Review — Are You Going To Eat That?

Acquired Tastes is ingenious. Researchers at six universities take a bird’s-eye view of Canadian supper tables. They interview families nationwide, rich and poor, from Vancouver to Halifax, and ask: why do you eat that? Interestingly, nobody replies: “Because I’m hungry.”

Food, it turns out, is an expression of Canadians’ intimate values and ideals of self-worth. We are highly opinionated on the subject. Consider those who rate themselves “virtuous or moral individuals as they differentiated between their eating habits and those of other people,” editors note. One mother recalls the time she volunteered on a class field trip: “Kids would bring a little mini pop. I mean, it was just horrible”; “Cinnamon rolls and those Vachon cakes. I haven’t even seen them for years. One guy had an extra-big Coffee Crisp and a pop, and his dad was there on the field trip, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is just awful!’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Acquired Tastes is not another lament over national obesity or food marketing. If McDonald’s Canada sells $260 million worth of Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets annually, nobody interviewed here volunteers the fact they are faithful customers. This research is much more compelling.

Editors discover everybody knows what “healthy eating” is. They cannot find a single family that has never heard of basic nutrition: “Everyone understood the concept that food affects health.” Second, Canadians eat what they eat for a whole variety of cultural and economic reasons that often have little to do with necessity. “What people say they know and believe about eating is not always what they do, even when a variety of foods are readily available to them,” authors conclude.

Consider the Valverde family, an East Vancouver couple with a six-figure income and a 17-year old son. They buy organic and like to experiment with recipes. “We spend more money on food than most people,” says Mrs. Valverde. Their groceries are an expression of environmental awareness and cultural diversity.

Then there’s the Austin family of rural Alberta: husband, wife, three children. They eat fish and chips, burgers and potatoes. Organic is too expensive, Mrs. Austin explains: “I rarely if ever buy anything that’s not on sale.”

Families have definite views on food. Indian fare is “really spicy”, complains one participant who has never tried it. Others are annoyed by the cliquishness of farmers’ markets, where urban shoppers are expected to browse with delight over costly produce. “I just want to go and get the food,” says one. Another boasts of shopping on Mondays, when grocers discount date-expired meat left unsold from the weekend: “We never pay full price.”

Acquired Tastes confirms what we eat is a statement of how we think of ourselves: frugal or choosey; sophisticated or practical; wealthy and urban or small-town, Kraft Dinner cheap. “Interestingly, food as gratification and as a tool for coping with stress and depression was articulated by participants of European descent, which may speak to family and cultural histories concerning the moralities of food,” editors report. “In contrast, interviewees who had recently migrated to Canada from non-European locales did not seem to speak of food in this way.”

Acquired Tastes is fresh and quirky, eloquent and very human. Eat it, you’ll like it.

Acquired Tastes: Why Families Eat The Way They Do; edited by Brenda Beagan, Gwen Chapman, Joseé Johnston, Deborah McPhail, Elaine Power and Helen Vallianatos; University of British Columbia Press; 292 pages; ISBN 9780-77482-8581; $32.95

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