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