Abstracts

Foodscapes of Plenty and of Want: Historical Perspectives on Food, Health and the Environment in Canada
Paysages d’abondance et de manque: Perspectives historiques sur la nourriture, la santé et l’environnement au Canada
June/Juin 23, 24, and 25, 2013

  1. Rebecca Beauseaurt, “The World on a Plate: Food and Fictive Travel in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Rural and Small-Town Ontario.”
  2. Nathalie Cooke, “Domestic Science, Hygiene and Food Safety in the Works of Catherine Parr Traill and Adelaide Hoodless.”
  3. Lisa Cox, “The Historical Roots of Foodborne Illnesses: Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication in Canada, 1895-1960.”
  4. Caroline Durand, “Patates, pain et lard salé valaient-ils mieux qu’un hot dog et des frites? La diète quotidienne et la santé au Québec, 1860-1945.”
  5. Catherine Gidney, “’Nutritional Wastelands’: Vending Machines, Fast Food Outlets, and the Fight over Junk Food in Canadian Schools.”
  6. François Guérard, “La recherche et la boîte à lunch: l’alimentation des Québécoise de 1937 à 1975.”
  7. Kris Inwood, Lindsey Amèrica-Simms, and Andrew Ross, “The Change in BMI Among Canadian Men, 1914-1945.”
  8. Caroline Lieffers, “‘A Wholesome Article of Food’: Rhetoric of Health and Nation in Canada’s Margarine Debates, 1917-1924”
  9. Brittany Luby, “‘No More Beaver Soup’: An Examination of the Relationship between Water Development, ‘Wild’ Food and Anishinaabe Parenting Practices, 1900-1975.”
  10. Joshua MacFadyen, “The Chemistry of Food: An Environmental History of Biotechnology and Synthetic Fertilizers in Canada, 1891-1940.”
  11. James Murton, “Following the Body Through the Early Global Food Chain, from Nova Scotia to Britain.”
  12. Beverly Soloway, “‘mus co shee’: Indigenous Plant Foods and Horticultural Imperialism in the Canadian Sub-Arctic.”
  13. Catherine Anne Wilson, “‘Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?’ Harvest Meals and Foodscapes of Plenty in Rural Ontario.”

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1. Rebecca Beauseaurt, “The World on a Plate: Food and Fictive Travel in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Rural and Small-Town Ontario.”

At the dawn of the twentieth century, residents of rural and small-town Ontario faced a barrage of criticism from politicians and social critics who viewed their societies as anti-modern, culturally-backward, and technologically deprived. While some communities were indeed struggling, others were thriving. The small towns of Tillsonburg and Ingersoll, for instance, located in Oxford County approximately 200 kilometres southwest of Toronto were, in many ways, the direct opposite of what outsiders considered “dour small-town life” to be. Both male and female residents enjoyed active social lives with a diverse range of leisure options available to them. Increasingly, a number of these amusements were incorporating trendy “around-the-world” themes and features. Travel clubs, garden parties, and fundraising fairs, in particular, became choice venues for mimicking cultural practices, such as preparing “traditional” grub.

Food often played the starring role at these events as participants strove to display a more “cosmopolitan ethos”[1] through the consumption of what they perceived to be exotic and atypical cuisine. Eating potato cakes, pretzels, and watermelons, for example, allowed participants to briefly “travel imaginatively” to Ireland, Germany, and the American south. Building on recent studies of colonialism and consumption,[2] this paper will illuminate how rural and small-town Ontarians enjoyed incorporating so-called “ethnic foods” into their leisure activities as a way to debunk the myth that they belonged to close-minded societies devoid of cultural enlightenment. Examining the avenues through which ideas for “fictive travelling” were communicated to rural citizens also suggests that links between city and country were actually much stronger than previously assumed. Indeed, by the turn of the century, rural and small-town Ontarians had become eager appropriators of urban, middle-class cultures, and food was one of the more popular ways to embody notions of cosmopolitanism.


[1] Kristin L. Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 14.

[2] Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890-1940 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2006); Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium; Susan Nance, How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

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2. Nathalie Cooke, “Domestic Science, Hygiene and Food Safety in the Works of Catherine Parr Traill and Adelaide Hoodless.”

