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The CanLit Dinner Party: Feasting on Books in the Literature Classroom

  • Shelley Boyd and
  • Nicole Hollinson

In Collaboration with: Neil Bhargava, Jodie Cornell, Alexis Deros, Amy Frederick, Daniela Furland, Teia Giacomello, Elizabeth Hann, Sara Hassoun, Noël Hoffman, Linda Le, Jasmin Narayan, Jennifer Parnell, Stephanie Peters, Tahnee Riddoch, Simran Samra, Angela Shin, Parabjot Singh, Corinna Souder, and Sonia Virk.

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How do food scenes and imagery communicate themes and ideas central to literary texts? What role does food play in characterization with respect to class, gender, and culture when individuals are struggling to express their identities? These questions were explored through the “CanLit Dinner Party,” an end-of-term assignment and multimedia exhibition undertaken in a fourth-year undergraduate seminar on Canadian literature where food was the central topic. In the fall semester of 2014, twenty undergraduate students presented a 24-hour exhibition featuring interpretive plates inspired by food scenes in Canadian literature. The primary texts included short stories (Alice Munro’s “Half a Grapefruit,” Lynn Coady’s “Play the Monster Blind,” Madeleine Thien’s “Simple Recipes,” Gabrielle Roy’s “Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?,” and Rabindranath Maharaj’s “Bitches on All Sides”); poetry (Patrick Lane’s “The Macaroni Song,” Evelyn Lau’s “A Grain of Rice,” and Marvin Francis’ “McPemmicanTM”); and a novel (Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach). Modelled in part after Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party—an internationally renowned art installation featuring a triangular table of 39 place-settings inspired by historical and mythological female figures—this experiential learning assignment was designed to enhance the students’ critical appreciation for the art of storytelling through food and to challenge them as a group to synthesize food-related themes across the texts studied throughout the semester. [1] Each student was tasked with identifying a key meal that played a communicative role in a text and in relation to a particular character. The assignment’s multiple components—a Concept Essay, an Oral Presentation and Group Workshop, an Art Exhibition, and a Journal Response—required that the students work both independently and collaboratively through a critical and creative process. A departure from essay-writing assignments typically found in English courses, the “CanLit Dinner Party” underscored food’s role as a cultural idiom by requiring students to engage with its material and edible dimensions. This article outlines the theoretical context and elements of the assignment, and explains the students’ final creations, including the thematic conversations that emerged through the “CanLit Dinner Party.”

Critical Contexts: Literary Food Studies and Experiential Learning

The seminar “CanLit Food: At the Table” focused on the expressive potential of food—its preparation, serving, and consumption—in contemporary Canadian literature. Students examined how food communicates characters’ shifting identities and sense of belonging with respect to class, gender, culture, family, and community. In light of the seminar’s topic, having the students engage with food directly, as opposed to merely reading and writing about it, was imperative in order to enhance their understanding of the subject matter and its theoretical foundations. Seminar student Nicole Hollinson sums up a central dilemma posed by literary food studies through a food-related analogy: “Simply reading about food stories would be the equivalent of reading a recipe. You can imagine what it tastes and looks like, but you don’t get the full visceral experience until you make it yourself. Hands-on learning provides a chance to really live in it and discover nuances . . . — people don’t often make a recipe in exactly the same way.” From a pedagogical standpoint, then, the seminar needed to be grounded in experiential learning, which in “its simplest form, . . . means learning from experience.” [2] A guiding principle of experiential learning, according to Scott Wurdinger, is “application,” because “students combine thinking with doing” in real-life contexts. [3] The students in “CanLit Food: At the Table” were provided with this kind of dynamic learning opportunity by discovering for themselves how to communicate through the medium of food when designing their own place-settings.

In preparation for the assignment, the students were introduced at the beginning of the semester to the semiotics of food. Part of their theoretical foundation included Annie Hauck-Lawson’s concept of the “food voice,” which she defines as “people’s ways with, words about, and meaning towards food.” [4] Also central to the discussion was Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s notion of the appetite as voice, as a person’s food choices and refusal operate as a kind of language, “a substitute for rhetorical behavior” when verbal expression is otherwise repressed or inadequate. [5] Within this framework for the study of literary fare, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party provided a suitable model for the students’ end-of-term project. An American, Chicago has been at the forefront of the feminist art movement since the 1970s and has built a reputation as “a feminist pedagogue who wants ‘to teach women’s history through art.’” [6] Completed in 1979, The Dinner Party is “the most recognized—if not the most important—work of feminist art” not only because of its celebration of the feminine, but because of its rebellious incorporation of traditional domestic crafts within the art world and gallery space. [7] Chicago’s approach was especially innovative for its “communal art-making,” as over 400 volunteers worked on the project. [8] Although Chicago’s feminist politics (the plates were designed as vulva) were not relevant to every text studied in the literature seminar, this watershed installation informed the “CanLit Dinner Party” in three critical ways: it modelled communication facilitated through a three-dimensional, material idiom; it represented diverse individuals’ stories in a communal context; and it used collaborative creation as a way to invite reconsiderations of disciplinary norms and practices.

