By Madonna Hamel
To anyone outside of the Prairies, the title might read like a reference to a conservative married couple’s weekend, but around here we understand it to mean dates squares and coffee with friends and family. Which is why I named this story just that, and performed it in Val Marie at “Holy Smoke”, a night of “Piping Hot Stories from Heaven and Earth”, hosted by myself, Cree storyteller Joseph Naytowhow, and the Chinook Library system in honour of World Storytelling Day. And, apart from Vi and Leo, who always look like they are on a date, dressed so handsomely and sitting so close, often holding hands, you can’t be sure who the married couples are at events like these. The men and women drift into their own bunches, in this case husbands made for a row of chairs on the right and the wives plopped onto the big cozy couch and squeezed in together. They filled each other in on essential information about flooding, calving, the new park girls and buffet night at the hotel. Story night happens all over the room any time prairie people get together.
I never married, although I have been engaged three times, twice to the same man. The fact that none of them were particularly good cooks had nothing to do with my disengagements, but it bears mentioning that I have had the pleasure of co-habitating with a man who made his own mayonnaise from scratch. Denis was my “chum”, what they call beaus in Quebec. And I was his “blonde”, although my hair was quite dark, at the time. Those are the informal terms for unmarried, single people. The formal term is “celibataire”. “Well,” I huffed, the first time I had to fill out a census form in Quebec, “I really don’t think that’s anybody’s business if I’m celibate or not!”
Once a year mussels arrive by the boatload at the market in Quebec City’s Old Port. They are piled onto mountains of shaved ice, and the chefs from homes all over town fill their sacks with les moules and red potatoes for frites. For the first few months, I’d wake every morning eager to know what he’d be concocting for supper, and every morning he’d have to remind me that he had aucun idea until he saw what was fresh at the market. But come moule season, I knew without asking: there’d be fresh steamed mussels, crisp wedges of fried potatoes dusted with sea salt, and Denis’ homemade mayonnaise made from farm eggs.
I was not encouraged to help in the kitchen, which was fine by me. Ours was a very large kitchen, big enough to fit a farm table and chairs and a couch. I chose to sit and read and surreptitiously watch the culinary genius at work. Denis hummed and chopped and sautéd and all the while a long grey cinder grew at the end of the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The kitchen had a farm door, one of those kinds that divided in half so you could open the top and yell out to the neighbours, which happened to be Denis’ brother Guy. “Guy! Vien icit!” “Quest-ce tu fait?” was usually how our day began. And that suited me beautifully as I loved to watch the brothers in action; both were exceptional chefs, having watched their mother like a hawk, as so many Quebecois men did, as boys.
One particularly freezing winter morning, after a solid week of snow and a wind chill factor that at one point dipped to -72 C Denis realized the cupboard was bare and that night it was our turn to bring dessert to Guy and Marie-Pierre’s. Riffling through the pantry I managed to rustle up two cups of oatmeal and a handful of flour. I added what was left in the sugar bowl and butter dish and announced I would make Matrimonial Squares.
“Matrimonial squares- using” – and from the very back of the cupboard “This!” a rock solid block of dates.
“Ahhh les dates carres!”
“Well, my mom called them matrimonial squares. I’ve always known them as that. I don’t know why but she suggested that it was probably because these” – waving the rock hard dates – “were the only non-perishable fruit around and could be revived with boiling water. They were exotic enough to be worthy of a wedding cake and the oats and flour were cheap enough that anyone could afford them.”
One food historian refers to the squares, or cake, “as a mixture of two different items – existing in delicious harmony rather than remaining rigidly aloof.”
And two things, slapped together, becomes a marriage, Denis points out to me. Or maybe it’s the perfect metaphor for marriage because a rough top but a sweet filling and a firm base.
He picked up the sticky package of dates and read “stoned dates”. “Stoned dates?”
“I’ve had a lot of stoned dates, actually. Though none ended in marriage.”
“As far as you know.”
It turns out there is a cake that comes before Matrimonial Cake-it’s called a Romance Cake, and it involves a shortbread crust with a coconut, egg and sugar topping.
“Piph!” shrugs Denis, not one for romance. Besides, marriage is not as popular in Quebec as it is in the rest of the country. Three-Layered Liqueur-Laced Coco-Locataire Cakes might be what’s called for.
For the rest of the evening we dreamt up recipes for variations on the matrimonial cake in its many phases – en route and in retreat from – the altar.
Estrangement Bars, Adultery Wedges, Divorce Dumplings, Wedded Bliss Fritters and Irreconcilable Puddings topped the menu, with Cruel Fate Fingers and Slices of Sneaking Around Town would be followed by Rude Awakening Biscotti chasers accompanied by sugary hot boozy café-au-laits, and even a Hash-It-Over Brownie or two, to medicate the Connubial Crumble. Only the lucky and the quick-to-forgive would be left to nibble sparingly and sensuously at the Honeymoon Honeycomb, glazed and floating on a meringue cloud of Good Intentions, high on a high glycemic index.
We even invented a dessert poutine called Just Good Friends or Les Meilleurs Amis, made with sweet potato fries, cheese curds and maple syrup, which allowed for pals to occasionally keep each other warm at night without moving in permanently and was based on the fact that, while poutine was the preventive sure-fire cure-all for hangover, it pretty much guaranteed that there would be no hanky-panky after partaking, being that both parties involved had just devoured the equivalent of a pound of butter.
After one night of experimentation in the kitchen, fueled by wine and New Year’s fondue, we dipped every piece of food we could find into a thick rich muddy black soup of 89 per cent dark chocolate. We sank the usual grapes, strawberries and bananas and moved on to the more exotic hunks of sirloin tip, Cajun chicken and curried shrimp, building a kind of savoury trifle in our bellies, and ended on bits of donuts, crumpets and pumpernickel rye.
“Did you know,” I informed Denis and Guy and his blonde Marie-Pierre, as we pulled our bread from the goo, “That Hieronymus Bosch’s grotesque paintings of demons and monsters could very likely have been brought about by chronic food poisoning found in the fermenting rye in his rye bread?”
“Mais Voyons! Maddie! On mange!”
Although the remonstrations against my observations while eating were vehement, no one stopped dunking the bread. For the French, eating is a sacrament not to be tampered with. And, I suppose, after a life of taking the body and blood before the man bleeding to death on the cross, what’s a little art history over chocolate?
“There was no such thing as refrigeration or preservatives in his day.” I explained.
“Or maybe Bosch was more influenced by the gargoyles atop the cathedral he viewed from his window every morning and night. We will never know,” suggests Marie-Pierre, who was getting her Phd in Sociology. “We believe that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from lead poisoning from chewing on his paint-covered brushes. But also was addicted to absinthe, suffered bouts of guilt and he had tintinitus. Any one of these torments could easily have been the cause for his finally slicing off his ear.
“You know what they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson,” pipes Denis.
“You mean poison.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You said fish.”
“There’s fish?” chimes Mary Pierre.
“He knows”, Guy reminds me. “Don’t hegg him on.”
“I have a joke!” I yell, suddenly remembering my one joke. “Two cannibals are eating a clown.
One of them stops mid-bite and looks up and says: Does this taste funny to you?”
No one laughs. Because translated what I said was: Does this taste humourous to you.
The moral of this story is: when in doubt, order the cake.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.