“The visitor to the West,—the kind of visitor who writes up his visit,—is supposed, on his first morning in Winnipeg, to throw wide open his window and say, ‘So this is Winnipeg’! I didn’t. I was too cold. And there was no one to hear me except the waiter with the tea, and he knew it was Winnipeg” (Leacock 37).
The title of this week’s post takes its inspiration from Stephen Leacock’s book My Discovery of the West. If one is unfamiliar with a city, then perhaps a famous writer’s own visit to Manitoba will provide some insight for the “Capital Meals” series?
Leacock begins his travelogue with an unenthusiastic first morning. It’s important to note, here, that when Leacock was 18 years old, his father, Peter, abandoned the family and “ran off to Manitoba at the height of a real estate boom” in the 1880s (Spadoni xiv). Known more for his gambling and drinking than his entrepreneurial skill, Peter failed in his Winnipeg venture, or as Leacock bluntly describes it, “my father lasted nearly a year, before [he] blew up” (51). Perhaps these troubled memories colour Leacock’s chapter, but more than likely his satiric vision leads to his mixed impressions of the city.
Commenting on the frigid climate, Leacock claims that January winds funnelling down Main Street and Portage Avenue stimulate one’s creativity. He’d rather leave the tropics to “the bums, the loafers, and the poets” who congregate under palm trees with their glasses of wine; instead, Leacock opts for Winnipeg’s winters, preferring “a tenderloin steak in a grill room on Main Street with a full-sized woman raised in the cattle country” (40).
All joking aside, there are aspects of the city that Leacock gets right, and others that he more than misconstrues. Reflecting on the region’s history prior to becoming a province in 1870, Leacock incorrectly describes the territory as “one vast unknown emptiness” and as “new and unoccupied” (40).
Leacock fails to account for Native and Métis peoples, but author Adele Wiseman acknowledges these historical layers in her creative essay “A Brief Anatomy of an Honest Attempt at a Pithy Statement about The Impact of the Manitoba Environment on My Development as an Artist.” In an ironic reflection on “The Manitoba Way” of creating new communities, Wiseman describes racial inequalities and cultural prejudices faced by many new immigrants, as well as the injustices imposed on aboriginal and Métis peoples, who were “forced . . . to withdraw to restricted living zones” (101). Agrarian settlement of the west meant the destruction of ecologies and cultural foodways, which Wiseman evokes: “Can you imagine how the bison must feel, huddled down there in their potholes, listening to our noises up and above, and remembering all those glorious years of thundering over their own free prairie?” (101).
Poet Marvin Francis in his long poem City Treaty, captures a contemporary experience of cultural displacement when Native peoples move from reservations to cities looking for opportunities. Originally from Heart Lake First Nation, Francis moved to Edmonton as a young boy with his mother in order to avoid residential school. Francis spent many of his adult years in Winnipeg which he describes in his article “My Urban Rez”:
“Winnipeg, with its high Aboriginal population, is one place where you can walk downtown and meet other Aboriginals. Regina is like that, too, but a city like Calgary or Toronto has few Aboriginals visible downtown. . . . Winnipeg is large enough in Native population to have . . . a strong arts presence that literally feeds an artist . . . by offering inroads for beginning writers or visual artists” (“My Urban Rez”).
Francis appreciates the artistic nourishment that Winnipeg provides, yet he cannot deny the city’s poverty. The urban environment creates a distanced relationship with the land:
“The scramble for housing, food and so much more, gives the city that hard edge. You cannot go fishing or hunt. Sewers clog the Red River, while an Aboriginal does not carry a gun downtown as a rule, ducks or no ducks” (“My Urban Rez”).
Francis alludes to profound changes to the city’s waterways, especially since the rivers used to be sources of food, gathering places, and pathways for trade. Even Leacock recalls the rivers’ earlier significance. Before Winnipeg replaced Fort Garry as the centre of the region, the city’s name referred to a group of houses and trading stores near a wagon-road that ran alongside the Red River and the portage trail that led to the Assiniboine River (Leacock 41). Leacock notes that “Winnipeg” means “‘dirty water’” but that the “two rivers lost all economic meaning years ago. They are only useful now to build bridges across” (38).
