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.

 

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.

Dandelion Root Coffee

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Susanna Moodie wrote about dandelion root coffee in Roughing It in the Bush. As did Catharine Parr Traill in The Canadian Settler’s Guide. It is surprisingly difficult to obtain dandelions in my Montreal neighbourhood, where lawns or even small patches of grass are a rarity. Specimens are rather forlorn looking and of questionable quality.

Armed with a spray-free crop, generously donated by fellow Canadian Literary Fare scholar, Nathalie Cooke, I set to work cutting, cleaning, roasting, grinding and brewing.

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Dandelion Season

In the summer, one hears homeowners cursing the dandelion. This pervasive plant easily takes up residence in lawns and gardens. Even in tinder-dry conditions, this hardy yellow flower finds a way to blossom.

Whereas most people see little value in the dandelion, two of Canada’s pioneer writers, Catharine Parr Traill (1802-1899) and Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), tried to reform the public’s perceptions. Having emigrated from England in 1832, the two sisters revised their categories of “weed” versus “flower.”
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