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Apples to Oysters
by Margaret Webb
Viking Canada
288 pages, $34

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted June 4, 2008

The inspiration for this "food lover's tour of Canadian farms" was a carrot, or more specifically, an "electric" carrot. While writing an article about the best places to enjoy fresh seafood on the East Coast, a chef introduced Margaret Webb to David Greenberg, an Annapolis Valley farmer who supplied the restaurant's fresh ingredients, and "whose hands were stained a bronzy hue from his life's work in the soil."

Webb toured Greenberg's farm and listened to him rant about the problems with so-called modern farming techniques--and rave about the solutions to those problems. The fanatical farmer even scooped up a handful of manure and made her smell it.

The author's own epiphany came when Greenberg yanked one of his carrots out of the soil and offered it to her to taste. As she writes in the Introduction to her book, "Only in colour and name did it compare to the bland, dry, woody carrots found in most supermarkets. Yes, as David promised, the taste was electric indeed. And that carrot also zapped my brain with a similarly obsessive desire, not to farm mind you, but to travel across the country discovering passionate zealots like David, a new generation of Canadian farmers who are putting nutrition and taste back into the foods we eat."

Apples to Oysters is the result of that obsession, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The world is mired in a growing food crisis with the cost of grains, fuels and fertilizers rising exponentially. Haven't we all been hearing for years about the impending demise of the Canadian farmer, about how difficult it is for a farmer to make a living in Canada, how they are one bad harvest away from bankruptcy? And even though grocery store produce departments are overflowing with fruits and vegetables, try to find something grown in Canada, let alone locally. By all accounts, the state of farming in Canada is precarious.

Having grown up on a farm herself, Webb has some personal experience to call upon. Or rather, as she puts it, it was two farms: a commercial beef feedlot that "fed people in the city and generated income," and the "home farm" that produced food for her family's own consumption: the best and healthiest heifers from the feedlot, along with fruits and vegetables grown in their "massive garden," which sustained them through the summer and winter (thanks to their freezer and root cellar).

Webb's memories of childhood and adolescence on the farm form some of the best writing in this book, effectively drawing the reader into her obsessive crusade. "I remember meals tasting like the season," she writes. "Spring is green, tender and tart. Summer is red, seductive and juicy. Fall is golden, sweet and thick. Winter is a hearty stew made from frozen vegetables--a rainbow of colours, spicy, smouldering."

Although all the evocative descriptions quoted so far come from the Introduction, the rest of the book is equally compelling. Webb covers the country regionally, with the chapters divided up into a menu of sorts. She begins with Appetizers , sampling oysters, dulse (an edible seaweed) and scallops in the Maritimes; continues with Mains , where she seeks out cod in Newfoundland, pork in Manitoba, flax in Saskatchewan, beef (what else?) in Alberta and even visits an organic farm up in the Yukon; and finishes this literary feast with BC apples, Quebec cheese and Ontario icewine.

Each chapter is a self-contained story in which Webb visits a specific farm and often explores other farms or related industries in the region. She tries to get her hands dirty every time, doing the work the farmers do, such as rising at 1:30 am to sort and shuck scallops for the next 18 hours. Recipes featuring the profiled ingredients close each chapter, offering readers the chance to join the author in her culinary quest.

Chapter One, "Johnny Flynn's Oysters," which focuses on oyster farming in Colville Bay, PEI, is the best in the book, with its spicy undercurrent of sex and seduction. The three chapters that close the book are also strong, especially the one set in BC which describes the genesis of the Ambrosia apple variety. The middle section, spent mostly on the Prairies, is the flattest, although its subjects are important. Interestingly, the most compelling chapter there is the one describing Webb's visit to the Yukon, where the farm she profiles is failing, defeated by financial hardship.  

The author herself is very much a part of this book. During her cross-country voyage of discovery, she explores her personal beliefs about food and farming as well as her own family's farming experiences--including her theory that her father's early death due to Parkinson's might have been caused by the chemical fertilizers and pesticides he used.

At its heart, this is a book about food and all the sensual pleasures good food offers. In this department, Webb delivers with mouth-watering, lip-smacking, tastebud-titillating descriptions of the food she eats. As well, she doesn't hold back when it comes to describing where her quest for good food takes her, including an especially memorable visit to a Manitoba "boar station," in which she graphically describes how an employee collects semen for artificial insemination purposes. It's an unforgettable scene, which Webb describes deftly, with just the right, er, injection of humour.

The adjectives that best describe the recipe of Apples to Oysters include equal parts compelling and informative, with a dash of humorous and a smidgen of moving, along with side notes of satisfying and fresh. Enjoy this book with a glass of your favourite vintage or brew, and be prepared to be left feeling both sated and hungry for more, just as with any good meal.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who loves eating fresh, local food.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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