Fresh Eggs and Polenta Chips

The CHC’s Canada 150 Blog Challenge for the month of February is: doing without. Last week, Shelley sought advice on the matter from the redoubtable sisters of the backwoods, Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. This week, Licia Canton has contributed another story of emigration: from sunny Cavarzere, in the province of Venice to Montreal- North. This is a story about missing home (and eggs fresh from the chicken coop).

by Licia Canton

I have always felt the need to go back “home” – to retrieve the tastes and smells I left behind in my hometown of Cavarzere, in the province of Venice. I was only four years old when my family moved to a basement apartment in Montreal-North. I missed the sunny, rural setting we left behind. I cried a lot that first year.

I cried on my fifth birthday in February 1968. There’s a silent film of me in front of a big cake. My father is encouraging me to blow out the five candles but all I can do is cry. Maybe it was the room full of people from our hometown, none of whom were related to me. Maybe I cried because the cake did not look like the one I had had on my fourth birthday. Maybe I was just unhappy after being uprooted and replanted in a foreign land at an early age.

They say I was a talkative and adventurous child in Italy. But in Canada I missed my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I missed a whole town full of people who knew who I was and who escorted me back home whenever I ventured to the piazza on my Graziella, the little white and blue bicycle I still have 50 years later. That bicycle was the symbol of my freedom. I could go anywhere, and I was safe. In Montreal, I was cooped up in a tiny, cold apartment. My parents wouldn’t let me go out to play. Big cars went by fast, even on des Récollets Street where we lived. I couldn’t play in the backyard because it was reserved for the owner of the duplex who lived upstairs.

licia-on-bike-1966

I especially missed the foods that I was used to in Cavarzere, those my mother couldn’t replicate. The bananas purchased at Steinberg’s grocery store did not taste like the bananas in Italy. They were big and odourless. The oranges felt like plastic. They didn’t taste right either. Cherries were hard to come by. My mother purchased red and green candied cherries one time. I still recall my frustration at the sight of them. That’s not what I wanted. I did not say so because I was sure my mother had spent a pretty penny for them. She ended up making a cake with them.

Mostly, I missed my daily breakfast routine. I fed myself because my mother was busy with my baby sister, three years my junior. Every morning I went into the warm, smelly chicken coop. The rickety door alerted the chickens, and they all scattered about when I walked in. I looked into every nest before choosing my egg. It was always a little dirty but very warm in my hand. Tap, tap. I cracked it open and drank it on the spot. Yes, there were eggs at Steinberg’s and at the dépanneur at the corner of des Récollets and Prieur streets, just a short walk from our basement home. But they were cold and spotless. Not what I was used to. My mother appeased me by making sbattutino.

Back then, I also missed my grandmother’s polenta crusts: ƚe croste del paroƚo as we call them in Venetian dialect. Every day Nonna Gemma made a big pot (paroƚo) of polenta for her numerous family members. Once the huge polenta was laid out to be eaten, the residue dried up in the pot. She let me scrape the crusts. I liked the polenta chips more than the polenta itself. The chips were a treat for me.

My mother made polenta in Montreal, but she did not have my grandmother’s copper pot. There were no polenta chips to scrape off. I was disappointed whenever I saw the pot soaking in sink.

In the early years, every time I came back to Montreal after having vacationed in my hometown I had to get used to the fruit again. For a long time, that bowl of fruit at the centre of my mother’s table provoked a sense of loss in me.

That is no longer the case today. In recent years, I have seen similar bowls of fruit in the homes I’ve visited in Italy. Italians, too, buy fruit at the supermarket. They also buy ready-made polenta.

Even today, when I am sad or disappointed I crave my mother’s sbattutino. Of course, it is not the same colour as the sbattutino she made for me with eggs from the chicken coop. But I cannot complain about my parents’ decision to emigrate. I know now that it was the right decision: it gave us all a new beginning and many years of happiness. I have gotten over my sadness. And I am also grateful that my early childhood memories are so full.

Text and Photo by Licia Canton

Traill’s Irish Mash

Imagine having pork and potatoes every night for supper.

