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.




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.


From My Mother’s Kitchen

by Licia Canton

It wasn’t her choice to come to Canada fifty years ago. Like many others of her generation, she left a rural setting to follow a man to a distant metropolis. No doubt, she would have preferred to not live in a small basement apartment in a cold city where she didn’t have friends and didn’t speak the language. For forty years she worked in a wholesale meat plant with men who were stronger but less efficient than she. Even during the summer she wore steel-toe boots, cotton-covered steel-mesh gloves, a hairnet under a hard hat and a woolen winter sweater under her white butcher coat to keep warm in the refrigerated workplace. She might have preferred tilling the soil under the Venetian sun as she had done as a young woman.

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Easter Tidings

by Licia Canton

There’s a photo of our departure from the Milan airport in June 1967. My mother and her daughters are being escorted to the plane by the airline agent. My baby sister is in my mother’s arms and is not visible as we are walking away from the photographer – one of the relatives who drove us from Cavarzere (our hometown near Venice) to Milan. My mother left behind her parents and siblings to join her husband in Montreal. I can only imagine their sadness that morning as we set off for a distant land. No one else in the Busatto clan had emigrated to Canada.

My maternal grandfather cried as he watched us leave. He didn’t think he’d ever see his daughter again. Years later, my grandmother told me that she had tried to convince him not to go to the airport. She knew that he would be inconsolable after seeing us leave. While he watched us walk towards the plane, she had already chosen her plumpest faraona (guinea hen), plucked its white-spotted plumage and prepared brodo (broth), which cured all ailments. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers raised chickens and guinea hens, but the latter were for special occasions. Even today, when I tell my father that I made chicken for dinner, he’ll retort: “Chicken? Faraona is the best!”


My parents taught me to put a whole guinea hen into a big pot of water with celery, onions, carrots, a clove of garlic and very little salt. We then cooked small noodles in the broth, and sprinkled Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top. We usually ate the boiled faraona and vegetables as a second course.

At Easter time, we made tagliatelle or cappelletti. In dialect, taiadele in brodo are the thin ones in broth (tagliolini or taglierini in Italian) whereas taiadele sute (dry) are the wide ones served with sauce. As a young girl, I loved to help my mother make fresh pasta. She taught me to break one or two or three eggs into a little mound of flour. I remember how hard it was to turn the handle of her pasta maker. It was permanently set up on the brown table in the basement, and it took her very little time to produce lengths and lengths of fresh pasta.


Red or pink hard-boiled eggs were also part of our Easter tradition. They sat in a bowl looking pretty for a few days until we were allowed to devour them. I used to marvel at their elegant simplicity. I recall that my mother boiled the eggs with an old red cloth, but she says she used food colouring. It may be that I am remembering the early years in Montreal while she is remembering the more prosperous later years.


In the 1970s, my parents owned a butcher shop at the corner of Sabrevois and Rome streets in Montreal-North. Just before Easter, they sold lots of lamb to their Italian customers. Fresh Quebec-raised lamb was much more expensive than the frozen one from New Zealand which cost 99 cents a pound. The butcher shop was exceptionally busy during Easter week. My father spent most of his time at the electric saw while my mother collected the pieces of frozen lamb into the original cloth bag that read “PRODUCT OF NEW ZEALAND KEEP FROZEN.”

“We didn’t like lamb,” my mother said when I asked why we didn’t eat it at Easter or any other time.

That has changed over the years and, today, we eat lamb regularly. That is in part due to my husband’s family traditions. This Easter season my Venetian father and Calabrian mother-in-law went shopping together for the ingredients to make le focacce di Pasqua (Easter bread). They each make them differently, but the ingredients are mostly the same. My father makes very dry, round fugasse (in dialect) that he cooks in his wood-burning oven. My mother-in-law makes a sweeter, prettier version and adds hard-boiled eggs to decorate her multi-shaped focacce.

This Easter we will eat lamb and faraona broth with homemade pasta, several focacce and lots of eggs – hard-boiled and chocolate ones!


Maple Syrup for Sweet Occasions

Text and Photos by Licia Canton

The year we celebrate our nation’s 150th anniversary also marks my 50th year in Canada. I must confess that, when I was growing up in Montreal-North, maple syrup was not a staple in my Italian parents’ household. We never had pancakes, waffles, muffins or whatever else my non-Italian neighbours typically ate. I cannot remember my first encounter with maple syrup, but I remember going to la cabane à sucre (the sugar shack) with my parents and sister. I would have been in my late teens.

Maple syrup was never on my mother’s grocery list. I always thought of it as a luxury when I was little. But my Montreal-born husband remembers it differently. “We often had pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast,” he recalls. “My mother bought maple syrup at the Jean-Talon market all the time. It wasn’t expensive in those days, before producers banded together to control the price. A few cents for a jug.”

sirop d'erable

Today, in our Venetian-Calabrian-Canadian home, we always have maple syrup in stock. I routinely buy it when I see that it’s running low. I’ll admit that I add a little to my very healthy (but a little bland) oatmeal. And every Wednesday morning I make French toast for my kids. Why Wednesday? It’s a sweet way to acknowledge that we’ve made it to the middle of the week. And on Wednesdays my own breakfast consists of egg whites and spinach. What am I supposed to do with the yolks? I don’t have enough time to make sbattutino, so I add a little milk to the yolks and make lots of French toast with strawberries, maple syrup and lots of caffellatte.

Often, when I travel, I purchase maple syrup products at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. I usually buy the maple-leaf-shaped bottle and maple candy – the typically Canadian things I can bring to friends and acquaintances I visit abroad. When I landed in Tokyo last July, I brought maple syrup to my friend Yakup (originally from Turkey) who greeted us at the airport. We hadn’t seen each other since 1990, when we were both studying at the University of Kent at Canterbury. My children were impressed that Yakup and I were still in touch. Yakup had given me a “forget-me-not” cup and saucer when I left Canterbury. Growing up, my children knew him as “the friend who gave you the cup we cannot touch.”

A few days later, I gave another bottle of maple syrup to our friends Taka and Hiro, who took us on a tour of Mount Fuji. Taka and my husband were in graduate school together in Montreal. A maple-leaf-shaped bottle of the sweet golden liquid would bring back memories of our vast and friendly land, the cold, white winters, skiing and sugaring off. At least that’s what I hoped.