Regina’s Literary Breadbasket

Welcome to the Queen City!

Welcome to Saskatchewan, the land of living skies!

Surrounded by wheat, flax, and canola fields, Regina prides itself on traditions of literary fare that are inextricably tied to the earth. Saskatchewan has long been called the world’s breadbasket, and stories from the capital evoke a sense of wonder for this daily staple.

Canola field outside Regina.
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

In her short prose piece “A Lodestone,” Marion Beck describes a woman baking bread. Her kitchen work and maternal body combine to create a scene of reassuring plenty:

Somewhere there is a woman in a kitchen baking bread. The air is filled with the yeasty smell. Warmth from the oven flushes the woman’s cheeks. Her face is plump, the only lines she has upturn as though she always smiles. . . . Beneath her apron her body billows; she is comfortable as a cottage loaf, cuddly as a cushion.” (202)

Born and educated in England before moving to Regina in the 1960s, Beck likely evokes her own origins through the image of the cottage loaf. As for the title, it refers to a naturally magnetized mineral rock, and the woman baking bread has this constant, magical pull. In the kitchen, the stool beside her is never empty. She is a “lodestone” that draws others near. When one child leaves with doll-sized gifts of dough, another soon appears and “is welcomed, is lifted up with floury hands” (Beck 203).

In other stories, Regina fails to provide a homey scene, yet bread remains the one comfort. In Tableaux’s St. Patrick’s Day post on Irish Soda Bread, Alexia Moyer points to Quebec writer Michel Tremblay’s Crossing the Continent in which a young Rhéauna is offered an unappetizing, colourless meal by her Aunt Régina. The only thing poor Rhéauna enjoys is a single slice of fresh bread. It is the prairies, after all!

Vintage Saskatchewan Breadboard.
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

Memories and the possibilities of bread haunt Regina’s stories. In Tim Lilburn’s essay “Ghost-house,” from the edited collection Regina’s Secret Spaces: Love and Lore of Local Geography, this Canadian poet recalls his childhood spent playing near the abandoned Government House at 4607 Dewdney Avenue. Built in 1891 to replace the original building (which lasted from 1883-1891), the current Government House is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan (“New Government House”). For a period of time beginning in the mid 1940s, Government House was closed and the building used by a variety of institutions. Lilburn recalls one summer in the early 1960s when his brother and he would peek through the windows of the near-empty mansion, spying “a wooden spoon left on the counter, bread dough still clinging to it” (152). This was a time when “milk and ice [were] still delivered by horse” and Borden’s Bread was regularly consumed at supper, the boys “chewing slowly” (Lilburn 152). Only longtime residents will remember Borden’s Bread. Once located at 1709 Winnipeg Street, Borden’s Bread was a Regina bakery that operated from 1939 to 2006 (“A 67-Year Tradition”). The business was started by Constantine Sawchuk, until his daughters, Ruth Ellefson and Olga Stinson, assumed responsibility in 1957. The bakery closed when Ruth retired at the age of 76, and at the time, she noted that business had slowed down because of a change in the industry and how Regina residents shopped:

“‘Small bakeries have a tough time, don’t kid yourself,’ Ellefson said. A move by most of the major supermarkets to establish their own in-house bakeries has been a major blow to small bakeries who used to supply the supermarkets, Ellefson said.” (“A 67-Year Tradition”)

Industrially Produced Bread
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

When Tim Lilburn remembers spying a spoon of bread dough through the window of a haunted Government House, his story rings true as the building claims to have at least one ghostly resident named “Howie.” “Howie” is supposedly the ghost of Cheun Lee, the head cook who passed away in the servants’ quarters in the late 1930s (McDonald). Apparently this ghost likes to reorganize the pantry and china when no one is looking!

Despite years of neglect in the 1940s and 1950s, Saskatchewan’s Government House eventually became a national historic site. Today’s Regina residents are welcomed to Government House every January 1st by the Lieutenant Governor for the New Year’s Day Levee (a tradition since 1884) for refreshments of seasonal baking (fruit cake, cookies, tarts) and a glass of sherry. In Canadians at Table, food historian Dorothy Duncan notes that New Year’s Day is typically “a time for visits to friends, clergy, heads of government and, in many communities, the hosting of levees by mayors, reeves, and heads of state” (196). The hosting of levees “started in the early days of the French governors to New France. The soldiers and militia of the day attended the governor’s levee to show their allegiance and respect. This tradition has been carried and is uniquely Canadian” (Quarton).

Regina clearly brings a great deal of history and variety to the table. Consider this sampling of local folk forms.

In All In Together Girls, a study and collection of skipping songs from Regina school yards, author Robert C. Cosbey presents these childhood rhymes as a “pure folk form,” created without adult input or direction (vii).