First, The Dinner Party’s notion of speaking subversively through an alternative mode of discourse was central to the students’ examination of the expressive potential of literary fare. The scenario of a food event enabled Chicago, as Ricia Anne Chansky argues, to create “a safe space to discuss difficult issues” and to “develo[p] her own visual idiom.” [9] Having the English students apply their conceptual knowledge of the “food voice” and “appetite as voice” in an experiential, end-of-term project pushed them to reconsider the texts beyond their usual disciplinary methodologies of essay-writing. Wurdinger argues that a key aspect of experiential learning is a multidisciplinary approach because “knowledge is neither fixed nor universal, and that problems of real significance cannot be solved out of a single discipline.” [10] “Life does not consist of segmented subject matter,” Wurdinger adds, and students benefit from opportunities to discover “a bigger picture of how things are interconnected in the world.” [11] In their own reflections, the seminar students appreciated the intellectual, creative challenges posed by the “CanLit Dinner Party” project, describing it as an opportunity for “deep thinking.” Student Elizabeth Hann elaborates, “Being an English major, I too often find myself thinking in words, about words, absolutely all the time, and while I love words and I like to think I’m pretty good at thinking about them, and in them . . . I know it’s good to think about things other than words sometimes—it broadens your horizons.” Student Teia Giacomello similarly voices her heightened appreciation for literary artistry by moving away from a conventional composition assignment:

“I find that with studying literature you often have a very narrow way of expressing yourself. You read a novel, you interpret the novel, and then you write an essay arguing your interpretation. This is found over and over again in English classes. It was exciting to present my interpretation in a different way... Writers don’t spend so much time creating beautiful imagery through language just to have it dissected and regurgitated through a scholarly lens. It’s easy to present an interpretation through the same medium, but it requires a lot more creative thought to transcend art through two different mediums.”

In conjunction with studying how food operates within texts, then, the students had to consider food as a cultural idiom in and of itself, which necessitated a new kind of problem-solving. They had to make choices that would facilitate communication and, as student Daniela Furland explains, select “something from the text that could be depicted” so that they could learn “the impact of showing rather than telling,” something not usually done in an analytical essay.

While the primary objective of the “CanLit Dinner Party” was to explore alternative modes of discourse, the second way in which this project intersected with Chicago’s The Dinner Party was in its representation of individuals as members of a transformational community. Although Chicago is American, The Dinner Party showcases women from a range of cultural traditions and historical periods. This notion of a united yet diverse assembly was directly relevant to the “CanLit Dinner Party’s” own gathering of multiple texts from authors who, while part of the Canadian literary tradition (or loosely connected with it through intertextual allusions), voice experiences that reflect different regional, temporal, gendered, socio-economic, and cultural perspectives. Furthermore, because one of the seminar’s central aims was to examine how table scenes and food rituals (as depicted in works of literature and beyond) frame social gatherings and communicate people’s various levels of intimacy, diverse origins, and power relations, the “CanLit Dinner Party” enabled students to craft their own multi-layered narrative of a community. In other words, the students individually explored an array of table scenes within the literature, and the “CanLit Dinner Party,” as an interpretive table-scene on public display, allowed for greater synthesis of the course material by inviting critical conversations across a range of texts. Their dinner party was a celebration of Canadian literary fare and, like Chicago’s The Dinner Party, served as “a conscious-raising event” for both the seminar students, themselves, and the viewing public. [12] As Nicole Hollinson notes, once the students had assembled their plates at the table, the critical themes shared between texts “gained a physical presence.”

The third way in which Chicago’s The Dinner Party informed the students’ planning and execution of their class-project was its collaborative approach. When creating The Dinner Party, Chicago involved hundreds of volunteers, a strategy that challenged the art establishment’s notions of solitary production and individual artistic genius (traditionally understood as masculine). In a similar fashion, the seminar students fostered their own experiential learning community in which “hands-on participation and interaction” were necessary “to complete the learning process.” [13] This kind of class-project is not the typical experience of an English student, as Nicole Hollinson describes it: “I think of the literature community as a quiet one. . . . Assignments may be read by a handful of other people, but usually they’re just between you and the professor. This assignment allowed us to challenge this comfort zone.” While a number students voiced their usual preference for working alone, they also appreciated the project’s opportunities for academic and personal growth. The class encountered a range of personalities and skills and, at the same time, discovered value in their diversity. Student Teia Giacomello notes that “it was really helpful having such an engaging group of people to bounce ideas off,” and Angela Shin describes the group aspect as “refreshing, especially for those who have trouble socializing with others.” In terms of classroom-based experiential projects, Wurdinger notes that team-building activities play an important role because students come to realize that “communication and cooperation are important in problem solving.” [14] The seminar students established a cohesiveness in the process of preparing for the exhibition and, as with any real-life dinner party, experienced the unexpected. Like eager, helpful party guests, two students arrived over one-hour early, prior to the installation of the exhibition. They could have assembled their place-settings on the empty table, but respectfully waited for the rest of the class to arrive. Others arrived late, and their contributions were not fully prepared until partway through the dinner party’s unveiling. These gaps in the table were filled in due course, with the tardy dishes ultimately playing a valued role in the festivity. As in life, this experiential project meant that a mixture of abilities as well as interpersonal dynamics were a key part of the learning process.

