Put up your green beans

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.

beans

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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

 

 

Fresh Eggs and Polenta Chips

The CHC’s Canada 150 Blog Challenge for the month of February is: doing without. Last week, Shelley sought advice on the matter from the redoubtable sisters of the backwoods, Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. This week, Licia Canton has contributed another story of emigration: from sunny Cavarzere, in the province of Venice to Montreal- North. This is a story about missing home (and eggs fresh from the chicken coop).

by Licia Canton

I have always felt the need to go back “home” – to retrieve the tastes and smells I left behind in my hometown of Cavarzere, in the province of Venice. I was only four years old when my family moved to a basement apartment in Montreal-North. I missed the sunny, rural setting we left behind. I cried a lot that first year.

I cried on my fifth birthday in February 1968. There’s a silent film of me in front of a big cake. My father is encouraging me to blow out the five candles but all I can do is cry. Maybe it was the room full of people from our hometown, none of whom were related to me. Maybe I cried because the cake did not look like the one I had had on my fourth birthday. Maybe I was just unhappy after being uprooted and replanted in a foreign land at an early age.

They say I was a talkative and adventurous child in Italy. But in Canada I missed my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I missed a whole town full of people who knew who I was and who escorted me back home whenever I ventured to the piazza on my Graziella, the little white and blue bicycle I still have 50 years later. That bicycle was the symbol of my freedom. I could go anywhere, and I was safe. In Montreal, I was cooped up in a tiny, cold apartment. My parents wouldn’t let me go out to play. Big cars went by fast, even on des Récollets Street where we lived. I couldn’t play in the backyard because it was reserved for the owner of the duplex who lived upstairs.

licia-on-bike-1966

I especially missed the foods that I was used to in Cavarzere, those my mother couldn’t replicate. The bananas purchased at Steinberg’s grocery store did not taste like the bananas in Italy. They were big and odourless. The oranges felt like plastic. They didn’t taste right either. Cherries were hard to come by. My mother purchased red and green candied cherries one time. I still recall my frustration at the sight of them. That’s not what I wanted. I did not say so because I was sure my mother had spent a pretty penny for them. She ended up making a cake with them.

Mostly, I missed my daily breakfast routine. I fed myself because my mother was busy with my baby sister, three years my junior. Every morning I went into the warm, smelly chicken coop. The rickety door alerted the chickens, and they all scattered about when I walked in. I looked into every nest before choosing my egg. It was always a little dirty but very warm in my hand. Tap, tap. I cracked it open and drank it on the spot. Yes, there were eggs at Steinberg’s and at the dépanneur at the corner of des Récollets and Prieur streets, just a short walk from our basement home. But they were cold and spotless. Not what I was used to. My mother appeased me by making sbattutino.

Back then, I also missed my grandmother’s polenta crusts: ƚe croste del paroƚo as we call them in Venetian dialect. Every day Nonna Gemma made a big pot (paroƚo) of polenta for her numerous family members. Once the huge polenta was laid out to be eaten, the residue dried up in the pot. She let me scrape the crusts. I liked the polenta chips more than the polenta itself. The chips were a treat for me.

My mother made polenta in Montreal, but she did not have my grandmother’s copper pot. There were no polenta chips to scrape off. I was disappointed whenever I saw the pot soaking in sink.

In the early years, every time I came back to Montreal after having vacationed in my hometown I had to get used to the fruit again. For a long time, that bowl of fruit at the centre of my mother’s table provoked a sense of loss in me.

That is no longer the case today. In recent years, I have seen similar bowls of fruit in the homes I’ve visited in Italy. Italians, too, buy fruit at the supermarket. They also buy ready-made polenta.

Even today, when I am sad or disappointed I crave my mother’s sbattutino. Of course, it is not the same colour as the sbattutino she made for me with eggs from the chicken coop. But I cannot complain about my parents’ decision to emigrate. I know now that it was the right decision: it gave us all a new beginning and many years of happiness. I have gotten over my sadness. And I am also grateful that my early childhood memories are so full.

Text and Photo by Licia Canton

Oysters: the raw and the cooked

We’ll be highlighting a range of dishes over the next few months as we prepare to celebrate Canada’s 150th year. Set sail with us as we plumb the depths of what is Canadian in Canadian Literary Fare.

 

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Sea Things” from, The Armies of the Moon (1972) lends itself well to the theme of fish and seafood we’ve been exploring.

She’s interested in “shellfish and sponges and those/ half-plant half-animal things that go/ flump flump on the sea floor”.

oysters

She worries about the oysters, “about how they’re finding their food / or making love, or for that matter / if they have anything to make love with.”

I am less worried about their alimentary and sexual habits. I leave them to figure it out for themselves, self-sufficient creatures that they are.

These days I am more preoccupied with how to choose them, how to open them, how best to prepare and eat them.

“Raw with lemon juice” you will exclaim.

lemon

Some of you are of the mignonette persuasion: a little shallot, a little red wine vinegar perhaps?

shallot

And some of you cook them, or deep fry them.

In the spirit of diplomacy, I shall not take sides. Out of curiosity, however, I wondered what it would be like to cover them with breadcrumbs (with garlic and parsley, a little Parmesan, and a hint of sriracha) and broil them.

to be broiled

I am happy to report that the oysters cooperated beautifully with nary a word of complaint. All of the more squeamish members of my household were duly satisfied.

broiled

Here is an approximate recipe:

For 6 oysters on the half shell

  • 4 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh parmesan
  • ¼ teaspoon sriracha sauce
  • Salt and pepper

Combine ingredients. Spoon over oysters and broil for 5 to 6 minutes.

eaten

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. The Armies of the Moon. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1972.

Photos and Text by Alexia Moyer