Consuming Fish

This is the cover for the menu offered at the CNE fish restaurant (1914-1918). It was designed by Frederick William Wallace editor of The Canadian Fisherman and author of Wooden Ships and Iron Men.

Why does time seem to accelerate in August? There is no sense in complaining as it happens every year, but I feel it a little keener as I stretch for the dissertation finish-line. In late June I completed what I thought was the penultimate chapter in my thesis: a survey of international and national fisheries exhibits. That is until I decided to split it into two chapters; instead of one completed chapter I had two unfinished ones.

[Insert sound of head knocking on wooden table-top.]

The pain passed when it dawned on me that I had a strong chapter on an unrecognized aspect of fisheries history, and that was consumption. We focus on catching and all the conflicts that it entails–but have neglected the other end of the commodity chain: eating.

In researching fisheries exhibits, I came across a fish restaurant run by the Canadian fisheries department, and which was mounted annually at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition  between 1914 and 1918.

Jennifer Hubbard mentions the restaurant in passing in A Science on the Scales and classifies it as a wasted public relations exercise. She faults the department for issuing cookbooks and serving dinners at fairs, rather than focusing on science. The restaurant, however, struck me as indicating a shift in focus from production to consumption—and as tolling the end of the fisheries museum, which was demolished in 1918.

In the chapter, I argue that the restaurant was a form of exhibit: instead of inviting fair-goers to gaze at fish, the restaurant beckoned people to taste them. Both modes sought to inspire confidence in fish as food and the government’s administration of fisheries. The chapter also looks at wartime food rationing. The restaurant was part of a wider campaign to promote fish as food and the war provided a patriotic rationale to extend the campaign. I also delve into the gender politics of the fish-as-food campaign; women, for example, were blamed for suppressing the national appetite for fish because they didn’t know how to properly prepare or cook fish.

This chapter would make a great article—but time is slipping away this summer so it will have to be a fall project. I am now working to complete the orphaned chunk that remained after this fish restaurant narrative crystallized into its own chapter.

Time for that now seems in short supply. Next week, Beth and I travel to Nova Scotia to visit friends and family there, and in PEI. I also have meetings arranged at the Maritime Museum in Halifax and the Lunenburg fisheries museum to look at some models that once belonged to the fisheries museum.

I also hope to eat some fish myself. My father-in-law is a dedicated trout fisherman; together we will conduct some ‘field work’ and survey eastern PEI’s brooks and ponds for speckled trout.

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About Will Knight

I am PhD candidate in Canadian environmental history at Carleton University in Ottawa. I am currently writing a dissertation on Canada's fisheries museum. Never heard of it? That's because it was demolished in 1918...My thesis explores this short-lived institution and the conceptual and material modeling of fish and fisheries in late 19th and early 20th century North America.
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