Reflecting on Toronto’s Storied Streets

Some writers are careful to map their stories onto specific geographical locations. Two Toronto writers do this with particular care: Margaret Atwood and Dionne Brand.

Margaret Atwood has depicted Toronto with careful detail in her fictions, especially in The Robber Bride (1993) and Life Before Man (1979). Toronto is not signposted quite so explicitly in her earliest novel, The Edible Woman (1969), but is setting for one memorably uncomfortable restaurant dinner shared by Marian and her fiancé, Peter, in this novel about the politics of consumer society more generally. It begins well enough, with Marian and Peter enjoying their steaks, rare. “Marian was so hungry she would have liked to devour the steak at one gulp” (274). But as the meal goes on, Marian starts to remember diagrams of the various cuts of meat then she looks again at her plate to see not steak but rather “a hunk of muscle. Blood red” and finally has to put down her knife and fork (Atwood 280). Peter notices something is amiss, but does not understand what. The reader and Marian both recognize this as the beginning of trouble for their relationship and for Marian, who is already subconsciously aligning herself with the cow being so expertly dissected by her fiancé.

Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For (2005) describes a Toronto that we can recognize today. She traces the trajectories of four family groups who are newcomers to the city searching for a sense of home and comfort. Readers watch how first-generation immigrants, the parents of each of the four principal characters, find work and learn to find some moments of pleasure. Readers also watch as their children, the four principal characters, make their own way in and through the city. And readers understand how Toronto is being shaped by all these trajectories. To the city as they settle and resettle in the city’s many neighbourhoods, through Brand’s attention to geographical detail, readers will quickly recognize various parts of the city we know today: the strip on Eglinton between Dufferin and Marlee, home to stores serving the West Indian community, to which Oku’s parents belong. College Street where Carla’s and Tuyen’s apartments are near Mars Deli. Or Elizabeth Street, where Tuyen’s family owns a restaurant in which most of the workers and customers speak only Vietnamese. For the novel’s characters, food stirs up strong and complex emotions, itself revealing the challenges of settling. Tuyen loves milk, for example, an “European” food; but her body rejects it. And it is standing in her parents’ kitchen when her thoughts crystallize. Tuyen feels “comfort and contradiction” there and the feelings the well up are “uncontrollable.” “What was that unease? she wondered. Why had she wanted as far back as she could remember to “not be them”? Not be Vietnamese.” By posing that question she begins to answer it, and to make her way towards greater comfort about who she is.

Eglinton Avenue, looking west towards Dufferin. Photo Credit: Nathalie Cooke

Eglinton Avenue, looking west towards Dufferin.
Photo Credit: Nathalie Cooke

A literary map of Toronto reveals the city’s history, patterns of settlement, and moments of convergence. Food scenes often signal discomfort between individuals, when those at the table cannot see eye to eye (as in the meal scene of The Edible Woman), when one individual is distinctly uncomfortable (as in the scene with Ben and his father in Fugitive Pieces), or when food settings stir up complex emotions (as they do for Tuyen in What We All Long For). But there are also precious moments, such as the community lunch in Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, where individuals come together to celebrate. Together these scenes enrich our understanding of Ontario’s capital city.

Do other food scenes in Toronto literature come to mind?

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Toronto Sampling Menu

Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969. Print.

Atwood, Margaret. Life Before Man. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979. Print.

Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. Print.

Bates, Judy Fong. Midnight at the Dragon Café. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004. Print.

Brand, Dionne. What We All Long For. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2005. Print.

Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996. Print.

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. Print.

Written by: Nathalie Cooke

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