Welcome to Victoria, British Columbia!
The daily need to eat makes food a dynamic medium for expressing Canadians’ lives in the moment and across time. Throughout this “Capital Meals” series, we hope to sample a variety of foods, social settings, and events.
Food connected to the city of Victoria has a compelling literary past and present. In this sampling, you’ll discover stories of self-sufficiency, food-sourcing, and cultural encounters.
Emily Carr was one of Victoria’s most famous residents, and her family home at 207 Government Street is a provincial and national historic site. When she was a child, her family grew almost everything they needed for their pantry. Imagine the self-sufficiency! Berry bushes, grape vines, an apple orchard, a vegetable garden, and livestock (pigs, cows, and chickens). This family was well-provisioned.
Carr’s The Book of Small evokes Victoria’s food-related past in diverse ways. It was difficult to choose just one scene. In this episode, two cultures meet and connect through the unanticipated sharing of a meal on the shore below Cook Street:
“The Indian man and woman left their fire and their supper. Waddling across the pebbles, they launched their canoe…. They helped the Chinaman to ship his sail and clamber into their canoe. They brought him ashore….
They squatted round their fish pot…. The man dipped, the woman and the children dipped. The Chinaman dipped but, too embarrassed, ate sparingly. No words were spoken. The only sound was that of clams being sucked from their shell and the brittle rap of the empties flung among the stones.
The woman poured tea into a tin cup and passed it to the Chinaman.… Bowing to the woman, he raised the steaming liquid to his lips, made a kissing sound into the tea and sluiced its warmth noisily into every corner of his mouth before the great gulps gurgled down his throat. The woman nodded.
‘Uh-huh!’ she said, and smiled.” (137-138)
This next sample is set in the interior of British Columbia, but “Victoria” as the seat of government makes a brief appearance. As we saw in “Entrées through Ottawa” policy decisions impact foodways even if communities are geographically remote from the capitals, something playwright Tomson Highway captures as two aboriginal women reflect on unfair prohibitions in his play Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout: A “String Quartet” for Four Female Actors:
Hmph. And “Extremely Kahoona”?
Rare. Very, very rare. In fact, the only “Extremely Kahoona” category of Kahoona we have here in British Columbia lives away over in Victoria, is what Joe says.
Joe met him once. But he didn’t say much is what Joe says. Just stood there looking like a statue.
And this “Pffft!” (slaps hands together and slides them across) “Right out of the picture” type of Kahoona?
He rules like a king over millions of people making laws left, right, and centre, changing people’s lives willy nilly billy, is what Joe says…. He has so much power, it is said, that he can reach into the sky and move the sun about like a saskatoon pie, . . . he can turn saliva into wine, . . . delay the ripening of wild saskatoons by three whole weeks, just like he’s done, see? (53-54)
Sara Cassidy encourages young readers to think about the origins of their food. In her novel Windfall, students take action in present-day Victoria, as they realize the need to cultivate and share nature’s bounty with all citizens, particularly the homeless:
“I search under the skirt of a cedar tree and am jolted by what I see.
At the base of the tree is an old wool blanket in a clump, a sleeping bag with fiberfill fizzing through its large holes and a dirty pillow. Beside the bedding are three blackened candle stubs, a couple of forks, a bent spoon, and can-opener and three unopened cans. There are Heinz Baked Beans, Alphagetti and Chef Boyardee Ravioli. They are what my mom calls ‘non-food.’” (78-79)
Poet Carla Funk evokes Victoria’s character and popular rituals through domestic details and the senses. Here are excerpts from two of her poems, “Come Winter” and “Walking up Government Street,” featured on the City of Victoria’s website. The poems were written during Funk’s 2006-2008 term as Victoria’s inaugural Poet Laureate:
In this island city, snow comes
like an unexpected guest…
out of nowhere, here he is on your front step
with a bottle of chardonnay in one hand
and a fruitcake in the other:
you don’t know whether to open the door
or draw the curtains and hide.
On the other side of the tea shop window,
a woman lifts a small clay cup to her lips,
and steam wreathes her face with incense.
In Jack Hodgins’s novel Innocent Cities the rules of propriety in nineteenth-century Victoria are reinforced and challenged in ways that are illustrated through scenes involving the rituals of shared meals and drinks. Kate Horncastle is first shunned by high society after her arrival in Victoria and the various disruptions it causes. She is left uninvited to the garden parties hosted by Lady Riven-Blythe (264) and her own invitations to dinner at the hotel of which she became the proprietress were declined. Kate’s sister Annie eventually helps Kate to have her name included on the invitation list, but the occasions seldom offer appetizing fare described in detail. Readers will find the more informal occasions to supply food to whet an appetite: “the smell of bacon cooking over a camp-fire” after a hunting party, for example, or the rows of “willow grouse hanging from long sticks outside the little colony of tents” (272). Even dinners at the expensive Driard hotel seem very plain indeed, described without accompaniments. Kate, when staying there with her two children, is seen to dine on “roast chicken” and the children “roast beef” (169).
In this following scene, Kate and her sister Annie, newly arrived from Australia, share a drink of sherry on the verandah of the hotel. From their perch, they notice a group of Natives enjoying themselves by play-acting, mimicking the pompous ways of the white settlers:
“We must definitely not be caught watching” explains Kate. But the wise Zachary Jack, a Native Indian himself, has already noticed the sisters watching him, as he signals through a “deep bow in their direction.” (263) But has he noticed the women’s own secret? They were drinking sherry together after all, though the narrator explains that the “drinks must not be seen from the street.” (263)
Let’s conclude our sampling of Victoria with some unexpected flavours featured in “Geriatric Arena Grope” from Bill Gaston’s recent collection Juliet Was a Surprise: Stories. Anticipating Leonard Cohen’s concert at the Memorial Centre (despite its poor acoustics), the main character Vera Barnoff hosts a dinner for her grown daughter and estranged husband. Old tensions in the parents’ relationship soon surface, yet the near-disastrous evening is buoyed by its source of inspiration:
“Vera had decided not to tell them their dinner was Leonard-themed. It was silly guesswork anyway. The man’s favourite nosh might be pork roast for all she knew, or more likely he’d gone vegan, propped up with coffee and Scotch. She just based it on where he’d lived. The bagel chips and cream cheese and kosher dill appetizer plate was obvious. But then the tabbouleh and grilled lamb loin with lime juice and coarse salt. Some Ben & Jerry’s pistachio for dessert, and Turkish coffee. Good California merlot throughout….” (123)
Please share your thoughts or recommend other “samples” from Victoria by posting below or tweeting us @canlitfare.
In the meantime, we’ll pause to digest and offer some further reflections next week.
Victoria Sampling Menu
Carr, Emily. The Book of Small. Vancouver, Toronto, Berkeley: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004. Print.
Cassidy, Sara. Windfall. Orca Currents Series. Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2011. Print.
Funk, Carla. “Come Winter.” “Inaugural Poet Laureate: Carla Funk.” City of Victoria, 2012. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.
– – -. “Walking Up Government Street.” “Inaugural Poet Laureate: Carla Funk.” City of Victoria, 2012. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.
Gaston, Bill. “Geriatric Arena Grope.” Juliet Was a Surprise: Stories. Toronto: Penguin, 2014. 113-129. Print.
Highway, Tomson. Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout: A “String Quartet” for Four Female Actors. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.
Hodgins, Jack. Innocent Cities. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. Print.
Written by: Shelley Boyd and Nathalie Cooke
Photo Credit (House and Hotel): Shelley Boyd
Photo Credit (Post Card Edit and Books): Robyn Clarke