The Edible Man, Anne Kingston

MacFarlane Walter & Ross, 1994, 365 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-921912-72-2

My fascination with all things related to Loblaws grocery stores will be difficult to understand by non-Canadians (or even, I suspect, non-Ontarians). Suffice to say that Loblaws is the provincial champ when it comes to food retailing. It provides a lot of good food at good prices, and that’s nothing to dismiss even if you’re one of those who swears by farmer’s markets, health co-ops and ethnic groceries. For nerds like me for whom the food-gathering experience is torture, Loblaws has simplified the process (through wide aisles, bulk packaging and tons of frozen dinners) to such an extent that shopping anywhere else is a trip back in hell.

But that’s just me. Ask anyone else in Ontario, though, and they’re likely to mention the “Insider’s Report” ads and the distinctive “President’s Choice” products that are produced exclusively for Loblaws. In a world dominated by brands like Coca Cola, Heinz, Kraft, Christie’s or Nestlé, Loblaws has managed to build an in-store brand that offers products equal or superior to those sold everywhere else. The only way to get those “President’s Choice” products, naturally, is to go to Loblaws or one of their affiliates. Slick.

This state of affairs is familiar to Ontarians, but it wasn’t always so, nor is it still a phenomenon outside the province. The Edible Man (subtitled “Dave Nichol, President’s Choice and the Making of a Popular Taste”) explains why, as it tracks not just the life of Dave Nichol (the putative “President” of the brand), but also the history of Loblaws, and tangential issues such as the rise and fall of consumer environmentalism, the education of taste, the war between national brands and in-house brands, the mechanics of cookies, the challenges in producing Italian food for dogs (no, really) and the introduction of low-cost beer in Canada.

The rise of Loblaws as a major food empire in Ontario (along with Nichol’s role in this renewal) is a fascinating story and writer Anne Kingston does her best to extract all facets of it. While you may expect, from the title, a simple biography of Nichol, the real story is in food retailing. Fascinating anecdotes about the mechanics of food mass-production pepper the narrative, exposing readers to vitally important issues they may never have considered. (How much time do you spend thinking about what you eat? How much time should you spend thinking about what you eat?)

In this, Dave Nichol emerges as a visionary with a truckload of faults. Contrary to the impression suggested by the chatty “Insider’s Reports” and the personality-centred “President’s Choice” promotional material (complete with his dogs and personal opinions about the nation), Nichol doesn’t have much affection for the “Unwashed Masses”. Gradually trained in fine cuisine from decidedly non-aristocratic origins, Nichol made himself an elitist arbiter of good taste in all facets of his life. Good news for customers, bad news for his employees: Tales of Nichol’s temper are also sprinkled throughout the book, reinforcing the impression of a tyrant who got results. For an authorized biography (Nichol figures prominently in the acknowledgements), this is an unusually honest one, even though one suspects that elitists do, in fact, like to be recognized as such. (Nichol’s lack of enthusiasm for ethnic food, however, is an interesting commentary on his so-called fine taste.)

As a non-fiction book, this is a good one; issues are explained clearly, all the principal players seem to have been interviewed directly and if the structure is often erratic, the tangents are fascinating. All is brought together by a good index. Whether it’s used for reference or for pleasure reading, The Edible Man is one tasty non-fiction book.

As is often the case with books almost a decade old, an update would be sorely needed. Nichol’s departure, which closed the book, wasn’t exactly the end of the line as far as his involvement with Loblaws was concerned: His face, his “Insider’s Report” and, obviously, his “President’s Choice” products continue to be facets of circa-2003 Loblaws store. Cott is still going strong as a generic soft-drink company after a disastrous diversification in the mid-nineties: it only recovered after the death of its founder (something one could predict from reading The Edible Man). Deals with retailers in Quebec have allowed Loblaws to expand in this market. After the abrupt end of his Cott-sponsored new business endeavours in the mid-nineties, Dave’s biggest post-Loblaws success to date has been a line of beers, an ironic fate for a man who didn’t even like this very proletarian drink…

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