Dairy products have been the source of heated controversy during Canada’s history that included rumblings about whether Canadians would be better to spread butter or margarine on their bread, or to have access to cheese made from unpasteurized milk. We are currently witnessing heightened food sensitivities — particularly to dairy products, as well as to nuts and gluten — that prompt us to revisit the nutritional value of these products in addition to ways in which they can be rendered safer for human consumption. In significant ways, this present-day analysis follows in the footsteps of work of earlier Canadian food advocates whose research into food safety transformed not only Canadian dietary regulations but also ways in which Canadians were educated to think about and prepare food in our own homes.

My study will focus on the period of culinary consolidation in Canada, bookended by the work of two formidable pioneers of food safety in Canada: Catharine Parr Traill and Adelaide Hoodless. I will begin by noting the substantial portion of Traill’s oeuvre devoted to exploring ways to safely prepare and preserve food despite adverse circumstances in the New World. Next I will turn to the role of Adelaide Hoodless, whose research into liquid milk specifically, and campaign to usher into Canada an era of domestic hygiene in Canadian homes and domestic science education in its schools more generally, significantly directed Canadian food practice and policy to the present day.

* * * * *

3. Lisa Cox, “The Historical Roots of Foodborne Illnesses: Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication in Canada, 1895-1960.”

Outbreaks of diseases such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (Mad Cow disease), swine flu and avian influenza (bird flu) over the past couple of decades have focused a glaring spotlight on the relationship between centres of livestock production and foodborne illnesses. While a reflection of our modern, interconnected, global food system, these relationships also have deep historical roots. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, death lurked in the cups of thousands of Canadian children. Bovine tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis), a strain of tuberculosis transmissible from cattle to humans, infected thousands of children through milk tainted with deadly bacteria. The quest to eliminate this threat involved treating milk itself through a vigorous campaign to introduce pasteurization to the country. While this in itself was a long and arduous process, a larger transformation was taking place simultaneously on the nation’s farms. Beginning in 1895, the Canadian government began an active campaign to rid the nation’s herds of bovine tuberculosis. It would take several decades and millions of dollars to achieve and this paper will explore how it was accomplished. What is revealed is that the eradication of bovine tuberculosis was as much a bureaucratic achievement as it was a scientific one. The science of bovine tuberculosis, although scientifically researched throughout this period, was fairly well established by the late nineteenth century. It was thus the bureaucracy of disease control, which would undergo significant transformations until its ultimate form that saw the eradication of bovine tuberculosis.

* * * * *

4. Caroline Durand, “Patates, pain et lard salé valaient-ils mieux qu’un hot dog et des frites? La diète quotidienne et la santé au Québec, 1860-1945.” 

Les craintes actuelles concernant la nutrition, la santé et l’environnement provoquent parfois un sentiment de nostalgie pour l’alimentation d’autrefois, idéalisée entre autres pour ses avantages supposés pour la santé. Mais que sait-on de l’alimentation quotidienne du passé et des inquiétudes qu’elle suscitait ? Notre communication traitera de cette question en décrivant les principaux changements survenus dans la diète des Québécois francophones entre 1860 et 1945 et en analysant les commentaires et les conseils sur l’alimentation et la santé émis par les experts de l’époque. Nous aborderons aussi quelques considérations méthodologiques découlant du contexte dans lequel les médecins, infirmières et enseignantes observent le régime alimentaire de leurs contemporains. Comment comparer des diètes à travers le temps lorsque les découvertes scientifiques et médicales modifient les sources disponibles et que les discours descriptifs et prescriptifs sont souvent teintés par la subjectivité de leur auteur ?

En croisant descriptions de repas et de diètes, conseils nutritionnels, sources sur l’état de santé de la population et sources secondaires, nous retracerons l’impact de l’industrialisation et de l’urbanisation sur l’alimentation des paysans et ouvriers du Québec. Nous montrerons que les inquiétudes des experts sur la diète ne proviennent pas toujours des changements observés ou de la découverte d’une causalité entre la diète et une maladie. Leurs craintes semblent naître plus souvent du contexte social, politique et économique et des développements scientifiques, qui transforment la manière de récolter de l’information sur l’alimentation au début du vingtième siècle. Nous joindrons donc l’étude des pratiques à celle des discours pour enrichir et nuancer notre compréhension de l’histoire des régimes alimentaires au Canada et éclairer le rôle de quelques acteurs sociaux dans la définition des problèmes alimentaires.