The Assignment

The “CanLit Dinner Party” project consisted of four integrated stages: the researching and writing of a Concept Essay, an Oral Presentation combined with a Group Workshop, the installation of the Art Exhibition, and the writing of Journal Responses reflecting on the overall experience. The entire assignment was distributed on the first day of the semester, so that the students could begin contemplating the project in relation to their weekly readings. Wurdinger notes that in university settings, “professors often assume undergraduate students learn differently than graduate students” and are not “self-directed learners.” [15] This presumption is consistent with the pedagogical approaches used in many English literature classrooms, as the students in the “CanLit Food” seminar were not accustomed to an experiential project of this magnitude. Nicole Hollinson recalls the mood of the first class: “[In literature courses,] we are commonly restricted to one medium (writing) or maybe two (PowerPoint). The ‘CanLit Dinner Party’ peeled back the typical expectations and asked us to redefine the learning environment by stretching our creative muscles in multiple media forms.… You could almost feel the resistance to freedom when the assignment was announced in class.” In order to alleviate potential anxieties and to facilitate the experiential learning process from the outset, the instructor distributed the assignment’s guidelines well in advance; provided an example of a literary plate on the first day of class so as to prompt students into thinking about food’s expressive role; tied the weekly readings directly to the project; dedicated class-time to the planning and execution of the exhibition; and varied the students’ tasks so that both independent and collaborative work were required to complete the project. [16]

During the first stage of the project, students researched and wrote Concept Essays: analyses of their chosen food scenes (from texts previously studied in the seminar) and descriptions of their Plate Concepts (or design ideas), detailing how they would convey their interpretations through three-dimensional place-settings. The Concept Essay included both this written proposal and an appended Plate Diagram (drawn to scale) through which students sketched an initial visual representation of their Plate Concept. The students knew in advance the maximum dimensions of their place-settings, so as to create uniformity for the exhibition in keeping with Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Plastic plates, napkins, and cutlery were also made available in order to reduce the students’ costs of production, but they were not required to use these materials. In addition to the dimensions of the place-setting, the one stipulation was that the students’ thesis statements had to appear somewhere on their plates. Most students workshopped their original thesis statements (from their Concept Essays) for impact and precision for the final exhibition. Because the exhibition was scheduled to be on display for 24 hours, some students proposed using perishable items on their plates, while others chose to simulate the meals through other materials (props, modelling clay, pictures, etc.) in order to avoid unnecessary food-waste. Although models of this kind of visual interpretation of literary food scenes exist in other media (Dinah Fried’s Fictitious Dishes, which showcases photographic interpretations of literary fare, was published a few months prior to the fall semester), the students were allowed a great deal of independence in determining their approach. As Wurdinger points out, freedom is imperative in an experiential project so that students may “choose a topic” and “take control of their learning, thereby promoting greater intrinsic motivation.” [17] Being “emotionally and intellectually invested in the learning process” is key, and the seminar students drew upon their own interests to guide their plate designs. [18] Some students looked to social media and food photography for inspiration (Nicole Hollinson created an upper-class oriented plate, so studied aesthetic stagings of domestic scenes in lifestyle advertisements; and Teia Giacomello has her own vegan food blog so drew upon her prior experience with food-photography). Others looked to their own family histories and did not contemplate examples found through social media because of the temporal settings of their texts. Students with culinary interests chose to recreate scenes by researching and baking new recipes. One Creative Writing student chose to focus on a writer whose artistic craft had been especially inspiring. Others seized the opportunity to recreate their own emotional responses to the texts. As student Angela Shin notes, “Emotion is hard to include in a formal, argumentative essay because, naturally, you want the reader to reach a conclusion based on logic. . . . This project . . . helped [me to] express how [a] work made me feel, which is not so easily put in words.” Proponents of experiential learning argue that classroom-based projects are most meaningful when students “think, plan, and execute their ideas to produce something from their own creativity.” [19] The students involved in the “CanLit Dinner Party” certainly chose their own unique pathways to learning, which inevitably shaped their plate designs in diverse ways despite the fact that some were responding to the same text.

After submitting their Concept Essays, the students entered the second phase of the assignment when they met during the seminar for Oral Presentations and a Group Planning Workshop. At a round table, students presented their arguments for their Plate Concepts with copies of the Plate Diagrams being distributed to every student. This workshop proved invaluable, as the students offered suggestions for strengthening the textual analyses and for executing the proposed plates prior to the exhibition. Experiential educators note that “trial-and-error” is an important phase of any project because students need to test their ideas and look for solutions. [20] Student Angela Shin acknowledged that while it is sometimes “disheartening to study English because in order to improve, your mistakes in your writing must be recognized,” the workshop facilitated a different kind of process of exchange that allowed for the ongoing refinement of ideas. In terms of presenting her own plate, Shin at first found the workshop “a little nerve wracking,” yet she “received a lot of encouragement and appreciation from [her] classmates.” Nicole Hollinson similarly observed, “The meeting . . . showed what team work we all had in us to give constructive advice for building the plates, and I have to say, mine wouldn’t be the same without the input I received in class. I was so excited to see what everyone had come up with!” Another student noted, “The round-table in class was a really cool collaborative effort that we rarely experience in English classes.” In preparation for the workshop, students were assigned a secondary reading from Gillian Crowther’s Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food that introduced the significance of eating events (seating arrangements, distance between guests, social etiquette, etc.) and Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “gastro-politics.” [21] With respect to traditions of commensality, Appadurai defines gastro-politics as “conflict or competition over specific cultural or economic resources as it emerges in social transactions around food.” [22] In this regard, food becomes “a marvellously plastic kind of collective representation,” because the daily need for sustenance creates an ever-unfolding material discourse of a society. [23] Through this critical lens, the students reassessed all of the Plate Concepts and Diagrams and devised a seating plan, so that their meals’ placement at the table would contribute to the communication of major themes and social conflicts that they viewed as central to their analyses of Canadian literary fare.

