With two small people on the go, I haven’t had much time for my summer reading list. But when I do read, it is often on the topic of food history – even better, Canadian food history. I suppose this makes sense, given my love of fermented foods; this method has sustained human nutrition throughout recorded time!
Lately I have been working my way through a collection of essays, Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History. Since there has recently been buzz about the updates to Canada’s Food Guide, I have particularly enjoyed Ian Mosby’s essay from this collection.
Mosby is focused on the original Food Rules. This document was first released in 1942 and focused on the needs of a country at war, but was only able to draw from a modest understanding of nutrition science. We forget how recently things like minerals and vitamins have been discovered, and how much we still need to learn about how the human body works with food. But what we eat is determined by more than science; our personal histories, our culture, economies and politics are all tied up in what goes on our plates. Prescribing a diet for a multicultural nation as geographically diverse as Canada becomes near impossible – in the 1940s and today!
Mosby often refers to optimum health, a vague concept that drove the creation of Canada’s Food Rules. But achieving optimum health was not only the pursuit of government education programs; another essay in this collection by Catherine Carstairs focuses on the history of Canada’s health food movement and its own pursuit of ideal health through the 1960s and 70s. Where mainstream medicine failed to respond to the desire for holistic care, health and wellness industries stepped up. But not without their own problems: such a strong emphasis on an individual’s ability to achieve optimum health (e.g. through a strict diet) meant there was little consideration of systemic causes for poor health (e.g. poverty), or patience for those who failed to achieve that ideal.
As I work to help people reclaim the food skills of the past, I am reminded of how many factors tie together our understanding of food and health. We can reach back into history and find people working with these concepts many generations before us, but still have to find our own way forward. And we still need to eat!
I hope you are enjoying some of your own summer reading in these last weeks of August!