“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!”

brodo

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.

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.

Eggs

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!

 

Maple Syrup for Sweet Occasions

Text and Photos by Licia Canton

The year we celebrate our nation’s 150th anniversary also marks my 50th year in Canada. I must confess that, when I was growing up in Montreal-North, maple syrup was not a staple in my Italian parents’ household. We never had pancakes, waffles, muffins or whatever else my non-Italian neighbours typically ate. I cannot remember my first encounter with maple syrup, but I remember going to la cabane à sucre (the sugar shack) with my parents and sister. I would have been in my late teens.

Maple syrup was never on my mother’s grocery list. I always thought of it as a luxury when I was little. But my Montreal-born husband remembers it differently. “We often had pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast,” he recalls. “My mother bought maple syrup at the Jean-Talon market all the time. It wasn’t expensive in those days, before producers banded together to control the price. A few cents for a jug.”

sirop d'erable

Today, in our Venetian-Calabrian-Canadian home, we always have maple syrup in stock. I routinely buy it when I see that it’s running low. I’ll admit that I add a little to my very healthy (but a little bland) oatmeal. And every Wednesday morning I make French toast for my kids. Why Wednesday? It’s a sweet way to acknowledge that we’ve made it to the middle of the week. And on Wednesdays my own breakfast consists of egg whites and spinach. What am I supposed to do with the yolks? I don’t have enough time to make sbattutino, so I add a little milk to the yolks and make lots of French toast with strawberries, maple syrup and lots of caffellatte.

Often, when I travel, I purchase maple syrup products at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. I usually buy the maple-leaf-shaped bottle and maple candy – the typically Canadian things I can bring to friends and acquaintances I visit abroad. When I landed in Tokyo last July, I brought maple syrup to my friend Yakup (originally from Turkey) who greeted us at the airport. We hadn’t seen each other since 1990, when we were both studying at the University of Kent at Canterbury. My children were impressed that Yakup and I were still in touch. Yakup had given me a “forget-me-not” cup and saucer when I left Canterbury. Growing up, my children knew him as “the friend who gave you the cup we cannot touch.”

A few days later, I gave another bottle of maple syrup to our friends Taka and Hiro, who took us on a tour of Mount Fuji. Taka and my husband were in graduate school together in Montreal. A maple-leaf-shaped bottle of the sweet golden liquid would bring back memories of our vast and friendly land, the cold, white winters, skiing and sugaring off. At least that’s what I hoped.

Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse

When the Culinary Historians of Canada announced that “Maple” was the March topic for the Canada 150 Blogging Challenge, I immediately thought of Alice Munro.

Munro once famously described her affinity for the short story through a maple-inspired image. Rather than writing novels, she prefers to condense a story to its essence – “boiled down like maple syrup” is how she puts it. (“Alice Munro”)

In the world of literary cookbooks, maple also appears to be Munro’s signature ingredient.

Judith Choate’s A Reader’s Cookbook targets book club members with the aim to “amplify” texts through “literal tastes” tied either to setting or to a writer’s country of origin. In the chapter “Under a Maple Sky—O Canada!” Choate includes a recipe for Maple-Walnut Bread with Maple Butter alongside a passage from Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth.”

This short story describes the distinct character of the Ottawa Valley as the place where “maple syrup has a taste no syrup produced elsewhere can equal.” (4) Munro’s own Ontario roots in Huron County, or Ontario’s West Coast, mean that maple syrup sometimes makes appearances in her fiction.

A Reader’s Cookbook claims that “the maple flavor sings of the Canadian table.” But just as actual maple syrup is classified by colour and taste, Munro’s stories reveal a range of meanings suited to her characters’ far-from-sweet circumstances.

Consider Munro’s “Spelling” from Who Do You Think You Are?  To my mind, this sombre story is akin to the “Grade A — Very Dark, Strong Taste” variety of maple syrup. When the protagonist, Rose, visits her elderly step-mother, Flo, readers discover a home in a state of decay, the fridge full of “sulfurous scraps, dark crusts, furry oddments.” (235) Flo has started placing kitchen tools in strange places, and with her mind unravelling, she turns to sweetness in excess — a culinary charm against a world that seems nonsensical and filled with bitter experiences too difficult to resolve:

“She might tip the jug of maple syrup up against her mouth and drink it like wine. She loved sweet things now. Craved them. Brown sugar by the spoonful, maple syrup, tinned puddings, jelly, globs of sweetness to slide down her throat.” (235)

Swilling maple syrup may not appeal to most, but Munro offers a lighter serving suggestion in the form of Maple Mousse.  Margaret Atwood’s The CanLit Foodbook includes Munro’s “own recipe” for this dessert, one that I’ve always been curious to try.

The ingredients are simple: milk, gelatin, whipping cream, egg yolks, sugar, salt, a splash of rum, and of course, a half cup of maple syrup to give it a subtle flavouring.

Munro recommends serving this moulded dessert with extra syrup “if you want to be fancy.” A maple candy provides an “O Canada!” garnish.

Maple mousse makes a brief appearance in Munro’s “Sunday Afternoon” from Dance of the Happy Shades. This story perhaps falls under the “Grade A — Amber Colour, Rich Taste” maple syrup classification with its depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Gannett’s affluent, leisured life in the city. Every Sunday, the extended Gannett family gather for lunch. On this particular afternoon, tongue, aspic, and maple mousse are on the menu. Alva, the farm-girl hired as the summer-time maid, works in the family’s midst — living under their roof, following their daily rhythms, eating their food.

We are told that there is “plenty” of maple mousse dessert for Alva, but she will never be part of the family. She eats all her meals alone. Hers is an isolated existence distinguished by subtle humiliations: her name summoned by Mrs. Gannett “in tones as … penetrating as those of the bell,” and her required uniform of “Cuban-heeled shoes clomping” on the backyard patio when she carries out the luncheon dishes. (164)

Maple syrup may be quintessentially Canadian, but when it runs through the imagination of this Nobel-prize-winning author, the results are Munro’s uniquely storied varieties.

 

“Alice Munro.” 1978. BC Booklook, 7 April 2008.

Choate, Judith. A Reader’s Cookbook. New York: Red Rock Press, 2012.

Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse.” The CanLit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate—A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare. Compiled and Illustrated by Margaret Atwood. Totem Books, 1987, p. 55.

—. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1988.

—. Friend of My Youth. 1990. Penguin Books, 1991.

—. Who Do You Think You Are? 1978. Penguin Books, 1991.

 

Text and Photos by: Shelley Boyd