“Tea Cosy Cafe”

Here at Canadian Literary Fare, when someone mentions “the first fresh foods of spring,” we dream of asparagus.

dreaming of asparagus

At this time of year, grocery stores are stocked full of these green, purplish-tinged bundles, making this vegetable perfect for the Culinary Historians of Canada April edition of the Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge. Before this springtime bounty disappears and April comes to an end, collaboration is key. From Alexia’s Montreal kitchen and my Vancouver desk, we offer some impressions of the creative life of the asparagus – how it has inspired writers and artists at home and abroad.

Arguably the most famous literary asparagus appears in French author Marcel Proust’s multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu, translated as In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). Proust cheekily describes these vegetables as celestial creatures —disguised goddesses who make their presence known long after one has eaten!

Literary critic James P. Gilroy tells us that Proust endeavoured “to discern the essence of things beyond their external covering,” as his “impressionistic description” was a tribute to Édouard Manet’s famous asparagus paintings Bunch of Asparagus, 1880 and Asparagus, 1880. (98)

Bunch of Asparagus


Numerous food writers have recounted Proust’s allusion to Manet (see The Rambling Epicure), curated creative recipes and interpretations of Manet’s still-lifes (see Megan Fizell’s Feasting on Art), and even explained the aromatic effects of this vegetable (see Sara David’s “Asparagus Pee Investigation” from First We Feast).

These connections between food and art, food and memory, and food and the body are certainly at the heart of Manitoban writer Sarah Klassen’s poem “Tea Cosy Cafe” from Dangerous Elements.*

Klassen’s asparagus poem is a Canadian reinvention of Proust’s magical description and Manet’s still-life paintings.

“Tea Cosy Cafe” opens with two adults ordering a health-conscious lunch: asparagus crepes, “without the béchamel,” and a side salad; a tuna sandwich, “no mayo,” and a peppermint tea.

The asparagus instantly summons memories of the speaker’s childhood. Suddenly there are images of her mother in a kitchen, working “quickly as if she’s running out of time.” It’s a spontaneous and transformative moment of recall where food becomes art, and the past becomes immediate and alive, related in the present tense.

eat your greens

snap off the woody bits

The mother stirs the cream and butter until it “bubbles in the pot.” Now, she “arranges buttered toast” and “piles it” with steamed asparagus tips taken from her garden. Next, she chops boiled eggs and “pours hot sauce / extravagantly over everything.”

roast in oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

Toast with bechamel and cheddar

The mother knows little of French culinary culture. She has never heard the words “béchamel,” “crepes,” or even “cholesterol.” Yet for her children-turned-adults, the meal remains a dark, sensuous magic served on mismatched plates. The remembered black coffee poured into “a chipped cup.”

serve on a mouse-shaped cutting board

As Canada’s spring of 2017 arrives and quickly passes, Klassen’s poem offers a verbal impression of asparagus memories from a decadent yet humble childhood, where “food is poetry and / dangerous” – and still shaping the now ascetic present.

Recipe Note from Alexia:

Try baking your asparagus at 400 degrees F for 15 minutes. Also, try putting the bechamel directly onto the bread and broiling it (with some added cheddar) for 5 minutes. Finally, Shelley suggested a lightly poached egg in place of the chopped egg. I think she’s absolutely right.

Or eat two of them

*If you’d like to read an earlier version of Klassen’s entire poem, see “Tea Cosy” in the open access journal Canadian Literature, volume 146, Autumn 1995, p. 85.

Gilroy, James P. “Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 98-109, Jstor.

Klassen, Sarah. “Tea Cosy Cafe.” Dangerous Elements, Quarry Press, 1998, p. 39.


Text by Shelley Boyd

Photographs (except where indicated) by Alexia Moyer









Easter Tidings

by Licia Canton

There’s a photo of our departure from the Milan airport in June 1967. My mother and her daughters are being escorted to the plane by the airline agent. My baby sister is in my mother’s arms and is not visible as we are walking away from the photographer – one of the relatives who drove us from Cavarzere (our hometown near Venice) to Milan. My mother left behind her parents and siblings to join her husband in Montreal. I can only imagine their sadness that morning as we set off for a distant land. No one else in the Busatto clan had emigrated to Canada.

My maternal grandfather cried as he watched us leave. He didn’t think he’d ever see his daughter again. Years later, my grandmother told me that she had tried to convince him not to go to the airport. She knew that he would be inconsolable after seeing us leave. While he watched us walk towards the plane, she had already chosen her plumpest faraona (guinea hen), plucked its white-spotted plumage and prepared brodo (broth), which cured all ailments. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers raised chickens and guinea hens, but the latter were for special occasions. Even today, when I tell my father that I made chicken for dinner, he’ll retort: “Chicken? Faraona is the best!”


My parents taught me to put a whole guinea hen into a big pot of water with celery, onions, carrots, a clove of garlic and very little salt. We then cooked small noodles in the broth, and sprinkled Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top. We usually ate the boiled faraona and vegetables as a second course.

At Easter time, we made tagliatelle or cappelletti. In dialect, taiadele in brodo are the thin ones in broth (tagliolini or taglierini in Italian) whereas taiadele sute (dry) are the wide ones served with sauce. As a young girl, I loved to help my mother make fresh pasta. She taught me to break one or two or three eggs into a little mound of flour. I remember how hard it was to turn the handle of her pasta maker. It was permanently set up on the brown table in the basement, and it took her very little time to produce lengths and lengths of fresh pasta.


Red or pink hard-boiled eggs were also part of our Easter tradition. They sat in a bowl looking pretty for a few days until we were allowed to devour them. I used to marvel at their elegant simplicity. I recall that my mother boiled the eggs with an old red cloth, but she says she used food colouring. It may be that I am remembering the early years in Montreal while she is remembering the more prosperous later years.


In the 1970s, my parents owned a butcher shop at the corner of Sabrevois and Rome streets in Montreal-North. Just before Easter, they sold lots of lamb to their Italian customers. Fresh Quebec-raised lamb was much more expensive than the frozen one from New Zealand which cost 99 cents a pound. The butcher shop was exceptionally busy during Easter week. My father spent most of his time at the electric saw while my mother collected the pieces of frozen lamb into the original cloth bag that read “PRODUCT OF NEW ZEALAND KEEP FROZEN.”

“We didn’t like lamb,” my mother said when I asked why we didn’t eat it at Easter or any other time.

That has changed over the years and, today, we eat lamb regularly. That is in part due to my husband’s family traditions. This Easter season my Venetian father and Calabrian mother-in-law went shopping together for the ingredients to make le focacce di Pasqua (Easter bread). They each make them differently, but the ingredients are mostly the same. My father makes very dry, round fugasse (in dialect) that he cooks in his wood-burning oven. My mother-in-law makes a sweeter, prettier version and adds hard-boiled eggs to decorate her multi-shaped focacce.

This Easter we will eat lamb and faraona broth with homemade pasta, several focacce and lots of eggs – hard-boiled and chocolate ones!