Sunday, 12 August 2018

how can you not fall in love with a girl who brings you scallops from Hudson Bay?


I remember frying the scallops in butter during one of her visits and eating them with a garnish of wild blueberries and lemon zest. I remember receiving a whole arctic char, head and all, on another occasion, wrapped in layers of newspaper to keep it frozen during her flight. We had to chop it—hack it actually—in half to fit it into my freezer. I remember the ulu she brought me and wondering how ever would I sharpen the edge of the half-moon blade. There is so much I remember… 

A year later, more probably two, I spent an afternoon cleaning out my freezer. Finding some chicken backs and legs, I decided to cook stock while I was at it. Whatever was stockable, I added to the pot: The last two packages of corn I had frozen the previous summer, garlic-roasted pear halves that would have enhanced any number of dishes, charred peppers that likewise I had high hopes for, and other frozen fragments—peas probably, pumpkin purée maybe—that had been in the freezer too long. The stock was a perfect dark sweetness and the soup I made from it more perfect still. 

That afternoon in my freezer-emptying frenzy, I also relegated much to the compost pail. I can no longer recall most of what I threw out. I do, though, remember finding in the back corner of the freezer, where those long-forgotten bits of detritus have a habit of migrating to, a small plastic bag of an unrecognizable something. I wondered briefly whether it was de-boned chicken breast, but realized soon enough it wasn’t. Puzzling how I could so completely forget what I had put into my freezer, I added it to the compost. It was only the next day when my kitchen smelled oddly of fish that the second package of Hudson Bay scallops came to mind—the scallops we hadn’t eaten—the scallops I was saving for her next visit—the visit that never was. Tears trickled down my cheeks as I remembered ...

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Some of the beauteous things



Go thy great way!
The Stars thou meetst
Are even as Thyself

Three baskets of sour cherries, balancing precariously on top of a stack of boxes of I-don’t-know-what in Pars Food, a few fruit flies buzzing around the sticky glisten of the bright red orbs. I don’t think I had seen sour cherries for sale before, ever, anywhere. Now here in this Persian grocery store in North York they stood, matter-of-factly waiting to be purchased. My mother had died only weeks earlier and I missed her terribly. Sour cherries reminded me of her, even though she had never in my memory, baked or cooked anything with them. I have no recollection of ever seeing them in our house. But she had talked about sour cherries as if she knew all about them, as if her hands had handled them countless times. Indeed, when I asked them, my older sisters told me she had made sour cherry pie, canned sour cherries and cooked sour cherry moos from the preserves. But eventually because they were so perishable, grocery stores stopped selling them and my mother could no longer preserve them. This all before my time. So when I saw those baskets of cherries, I bought one, to hold onto a part of my mother I never had. I cried for my mother that day.

A few weeks later I flew to Bolivia on a research assignment to spend three weeks on the Mennonite colony of Riva Palacios. Toward the end of my stay there, I was introduced to Susanna Harms, an older middle-aged woman whose husband had recently died. On the day that I dropped by to interview her, two of her married daughters and some of their children were spending the day, keeping their mother company and helping her feed the workers she had hired to build a new house and landscape some of her hectares of land. It was a busy household but Susanna found time to sit down with me to talk about her life including her grief. “A day doesn’t go by,” she said with tears in her eyes, “that I don’t cry for my husband.” After the formal interview I showed Susanna and her daughters the pictures I had on my phone, including a picture of the cherry pie I had made from those Pars Food cherries. I told them the story of the cherries, why I had bought them, that I had baked a pie to remember my mother by, that I had used a plate from her finest china to serve myself a piece—I told them of my grief. When it was time for me to leave, we stepped outside the house, a daughter and I, and continued the conversation of our shared loss, hers a father, mine a mother. There were tears in both our eyes. I returned to Susanna’s house the next day to interview her mother who was visiting that day. Today a third daughter was spending the day. She said she would like me to come home with her and have supper with her family. I gladly accepted the invitation but it didn’t take me very long to figure out that what she really wanted was to quiz me about the cherry pie. Evidently word got around. She untethered the horse, got on the seat beside me and by the time she was guiding the horse onto the village street, she was asking how I made the pie. She wanted details—ratio of lard to flour—1 lb to 5 1/2 cups, no, halve the recipe, Kerry, so she won’t be stuck with loads of pastry—the amount of sugar for the cherries—eijeijei, if I don’t get this right they’ll all spit out the pie in disgust—bake in a hot oven—what in blazes is 425ºF in degrees Celsius—a pie pan—she’s not going to have one—and so it went. “I’m going to make that pie,” she said.

I was glad I had taken that picture, and missed my mother all the more.

