Last week we luxuriated in the sweetness of Edmonton. The shifting definition of what is “sweet” depends upon the time period, the type of fare being exchanged, and the individuals or institutions involved in the trading.
Because of Edmonton’s beginnings as a trading post and a Hudson’s Bay Company fort, writers often evoke the city’s past when serving its literary fare. For Hazard Lepage, the hero of Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man, the western frontier has disappeared. Hazard is the last of the studhorse men ostensibly wanting to mate his stallion (Poseidon) and to unite with his own love, Martha Proudfoot. The modern capital is an unanticipated diversion from Hazard’s quest:
“Where in the hell—” Hazard began again.
“No.” The brakeman laughed encouragingly. “In Edmonton” (25).
Regaining consciousness after being almost buried alive by a carload of bones, Hazard finds himself in a freight train that carried him in the “direction opposite to Hazard’s expectations. Instead of being thirty-two miles east of Burkhardt, safe and sound in Coulee Hill with Martha Proudfoot slaving over him, bringing in beer from the parlor, a steak from the kitchen” (25-26), Hazard finds himself in Edmonton, accompanied only by the train brakeman, and feasting on a Spam sandwich (26). Spam, the Hormel Food Company’s pre-cooked and largely pork-based tinned luncheon meat, gained currency during WWII when innovatively sourced, convenient and affordable protein was particularly valued. But for Hazard, aspiring to steak with his beloved, a Spam sandwich provides only basic sustenance to fuel him on his way. If Hazard had been more alert, he may have sensed some foreshadowing in this meat derived from cuts of an animal that seldom take pride of roasting place. For the next stop on his search will be the slaughterhouse.
Not to be distracted, Hazard quickly goes in search of his beloved blue stallion, in the process releasing almost 800 horses from the slaughterhouse stock pens, the herd hitting Jasper Avenue and 101st Street at rush hour: “It has been argued that to this day a few wild horses survive in the coulees and ravines of North Saskatchewan River, there in the heart of the city of Edmonton” (29).
Hazard spends a night being nursed back to health by an assistant curator of a museum housed in the Legislative Building. He sleeps in “an exact replica of the chief factor’s bedroom” as it would have appeared in the fort (33). The Legislature stands on the spot where the Big House was once located. Of course, Edmonton is not where Hazard wants to be. This studhorse man refuses to be relegated to history.
An unexpected detour, Alberta’s capital is a reminder that Hazard’s world is changing. Kroetsch’s novel was once described by W. H. New as a “freewheeling adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey” (180). Such comparisons lend Edmonton a mythological aura and help us to understand how some of its (fictional) locales and meals — such as Sister Raphael’s House of Incurables with its cards games, never-ending porridge, and brown sugar—waylay Hazard from his true destination and purpose. In this instance, Edmonton’s “sweetness” acts as a dangerous substance, inducing Hazard’s inattentiveness to his goals.
Dorothy Livesay’s poem “The Pied Piper of Edmonton” also reflects upon what has been lost over time during the city’s transformation. The black licorice whip calls forth a vision of horses “galloping into cloud” over the “glitter city” in an almost child-like reverie (61). But this black treat ultimately evokes the image of “OIL OIL OIL” and the fact that industrial growth creates a capital whose “lights devour the stars! / no diadem / no diamonds” (61).
Livesay’s declaration “no diadem” calls to mind images from last week’s sampling. In Emily Murphy’s Janey Canuck in the West, Edmonton is “a queen on a throne,” blessed by her situation on the Saskatchewan river” (Ferguson 280). Be warned, though, as the past is not so easily idealized. Janey Canuck notes that while Fort Edmonton was a place for trading and a haven for the famished, it also held the potential to disrupt the lives of those who journeyed there. Along with sugar, tea, and flour, alcohol was a major commodity. Referred to as “‘hell in a half-pint’” (Ferguson 297), whisky was “the great staple article of trade” at the fort, where a man’s life, a horse, and a pint of alcohol were all assessed at equal value (Ferguson 298). The exploitation of Native peoples and unethical trading practices were regular occurrences: “Tales are told of strange scenes around Edmonton where all is quiet now. Bands of Blackfoot one thousand strong . . . crowding around a hole in the wall of the fort, where the whisky was handed out and the [buffalo] robes were taken in” until no furs remained (Ferguson 298).
