Aubin-Edmond Arsenault, the ultimate Acadian foodie, Part 2: A Portrait of an Acadian as a Young Man
"[S]he rubbed her finger on one of the ribbons, then lifted the finger to her tongue. It was candy!"
As the Queen of England, she would not often be caught licking her finger at a dinner table, but Aubin-Edmond describes this candid moment of the Queen tasting a fruit centerpiece made entirely of sugar ribbons as a "human incident" he was lucky enough to catch.
The Queen's visit to Prince Edward Island occurred in the later part of his career when Arsenault felt like he had earned his place across the table from Her Majesty and among prominent politicians and other members of the upper echelons of society.
As a younger man, he was much more insecure about his place in the world. After studying at St-Dunstan's College and a brief time as a teacher, Arsenault decided to pursue a career in law. He articled in Charlottetown for a few years before heading to London to work with Sir Charles Russell, son of Lord Russell of Killowen.
Learning, however, would not be limited to law offices or courtrooms, as he would spend a good amount of time exploring and observing British society. Arsenault had a lot of respect and admiration for the people he met along the way and the places he visited in London. He was, in fact, fascinated by the hustle and bustle of the city and would spend his off-days riding the horse trams and tipping the drivers to answer questions about different landmarks.
Although British food did not make a lasting impression on him, he would remain astonished by the social norms and rituals related to dining in London.
The formality he would encounter at lunches, Sunday dinners and late-night balls contrasted with his transatlantic voyage, which he shared with three other passengers, as well as cattle and sheep. An intense storm would make him violently seasick, but as the boat reached calmer waters, and his stomach regained a bit of strength, he joined the ship's officers for dinner. On the menu: "pig's jowls."
Suffice to say, it was not the smoothest journey and he did not look - or feel - his best at the time of his arrival in London. Fresh off the boat, he headed to the Balmoral hotel on Northumberland Ave., close to Trafalgar Square, where he immediately felt out of place:
"When we arrived in front of this palatial hotel and caught our first glimpse of the doorman arrayed in a gorgeous uniform more resplendent than that worn by Field Marshals or Admirals, we were greatly impressed. When his eye fell upon our shabby baggage and we noticed his contemptuous look, we became suddenly convinced that the Balmoral was no place for us."Embarrassed, he asked for the least expensive room and avoided the dining room that night, opting to eat a small meal at a restaurant and then a late-night snack of biscuits and canned goods he had brought from Charlottetown, including devilled ham that, as he estimated, had travelled much farther than he had:
"The label said it was made by Crosse and Blackwell. The ham had gone from London to Montreal, from Montreal to Charlottetown, and then back to London. It had cost us 25 cents in Charlottetown; it could be had in London for less than six pence. We had brought coals to Newcastle."
Arsenault did not stay long at the Balmoral, finding it more financially sound to stay in boarding houses. With a colleague, he would eventually move to a house owned by the Smith famiy in Ainsley Gardens (apparently, near King's Cross station). There, he would not only be impressed by substantial meals, but also by delectable conversation. The family was well read and, as Arsenault stated "could converse with intelligence on the theatre, books, art, and other subjects about which a young man like myself could learn much."
Everyday, he'd enjoy a hefty breakfast of bacon, boiled eggs, toast and coffee. In the evening, he would often sit at a table set for twelve, where "after dinner, the ladies would retire from the dining-room while the men drank their coffee by the lighted fire place and smoked. Afterwards, we would join the ladies in the drawing room."
On Sundays, the Smiths would serve breakfast, dinner, mid-afternoon tea and supper after church. For this household, Sunday supper consisted of "good English cold beef", bread, butter and a relish made of celery, cress, and horseradish. Arsenault would remember these nights fondly: "I enjoyed those late suppers as only a healthy young man can."
In London, he would meet famous actors and watch top lawyers in court, but Arsenault was most impressed by Sir Russell. In 1896, Russell was appointed solicitor for the dominion government of Canada. His reputation had already been established the previous year as he had been recruited by the Marquess of Queensberry to round up sufficient evidence in his cause célèbre against Oscar Wilde.
Arsenault would often be invited to sit with Russell as he ate his lunch ordered from the neighbouring hotel. He remembers chatting with his superior who, at the end of his meal, would always order a clerk to "please remove the banquet."
One evening, a client of theirs and his "socially ambitious wife" organized a ball at the Elysium Gardens. Arsenault would first attend a dinner at Russell's house with poet Alice Meynell. Both of them and Mrs. Russell would then share a carriage to the ball as the women enjoyed cigarettes along the way. It was a first for Arsenault, whom had never seen a woman smoke.
They would dance for hours and sit for an elaborate meal shortly after midnight. After a few glasses of champagne with some of his colleagues, Arsenault attempted to slip out of the party unnoticed. As they all headed for the door, they were caught by Sir Russell -- a man reputed for his short temper and his tendency to curse and swear after his employees. He exclaimed:
"You young rascals! You ate the man's food, drank his wine, and now you are shaking the party."As the young men made their way down the stairs, he gave them what Arsenault described as "a playful kick on the posterior."
A playful kick, a finger lick, or spending a journey seasick. These are the "human incidents" we often lose while writing broader histories. The Queen may have been considered the epitome of propriety, but she was also curious. Russell was a fierce lawyer, but was also capable of having fun. As for Arsenault, he may have felt at home sitting across from Royalty in his later years, but the possibility of one day dining with the Queen may probably didn't crossed his mind while he crossed the ocean with farm animals.
Next Thursday, we'll follow Arsenault to Louisiana where he acted as the Société National l'Assomption's first envoy to their "Southern cousins" in 1924. He ate gumbo... and so much more!