Pumpkins, Playpens, Poetry, and Pies

Pumpkins have countless uses: pies, muffins, soups, cheesecakes, and playpens. Yes, playpens! And eventually those playpens lead to poetry… or to pies.

Pumpkin Use #1: Playpen

When the corn crop is ready to harvest and no childcare is available, simply take your infant with you to the field and surround him or her with a circle of pumpkins. This orange fence will happily entertain your child for hours. At least that’s Catharine Parr Traill’s advice in The Female Emigrant’s Guide (121).

Catharine Parr Traill

Pumpkin Use #2: Story

Traill’s pumpkin plot, or story, highlights settler ingenuity and the need to re-write gender roles in the Canadian backwoods. Intense physical labour was entirely unfamiliar to refined 19th-century middle-class emigrants, yet Traill recommends that in a new place, one must adopt new perspectives and practices. The story she tells, then, is about a female emigrant who single-handedly harvests an entire crop while her husband, who is ill in bed, remains indoors. The story’s lesson is that backwoods femininity can include “a tone of energy and manly independence” that directly benefits one’s children  (Traill 121).

Pumpkin Use #3: Poem

Traill’s story is about crossing “physical and ideological boundaries” by reframing “the feminine sphere, pushing outward into the masculine domain” (Boyd 91). The unconventional nature of this female emigrant character eventually inspired Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch to write a tribute to Traill in his “Pumpkin: A Love Poem.”

Rather than writing from the female emigrant’s perspective, Kroetsch assumes the position of the pumpkin-encircled infant, and even takes the scenario one step further by placing the child “Inside the pumpkin” (1). Is the pumpkin now a cradle? Is it a womb? Is it a head? Perhaps it is all of those things and more.

From inside his orange globe, the young male speaker carves outward, forming a jack-o-lantern face with genitalia-like features. His sensual orange face is ambiguous in terms of sex and is clearly inspired by Traill’s own 19th-century re-imaginings of the feminine and the masculine (Boyd 92-93). While the carved pumpkin signals fertility and creativity, it is also a chance to create a new identity. The young poet-speaker attempts to “lift the old eye to its new vision” (13) and to “cut the new mouth” (25) while he “slice[s] out the old” (29).

Thus, just as the female emigrant’s pumpkins served as a playpen for her child, Kroetsch uses his single vegetable to create a new space for the next generation of Canadian writers who want to challenge their own boundaries and conventions.

Kroetsch once described Canada as “as relatively young country with few of its own literary models,” which meant “literal objects” had to become the sources of poetic inspiration (Brown 7). As a playpen, a story, and a poem, the pumpkin becomes the site of colonial and post-colonial Canadian literary traditions responding to each other across time. How fortunate for us that during October, this vegetable is capable of appealing to all our senses!

Pumpkin Use #4: Pies

In The Female Emigrant’s Guide, Parr Traill writes of pumpkin pie that there is “not a better dish eaten” and proceeds to give readers a number of tips on the making of this cross between “a custard and a cheese-cake” (133).

Her instructions are loose: soft pumpkin, new milk, two or three eggs, with grated ginger and “as much sugar as will make it sweet enough to be pleasant”(134).

I (Alexia here) have used Anna Olsen’s recipe for pate sucree and a Williams Sonoma recipe for the pie. This because I require a little more precision in the way of ingredients and measurements, not being a terribly deft baker, (as anyone examining my crust will  quickly discover). Using a small, sweet pumpkin from our farm share gave this pie a lovely yellow colour. The taste, the result of this fresh pumpkin is light and subtle.

pastry2

pastry1

pie

Text Credits: Shelley Boyd and Alexia Moyer

Photo Credit (except where indicated): Alexia Moyer

Boyd, Shelley. Garden Plots: Canadian Women Writers and Their Literary Gardens. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Brown, Russell. “An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” University of Windsor Review 7.2 (1972): 1-18.

Dodge, Abigail J, Chuck Williams, and Maren Maruso. Williams-Sonoma: Dessert. New York: Simon & Schuster Source, 2002. 58.

Kroetsch, Robert. “Pumpkin: A Love Poem.” The Stone Hammer Poems, 1960-1975. Lantzville: Oolichan Books, 1976. 26-27.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic. Ed. Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

 

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

Pain au Chocolat

All breads are not created equal.

