Jodey Nurse, Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, February 2022).
Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario tells the story is how women’s involvement became critical to agricultural fairs’ growth and prosperity. By examining women’s diverse roles as agricultural society members, fair exhibitors, performers, volunteers, and fairgoers, I show that women used fairs’ manifold nature to present different versions of rural womanhood. Although traditional domestic skills and handicrafts, such as baking, needlework, and flower arrangement, remained the domain of women throughout this period, women steadily enlarged their sphere of influence on the fairgrounds. By the mid-twentieth century they had staked out a place in venues previously closed to them, including the livestock show ring, the athletic field, and the boardroom.
The transformation of women’s roles at fairs is the central narrative in this text, but this book also provides a broader story of change in the countryside. While some features of township and country fairs endured for generations, other elements of the fair underwent important changes that reflected the social, economic, and environmental transformation happening in Ontario and elsewhere.
When I was invited to promote the book on NiCHE’s website, I saw this as an opportunity to highlight the ways it contributes to our understanding of some of these changes, specifically changes in the provisioning of foodstuff, for which women were especially important.
In the second chapter of the book, I focus on how food is intrinsically connected with the agricultural fair. While we may think about fair food in terms of midway concession stands, which are associated with items like cotton candy, French fries, or even the more recent invention of the deep-fried Mars bar, or the more traditional displays of homemade bread, pies, cakes, jams, jellies, and other foodstuff in the homecrafts buildings, a deeper reflection reveals how food was essential to most displays on the fairgrounds – be that the prize-winning livestock or the uniform groups of fruits, vegetables, grains, and other agricultural crops on display. Fair food items often represented the seasonal harvests and bounty of the countryside. The quality and quantity of the items exhibited illustrated broader notions of settlers’ individual, regional, and national ideas of progress and improvement.
“Fair food items often represented the seasonal harvests and bounty of the countryside. The quality and quantity of the items exhibited illustrated broader notions of settlers’ individual, regional, and national ideas of progress and improvement.”
Despite efforts to value women and men’s contributions differently, with men’s food production recognized as a part of the larger agricultural economy and women’s as representative of their domestic roles and obligations to family and community, it was impossible to ignore women’s significant contributions to the household economy and the broader agricultural sector. For example, dairy products – specifically butter and cheese – were among the first categories of food competition that specifically recognized women’s work on farms. Over time, the number of entries for dairy exhibits diminished as homemade cheese and later butter became more easily purchased than made. While dairy farmers expanded their herds and modernized their operations in an effort to continue to farm in the increasingly competitive marketplace, by the postwar period, dairy processing was rarely done by the farmers themselves; milk was shipped to be industrially processed and distributed.
At the same time that the value of homemade dairy products diminished, however, women were showcasing ever-greater numbers of food exhibits in the form of canned goods, baked items, and other culinary fare. Baking, once dominated by bread classes, came to include all sorts of items, and many of the classes for these goods were sponsored by local mills and flour companies, and later national and multinational food corporations, such as Robin Hood.
The types of food items also revealed important social changes. For example, by the 1970s, shifts in home cooking and eating habits were demonstrated by new competitions, including for the best “chop suey loaf,” “Macaroni Salad,” or “T.V. Evening Snack for a Teen-Ager.” While certain classes remained the same over the years, others changed depending on the culinary trends and privileged foodstuff of the period. The domestic science category of fair competition even allowed for an engagement in contemporary political debate; cake baking participants contributed to Canada’s flag debate by using their culinary talents to offer ideas for a flag design at the 1964 Wallacetown Fair.
Even the number of classes for a specific food item demonstrated change. For example, the number of classes for various types of apples expanded enormously between the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, but later contracted in the postwar period as more standard varieties became universally popular.
Food, like many other elements of agricultural fairs, was not static but shifted over time. Indeed, the changing rural environment was not just illustrated by changes in food production, but also in the kinds of plants and gardens promoted by agricultural societies, as discussed in Chapter 3, or the types of domestic manufactures and craftwork women popularly made, as explained in Chapter 4, or the kinds of livestock popularly raised and exhibited, as noted in Chapter 5.
“When writing this book, it was my goal to create a richer and more complex portrait of the agricultural fair, in which rural women’s identities and activities took centre stage.”
When writing this book, it was my goal to create a richer and more complex portrait of the agricultural fair, in which rural women’s identities and activities took centre stage. Through this lens, it also provides useful insight into the shifting landscape of rural communities and the broader changes that emerged.
Latest posts by Jodey Nurse (see all)
- New Book – Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario - April 13, 2022
- Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario – Book Launch - February 16, 2022
- Not Without Precedent: Debating Changing Food Systems - February 8, 2022