Contemporary Edmonton is also not immune to alterations in its urban culture and food-scape. As we saw in Todd Babiak’s The Garneau Block, Edmontonians’ caffeine havens are repackaged by American chains. Disruptive forces also come from within the city, as the characters who populate Garneau Block, a fictional cul-de-sac, confront the imminent loss of their neighbourhood when the University of Alberta plans to expropriate the citizens’ land for a new veterinary research centre. The neighbours protest, demanding that the historical value and cultural integrity of the Garneau Block be preserved. The campaign even includes a proposal that a buffalo head shell (complete with fur) be erected over one the homes on the block to mark the block’s cultural value:
“You see, the buffalo is the great martyred god of Edmonton. Sixty million of them wiped from the plains in ninety years, and for what?” (Babiak 314).
When we take a critical step back and look at this sampling, Edmonton’s literary fare provides a lens through which readers see changes in the city over time: tradeoffs made by this trader city in the sake of settlement, industrialization, urban development. But while progress is not always positive, the past is not romanticized. The world of studhorse men and vibrant fur trading may be things of the past, but these writers don’t let us think of them with fond nostalgia.
To close, Miriam Mandel’s poem “ManWoman” offers us a final “dessert” of lyrical reflection. The poem’s speaker hungers for her pie, and the
… Enfoldment of
containing all that
Sweetness within the
Ring of Rust (73).
Mandel, who was married to writer Eli Mandel and lived in Edmonton for most her adult life, began writing poetry following the couple’s divorce. Having long struggled with depression, Mandel was sensitive to the fact that losses and joys together form the richness of human experience. Patrick Lane dedicates a poem to Miriam Mandel, and writes poignantly of meeting her on the street one bitterly cold Edmonton night, “three in the morning, the two of us out night-walking, separate in our fidelities, through the snow in Edmonton, thirty below, a wind, no one else outside, and passing her, our eyes meeting briefly, a nod, and then passing on, the look on her face not one of despair, but of such a loneliness” (Lane).
In the end, these contrasting textures and flavours give dimension to the literary fare and edible histories of an ever-trading Edmonton. As for Mandel’s poem, the speaker yearns to taste everything that life has to offer—its dark realities and its dreams—because “to Fat-bellied Eaters / all the world is real” (73).
The team at Canadian Literary Fare welcomes your comments on this Edmonton sampling and invites further suggestions. Please post below or tweet us @canlitfare.
Pack your woolies. We are heading north.
Our next multi-city stop on this Capital Meals Tour:
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Edmonton Sampling Menu
Babiak, Todd. The Garneau Block: A Novel. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006. Print.
Ferguson, Emily. Janey Canuck In the West. 3rd ed. London: Cassell and Company, 1910. Internet Archive. Web. 14. Feb. 2015. https://archive.org/details/janeycanuckinwes00murpuoft
Kroetsch, Robert. The Studhorse Man. 1969. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004. Print.
Lane, Patrick. CanLit Poets: “And of the Measure of Winter We are Sure” by Patrick Lane. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Livesay, Dorothy. “The Pied Piper of Edmonton.” 39 Below: The Anthology of Greater Edmonton Poetry. Ed. Allan Shute and R.G. Fyfe. Edmonton: Tree Frog, 1973. 61-65. Print.
Mandel, Miriam. “ManWoman.” 39 Below: The Anthology of Greater Edmonton Poetry. Ed. Allan Shute and R.G. Fyfe. Edmonton: Tree Frog, 1973. 72-73. Print.
New, W.H, “The Studhorse Quests.” Articulating West: Essays on Purpose and Form in Modern Canadian Literature. Toronto: New Press, 1972. 179-186. Print.
Written by: Shelley Boyd and Nathalie Cooke