“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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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