In Carol Shields’s fictional worlds, dinner parties are transformational. People assume their “party selves,” she once wrote, that party-self being a more sociable, lighter version of your everyday personality. (“Parties” 45) Sadly, this positive renewal is not the experience of Dot Weller, wife of Stu Weller and mother to Larry Weller in Shields’s novel Larry’s Party.
For Dot, even casual family get-togethers cause copious perspiration and “jittery detachment”. (Larry’s 44) Her parties are haunted by “the poison of memory” (44)— a summer dinner that she hosted for her in-laws back in England and that sealed her fate and “exodus” to Canada. (52) Dot’s canned beans were to blame.
The CHC Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge chose “food preservation” as August’s theme, which made us think about how canning is a delicate process. So much can go awry. Jars can be improperly sterilized or sealed. Insufficient boiling temperatures can result in lids bulging with bacteria. And mothers-in-law can perish!
Carol Shields’s Dot Weller is fictional proof. Yes, as a young woman, Dot accidentally killed her mother-in-law through a generous helping of home-preserved runner beans. The autopsy confirmed that Mum Weller’s sudden demise was caused by a “severe type of C botulism.” (51)
For those of us lacking skills in food preservation, a quick internet search reveals how deadly accurate Shields was in doing away with Mum Weller in this fashion.
According to HealthLink B.C.’s article “Home Canning — How to Avoid Botulism”, as little as 1 teaspoon of Clostridium botulinum is “enough to kill 100,000 people.” Library and Archives Canada literary manuscript librarian Catherine Hobbs also highlights that Shields took great care in selecting the “fatal food” for Larry’s Party. (45) Shields’s e-mail correspondence discloses that she had initially fingered rhubarb as the culprit, until her friend and fellow writer Blanche Howard researched in Joy of Cooking that “you can’t get botulism with rhubarb.” (qtd. in Hobbs 45)
So Shields opted for beans — that sweet August-time treat otherwise known as the “treasonous vegetable” Larry Weller has never tasted. (53)
You can find any number of dilly bean recipes online. We opted for dill, garlic, red pepper flakes and peppercorns and a 2:1 vinegar ratio. We also made them as quick refrigerator pickles. There won’t be any need to preserve them beyond the next couple of days and no in-laws were harmed in the process.
Text credit: Shelley Boyd
Photo credit: Alexia Moyer
Hobbs, Catherine. “Voice and Re-vision: The Carol Shields Archival Fonds.” Carol Shields and the Extra-Ordinary. Ed. Marta Dvorak and Manina Jones. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2007. 33-58. Print.
“Home Canning: How to Avoid Botulism.” HealthLinkBC 22 (April 2017) Web.
Shields, Carol. Larry’s Party. 1997. Toronto: Vintage, 1998. Print.
– – – . “Parties Real and Otherwise.” Victoria (June 1998): 44-46. Print.
Oh dear, doesn’t sound like a fun dinner party! On Sunday, my family and I canned 140 litres of passata di pomodoro, but we have a lot of experience doing this every year, so I am quite confident we will not poison anyone! Ciao, Cristina