Saturday, 5 December 2009

of ice rinks and orange crush

in my deaconship with respect to the other, I think more than I can grasp.

The skating shack in Blumenort was a rough structure, two rooms with plywood walls in the middle of which banged a noisome furnace meant to warm us when the cold bit through our socks and skates. Many the time have I laboriously tied up my skates in the girl's change room or cried tears of frozen pain in the bumble of knotted lacing, shivering as close to the furnace as I dared, kept back by the aura of older girls crowding the warmest spots.

In February, when the feeble warmth of the sun began to crack the stronghold of winter, Blumenort held its annual Family Day. Who cared about the games, skating, hockey, broomball, coke drinking contests which took place on that day. I was too young to participate in most of those activities anyway. For me those rough plywood rooms evoke only one memory of that day worth recalling: being handed a sweetly glazed doughnut along with a bottle of orange crush. There were big flat cardboard boxes filled with doughnuts from Don's Bakery and cases of orange crush stacked on the floor, but I, in my five-year-old world knew only the wonder of the doughnut and orange crush that was my very own.

I'd like to think that it was this near iconic doughnut and orange crush moment that inspired the game we played called Buddul, Buddul, Buddul (hold a bottle of orange crush upside down and listen to it buddul) but more probably it was the collective imagination of a group of cousins. Most of the players in the game took the role of orange crush bottle but one child was designated the farmer and another the thief. The farmer started off the game by filling all his bottles with orange crush and then tightly capping them. At the top of the lawn, we, the now full orange crush bottles stood. The whistling farmer walked away around the corner of the house in pursuit of a much deserved coffee break (might he have been getting himself a doughnut?) as the nefarious thief crept up to the bottles from around the other corner. Furtively he snapped the lids off all the bottles with his bottle opener then rudely pushed them over. Gleefully, we, the bottles, rolled down the gently sloping front lawn, buddul, buddul, buddul-ing out the orange crush as the farmer frantically dashed back to save whatever he could of his fast emptying bottles turned giggling, hold-your-stomach-laughing children.

Empty pop bottles, orange crush or otherwise, were a treasured find. We'd amble along the streets of Blumenort--all five of them--looking for discarded pop bottles. At the far end of Blumenort near the #12 highway was where we'd often find them, lying in the long grass of the ditches. We knew they were here, away from the nestle of houses where my family lived, because this is where strangers would dare to throw bottles out of their car windows as they drove by. For every bottle we found we got two cents at the store and for two cents you could buy one bazooka bubble gum. When we'd collected enough bottles, two, three if we were lucky, we'd walk to the store and trade in our glass for gum. Then we'd share the gum around, laugh at the comics and teach each other how to blow big, pink bubbles.

But to return to the skating shack from my ramble through orange crushed memories. The skating shack holds more than the child-wonder pleasure of a doughnut and orange crush. One Sunday afternoon as I skated back and forth and around the rink I watched a gray-haired, ashen-faced man stumbling, clinging to the side boards as he worked to learn to skate. After making it painstakingly a quarter of the way around the rink he abandoned his efforts and returned to the warmth of the shack. I was ashamed for him, I pitied him, I marveled that a grown man could not skate. Circling on the ice that winter day in my childhood I recognized him as the father of one of my classmates and felt a prick of dis-ease as I watched him, vaguely aware that his was a world that my warmth-filled, doughnut-happy one couldn't grasp. Part of my inability to understand was of course because I was a child and two decades later when I heard that he had died on a park bench in Toronto I understood better what mental illness and single parenting might have meant for this man and I now recognize that my ten-year-old self noticed something of this dislocation in his skating attempt even while I passed judgment.

I now live in Toronto, rarely drink orange crush, and futilely wish that Tim Hortons would make doughnuts like Don's Bakery used to. The skating shack and rink are often no more than dim memories for me, but they are memories I honour. They pull me into warmth and security yet they simultaneously conjure up disorientation and dislocation. It is not the simplicity of a child's world that I reach back to, for my memories remind me that it wasn't simple--how possibly can a jumble of frozen tears, happy games, uneasy judgment, excited wonder and shameful pity be labled "simple?" I reach back because I recognize a continuity between that jumble and what my life has now become. Without doubt older, most times wiser, but still unable to grasp the perplexing ambiguities of wonder and joy, shame and pity, friendship and alienation that have come my way.

