Entrées through Ottawa

Ottawa Postcard with Postmark

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd
Photo Edit: Robyn Clarke


What comes to mind when you think about Canada’s capital cities? Democratic principles? Bureaucracy? Innovation? How about signature recipes and meals?

The Canadian Literary Fare team is exploring whether stories of food that take place in our national, provincial and territorial capitals reveal diverse ideas, histories, and flavours. Are our “capital meals” unique to their locations? 

Ottawa’s literary fare brings to mind some memorable stories but not always appetizing meals…

Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries, which won both the Governor General’s Award for fiction (1993) and the Pulitzer Prize (1995), supplies one of the most disappointing family dinners in our nation’s capital.

The novel’s protagonist, Daisy Goodwill, moves to Ottawa from the United States in her quest for polite people and a “heavenly” retreat. Daisy marries Barker Flett and begins raising their family, but her dream of domestic bliss is far from her reality. Instead of paradise, a kitchen scene “hot as Hades” sets the stage for a less-than-satisfactory meal of jellied veal loaf with sliced tomatoes and potato salad. The scene takes place on a July afternoon in 1947 in the house at 583 The Driveway (a fictional, non-existent address inspired by Shields’s one-time Ottawa home):

Carol Shield's House

Carol Shield’s House
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd


“Damn it,” she says under her breath so the children won’t hear, but of course they do hear. “Damn it, damn it.” This recipe is torn from the pages of last month’s Ladies Home Journal, a feature article called “Cooling Meals for Hot Days.” She’s followed the complicated directions meticulously, right down to the pimento strips and sliced stuffed olives that form the garnishing….

          At last. The top half of the jellied veal drops, with a sucking slithering sound, on to the platter; the rest is hurriedly prised [sic] out with a spatula– “damn it, damn it” –and the gap hidden under pimento strips and a ruffle of garden lettuce (158-159).

If we shift away from this experience of living and eating in the city of Ottawa, and toward the Houses of Parliament, then food continues to pose huge challenges despite the best of intentions. Just as Daisy’s attempt to replicate a magazine is ill-conceived, so too are the federal government’s national food policies when placed in the troubling contexts of our writers’ fictional worlds.

In her short story “Half a Grapefruit (from Who Do You Think You Are?), 2013 Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro exposes the fact that some “capital ideas” fail to account for economic disparities. Rose (Munro’s small-town Ontario protagonist) understands all too well that some foods are out of reach, despite a desire to be associated with them:

The class was Health and Guidance, a new idea…. The teacher was young and optimistic…. She went up and down, up and down the rows, making everybody say what they had for breakfast, to see if they were keeping Canada’s Food Rules.

          Differences soon became evident, between town and country…

          Rose had stuck herself on the back of the town row. West Hanratty was not represented, except by her. She was wanting badly to align herself with towners, against her place of origin, to attach herself to those waffle-eating coffee-drinking aloof and knowledgeable possessors of breakfast nooks.

          “Half a grapefruit,” she said boldly. Nobody else had thought of it (51-52). 


Plate design: Elizabeth Hann
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd


Alice Munro’s Lucky Charms. Plate design by Elizabeth Hann for the “CanLit Dinner Party” exhibition, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Nov. 24-25, 2014. An interpretation of Munro’s short story, Elizabeth’s design was partly a tribute to her own father who grew up in a working-class family in Lucknow (a small southern Ontario town not far from Wingham, where Munro grew up): “His family followed the same seasonal breakfast schedule described by Munro in ‘Half a Grapefruit’: you knew it was finally spring . . . when the porridge turned into puffed wheat.”  (Hann, Elizabeth. “Puffed Rice: A CanLit Dinner Party Concept Essay in Two Sections.” English 4401. 2014. TS.)

Munro is not alone in her critique of Ottawa’s unrealistic dietary standards. In The Occupation of Heather Rose, playwright and former NDP Member of Parliament (1997-2004) Wendy Lill has the title character, a health-care worker stationed on a northern reserve, rip up the Canada Food Guide that she has been hired to disseminate. Heather’s rejection of this official regimen goes hand in hand with her witnessing of the impoverished conditions and unjust treatment of the Snake Lake community:

“the fish were full of chemicals from the paper plant up the river, … the wild rice didn’t grow since the government put in the hydro dam” (26).

These stories suggest that Canada’s Food Rules miss the mark when it comes to citizens’ own daily, meagre meals. Nevertheless, national policies shape citizens’ ideas about what it means to eat and be “Canadian.”

To conclude our sampling of Ottawa and to launch our cross-Canada “Capital Meals” series, we offer some final reflections on national, food-related symbols. The Canadian Pacific Railway, a condition of Confederation that Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald promised to meet, seems a suitable “Ottawa Idea” to begin this tour, especially since the transcontinental railroad was at one time the means of crossing the country with tasty meals and top secret recipes such as CPR Dressing, served to its passengers. Michel Tremblay’s Crossing the Continent traces a more humble version of the CPR experience (with packed, not purchased, lunches) when a young Rhéauna (Nana) travels by rail from rural Saskatchewan to Ottawa.

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd


Arriving at night in the nation’s capital, Rhéauna is met at the station by her mother’s cousin, Madame Ti-Lou, the “she-wolf” of Ottawa–an “independent woman” who prostitutes herself from her rented suite in the Château Laurier (227). Staying with Madame Ti-Lou for a rest-stop of a single night, Rhéauna is amazed by the hotel’s grandeur, senses the scandalous shenanigans of capital life, and revels in the novel idea of breakfast in bed:

Rhéauna didn’t know that it was possible to have your breakfast in bed, unless you were sick of course….

          After she has finished explaining, Ti-Lou grabs the telephone majestically and orders all kinds of things in English. A little later, a lady in a uniform … delivers it all on a metal cart. Now the two of them are sitting up in the big cream satin bed, trays between them, breadcrumbs all over, empty little jam jars on the plates, remains of eggs solidifying in a sauce that Rhéauna doesn’t know and decides is exquisite. The little girl is even allowed to drink her first cup of coffee. It smells better than it tastes. (251)

Perhaps here would be a good place to conclude this sampling of Ottawa, with Rhéauna savouring the decadence of the Château Laurier, that iconic castle so central to the city’s landscape. After all, if breakfast is the most important and “Kanadian” meal of the day, as some writers (Gwendolyn MacEwen) have claimed, what better way to begin our tour of the country?

What Capital Meals will we uncover, and will you recognize them? What makes them “capital” in your view? Stay tuned for our first stops. May the sampling and guessing begin!

Ottawa Sampling Menu

Lill, Wendy. The Occupation of Heather Rose. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2008. Print. [Lill’s play premiered in 1986 at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg.]

Munro, Alice. Who Do You Think You Are? 1978. Toronto: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Shields, Carol. The Stone Diaries. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.

Tremblay, Michel. Crossing the Continent. Trans. Sheila Fischman. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011. Print. [Tremblay’s novel was originally published in French as La traversée du continent in 2007.]

Written By: Shelley Boyd

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

Photo Editing Credit (Post Card): Robyn Clarke

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