Ever notice how many used bookstores there are in Montreal? Seems like every couple of blocks you stumble across one, almost as many as your average 905 crams in the Timmie’s. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually one of my favourite things about the city, and I usually return with a couple of armfuls whenever I go. It’s started a bit of a hoarding problem: I’ve got half of the Time Life collection of Cuisines of the World, including a copy of MFK Fisher’s volume on France that took me months to find.
But sometimes this pays off. I came across a beaten-up copy of a book called Much Depends on Dinner at Cheap Thrills on Metcalfe and Sherbrooke when I last went. It looked interesting enough, a book about “the extraordinary history and mythology, allure and obsessions, perils and taboos of an ordinary meal:
You’ll discover the religious significance of pouring milk over your cornflakes, the overwhelming importance of salt to the auto industry, and dozens of other astonishing and stimulating facts. After reading this book, dinner will never seem routine again.
Alright, so it sounded a bit overzealous. But it was cheap (two bucks) and written by a Canadian (Margaret Visser). How bad could it be?
Pretty damn astonishing, in fact. I’m only a third-ways into it, but even at this point find it safe to say that this book is remarkably similar to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.What’s near-remarkable was that it was published in 1986 by Mclelland & Stewart, twenty years before Pollan’s seminal food politics novel.
The premise of Visser’s book is the history, journey and political significance of nine basic ingredients she lays out as a typical, North American dinner. It’s a pre-Pollan examination and indictment of the North American diet, but without the sparkle of Pollan’s dialogue or Joel Salatin’s jovial character. She’s got some of the big players Pollan wrestles with (corn, salt, chicken) and some others that I’ve yet to read (ice cream, lettuce, rice, lemons).
In no way is this a damper on Pollan’s work. In a lot of ways in fact, I think he deals issues brought up in Much Depends on Dinner a hell of a lot more entertainingly and, more important, critically. Which is important when you’re trying to convince a readership of why its current attitude towards food needs to change if the industrial food system is ever going to follow suit. But with what I’ve read so far, I think it’s fair to say that the success of Pollan’s ideas owe a lot to Visser’s earlier work. I wonder if he’s read it.
(From Petit Pear)