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

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