This Month's Simple, Good and Tasty Bookclub Selection: Much Depends on Dinner

Our shiny new bookclub continues this month with Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal, by Margaret Visser. This is a fantastic book about the facts, myths and rituals surrounding the typical American dinner; it's equally social, scientific, and political. What’s especially noteworthy is that this book was written more than 20 years ago, well before we ever uttered the term "locavore," or took an active interest in where our food comes from.

The synopsis from says:

"Winning unanimous praise on its publication and now available in paperback from Grove Press, Much Depends on Dinner is a delightful and intelligent history of the food we eat. Presented as a meal, each chapter represents a different course or garnish. Borrowing from Byron's classic poem "Don Juan" for her title ("Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner"), writer Margaret Visser looks to the most ordinary American dinner for her subject -- corn on the cob with butter and salt, roast chicken with rice, salad dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, and ice cream -- submerging herself in the story behind each food. In this indulgent and perceptive guide we hear the history of Corn Flakes, why canned California olives are so unsatisfactory (they're picked green, chemically blackened, then sterilized), and the fact that in Africa, citrus fruit is eaten rind and all. For food lovers of all kinds, this unexpectedly funny and serious book is a treasure of information, shedding light on one of our most favorite pastimes."

On Thursday, April 29, we’ll gather together to discuss this book, showcase some book-related recipes, and generally enjoy each other’s company. Please join our Twin Cities event at Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op’s Selby location from 7:00 - 9:00 pm or with the Harmony Co-op bookclub in Bemidji from 6:00 - 8:00 pm.

Here are some discussion questions to consider:

  1. Author Margaret Visser (photo courtesy of University of Saskatchewan)Author Margaret Visser (photo courtesy of University of Saskatchewan)Margaret Visser pre-dated the locavore and foodie movements by more than 20 years. If you consider your perspectives on our food systems today, what advice would you give your 1986 self? And how would you share your new insights and information with others today?
  2. Visser plainly draws out the issues of industrial agriculture as they pertain to our favorite Midwestern crop – corn. Was there anything highlighted in that chapter that surprised you?  Or changed your mind or reinforced your current beliefs?
  3. One reviewer talked about the single-subject nature of each chapter and said “What matters, it seems to me, is that these histories aren't just about the substances being discussed. [For example,] can cod really be said to have a history? They are instead, about how our interaction with these things has shaped us and our world. For many readers, this represents a great advance over all that stuff about kings and presidents.”   How has learning about food shaped your world?
  4. In the chapter about chicken, Visser discusses their care, feeding and processing. In 1986, this must have been shocking to the uninitiated, but today, thanks to the Internet, information is readily available and the impacts are better understood. As a result, the industrial manufacturers have leveraged marketing tactics to “educate” consumers. Can you identify some of these tactics? Which of these may have caused you concern? How do you decide -- for yourself and your family -- what is believable and acceptable?
  5. Aside from food, Visser talks at length about the rituals of dining, manners, and other related topics: What rituals or habits has your family adopted as a way to better enjoy your food? And how have those rituals or habits evolved from when you were growing up?
  6. Reader’s choice: Please bring your own book-based discussion question, observation, or bone of contention to the gathering. We’d love to hear your perspective on this incredibly rich, detailed book.

Tracy Morgan is a Twin Cities foodie, cookbook hoarder, and owner of all the right kitchen gadgets. Living in downtown St. Paul, she loves to take her green trolley shopping at the Farmer's Market and see how much weight it can handle. When not spotlighting local goodies for Simple Good and Tasty, Tracy runs Segnavia Creative, a business development and marketing firm that helps small companies create big-picture strategies, understand branding, and navigate social media. She also serves on the board of directors for the Mississippi Market Natural Food Co-op.