(the opening quotation is from Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind, Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 151)

Friday, 23 October 2009

a pot of borscht

In January, 2005 my sister Frances died of multiple myeloma. The two years of her illness were often emotionally grueling for me; I watched her fight for her life with a rawness that can only come from dying, something almost too difficult to endure. Caring for her physically left me equally exhausted. But the relief that her death brought was only in exchange for losing her completely. My grief was slow, sullen and brooding. Then in November my brother Harold died unexpectedly. The gray winter of Toronto wore on as I wandered through my grief. Truth be told, I had no enthusiasm to sort out the pain of my losses. My pervasive loneliness only intensified as a sad dullness crept in for which I had no antidote.

That winter and spring as I remembered the anniversary of my sister's death and still couldn't comprehend my brother's, I found solace in an unlikely place, a palliative care hospice where once a week I prepared meals for its residents.

At the hospice Death was imminently present. Every Saturday morning as I stepped into the front door I saw another candle burning in memory of a resident who had died in the previous twenty four hours. Nor was my own grief absent; I was reminded of Frances and Harold on every visit. But to my surprise, my grief rarely overwhelmed me. When it was present with me in the kitchen, as it so often was, it became just one grief among the many that filled the house. I stood behind the kitchen cabinet and saw tenderness in the eyes of Stuart as he described the prayer he said at the death bed of his fellow resident. I sat at the table and recognized long lost nostalgia about logging in northern Ontario in Albert's voice as he ate the pancakes I had fried. I cut up an orange for Glenda as she described her chemo. I handed Violet a cup of milk as I listened with sadness to her rambling medication-induced fear of abandonment.

But grief is not gloom. In The House's bright, airy kitchen I cooked pots of soup, layered dishes of casseroles and tossed up salads. But not without frustration. Budgetary constraints ensured that the kitchen at the hospice was never well stocked so I had to be creative with what little there was. When I arrived on Saturday morning and opened the fridge to see what my options were for the day, I did so with some hesitation. I developed a little mantra that assisted me in opening the fridge with anticipation rather than dread: "will it be carrots, potatoes and onions, or will it be potatoes, carrots and onions? Oh joy, it's onions, carrots and potatoes." One Saturday I arrived to find a large cabbage in the fridge. Borscht was my first and only thought. But quickly my mind turned to all the ingredients that would not be available. Beets--I'd never yet seen beets at The House. Beef for stock--if I were lucky I'd find a cut of reduced-to-sell-freezer-burned meat. Fresh herbs--not likely. Green pepper--well, I could forgo that without compromising the borscht too much. I feebly pulled out my mantra--carrots sigh potatoes sigh onions--to rekindle my enthusiasm when Naomi stepped into the kitchen. She asked, as she usually did, "what you making?" To my pessimistic, "borscht, if I can find the ingredients," her whole body responded with anticipation, "I love borscht, Kerry." She immediately announced that she would buy sour cream for the borscht on her walk that morning. My enthusiasm now rekindled, I added parsley to her shopping list.

Now with the welcome obligation of having to please at least one person, I began scrounging through the cupboards, the freezer and the storage area for whatever I could find. The cupboard yielded a tin of tomatoes, I picked off every feather of dill from the herb pot on the deck, my forage through the freezer turned up a package of beef, freezer burned to be sure, and to my amazement I found beets in the storage room which another volunteer had donated from his garden.

As I was shredding the cabbage and cooking the beef, Roman arrived in the kitchen. Well enough to have an appetite, he frequently came to inspect what I was cooking for lunch. He wanted to know exactly how I was going to make the borscht. Ukrainian by birth, Roman had a decided opinion about borscht, as he had about most things, and he explained the variations between Polish, Hungarian--Hungarian borscht, I was told, is a thin broth of pureed vegetables--and Ukrainian borschts. Mennonite borscht, however, stumped him. When I described my borscht variation he responded by assuring me that it wouldn't be as good as his mother's. The upshot of our vigorous discussion was my concession that undoubtedly I would not be able to make borscht as good as his mother had but that I would make it every bit as good as my mother had made it.

