A Handmaid’s Breakfast

When exploring Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction, you are advised to begin with breakfast.

Breakfasts enable Atwood’s characters to greet each day anew, alleviating some of their dark predicaments. Atwood, herself, has even described this morning meal as “the most hopeful …, since we don’t yet know what atrocities the day may choose to visit upon us.” (“Spotty-Handed” 173)

But in Atwood’s first dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), breakfast initially seems too regimented to offer inspiration. In the theocratic society of Gilead, fertile women (and only a few remain) have lost their freedom and now serve as handmaids: second-class citizens who bear children for barren couples of the governing class. Handmaids’ breakfasts are strictly monitored. Vitamins are key. No coffee or tea permitted. These stark meals reinforce the women’s indoctrination and servitude: “You must be a worthy vessel.” (Atwood 75)

In one scene, the protagonist, Offred, lists the items of her morning repast: “In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an egg-cup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm.” (120)

The oppressive society is reflected in the meal, the two eggs conveying, as Glenn Deer notes, that a handmaid “literally gives birth—lays her egg—while seated in a special ‘birthing stool,’ a chair that allows the [upper-class] wife to sit behind and above the surrogate mother.” (101)

But is there any hope to be had in this cold, institutional repast?

Offred carefully inspects the egg shells, at first seeing only a barren moonscape of purity. A moment later, she shifts her perspective and decides that the “life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside” (120). In Offred’s and the Republic of Gilead’s hidden depths, the potential for change quietly awaits.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Print.

– – – . “Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behaviour.” Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing. London: Virago Press, 2005. Print.

Boyd, Shelley. “Ustopian Breakfasts: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam.” Utopian Studies 26.1 (2015): 160-182. Penn State University Press.

Deer, Glenn.“The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopia and the Paradoxes of Power.” Margaret Atwood: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Print.

Photo Credit: Alexia Moyer & Text Credit: Shelley Boyd

Susan Musgrave’s “Off-the-Continental Breakfast”

As summer begins, our reflections on Canadian Literary Fare bring to mind the “gracious outdoor living” of the barbecue, the unexpected pleasures of garden veggies (especially carrots), and the labour-intensive ingenuity of dandelion coffee.

But what about breakfast?

This meal belongs to no single season, yet it is our chosen source of inspiration for the next few months. And it seems fitting. Summertime brings extended daylight hours, which means breakfast becomes all the more important for fuelling one’s day. Or does it?

The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti recently questioned this ever-popular breakfast myth. Clearly, the stories we tell ourselves about our meals influence our daily regimens. The Canadian literary world comes with its own recommendations. In The Canlit Foodbook, Margaret Atwood observes that “breakfast seems to do something for poets that lunch does not do” and quickly adds “It may be the eggs” (3). B.C. poet and recent cookbook author Susan Musgrave likely agrees.

Musgrave’s poem “Poet at the Breakfast Table”,  which originally appeared in Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries (1973), opens with the speaker divulging a secret for creativity: “I eat those / soft and / yellow parts” (102). This breakfast inspiration implies freshness, sweetness, and vitality — those symbolic eggs of new beginnings where nothing is “troubled, / hardened or / dry” (102).

But Musgrave’s morning meal has another side. At the poem’s midpoint, a different egg appears (in a tree) that feeds on earth and worms. Its yellow hue, evocative of disease. Here, life’s experiences of the pale and the dark (not just the sweet) are served at the poet’s breakfast table.

Symbolism aside, eggs can be tricky, especially when purchased at a grocery store. In her 2015 cookbook, A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World, Musgrave offers a tip for testing the freshness of uncooked eggs. Drop your egg into a glass of cold water. It should sink to the bottom and rest on its side.

Beware the floating egg, as Musgrave advises her culinary readers to “donate it to [a] local museum as a ‘heritage egg'” (37).

On Haida Gwaii at Copper Beech House (Musgrave’s B&B guest house), Musgrave serves an “Off-the-Continental Breakfast”, which often includes scrambled eggs — prepared soft and moist with cream (about 2 tablespoons of whipping cream or half and half per egg).

Musgrave recommends spooning the eggs—“in all their dreamy-yellow slipperiness”— onto a “warm and expectant piece of toast” (35).

I’ve added some “selected” local strawberries on the side, a tribute to Musgrave’s poetic mythology of the strawberry. At Copper Beech House, Musgrave tells us that breakfast can be “a leisurely all-morning-long event” (A Taste 24), which certainly sounds inviting during this sweet summer season.

Atwood, Margaret. The Canlit Foodbook. Don Mills: Totem Books, 1987. Print.

Musgrave, Susan. “Poet at the Breakfast Table.” What a Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970-1985. Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing, 2000. 102-103. Print.

– – – . A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World. Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2015. Print.

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd

Drinking Dinner on Main Street

Imagine taking a journey from the farm to town by yourself for the first time. You have money in your pocket — the promise of a hot lunch once you reach your destination. But when you arrive, intimidation sets in. You are out of place on Main Street, and your stomach is increasingly knotted in nervousness.

When you stop by the Chinese restaurant, you order an ice-cream soda. So much for your dinner of meat, vegetables and pie.

The lunch-time scene is from Sinclair Ross’ short story “Cornet at Night” (1939) from The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories (1968). This coming-of-age narrative centres on a farm boy named Tommy Dickson and takes place in Saskatchewan during the 1930s, a period which we’ve visited previously in a post on Depression Era Meals. Ross’ short story was so beloved that the NFB even produced a theatrical short film adaptation in the early 1960s. You can read about the making of the film on the NFB blog and watch Cornet at Night.

“Cornet at Night” provides an early glimpse of a common feature of prairie towns — the Chinese restaurant. In Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, Lily Cho examines these small town restaurants as sites of intercultural exchange and diasporic experience. They are a kind of “counterpublic,” a public space where diverse individuals congregate not only to eat but to converse (Cho 129).

In “Cornet at Night”, when the already nervous Tommy enters the Chinese restaurant, the “exotic atmosphere” (36) adds to his anxiety, prompting him to order a liquid dinner. First comes the ice-cream soda, followed by a lemonade.

These sugary beverages are his comfort food. But they also allow him to linger and to “drink in” the presence of another patron, the musician Philip Coleman. Decidedly not the kind of man Tommy was instructed by his father to hire for the harvest, Coleman introduces Ross’ young protagonist to a world of artistry.

Tommy’s extraordinary encounter is facilitated through the open meeting space of the Chinese restaurant and his extended dinner of an ice-cream soda and lemonade.

Cho, Lily. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Ross, Sinclair. “Cornet at Night.” 1939. The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories. 1968. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010. Print.

Text and Photos Credit: Shelley Boyd