Halifax or “Spooney”

Welcome to Halifax, Nova Scotia, otherwise known as “Spooney,” according to the nineteenth-century travelling American salesman Samuel Slick.

Satirist Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865) is famous for his serialized sketches of Nova Scotians in The Clockmaker (1836). The titular character is the ambitious, manipulative clock-salesman known as Samuel Slick, a character who is linked to the phrase “Uncle Sam,” which many Canadians will recognize as a reference to the United States.

In the sketch “The Clockmaker’s Opinion on Halifax,” Sam Slick compares the province to a bowl of Mock Turtle Soup that he once tasted at Boston’s Tremont House  (Sam mispronounces it Tree-mount). This travelling salesman does not usually dine at such illustrious places. His typical fare is tavern grub. But one day, he is invited to join a business man for lunch at the Tremont House, where he revels in the Mock Turtle Soup (111). Sam’s memories appear accurate, as one historical menu from Tremont House lists this dish as the restaurant’s opening course. Sam mentions that he has to “drag from the bottom” of the bowl, as hidden below the thick broth are “fat pieces of turtle” and “little forced meat balls of the size of sheep’s dung” (113). According to Sam, the province of Nova Scotia “is jist like that are soup, good enough at top, but dip down and you have the riches, the coal, the iron ore, the gypsum and what not” (113).

As for the city of Halifax, Sam Slick urges its residents to start building their own economy and infrastructure. He compares Halifax to a Russian officer in Warsaw, Poland who had lost both arms in the Polish uprising in 1831. The armless veteran “was fed with spoons by his neighbours, but after a while they grew tired of it, and I guess he near about starved to death…. Now Halifax is like that are Spooney, as I used to call him; it is fed by the outports, and they begin to have enough to do to feed themselves—it must larn to live without ’em. They have no river, and no country about them; let them make a rail road to Minas Basin, and they will have arms of their own to feed themselves” (115).


Painted in Waterlogue

Diners on the Wharf at Halifax Harbour
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

As a port city, Halifax’s literary fare is often connected to stories of material trade, as rural parts of the province depended on ship traffic. In 1850, Margaret Dickie Michener (1827-1908), who lived in the ship-building community of Hantsport, describes in her diary the Orbit coming in from Halifax and bringing supplies to Mrs. Dorman’s store: “There is great rejoicing among the old ladies as they all have been out of tea. I lent all I had as I do not drink it” (58). It seems no matter where we travel in Canada, there is always a story about tea!


Halifax’s literary meals also point to evolving transatlantic relationships. Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 novel Barometer Rising captures the historical tragedy of the Halifax explosion in 1917.  In the Afterword to the MacLennan’s book, Alistair MacLeod acknowledges that “Halifax is one of the novel’s major characters”: the city is connected to England through its service during the First World War, yet it must also decipher its place in the world (308).

This maturing city stands in for a young Canada itself, and MacLennan’s novel appropriately begins with an unnamed man (later identified as the shell-shocked solider Neil Macrae) entering a “cheap restaurant” in Halifax where he orders a mug of Bovril and a ham sandwich (1). The man behind the counter prepares the meal, pouring “steaming water over the glutinous Bovril essence after he had ladled it into a thick mug” (2). He then questions his quiet customer, whom he assumes is English. Neil has been overseas for a long time and Bovril is quintessentially British in origin; this industrially produced, beef-based food was even marketed as a patriotic commodity.

According to Cambridge University historian Lesley Steinitz, “the [Bovril] company worked hard to make sure it was a food of choice of the army…. Advertising featured pictures of bulls: the strongest of beasts, whose meat turned British men into the strongest and smartest in Europe.  Essentially Bovril was imagined as a bull in a bottle” (“Bovril”). The brand name even had literary origins, as Steinitz explains: “Bovril was an inspired name marrying together meat, myth and magic: the first part of the word ‘bo’ borrowed from bovine and the second part ‘vril’ from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s science fiction novel, The Coming Race, in which the Vril-ya were an underground people with awesome electrical powers” (“Bovril”).

Bovril Poster, 1900
Image Credit: WikiCommons

For Canadian Neil Macrae, having recently returned to Halifax after serving in the war, Bovril is an appropriate meal, as both his character and the city are about to come into their own: still tied to England yet ready to forge an identity of strength during the Halifax explosion.  In the first chapter, Neil devours his ham sandwich and orders a second mug of Bovril, drinking it while staring at himself in the mirror behind the restaurant counter:

The war had made as big a change in him as it seems to have made in Halifax. His shoulders were wide, he was just under six feet tall, but his appearance was of run-down ill health, and he knew he looked much older than when he had left three years ago. Although he was barely twenty-eight, deep lines ran in parentheses around his mouth, and there was a nervous tic in his left cheek…. In England he would have been labelled a gentleman who had lost caste” (3).

Neil appears to have the stature of a “bull,” yet is weakened by the war. The two mugs of Bovril provide some of the restorative nourishment he will require in the coming days once he reunites with former loved ones and confronts the tragedy that is about to befall the capital. Following his drink, Neil climbs Citadel Hill to survey the city and its famous harbour.

Painted in Waterlogue

Citadel Hill
Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd


Another important neighbourhood of this port city is Africville, a community once located on the shores of the Bedford Basin which was razed in the 1960s.  During our last stop in Fredericton, New Brunswick, we sampled the literary fare of George Elliott Clarke’s novel George and Ru, which included memories of an impoverished childhood set in Nova Scotia. In a few days, the Tableaux Blog will feature a recipe inspired by the character Cora in Clarke’s long narrative poem Whylah Falls, which takes place in Nova Scotia. Michelle Banks describes Whylah Falls as Clarke’s effort “to mythologize the Africville space…. Clarke imagines the ideal Nova Scotian black community, and his portrait draws not only upon the Halifax settlement, but also upon the rural black communities he knew growing up in Windsor, Nova Scotia. By positioning his community outside the urban, Clarke is able to employ the elements of pastoral poetry, and can thereby suggest a timeless and idealized mythic environment” (Banks). With that enticing description, we will leave you hungering for this poetic space and its magical fare until Tableaux makes its culinary stop in Halifax. Go fetch a bowl and a spoon!

Painted in Waterlogue

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

We welcome your thoughts on Halifax’s literary meals by posting below or tweeting us @canlitfare. 

Our final stop on our cross-Canada “Capital Meals” tour is fast approaching: 

St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Halifax Sampling Menu

Banks, Michelle. “Myth-Making and Exile: the Desire for a Homeplace in George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls.” Canadian Poetry 51 (Fall/Winter 2002). Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/cpjrn/vol51/banks.htm&gt;

“Bovril: A Very Beefy (and British) Love Affair.” University of Cambridge. 5 July 2013. Web. 2 May 2015. <http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/bovril-a-very-beefy-and-british-love-affair&gt;

Haliburton, Thomas Chandler. “The Clockmaker’s Opinion on Halifax.” The Clockmaker. 1836. Ed. Richard A. Davis. Peterborough: Broadview Editions, 2014. 111-116. Print.

MacLennan, Hugh. Barometer Rising. 1941. New Canadian Library series. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007. Print.

MacLeod, Alistair. Afterword. 1989. Barometer Rising. By Hugh MacLennan. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007. 305-321. Print.

Michener, Margaret Dickie. “Widowhood.” Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914. Ed. Mary Alice, et al. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010. 55-66. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 April 2015.


Written by: Shelley Boyd

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