Bienvenue Au Québec!
As one of the oldest cities in North America, Québec boasts an expansive tradition of literary fare. This small sampling of early writing is an apéritif, enticing you to pursue the main course on your own.
Before it was known as Québec City, the capital was Stadacona, an Iroquois village that Jacques Cartier visited in the 1530s. Québec City derives its name from an Algonquian word that refers to the narrowing of the St. Laurence River. When the site became a French settlement in 1608, explorer Samuel de Champlain recounted what would become part of an evolving history of the capital’s cross-cultural encounters through food. Champlain’s Voyages includes descriptions of the construction of the first settlement and the planting of some “very good gardens” (54). During that fall, Champlain observed Native peoples residing nearby and fishing for eels. In times of scarcity, survival depended on a flexible diet and difficult choices: “All these tribes suffer so much from hunger that sometimes they are obliged to live on certain shell-fish, and to eat their dogs and the skins with which they clothe themselves against the cold”(Champlain 54).
In Frances Brooke’s 1769 novel The History of Emily Montague, the character Ed Rivers applauds stoicism in facing down hunger when he reflects on the conduct of both French settlers and First Nations people. In one letter, Rivers sings the praises of Madame de la Peltrie who as a young widow left France to pursue a religious vocation as the founder of the Ursuline convent: “she landed on an unknown shore, submitted to the extremities of cold and heat, of thirst and hunger, to perform a service she thought acceptable to the Deity” (17). In another letter, Ed Rivers similarly admires the First Nations people’s fortitude: “They are patient of cold and heat, of hunger and thirst, even beyond all belief when necessity requires, passing whole days, and often three or four days together, without food, in the woods, when on the watch for an enemy, or even on their hunting parties….” (37).
Even if pantries were adequately furnished in the French colony, extreme winter temperatures made enjoying provisions a challenge. In The History of Emily Montague, Arabella Fermor writes, “The strongest wine freezes in a room which has a stove in it; even brandy is thickened to the consistence of oil: the largest wood fire, in a wide chimney, does not throw out its heat a quarter of a yard” (103).
Traditional fare is celebrated in Philippe Aubert de Gaspé’s Les Anciens Canadiens (1863) (translated as Canadians of Old). One excerpt features a lavish dinner table set for eight. Hosted by a Seigneur, the evening opens with an apéritif— “brandy for the men and sweet cordials for the women” (131). After the guests are summoned to the table, the feast begins with soup, which “was then de rigueur for dinner and supper alike” (131). The main course is “a cold pasty, called the Easter pasty, which, on account of its immense proportions, was served on a great tray covered with a napkin. This pasty, which would have aroused the envy of Brillat-Savarin, consisted of one turkey, two chickens, two partridges, two pigeons, the backs and thighs of two rabbits, all larded with slices of fat pork. The balls of forcemeat on which rested, as on a thick, soft bed, these gastronomic riches were made of two hams” (131). Visitors to the old city will recognize the restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, which is famous for its traditional Quebec cuisine and was once the residence of the author of Les Anciens Canadiens.
Louis Frechette’s Christmas in French Canada (1899) provides glimpses of Quebec’s holidays and culinary customs. In the story “In a Snow Storm,” a judge recounts his younger days as a lawyer when he was hired to assist in an election in Charlevoix. Travelling by sleigh on Christmas Eve from Quebec City to the country, the young lawyer and his travelling companion (a doctor) plan to surprise an old classmate of theirs, who is now the curé of St. Tite des Câpes. Following the midnight mass, the three old classmates will partake in “a cheerful réveillon with wholesome tourtières and the traditional croquignoles, together with a few glasses of cordial” (82). The two travellers pack the meal in their sleigh, only to become waylaid in a snowstorm in the mountains. In an isolated cabin, the men lend assistance to couple during the the birth of their child. Christmas Eve culminates in an impromptu baptism (the child is named Noël) with the lawyer being named godfather and the hamper of food being shared by all, the table “already prepared for the feast”:
“One can imagine the explosion of gayety which followed.
All Pierre’s [the sleigh driver’s] couplets and refrains were gone through, accompanied by the clinking of glasses, and sustained by the majestic voice of the storm, roaring and thundering in the distance” (97-97).
Christian narratives, traditional fare, and sociable surroundings lend this celebration an incomparable quality that keeps winter’s blast at bay. The story contrasts with Frechette’s “On the Threshold” in which a 60-year-old Québecer recalls a Christmas in 1876 that he spent snow-shoeing with a Sioux guide, a toboggan of supplies, and four husky dogs from Fort Yukon (along the Alaskan border) to Edmonton. He and the guide travelled a distance of over 1100 miles in order to take the CPR train (which had been built as far west as Calgary) back to Québec to be with his ailing mother.
The former voyageur tells his tale to a group of urban travellers aboard a steamer on their way from Montréal to Québec City, who ironically denounce “modern progress” by declaring that “steam, electricity, and, above all, the spirit of Commercialism had killed poetry: the Eiffel tower was her funeral moment” (4). In contrast to his fellow steamship travellers, the retired voyageur, who had spent 22 years working in the north for the Hudson’s Bay Company, declares that the “most poetic thing [he] ever saw in [his] life” was a telegraph pole during his long trek with his Sioux guide (4-5). During their excursion, the two men spent their days “in continual travel, interrupted only by halts for the mid-day meal” (10-11); in the evening, the dogs were served “rations of frozen fish” and then the men lit a fire, boiled their kettle, and “supped in open air,” often exposed to wind and snow (11). Keeping track of time on a bone calendar, the voyageur hoped to make “Athabaska Landing” by Christmas Eve feeling “comforted at the thought of passing the holy Christmas Eve—that feast dear above all others to the family—in the company with those of my own kind, beneath a Christian roof” (12). Unfortunately, a blinding snow storm causes the men to lose their way. As despair sets in, the Sioux guide spots a tree in the middle of the “frozen desert” (16), which turns out to be a telegraph pole, revealing the fact that the men had, in fact, passed their rest stop and were on the trail to Edmonton:
“A telegraph pole! The advance sentinel of civilization. Was it not like a friendly hand stretched out towards me from the threshold of my own country? Was it not a greeting from a re-discovered world….
I was re-entering social life after twenty-two long years of exile…. More than that, it was almost a re-entrance into family life, for that wire which I could hear humming above my head was a link between me and the past….” (15)
Embracing the pole, the voyageur and the Sioux guide camp that night at its base. The men are “fireless and supperless,” but to the voyageur, the “voice of the wire” is poetry, summoning memories of midnight masses and “distant bells” from long ago Christmases in Québec (16).
When food is scarce or conditions are extreme, one’s understanding of sustenance takes on unexpected, even intangible forms so long as these are sources of temporary comfort.
Do you know of other “apéritif tales” from Québec City?
Please share your thoughts by posting below or tweeting us @canlitfare.
Ville de Québec Sampling Menu
Brooke, Frances. The History of Emily Montague. 1769. Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts, Vol. 1. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 April 2015.
de Champlain, Samuel. “From Voyages.” 1613. Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts. Vol. I. Ed. Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss. Toronto: Pearson, 2008. 53-56. Print.
Frechette, Louis. Christmas in French Canada. Toronto: George N. Morang and Company, 1899. Print.
de Gaspé, Phillipe Aubert. “An Old-fashioned Feast.” [From Canadians of Old. Trans. Charles G.D. Roberts] Voices from Quebec: An Anthology of Translations. Ed. Philip Stratford and Michael Thomas. Toronto: Van Nostrant Reinhold, 1977. 130-131.
Written by: Shelley Boyd and Nathalie Cooke