One week after the Group Workshop, the students entered the third stage of the project and installed the “CanLit Dinner Party” exhibition. Because the exhibition had been promoted across the university and was staged in a high-traffic zone inside the library’s main entrance, the students were able to watch and interact with the many students and faculty who viewed their creation over the 24-hour period by making repeat visits to the table. The students were visibly proud of the final result, as student Teia Giacomello reflects, “The table was a mosaic of varying cultures, time periods, [and] class systems that contrasted and merged in a really beautiful way.” Many students from the seminar posted photographs of their plates on Twitter and were delighted to receive responses from the university community and from Canadian authors whose works were part of the display. Once the exhibition was installed, the students entered the last phase of the project and composed reflective Journal Responses. The students were asked to share their thoughts on the “CanLit Dinner Party” as a collaborative art exhibition, and on their individual experiences of the overall assignment. The class composed these responses following the unveiling of the exhibition, and several students volunteered additional reflections several months after the course had concluded. Many students echoed the sentiments expressed by a fellow classmate who felt “more connected” to the literature because of the project, and “understood the characters’ struggles with identity far more” than if she had only written an essay. Student Parabjot Singh acknowledged the tangible impact of this active learning experience, which was a departure from her norm: “After reading poems, novels, or stories, I forget the names of the authors and/or their literary works. The visual exhibition . . . will allow me to remember them for a long time.” As a legacy of the art exhibition, the summaries and images below detail the many “food voices” and critical conversations that the students brought to the table.


The Final Result: Welcome to the Table

Image Credits: The CanLit Dinner Party, 2014

-> See the list of figures

Image Credits: The CanLit Dinner Party, 2014

-> See the list of figures

Dinner Party Conversation #1 — Confronting Socio-Economic Differences

The first series of plates communicates how certain foods denote socio-economic conditions, and how people can use this symbolic function to manipulate or support their desired status. Two of the six plates depict how food can represent the barriers of poor circumstances, two others depict ways of using food to create prestige, and the last two show how the same meal can have different meanings depending on the characters’ perspectives. While food is a point of contact between characters from different classes, the significance of that food inevitably alters as it moves between contexts. One end of the table features two analyses of Alice Munro’s short story “Half a Grapefruit,” with Elizabeth Hann focusing on the young, working-class protagonist Rose, and Nicole Hollinson choosing the bishop’s sister, a woman who marries “down” in life by becoming a farmer’s wife. Their proximity at the table is strategic because Munro uses “food to tell an alternative story” of small-town Ontario, Hollinson argues, by bringing diverse characters in relation to one another. [24] Hann's place-setting, Alice Munro’s Lucky Charms (Figure 1), interprets the opening of the story when Rose lies to her classmates about what she ate for breakfast. The country students (synonymous with poverty) consume cheap, nutrient-lacking foods that “bear little resemblance to Canada's Food Rules.” [25] In contrast, the kids from town (from relatively affluent families) indulge in expensive foods, like bacon and eggs, waffles with syrup, marmalade, orange juice, and coffee. Rose scripts a false reality by saying that she ate half of a grapefruit for breakfast, when truthfully she ate generic puffed rice cereal. Hann observes, “[W]hat people eat shows who they are. Conversely, what people claim to have eaten shows who they would like to be.” [26] Garnished with 5-cent grapefruit candies so as to resemble Lucky Charms, the cereal signals Rose’s attempt to add vibrancy to an otherwise bland lifestyle. In addition to interpreting Munro, Hann uses food to speak on behalf of her own family’s history: “My father . . . who grew up in a working-class family in Lucknow (a small southern Ontario town not far from . . . where Munro grew up) always told me that generic puffed-grain cereal bought in bulk was the ultimate poverty food, one that he and his family grew up eating because it was all that they could afford.” [27] Even though Munro briefly mentions puffed rice in her story, Hann reveals that this ordinary breakfast food is a profound expression of humble circumstances.