To break the monotony, you decide to innovate. Instead of pork and potatoes, you serve pork (without potatoes). And the next night, to really  switch things up, you prepare potatoes but without the pork. Such was the reality of poorly provisioned nineteenth-century emigrants living in the backwoods of Canada.

To understand the importance of the potato in this settler scenario of “doing without,” we turn this week to two of Canada’s most famous nineteenth-century emigrant writers, Catharine Parr Traill (1802-99) and her sister Susanna Moodie (1803-85).

Catharine Parr Traill (Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

Here’s a sample of Traill’s and Moodie’s potato-musings:

“The potatoe is indeed a great blessing here; new settlers would otherwise be often greatly distressed, and the poor man and his family who are without resources, without the potatoe must starve.”

– Catharine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada, 125

***

“I have contemplated a well-hoed ridge of potatoes on that bush farm with as much delight as in years long past I had experienced in examining a fine painting in some well-appointed drawing-room.”

– Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush, 375

While Moodie waxes poetic about her kitchen garden, Traill appreciates the practical knowledge necessary to vary the regular mealtime appearance of this life-saving, tuberous vegetable.

One Potato Recipe, Two Potato Recipes, Three Potato Recipes, Four . . .

 In Traill’s The Canadian Settler’s Guide, which was originally published as The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (1854), I count at least eight potato-related recipes and dishes. I suspect there are more beyond what is included in the “Potatoes” section.

“Every body knows how to cook a potato,”  Traill begins, but she includes the instructions just in case you haven’t had this daily pleasure and don’t know the trade secrets. (124)

For an economical dish, when meat is scarce and there are hungry mouths to feed, Traill recommends Irish Mash. (127) It’s the perfect meal for a large family in the backwoods.  The recipe calls for “a large quantity of potatoes” (just in case you haven’t had enough already!), seasoned with onion and pepper, and mixed with leftover cold meat. I opted for chopped bacon and green onions for a bit of (Irish) colour.

Traill describes this dish as “satisfying” rather than “delicate.” I’d have to agree. Having consumed more than my annual share of mashed potatoes during the past week, I was grateful for the luxury of ordering sushi last night.

 

Text and Photo Credits (except where indicated): Shelley Boyd

 

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush or Life in Canada. 1852. Edited by Carl Ballstadt, Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts Series, Carleton University Press, 1988.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Letters From the Wife of an Emigrant Officer. 1836. Prospero Books, 2000.

—. The Canadian Settler’s Guide. 1855. McClelland & Stewart, 1969.

Monkey Beach Clams

Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach is set at the head of the Douglas Channel, in Kitamaat Village, “with its seven hundred Haisla people tucked in between the mountains and the ocean” (5).

“At the end of the village is our house,” explains narrator Lisamarie Hill. “Our kitchen looks out onto the water” (5).

The mountains and the ocean not only surround but also supply the Hill family’s kitchen with such riches as oolichan, made into grease; crabs, boiled; cockles and clams, put up into jars. Not to mention q°alh’m shoots with their taste of fresh green peas, ci’x°a or wild crabapples, Pipxs’m and sya’k°nalh blueberries, and soapberries or uh’s whipped into a foam.

Lisa is an indifferent cook in her home economics classes but a fast learner when it comes to cleaning and smoking sockeye salmon in the yard with her mother and grandmother.

It is a challenge for the literary cook to replicate any of the dishes in this novel. In some cases, the ingredients are endangered. Commercial fisheries for Oolichan, for instance, are closed. Or, they are particular to the west coast. Finally, they require a wealth of acquired knowledge and technique to forage for and prepare them.

Lisa had her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo. I had Mémère. So, in the interest of drawing from grandmotherly wisdom, I have made clams for you today. And I have steamed them in wine and served them with French fries because that was what my grandmother did.

clams

garlic

garlic, lemon, butter, parsley, wine

Susan Musgrave’s A Taste of Haida Gwaii includes very helpful instructions on how to purge clams – with salt water if you please. Now I can successfully avoid the debacle that is sandy clam chowder.

sea salt for purging

purging sand

And this, some few minutes after cooking . . .

with fries

Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Going Fishing?

