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THE WAY WE ARE by Margaret Visser

THE WAY WE ARE

By Margaret Visser

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-571-19885-6
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 Visser moves on from the culture of food (The Rituals of Dinner, 1991, etc.) to the ``anthropology'' of everyday life, with a series of little essays that originally appeared in the Canadian weekly Saturday Night. It is only appropriate that someone whose introduction to North America 31 years ago was a flying mustard packet should be writing on ordinary things and events. In her introduction, Visser asserts that ``clues can be found to our culture's suppositions'' from an exploration of such randomly chosen but ubiquitous phenomena as baked beans, tipping, and Santa Claus (a particular favorite who turns up in several essays). Drawing on a combination of history, philology, anthropology, and sharp observation, Visser comments wittily on parades (``one of the few Dionysiac outlets still sanctioned by society as a whole''), the Easter Bunny, the invention of vinegar (whose name derives from the French for ``soured wine''), and spitting. Not surprisingly, given that her two previous books dealt with food history and lore, the essays on food and eating are the strongest ones here; an offering on the ingestion of organ meats is particularly clever and laughter-provoking. These essays (each of which is followed by a bibliography) were clearly not intended for consecutive reading, and sitting down with the book for long periods of time is not recommended. Read in large clumps, the essays begin to pall, and a tendency to the pedantic, which in smaller doses is relieved by Visser's warmth and humor, in larger swallows becomes almost overwhelming. The result is a book to be dipped into at random and in short bursts. Reminiscent of, but not as clever as, Roland Barthes's Mythologies.