Figure 1

Alice Munro’s Lucky Charms

Alice Munro’s Lucky CharmsImage Credit: Alice Munro’s Lucky Charms, by Elizabeth Hann, 2014

-> See the list of figures

In contrast to Rose, the bishop's sister brings an aesthetically pleasing but empty plate to the table. Nicole Hollinson’s place-setting The Fraudulence of Affluence is fashioned for the socially elite (Figure 2). The only food-related substance is the honey and almond hand cream, highlighting this character’s bourgeoisie “preoccupation with surface level beauty, self-indulgence and the privileged ability to use food” in any way that she pleases. [28] In stark contrast to the carefully arranged setting, a twisted blackness curls and coils from underneath the placemat, threatening to consume it. The bishop's sister’s “cancerous death . . . and decayed hands [prove] that beauty will fade, because class privilege cannot change the inevitable decay of life.” [29] Highlighting this central theme in the story, Hollinson’s plate looks less like a dinner soirée and more like a funeral.

Figure 2

The Fraudulence of Affluence

The Fraudulence of AffluenceImage Credit: The Fraudulence of Affluence, by Nicole Hollinson, 2014

-> See the list of figures

In “Half a Grapefruit,” Munro solidifies her critique of material realities and experiences of mortality through an intertextual allusion to New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield and her story “The Garden Party,” in which a wealthy young girl delivers party leftovers, in a superficial gesture of condolence, to a nearby working-class family following their father’s tragic death earlier in the day. Two students, Sonia Virk and Parabjot Singh, collaboratively explore this intertextual dialogue by analyzing Mansfield’s depiction of class disparities. Virk’s plate (Figure 3) focuses on treats reserved for the upper-class. Delivered to the Sheridan’s house at the beginning of “The Garden Party,” Godber’s chocolate cake is a symbol of exclusivity and excess, as “nobody ever made their own if they could buy Godber’s.” [30] Served on a golden plate, the mesmerizing, half-eaten cake is surrounded by a crown of lilies, and perched on a lush lawn-green placemat. A half-full glass of orange juice signals the Sheridan daughters’ privilege because they “are able to consume something” at breakfast that is normally “saved for special occasions.” [31] Class hierarchies are further accentuated through the story’s landscape as the wealthy Sheridans reside up the hill from the poor, a detail Virk incorporates by elevating the cake.

Figure 3

Godber’s at Breakfast

Godber’s at BreakfastImage Credits: Godber’s at Breakfast, by Sonia Virk, 2014

-> See the list of figures

Figure 4


LeftoversImage Credit: Leftovers, by Parabjot Singh, 2014

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Adjacent to and below the cake is Parabjot Singh’s interpretation of Mrs. Sheridan’s leftover sandwiches, delivered by her daughter, Laura, to Mrs. Scott, the deceased workman’s widow (Figure 4). On the Sheridan family’s side of the road, the abundant leftovers sit perfectly intact, yet the menacing knife and fork show the insincerity of Mrs. Sheridan, since as Diane McGee notes in Writing the Meal, leftovers “‘serve as a reminder of class differences rather than providing sympathy and condolence, because if food is leftover it automatically loses its social value.’” [32] On the other side of the road, the sandwiches lie crumbled and unfit for consumption, suggesting not only Laura’s uneasiness about delivering the party leftovers, but also the working-class neighbourhood’s desolation. Because Rose in “Half a Grapefruit” objects so vehemently to Mansfield’s story, the students decided to seat Munro and Mansfield at opposite ends of the table, confronting each other’s literary worlds through food.

The final two plates in this conversation feature Patrick Lane’s poem “The Macaroni Song” in which scarcity is supplemented through a loving ritual, as the father sings a meal-time song to his children. Contrasting material poverty with an abundant imagination, Amy Frederick’s Macaroni People (Figure 5) features a ratty placemat framing two macaroni people surrounded by “tomato” threads—the three tomatoes that the father steals in order to provide for his family. [33] In contrast, Jasmin Narayan’s Grey Metal Plate (Figure 6) captures the mother’s despondency and distance, as “over the grey metal / where the macaroni boiled / She never sang the song.” [34] Together, the plates reveal how the father’s song creates “an atmosphere that is fun, secure, and warm” for his children, but in the end is a temporary distraction from their poverty and the parents’ tensions. [35]

Figure 5

Macaroni People

Macaroni PeopleImage Credits: Macaroni People, by Amy Frederick, 2014

-> See the list of figures

Figure 6

Grey Metal Plate

Grey Metal PlateImage Credit: Grey Metal Plate, by Jasmin Narayan, 2014

-> See the list of figures

Dinner Party Conversation #2—Aboriginal Food Sovereignty

Because most of the plates in Conversation #1 demonstrate the meanings of meagre meals, the students decided that other expressions of food scarcity should be close at hand. Next to Rose’s bowl of cereal is a series of plates featuring the foodways of the Haisla of Kitimaat, British Columbia, as depicted in Eden Robinson’s novel Monkey Beach. Sara Hassoun’s Oolichan Grease Breakfast, Daniela Furland’s Hybrid Bannock, Tahnee Riddoch’s Processed Plate, and Teia Giacomello’s Ma-ma-oo’s Voice reveal colonialism’s and industry’s devastating impact on First Nations—what Margery Fee describes as “the ongoing ‘nutrition transition’ as more and more Aboriginal people found themselves unable to harvest their traditional foods.” [36] Throughout Robinson’s novel, food is associated with the Haisla people’s territory and various impingements on it, voicing the characters’ cultural resilience and adaptability. Keenly interested in Robinson’s didactic descriptions, the students became conscious of their own unfamiliarity with these foodways and responded through plates that offer informed dialogues by contextualizing the meals. As Teia Giacomello reflects, “A lot of the time I felt like I wasn’t doing the novel justice because I couldn’t get the exact . . . items that I needed. I realized how important food is to this First Nation’s culture.” In keeping with this outsider’s perspective on the Haisla people's foodways, Sara Hassoun’s breakfast plate (Figure 7) includes two symbolic slices of processed white bread, a map of Haisla territory, and a jar of oolichan grease that “Can be spread on bread like butter!” Hassoun notes that most Canadians will understand having toast at breakfast, but not oolichan grease: the Haisla people “are part of Canadian consumer society, but still active members of their own community” because the novel reveals that the processing of oolichan is a valued skill passed down through the generations, with the grease being used for its healing and nutritional properties. [37]

