Breakfast Faux Pas

Would you like some jam for your toast? Here, I’ll pass you a clean knife.

Before we clear away the breakfast dishes and begin a new chapter of Canadian Literary Fare, we thought we’d come full circle and conclude with a (breakfast) poet.

You’ll remember from my post on Susan Musgrave that poets seem especially inclined towards the first meal of the day. Indeed, even when a poem’s focus lies elsewhere, breakfast finds a way to make an appearance. Poets can’t seem to help themselves. Atwood thinks the eggs are to blame, but a breakfast blunder can also be a source of poetic reverie.

B.C. poet Jane Munro has such a poem.  “Flower Girl – 1949”— which appears in Munro’s 2006 collection Point No Point — includes a breakfast scene in which a table manners faux pas slips into a series of girlhood memories.

In an interview, Munro was once asked what would be a perfect day in terms of her writing. She replied: “To wake up with a poem – capture it in my notebook while eating breakfast, feel surprised by the poem, feel the gift of it. . . . No rush.”

Breakfast. A notebook. Creative inspiration. Reflective time. What more could a poet desire to start the day?

“Flower Girl – 1949” traces childhood encounters that signal the passing of time: rides in the ice man’s van, exchanges with neighbours young and old, errands to fetch eggs, dandelion chains that wilt and decay, and “Unexpected visitors at breakfast” (13).

The breakfast visitors are the young speaker’s older female cousin and soon-to-be husband, a logger. The girl (who has been asked to be the couple’s flower girl at their coming nuptials) watches the lumberjack devour three fried eggs then dip “his eggy knife / into Mother’s jar of strawberry jam.” (13)

Although this departure from normal breakfast etiquette is brief, it signals a subtle shift in the young speaker’s world, where time, experience, and the outside world will inevitably spoil or change the simple joys of girlhood. Here, breakfast prompts us into looking not only forward at the day to come, but backwards at past optimism and altered innocence.

“Jane Munro – Blue Sonoma (an interview).” The Toronto Quarterly: Literary and Arts Journal, 9 May 2014.

Munro, Jane. “Flower Girl – 1949.” Point No Point. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006. pp. 11-14.

Photo and Text Credits: Shelley Boyd

Ru

When asked to describe her breakfast to the class, a young Kim Thuy obliges: soup, vermicelli or rice, pork. Teacher, Marie-France, is convinced there must be some mistake, some misunderstanding. No no. Breakfast, “She asked me more than once, miming waking up, rubbing her eyes and stretching” (106).

The classroom: that space in which normalizing lessons on what is good or good for you are dispensed, against which writers test the lived realities of their fictional or non-fictional pupils.

Thuy’s breakfast is a tale of acculturation, a shift away from soup and rice toward some less noteworthy morning meal.

I sat with this passage a while, trying out recipes here and there, getting advice from a couple of generous and food-savvy friends. Below are the results of this foray into ginger and scallions and garlic for breakfast, for champions in the making.

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Breakfast Memories & Kechap Manis

In her last two posts about Brian Brett’s Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, Alexia Moyer revealed that food plays a pivotal role in memoirs, especially when it comes to reminiscing about times shared with family either around the table or in the kitchen. The collection Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian & Aboriginal Potluck (2007) uses a similar approach, as the preparation of food and personal histories go hand in hand.

In the introduction, editor Brandy Liên Worrall traces how Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian & Aboriginal Potluck grew out of a “Food and Family workshop” in Vancouver, where participants shared family memories and recipes— providing each other with a veritable taste of the past. (xiv) The collection’s title, Worrall explains, uses “eating” as both “an adjective to describe the type of stories”, and “an active verb” to capture the writing and reading process. (xiii)

Fittingly, the book opens with breakfast. CBC radio host Margaret Gallagher—who has many other food-related interests, which you can read about in an interview she gave over brunch—volunteers memories of her Chinese-Indonesian grandfather and her family’s recipe for an improvised Kechap Manis, a sweet soy sauce (with brown sugar, ginger, and green chili) that can be served with eggs (fried with butter and a diced shallot). Yum! When Gallagher was a child, the sauce wasn’t available in Canadian grocery stores, so her mother used to make Kechap Manis from scratch.

Food facilitates family cohesion, Gallagher tells us, because it “conquers the cultural divide that arises when families are constantly on the move in an evolving world” (ix). Perhaps most striking, though, is the fact that food creates a sense of generational continuity even when loved ones have passed away.

Gallagher recalls how her grandfather “wasn’t very comfortable in the kitchen” yet still cooked for his grandchildren and conveyed to them his “lifelong love affair with fresh fruit”— from the mangos of Indonesia to the cherries of the Okanagan. (x) And although Gallagher’s mother was typically the one who made Kechap Manis and fried eggs for the kids, her grandfather was known to have made the dish as well.

Some of Gallagher’s once-cherished family recipes have been lost over time, but others — like Kechap Manis— persist. The lesson is that if family histories are to remain ever-present, recipes must be shared and used by the living, allowing the next generations to add their own stories to the mix. The recipe (or story), Gallagher observes, “changes a bit each time someone new tells it—a detail added here, a spice omitted there…. They need to be dusted off and shared in order to thrive.” (x)

Worrall, Brandy Liên, editor. Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian & Aboriginal Potluck. Vancouver: Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, 2007.

Text and Photos by Shelley Boyd