What Is CanLit’s Most Famous Turning Point Meal?

Readers often refer to turning points in literature—those plot developments that alter a character’s situation or fortune. But how does food play a role or set the stage for these moments?

When we peruse some of the most famous works of literature, a number of “turning point meals” quickly come to mind. Think of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837) when the young orphan dares to ask the master of the workhouse for more gruel. Or consider Marcel Proust’s sudden rush memories when tasting a madeleine in In Search of Lost Time (1909-1922).

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Canadian Literary Fare has explored a number of “turning point meals” in a past series of posts by highlighting key scenes that mark a change in the plot and a character’s transformation.

Now we’d like to turn this question over to you…

What is the most famous turning point meal in Canadian literature?

Please post your answers on our blog!


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.

Wash-Up Supper

In light of our current theme, Fish and Seafood, I couldn’t resist revisiting Susan Musgrave’s delightful cookbook, A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World. For anyone looking to be transported, this cookbook is a must-have. The recipes are user-friendly and moan-worthy. Many are soon-to-be classics in my own modest culinary repertoire. I recommend “Beets Margaret Atwood” if you’re on the lookout for literary fare. In addition to her baking and foraging know-how, Musgrave’s spirited tales of kitchen-mishaps will have you laughing aloud.

Earlier this fall when Alexia suggested the theme “Fish and Seafood,” she added the encouraging comment, “Think outside the box” (particularly when small apartments don’t take kindly to fishy odours). I immediately thought of Musgrave and her wash-up menu for seaside scavengers.

What is wash-up, you ask? (Especially if you’re from the landlocked prairies.) Musgrave explains: “Wash-up differs from beachcombing in that wash-up is full of tasty things to eat…. Whether or not we have wash-up depends on the wind.” (224) The winter season is often a good time for wash-up when strong waves deposit clams, barnacles, or squid on the beach. These items become easy-pickings for anyone ready to scour the seashore in order to furnish their tables and freezers. But wash-up isn’t just about seafood (traditionally defined). Oceans are busy places. Large vessels and fishing boats occasionally lose their cargo, or other items accidently fall overboard. Musgrave relates stories of bags of Doritos, frozen chicken wings, citrus fruit, Russian beer, and vegetables washing ashore.

So for this “seafood” post (broadly defined), I went scavenging at the nearest grocery store. The wash-up on Vancouver’s beaches isn’t all that appetizing. After finding a few items on special, I procured the necessary ingredients for an urban-dweller’s land version of a wash-up meal.

For the appetizer, Doritos chips and Okanagan wine. For the main course, Musgrave’s recipe for “Shipwrecked Chicken Wings” accompanied by “Citrus Salad with Mint” (sections of oranges and grapefruit tossed with a splash of maple syrup and garnished with mint).

Authentic wash-up chicken wings arrive with their distinct flavouring already in place, so if you would like to replicate the ocean’s seasoning, Musgrave recommends creating a brine (water, salt, white vinegar, and red pepper flakes). The wings need to “bathe” for 3 hours or longer in the fridge.

Musgrave advises using kosher salt (not the more expensive Maldon Flaked Sea Salt) whenever a recipe involves dissolving the salt in liquid. A Maldon Salt convert, Musgrave even carries a small packet in her purse, so it’s always close at hand. Her praise for these fine flakes is so convincing that my spice cupboard now boasts its own box. However, I missed her earlier tip about using kosher salt (for dissolving), so when it came time to create the brine for the wings, in went 3 tablespoons of those precious Maldon flakes. But ooooooh, those wings were salty perfection.

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd

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

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