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.)