Traditional aboriginal foodways have been compromised because of settlement and modernization,and Marvin Francis’ poem “mcPemmican” expresses his concerns over the urban world’s “fast-food, throwaway culture” (“My Urban Rez”):
let the poor intake their money take their health
chase fast food off the cliff
deer on a bun (“mcPemmican” 6)
Once used for hunting bison, buffalo pounds have long since been relegated to the past. Despite the destruction of aboriginal foodways on the plains, Francis’ poem evokes the resilience of First Nations peoples who have the power to “chase fast food off the cliff” and to value their own cultures, rather than immersing themselves in a consumer world of little worth.
mcPemmican Plate. Plate design by Jennifer Parnell for the “CanLit Dinner Party” Exhibition, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Nov. 24-25, 2014.
“This image of the fast food jumping off the cliff is Francis’ way of bringing the injustice to the present.” (Parnell, Jennifer. “CanLit Dinner Party Concept Essay.” English 4401. 2014. TS.)
A modern-day poetic vision of pemmican seems most appropriate when we consider Winnipeg’s early beginnings as the Red River Colony in 1812 (Bumstead). Connected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Red River Colony and its newly arrived European inhabitants struggled to survive, and in 1814, the governor issued the Pemmican Proclamation, which forbade the export of pemmican from the colony. The new regulation profoundly upset Métis and North West Company traders who depended on the preserved meat for their long journeys (Foster). If any of our readers would like to try making pemmican, you’ll find a recipe online through the Canadian Encyclopedia.
One thing Stephen Leacock correctly observes during his visit to the capital is the fact that Winnipeg was “from its birth a cosmopolitan place, a meeting place of people from all over the world” (53). As the gateway to the west, Manitoba attracted settlers from across the globe, and this diversity marks its stories of food.
In “A Night of Evil Deeds” from Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, Laura Goodman Salverson describes the hardships of the first 1200 Icelandic settlers to Gimli, near Lake Winnipeg, in 1872. Upon arriving in Canada, many of Icelanders contracted smallpox, and by the time they reached their destination, the Manitoba government was ill-equipped to aid the new settlement. In her 1939 book, Salverson reflects that while Gimli has “since become a favourite summer resort, with railway flier service to Winnipeg, it is difficult to conceive of a time when all the surrounding country was a fly-infested quagmire” (178).
Quarantined in their new home, the Icelanders faced isolation, sickness, and a lack of supplies, resulting in the deaths of 125 babies:
“How desperately their mothers tried to keep them alive on fish broth and bean stock, the only substitutes available for milk, which could not be had. The Government had intended to supply the settlers with cattle, but all such worthy plans were disrupted and long delayed by raging pestilence. It was hard enough to get staple foods to the people, to say nothing for livestock and luxuries. Every few weeks the Mounted Police rode up to a specified zone with rations of salt, pork, and beans, food the Icelanders had never before tasted, and, consequently, found indigestible fare in their enfeebled condition” (179).
Because the capital has always been a cultural meeting place, Winnipeg houses numerous immigrant tales of meal-time traditions. In The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg, editors David Arnason and Mhari Mackintosh write, “There are a multitude of Winnipegs. Probably the best known is the North End” (xi).
Born in Hungary, novelist John Marlyn describes this ethnic community of Winnipeg’s North End in Under the Ribs of Death. One scene fills over two pages with tantalizing description, detailing a feast of exquisite Eastern European flavours: paprika, garlic, horseradish, onions, pickled red peppers, sausages, chicken goulash, and sarma (ground meat and rice flavoured with paprika and onions, wrapped in sauerkraut leaves). The main character, Sandor, later revels in platters of desserts: kupfel (pastries with apricot, cherry, or plum fillings), Mohn strudel (ground poppy-seeds with sugar and raisins in pastry), and torte. We’ll leave you to ponder this assortment of dishes, as Marlyn’s novel will be the subject of the Tableaux Blog‘s recipe post in a few days!
Adele Wiseman’s parents immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine, and her Jewish heritage informs her novel Crackpot, which takes place during the Depression. The protagonist, Hoda, and her family live in the poor North End of Winnipeg. As a young child, Hoda is carried around in a sack and fed constantly (to keep her quiet) by her hump-backed mother, Rahel, who cleans houses for a living. When Rahel suddenly dies, the wealthy Uncle Nate, who resentfully sponsored Rahel’s and her blind husband Danile’s immigration, feels beholden, along with his wife, to pay respects at the impoverished family home during the rituals of mourning. Uncle Nate’s wife, who is initially “somewhat aloof” (50) with the other women, eventually converses with her former acquaintances, even though financial fortune sets her apart. The women discuss food and share recipes, with the wealthy Auntie divulging the secret of her twelve-egg cake: “she had run short of eggs and had only used nine” (51). Once Auntie leaves, the women voice their “delight at having discovered that rich though she was she was still as stingy as ever. Imagine cheating a cake of three eggs!” (51). For these women, Auntie’s baking becomes a way of levelling her character within Winnipeg’s Jewish community. One “virulent old lady” declares that she is more than certain that there were only a total of four eggs, not nine, in the cake as “the sawdust was hardly holding together!” (51). Content in their assessment, the women concur that Auntie may be “stingy and a bit of a fool with the airs she put on,” but “she wasn’t a bad sort” (51).