In the world of Canadian Literary Fare, the question “Going fishing?” means so much more than casting a line and securing a meal.

“Going fishing?” is the question posed to Maggie Lloyd, the protagonist of Ethel Wilson’s novel Swamp Angel (1954), when she leaves her second husband, Edward Vardoe, and their Vancouver home and sets out to begin a new life working at a fishing lodge in the interior of British Columbia.

Book Plate Credit: UBC Library

Fishing enthusiasts themselves, Ethel Wilson and her husband Wallace Wilson vacationed for over 40 years at Lac Le Jeune near Kamloops, which served as the model for her novel’s setting. (Whitaker 13)

In Swamp Angel, fishing represents freedom and possibility. Trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, Maggie Lloyd uses her skill at tying fishing flies to secure her independence. She sells her hand-tied flies to a Vancouver “shop known up and down the Pacific Coast.” (2) Wilson modelled this fictional sporting goods store after the actual Harkley and Haywood Sporting Goods Ltd., which was in business for over 60 years at 101 West Cordova Street. (Whitaker 18)

The original Vancouver location of Harkley and Haywood Sporting Goods Ltd. The main floor is now occupied by a Mexican restaurant.

Not far from the sporting goods shop is Vancouver’s Chinatown, where Maggie purchases a peacock feather fan – the iridescent feathers are perfect for her fishing flies. It takes Maggie a year to save enough cash, but her husband never suspects.

Throughout Swamp Angel, fish and birds are closely related, signalling movement between elements, just as Maggie slips from one life and identity into a new one. But these transitions are never easy or quite what one anticipates.

Having fled her marriage, Maggie secures work at Loon Lake Fishing Lodge, where the days are long and fraught with tensions between herself and the owners. In his Afterword, George Bowering warns of the “delimiting” meanings of fish and birds: “birds such as eagles eat fish and take them flying; people such as Maggie Lloyd make flies out of feathers and feed trout to their death.” (226)

While Ethel Wilson does not romanticize this fisherwoman’s autonomy, the bountiful food that Maggie prepares at the lodge suggests a forward-looking contentment:

  • 10 quarts of bottled tomatoes
  • 5 bottles of tomato chutney
  • 8 loaves of bread
  • 1 applesauce cake
  • 2 large crocks of beans in the oven
  • And pie-making scheduled for tomorrow!

Visitors from Vancouver relish Maggie’s fried trout, bacon, bread, tomatoes “still smelling of the leaves of the tomato plant,” apple pie, and coffee. (142)

The trout dish is one with the natural setting and contrasts with urban fare: the hot-dog and fried potato vendors that litter Stanley Park, or the five-pound roast with gravy (and pudding for dessert) that Maggie prepares for her unsuspecting husband on the night that she leaves. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Wilson clearly recognized Vancouver as “a roast beef and suet pudding city” — in other words, a conservative population with strong cultural ties to Britain. (Stouck 83)

In the opening chapter, the beef dinner is formal, heavy, and begrudged by husband Edward, who declares, “Who wants to eat cold meat that cost the earth for a week!” (8)  Little does he know those leftovers will come in handy.

The dinner provides the necessary cover for Maggie’s surreptitious departure, but it also communicates a different set of life circumstances than those of the fishing lodge.

Who wants a traditional roast beef dinner with unhappy marital trappings when instead there is the lightness of fish that flies through the air the moment that it is caught?

Going fishing? Most definitely.

 

Bowering, George. Afterword. Swamp Angel, by Ethel Wilson, McClelland and Stewart, 1990, pp. 222-29.

Stouck, David. Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography. University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Whitaker, Muriel. “Journeys to the Interior: The Wilsons at Lac Le Jeune.” The Ethel Wilson Symposium, edited by Lorraine McMullen, University of Ottawa Press, 1982, pp. 13-18.

Wilson, Ethel. Swamp Angel. 1954. McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

Text and Images (except where indicated) by Shelley Boyd