Several residents felt well enough to eat lunch that day and some staff joined us as well. The table was full; six or seven people animated by a pot of soup. Naomi generously shared her sour cream; Roman continued on in his role of self-proclaimed borscht expert. Just a pot of borscht--onions, carrots and potatoes cooked up with a few other ingredients--but somehow, gently, it held my grief.

Monday, 21 September 2009

will that be Cadillac bread or a Ford LTD loaf?

I grew up in a household where my mother baked bread every Saturday. As a teenager I was eager to learn the technique of kneading a yeast dough and with my mother's skilled experience on the one hand and a drawerful of recipe books on the other-Fleischman's Yeast being a favorite-I soon learned the art of bread making. Unlike my mother who had the responsibility of feeding a large family, my bread baking has nearly always been recreational. But one summer I, together with three other women, ambitiously decided to fill a table with our baking at the local Thursday farmer's market. We worked hard. Hilda baked dozens of the softest white buns imaginable, wild rice bread and granola. Phyllis boiled up several batches of bagels in addition to baking herbed bread. Frances made scones, French bread and also contributed cut flowers from her perennial garden. I baked rye bread, whole wheat bread and cinnamon bread along with apple and peach pies. I also sold bundles of dill, parsley, summer savory and sorrel. Several times that summer I heaved and hauled home heavy 20 kilo sacks of organic flour from Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company in Winnipeg. The coarse stone-ground texture and freshness of their milled-daily, prairie-grown, hard spring cadillac wheat flour resulted in loaves of bread where each crunch-filled bite had an intense aromatic flavor. (That's why I stubbornly carry back with me to Toronto Tall Grass Prairie's flour; the bread I have baked using organic flour from several mills in Ontario has never yet been as good as the loaves I made for the farmer's market that summer.)

I don't know how the other women organized their baking, but I worked out a routine that filled every minute of my Thursday. My work actually began earlier in the week on Monday or Tuesday when I made pies and then froze them. Wednesday evening I mixed the whole wheat dough and the rye dough and set them in the fridge to rise overnight. Too early Thursday morning I removed all the pies from the freezer and the doughs from the fridge. I then kneaded the dough for the cinnamon bread by which time the whole wheat and rye doughs were ready to be shaped and put on the pans. They baked while the cinnamon bread continued proofing. When the whole wheat and rye loaves were baked and cooling on the rack, the cinnamon breads went into the oven. Next into the oven were the pies. All my baking had to be completed by 2 p.m. as I still had an hour's commute to my herb garden where the herbs had to be cut, cleaned and bundled and then onto the farmer's market. Here the table had to be set up and all the baking arranged, last minute bagging and pricing to attend to. At 4 o'clock, exhausted by the many hours of work behind me, I sat down to wait for the customers. They always came. What satisfaction I derived from the man who returned a second week to buy another peach pie even though he was the only family member who liked peach pie. I even enjoyed the woman who haggled for a 50 cent discount on her bread. In spite of the frazzled worry of coordinating rising doughs with limited oven space and the headache and tired shoulders that a Thursday inevitably brought on, I enjoyed that summer of baking and selling. I have to admit though that my first batch of rye bread was a complete failure. The loaves were hard and dry, flat as a pancake. I consoled myself with the fact that rye flour, in particular stone ground rye flour, is difficult to work with. Fortunately I learned quickly and by the second week I placed my anise rye loaves with their orange butter glaze proudly alongside my other breads.