* * * * *

5. Catherine Gidney, “’Nutritional Wastelands’: Vending Machines, Fast Food Outlets, and the Fight over Junk Food in Canadian Schools.”

In September 2003 Cindi Seddon, the new principal of Pitt River Middle School in Port Coquitlam, B.C., introduced healthy food into the school cafeteria. Gone were the “McDonald’s burgers and fries, KFC and Pizza Hut.”  Instead, the new menu consisted of “fresh sandwiches, bagels, macaroni and cheese, fruit and milk.”  In the vending machines Seddon replaced chocolate bars and caffeinated beverages with granola bars and fruit juices. Despite support from staff and parents, her actions were subsequently overruled by district officials.[1]  What prompted this reversal and how did fast food inundate school cafeterias in the first place?

This paper will examine the process by which school administrators in the 1990s began to sign exclusive soft-drink deals and introduce fast-food franchises into cafeterias as well as the reaction from parents, teachers, and students.  Educational and anti-corporate activists have illuminated, and decried, the increasing commercialism of Canadian schools as a result of the deep funding cuts to education since the 1980s.  Some contemporary work has examined the nature and impact of exclusivity deals in universities.  Yet there has been no systematic investigation of the entry of Big Food into Canadian public schools.

Based primarily on newspaper reports since the early 1990s, this paper examines the entrance of Big Food into Canadian schools, but does so by taking a long-term historical perspective, from the 1950s to the present for context. It looks at teachers’, students’, parents’ and trustees’ responses to this process.  It reveals some of the local alternatives that early on developed in reaction to unhealthy cafeterias.  And it uncovers the process by which provincial governments, as a result of public outcry to increasing child obesity, school commercialism, and the underfunding of schools, have begun to implement bans on soft drinks and to introduce healthy food in cafeterias.


[1] Janet Steffenhagen, “Fast Food back on school menu,” Vancouver Sun, 3 Nov. 2003, A1.

* * * * *

6. François Guérard, “La recherche et la boîte à lunch: l’alimentation des Québécois de 1937 à 1975.”

À partir des années 1930, les gouvernements fédéral et provinciaux au Canada ont lancé des recherches visant à répondre à quelques questions cruciales : que mange la population, quelles sont ses carences nutritionnelles, quelles modifications devraient être apportées à ses habitudes alimentaires? La présente communication aborde cette activité de recherche au Québec, ses résultats et sa contribution à la définition de nouvelles politiques de santé publique, de l’année 1937 lorsque les responsables sanitaires québécois lancent leur première enquête, jusque 1975 alors que sont publiés les résultats pour le Québec d’une étude pancanadienne.

Au fil des décennies, toute une série d’enquêtes ont été menées à la ville, à la campagne, à l’école, au foyer ou à l’usine, dans les boîtes à lunch ou les cafétérias, auprès d’écoliers, de familles, de travailleurs ou encore de vieillards. Ces enquêtes auxquelles ont collaboré diverses institutions ont laissé des traces dans les archives gouvernementales ainsi que dans plusieurs publications telles des rapports de ministères et des articles de revues. Pareille documentation permet d’appréhender les débuts de la recherche sur l’alimentation des Québécois, de même que les questionnements de l’époque. Les chercheurs, à l’aide d’une méthodologie d’abord approximative, ont longtemps traqué les carences avant de finalement s’inquiéter de l’embonpoint. Ils ont progressivement élargi leurs démarches à toute l’échelle des âges et des groupes sociaux, et sonné l’alarme en appelant à l’élaboration de programmes éducatifs plus énergiques.

* * * * *

7. Kris Inwood, Lindsey Amèrica-Simms, and Andrew Ross, “The Change in BMI Among Canadian Men, 1914-1945.”

The movement to higher and higher levels of obesity directs attention to its historical origins.  Mean BMI in Canada, as in the US, already was increasing in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.  In this paper we examine BMI for 40,000 Canadian male soldiers measured 1914-1918 and 10000 soldiers measured 1939-1945 in order to identify the broad contours of BMI change in relation to individual characteristics.  We establish for each period the relationship between age and BMI, and then investigate possible shifts in the relationship for particular subgroups defined in terms of occupation and location.  Our goal is to establish the change in BMI and the extent to which it may be attributed to a changing experience of particular (a) ages, (b) occupations, (c) regions, (d) urban vs rural and (e) the extremes of very high and very low BMI.  We situate the results in the context of current debate about the sources of long run obesity increase and, consequent upon this, policy choices.

