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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Sarah Elton: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Canadian Farmers' Markets

What's old is new again in the age of the 100 Mile Diet


"Talking History" is a new biweekly series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The series focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, exploring the notion of history as a compelling form of storytelling of interest to large audiences. These articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts use the power of narrative to bring the past to life, drawing connections between then and now to show how these stories are not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today.

This week, we're presenting Sarah Elton, a journalist and author of three bestselling books about food. Her most recent book, Starting from Scratch: What You Need to Know About Food and Cooking, written for young people, is a finalist for the 2015 Ontario Library Association's Red Maple award. 


St. Lawrence Market

In a photo of a butcher stand taken at the St. Lawrence Market around 1895, two men, wearing top hats with their work smocks, stand in front of hanging rows of meat—hogs, beef, as well as game birds, strung up by their feet. An artist’s rendition of Quebec City’s upper-town at the end of the 19th century shows another market scene: freshly slaughtered geese and pheasants hanging from poles and sold alongside vegetables piled in wooden crates.

A visitor to the Quebec City market, a man named Hector Fabre, conjured up the bustle there. “The sellers could hardly keep up with the buyers,” reads his description, as quoted in Dorothy Duncan’s Canadians at Table: A Culinary History of Canada. “Busy housewives, honest stewards, bargaining over every item; demanding gourmets, rejecting and discrediting the produce, examining the carts from top to bottom to find the gem they were searching for.” Fabre concludes that “almost everyone looked happy and seemed to be smiling in anticipation, thinking of the good dinners they would prepare.”

According to Duncan, markets like these were centres for commerce and also for socializing back then. More than a century later, they still are. The last one hundred years has seen the market rise and fall and rise again. And while what we call a farmers’ market now has seen a lot of change since the late 1800s, markets today connect us to the past, while also redefining food for Canada’s future.

Byward Market Postcard

The first markets in what would become Canada were places where the early European settlers could exchange with First Nations people. It’s likely that there, new world foods met food from the other side of the ocean. The first cookbooks in the colony show how ingredients from these different food traditions were combined. Lettuce from the old world—Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec City, is said to be the first person to plant the food crop here—is dressed in bear oil. The first colonial markets were in Quebec, Halifax, then Toronto and Ottawa. By the mid 19th century, writes Duncan, there were markets in hundreds of communities in central and eastern Canada.

These were the places where farmers could sell any surplus produce and where people could buy ingredients for home cooking. But markets were also places where new ideas took shape. At the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto around 1910, a butcher named William Davies realized that he could sell a better product if he were to buy live animals and slaughter them on site—a first for food processing in this country. He would sell millions of pounds of his salt-cured pork. And the city’s Kensington Market, a cluster of independent businesses that for the last century have sold foods of all sorts, was started when the people who lived in the ramshackle homes of the area began to sell the vegetables they’d grown. In her book, Duncan explains that they set up carts and tables out front of their houses.

Vintage A&P

And then the market started to fade from the landscape. By the 1950s, markets were considered old and messy, even unsanitary. At that time in Toronto, merchants still brought their wares to market by horse-drawn cart and live animals waited to be slaughtered there. This didn’t match the modern vision that those in charge had for Canada cities. So politicians, such as Frederick Gardiner, the then chairman of the municipality, and the provincial government decided to clean up and modernize. They shut down the wholesale business at the St. Lawrence Market downtown and moved it to the suburbs, creating the Ontario Food Terminal, an enormous wholesale market that still serves businesses in the city. And Montreal’s central market, the Bonsecours Market was similarly closed in 1963.

The importance of the market to communities started to fade over the next few decades. Some families never stopped shopping there but more and more of us started to visit the supermarket instead. Some towns in farming areas, such as Meaford in southern Ontario, even stopped holding markets. And then the trend started to reverse. Canadian food policy thinker and activist Wayne Roberts dates the shift to about 2005, when people started to think about food again and the local food movement was born. Books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s The 100 Mile Diet popularized the ideas that were inspiring a new generation of people to care about where their food came from. Suddenly, people wanted to buy locally grown produce, preferably sustainably produced. They needed farmers markets! In a flurry of activity, communities across the country founded farmers’ market after farmers market. According to Farmers’ Markets Canada, there are 600 farmers' markets in Canada today.

Granville Island Farmers' Market

As they say, history repeats itself. Just like markets a century ago, today they are centres of commerce and socialization. On an early summer afternoon at the Fairmount Park market in Toronto’s east end, children played as their parents chatted in front of tables laden with freshly picked produce—though this produce has changed. Today’s markets cater to our ever more global palates and you can buy what would have been exotic crops not long ago, such as okra and tomatillos, grown by local farmers. And just like before, good ideas are born at the market. At the Fairmount Park market, as well as at other markets, micro food businesses have the opportunity to test out their products, and new approaches to food—such as Japanese onigiri snacks to go and Zimbabwean meat pies that are sold there by new entrepreneurs. While there wouldn’t have been any onigiri or okra at Quebec City’s upper-market a century ago, if Herbert Fabre were to visit Fairmount Park today, he might be surprised by how much he recognizes.

Further Reading: 

Book Cover Food and the City

Food and the City: Urban agriculture and the new food revolution, by Jennifer Cockrall King

About the book: Food and the City examines alternative food systems in cities around the globe that are shortening their food chains, growing food within their city limits, and taking their “food security” into their own hands. Award-winning food journalist Jennifer Cockrall-King sought out leaders in the urban-agriculture movement and visited cities successfully dealing with “food deserts.” What she found was not just a niche concern of activists but a global movement that cuts across the private and public spheres, economic classes, and cultures.