Figure 7

Oolichan Grease Breakfast

Oolichan Grease BreakfastImage Credit: Oolichan Grease Breakfast, by Sara Hassoun, 2014

-> See the list of figures

The difficult history of territorial expropriation and resource exploitation shapes Daniela Furland’s and Tahnee Riddoch’s plates, respectively (Figures 8 & 9). Tracing early European influences on Aboriginal practices, Furland baked two halves of a loaf of bannock, the one with oatmeal (a Scottish version) and the other with currants and flour (a First Nations adaptation). The halves appear as though they are from the same whole, suggesting creativity in recipe-sharing between cultures but also power relations. [38] Further down the table, the destruction of aboriginal foodways by industry and pollution is captured in Riddoch’s Processed Plate. A flayed oolichan fish lies in the middle of the plate with smeared salmonberries, severed from their original shoot. Riddoch reflects that the near-empty plate is “a result of industrialization . . . and the destruction of [key] resources. . . . Native culture is being consumed in a violent process” as reflected in the food’s “bruising, tearing, and cutting.” [39] The black oil garnish pays homage to other industry-related issues depicted in Robinson’s Monkey Beach, and evokes pipeline projects presently under consideration in British Columbia. The many processed foods mentioned in Robinson’s novel decorate the placemat, giving the impression of industrial abundance, but this layered place-setting is Riddoch’s way of expressing that “colonialism, with all of its contemporary branches, is a figuratively cannibalistic system” that plays havoc with First Nations’ health, cultural foodways, and territories. [40]

Figure 8

Hybrid Bannock

Hybrid BannockImage Credits: Hybrid Bannock, by Daniela Furland, 2014

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Figure 9

Processed Plate

Processed PlateImage Credit: Processed Plate, by Tahnee Riddoch, 2014

-> See the list of figures

A balanced, humane connection to nature is explored in Teia Giacomello’s plate with the thesis, “Ma-ma-oo is the voice of the plants” (Figure 10). Atop a mossy, forest-inspired placemat, a bowl contains bright salmonberries and blueberries with mold that alters the sweetness (a lesson that Lisa learns from her grandmother in Robinson’s novel). A curled leaf houses a broken cigarette, signalling grand-mother Ma-ma-oo’s tobacco ritual of thanking the tree spirits when she gathers branches. In contrast to colonialism’s and industries’ insatiable exploitation of resources, Giacomello captures the Haisla First Nation’s values of balance and harmony, gratitude and appreciation. Ma-ma-oo strives to preserve the landscape and traditional foodways: “Without Ma-ma-oo’s voice of guidance, Lisa would be lost,” Giacomello reflects. [41]

Figure 10

Ma-ma-oo’s Voice

Ma-ma-oo’s VoiceImage Credit: Ma-ma-oo’s Voice, by Teia Giacomello, 2014

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On the other side of the table, opposite the Monkey Beach plates, the discussion of First Nations food sovereignty continues but with respect to a different region and staple: the plains bison. Referencing Tasha Hubbard’s study of how the near-elimination of the bison during colonization undermined a vital source of food, shelter, and cultural values, Jennifer Parnell analyzes Marvin Francis’ poem “mcPemmicanTm” (from the long poem City Treaty) and its confrontation of contemporary consumer culture (Figure 11). Parnell recreates Francis’ line “chase fast food off the cliff” as bison stampede behind a McDonald’s burger box that serves as a platform for hunting today’s fast-food icons. [42] A box of fries has already jumped, dangling from the table. Parnell notes that the image is Francis’ way of bringing historical injustices into the present. The “fast food consumer culture faces the same fate as the bison,” as the speaker rejects today’s superficial, commodified world. [43]

Figure 11

mcPemmican Plate

mcPemmican PlateImage Credit: mcPemmican Plate, by Jennifer Parnell, 2014

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Dinner Party Conversation #3 — North American Excess

As a dominant food-related discourse, North America’s excessive consumerism continues to infiltrate the dinner party and its most personal reflections and familial exchanges. The plates in this conversation reveal that patterns of cultured and gendered disenfranchisement are exposed but not necessarily altered when characters confront Canadians’ entrenched consumer ideals of conspicuous consumption and formidable appetites. Situated next to Parnell’s mcPemmican Plate, Alexis Deros’s place-setting (Figure 12) confronts the theme of western greed in Evelyn Lau’s poem “A Grain of Rice.” Referring to the “fat-smeared faces” of her fellow Canadians, the speaker despairs at her own binging and purging. [44] Her pile of discarded chicken bones would have fed an entire village in China, but in Canada, she eats alone and with a feeling of emptiness. [45]