* * * * *

8. Caroline Lieffers, “‘A Wholesome Article of Food’: Rhetoric of Health and Nation in Canada’s Margarine Debates, 1917-1924″

In 1886, the federal government outlawed the manufacture, importation, and sale of margarine in Canada. The product remained illegal until 1948, with the exception of a brief hiatus between 1917 and 1924. My paper surveys the rhetoric employed by both sides of the debate during this seven-year period, which saw an intense propaganda war as butter and margarine supporters attempted to influence an uncertain legislative situation. As a flexible concept with natural rhetorical weight, health emerged as a key battle cry: both sides recast their financial and political interests into this seemingly inviolable project of personal and national wellbeing. Indeed, as evolving models of food production and human nutrition intersected with an unstable economy and Canada’s new place in global affairs, the notion of “health” extended from the individual to the collective body. Concern for Canadians’ welfare encompassed concepts as varied as adulteration and hygiene, calories and vitamins, ethnicity and civilization, economics and industry, nationalism and war. My paper reviews these issues to demonstrate how food embodies the larger social trends and tensions of its time; I focus in particular on how margarine was freighted with Canadians’ confusion around food science, attitudes toward race and otherness, the reality of women’s political influence, and the emerging roles of both industry and government in dictating food choices. Moreover, as both sides appealed to the sacred importance of health, they also sought to control its definition and their respective products’ contribution to it. Margarine’s history reminds us that health is a negotiated rather than absolute ideal.

* * * * *

9. Brittany Luby, “‘No More Beaver Soup’: An Examination of the Relationship between Water Development, ‘Wild’ Food and Anishinaabe Parenting Practices, 1900-1975.”

The literature on Indigenous motherhood is quite limited. Historians have expressed interest in matrilineal societies (Mihesuah, 2003) and on Indigenous mother’s encounters with state health officials (Wachowich, 1999). Unsurprisingly, the literature on hydroelectric development on Indigenous territories has failed to address how flooding affects Indigenous mothering practices. Impact analyses are often masculinist. By focusing on how hydroelectric development compromises “subsistence” living, historians have emphasized what happened to fish and game (caught and hunted by men) and overlooked the feminist side of things such as childrearing and maternity.

My research takes direction from concerns expressed by Anishinaabe mothers after 1955, looking at changing prenatal and postnatal diets as well as the transition from breastfeeding to bottle feeding on reserves in Treaty #3.  Anishinaabe mothers have often explained such decisions in relation to the rise of methyl mercury (a spin-off effect of dam development). In the words of one elder, “There’s no more beaver soup,” a dish believed to promote quality breast milk, because of “that pollution.” Instead, this elder’s children turned to Inflac to prevent the transmission of methyl mercury from mother to child.  Anishinabek women experienced hydroelectric development on the Winnipeg and English Rivers differently than husbands, brothers, uncles and fathers. Here, I ask: how did hydroelectric development change parenting practices? What happens when breast-milk becomes poison?

* * * * *

10. Joshua D. MacFadyen, “The Chemistry of Food”: An Environmental History of Biotechnology and Synthetic Fertilizers in Canada, 1891-1940.”

In 1891, a half-century after Justus von Liebig’s seminal work in agricultural chemistry, Frank T. Shutt, the newly minted Dominion Chemist, delivered a lecture titled “The Chemistry of Food” encouraging Canadians to practice “food-economy.”  This paper will focus on the work of the Dominion Experimental Farm during Shutt’s long career as chemist and director. Shutt was often overshadowed by his predecessor, William Saunders, and by the famous plant breeders who developed new varieties for the West. But whereas advanced sodbusting and biotechnology helped open a new frontier, long established regions were fertile ground for new developments in agricultural chemistry. Between the time of Shutt’s graduation from Chemistry at University of Toronto and his retirement in 1933, German scientists had isolated the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes (1888), produced synthetic ammonia (1909), and developed the industrial nitrogen fixing processes (1931) that produced the intensive and petrochemical-based agriculture of the twentieth century. Some historians argue that over 3 billion people owe their existence to these technologies. Less determinist approaches try to understand why any farmer would adopt these expensive soil treatments.