IMG_0188

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

Interviewing school girls and recording their songs between 1972 and 1978, Cosbey gathered 114 unique songs (plus 57 variants) from around Regina (viii-ix). Food and domestic scenes make frequent appearances in these songs, as do young girls’ anxieties about sexuality and bodily functions. Here are some samples of verses gathered in Cosbey’s collection:

Jelly in the bowl, jelly in the bowl,
Wiggle-waggle, wiggle-waggle,
Jelly in the bowl.
Sausage in the pan, sausage in the pan,
Turn ’em over, turn ’em over,
Sausage in a pan (79).

**
Icecream soda, lemonade tart.
Tell me the name of your sweetheart (76).

**
Campbell’s Soup makes you poop
Down your leg and in your boot
On the floor, out the door
That’s what Campbell’s Soup is for (66).

Painted in Waterlogue

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

The skipping lyrics point to an urban setting and “the world of a child. If there are sausages, no one has worked for them—they are just there” (Cosbey 46). Some games, where one skipper jumps in as another exits, mimic domestic scenes where food is part of a social narrative of status and exchange:

Backdoor Suzy had a cup of tea
In jumped company
And out jumped she (63).

As Cosbey observes, “The skipping arena itself is . . . ‘our house,’ for it has a front door and a back door” and young girls furnish this imaginary world with everyday items, including food and its rituals (45).

Urban “folk forms” can be hard to discover unless one’s origins are tied to the local community.  In Regina, children are not the only purveyors of food-related songs, as the capital boasts its own Liver Lovers Luncheon Club which has been featured numerous times in newspapers and on CBC radio and television. For many years before its closure in 2013, the cafeteria at Regina’s City Hall famously served liver every Thursday.

“I Love Regina” sign outside Regina City Hall.
Photo Credit: Marilyn Boyd

The liver was so reputable that the Liver Lovers Luncheon Club formed in 1984, creating their own badges (felt-fabric plates with the acronym of the club’s name alongside the silhouettes of a fork and knife). They also invented a club anthem that keeps evolving with new verses added every year. Here’s a small sampling:

“We love liver, yes we do!
Smothered in onions and bacon too,
Mushrooms help – now that’s a fact,
So we formed the livers pact!” (“Regina Liver Lovers”)

The Liver Lovers Luncheon Club continues to meet at local liver-haunts, including the cafeterias at the SaskPower building at 2015 Victoria Avenue and the Credit Union Central of Saskatchewan at 2055 Albert Street.

If you are not partial to liver, this next dinner option may be even further down your list, despite the fact it’s an excellent source of protein.

Alison Lohans’ short story “Grasshopper Stew” traces her protagonist Marg as she struggles to meet a work deadline amid the busy surroundings of the family home. Frustrated by her husband Doug’s inattentiveness and less-than-helpful parenting style, Marg and her two children gather a bountiful harvest of grasshoppers from an empty field at the end of their block. After rinsing the live insects in a colander and frying them in a pan (a lid is necessary to prevent escape), Marg watches her husband enjoy the meal, which proves to be a successful way of getting his attention:

“Doug was helping himself to thirds! He must genuinely like the stuff. How on earth would she explain her recipe?
Doug sensed her staring. He paused, looked at his fork. Draped across it was the soggy carcass of a grasshopper, one leg dangling towards his plate. ‘What the hell? he yelled. . . .
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’” (163).

“Reginald the Grasshopper” in early spring .
A metal sculpture designed by artist Wilf Perrault
(at the corner of Albert Street and Leopold Crescent, Regina).
Photo Credit: Marilyn Boyd

***

While Saskatchewan may be known as the world’s “breadbasket,” this descriptor has not always reflected the actual experiences of its inhabitants. How one understands plenty depends on one’s cultural foodways and changing relationship with the land.

John Coulter’s famous play The Trial of Louis Riel used to be performed every summer in the Queen City and was often staged at Government House. In 1885, Métis leader Louis Riel was tried for treason in a Regina courthouse for his part in leading the North-West Resistance. Riel’s objective was to hold the government to account for its unjust treatment of Métis and Native peoples:

“Petitions. Petitions were sent to the federal government in Ottawa. Petitions have been sent for years. But so irresponsible was that government they hardly even bothered to reply. Instead . . . of dealing with the just claims of the people, all they have done is send police and more police. No answer but police” (Coulter 58).

In the end, Riel was found guilty and executed in the capital. Coulter’s play concludes with Riel’s address to the court in which he describes the prairies as his mother country and bears witness to the plight of his people:

“When I came into the Northwest in July, the 1st of July 1884, I found the Indians suffering. I found the half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were getting sick and weak every day” (Coulter 57).

Riel’s final request is for the welfare of his wife and family, mentioning that their only food is “a sack of flour” supplied by Father André, the priest who worked at Fort Carleton and served as Riel’s spiritual advisor during the trial (Coulter 65). Starvation is a real possibility for Riel’s family, and the Métis people are at the forefront of his mind even as he is sentenced to hang.