When we arrived Helen’s husband came out to unharness the horse so that she could hurry in and prepare supper. She’d planned tacos and ries met malkj. “Kjan jie ries met malkj,” she asked. Another lurch into this co-mingling of grief and happiness.  “Yes,” I answered, “my Mom would make it when there was leftover rice.” We sat down at the table, Helen, Abram, their four red-haired children and me. We bowed our heads and then reached for the fried tortillas, the meat filling, the cut-up tomatoes and ladled the rice-cooked-in-milk into our bowls. As I had done as a child, we added a teaspoon of sugar and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The older children told me about their school and the daily extracurricular reading their parents insisted on, Helen described the pie to her family, Abram told me about going to Brazil together with Helen’s parents for his late father-in-law’s medical treatment. When the meal was finished and we had again prayed, the dishes were hurriedly washed and it was time to go. It would take half an hour to make the trip back to the village where I was staying, and it would be bed time for the children when they got back. After dropping me off they would stop in at Helen’s mother’s to make sure things were okay, and then drive home. I climbed into the buggy with a pocketful of freshly roasted peanuts to eat on the way back, having been given them as a gift by five-year-old Peter.  I sat on the back seat with the three oldest children. Helen and Abram and the youngest wrapped in a blanket, sat in front.

We made that trip through the black black night mostly in silence except for the whir of the wheels on the hardened dirt road surface and the steady clip clop of the horse’s hooves. I had found comfort that evening—honoured with warm hospitality, satiated with a bowl of reis met malkj—and Heaven knows I needed comfort. The grief of my mother’s death was but a part of what had been the most difficult year of my life. In that year I had lost not only my mother whom I loved unreservedly, but I had lost another one whom I loved and with whom I had planned to spend the rest of my life. Then an abrupt end: “I don’t love you anymore, Kerry.” I reeled. I staggered. In the midst of this desperate rawness, my mother got sick and died. In this year of loss-mounted-on-loss my tears had never seemed to end. The rawness was slowly abating, but even so it was never far beneath the surface. Riding in the buggy I felt the rawness return, felt the familiar salty sting. But the comfort I had been given that evening, it too hovered. As tears trickled down my cheeks in that still, black blackness I looked up into the sky. I had never seen a night sky so white, so a-shimmer. The southern Milky Way dazzled in a breathtaking, beauteous brilliance. And then I saw in that myriad of stars my tears. Each drop had been plucked from the endless flow of the past year and fashioned into this lustrous heavenly hurt that now surrounded me, shone down on me, gave me back my tears as consolation. The next moment I saw again the brilliant beauteous dazzle of stars, and in their glistening light, saw the three children beside me, saw the rump of the horse, its tail bouncing back and forth in a steady rhythm. A measure of succour, an easement of sorrow.

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.


(The phrase “heavenly hurt” is from “There’s a certain Slant of Light” by Emily Dickinson. The opening poem excerpt is also from an Emily Dickinson poem, “Go thy great way!” The blog post title and closing line are from the final stanza of Dante’s Inferno.)


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

zockastetja (sugar cubes)

(a big thank-you to my mother, Tina Fast, for sorting through her memory and sharing the wealth she found there with me.)

You take your seat at the funeral table, hold up your cup to be filled with coffee.  You reach for a bun and then for a zockastetj.  You dip this hardened constellation of a thousand sugary fragments in your cream-whitened coffee. Only when saturation threatens to disintegrate its togetherness do you lift it to your mouth.  An allotment of sweetness in the bitterness of grief.

Blumenort Kleine Gemeinde Church.  Built by my great uncles
Cornelius R., Henry R. and Peter R. Plett in 1918.
The Blumenort Kleine Gemeinde church of the early twentieth century was architecturally and aesthetically a simple building as far as church buildings go, the walls of white-painted siding interrupted only by the large clear-glass windows through which bright, sunny, prairie air could freely move.  Doors on the south side of the building admitted the church-goers, men through the left, women through the right.  Off of the women’s cloakroom was the cry room; off of the men’s, the prädja stowtje.*  This assortment of small rooms led into the sanctuary, a large, unadorned, rectangular-shaped room in which the congregation gathered on Sunday morning.  Rows of slatted, varnish-shiny benches darkened with stain, a varnished hardwood floor, a varnished pulpit.  White-painted walls, white cotton curtains.
            A utilitarian sacredness characterized this church-before-my-memory.  A sanctuary in the normal course of days intended for worship:  prayers, hymns, a sermon.  But it could easily be transformed from sanctuary to cenacle.  Benches pushed aside, tables assembled, the tops--wide boards joined together with cross-slats--laid solidly on supporting sawhorses.  For a wedding, the bustle of work required to rearrange the room will have had a celebratory flair to it.  But for a funeral, a more sober, determined flurry tempered by loss.
            Men (I’ve no doubt it was men) hauled the miagrope—a fifty gallon cast iron cauldron with a built-in fire box used to heat water for coffee—from the barn behind the church and set it up in the prädja stowtje, transforming this ministerial station into the only kitchen the church ever had.   A few women baked tweebuck the day prior to the funeral, taking care to shape the buns as miniatures of the big, hearty ones they more regularly baked to feed their families.  Someone was asked to buy coffee and zockastetja.
            Immediately following the funeral service, while most of the funeral-goers gathered in the cemetery next to the church, tables had to be set up, coffee made, funeral fare laid out.  In the prädja stowtje, the cauldron-heated water was ladled into milk cans turned coffee urns.  From here the milk cans were carried to the tables and the coffee poured into large aluminum kettles, ready to be served. Funeral faspas were simple meals and only a cup was needed at each place setting.  A bowl of tweebuck, a pitcher of cream, a dish of zockastetja for each table.
            And permeating all this bustle of activity, a simple wooden box palled with black fabric lowered into the ground, shovel upon shovel of dirt returned to the grave, a spirit commended, a sorrow shared.
             
