A culinary history of Canada is long overdue, even if most of us dont believe we have either a cuisine or a history that is profound interesting. Dorothy Duncan has given us an interesting version of what that might be with Canadians at Table: A Culinary History of Canada. Alas, this is a volume heavy on historical interpretation and light on food, because in reality, she has given us only a paleontologists history of Canadian cuisine. Ms. Duncan, who has had a long and remarkable career as a historical curator and interpreter in Ontario, is extremely knowledgeable, but she seems unaware, in a school-marmish sort of way, that shes training a macroscope on subjects for which there is more speculation, theory, and folk tales than fact. Her opening chapters about First Nations (who, as far as I know, didnt use tables to eat on) are in reality a hodgepodge of theoretical generalities and clichés that present Canadas pre-European aboriginal tribes as an interconnected matrix of peaceful, buckskin-clad shaman-ecologists living in harmony with one another and with the landscapes they lived in. This is a portrayal that no doubt suits todays overseeing boards of directors and the funding agencies responsible for simplifying our history for schoolchildren, but it is about as textured as portraying Germany as a horde of war-mongering racists, or the English as a nation of freedom-loving foresters in Robin Hood costumes. One of the reasons our aboriginal peoples are called nations is that they were as radically different from one another in resources, custom, and outlook as the landscapes in which they lived were varied. And generally speaking, taking care of the ecology, particularly its fauna, was not exactly their special general talent.
Still, if you can overlook the elementary school curriculum tone of Duncans opening chapters, and an overly confident and smooth delivery that occasionally disinforms as much as it informs, there is much useful information in Duncans book that gets progressively more interesting as she moves toward the present and has real historical materials to draw from. Someday, what she has done will be useful for an adult history of what we put on our tables, how it got there, and why. This book, meanwhile, is the victim of its own ambition. Brian Fawcett
(Books in Canada)
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From the Publisher
Canadians at Table is an introduction to the diverse culinary history of Canada. We learn about the lessons of survival of the First Nations, the foods that fuelled the fur traders, and the adaptability of the early settlers in their new environment. As communities developed and trasportation improved, waves of newcomers arrived, bringing their memories of foods, beverages, and traditions they had known, which were almost impossible to implement in their new homeland. They learned instead to use native plants for many of their needs. Community events and institutions developed to serve religious, social, and economic needs - from agricultural and temperance societies to Women's Institutes, from markets and fairs to community meals and celebrations.
One New World food, pemmican - a light, durable, and highly nourishing blend of dried and powdered buffalo, elk, or deer meat that is mixed with dried berries, packed into a leather bag, then sealed with grease - was introduced by the First nations to the fur traders coming to Canada. Small amounts of pemmican replaced large amounts of regular food, freeing up precious hunting and food preparation time and allowing more space to carry additional furs and trade goods.
From the self-sufficient First Nations and early settlers to the convenience foods of today, Canadians at Table gives us an overview of one of the most unique and fascinating food histories in the world and how it continues to change to serve Canadians from coast to coast.
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