Historian of Food, Indigenous Health & Settler Colonialism

Foodscapes of Plenty and Want

I’m one of the co-organizers – along with Catherine Carstairs and Kristin Burnett – of the upcoming scholarly workshop, Foodscapes of Plenty and Want: Historical Perspectives on Food, Health and the  Environment in Canada. The workshop is being held at the University of Guelph between June 23 and 25, 2013. The goal is to bring together Canadian scholars working on research projects that examine the historical relationship between food history and the history of health, medicine and the environment and, eventually, to use the papers presented at the workshop as the basis of a special issue of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (CBMH).

The program is up at the website here and you can read through the abstracts here. Registration for the conference is also FREE. To register, send an email to foodscapes2013@gmail.com.

Cooking With Primary Sources

After all the dust has settled, I plan to write a longer post about my (so far really great!) experience teaching my first ever Food History course at Guelph this past winter. For now, though, I thought I would share this excellent video that one of my students made for an in-class presentation.

The assignment was to find a primary source – but preferably a recipe – related to that week’s readings and to develop a creative five minute presentation that addresses the usefulness of cookbooks and recipes as primary sources while also engaging with the arguments being made in by the individual readings. There have been quite a few fantastic and creative presentations – often with food being provided for the whole class – but this one has so far been a highlight. Bon appétit!

The Past, Present and Future of Cookbooks

This past weekend, I was featured in a Canadian Press article on the past, present and future of cookbooks that seems to have been picked up by quite a few newspapers and online media outlets across the country, including the Vancouver Sun, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, the Ottawa CitizenCTV.ca and the Cape Breton Post among others. Aside from the odd photo, the article – “Technology enhances cookbook experience but aficionados unlikely to give up books” – includes a pretty interesting discussion of the impact of e-readers and other new technologies on the business of cookbooks.

UPDATE: Seems like the story was delinked from most of the newspapers linked to above, with the exception of the CTV.ca article (which unfortunately includes the weirdest, most unflattering photo of the bunch).

Revisiting the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’

A few years ago I published an article in the journal Social History of Medicine entitled “‘That Won Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980.” It looks at the ‘discovery’ of this unique medical condition in the late 1960s and explores what it tells us about the social construction of illness and the role of ethnic and racial food fears in colouring popular perceptions of risk.

Last year, I was asked by the Culinary Historians of Canada to write a piece for a more popular audience about the effect of this particular health scare in the Canadian context for their newsletter, Culinary Chronicles. With the CHC’s permission, I’ve decided to post it below for those of you who aren’t CHC members. If you’re interested in the scientific and technical element of the Chinese restaurant syndrome and MSG story, I would recommend sticking with my original article (which includes an extended quotation from famous Canadian Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica star, Lorne Greene). But if you’re interested in something like a short cultural history of MSG and ethnic food fears in Canada, the Culinary Chronicles piece below might be worth a read.


The Burdens of McHistory

[Cross-posted with ActiveHistory.ca]

Walking out of the subway into Yonge Station in Toronto recently, I was confronted with poster after poster bearing some strange, slightly off-putting questions about McDonald’s. These included, in big bold letters, messages like: “Is the meat fake?” “Are there eyeballs put in your meat?” Or, “Are McNuggets made from processed pink sludge?

In the end, it was the presence of other posters assuring me that McDonald’s burgers and McNuggets are made of only recognizable cuts of the chicken or cow that finally tipped me off that the posters were, in fact, part of a McDonald’s ad campaign and not some kind of PETA-inspired anti-McDonald’s stunt. The question still remained, though: who thought this was a good idea? Like the recent Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” campaign that bizarrely admitted that their food had been terrible for years (but was, supposedly, fine now), these ads seemed to remind commuters of the many reasons they’d likely developed over the years — both ridiculous and practical — not to eat at McDonald’s. What was going on here?