As is customary in a small university seminar class, everyone introduced themselves on the first day.  I immediately recognized her name as Mennonite, as of course she did mine.  But it wasn’t until later in the term that I mentioned that I was from Blumenort.  She knew Blumenort well as she had spent a summer there living with her great aunts.  And she started talking about funerals, coffee and sugar cubes, she even used the Low German word zockastetja.  In that cultural fragment she set adrift with her words, lay more than an old-fashioned custom we both recognized.  It pulled back through my losses, my father, uncles and aunts, some whom I loved, some whom I feared and some whom I hardly knew, my grandparents, a friend’s father, a thirteen-year old school mate, a grandmother I only dimly remembered. It pulled back further through my losses, to a time before my time, through the generations of sorrows that Blumenort has known.  This gesture towards ritual—coffee and sugar cubes—that is so much a part of my history, a reminder of what I have lost, a remembrance of what is mine.

*Ministers’ room.  This was a room reserved for the ministers to collect themselves and their thoughts before they filed through the congregation to take their seats on the dais at the front of the church.
(Photo taken from Royden Loewen. Blumenort: A Mennonite Community in Transition, 1874-1982. Blumenort Mennonite Historical Society, 1983. Used with permission.)

a sweet-complaining grievance: a triptych of sugar

“It’s sweet,” someone recently said of With a Whisk.  It was intended as a compliment to be sure but it unsettled me and a disconcerting self-doubt crept in.  Was my blog nothing more than a collection of entertaining sentiments, a pleasurable dose of nostalgia, a simple reassurance that if things aren’t okay now, at least they used to be?  I don’t do acomplicatedkindness despair to be sure but I’m not all sunshine and roses, am I, I fretted.  Until a Facebook friend posted a thought, “I think the richness of food descriptions made someone jump to a taste-adjective.”  Thanks Veena, I can live with that.  So here’s to the sweet, sugarcoated, the bittersweet, sweet and sour, syrupy commixture that is my life.

I am indebted to The Bard for my title, Two Gentlemen of Verona, III.ii.85.
(If this posting is the middle panel of my sugar-blog triptych, the following posting, "zockastetja," is the right panel. For the left panel, I have in a mind a story about gingersnaps.)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

squab, n.

1. A raw, inexperienced person. Obs.
   1640 R. Brome Sparagus Garden II. ii, I warrant you, is he a trim youth? We must make him one Iacke, 'tis such a squab as thou never sawest; such a lumpe, we may make what we will of him.
2.
a. A newly-hatched, unfledged, or very young bird.
   1865 C. Kingsley Hereward v, At the bottom of each [pie] a squab or young cormorant.
b. spec. A young pigeon.
c. A young rabbit. rare.
(from the Oxford English Dictionary, online)

