canadian foodways. The preface and the introduction of this text emphasize the contemporary relevance of these historical studies, stressing that questions of culinary exchanges, cultural politics of food production and consumption, and discourses of nutrition mediated by the state, corporation, and its media have intriguing precedents in the historical narratives included in the volume. Its twenty-three research essays are grouped into eight parts, each representing a constellation of themes or a salient portion of the historiography.
A particularly meaningful chapter to scholars of religion is “The Role of Food in Canadian Expressions of Christianity” (Chapter 3, Part One), by Ellen and Michel Desjardins. This piece begins with a comparison between Canadian Roman Catholic and Canadian Protestant dietary practices (with reference to Ukrainian immigrant customs as well), moving toward an analysis of the dietary implications of key 1960s events and phenomena: the Vatican II Conference and the Quiet Revolution, as well as the diversity of immigration inaugurated by the Immigration Act of 1967 (characterized by the Points System) and the policy of multiculturalism officially beginning in 1971. The interdenominational encouragements of Vatican II led to ecumenical cooperation in hunger relief initiatives, which compensated for doctrinal dilutions according to Church leaders. The Quiet Revolution wrested control of health and education from the Church to the Quebec government, thus increasing the need for trans-valuating the former’s symbolism and engaging in interdenominational collaboration. The Desjardins take note of the corollaries of inclusion of the Points System, both in terms of religious diversity and its impact on young Christians who embrace creative hybridity, such as Catholics who conflate Lent with Ramadan (turning the former into a fast from sunrise to sunset for 40 days), and working together with a Hindu Temple, Sikh Gurudwara, and Muslim Shi’a community for the House of Friendship food bank in the Waterloo Region. (Desjardins, 77) Moreover, the demographic breadth of Canadian Christianity has increased with the 1967-1971 federal legislation, especially Catholics from the Philippines and Latin America. (75) The last analytical argument brought forth in this essay is the shifting of food from a ‘religious’ category to an ‘ethnic’ one, being concurrent with an increased “celebration of difference.” (78)
Another very significant essay to scholars of religion is “Gefilte Fish and Roast Duck with Orange Slices: A Treasure for My Daughter and the Creation of a Jewish Cultural Orthodoxy in Postwar Montreal,” (Chapter 11, Part Four) authored by Andrea Eidinger. The crucial theme of cultural hybridity is central in this insightful piece, albeit as an implicit cultural orthodoxy, reflecting early Cold War-era discourses of family and freedom (Eidinger, 198), in addition to those of Anglo-conformity. Complementary to the chapters by Sonia Cancian, Julie Mehta, Marlene Epp, and Franca Iacovetta, Eidinger’s historical and cultural analysis engages with the importance of food in the reshaping of ethno-religious identity. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the intergenerational dynamic between the protagonist of the cookbook A Treasure for My Daughter and her doting mother, characterized by faithful respect and the education in traditions to push back against over-assimilation (192-193). This is a corollary to the “greater importance attributed to women’s domestic rituals,” (202) due to the economic changes in gender roles in Jewish immigrant communities, and the re-negotiation of authenticity. Throughout the text, Eidinger asserts that the Eastern European roots of the cuisine of the cookbook are elided over (but implicitly there, as per the recipes), reflecting the complications in the cultural orthodoxy (200). This is due to the trend of partial assimilation into the discourse of Canadian-ness and middle-class values of the 1950s. Moreover, the broad discourse of the morals of Western civilization and Jewish contributions to it is key throughout the narrative components of A Treasure for My Daughter. This culinary opus proclaims the Jewish people as the originators of key Christian and North American traditions, most notably the Sabbath (called that and not Shabbat for assimilatory reasons) and Thanksgiving (as symbolically related to the Jewish harvest festival of Succoth). (196)
“Food Acts and Cultural Politics: Women and the Gendered Dialectics of Culinary Pluralism at the International Institute of Toronto, 1950s-1960s” (Chapter 20, Part 7) is an important component of the anthology, exploring the relationship between professionals who espoused pluralism and cultural exchange with post-war European immigrants through their foodways. Iacovetta uses a ‘dialectical’ approach to avoid over-politicizing or feigning hyperbole in the text, an approach open to complexities of the women’s activities and their good intentions. Using this perspective helps the reader more clearly perceive a central argument that these endeavours of mutual acculturation helped shift the prevailing discourses somewhat away from socio-politically hegemonic Anglo-conformity to one tolerant of cultural diversity, while still maintaining class and ethnic-racial hierarchies in the paternalistic sense. (Iacovetta, 360) This is a similar line of argument to Chapter 6 “Culinary Containment? Cooking for the Family, Democracy, and Nation” of her magnum opus Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada, in which the encouragement of ‘ethnic’ immigrant communities to celebrate their cultural distinctiveness while adapting to middle-class norms clashed with the intrusive Cold War state discourse of conformity and suspicion of difference. (Idem.)
Iacovetta’s Gatekeepers constitutes a solid vantage point to situate Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History in historiographical context. Foremost to consider is that there are multiple intersecting points between the two works, particularly with regards to Cold War-era themes generally, and various discourses of mid-20th century consumers and housewives in particular, addressed by both Chapter 6 of Gatekeepers (140-141) and Julie Guard’s “The Politics of Milk: Canadian Housewives Organize in the 1930s.” (Chapter 15, Part Six) With regards to a critical appraisal of Edible Histories, Cultural Politics itself, I should note that the presentation of each of the anthology chapters was thoughtful, some of which included photos that helped to clarify certain discourses of corporate and national-imperial advertising. Moreover, I agree with the relevant goals and the topical presuppositions that were expounded in the preface and the introduction of the volume, which I feel to be corroborated in each chapter comprising the book. The point the editors make in the introduction regarding the search for historical precedents for contemporary phenomena and the ongoing attempt to historicize emergent food trends I find especially meaningful (6). The reader may also notice discourses of religion and culture insightfully expressed within the worldviews of various actors and protagonists within the constituent narratives. This is exemplified by Caroline Durand’s “Rational Meals for the Traditional Family: Nutrition in Quebec School Manuals, 1900-1960” (Chapter 6, Part Two) and in the Part Three (Foodways and Memories in Ethnic and Racial Communities) essays generally, particularly Chapter 8, “Feeding the Dead: The Ukrainian Food Colossi of the Canadian Prairies,” by S. Holyck Hunchuck.
Further Reading: Iacovetta, Franca. Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada. Toronto: Between the Lines Publishing, 2006, 2009. ISBN: 1-897071-11-6.