If flavours from the old country are transported to Winnipeg kitchens, so, too, are personal histories, which impact not only how meals are prepared, but also what is omitted from the menu.
Shifting neighbourhoods to Winnipeg’s West End, we discover a Sunday dinner celebration for Larry Weller’s 30th birthday that takes place in Carol Shields’ novel Larry’s Party. Larry grew up on Ella Street, where Larry’s mother, Dot (Dorothy), suggests most of her neighbours are “a race of clumsy unfortunates” who don’t know any better (43). These Winnipegers store flour in the original packaging until their pantries are infested with insects and think all green vegetables are healthy (43). But Dot Weller knows better. She always frets when preparing family dinners having accidentally killed her mother-in-law back in England when she served botulism-ridden beans from the garden that had been improperly preserved (51). In order to escape a grief-stricken, accusatory family, Dot and Stu Weller immigrated to Canada, but poor Dot remains wracked with guilt: “In all Larry’s thirty years he has not once tasted that treasonous vegetable” (53).
For Larry’s birthday dinner, the menu is British-inspired and, above all, safely prepared! Lancashire hotpot is the main course—“a simple oldtime recipe that Dot’s mother used to make on Saturday nights back in England” (45). For dessert, Dot serves Larry’s favourite lemon meringue pie, baked the morning of the dinner: “she could have made it yesterday and kept it on the top shelf of the fridge just under the freezer section, but with her history she wouldn’t dream of taking a chance like that, and who could blame her?” (45).
So, this is Winnipeg’s literary fare — sumptuous, varied, and missing a few eggs!
In this sampling, food takes on diverse roles. It is the essential component for survival that is lacking in a desolate new place. It is a staple and cultural tradition drastically altered due to colonization. It is a way of tasting and remembering one’s original home. And it is a subtle means of scrutinizing the distinctions that inevitably arise within an ethnic community as families transform themselves in their adopted country.
Perhaps our fellow “literary traveller” Stephen Leacock was partially right in his assessment of Winnipeg:
“Buried in the heart of a continent, it still looks over the rim of it in all directions” (Leacock 53).
We hope you’ll share with us your own stories of Winnipeg’s fare.
Tweet us @canlitfare.
Winnipeg Sampling Menu
Arnason, David, and Mhari Mackintosh, eds. The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2005. Print.
Bumstead, J.M. “Red River Colony.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation, 2013. 28 Mar. 2015.
Foster, John E. “Pemmican.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation, 2006. 28 Mar. 2015.
Francis, Marvin. “mcPemmican.” City Treaty: A Long Poem. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 2002. 6-7. Print.
– – – . “My Urban Rez.” Canadian Dimension. 1 Nov. 2004. Web. 25 Mar. 2015. <https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/my-urban-rez-marvin-francis>.
Leacock, Stephen. “So This Is Winnipeg.” My Discovery of the West: A Discussion of East and West in Canada. Boston and New York: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1937. 37-53. Print.
Marlyn, John. Under the Ribs of Death. 1957. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2010. Print.
Salverson, Laura Goodman.“A Night of Evil Deeds.” Early Voices: Portraits of Canada By Women Writers, 1639-1914. Ed. Mary Alice Downie, Barbara Robertson, and Elizabeth Jane Errington. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010. Print. 177-185.
Shields, Carol. Larry’s Party. Toronto: Random House, 1997.
Spadoni, Carl. “Introduction.” Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Ed. Spadoni. Peterborough: Broadview, 2002. vii-lxxxi. Print.
Wiseman, Adele. “A Brief Anatomy of an Honest Attempt at a Pithy Statement about The Impact of the Manitoba Environment on My Development as an Artist.” Mosaic: Manitoba Centennial Issue 3.3 (Spring 1970): 98-106. Print.
– – -. Crackpot. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974. Print.
Written by: Shelley Boyd