What Are Turning Point Meals?

Readers often refer to turning points in literary texts as those moments and plot developments that alter a character’s situation or fortune. When grappling with history, we also debate what constitutes a turning point, such as a major event or a larger societal transformation.

This fall season, the Canadian Literary Fare team will explore “turning point meals” — key scenes that mark, respond to, or prompt a notable change happening within the text and often outside of it. What kinds of food-related events will we discover? How do these turning points change over time?  Let’s begin with a more recent turning point.

The period between the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is the focus of Timothy Taylor’s  2014 book Foodville: Biting Dispatches from a Food-Obsessed City. In this short work of nonfiction (a kind of condensed food memoir), Taylor relates his personal, creative, and journalistic interests in the topic of food, and especially in Vancouver’s restaurant scene. He explores why food has gained such cultural prominence in North America by examining Vancouverites’ changing relationship with food. His glimpse back at restaurant menus from the 1970s is telling in terms of altering tastes and people’s present-day aversions to Taylor’s recreation of the once popular dishes when he hosts a dinner party.  Beef Stroganoff or Prawns in Canadian Club sauce, anyone?  How about a cocktail? A Vancouver Fizz? (See Taylor’s book for a list of some surprising ingredients.)

Taylor describes the twentieth century as North America’s “Great Era of Culinary Evangelism,” when celebrity cooks like Julia Child, Graham Kerr, and James Barber incited a new fervour in food for the everyday consumer and home-cook (Foodville 9). Through television’s reach, these celebrity chefs guided their viewers into new worlds of culinary knowledge. Audiences were utterly transfixed, as was Taylor.

In his essay “Hand to Mouth: Connecting the Pleasures of Food with Fiction,” Taylor recalls watching French chef Jacques Pepin peel a carrot the “Right Way” on television and realizing that Pepin’s technique tied him directly to “the life chain of that ingredient.” Taylor’s appreciation certainly influences his characterization of Jeremy Papier, the protagonist of his first novel Stanley Park (2001). Through his cooking, Jeremy hopes to remind Vancouver consumers “of the soil under their feet” and to counter “culinary homelessness” (136), as most seem transfixed by exotic ingredients and the latest experimentations in food preparation.

Many of the restaurant patrons depicted in Stanley Park reflect a major change that Taylor believes has reshaped people’s relationship with food in the 21st century: the dawn of the “Food Fashion Era” (Foodville 21). Recalling the effuse language of Vancouver restaurant reviews from the 1990s, Taylor notes how the critics and diners “themselves [became] the subjects of contemporary food criticism” (Foodville 21). The twenty-first century’s full-fledged foodie culture was slipping into the fickle realm of fashion. When this happens, the quality of a meal or personal preferences become less important, even irrelevant, as “Fashion is endlessly relative, a moving target” (Foodville 33). Taylor argues that the focus becomes “reflected esteem” (Foodville 33). In other words, are you dining at the trendiest restaurant and have you been seen dining there?

Taylor recreates this “food fashion” culture in his novel Stanley Park when Jeremy, the locally-inspired chef, is forced to work for a wealthy tycoon in a new restaurant called Gerriamo’s, which specializes in “Post-National Groove Food” (364). On opening night, photographers and journalists greet the well-appointed patrons as they walk the red carpet and enter the sparkling new restaurant (366). Dressed in formal attire, the guests praise the originality of the exquisite dishes and are equally charmed by the fact that they are the first to experience this food revolution. When the unusual dishes are served, a few questions ensue. One diner notes that the beef tenderloin appears rather small, until a waiter explains it was sourced from miniature cattle that graze in the Argentinian highlands (383). What they don’t realize is that chef Jeremy is staying true to his philosophy and sourcing his ingredients from nearby Stanley Park. If you think the “beef” tenderloin has a slight racoon flavour, you aren’t mistaken.

In the Food Fashion Era, trends may dominate, but Taylor also urges consumers to be knowledgeable about their food, to understand its origins, and to be conscious of the many contexts in which it is enjoyed. The most memorable, turning point meals may not be those concocted through the latest culinary innovations, but rather those that reflect or bring about changes in how people view and engage with their surrounding world and each other.

In an interview about Foodville that was published in The Vancouver Sun, Taylor was asked what was the “best meal” he ever had, and he responded, “There is no best. But there are important ones and less important ones, and I describe a few of each in the book. But to your question…I’m thinking now of a dinner I cooked for my then-girlfriend. I don’t think it was very good. But we got engaged right after it, and we’re still married. So damn. I did something right” (“Taylor Sticks” C6).

Some meals truly change the course of one’s story.  What turning point meals come to your mind when you think about Canadian literature?

Please post a comment or send us a tweet @CanLitFare.

Taylor, Timothy. Foodville: Biting Dispatches from a Food-Obsessed City. [Vancouver]: Nonvella, 2014. Print.
– – – . “Hand to Mouth: On Connecting the Pleasures of Food with Fiction.” Quill & Quire 67.3 (2001): 62. CBCA Complete. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.
– – – . Stanley Park. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001. Print.
– – – . “Taylor Sticks a Fork into Food Culture: Author Conjures Up a ‘Manifesto – with Recipes’ Reflecting a Lifelong Fascination with Food.” The Vancouver Sun 26 July 2014. C6. CBCA Complete. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd

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