***

Regina’s more recent stories feature the city as a gathering place. Food scenes often take place in private dwellings, providing glimpses of diverse cultural heritages.

In the short story “Big Otis and Little Otis,” Dianne Warren recounts the life experiences of two female friends. The opening scene features the young women renting the attic apartment in a three-story home. The homeowner, John Papandreos, invites the women down for a celebratory glass of Ouzo following the birth of his child:

[the] living-room walls were covered with framed photographs of Greece and all the coffee tables displayed photographs of happy families, some with three or four generations posing together. . . . All the furniture in the living-room was draped with squares of lace. . . . The men in the room were all much older than we were, and were dressed in suits. They spoke Greek much of the time, and laughed heartily. I felt like I was part of a ritual, but I wasn’t sure what to say or do. I smiled whenever the men laughed, and pretended I understood perfectly (70).

Saskatchewan Legislature, Wascana Park.
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

Barbara Rendall’s “Crossing the Creek” tells the story of a transplanted American, Trish Sparks, who faces the “assault of a minus 35 prairie winter night” (60) in order to walk from her Cathedral neighbourhood home, crossing Wascana Creek on the foot bridge, to dine with her American friends, the Welshes, who live in the Lakeview neighbourhood. From the doorway, Vanessa (Trish’s Canadian-born daughter) calls to her mom as she navigates the snow piled by the curb: “You look really Canadian, Mum!” (60). During the frigid trek, Trish looks forward to the warmth of the Welshes’ American-style home of “creature comforts” with “expensive drinks, and a many-course meal” (62).

Regina’s famous mystery writer Gail Bowen captures a uniquely Irish way of celebrating Halloween in her novel A Colder Kind of Death. The protagonist, Joanne Kilbourn, lives on Regina Avenue, and her octogenarian friend, Hilda McCourt, shares with Joanne’s children the legend of Jack-O’-Lantern who roams the earth with a burning piece of coal placed in a turnip (not a pumpkin), because “‘this was long ago in Ireland, and they didn’t have pumpkins’” (Bowen 12). Following the kids’ evening of trick-or-treating, Joanne and Hilda enjoy glasses of Jameson’s whisky and barm brack—a traditional Irish bread served on Halloween. The spiced loaf contains candied peel and fruit, and Hilda inserts little paper charms into the centre that “are supposed to foretell your future” (Bowen 15).

We’ll pause for now and reflect on Regina, or “Hopperton,” as Marg believes the city ought to be renamed in Lohans’ short story (157). Yes, grasshoppers are plentiful on the prairies during hot, dry summers. If you’d prefer to pass on the grasshopper stew, maybe a Grasshopper beer would help to wash down this literary fare?

We’ll share a few more thoughts on Regina’s culinary imagination next week.

In the meantime, Regina residents, what are your favourite kinds of bread?

Please post below or tweet us @canlitfare.

 

Regina Sampling Menu

“A 67-Year Tradition Coming to an End.” The Leader-Post 11 Dec. 2006. CanWest Media. Web. 15 March 2015.

Beck, Marion. “A Lodestone.” Lodestone: Stories by Regina Writers. Ed. Ven Begamudré. Saskatoon: Fifth Street Publishers, 1993. 202-203. Print.

Bowen, Gail. A Colder Kind of Death: A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery. 1994. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2011. Print.

Cosbey, Robert C. All In Together Girls: Skipping Songs from Regina, Saskatchewan. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1980. Print.

Coulter, John. The Trial of Louis Riel. 1968. [Ottawa]: Oberon Press, 2004. Print.

Duncan, Dorothy. Canadians at Table: Food, Fellowship, and Folklore: A Culinary History of Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Group, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 16 March 2015.

Lilburn, Tim. “Ghost-house.” Regina’s Secret Spaces: Love and Lore of Local Geography. Ed. Jeannie Mah, et al. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 2006. 152. Print.

Liver Lovers Luncheon Club.” Kathy Stedwill, 12 March 2015. Web. 16 March 2015.

Lohans, Alison. “Grasshopper Stew.” Lodestone: Stories by Regina Writers. Ed. Ven Begamudré. Saskatoon: Fifth Street Publishers, 1993. 154-164. Print.

McDonald, Alyssa. “The Spirits Who Linger at Regina’s Government House.” Metro. 31 Oct. 2012. Free Daily News Group Inc. Web. 16 March 2015.

New Government House.” Government of Saskatchewan, 2013. Web. 16 March 2015.

Quarton, J. H. “Levee Explained.” Edmonton Journal 18 Dec. 1989. A9. Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

Rendall, Barbara. “Crossing the Creek.” Lodestone: Stories by Regina Writers. Ed. Ven Begamudré. Saskatoon: Fifth Street Publishers, 1993. 56-68. Print.

Tremblay, Michel. Crossing the Continent. 2007. Trans. Sheila Fischman. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011. Print.

 

Written by: Shelley Boyd

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