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Cocagne, New Brunswick:
Origin of a Canadian Place Name
Like other provinces of Canada, New Brunswick has several places evocatively named after food words. Samp Hill in Kings County west of Havelock is named after an aboriginal food which also saved many an early white settler from starvation. See the entry on samp in my book, Canadian Food Words.
The river, village, harbour, and cove of Cocagne in beautiful New Brunswick were named for Cockaigne, mythical paradise in medieval French literature, a kind of gourmand’s Utopia where “houses were made of barley sugar cakes and streets were paved with pastry.”
The real New Brunswick settlement was named by Nicolas Denys (1598-1688), the great recruiter of settlers for Acadia, after he camped at the harbour mouth for a week, and noted the teeming wildfowl, the excellent fishing, and especially the local oysters and other shellfish. Denys is the author of an important early book on Acadia , Description géographique et historique des costes de l’Amérique septentrionale (Paris, 1672).
This pastry heaven was a popular medieval concept in almost all languages of Europe, for example, in Spanish, cucaña; in Portuguese, cucanha; in Italian, cuccagna; all deriving from medieval Low German kokenje, a sweet little cake, being the diminutive of koke, cake. The root is a common Indo-European one, and koke is cognate with or borrowed from Latin coquere ‘to cook.’
Schlaraffenland is another German version of Cockaigne, “a newly discovered happy land of plenty,” a utopia of bounty, first described in a satire by one Johann Andreas Schnebelin (d. 1706). It is a place where ‘chickens, geese, and pigeons fly around already cooked and waiting to be eaten, and every house is surrounded by a hedge of sausage.’ A number of maps of this imaginary abode appeared between 1700 and 1750. The one pictured here was published by Johann Baptist Homann in Nuremburg in 1716.
But the New World did not have to rely on European fantasies of obscene abundance. Soon enough, to appease American gluttony or Depression-era penury and want there sprang up Yankee versions, like the one pictured below.
Big Rock Candy Mountain, montage by David Cox
There is an American folk version of the Cockaigne myth embedded in the 1930s Depression song "Big Rock Candy Mountain." These lyrics are those of American bluegrass singer Harry McClintock:
“One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
But note that this sweet land of Cockaigne has nothing whatsoever to do with the addictive drug, cocaine, which has its origin in indigenous South American languages like Aymara and Quechua where kuka and koka are names of the shrub known to modern botany as Erythroxylum coca, from whose leaves the soul-destroying white paste and powder are made.
The most famous art work depicting Cockaigne is this one. The web note below offers details.
"Land of Cockaigne, after 1570(?)
The Land of Cockaigne, known in Dutch literature as Luilekkerland (country of the lazy and gluttonous), was described in very popular stories as a mythical place where there is no need to work, and where food and drink are so abundant that we need only open our mouths to take in what we desire.
In this print, which accurately follows in reverse Bruegel’s 1567 painting of the same title (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), three figures—a soldier, a farmer, and a clerk—are shown sleeping off the effects of their overindulgence, or waiting for more drink to imbibe—as the clerk does at left. Some of the remains of their meal are strewn on the platform encircling the tree in the center, while the mountain of buckwheat in the background and the house covered with tarts at right indicate this land has plenty to spare.
The image’s moralizing intent—to decry the vices of sloth and gluttony—is apparent from the first part of the Dutch inscription below: “The lazy and gluttonous farmers, soldiers, and clerks get there and taste all for nothing.” Though Bruegel is credited with the inspiration for the design—“P. Bruegel. inventor” appears in the lower left corner—it is unclear whether the master was involved in the production of the print, which was probably engraved by Pieter van der Heyden.”
There’s more on Canadian food words in my book.
Click on book cover to sample the contents.