Book Cover The Stop

The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, by Andrea Curtis and Nick Saul

About the book: In 1998, when community worker Nick Saul became executive director of The Stop, it was like thousands of other food banks, offering canned handouts in a cramped, dreary, makeshift space. Today, it is a thriving, internationally respected "community food centre" with gardens, kitchens, a greenhouse, farmers' markets, and a mission to revolutionize our food system. In telling the remarkable story of The Stop's transformation, Saul argues that we need a new politics of food, in which everyone has a dignified, healthy place at the table. The Stop is a fresh and timely story about overcoming obstacles, challenging sacred cows and creating lasting change.

Book Cover Canadians at the Table

Canadians at Table: A culinary history of Canada, by Dorothy Duncan

About the book: Winner of the 2007 Canadian Culinary Book Award for Canadian Food Culture. In Canadians at Table we learn about lessons of survival from the First Nations, the foods that fuelled fur traders, and the adaptability of early settlers to their new environment. As communities developed and transportation improved, waves of newcomers arrived, bringing memories of foods, beverages, and traditions they had known, which were almost impossible to implement in their new homeland. They discovered instead how to use native plants for many of their needs. Community events and institutions developed to serve religious, social, and economic needs from agricultural and temperance societies to Womens Institutes, from markets and fairs to community meals and celebrations.

Book Cover Nothing More Comforting

Nothing More Comforting: Canada’s heritage food, by Dorothy Duncan

About the book: Nothing More Comforting is a reflection of our society: an eclectic mix of many different cultures and traditions. Dorothy Duncan—with her extensive knowledge of heritage foods—has chosen her favourite "Country Fare" columns from the popular Century Home magazine for this wonderful book on Canada's heritage cuisine. Each chapter focuses on one particular food or ingredient followed by historical facts and traditional recipes for you to try at home. Fast food restaurants and instant foods will never replace our seasonal and regional specialties: maple syrup, fiddleheads, rhubarb (pie plant to our ancestors), asparagus, corn on the cob, Saskatoon berries and McIntosh apples. The recipes in this book take advantage of Canada's unique foods, creating a taste that is distinctly Canadian. Nothing More Comforting will provide the avid as well as the armchair cook with interesting food facts and new recipes to try.

Book Cover Consumed

Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, by Sarah Elton

About the book: In Consumed, award-winning writer Sarah Elton walks fields and farms on four continents, investigating not only the potential—and very real—threats to our food, but also telling the stories of those who are working hard to preserve our future. From Bogotá to Beijing, Delhi to Rome, Nairobi to Toronto, people from all walks of life are creating an alternative to the industrial food we have grown accustomed to piling into our shopping carts, and in the process giving us hope not for a daunting future but for a future in which we can all sit at the table.

Book Cover Locavoew

Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat, by Sarah Elton

About the book: Locavore describes how foodies,100-milers, urbanites, farmers, gardeners and chefs across Canada are creating a new local food order that has the potential to fight climate change and feed us all. Combining front-line reporting, shrewd analysis and passionate food writing to delight the gastronome, Locavore shows how the pieces of a post-industrial food system are being assembled into something infinitely better.

Book Cover Starting From Scratch

Starting From Scratch: What You Need to Know About Food and Cooking, by Sarah Elton

About the book: Both practical and philosophical in its approach, Starting from Scratch demystifies food and cooking by boiling it down to the basics. Kids will be able to make sense of recipes, measure and substitute ingredients, and stock a pantry, but they’ll also discover that food is more than just a prepackaged meal. Using simple and universal examples, like how an onion is transformed when it’s boiled versus charred, caramelized versus fried, Starting from Scratch will inspire kids to eat better, try new flavors, and understand what’s on their plate.

Book Cover City Farmer

City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, by Lorraine Johnson

About the book: City Farmer celebrates the new ways that urban dwellers are getting closer to their food. Not only are backyard vegetable plots popping up in places long reserved for lawns, but some renegades are even planting their front yards with food. People in apartments are filling their balconies with pots of tomatoes, beans, and basil, while others are gazing skyward and "greening" their rooftops with food plants. Still others are colonizing public spaces, staking out territory in parks for community gardens and orchards, or convincing school boards to turn asphalt school grounds into "growing" grounds.

Book Cover The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food

The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, by Wayne Roberts

About the book: Food security is a topic that is increasingly in the public's consciousness. Covering fast food, health food, institutional food, and more, this No-Nonsense Guide shows why and how “real food” has become scarce, dominated as it is in the West by agri-business and supermarkets. Wayne Roberts discusses nutrition, health, economics, and gives examples of effective food systems being developed by individuals, communities, and governments. An essential guide to this important issue, this book will appeal to students, food professionals and activists, public health staff and concerned citizens – anyone who wants to understand the international food system and how it can be improved.

Book Cover 100 Mile Diet

The 100 Mile-Diet, by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon

About the book: The remarkable, amusing and inspiring adventures of a Canadian couple who make a year-long attempt to eat foods grown and produced within a 100-mile radius of their apartment. When Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon learned that the average ingredient in a North American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate, they decided to launch a simple experiment to reconnect with the people and places that produced what they ate. For one year, they would only consume food that came from within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver apartment. The 100-Mile Diet was born.

Book Cover Apples to Oysters

Apples to Oysters, by Margaret Webb

About the book: On this cross-Canada odyssey, Margaret Webb introduces readers to great farmers in every province or, as she calls them, chefs of the soil and the sea, tractor-seat philosophers, or poet biologists. Her stories of the challenges they face growing good food are inspiring, touching, gritty. They will make you hungry. They will make you laugh. These fascinating stories about the passionate, driven people who farm and produce food in our country make for a powerful manifesto for eating Canadian.

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