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.
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.