Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse

When the Culinary Historians of Canada announced that “Maple” was the March topic for the Canada 150 Blogging Challenge, I immediately thought of Alice Munro.

Munro once famously described her affinity for the short story through a maple-inspired image. Rather than writing novels, she prefers to condense a story to its essence – “boiled down like maple syrup” is how she puts it. (“Alice Munro”)

In the world of literary cookbooks, maple also appears to be Munro’s signature ingredient.

Judith Choate’s A Reader’s Cookbook targets book club members with the aim to “amplify” texts through “literal tastes” tied either to setting or to a writer’s country of origin. In the chapter “Under a Maple Sky—O Canada!” Choate includes a recipe for Maple-Walnut Bread with Maple Butter alongside a passage from Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth.”

This short story describes the distinct character of the Ottawa Valley as the place where “maple syrup has a taste no syrup produced elsewhere can equal.” (4) Munro’s own Ontario roots in Huron County, or Ontario’s West Coast, mean that maple syrup sometimes makes appearances in her fiction.

A Reader’s Cookbook claims that “the maple flavor sings of the Canadian table.” But just as actual maple syrup is classified by colour and taste, Munro’s stories reveal a range of meanings suited to her characters’ far-from-sweet circumstances.

Consider Munro’s “Spelling” from Who Do You Think You Are?  To my mind, this sombre story is akin to the “Grade A — Very Dark, Strong Taste” variety of maple syrup. When the protagonist, Rose, visits her elderly step-mother, Flo, readers discover a home in a state of decay, the fridge full of “sulfurous scraps, dark crusts, furry oddments.” (235) Flo has started placing kitchen tools in strange places, and with her mind unravelling, she turns to sweetness in excess — a culinary charm against a world that seems nonsensical and filled with bitter experiences too difficult to resolve:

“She might tip the jug of maple syrup up against her mouth and drink it like wine. She loved sweet things now. Craved them. Brown sugar by the spoonful, maple syrup, tinned puddings, jelly, globs of sweetness to slide down her throat.” (235)

Swilling maple syrup may not appeal to most, but Munro offers a lighter serving suggestion in the form of Maple Mousse.  Margaret Atwood’s The CanLit Foodbook includes Munro’s “own recipe” for this dessert, one that I’ve always been curious to try.

The ingredients are simple: milk, gelatin, whipping cream, egg yolks, sugar, salt, a splash of rum, and of course, a half cup of maple syrup to give it a subtle flavouring.

Munro recommends serving this moulded dessert with extra syrup “if you want to be fancy.” A maple candy provides an “O Canada!” garnish.

Maple mousse makes a brief appearance in Munro’s “Sunday Afternoon” from Dance of the Happy Shades. This story perhaps falls under the “Grade A — Amber Colour, Rich Taste” maple syrup classification with its depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Gannett’s affluent, leisured life in the city. Every Sunday, the extended Gannett family gather for lunch. On this particular afternoon, tongue, aspic, and maple mousse are on the menu. Alva, the farm-girl hired as the summer-time maid, works in the family’s midst — living under their roof, following their daily rhythms, eating their food.

We are told that there is “plenty” of maple mousse dessert for Alva, but she will never be part of the family. She eats all her meals alone. Hers is an isolated existence distinguished by subtle humiliations: her name summoned by Mrs. Gannett “in tones as … penetrating as those of the bell,” and her required uniform of “Cuban-heeled shoes clomping” on the backyard patio when she carries out the luncheon dishes. (164)

Maple syrup may be quintessentially Canadian, but when it runs through the imagination of this Nobel-prize-winning author, the results are Munro’s uniquely storied varieties.

 

“Alice Munro.” 1978. BC Booklook, 7 April 2008.

Choate, Judith. A Reader’s Cookbook. New York: Red Rock Press, 2012.

Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse.” The CanLit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate—A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare. Compiled and Illustrated by Margaret Atwood. Totem Books, 1987, p. 55.

—. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1988.

—. Friend of My Youth. 1990. Penguin Books, 1991.

—. Who Do You Think You Are? 1978. Penguin Books, 1991.

 

Text and Photos by: Shelley Boyd

 

 

Land of Cakes

“Canada is the land of cakes.” So states Catharine Parr Traill confidently in the cake section of her Female Emigrant’s Guide of 1854.

It is to one such recipe, for “cup cake” that I turn for this second installment of economical cooking with Traill. It’s “about as good as pound-cake, and a great deal cheaper” says Traill before getting down to the business of ingredients and instruction:

Three cups of flour, one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, and four eggs, well beat in together, and baked in pans or cups. NOTE.—This is a regular American cake.

eggs

eggs, flour, sugar, butter

Not a note about temperature and timing here but readers of The Female Emigrant’s Guide will come to know that there are all kinds of subtleties of skill that comes with hearth cooking. Fires are hot, quick, clear, brisk, slow and slack and dishes may be placed on or near to achieve the desired effect. Adjusting temperatures is not, as it turns out, a mere matter of turning a dial.