At first Shutt was wary of “commercial plant food,” and he hoped that the Experimental Farm could help farmers become independent of expensive inputs by adopting a scientifically balanced mixed agriculture. However, the interwar period witnessed more revolutionary changes in food production and the birth of what Deborah Fitzgerald has called “The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture.” By the end of his career, Shutt had joined the revolution.  The Experimental Farm developed a “nitrogen lab,” appeared in industrial journals like the plainly titled “Better Crops with Plant Foods,” and advised farmers to incorporate synthetic fertilizers in lieu of locally available, organic options.

* * * * *

11. James Murton, “Following the Body Through the Early Global Food Chain, from Nova Scotia to Britain.”

body as something which could be made healthy through the ingestion, not of food, but of a proper set of nutrients.  In doing so it remade a 19th century conception of the body as something “porous and open” to its environment, wherein a healthy body was one in sync with its environment.[1]  In this paper I will follow the body through the global food system, riding on the back of an early global food – Nova Scotian apples.  Conceiving of food as a set of nutrients able to nourish any body made the consumption of faraway foods thinkable.  But what were the effects on human and environmental health of the severing of relationships between food, bodies and environments?  Apples (and fruit generally), are an especially interesting case, because unlike earlier global food commodities (sugar, salt cod, wheat), they were meant to arrive in homes and be consumed in an unprocessed form, to appear as if they had just come off the tree.  Achieving this goal required an increasingly intense application of industrial technology and state management, in a process that changed the relationships around this particular food in both producing and consuming places.  So: how did the establishment of global food change the forces acting on the body?  How did it change the way the body was constructed?  This paper will draw on the work of environmental histories of the body, mostly concerned to date with the effects of toxins, but will ask instead what shifted in how bodies were “built up” through the consumption of food, and with what effects on bodies/environments?

This paper is derived from an ongoing research project examining the Canadian apple as an early global food, based on government and corporate records, memoirs, and interviews.


[1] Conevery Bolton Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

* * * * *

12. Beverly Soloway, “‘mus co shee’: Indigenous Plant Foods and Horticultural Imperialism in the Canadian Sub-Arctic.”

In 1743, while stationed at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s York Factory post, James Isham made a list of English words and their Cree (Mushkegowuck) counterparts.  “mus co shee” he noted, was used to describe any growing plant used as food whether indigenous or in the fur traders’ gardens. Gathering plant foods was a traditional way of life for Cree (Mushkegowuck) in the Canadian sub-arctic.

This paper argues that Aboriginal plant foodways were disrupted (and subsequently lost) by the seventeenth-century arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the far north and the introduction of a British planted-food model.  A century later the HBC began their inland expansion across Rupert’s Land bringing their cultural models with them. In the far north Mushkegowuck, with a hundred years of British contact, had already begun the transition from hunting and gathering to hunting and gardening.

The consequence of horticultural imperialism continues into the present day. Canadians living in the sub-arctic have minimal knowledge of food gathering and are dependent on limited local gardening or imported grocery store vegetables.  This lack of fresh produce has affected the diet and nutrition of those living in the Canadian north.  In addition to exploring food gathering and gardening history in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, this paper includes a discussion on the dearth of present day knowledge of Mushkegowuck plant foods and how re-discovering lost knowledge can contribute to the health and well-being of people living in the Canadian far north.

* * * * *

13. Catherine Anne Wilson, “‘Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?’ Harvest Meals and Foodscapes of Plenty in Rural Ontario.”

This paper explores the role of food provided by the host family at reciprocal work bees (barn raisings, threshing bees, quilting bees etc) in 19th and 20th century Ontario.  “Plentiful and sumptuous” meals were an expected and important way to attract workers to the event, to keep them stimulated and energized at their work throughout the day, and to pay them back for their labours.  The offering up of abundant, tasty, appropriate food not only kept workers satisfied, but also was a performance valued for its ability to entertain guests, express the host’s status in the neighbourhood, showcase the talents of farm women, and create long lasting memories.  Pie, for example was a very social food being easily divided and varied enough in its filling to suit every taste.  It was also telling of a woman’s ability in the kitchen and figured largely in stories and jokes about food at work bees. Farm diaries, cookbooks, and reminiscences are used to demonstrate the changing nature of these meals.  The timing, preparations, settings, menus, service, competitions and complaints help us to understand the importance of harvest meals in rural hospitality.

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  1. Pingback: Foodscapes of Plenty and Want | Ian Mosby

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