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

Breakfast on Sabinal III: milking sunrise

Breakfast on Sabinal II: watch what you say

I should not have said “oatmeal.” I should have been evasive, I should have hemmed and hawed, "oh, different things, sometimes this, sometimes that." But I didn't. I said I usually ate oatmeal for breakfast. I've never liked oatmeal that much but I started eating it regularly about two years ago; healthier than boxed cereal and more substantial than toast. I've learned to cook it in such a way that I can enjoy it. I use small granular Scottish oats—rather than rolled—mixed with Red River Cereal to lessen the sliminess, cooked in milk rather than water for a more full-bodied flavor. This is the only way I can enjoy oatmeal. So I should have known better than to say “oatmeal.” Inevitably, the next morning while everyone else ate cookies and bread, I was served oatmeal, large undercooked flakes of rolled oats in a thin watery goo. But I filled my bowl, added some milk, a spoon of sugar and ate the porridge. I expressed my thanks to my host and sighed with relief as I got up from the table.

The next morning I crawled out of bed before the sun rose as I had to catch the bus back to Nuevo Casas Grandes. Apart from my host who was going to take me to the bus, the entire household was still asleep. After I had completed my morning ablutions and packed my bag, I sat down at the table laid out for me. By now the sky was beginning to glow with the morning light, but the room where I sat was still dark. I could just make out the pot I had seen yesterday so I knew I was being served oatmeal again. I lifted a spoonful to my mouth and did so with a certain lightness. I could manage another bowl of oatmeal on this my last morning on Sabinal. I slid the porridge into my mouth; cold, solid, leftover from yesterday! All I could do was wash each spoonful down with a gulp of coffee and hope that the darkness covered my dismayed grimace. I emptied the bowl, expressed my thanks and climbed into the buggy with relief.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

breakfast on Sabinal I: can there be breakfast on Sabinal without coffee?

On those frigid February mornings as a cold stillness dawns, what else is one to do but greedily slurp up gulping mouthfuls of coffee filling every inch of the body?

Many mornings I stood in the cold of a desert winter watching the Klassens, the Hieberts, the Harders milk their cows, feed their calves, release their squawking chickens for the day. It wasn't until the cows had been let out to pasture, the milk cans wheeled to the street to be picked up by the milk wagon later that morning and everyone washed and cleaned of barn smells that breakfast was served. A prayer was silently shared and then breakfast began, cookies, big flat cookies with marshmallow and chocolate topping, soft white buns--Tweeback, a pat of butter, no make that two pats and, of course, coffee. Cups were filled with boiling water, instant coffee spooned in followed by some creamer and then cold water added to cool it off. When everyone was satiated another silent prayer was shared and the busyness of the day could begin.

Most Mennonites on Sabinal are dairy farmers and have been for generations, ever since their fore-parents left Saskatchewan for Durango with their dairy herds in tow nearly a century ago. Every family I visited had a herd of cows. A fortunate few could afford milking machines but most families milked their cows by hand twice daily. Herds were regularly rotated on the fragile pastures that have been claimed from the Chihuahuan desert and which had to be carefully irrigated to be sustained. This intensity of never-ending dairy labor supplies the colony's two cheese factories with all the milk needed to produce the sought-after Mexican specialty, queso menonita. Sabinal cheese is particularly coveted because Sabinal is the only Mennonite colony in the Nuevo Casas Grandes area that does not use additives in its cheese.

Queso menonita is not the only dairy delight that Sabinal Mennonites know how produce and which they savor. Slices of soft unripened cheese pressed in the early hours of the morning, Brocke—pieces of Tweeback dunked in coat-your-lips-creamy curds, feather-light cottage cheese mounded onto Tweeback; lavish clottings of whipped cream atop cream pie. These are just the beginnings of the possibilities that can enhance a breakfast if you own a dairy herd. Without a doubt, Sabinal Mennonites have dairy in their bones. And so every morning as I spooned instant creamer into my instant coffee I marveled that a colony full of people who revel in consuming dairy in its many extravagances and for whom caressing a swollen udder is next to godliness, if not godliness itself, has collectively forgotten the pleasure of pouring thick sweet cream into its coffee and has resorted to syrupy-sweet, oily powder as a substitute. Surely with more than a thousand Holsteins within the fifty square kilometers that make up Sabinal there must at least one family that still drinks its coffee with cream, but I never had the good fortune to share a breakfast with that elusive family.

And then one morning it all made sense. Eating breakfast with the Klassen family, I watched first Jacob, and then his sister Susanna take a cookie from the bowl, one of those big marshmallow chocolate orbs, reach over to pull the butter dish closer and then slice a thick, creamy slab of golden goodness from the pat. I watched as they cut into the butter once again and then as they slid the butter-cum-cheese from their knives onto their cookies. In an instant I understood. This is no insipid, super-market-bland anemic paste that passes as butter where I come from. This is butter in all its dairy splendor, potent with the sharpness of soured cream, a sumptuous mouthful that lingers on the taste of pasture. This is the raison d'etre that sustains the ongoing grind of milking, day upon day, morning and evening, in the frosty winter or the blistering forty degree heat of a desert summer. This is an entire week's carefully hoarded accumulation of cream and I would dare to ask for some cream for my coffee?