          It was mid-afternoon, my second day on the colony of Riva Palacios, one of Bolivia’s most established and prosperous Mennonite colonies. I was spending a few days with the family of Wilhelm and Susanna Martens who lived in the village of Waldheim about an hour’s drive south of the city of Santa Cruz. I had been warmly welcomed by all members of the family, children included and so I gladly accepted thirteen year old Jacob’s invitation to inspect the rabbit operation that he and his older brother had set up. With his three younger sisters in tow along with a bevy of pets, Renshaw and Scuba their dogs, a cat or two, Jacob led me to the hen house which doubled as a rabbit hutch. We made our way through the flutter of squawking chickens and into the mesh wire enclosure that housed the ever expanding herd of rabbits. Jacob was well versed in the habits of rabbits and knew his warren well. He explained that he and his brother had about two dozen breeding does and that this ensured a steady supply of meat for the Santa Cruz market. Every rabbit they sold got them fifteen bolivianos. He spotted which does were his and which belonged to his brother. He knew which rabbits were ready for market and which ones were still too immature to sell. Along the far wall he and his brother had arranged cinder blocks to serve as nesting boxes. As he gently pushed through the fluff and grass that filled one of the boxes, he inspected the litter of squirming, hairless squabs that had been born after his last visit yesterday to tend to the rabbits. From the adjacent box he lifted a doe and pointed to the tufts of hair that she had pulled from her chest and which now lined the nest; a sure sign that she was ready to kindle. Undoubtedly there would be another six or seven kits when next he came to feed and water his herd. But there were a few wrinkles in this fledgling entrepreneurial fraternity; Jacob did the lion’s share of the work but wasn’t rewarded the lion’s share of the profit! But what are you to do when your sixteen year old brother sets the terms of the partnership!
          My knowledge of rabbit husbandry greatly expanded, we eventually left the chicken coop-cum-rabbit pen. Once outside I noticed the many pigeons roosting on the peak of the hen house. I wondered aloud whether Jacob’s entrepreneurial venture extended to these squabs as well. There’s no money in pigeons was Jacob’s quick retort. He went on to point out that there could be a market for pigeons as there were restaurants in Santa Cruz that served it. He also pointed out that somebody was making money on pigeons because these restaurants charged astronomical prices for such dishes. But Jacob was more than skeptical that he would see any of the profit; it was the restaurant that was making all the profit. It was at this juncture that I couldn’t help but recall yesterday’s midday meal preparations. The kitchen was overflowing with members of the Martens family and I was having difficulty finding a place to stand where I wouldn’t be in the way. Sarah, one of the older Martens daughters was cutting up potatoes and deep frying them. Susanna was cutting up lettuce and avocado while simultaneously trying to contain the bedlam her youngest three daughters were creating as they ran in and out and through the kitchen chasing each other and the cats that were in no way allowed in the house. In the midst of this exuberant uproar, Jacob was calmly and attentively helping his sister Tina fry the chicken.  I watched as he placed the chicken pieces in the pan and then comment to his sister on how to fry them. In the two months I had spent on Mennonite colonies in Latin America, I had not before seen a boy cooking. It is not as if Jacob would have had to have been there; his mother and older sisters were more than competent as cooks. But the cuisinier in me presumed that he took his place next to the skillet for the simple reason that he loved to cook. Now standing outside the hen house, gambling that my impertinent thought in yesterday’s kitchen was warranted, I asked, did he know that in the kind of restaurants that served pigeon the cooks were usually men? Did he know this? Yes, of course he did!
          I had my share of remarkable food moments during my visits on Mennonite colonies—the penetrating smoky aroma of a ham hanging overhead; a bowl of chicken noodle soup for night snack; Susanna’s feather light cottage cheese piled on an oven warm bun—but I had never in my wildest imagination expected to encounter a fellow gastronome and discuss the haute cuisine of Santa Cruz. Goes to show what a squab I am.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

ever and always a gardener (first drafted july 2009)



Earlier in May when I was in Manitoba for a family wedding my Mother and I took a drive through the countryside. We passed a farmyard and she immediately noticed the manure piled high next to the barn. “I’d like to talk to that farmer about his manure,” she told me. With more than seventy-five years of gardening experience under her belt, my mother knows a treasure when she sees one.

In just a few months my Mother will move into a one bedroom senior’s apartment in the small Mennonite town in southern Manitoba where she lives and where I grew up. She has lived in the same large four-bedroom bungalow for more than forty years but she’ll like not having to worry about mowing the grass, about clearing the driveway of snow, or about keeping her house clean. But she’ll miss her garden. There have been too many windowsill seedlings carefully tended, too many pesky blackbirds eating peas right out of the pods, too many sacks of potatoes lugged into the basement, too many green tomatoes spread out everywhere to ripen, hurriedly picked against a September frost.

My mother doesn’t remember when she started gardening but she remembers being the ten year old girl who weeded the family garden while her mother picked yellow wax beans. Her parents liked a weed-free garden and my mother and her many siblings (eleven in total) were charged with keeping it clean. By age fifteen my mother was taking much of the responsibility for her family’s garden whether it was directing her younger brothers and sisters as they dug up potatoes, hoed, and carried pails of water to moisten tender plants, or whether it was picking raspberries, peas or digging up carrots. My mother also remembers that on the west side of her family’s big garden was a long row of Manitoba maples that she and her siblings walked along every time they went to visit their cousins in the adjacent quarter section. While ideal as shade trees, these maples sucked the moisture right out of the prairie soil and made the west side of the garden less fertile than the rest. Vegetables didn’t grow well there, except for beans. My grandfather took full responsibility for the ten rows of navy beans that he seeded there, tending them until they had fully ripened. Then for sure Tina, Jake, Tom, Esther and the other Plett children turned their attention from weeding to shucking. Honoring the many hours of labor he and his children invested in those bean rows, my grandfather took over the kitchen when it came time to make his favorite soup, riepe schauble Supp. To the pot of bubbling beans my grandfather added a ham bone, a bay leaf, onions and carrots, pepper kernels, parsley and salt.

Then there was the first garden my mother was solely responsible for, her first garden as a married woman. My parents got married on a Sunday in the middle of May and on Monday morning after my father’s aunt had stopped by to drop off a wedding gift, my parents started work in their garden. If they didn’t put the first seeds into the ground on that Monday, they did it on Tuesday because in Manitoba gardens need to be seeded by the middle of May. Their garden was a small corner of a farmer’s field and needed regular hoeing to keep the wild oats at bay. But it was a fertile field that my mother tended; among many other vegetables she remembers harvesting a bumper crop of yellow beans in July, a large enamel washing bowl heaped high.