My search for answers eventually led me to the fascinating website yourquestions.mcdonalds.ca where, apparently, Canadians can submit questions like those plastered around Yonge Station and, within a few days, they’ll be answered by someone at McDonald’s and posted for the world to see. Initially launched this summer, the website currently contains hundreds of questions and answers that, it turns out, provide a fascinating glimpse into Canadians’ complicated relationship with their fast food and, perhaps more interestingly, McDonald’s ongoing and often failed attempts to deal with its own McHistory. (more…)

Here and Now

Yesterday, an interview I did with author and food columnist Sarah Elton about the history and future of community cookbooks was featured on CBC Toronto’s afternoon program, Here and Now. It was a great conversation, and you can listen to it at the Here and Now website.

I also highly recommend that you pick up the cookbook that we discuss, Share: Delicious Dishes from FoodShare and Friends. It’s fantastic and eclectic and, more than any other cookbook I’ve seen, reflects the real diversity of Toronto. And, if you’re looking to find out more about the history of Canada’s community cookbooks, be sure to check out the University of Guelph Library Culinary Collections. Other libraries and archives could learn a lot from Guelph about protecting and preserving Canada’s culinary heritage, so it’s definitely worth browsing through their fantastic holdings.

Canada War Cake

Last night provided a perfect example of why messy, heavily-annotated and well-used cookbooks are more important historical sources than clean, lightly used ones. After my talk on the politics and culture of food during the Second World War, the Culinary Historians of Canada provided some amazing wartime snacks. And in the process of trying to figure out whether a recipe for “Canada War Cake” from a wartime community cookbook published in 1918 would have actually been used during the Second World War, we discovered that some of the pieces of newspaper that had become stuck to the back of the oilcloth cover included references to the Nazis, suggesting that – indeed – the recipes proved to be useful during both wars!

Thanks again to Liz Driver, the Campbell House Museum, the Culinary Historians of Canada, and everyone who came out last night. It was a lovely way to spend an evening. I learned a lot from your questions and our conversations after the talk. I really look forward to incorporating some of your insights into my book.

If you couldn’t make it to the talk but want to try making your own Canada War Cake, here’s a recipe submitted by a reader of the Windsor Daily Star in March 1942.

Food Will Win the War

Just a heads up for anyone in the Toronto area: on Wednesday, November 14, I’m giving a public lecture entitled “Food Will Win the War: Eating for Victory during Canada’s Second World War” sponsored by the Culinary Historians of Canada and Campbell House Museum. I’ve been told that there will be period refreshments which will include, among other things, my favourite wartime recipe, “Canada War Cake.”

Below are some of the event details from the Culinary Historians of Canada website:


Canadian Food History Bibliography

Just to let you know, I’ve posted a Canadian Food History Bibliography as the first of what I hope to be many resources on this website. My initial goal was to create a resource for the students in an undergraduate course I’m teaching on Food History at Guelph, but I’ve since realized others might find this to be a useful resource, as well. Hopefully it is!

I realize that the list is incomplete, so I encourage you to email me or leave a comment listing any books or articles that I’ve missed. While the current bibliography focuses mostly on food consumption, I’m still in the process of compiling a separate (and much more daunting!) bibliography on food production, so I’d also welcome any suggestions of books, in particular, that you think need to be included.

History in Grease Stains and Pencil Marks

I just want to thank everyone for the fantastic response I’ve had to my recent Globe and Mail article, “History in Grease Stains and Pencil Marks” (29 September 2012, pg. F7). Although it hasn’t been posted online for some reason, enough readers have found their way to my website that I’ve received dozens of emails and comments sharing really lovely stories about the importance of cookbooks in the readers’ own memories of friends and loved ones. Most of these have arrived by email, but you can read a few here, here, and here. I’d love to hear more, and encourage your emails and comments.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read the Globe article, it’s based upon my earlier post “Speak, Recipe: Reading Cookbooks as Life Stories.” The main difference is that the Globe version is much more readable after being worked over by the able hands of a professional editor  – which was a wonderful experience, by the way – and includes an additional hint about Ben’s career.