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