There have been other gardens wherever my family has lived and so my mother was already a seasoned gardener by the time I, her ninth child, was born. As she tells me every year on my birthday, her labor pains started while she was working in the garden on an exceptionally balmy day in early November, a rarity in the impending winter of a late Manitoba autumn. In that large garden—it was more than 5000 square feet—she grew potatoes, corn, beans, peas, tomatoes, kohlrabi (which she seeded just for her children to eat), beets, carrots, cucumbers, vegetable marrow, cabbage, zucchini, lettuce, peppers, radishes, rhubarb, onions, summer savory, parsley, dill, sorrel. Her garden also included some fruit trees and bushes: currants (that rarely yielded any fruit), gooseberries, raspberries, chokecherries, crabapples, pincherries and every few years she tried, unsuccessfully, to grow Saskatoon bushes. The Saskatoon and currant disappointments notwithstanding, my mother enjoyed her garden and worked hard each summer from May to September in order to grow the vegetables needed to feed her family through the winter.

Gradually over the years her garden has diminished in size. One year my parents put several sod terraces in place to stop the erosion of soil. Then my mother seeded grass along the far side of the garden under the moisture-sucking oak trees. Next the section near the house with its high clay content became lawn. Over the years, grass and flowers have continued to replace vegetables. This summer, now in her 86th year, my mother has only a small vegetable garden, a mere twelve by twelve foot square patch of soil. Next summer she’ll have no garden at all.

Driving down Rosedale Road on that May afternoon I was filled with sadness at losing my childhood home, entangled with anxiety about my mother aging. I could not share her imaginative pleasure at the composting possibilities of the manure pile we passed. In my grief I saw only the absurdity of that barn-high manure pile fertilizing her vestigial bit of garden. But my mother was not focusing on the diminishing of her life as I was but rather on the expanse of it. It was as if she was walking through each and every garden she had tended, collecting all the soildirty hours she had spent in them, and with that nutrient-rich dung heap at her disposal bringing each one again to bloom and then to harvest.

Come late August when her final crop of oxhearts and beefsteaks begins to ripen I’m expecting a phone call from my Mother two thousand kilometers away. She’ll be sitting in her kitchen phone in hand and she’ll say, “Kerry, you know what I’m doing?” And I’ll say, “What, Mom?” And then I’ll hear the words I have heard her say for so many years now, August after August, “I’m eating the most delicious slice of tomato ever with mayonnaise and just a bit of salt.”

(riepe schauble Supp - ripened bean soup)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

chicken barbeque


photo:  viola fast - spring 1968
Several times a summer, usually on a Sunday, my family would have a chicken barbeque in the back by the stones. My excitement at the prospect of such a meal was already palpable on the short drive home from church. Once we got home my father wasted no time getting the fire going. He cut kindling, chopped wood and lit the fire. I may have run off to play while the fire was burning, perhaps to the swing, perhaps back into the house to see how my mother and my older sisters were faring with cutting up the chicken and mixing the potato salad but I would return to the fire regularly. When the time came, I wanted to watch as my father laid the chicken onto the barbeque rack. He fitted each piece in its place like a master jigsaw puzzler, nestling drumstick to wing, breast to thigh, right to the edge of the rack. If perchance I had been off swinging when my father spread out the chicken, I’d be sure to be present when my father, just as the chicken was beginning to brown, dipped each piece into the barbeque sauce which my mother had prepared; a blend of vinegar, eggs, oil, salt and poultry seasoning. This dipping was an artful process indeed. My father had little maneuverability on the chicken-laden grill and each piece had to be returned to the exact spot he had lifted it from. Shortly before the chicken was done, my father dipped all the pieces once again. I doubt that I strayed far from the barbeque once my father started dipping, my anticipation too great by now for my attention to be easily diverted unless it was to run inside and urge my mother or sisters to hurry the process of carrying the salad, cups and plates, cutlery out to the back. I discovered many years later that the recipe for our barbeque sauce originated with the Manitoba poultry producers and got passed around among Blumenort families by the farm wife who first discovered it. But as a child I claimed it as our own; a sauce that separated our barbequed chicken out from the ordinariness of everybody else’s.

When the chicken was a succulent brown, my father pulled out his pocket knife and cut a small piece off one of the breasts. With the tip of his knife, he held the bit of morselled meat to my mouth; a crusty crispness of salt and oil, a vinegary nibble of rosemary and sage. “How is it?” he asked. My declaration always: “perfect.” This luscious tease to the taste buds notwithstanding, my favorite pieces were the drumstick and the neck, which I only knew as the Gorjel. I now know that the neck was nobody's favorite so I was welcome to the piece, but as a young child it was a delicacy, a single mouthful of stringy meat sucked from the crook of the neck. The drumstick followed and undoubtedly some potato salad. When I was satiated, all that was left to do was throw the bones to our dogs, listen to the crunch of their feast and wait for the next barbeque.

photo:  douglas fast, august 2010
Now out behind what was our garden all that’s left of our familial henge are six, seven stones that lie scattered about, overgrown with grass and scrub bush. One has toppled from its base, others are tilted and skewed as they have sunk into the soil with time. They used to sit solidly in a circle, a cluster placed there by design. With hours of hard work and the help of a block and tackle, my father and older siblings rearranged a pile of boulders that had been deposited there by the bulldozer that excavated our basement. My father completed this outdoor dining room by bricking up a barbeque.

