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.

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

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

Susan Musgrave’s “Off-the-Continental Breakfast”

As summer begins, our reflections on Canadian Literary Fare bring to mind the “gracious outdoor living” of the barbecue, the unexpected pleasures of garden veggies (especially carrots), and the labour-intensive ingenuity of dandelion coffee.

But what about breakfast?

This meal belongs to no single season, yet it is our chosen source of inspiration for the next few months. And it seems fitting. Summertime brings extended daylight hours, which means breakfast becomes all the more important for fuelling one’s day. Or does it?

The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti recently questioned this ever-popular breakfast myth. Clearly, the stories we tell ourselves about our meals influence our daily regimens. The Canadian literary world comes with its own recommendations. In The Canlit Foodbook, Margaret Atwood observes that “breakfast seems to do something for poets that lunch does not do” and quickly adds “It may be the eggs” (3). B.C. poet and recent cookbook author Susan Musgrave likely agrees.

Musgrave’s poem “Poet at the Breakfast Table”,  which originally appeared in Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries (1973), opens with the speaker divulging a secret for creativity: “I eat those / soft and / yellow parts” (102). This breakfast inspiration implies freshness, sweetness, and vitality — those symbolic eggs of new beginnings where nothing is “troubled, / hardened or / dry” (102).

But Musgrave’s morning meal has another side. At the poem’s midpoint, a different egg appears (in a tree) that feeds on earth and worms. Its yellow hue, evocative of disease. Here, life’s experiences of the pale and the dark (not just the sweet) are served at the poet’s breakfast table.

Symbolism aside, eggs can be tricky, especially when purchased at a grocery store. In her 2015 cookbook, A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World, Musgrave offers a tip for testing the freshness of uncooked eggs. Drop your egg into a glass of cold water. It should sink to the bottom and rest on its side.

Beware the floating egg, as Musgrave advises her culinary readers to “donate it to [a] local museum as a ‘heritage egg'” (37).

On Haida Gwaii at Copper Beech House (Musgrave’s B&B guest house), Musgrave serves an “Off-the-Continental Breakfast”, which often includes scrambled eggs — prepared soft and moist with cream (about 2 tablespoons of whipping cream or half and half per egg).

Musgrave recommends spooning the eggs—“in all their dreamy-yellow slipperiness”— onto a “warm and expectant piece of toast” (35).

I’ve added some “selected” local strawberries on the side, a tribute to Musgrave’s poetic mythology of the strawberry. At Copper Beech House, Musgrave tells us that breakfast can be “a leisurely all-morning-long event” (A Taste 24), which certainly sounds inviting during this sweet summer season.

Atwood, Margaret. The Canlit Foodbook. Don Mills: Totem Books, 1987. Print.

Musgrave, Susan. “Poet at the Breakfast Table.” What a Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970-1985. Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing, 2000. 102-103. Print.

– – – . A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World. Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2015. Print.

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd