“Tea Cosy Cafe”

Here at Canadian Literary Fare, when someone mentions “the first fresh foods of spring,” we dream of asparagus.

dreaming of asparagus

At this time of year, grocery stores are stocked full of these green, purplish-tinged bundles, making this vegetable perfect for the Culinary Historians of Canada April edition of the Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge. Before this springtime bounty disappears and April comes to an end, collaboration is key. From Alexia’s Montreal kitchen and my Vancouver desk, we offer some impressions of the creative life of the asparagus – how it has inspired writers and artists at home and abroad.

Arguably the most famous literary asparagus appears in French author Marcel Proust’s multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu, translated as In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). Proust cheekily describes these vegetables as celestial creatures —disguised goddesses who make their presence known long after one has eaten!

Literary critic James P. Gilroy tells us that Proust endeavoured “to discern the essence of things beyond their external covering,” as his “impressionistic description” was a tribute to Édouard Manet’s famous asparagus paintings Bunch of Asparagus, 1880 and Asparagus, 1880. (98)

Bunch of Asparagus

Asparagus

Numerous food writers have recounted Proust’s allusion to Manet (see The Rambling Epicure), curated creative recipes and interpretations of Manet’s still-lifes (see Megan Fizell’s Feasting on Art), and even explained the aromatic effects of this vegetable (see Sara David’s “Asparagus Pee Investigation” from First We Feast).

These connections between food and art, food and memory, and food and the body are certainly at the heart of Manitoban writer Sarah Klassen’s poem “Tea Cosy Cafe” from Dangerous Elements.*

Klassen’s asparagus poem is a Canadian reinvention of Proust’s magical description and Manet’s still-life paintings.

“Tea Cosy Cafe” opens with two adults ordering a health-conscious lunch: asparagus crepes, “without the béchamel,” and a side salad; a tuna sandwich, “no mayo,” and a peppermint tea.

The asparagus instantly summons memories of the speaker’s childhood. Suddenly there are images of her mother in a kitchen, working “quickly as if she’s running out of time.” It’s a spontaneous and transformative moment of recall where food becomes art, and the past becomes immediate and alive, related in the present tense.

eat your greens

snap off the woody bits

The mother stirs the cream and butter until it “bubbles in the pot.” Now, she “arranges buttered toast” and “piles it” with steamed asparagus tips taken from her garden. Next, she chops boiled eggs and “pours hot sauce / extravagantly over everything.”

roast in oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

Toast with bechamel and cheddar

The mother knows little of French culinary culture. She has never heard the words “béchamel,” “crepes,” or even “cholesterol.” Yet for her children-turned-adults, the meal remains a dark, sensuous magic served on mismatched plates. The remembered black coffee poured into “a chipped cup.”

serve on a mouse-shaped cutting board

As Canada’s spring of 2017 arrives and quickly passes, Klassen’s poem offers a verbal impression of asparagus memories from a decadent yet humble childhood, where “food is poetry and / dangerous” – and still shaping the now ascetic present.

Recipe Note from Alexia:

Try baking your asparagus at 400 degrees F for 15 minutes. Also, try putting the bechamel directly onto the bread and broiling it (with some added cheddar) for 5 minutes. Finally, Shelley suggested a lightly poached egg in place of the chopped egg. I think she’s absolutely right.

Or eat two of them

*If you’d like to read an earlier version of Klassen’s entire poem, see “Tea Cosy” in the open access journal Canadian Literature, volume 146, Autumn 1995, p. 85.

Gilroy, James P. “Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 98-109, Jstor.

Klassen, Sarah. “Tea Cosy Cafe.” Dangerous Elements, Quarry Press, 1998, p. 39.

 

Text by Shelley Boyd

Photographs (except where indicated) by Alexia Moyer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Savoury, Spicy Goulash inspired by Winnipeg

The food arrived, the hot steaming fragrance of it filling the room, savoury and varied and as spicy as an adventure, rich with the treasured cooking-lore of the whole of Europe . . . Soup came first. But this was merely to prepare the guests for the more serious business of eating. Immediately after, there appeared an enormous bowl of chicken goulash, steaming hot in its red sauce of paprika, with great fat globules floating on the surface. As a side dish for soaking up the gravy there was a mound of home-made noodles, accompanied by small green gherkins with flesh clear as glass from their long immersion in brine, with the pungent aroma of dill and garlic and the young tender leaves of horse-radish.

John Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death, 99

Recipe Notes (by Alexia Moyer)

This passage from John Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death – set in Winnipeg’s North End – is a favourite of mine.

Those moments in which protagonist Sandor Hunyadi takes pride in his community’s output are few. This is one of them. There is no embarrassment or dissimulation here. This table of delicacies the result of the skill, generousity and ingenuity of Frau Hunyadi and her neighbours – is not found wanting. There is only pleasure and satiety.

Admittedly, I also chose this passage because I wanted to make goulash. Or, more precisely, eat it.

I started with 3 peppers, chopped.

5 cloves of garlic, minced.

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So This Is Winnipeg?

“The visitor to the West,—the kind of visitor who writes up his visit,—is supposed, on his first morning in Winnipeg, to throw wide open his window and say, ‘So this is Winnipeg’! I didn’t. I was too cold. And there was no one to hear me except the waiter with the tea, and he knew it was Winnipeg” (Leacock 37).

The title of this week’s post takes its inspiration from Stephen Leacock’s book My Discovery of the West. If one is unfamiliar with a city, then perhaps a famous writer’s own visit to Manitoba will provide some insight for the “Capital Meals” series?

Leacock begins his travelogue with an unenthusiastic first morning. It’s important to note, here, that when Leacock was 18 years old, his father, Peter, abandoned the family and “ran off to Manitoba at the height of a real estate boom” in the 1880s (Spadoni xiv). Known more for his gambling and drinking than his entrepreneurial skill, Peter failed in his Winnipeg venture, or as Leacock bluntly describes it, “my father lasted nearly a year, before [he] blew up” (51). Perhaps these troubled memories colour Leacock’s chapter, but more than likely his satiric vision leads to his mixed impressions of the city.

Commenting on the frigid climate, Leacock claims that January winds funnelling down Main Street and Portage Avenue stimulate one’s creativity. He’d rather leave the tropics to “the bums, the loafers, and the poets” who congregate under palm trees with their glasses of wine; instead, Leacock opts for Winnipeg’s winters, preferring “a tenderloin steak in a grill room on Main Street with a full-sized woman raised in the cattle country” (40).

Painted in Waterlogue

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd


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