I remember an upright white limestone boulder in that circle, too tall for a child to clamber onto, pock marked in an ancient era by the insistent battering of eroding water. Equally intriguing to me as a child was a flatter stone and hence easier to climb onto, a granite rock formed in an even earlier pre-Cambrian epoch but now set up against a cluster of trees. Adults could rest their backs against the oaks, but the small lip that rose up from the back of the rock, only a hand span in height, and the shallow indentation in front of it was a seat perfectly formed for a child; a coveted seige on which to relish a Gorjel and anticipate a drumstick.


("chicken barbeque" is the first of a series of blog postings in which I explore the food culture I was raised in following "thank you St. Martha.")

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

thank you st. martha

I would never have known that Martha of Bethany was a dragon slayer. Such hagiographic details were not featured in my Mennonite Sunday school curriculum! That she’s the patron saint of cooks doesn’t surprise me (after all, I did learn that she fed and housed Jesus) but a dragon slayer? It never crossed my mind; not until I came across the original 1931 edition of Joy of Cooking, the front cover of which features a stylized cut out of this redoubtable saint subduing the dragon Tarasconus.

When I first saw the black, blue and green image with its trinity of purse, mop and dinner plate, I asked myself, “dragons in the culinary world? Who needs the aid of a dragon slayer when you’ve got a kitchen?” But further investigation revealed that Irma S. Rombauer faced formidable dragons as she compiled and wrote Joy. Only a year before Rombauer began working on her cookbook her husband committed suicide. Navigating her way through such grief and in doing so producing one of the most influential English cookbooks in the world is definitely dragon slaying activity.

But what of my dragons? As I cast about through the decades of my cooking, I could find none. My culinary life has advanced apace from when I first made unbaked cookies from the Five Roses Cookbook at age eight to now. I’ve had a few bumps, like adding rice to those cookies instead of coconut, some setbacks—I’ve never been able to make Chelsea buns to my satisfaction—but I could find nothing that approximated a dragon. But as my mind wandered back to St. Martha, I wondered what else she had kept at bay in that wood along the River Rhone between Arles and Avignon. Might there not have been other ophidian terrors a-slither that she repelled with her centenary of daily prayers. Perhaps, I thought, Martha has not so much slain my culinary dragons as warded them off before they reached me. What if, I asked myself, I had come from a family that cared little about food; that couldn’t, or worse, didn’t care to differentiate between kraft dinner and the homemade Bothwell cheese sauce that slathered the macaroni we ate? What if food—stories of food, preparation of food, production of food, consumption of food—hadn’t been an enduringly ubiquitous presence in my family, an ethos that continually enveloped me? The culture of food in which I was formed is without a doubt the bedrock on which I have cultivated my cookery. A life without it is a thought too dragonesque to contemplate!

Thank you St. Martha.





(A word on images. The first image is "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" by Vincenzo Campi. The bottom two? I don't know their provenance other than the internet.)

Thursday, 27 May 2010

with visions of ... olives (my apologies to john wesley)

I’ve studied religion long enough to know that grocery stores are not the usual places for out-of-body experiences. But then Nasr Foods was not an ordinary grocery store. The array of olive offerings in the store alone could have induced rapture. Add to that the racks of pita, the stuffed eggplants, the bins of pistachios and dates, the mounds of parsley, mint and dill, the flats of olive oil and could you not say that this was heaven?

A few years before moving to Toronto I visited the Middle East and there were many memorable food moments I won’t forget: freshly picked figs bought from a roadside stand; baklava, namoura and syrup sticky fingers; picnicking in the long windy grasses of the ruined 5th century martyrolium of St. Simeon the Stylite; arak—never again; sitting down to a simple but oddly elegant breakfast of pita, salty cheese, pommelo jam, olives and a pot of tea; feeding a cerebral palsied girl in Cairo’s Garbage City, wiping clean her guava-ed lips, sharing a smile. The memory of all this combined with the culinary prospects awaiting me left me more than a little heady on my first visit to Nasr Foods. And in this astonishing bafflement of possibility a pervasive, long ago childhood memory of belonging strangely and unexpectedly warmed my heart. I was being pulled back to a moment in my childhood, a six, seven year old girl sitting near the very front of the long, narrow building that was the Mennonite church I grew up in. I had lived in Toronto for a few months, feeling wretchedly alone with no visible prospects of this changing but in that heart-warmed moment—the stunning assortment of olives completely forgotten—I knew with an unshakable certainty that the big, overwhelming city of Toronto could—and would—one day be home.

