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Books on Culinary and Booze History (December 9, 2004)

book review
by Dean Tudor

Booze: A distilled history (Between the Lines, 2003, 497 pages, ISBN 1- 896357-83-0, $29.95 paper covers) is by Craig Heron, a professor of history and labour studies at York University in Toronto. This is a history of Canadian drink and drinking. After a brief introduction on how he came to write the book (he had curated "Booze: work, pleasure, and controversy" in 1998 for the Ontario Workers' Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton), he dives right into the dichotomous nature of alcohol. His intent is not to ignore the problems of alcohol but to put them into a Canadian historical context, to present a balance between the good and the evil without encouraging either side of the equation. The Greeks got it right with "nothing in excess." Thus, he has covered all the rough spots: alcohol in native communities, temperance and prohibition, public drunkenness, bootlegging, alcoholism. And he has details on the social and business stuff: industry employment, breweries and distilleries, liquor traffic, workingman's clubs, socializing, watering holes. In just about every case – good and evil – the slant is on the labouring classes as they work for breweries and distilleries, as they socialize after hours, as they behave in bars. First off, he acknowledges that drinking is a predominantly male experience: they have the right to drink. There are pictures and illustrations of women drinking, from the turn of the 19th century, but they are socializing. They did not go to bars; they did not work in the industry. They were young, and they may even have been childless and unmarried (there's no detail in the pictures on wedding rings).

This is a substantial but sprawling book, covering all of Canada. Drinking is a theme in many writings about the history of the working class. Over the past few years, Heron has uncovered a fair bit of research, presenting discussion papers at learned society meetings and history groupings. His resources include provincial and national archives, libraries, newspapers, plus the Alaska State Library in Juneau. There are almost 50 pages of end notes, a bibliography of 40 pages, plus an index. He has found copious illustrations, all black and white save the cover ad, with photographs, political cartoons, and advertisements in either the text space or in sidebars. He writes about drinking patterns and government control, the rise of the LCBO and other regulatory bodies, plebiscites and referenda, the problems of the "wets", concentrating (for Ontario) on Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, London, and Hamilton, for these are the urban areas where the labouring classes worked and lived.

Much work still needs to be done on wine and wineries, the forgotten alcoholic beverage and industry. These are poorly covered in this book, and I can only assume (based on my own knowledge) that archival resources are very spotty – or else he would have included them. He does, though, have a large list of some 15 or so topics which deserve further research (add wine to the list). For CHO members, this means we need to dig more into tavern histories and life, a history of the LCBO and Ontario breweries and wineries.

Some interesting facts: from p. 5, "Commercial producers of all kinds of booze were also on the cutting edge of mass consumerism, using increasingly effective systems of distribution, sales, and, eventually, advertising to promote purchases of their products. Alcohol beverages became one of the earliest mass-produced goods aimed at those able to buy them."
What I don't like about this book: Booze is a serious matter, yet the bumf promo from the two blurb writers make light of it. I find this out of place.
What I do like about this book: The twenty-page index is very useful, although some of the broader topics need to be expanded or identified within entries with page numbers. For example, "abstention from drinking" has 23 entries but no further details, "advertising" has 19, and "wine" has 39. Montgomery's Tavern is indexed at p. 28 in the text, but not at p. 37, where there is a historical drawing of the building. As an indexer, I know it is damn hard work for little money. The bright side: all of the end notes are indexed, which does not happen too often. Certainly, for the price, the book is a bargain wealth of booze information...