For three months that summer we were part of a parking lot of vendors: an apiarist with that creamy-smooth sweet clover honey that only Manitoba bees can produce, several vegetable farmers, some craft tables, a Winnipeg bakery sold its bread and rolls, one family filled a table with home canning. The farmer's market was small and had only been in operation a few years when we joined. It had less than twenty vendors if I remember correctly but it was the beginning of a burgeoning farmer's market that has now grown to more than forty vendors selling strawberries, raspberries and corn in season, free-range chickens, home made egg noodles, sausages, vegetables, baked goods, where-else-than-in-Manitoba Icelandic baking and much more. Our table of baked goods is undoubtedly long forgotten in the collective memory of the community (if it was ever there to begin with) but I am pleased that I could contribute in some way to the ongoing vitality of that local farmer's market.

But I have not yet mentioned the LTD Ford station wagon-the dark blue one-have I? It pulled onto the pavement about the same time I did. Like my vehicle, it too was loaded with bread. That is where the similarity ended! Unloading the back of their station wagon the vendors began stuffing their many-tiered metal rack with dozens and dozens of loaves of bread, a seemingly endless supply of straight-from-the-freezer, uprightly uniform, square bread machine loaves, many of them burned on top. My jaw dropped the first time I saw the rack of burned bread. I was outraged when the station wagon returned the second week. I sputtered in disbelief the third week the vendors set up their rack. By the fourth week I was speechless. They sold cheap and fast (no wonder our 50 cent cheapskate expected a discount!) and in spite of all my inward rantings and ravings they were always the first to sell out. With their rack emptied of the last loaf they packed up and headed home, supposedly to begin their fill-the-freezer regime for next week's market.

I had been baking bread for many years by that summer and eventually a sense of calmed reason tempered my outrage. Had my hands not learned to enjoy the perfect smoothness of a soft white dough, could they not manage a delicately sticky rye dough? Were they not able to recognize when the tired ache of kneading had paid off and it was time to proof the dough? Had they not gently indented countless doughs testing for springiness and then knocked them back for further rising? Were they not able to lift a dough out of its kneading bowl to pinch, press or roll into a loaf? Was there not an organic symbiosis between my hands and the doughs I had kneaded, a bread intuition that reached back through my mother and my grandmother that no amount of "measure the flour-flick a switch-sit back and wait" bread machine bread could rival? With hands like mine, why fret? Why not just sit back, watch the flurry of activity across the parking lot and smugly, knowingly smile?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I say tomato

Many years ago in my undergraduate days I took a course in Children's Lit. I remember little from this course except that it was the most unpleasant class I have ever been a part of. Although I have long forgotten the details of the mistrust, I do remember that the students were unanimously antagonistic towards the professor. It started in the first hour and culminated in the final class when the professor expected us to disregard the university generated course evaluation forms normally distributed and write out our assessment on a piece of paper. We all submitted a comment, but most of the students I'm sure wrote a bland "good course" on their review. I was naive enough to believe the professor's promise that whatever was written would not affect our grade. This was the closest I have ever come to failing a course! Apart from the barbs of antagonism that flew back and forth across the classroom that year, I also remember an apply poem, regrettably the title and poet long forgotten. It consisted entirely and only of varieties of apples. It took only a minute to read the poem, but I was mesmerized as variety after variety of apple skipped and tumbled from the professor's lips. Not in possession of the greatest interpersonal skills to be sure, but that professor knew how to read poetry!

This summer a friend introduced me to The Seed Savers Exchange and Amy Goldman's Heirloom Tomatoes. I spent hours examining pictures of heirloom tomato varieties, read about them, studied their properties. Ever interested in the history of food, I questioned my mother and aunt about my grandparents' gardens. I researched the varieties of tomatoes my grandparents might have grown in the 30's and 40's with the help of my sister who uncovered seed catalogues in the archival collections of MacFayden and McKenzie Seed Companies. As my tomato-variety knowledge increased, my memory retrieved that long ago poem and I couldn't help but try my hand at variety poeming.