I came to the childhood memory of belonging through an unlikely route that afternoon in Nasr Foods. On one of my trips to the Middle East I had the rare opportunity to visit a large Damascan mosque. On that Friday morning the women of the group I was with were escorted by the Imam’s daughter-in-law up two flights of stairs to the area reserved for female worshippers. We entered a room filled with thousands of hijabed women and as we made our way to the front I felt myself effortlessly melting into the surrounding sea of black, embraced by an overwhelming sense of belonging. I knew this space; I had been formed in such a space. I no longer knew whether I was seeing women veiled in black hijabs or whether I was seeing the black kerchiefed, darkly dressed women of my childhood church, my grandmothers and women of their generation, who filled the benches immediately behind where I, the six year old girl was sitting, surrounding me, watching over me as only matriarchs can.

I began my life in that Mennonite church in my mother’s arms, I presume, but I have no memory of that. In my earliest recollection I am sitting with my father on the men’s side (my mother being in the nursery caring for my younger brother). I remember nuzzling up to my father, rubbing my hand across his rough, bristly cheek. I remember counting the ceiling tiles, so far above that I quickly lost my bearings in the maze of stained white squares, I remember pulling his arm towards me to look at his watch, waiting for him to point out the minutes remaining. But it wasn’t many years before I left my father’s side and joined my older sister across the aisle. We sat at the very front, which is where young girls sat, safely lodged between the watchful eyes of the ministers looking out over the congregation and the rows of older women behind us who kept one ear cocked for any untoward rustlings while they listened to the droning sermon with the other. Behind my grandmothers sat women my mother’s age, some in black kerchiefs, others, like my mother, donning a more modern hat. Behind my mother and her peers sat a younger generation of married women, and at the very back, the teenage girls. Across the aisle this structured pattern of place was repeated among the boys and men. Sitting up at the front I had no reason to doubt that in a few years I would move to the back of the church and begin the inevitable move forward, through the life roles offered women in that community. What I was and what I would become were known, I had a place, I belonged.

It might have been the hijabed women who were filling their carts, it might have been the Arabic being spoken all around me, it might have been the memory of figs and guavas, maybe it was the olives. But whatever it was that afternoon in Nasr Foods that pulled me back into those segregated spaces of black clad women, my heart warming vision enticed me with its promise of belonging. I had never before been as lonely as I was during my first months in Toronto and I welcomed the proffered reassurance. After a decade of living in Toronto this big city has become home just as I foresaw but I am still lonely, sometimes as intensely as when I first discovered Nasr Foods. Other times my friendships, commitments, activities crowd out the loneliness. But the loneliness always returns.

In my grimmest moments Nasr Foods has been one of my truest companions. I have returned again and again to its aisles, hauled more bags of groceries from that store than imaginable, cooked yet another new recipe until Middle Eastern cooking has taken pride of place in my culinary pursuits: eggplants stuffed with garlic cloves, tomatoes and parsley in the legendary dish Imam Bayildi; Circassian chicken in paprika-laced walnut sauce; a dazzle of green olives, walnuts, scallions, pomegranate seeds mixed in a salad; the pureed simplicity of fava beans, olive oil, lemon and dill—there was no end to what was possible when the well-stocked shelves of Nasr Foods were at my disposal. But my Nasr Foods-inspired cooking has not only been a matter of filling lonely hours, though it has done that. The culinary possibilities it encouraged often lured me away from my loneliness, inviting me to expand and foster, and then to share my creativity. As my creativity deepened and broadened, so did I, grounding me in the knowledge that I belong because of all that I am and not only because there are belonging structures that hold me cocooned between ministers and grandmothers. It was after all as a teenager that I boldly and defiantly went to sit on the boy’s side no longer willing to be defined by those structures.

From time to time in my loneliness I return to my childhood memory. I wonder at times whether the memory keeps me tethered to an impossible belonging, to a yearning for a world that no longer exists or even whether the familiarity of my loneliness cocoons me now as securely as my grandmothers once did. Other times, however, I know my childhood memory sustains me, drawing me back into the core of my being, reminding me that belonging matters, that to be lonely is to be diminished. If this knowledge is a gift--as I hope it is--it is a tender and vexingly fragile promise that the gods have given me.

The last time I saw Nasr Foods it had closed, gone bankrupt, its windows papered over. Driving down Lawrence Avenue more recently I noticed that another Middle Eastern grocery store has opened up at that location but I have no desire to go there. I do miss the olives though, terribly, especially the Syrian ones, their flesh hard and bitter, pungent with the flavour of thyme.

(I have wanted to write about my experience in Nasr Foods for many years but it was not until March when I read Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude by Emily White that I found the words--and courage--to write this posting.)

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Breakfast on Sabinal IV: papaya and hot chocolate

I never actually had papaya and hot chocolate for breakfast on Sabinal. I had it at Restaurant Constantino at the corner of Calle Minerva and Avenida Benito Juarez in the grid of dusty grey streets that makes up the Chihuahuan desert city of Nuevo Casas Grandes. Constantino is not a restaurant I'd highly recommend; a little bit dumpy, tables and chairs sprawled messily throughout the room. Nor would I vouch for the food except for the lime-soured papaya and the frothy hot chocolate.