Shelley and I wanted to highlight Traill’s Guide this past month because

  1. It pairs so beautifully with the Culinary Historians of Canada, Canada 150 challenge
  2. McGill-Queen’s University Press is soon to release a new re-set edition of the Guide, under the expert guidance of Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas. Look for it this coming June with the title Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide, Cooking with a Canadian Classic.

Fiona Lucas joins us below to tell us a little about the book and also speaks to this week’s recipe.

We include encouragement to recreate her recipes, such as a measurements chart and shopping advice. We also explore Canadian foodways in the mid-nineteenth century in relation to today’s tastes and techniques. Take the word “cake.” In Traill’s English youth early in the century, the term “cake” encompassed three basic categories: plum cake (large yeasted or egg-raised fruit breads; also called “great cake”), pound cake (plain butter cakes), and sponge cake (plain cakes made very light by the addition of eggs, yolks and whites beaten separately until very airy; also called biscuit cake and savoy cake). It was also a generic word for any sweet, flour-based baked item, what we’d call a cookie today. By her middle-aged years in Canada, “cake” was encompassing new American forms, like “cup cake.”

batter

 

dishes

Cup cakes were dollops of plain batter baked in little cups, even literally teacups, often paper-lined. Directions generally stipulated one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beaten together, and baked in little pans or cups. This contrasted with the old British pound cake and its one pound each of butter, flour, and sugar. Fancier cup cakes boasting fluted papers and a bit of icing anticipated the decorative icing-laden treats that became briefly all the rage a few years ago. Traill’s recipe was taken without attribution from Mrs Child in The American Frugal Housewife (1832).

ready to bake

For her British immigrant readers, Traill’s cake recipes were distinctly North American in three ways. They were mostly measured by volume (cups) instead of weight (pounds); raised with chemical pearlash, saleratus, or soda, not yeast or multiple eggs; and moistened with molasses, milk, or sour cream rather than softened butter. Inexpensive, quick, small, and simple, with few eggs to whisk, they were very unlike the fruit-laden, yeasted great cakes of her Suffolk childhood. In other words, exactly what busy mothers in the bush with no servants needed.

baked cake

Belying the notion that white sugar was costly and unavailable, her cakes were amply sweetened with it, brown and maple sugars being substituted only if necessary, although sometimes molasses was texturally preferable, as in gingerbreads and Indian cakes.

a slice

Text by Fiona Lucas and Alexia Moyer

Photos by Alexia Moyer

 

 

 

 

Fresh Eggs and Polenta Chips

The CHC’s Canada 150 Blog Challenge for the month of February is: doing without. Last week, Shelley sought advice on the matter from the redoubtable sisters of the backwoods, Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. This week, Licia Canton has contributed another story of emigration: from sunny Cavarzere, in the province of Venice to Montreal- North. This is a story about missing home (and eggs fresh from the chicken coop).

by Licia Canton

I have always felt the need to go back “home” – to retrieve the tastes and smells I left behind in my hometown of Cavarzere, in the province of Venice. I was only four years old when my family moved to a basement apartment in Montreal-North. I missed the sunny, rural setting we left behind. I cried a lot that first year.

I cried on my fifth birthday in February 1968. There’s a silent film of me in front of a big cake. My father is encouraging me to blow out the five candles but all I can do is cry. Maybe it was the room full of people from our hometown, none of whom were related to me. Maybe I cried because the cake did not look like the one I had had on my fourth birthday. Maybe I was just unhappy after being uprooted and replanted in a foreign land at an early age.

They say I was a talkative and adventurous child in Italy. But in Canada I missed my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I missed a whole town full of people who knew who I was and who escorted me back home whenever I ventured to the piazza on my Graziella, the little white and blue bicycle I still have 50 years later. That bicycle was the symbol of my freedom. I could go anywhere, and I was safe. In Montreal, I was cooped up in a tiny, cold apartment. My parents wouldn’t let me go out to play. Big cars went by fast, even on des Récollets Street where we lived. I couldn’t play in the backyard because it was reserved for the owner of the duplex who lived upstairs.

licia-on-bike-1966

I especially missed the foods that I was used to in Cavarzere, those my mother couldn’t replicate. The bananas purchased at Steinberg’s grocery store did not taste like the bananas in Italy. They were big and odourless. The oranges felt like plastic. They didn’t taste right either. Cherries were hard to come by. My mother purchased red and green candied cherries one time. I still recall my frustration at the sight of them. That’s not what I wanted. I did not say so because I was sure my mother had spent a pretty penny for them. She ended up making a cake with them.

