Food history is not simply about ingredients and their preparation; it is about the cultural networks and narratives within which every step of the food cycle is embedded, from farm (or wilderness) to table. Although often overlooked in literary, historical, and cultural studies, food offers insight into topics as diverse as cultural and social identity, agricultural history, economics, geography, political movements, and health. Its story must be told by many voices.
This exhibit takes a broad approach to food history, looking at cookbooks and beyond to examine food’s development and depth of influence in Canada’s Prairie provinces. It embodies the idea of a “foodscape,” described by Juan E. and Magda Campo as “a way to talk about the culinary culture(s) of a place as defined by the interactions of a variety of factors: geography, climate and environment; religion, language, and cultural practices; history; social organization, ethnicity, status and gender; science and technology” (also quoted in Kenneally and LeBel 7).
Locating books and other materials that brought dimension to the Prairies’ complex “foodscape” was not easy. Western Canadian publications are relatively small in number compared to those from Ontario or the United States, for example, and most early Prairie cookbooks were community projects, usually cheaply printed in limited runs. Many more recipes remain in hand-written notebooks or on cards in recipe tins. Such valuable records of early food practices are often in private hands or local history museums rather than major libraries. Indeed, many food publications rich in social historical information, such as well-used cookbooks or advertising brochures, simply did not fit most libraries’ collection mandates until recently, especially given their strong association with women and domestic life. But the University of Alberta Libraries, fortunately, are home to some exceptional efforts: the Prairie Provinces Collection includes a surprising number of food-related publications, and the late Linda Miron Distad’s Culinaria Collection contains over 3000 items relating to food from around the world.
Drawing from the University of Alberta Libraries’ vast holdings, this exhibit features items that were written or published on the Prairies, as well as others that found widespread use here or were influenced by Prairie foodstuffs. This flexibility testifies to the fact that the exhibit is not meant to define a singular “Prairie” food culture. Rather, the history of food in these provinces is one of diversity, thanks to the interplay of local, regional and national politics and economics, corporate growth, and diverse immigrants who borrowed and adapted endlessly from one another, constantly defining and redefining their (often plural) identities. We have also been flexible with the exhibit’s date range. Although we generally do not include works published after 1970, we made a few exceptions for items that highlight important trends in food history.
In cutting a wide swath of Prairie culinaria, this exhibit has certainly missed a few influential titles and neglected some cultural groups or food-related activities. But our goal is to offer a “taste” of Prairie food history, and rather than apologize for omissions and oversights, we hope that they might inspire further scholarship in the field. By dividing the exhibit into four sections—“Business and Branding,” “War, Politics, and Social Engagement,” “Cultural Groups and the Opening of the West,” and “Health and Education”—we also present some viable categories for the analysis of food history and food in history. The boundaries are sometimes blurry: “cultural groups” and “social engagement” certainly overlap, for example, but these categories help illustrate how food history can illuminate trends and technology, ethnicity and nation, gender, science, and the environment.
Because of the ubiquity of their subject, many food-related texts were highly interactive: as their printed contents and handwritten marginalia testify, they might be produced and used dogmatically, collaboratively, or rebelliously. But the full history of food on the Prairies is still largely undocumented: it resides in the individual and collective memories and experiences of the women and men who travelled and settled this region, ate its produce, or marketed their wares here. The items we exhibit are the artifacts of this history, and in putting them on display, we encourage our audience to try a recipe or two and add their own voices to this unfolding story.