Red Velvet, White Beauty
Ruffled Yellow, First Lady

Lemon Boy, Ida Gold
Bonny Best, Juliet

Red Fig, Yellow Currant
Brown Berry, Black Plum

Old Brook, Long Tom
Moon Glow, Nebraska Wedding

Cream Sausage, Amish Cherry
Elberta Girl, Redfield Beauty

Gold Nugget, Gold Rush
Mule Team, Farthest North

My poetic skills are fledgling at best, but in my culinary fantastic world I create a tomato-y splendor inspired by each couplet. Picture them with me.
  • A bowl of thrice-strained gazpacho topped with rosemary twists and marscapone gelati, elegant and sophisticated like a ballroom lady.
  • Silken rose vodka sauce spooned over a bed of nutmeg parmesan garganelli like a gigolo effortlessly, smoothly gliding from woman to woman.
  • A pot of tomato chutney cooked up with ginger, garlic, raisins and almonds, sweet, sticky, like jam.
  • Eggs, sausages and tomatoes in a butter greasy cast iron griddle in this happier version of Brokeback Mountain.
  • A tureen of hearty tomato beef and barley soup, a loaf of bread, a pat of butter.
  • Another fry-up, but I'll add a mug of bitter, disappointing camp coffee to the picture; the first gleam of gold almost forgotten in this cold, cold Yukon.
Now all I need are friends to help me cook and a food photographer to document our creations. What a food essay that would be!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

How can I possibly explain waudikjs puddul?

You might recognize puddul as a cognate of the English word "puddle"; waudikj means "whey." Prosaically translated these Low German words mean "puddle of whey." Now let me tell you what they really mean!

I grew up on the edge of the small Mennonite village of Blumenort in rural Manitoba. Across the street from our house was an alfalfa field and on the far side of the field was a creek. A gentle slope rose from the creek and at the top of that ever so slight undulation was a hatchery. Before the hatchery was built, much before my time, the Mennonite farmers of the area operated a dairy co-operative at that location where they produced cheese and butter. The families in the co-operative, including my mother's family, delivered their milk to the factory in eight-gallon milk cans and returned home with them full of whey; nutrient-rich feed for their pigs to mix with their hash. But even after all the co-op farmers had collected their share of the whey, the cheese factory still did not know how to dispose of all the excess whey so it was left to drain out the back, down the little hill where it collected in small pools and eventually ran into the creek, the cloudy dribble of whey merging with the shallow flowing water of the creek. In the winter the whey froze long before it reached the creek, building up for a smelly, mucky spring when the swollen waters carried all the mess away. That was the 1940s, the Blumenort waudikjs puddul in all its putrid murky milkiness.

The cheese factory closed in the fifties in the wake of milk quotas, centralized milk processing dairies and modernization more generally. Yet the cheese factory in Blumenort is not entirely forgotten. Last summer, together with my aunt and mother, I sat looking out the front window of my mother's house watching the construction of a new housing development across the street. Mostly we commented on the ugliness of it all: the mess, the mud-packed street, the construction garbage, the loss of an expansive view. The alfalfa field had become a row of partially-constructed, generic-looking stuccoed houses. Sitting with my aunt and mother, nostalgia for the beauty of blooming alfalfa, the plank bridge I crossed on my way to and from school, the smell of poplar mulch in the copse at the edge of the field left me disgruntled and resentful towards the small-minded, money-hungry developers who cared little for the natural habitat of the birds, bugs, rabbits and mice that lived in that field and even less for my nostalgia. To add insult to the injury of suburbia invading my memories, the developers had hired a bulldozer to damn the creek in order to create a small pond backing the development. The creek as I had known it with its bullrushes and grass-covered banks where meadow larks sang Fritz, Fraunz, kjielkje supp [Fritz, Frank, noodle soup] and red winged black birds chirped and warbled had been transformed into a landscaped pond designed to add some suburban sophistication to the rather hickish little prairie town I grew up in. Eventually the pond will fill up with bullrushes, another generation of red winged black birds will build their nests, it's possible frogs will again croak long into the night. The generic row of houses will become a tree-lined street with people calling "home" the stucco houses fronted by meticulously mown grass and brightly colored flowers. Oakdale Drive will look much like the other pretty streets of Blumenort. But I? I would rather have an alfalfa field and a creek.