Sabinal is a small isolated Mennonite colony in northern Mexico connected to Nuevo Casas Grandes by an abandoned railroad bed-turned-shale covered road which lurches and bumps through endless miles of scrub bushes; creosote and mesquite, prickly pear and yucca lost in the barren beautiful desert of sky and mountains. Sabinal Mennonites resist modernization and its easing amenities including electricity and vehicles as they persist in the harshness of desert farming. Facing astronomical odds, a few prosper, most tenaciously hang on, and others abandon another failed cotton, onion or chili crop for a house trailer and a steady, albeit cash-under-the-table job in Texas.

I spent the cold, shivering month of February 2009 on Sabinal conducting ethnographic research and while there was generously hosted by the Klassen, Hiebert, Braun, Harder and Wall families. I joined them around their tables, I awkwardly climbed in and out of their buggies, I sat stiffly upright on a wooden church bench listening to the singing of a hundred Old Colony Mennonites worrying that my skirt was too short. I laughed with three-year-old Henry as I pushed him around and around his grandmother’s yard on a scooter. I accompanied Anna Braun to the pasture to bring the dairy herd home in the evening as she explained the eccentricity of a cow who insisted on sucking her own teets. I listened as Maria Harder sang Elvis Presley and Wilf Carter, songs she remembered from her youth in British Columbia. I heard stories of neighborly tensions, dogs poisoned, cows trampling gardens. I was invigorated and exhausted and marveled at my own tenuous and inadequate understanding of it all.

Near the end of my stay on Sabinal, I joined Susanna, Sarah and Margaret Klassen on a late night ride across the colony to village #7 to deliver a band saw blade that needed sharpening for the upcoming Klassen pig butchering. In spite of the glistening infinity of a galaxy of stars overhead and the orange haze of Ciudad Juárez’ million lights glowing in the distant northeastern sky, the night was blindingly black. The busyness of daily life had quieted on Sabinal, houses were darkened and most families were asleep. Reins in hand, Sarah deftly guided the horse through the darkness as she quizzed me about a train that could take me clear across a city all the while underground. I, on the other hand, was distracted, overwhelmed by the beauty of the black stillness, relieved to be miles away from the noise and lights of Toronto. In the lulling and languishing of our conversation, I knew this sky to be big enough to hold the intimacies of connection and the mutual misunderstandings of our different worlds, an expanse vast enough to embrace the happiness and courage, the discontentment, the sorrows, the exclusions, the grasping, the satisfactions and the worry, the predictability and the bewildering that I had witnessed as life on Sabinal.


Constitucion Oriente
During my month on Sabinal I periodically returned to Nuevo Casas Grandes to catch my breath. On those mornings when I disembarked from the bus that had brought me from Sabinal to Nuevo Casas Grandes, I stepped into a dreadedwelcomed solitude so different from the bustle of colony life. I was relieved to be away from the curious gaze of colony Mennonites and even more relieved to shed the obligation of my own ethnographic curiosity. I anticipated sorting through my Sabinal-intense thoughts but I shrank from the trepidating loneliness of having no one to share those thoughts with. Arriving early enough for a second breakfast I usually headed up Constitución Poniente, away from the cluster of Sabinal Mennonites who had traveled with me, walked as far as Minerva and then inevitably turned in to Restaurant Constantino.

A breakfast of papaya and hot chocolate does not register as one of Mexico’s culinary wonders. The dry brown winterness of Nuevo Casas Grandes is a long, long way from Mexico’s culinary capital, Oaxaca, where chefs of Pilar Cabrera fame pestle a thousand richnesses—mulatos, pasillas, anchos, walnuts, sesame seeds, pine nuts, pepitas, all spice, cinnamon, plantain, raisins, pears, prunes, tomatillos, garlic, chocolate, panela—into the thick sticky moles that make that state famous. Nothing Nuevo Casas Grandes has on offer even begins to approach the seven-hued splendors of Oaxaca’s moles. I enjoyed the bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed jalapeños at a seafood joint downtown, the creamed chili burritos from a stand crowded into the corner of a supermarket and tortilla soup in the restaurant of Villa Colonial hotel but Nuevo Casas Grandes is no culinary mecca. Its fare is what you would expect in a dusty northern town, simple flavors that make only modest demands on the palate. Yet there is a time and place for everything, even the unpretentious, ordinary, sometimes mediocre food of Nuevo Casas Grandes. On those cold February mornings when I stepped off the bus I had a sky full of complexities to contemplate so what in heaven’s name would I have done with a dish of mole negro oaxaqueño or mancha manteles de cerdo? No, I needed a palated quietude for breakfast. I was content with papaya and hot chocolate, a plate of effortless simplicity set down in front of me, a mug of warming smoothness to grasp in my hands.


mancha manteles de cerdo - pork table cloth stainer