Canlit Cooking

A “Cowcumber Boat” from Anne of Green Gables

The Canadian Literary Fare site brings together a group of scholars across Canada at work on those intersections between food and literature.  A part of this site—The Tableaux Blog—is given over to a unique kind of cooking experiment. Canadian Literature is rife with recipes and detailed descriptions of food preparation and, in many cases, calls to cook.

“You have to roll up your two shirtsleeves, up to your two elbows, take off your wristwatch and the silver bracelets, and put your two hands down deep inside that brine-barrel,” says Austin Clarke to his readers in Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir.

Impossible to resist such an invitation. The result is a growing archive of CanLit cooking: mussels from Audrey Thomas’s Intertidal Life, dandelion coffee from Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Carmine Starnino’s pasta con alice.

CanLit cooking is a form of literary tourism, in the same realm as taking a walking tour of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lake District, grave rubbing (ahem, not robbing) the literati of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, or, in a Canadian context, spending an afternoon in Orillia at Leacock House.

Such acts of memorialization or pilgrimage can also take place in kitchens. Readers of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books can visit the (fictional) Green Gables, purchase a bottle of Marilla’s raspberry cordial, and then they can go home and make their own raspberry cordial and some “cowcumber boats” for good measure.

Worth noting are the limits to this kitchen-centered literary tourism.

The reality of cooking from a book is that we never get it exactly right. “A space,” Adam Gopnik writes, “exists between what the rules promise and what the cook gets” (“What’s the Recipe”). This space has to do with the cook’s skill, the materials at hand and the inherent challenge of producing a dish from words on the page when so much of what goes on in the kitchen has to do with gesture: innate, acquired, and practiced.

While we might achieve a very tasty version of the scrambled eggs Gina Mallet had as a child in Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World, we can’t exactly recapture the time (post World War Two), the place (South of France), the setting (grand hotel), and the feelings of the little girl to whom the dish was served. Butter, in this case, goes a long way in filling in some of the gaps.

It has not always been easy sourcing ingredients, or paying for them. Caribou meat is understandably rare in Marseille (the city I lived in when this project began). Rabbit, it turns out, is only economical if, like Joey Smallwood’s father in Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, you trap it yourself.

Cooking CanLit means testing your culinary mettle—preparing tongue, making bread, and purging sand from clams. The latter is not a fail safe process. The resulting chowder, courtesy of George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls, was obligingly photogenic, if a bit gritty.

Literary tourism, writes Nicola Watson, is in some sense “a deeply counter-intuitive response to the pleasures and possibilities of imaginative reading.” Is there something lacking in the primary material that must be supplemented or authenticated by something outside the text?

Canlit Cooking

Carmine Starnino’s Pasta con Alice

Not all of CanLit food can (or should) be reproduced. I have not the skill nor the desire to try my hand at Michael Ondaatje’s “Rat Jelly.”

But in so much of what Sandra Gilbert is calling food literature, which she differentiates from food in literature—where food is more occasional than occasion—there is an, often explicit, invitation to make the meal.

These are the literary cookbooks like The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook (1985), functioning as a kind of companion piece to the original works. Food writing anthologies, like Margaret Atwood’s The CanLit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate: A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare, invite readers to try the recipes found within. Others, like Tessa McWatt’s novel This Body, with its detailed recipes for Pissaladière, Red Pesto Potatoes Aux Épinards, Matoke and Lamb Stew, and others are eminently cookable.

Give it a try, I say. “Put your two hands down deep inside that brine-barrel,” and see what comes out of it.

Alexia Moyer holds a Ph.D. in études anglaises from Université de Montréal and is currently an FQRSC Postdoctoral Fellow with McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada and Department of English. Moyer is a member of the Canadian Literary Fare research group and is principle contributor to The Tableaux Blog—for which she cooks, styles, photographs and contextualizes recipes or descriptions of meals in Canadian literature.  She has worked as managing editor of CuiZine: the Journal of Canadian Food Cultures/Revue des cultures culinaires au Canada and, most recently, has published an article on “Nanaimo Bars” in Darra Goldstein’s Oxford Companion to Sweets.

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