Much like Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, this book was much more race/gender/queer theory than food history. This should not be surprising given that the central argument of the book is that eating is central to the performative production of raced and gendered bodies in the 19th century, but I still would have liked to see a bit more discussion about the role of food.
The 19th century is an area that I have a specific interest in so reading this book was still enjoyable, although it was dense at times. I especially enjoyed her discussions surrounding the Alcott family and the different ideas that sprung up surrounding diet that I have discussed earlier. One of the strongest points she made was in looking at how the Americans linked the omnivores diet, which embodies a republican virtue of balance not found among the British, to racial and imperial superiority.
Bread, as it played a central role in American’s diets, also played a central role in this books. She discussed the role of bread in households as well as the impact of the change from open hearth cooking to stovetop cooking had on the family.
While she touches briefly on Sidney Mintz’s work on sugar, I wished she dealt more with it, especially since he is one of the preeminent scholars on the links between food and race. Overall however this was an interesting read.
I was expecting this book to be simply about the murder of Albert, “Bert,” Massey at the hands of his maid, Carrie Davis, who shot him in cold blood after he made a sexual pass at her. The book however unravels to tell a story of Toronto in 1915, a rapidly changing city at the height of the First World War.
Gray moves carefully through each chapter providing details of the case and trying them to larger trends in Toronto. The first half of her book deals largely with Victorian sensibilities regarding women, something that I have always found interesting. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a rise of reform movements, most notably for suffragettes, women campaigning for the vote. Upper and Middle Class white women also campaigned for a number of different causes, including prison reform. Gray deals popular practices in criminology at the time including craniology, as well as the idea that while men committed crimes, women committed sins and could therefore be rehabilitated.
The most shocking thing about this case is while even though Carrie Davis admitted to killing Bert Massey, the jury voted her not guilty. Gray details the brilliance of her lawyer, Hartley Dewart,and how he tied Carrie’s case to the War overseas. Carrie as a virgin girl was protecting herself from the advances of her employer, much like British soldiers overseas were defending themselves against the advances of the Germans. He essentially made Carrie an allegory for British values and it worked.
Gray talks a lot about the popular opinions surrounding the trial and the ways that the different newspapers in Toronto treated the case. I wish she spent a bit more time tracing the fall out, but she does mention that the case against Carrie Davis did not set a precedent. This book was still great, it’s always interesting to read about places that you are familiar with and reading about Toronto in 1915 as well as seeing pictures was enjoyable.