A while back, I purchased Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover's Tour of Canadian Farms by Margaret Webb. I bought it at a great bookstore I was introduced to by my favorite Canadian, Octopus Books, in Ottawa. And everything I recognized in the book about Canada I know as a result of her. And I am grateful.
The read was wonderful. Not only is it a book about food (of course, I love that), and Canada (I love that), but it is, quite matter-of-factly, a book by a lesbian. (Or at least someone in a same gender partnership.) When did we get so matter of fact, I thought, as I read along about the author and her partner, Nancy? How wonderful. And then I thought: ok, this is one big difference between the US and Canada; they have a clue that this is a human rights issue and so even though they have their fair share of bigots, well, it is just different. Maybe it's catching?
The book is also wonderful for other reasons,including the smooth and articulate writing, and the wealth of juxtapositions. Scallop farming, I have to say, surprised me. Flax -- I knew about its role in bowel regularity and its healthy features, but I did not know that I may know this in part because I am influenced by Albertans who live right next to Saskletchewan where the transformation of flax to a marketable health food is saving some farmers. Canada is, it turns out, the leading producer of flax -- and was once (and apparently not any more) disproportionately constipated. Who knew? I did know PEI (aka Prince Edward Island) mussels were a big deal, but the oysters (not really my thing), well, hmmm. Famously, it turns out, Colville Bay oysters. And at they are most famously available at Catch in Calgary? (I have a vague memory of having been there once upon a time,many years ago.) I knew that the mere mention of "Alberta beef" seems to make some people drool, but I did not know how at risk the farmers and ranchers are, and how what the phrase means may be being saved by those who actually grass feed cattle in the southern foothills. I have, indeed, been tempted by the restaurant where Webb finds dandy Alberta beef -- again in Calgary -- River Cafe. I will go there before I die. I knew that Sasketchewan is cold and Manitoba land locked, but not about pork in the latter or the sudden shout of blue that comes with the brief blooming of enormous flax fields in the former. And I know the taste of ice wine and was pleased for the paragraph about the decision that led to the creation of Henry of Pelham's Catherine Brut Rose (a sparkling wine from the Niagara region). And the cheeses, oh the cheeses. Yes, I have been to the market in Montreal and bought the cheeses. (Not to mention Kensington market in Toronto and . . . ) Descriptions of Yukon gold from the Yukon Territory were a reminder that sometimes a name is more than just an advertising gimick, though marketing is, indeed, key. Yes, I mean Yukon Gold potatoes. And depictions of hte effort to grow food well north of where it strikes me as even reasonable to try were inspiring.
Just as I learned loads of wonderful things in this book about those who farm (and the author is a product of several generations of Ontario farmers, soon to lose their land and mourning that), I learned an occasional awful thing about industrial agriculture and its human consequences -- or was reminded of awfulnesses I vaguely recognized. Canada, it turns out, ranks well behind the US and Europe in farm support; see pp. 135-136. And there is what the author labels a day that "lives in in some infamy":
"when Environment Canada recorded pesticides raining from the sky across the provincial border [from Saskatchewan, the province Webb is discussing in the chapter in which this quotation appears] in the grain-growing belt, in Lethbridge, Alberta." (p. 144). The book, too, mourns the author's father, a victim of what she now suspects is the result of pesticide use, and was a puzzling dementia so a loss even before his death (after an autopsy, it turnedout to be Parkinson's dementia.)
So Apples to Oysters is about both hope and loss. Woven through the farming and interviewing and eating and cooking Webb is offering readers a paean to the local, to the manyness and wonder that is Canada, and a serving of hope that the scourge of industrial agriculture will not demolish all that is beautiful and possible. The horrible realities and sadnesses, the backbreaking work of gardening and farming, and the risks, are never avoided or toned down. The book is a tour of the nation -- every province gets its due. And it is filled with recipes which remember the connection of farm to table. While not unduly romantic, the book is definitely about love.
For most Americans, we know little about the world(s) above the 49th parallel. It is poorly reported here, we fail to learn about it in history classes or current events, and we assume all too often that those worlds are just like the US -- and forget the complex ways our histories (and presents) are entangled. So, we should read this book. For Canadians, too, this will, I suspect, bring the bittersweetness of new knowledge, both sad and hopeful. Only part of that knowledge, of course, is about the many ways worlds are connected across the dark lines on maps.
Read Apples to Oysters. Do.
For another review, click here or here or here. Yes, reviews from across the very nation she tours! And yes, skewed just a little bit toward Alberta. . . And the last one has the best quotation of all: Webb is the Stuart Mclean of Canadian food writing."