There is a mentality to farming that defies reason to an ever-growing urbanite majority whose ties to land and food have been broken. The result of this disconnect is that an important segment of the population, farmers, have become largely misunderstood.
It is from this misunderstanding that Margaret Webb took the inspiration for her new book, From Apples to Oysters. Webb, a seasoned food writer and self-described city gal, takes her readers to eleven regions of Canada as she examines the history and origins of some of her favourite artisan foods, the impressive diversity of the Canadian food landscape, and the lives of the people responsible for producing the food we eat.
Along the way, Webb demonstrates an obvious talent for food writing, providing her readers with tantalizing descriptions of the meals prepared with the food being produced, and recipes for most dishes at the end of each chapter. The focus of the book, however, is clearly the farmers. With each chapter, Webb introduces and thoughtfully describes a unique new cast of characters responsible for some of the best food Canada has to offer, telling us stories both uplifting and sad about the people who work unceasingly and often sacrifice their well-being for what they consider to be no less than an art form. With each foodstuff explored, she compares the work of her chosen artisan with the equivalent product of an industrial food chain that tends to emphasize efficiency over quality. And with each comparison, in matters of quality and social and environmental impact, Webb wins hands down.
Webb elucidates the ethic and mindset of the passionate farmer more effectively than anyone I have read, and by doing so accomplishes three things. First, she offers an alternative to the view of the small farmer as helpless, pitiable, and backward. It is a characterization we see often in media depictions of woeful farmers with sad stories and gloomy outlooks. Webb, while avoiding the flowery portrayal of farming that is equally problematic, presents us with one more balanced. Rather than eliciting pity, the farmers Webb describes command respect, and I think it is a lack of respect for the farming profession that has contributed the public's lack of understanding of and thus, support of Canada's farmers.
Second, Webb's focus on the producers and their work also provides a method of differentiating between food products that often look the same. In my experience, a minor barrier farmers of sustainable food products face is that their more expensive products are often visually indistinguishable from the cheaper ones of their conventional rivals. I will now admit something that just isn't cool in foodie circles: I have a difficult time appreciating a difference in taste between mass-produced foods and their sustainably-produced equivalents, especially when it comes to meat. Maybe years of hydrogenated and processed everything have ruined my palate. Or maybe I'm just a cretin. But usually I pay higher prices for organic food on faith. Farmers have addressed the need for differentiation with help from government in the form of buy-local advertising campaigns. They represent a good start, but they often adopt a moralistic tone and require a leap of faith from consumers who must trust that local and sustainable equals better. Enter Apples to Oysters, where Webb shows rather than tells us that passionate farmers really do exist, and that responsibly produced, high quality food costs a lot more time and money. It is welcome education, at least for this food-oaf.
Webb's third accomplishment relates to a contentious issue in the world of sustainable agriculture. As she amply demonstrates in her book, there exist in Canada and everywhere else farmers who are dedicated to producing high-quality food sustainably. But the reply from Big Agriculture is always the same: could we feed the masses on these farming practices, or only the privileged? Webb does not address this question directly, but in exploring Canada's earlier history of small, family farms, and in providing examples of small producers producing food both sustainably and efficiently, she provides slightly more reason to believe it is possible.
So do the above accomplishments make Webb's book important? When considered alongside the flurry of books that have been written in the wake of an increased public interest in its food sources, I don't think so. There are other books on the topic, also well written, that are more comprehensively researched and more directly focused on agriculture's problems. It is a good, light summer book though, and one that all farmers should be grateful for in its attempt to get at the core of the magical things they do for society.Jordan Marr
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