Another related book which deals with culinary history in Canada is Canada's House: Rideau Hall and the Invention of a Canadian Home (Knopf Canada, 2004, 254 pages, ISBN 0-676-97675-1, $55), put together by well-known authors Margaret MacMillan, Marjorie Harris and Anne L. Desjardins. It's a bit of a curate's egg: some parts are good and some parts are bad (mainly by omission). This is the history of the home, both inside and outside, of Canada's Governor-Generals. Here are the specs: 250 colour and black/white photos (present day and archival, mainly NAC but also Rideau Hall archives and library); 60 pages devoted to the history and architecture of the house (MacMillan), 90 pages on the gardens (including the organic kitchen garden) by Harris, and 100 pages for food and wine and recipes (Desjardins, with recipes from executive chef Oliver Bartsch and sous-chef Louis Charest); almost half the text comes from Their Excellencies Clarkson and Saul via sidebars (different typefaces and ink colours). Over the years, since 1999, the G-G team of Clarkson and Saul has transformed Rideau Hall into something more Canadian, with a Northern Garden (Canadian flowers, plants and trees, plus organic vegetables), a service of indigenous foods and wines, and a Canadian wine cellar of 4,000 VQA wines (Saul has a sidebar). While Harris covers a history of the gardens and horticulture (e.g., Lady Byng, 1921–1926, was an accomplished gardener, leading the way), Desjardins writes little on the history of Canadian food at Rideau Hall. There really wasn't any, until 1999. Now, RH is brimming with indigenous foods, with a stress on First Nation foods. From Ontario she indicates black walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, apples, peaches, plums, figs, organic greens, goat cheese, aged cheddar, and wild ginger.

What I don't like about this book: Well, there is no index, which to my mind is a grievous sin. There is not much on the Canadian wine cellar, and only one picture. The wine section goes on for too long (almost 20 pages!), since it is not specific to Rideau Hall. There is nothing on fruit wines. There is less than one page on Canadian cheeses. There are no menus, neither historical nor contemporary. And there are no notes (foot, end, or bibliographical), except for photographic credits.
What I do like about this book: There are 18 or so recipes, all with Canadian wine recommendations. You'll need to leaf through them, since there is no index to the recipes: cured salmon salad, pickerel salad, squash and pemmican flan, BBQ caribou, bannock pudding, Alberta lamb chop, fiddleheads and lobster chowder, cod cake...

Other interesting books which deal with the history of food in the USA – and, by extension, Canada – include Atomic Kitchen: Gadgets and inventions for yesterday's cook (Collectors Press, 2004; distr. Ten Speed Press, 176 pages, no index, ISBN 1-888054-98-0, $28.95) by Brian Alexander, and Something from teh Over: Reinventing dinner in 1950s America (Viking Press, 2004, 306 pages, ISBN 0-670-87154-0, $37.50) by Laura Shapiro. The Atomic book is a whimsical look back at the 1950s. There is little text, mostly of a sweeping nature, but plenty of advertising copy and original packaging illustrations. This was the period of full economic growth and suburban explosion, with larger houses and bigger kitchens. More counter space meant that appliances could come out of the closet where they had been hidden. Kitchen utensils could be left out and displayed, not put away. They became status symbols too, since the new kitchens were large enough to accommodate guests wandering through. Some of the illustrations of kitchens in this book even show a washer and dryer nearby, with plenty of space. Every family's dream... all colour coordinated. Pick pink or sea foam green... This era also produced specialized cooking utensils, streamlined designs, labour saving devices, the development of plastics, and "dream products" for the future (even a flying saucer to go grocery shopping!). The adverts also show women's attire in the kitchen, or entertaining. None of the reproductions are dated as to year, but they clearly fall within the decade. And there are no men pictured.

All of which segues into the Oven book. Shapiro, author of 2001's Perfection Salad (about American cooking, women, and the home economic teacher movement of the 1890s and early 1900s), focuses on a history of cooking and women in the 1950s, ending in February 1963 with the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the start of Julia Child's The French Chef on American television. With the labour-saving devices in the kitchen (see the Atomic book) and elsewhere in the home, women were held accountable – mainly by men – to a higher-than-ever-before standard of cleanliness and cooking at home. This was enormous pressure on housewives. An expanded media industry helped them: women's magazines and cooking magazines mushroomed and changed focus, the number of cookbooks published increased, cooking shows on radio migrated to television, the concept of "trapped housewife" was exploited, and media icons included Myra Waldo, Poppy Cannon, "Betty Crocker," Julia Child, Peg Bracken. More women worked outside the home, assisted in the kitchen by ready mixes (cake and biscuit mixes: "you add the egg"), packaged foods, and TV dinners. Men did the BBQ. No illustrations in the book, but plenty of endnotes (books, magazines, newspaper articles) plus a ten-page bibliography. This is an extremely readable book, especially the depressing section on the generally unhappy Poppy Cannon.

 

 

 

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