Figure 12

Fat-Smeared Faces

Fat-Smeared FacesImage Credit: Fat-Smeared Faces, by Alexis Deros, 2014

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Linda Le’s plate A Single Grain of Rice communicates the opposite view contained in Lau’s bicultural poem. As a foil, this plate reveals a divided self and disordered appetite (Figure 13). In the porcelain bowl sits a giant single rice grain with a city built atop of it, voicing the whole world of flavour and satisfaction that the speaker’s father praises in each tiny morsel. These two plates reveal that Lau’s speaker grapples with her family’s diverse legacy of starvation and sustenance, experiences that she cannot reconcile within her own mind and body. Using distance to amplify meaning, the students reinforce this internal divide by placing these plates far across the table from one another.

Figure 13

A Single Grain of Rice

A Single Grain of RiceImage Credit: A Single Grain of Rice, by Linda Le, 2014

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Seated next to Deros’s chicken-strewn place-setting, are plates that continue to examine North American consumer culture but within the context of gender. In Lynn Coady’s short story “Play the Monster Blind,” a large appetite is the defining feature of masculine power and, paradoxically, its self-destruction. Angela Shin analyzes Coady’s gluttonous male characters who “eat for immediate gratification.” [46] Shin’s plate features a clay figurine buried alive amidst a pile of cereal and empty alcohol bottles. Identified as “Tiny Dale” with his cutlery fashioned as boxing gloves (Figure 14), this character embodies an unhealthy ideal: he eats, drinks, and fights excessively but “cannot express underlying issues.” [47] The avalanche of cornflakes evokes the family’s nightly tradition, as mandated by the alcoholic father: a serving of cereal after an already large meal.

Figure 14

Cornflake Avalanche

Cornflake AvalancheImage Credit: Cornflake Avalanche, by Angela Shin, 2014

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In dialogue with Shin’s plate, Stephanie Peters’ Can’t Crack the Hierarchy (Figure 15) captures the point of view of one of Coady’s female characters, as masculine hedonism is replaced by feminine self-denial and powerlessness. Ann, the only daughter and an anorexic, forces herself to eat lobster at a family picnic in order to impress her father, but no utensils are available: “Ann cannot crack the lobster’s shell, nor can she crack the hierarchy of her family.” [48] Referencing David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Consider the Lobster,” Peters explains that in the 1800s, lobster was an inexpensive protein relegated to the institutionalized or poor, whereas today it is considered an expensive delicacy. [49] Unlike the lobster, Ann cannot change her status despite wrestling with her brothers, wearing combat boots, or attempting to consume a large meal. As a woman, her status is non-negotiable.

Figure 15

Can’t Crack the Hierarchy

Can’t Crack the HierarchyImage Credit: Can’t Crack the Hierarchy, by Stephanie Peters, 2014

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Dinner Conversation #4—Journeys of the Diaspora

Conversations about cultural displacement appear in the next series of plates which examine immigrants’ scrutiny and reshaping of Canadian society through food and cookery. The place-settings—marked by the passing of time and moments of crisis—reflect the shifting communal and national affinities of the diaspora. Jodie Cornell’s and Simran Samra’s plates (Figures 16 & 17) explore intergenerational tensions in Madeleine Thien’s short story “Simple Recipes,” as a Malaysian family makes Vancouver their home and loses their “recipe” for family unity. Cornell’s broken plate traces the unnamed protagonist’s “original love . . . for her father” and his culinary magic, “followed by her hurt and anger towards him” when he beats the older brother who rejects a home-cooked meal. [50] Samra’s apology plate—the bland Canadian breakfast that the parents prepare for their son following the beating—offers a dubious fresh start in their adopted country.

Figure 16


RecipesImage Credits: Recipes, by Jodie Cornell, 2014

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Figure 17

Breakfast Apology

Breakfast ApologyImage Credit: Breakfast Apology, by Simran Samra, 2014

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Inspired by Gabrielle Roy’s story “Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?,” Corinna Souder captures the emotional journey of a Chinese immigrant who opens a café in Horizon, Saskatchewan (Figure 18). While the upright menu communicates Wong’s initial optimism, the place-setting is eventually soiled to show the ironic diminishment of his life and business following the town’s economic windfall from a nearby oil discovery. [51] The inside of the café menu captures the townsfolk’s superficial appreciation of Sam Lee Wong, particularly because it advertises mostly western cuisine, signifying his one-sided adaptation to his community and his exclusion from prosperity.