Mostly, I missed my daily breakfast routine. I fed myself because my mother was busy with my baby sister, three years my junior. Every morning I went into the warm, smelly chicken coop. The rickety door alerted the chickens, and they all scattered about when I walked in. I looked into every nest before choosing my egg. It was always a little dirty but very warm in my hand. Tap, tap. I cracked it open and drank it on the spot. Yes, there were eggs at Steinberg’s and at the dépanneur at the corner of des Récollets and Prieur streets, just a short walk from our basement home. But they were cold and spotless. Not what I was used to. My mother appeased me by making sbattutino.

Back then, I also missed my grandmother’s polenta crusts: ƚe croste del paroƚo as we call them in Venetian dialect. Every day Nonna Gemma made a big pot (paroƚo) of polenta for her numerous family members. Once the huge polenta was laid out to be eaten, the residue dried up in the pot. She let me scrape the crusts. I liked the polenta chips more than the polenta itself. The chips were a treat for me.

My mother made polenta in Montreal, but she did not have my grandmother’s copper pot. There were no polenta chips to scrape off. I was disappointed whenever I saw the pot soaking in sink.

In the early years, every time I came back to Montreal after having vacationed in my hometown I had to get used to the fruit again. For a long time, that bowl of fruit at the centre of my mother’s table provoked a sense of loss in me.

That is no longer the case today. In recent years, I have seen similar bowls of fruit in the homes I’ve visited in Italy. Italians, too, buy fruit at the supermarket. They also buy ready-made polenta.

Even today, when I am sad or disappointed I crave my mother’s sbattutino. Of course, it is not the same colour as the sbattutino she made for me with eggs from the chicken coop. But I cannot complain about my parents’ decision to emigrate. I know now that it was the right decision: it gave us all a new beginning and many years of happiness. I have gotten over my sadness. And I am also grateful that my early childhood memories are so full.

Text and Photo by Licia Canton

Traill’s Irish Mash

Imagine having pork and potatoes every night for supper.

To break the monotony, you decide to innovate. Instead of pork and potatoes, you serve pork (without potatoes). And the next night, to really  switch things up, you prepare potatoes but without the pork. Such was the reality of poorly provisioned nineteenth-century emigrants living in the backwoods of Canada.

To understand the importance of the potato in this settler scenario of “doing without,” we turn this week to two of Canada’s most famous nineteenth-century emigrant writers, Catharine Parr Traill (1802-99) and her sister Susanna Moodie (1803-85).

Catharine Parr Traill (Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

Here’s a sample of Traill’s and Moodie’s potato-musings:

“The potatoe is indeed a great blessing here; new settlers would otherwise be often greatly distressed, and the poor man and his family who are without resources, without the potatoe must starve.”

– Catharine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada, 125

***

“I have contemplated a well-hoed ridge of potatoes on that bush farm with as much delight as in years long past I had experienced in examining a fine painting in some well-appointed drawing-room.”

– Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush, 375

While Moodie waxes poetic about her kitchen garden, Traill appreciates the practical knowledge necessary to vary the regular mealtime appearance of this life-saving, tuberous vegetable.

One Potato Recipe, Two Potato Recipes, Three Potato Recipes, Four . . .

 In Traill’s The Canadian Settler’s Guide, which was originally published as The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (1854), I count at least eight potato-related recipes and dishes. I suspect there are more beyond what is included in the “Potatoes” section.

“Every body knows how to cook a potato,”  Traill begins, but she includes the instructions just in case you haven’t had this daily pleasure and don’t know the trade secrets. (124)

For an economical dish, when meat is scarce and there are hungry mouths to feed, Traill recommends Irish Mash. (127) It’s the perfect meal for a large family in the backwoods.  The recipe calls for “a large quantity of potatoes” (just in case you haven’t had enough already!), seasoned with onion and pepper, and mixed with leftover cold meat. I opted for chopped bacon and green onions for a bit of (Irish) colour.

Traill describes this dish as “satisfying” rather than “delicate.” I’d have to agree. Having consumed more than my annual share of mashed potatoes during the past week, I was grateful for the luxury of ordering sushi last night.

 

Text and Photo Credits (except where indicated): Shelley Boyd

 

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush or Life in Canada. 1852. Edited by Carl Ballstadt, Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts Series, Carleton University Press, 1988.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Letters From the Wife of an Emigrant Officer. 1836. Prospero Books, 2000.

—. The Canadian Settler’s Guide. 1855. McClelland & Stewart, 1969.