Like me, my aunt could see little beauty in the mucked up field across the street, pond included. Unlike me, however, my aunt is not prone to nostalgia, or perhaps it presents itself in her wry sense of humor. Her first objection to the pond: the standing water would only serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and heaven knows Manitoba does not need more mosquitoes! But more damning, my aunt remembers. Before the bulldozers dug the basements, dump trucks brought in back fill and building crews left their pink insulation wrappings to blow in the wind, even before I ran through the blooming alfalfa kite string in hand, there was a cheese factory! In her mind's eye, my aunt saw the dribble of collected whey, inhaled the smell of the melting mush of the spring's thaw. Matter-of-factly, wearing an almost straight face, slightly sarcastic, definitely sardonic, she pronounced her judgement on the pond: waudikjs puddul!

(photo credits: Douglas Fast)

Monday, 13 July 2009

oniony beginnings: my Aguascalientes muse

I fell in love with onions many years ago in the very hot, very dusty, very loud Mexican city of Aguascalientes. I was on a road trip through northern and central Mexico together with two other travelers; three tall people cramped into a small Mazda pickup: Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel, Leon. Across the northern desert and through the Sierra Madres we drove. We arrived in Aguascalientes at dusk one evening, hot and cramped from having been bent double in our small truck all day. We were hungry, tired and in a strange city so we took the first rooms that presented themselves. The hotel we booked into that night must have been on the busiest street of Aguascalientes. Convencion Avenue is a major thoroughfare and there was no end to the roaring traffic as the night wore on. We also made the mistake of booking into a hotel that was adjacent to the bus depot; not that our guide book hadn't warned us! Buses revved all night under our window as they pushed to merge into the stream of traffic carrying passengers bound for Leon, Guadalajara or God knows where. If the noise didn't keep us awake that night, the heat certainly did. No air conditioned comfort for us, not even a fan. In desperation we raided our cooler for the bits of ice that still remained and touched them to our hot skin. Throwing security caution to the wind, we propped the door open into the hall with a shoe in order to catch just a hint of air. But before ever our sleepless sweltering night of tossing and turning began we went in search of something to eat. The only way to get to the food stalls on the other side of Convencion Avenue was to cross a massive and very high pedestrian bridge that spanned the many lanes of roaring traffic underneath us. Walking along Convencion Avenue it was obvious that our choices for dinner that evening were going to be rotisseried chicken or rotisseried chicken. (Not that this was in any way a disappointing set of options.) Chicken was everywhere to be had along that street but what we discovered as we walked from stall to stall was that for every chicken-laden rotisserie skewer there was a pile of sweet luscious onions being served alongside the chicken, small golden orbs dripping in the oil they had been fried in. Actually, we only bought onions that evening because I insisted that we have at least some vegetable in our diet; given that we were too tired and hungry to go anywhere but across the street in search of food, it was onion or nothing. We carried them back to our hotel room tied up in small plastic bags, along with our chicken and warm tortillas. Sure, I had had the odd bowl of French onion soup to date but up until this point I had no idea that onions were good for anything except flavoring a pot of stew or a pasta sauce. But that evening as I pulled off bits of succulent chicken with my tortilla and dipped into the plastic bag to add some onion, ahh ...

My visit to Aguascalientes was a long time ago. In my rhapsodic memory those onions may be sweeter, tastier, more delectable than the ones we actually ate. After all, we were so hungry and tired we might have found a Big Mac mouthwatering that evening. Or perhaps the city we found ourselves in seemed so bleak, the night so daunting, the heat so repressive, the noise so deafening that we needed anything, even a small mound of onions, to create a moment of palate-magic whereby we could redeem Aguascalientes. But whether real or imagined, whether ambrosial or merely ordinary, the onions I ate in Aguascalientes have become my culinary muse. With Mneme at my side, "onion" has bunched into scallion, shallot, Vidalia, leek, spring onion, garlic, pearl, Walla Walla and I have braised, slivered, caramelized, baked, chopped, sauteed, stuffed and pickled my Aguascalientes wonder.