Figure 18

Café Journey

Café JourneyImage Credit: Café Journey, by Corinna Souder, 2014

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While Sam Lee Wong quietly attempts acculturation, the adjacent plate (Figure 19) explores an obsessive desire for assimilation in response to narrow definitions of what is Canadian. Neil Bhargava creates a toilet-inspired place-setting interpreting “Squatter” and author Rohinton Mistry’s satirization of the notion of becoming “Westernized in all respects.” [52] After living in Toronto for a decade, the character Saroush feels like a “foreign presence” in Canadian washrooms because he cannot relieve himself unless he crouches on the seat (as is the custom in India). [53] Patriotism’s potential for exclusion is rendered grotesque as an upside-down plastic Canada Day hat lined with toilet paper becomes a serving “bowl” at the table. Floating in the water is a provocative brownie garnished with laxatives, a piece of white bread, and a remote for controlling the Crappus Non Interruptus machine that is to be surgically implanted into Saroush’s bowels. The items signify the extreme ways that Saroush is advised to adjust to Canadian life, ranging from a change in culinary tastes to an invasive physical alteration. [54]

Figure 19

Adapting to Canada

Adapting to CanadaImage Credit: Adapting to Canada, by Neil Bhargava, 2014

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Similar to “Squatter,” Rabindranath Maharaj’s “Bitches on All Sides” communicates an experience of alienation, as Noël Hoffman’s Porkton Plate (Figure 20) sits precariously at the corner of the dinner table, like an awkward last-minute arrival. Inside the UFO is a green alien, “symbolizing [the protagonist] Ramjohn’s inability to connect” with the Fredericton community. [55] Hoffman argues that “Ramjohn’s sarcastic and abusive nature . . . are symptoms of his frustration” toward an unwelcoming Canadian society. [56] The placemat’s newspaper headlines allude to the scene when Ramjohn bitingly tells his roommate in broken English, “‘Run fast and call up the newspaper and them. Tell them that it have a man eating pork in an apartment.” [57] The bacon-wrapped cutlery evokes Ramjohn’s interaction with this popular Canadian meat that defies his Muslim heritage. His tongue fearfully probes the first taste of pork, revealing the shifting categorization of what is “alien” in Hoffman’s extraterrestrial-themed plate. [58]

Figure 20

Porkton Plate

Porkton PlateImage Credit: Porkton Plate, by Noël Hoffman, 2014

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Concluding the Feast

The “CanLit Dinner Party” assignment challenged students to think across disciplines, enhancing their critical understanding of food as a material, cultural idiom and mode of storytelling. The students’ self-reflections highlighted their individual learning experiences and appreciation for the project’s unconventional methodology in the context of a literature course. One seminar student acknowledged the assignment’s transformative impact:

The creation of my individual plate created a narrow focus and sense of purpose in me. . . . Once my plate . . . joined the dinner party table, I believe my view opened up. All the stories we read were brought to life here and the individual analysis by each student opened my eyes. Together this table displays not only these great works but takes the traditional role of a meal creating an atmosphere for discussion.

Another student similarly noted how the different stages of the assignment continually shifted her critical perspective on the literature: “Thinking about how to represent a poem on a plate broadened the way I viewed the poem in comparison to if I were only writing about it. Seeing all the plates come together was a reminder of the range of interpretation in literature as no two plates were the same.” For some students, the project prompted them to examine their own “food voices” and to recognize literature’s larger socio-cultural relevance. As one student reflects, “The act of focusing on the . . . food scenes . . . really helped in bringing new insights into my process and method [of] literary analysis. Choosing a story such as Rohinton Mistry’s “Squatter” has made me rethink what it means to be Canadian. The changes that happen are silent yet quite concrete after a person lives in Canada for a period.” Overall, the students’ learning outcomes and enthusiasm made the “CanLit Dinner Party” a worthwhile endeavour. The seminar setting itself played a crucial role in the project’s success in terms of the advanced skill-levels of the upper-year students, the group's cohesion, and the manageability the dinner party format. The instructor is presently experimenting with an altered version of the project in the context of a second-year Canadian literature survey class by collaborating with seven Fine Arts instructors and involving 100 English and Fine Arts students. Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s academic vision encourages team-based projects, such as these, that integrate theory and practice both within and beyond the classroom. The seminar students who created the inaugural “CanLit Dinner Party” clearly moved beyond the often solitary work of English Majors. In sharing their own critical modes of inquiry with the larger university community, they invited others to partake in a tangible literary feast that tackled four critical conversations related to socio-economic status, aboriginal territory and food sovereignty, gender inequalities, and cultural division and marginalization. Although there is a growing trend to recreate literary food scenes through photography and social media, seminar student Nicole Hollinson believes that the “CanLit Dinner Party” deconstructed this phenomenon because of its hands-on, material nature. On this point, student Elizabeth Hann offers some insightful commentary on the exhibition:

I found that there was a certain grotesque thrill in the nature of the project. There was something topsy-turvy about having food in the school library, for one thing—the library being a polite realm where usually you’re not supposed to bring food. And presenting our Dinner Party Plates, our “live,” impermanent art projects made with real, perishable food, some of it messy and smelly, in a public space, and knowing it would be sitting around unrefrigerated for a day, with some of it getting even messier and smellier as the hours wore on, helped underscore a central theme of the course, . . . the grotesque corporeality of food, its essential link to both life and death.

While “guests” and passersby voiced surprise (and even concern) at seeing a dinner table in the library, the exhibition facilitated what a library, a university, an English seminar, and a dinner party ought to: the sharing of perspectives and the discovery of multiple ways of knowing and communicating through a dynamic community where everyone is welcome at the table.