How can one compare a slice of industrially produced bread to pain au chocolat, and the breakfast-related insights that arise?

For Ontario poet Bruce Meyer, the mysterious layers of pain au chocolat elevate breakfast in ways similar to the egg-inspired writings of Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, and Susan Musgrave.  The synopsis of Meyer’s A Book of Bread entices readers with “the language of loaves” and the “banquet that is our lives, loves, joys, and fears.” The poems explore the diverse forms, contexts, and meanings of bread, from Eve’s Bread Pudding in the poem “Toronto Women’s Cookbook, 1873” to “Lammas Bannock” and “Focaccia.”

For breakfast, there is “Pain au Chocolat”— a chocolate croissant, a cup of coffee for dipping, and a lover’s good-morning kiss. In this poem, the speaker disparages living in a time of miracles compared to living in a time of wonderment informed by love.

Despite the “melee” of the world, “Pain au Chocolat” offers a vision of hope. Loss is an inextricable part of life,  yet love offers a sense of transcendence. This abiding sentiment is reflected in an unexpected place— inside the pain au chocolat, where “the hunger of an oven’s heat” melds but does not destroy the chocolate, just as the croissant layers detach, but still rise together (122-123).

Meyer, Bruce. “Pain au Chocolat.” A Book of Bread: Poems. Holstein: Exile Editions, 2011. 122-123.

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd

Susan Musgrave’s “Off-the-Continental Breakfast”

As summer begins, our reflections on Canadian Literary Fare bring to mind the “gracious outdoor living” of the barbecue, the unexpected pleasures of garden veggies (especially carrots), and the labour-intensive ingenuity of dandelion coffee.

But what about breakfast?

This meal belongs to no single season, yet it is our chosen source of inspiration for the next few months. And it seems fitting. Summertime brings extended daylight hours, which means breakfast becomes all the more important for fuelling one’s day. Or does it?

The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti recently questioned this ever-popular breakfast myth. Clearly, the stories we tell ourselves about our meals influence our daily regimens. The Canadian literary world comes with its own recommendations. In The Canlit Foodbook, Margaret Atwood observes that “breakfast seems to do something for poets that lunch does not do” and quickly adds “It may be the eggs” (3). B.C. poet and recent cookbook author Susan Musgrave likely agrees.

Musgrave’s poem “Poet at the Breakfast Table”,  which originally appeared in Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries (1973), opens with the speaker divulging a secret for creativity: “I eat those / soft and / yellow parts” (102). This breakfast inspiration implies freshness, sweetness, and vitality — those symbolic eggs of new beginnings where nothing is “troubled, / hardened or / dry” (102).

But Musgrave’s morning meal has another side. At the poem’s midpoint, a different egg appears (in a tree) that feeds on earth and worms. Its yellow hue, evocative of disease. Here, life’s experiences of the pale and the dark (not just the sweet) are served at the poet’s breakfast table.

Symbolism aside, eggs can be tricky, especially when purchased at a grocery store. In her 2015 cookbook, A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World, Musgrave offers a tip for testing the freshness of uncooked eggs. Drop your egg into a glass of cold water. It should sink to the bottom and rest on its side.

Beware the floating egg, as Musgrave advises her culinary readers to “donate it to [a] local museum as a ‘heritage egg'” (37).

On Haida Gwaii at Copper Beech House (Musgrave’s B&B guest house), Musgrave serves an “Off-the-Continental Breakfast”, which often includes scrambled eggs — prepared soft and moist with cream (about 2 tablespoons of whipping cream or half and half per egg).

Musgrave recommends spooning the eggs—“in all their dreamy-yellow slipperiness”— onto a “warm and expectant piece of toast” (35).

I’ve added some “selected” local strawberries on the side, a tribute to Musgrave’s poetic mythology of the strawberry. At Copper Beech House, Musgrave tells us that breakfast can be “a leisurely all-morning-long event” (A Taste 24), which certainly sounds inviting during this sweet summer season.

Atwood, Margaret. The Canlit Foodbook. Don Mills: Totem Books, 1987. Print.

Musgrave, Susan. “Poet at the Breakfast Table.” What a Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970-1985. Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing, 2000. 102-103. Print.

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

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd