Monday, 2 August 2021

Love in the Time of Strawberries



In memory of Freda Schroeder, October 23, 1935–November 20, 2020 

rest in peace beloved aunt



 July 11, 2020: Crouching next to the strawberry row, knees creaking and wrists aching, I push aside plants, looking for bright red clusters of berries to fill my basket. I suddenly remember my mother making a strawberry-banana salad with mayonnaise-honey dressing for her parents and saying how much her father loved that salad. I pause in my picking. Hot tears sting my eyes.

 

STRAWBERRIES I

 

When I was young, the only u-pick strawberry farms anywhere near us were in Hadashville, a 45-minute drive east of Blumenort. Here the soil was sandy and the strawberries thrived. We left early—5:30, I think—because we didn’t want to risk being turned away from a strawberry field where all the rows had already been assigned. I hated—hated!—getting up so early, but I was always eager to go. I wonder now for how long I remained grumpy as we drove. In the tiny hamlet of Hadashville, we crossed the railway track north of the Trans Canada Highway, turned right, and in half a mile we were at the strawberry farm. We picked strawberries until all of the 1-gallon plastic ice cream pails we had brought with us were full, all of which we set in the trunk of our 1969 green Biscayne Chevrolet. I can’t remember whether we kept one pail in the car to eat on the drive home. I suspect not. But we did eat strawberries later in the day as we were hulling them. Then Chanlena Farms opened up in Greenland, only a few miles from Blumenort, and we began picking there. 

 

Left to right: Kerry Fast, Rosabel Fast, Linda Janzen (my great-aunt), Emily Fast 
Hadashville, MB, c. 1980


I have always loved picking strawberries. Even the early rising as a teenager and now the painful knees, back and wrists of middle age have never dulled my anticipation and joy in picking.

 

STRAWBERRIES II

 

My mother talked more about her father to me than about her mother, and when I pressed her for stories about my grandmother, she so often said that she had been sickly and how finally, once she had had her gall bladder removed, she was like a new mother. “But Freda and Mary would know more,” she would add. Maybe she recommended these two youngest sisters because they had known their mother intimately at a time when my mother was far removed from her parents. In 1952 my grandparents and their youngest five children moved to Mexico, as did my parents and three married siblings of my mother, where they lived on Quellen Kolonie, a Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite colony in northern Mexico. My parents lived there for only three years before returning to Manitoba, while my grandparents remained for another eight. For those eight years, my mother interacted with her parents only through letters and the occasional visit. That separation ended on May 4, 1963, at 9:00 a.m., when she and her brother Henry and sister-in-law Margaret welcomed their parents back to Canada at Union Station in Winnipeg. 

 

After my mother died, and I could no longer prod her memory, I finally heeded her advice, and a few years ago I prepared faspa for my two aunts. I wanted to hear about my grandmother, their mother, of whom I knew so little. Our conversation focused largely on the years in which my grandparents and their younger children lived on Quellen Kolonie. My mother’s instinct had been correct—as teenagers, my two aunts immersed themselves in farm life on the colony. And I heard about strawberries. Mexican strawberries were, by their account, very good. Both aunts had no doubt that their mother had made the best-ever strawberry pie, and my aunt Freda enthusiastically mimicked her mother deftly and swiftly rolling out the pastry. This was indeed a different grandmother than my mother had described. She never talked about her mother making strawberry pie or any other pie for that matter, and she never made strawberry pie herself. But she did can pantry shelves-full of strawberry preserves, like her mother did. 


Left to right: Tina Fast, Freda Schroeder, Mary Friesen


Strawberries are mentioned several times in my grandparents’ diary in the years they lived in Mexico. No wonder my aunts remembered them with such enthusiasm. In 1956, my grandparents purchased strawberries at least three times. On one of these occasions, my grandmother noted that she had canned eight quarts from the basket of strawberries they had bought. In March 1958, my grandmother recorded hulling strawberries, and on April 15, 1959, she canned five baskets of strawberries. That’s 40 quarts of preserves if the baskets were the same size as they had been in 1956. The following year, in February, she again canned strawberries as she did on March 1, 1962. The next day she baked pie. I can only assume that that was strawberry pie! On May 24 of the same year, my grandparents again bought strawberries, and on the following day, my grandmother canned them all, she wrote. My grandparents and their many visitors will have enjoyed many a faspa with tweebuck (buns) and strawberry perserves.

 

But it was after their return to Blumenort in 1963 that their own strawberry production picked up. On May 26, 1964, a year after they moved back to Manitoba, my grandfather planted strawberries. He didn't record how many plants he put in. But on May 10, the following year, he planted another 200 strawberry plants, for which he paid three cents a plant. On July 10, my grandmother and Taunte Mary picked strawberries. On the 15th, my grandparents supplemented their own strawberry harvest with 18 pounds of berries my Taunte Greeta brought over. These cost them 30 cents a pound. The next day my grandfather hulled these strawberries before he took his saw blade to Steinbach to be sharpened. The following day my aunts Mary and Freda helped my grandmother can them. On October 15, my grandmother covered the berry plants with straw for the winter, which required considerable physical effort on her part, she noted.

 

On June 4, 1966, my grandfather recorded that the strawberries in their garden were beginning to bloom. A month later, on July 4, my aunt Mary picked 20 pounds of strawberries from these plants. The next day, my grandmother recorded that she made pie with their first strawberries of the season. The next day, July 5, Taunte Mary again picked strawberries. On the 11th, my mother and Taunte Freda picked strawberries for their parents, and on the 13th, once again Taunte Mary picked strawberries, but this picking yielded only 9 pounds. On the 16th, my grandfather recorded that Tina, my mother, picked the last of the strawberries—4 pounds. On the 18th, my grandmother described her day: “I worked on my quilt and baked bread and zweibach. Baked pie of the last strawberries.” The diary doesn’t record who covered the strawberries that year as winter loomed, but the 1966 strawberry season for Abram R. and Elisabeth U. Plett had been abundant.

 

This large strawberry production continued for a while. And let me remind you that there were raspberries too, which my aunts, siblings and cousins picked! My mother was known to shake her head at what she saw as her father’s “overboard” enthusiasm for raspberry production. (I suspect she felt the same way about his strawberries). But as the years progressed, my grandparents’ diary records a gradual shift away from strawberry production to their daughters and daughters-in-law (and their children, no doubt) picking strawberries for their parents at u-pick farms rather than on the back forty of my grandparents’ yard.

 

STRAWBERRIES III

 


Left: Abram R. Plett reading from Die Gute Nachricht (German New Testament)
Right: Elizabeth U. Plett distributing Christmas gifts to each member of the Plett family
Christmas 1974, Blumenort Church basement


Near the end of his life, my grandfather, Groospape as I called him, was hospitalized several times because of a large, diabetes-related sore on his leg that wouldn’t heal. Groosmame was home alone for three long stretches of time in the fall and winter of 1978dark days indeed. Five of their daughters and three of their sons lived nearby, two sons lived in the Interlake, about a 2-hour drive away, and a daughter in Mexico. My grandparents’ diary tells me that these children were devoted in their care for their parents in those long months. Taunte Neeta often brought tweebuck she had baked. On December 29, 1978, Uncle Henry brought four loaves of bulkje (white bread) made by my Taunte Greeta. My mother often did their laundry. My aunt Mary lived next door and kept a close eye on her parents. Her children are often mentioned in my grandparents’ diary as helping out in the house and in my grandfather’s shop or having faspa with their grandparents (oh, how I envy those cousins). My uncles and aunts took turns giving Groosmame almost daily rides to the hospital to see her geliebte (beloved) husband, and when my grandfather was home, their children continued to check up on and visit their parents daily. On one occasion when my mother came home after dropping off her mother following a visit to the hospital—perhaps on January 16, 1979, when Groosmame noted that “Tina took me to see my husband. She also came in for a little while”—she remarked how Groosmame had kissed Groospape as she left his hospital room. This was not something my mother had seen very often in her life, if ever. In diary entries that my grandfather and grandmother wrote, so often in that last year, after noting which child came to visit or bring food, concluded their entries with “thank-you,” as if to ensure their gratitude would endure beyond their allotted time on earth and its depth be felt by their children and grandchildren in years to come when they read their diary. These unfamiliar gestures of tenderness and affection extended by Groosmame and Groospape and the vigilant care offered by their children in this time of darkness were nothing other than an expression of the love they had fostered for each other in the many years they had been a family. 

 

I remember that my mother would go to her parents to dress her father’s sore when he was not in the hospital. I remember her worrying that the sore was not healing. I think my mother must have known that he was nearing the end of his life, or at least feared that he was. I, as a teenager, was oblivious to the loss my mother was dreading. One Sunday morning in late January 1979, when he was home on a Sunday pass, Groospape died. He was 81 years old. I was 14. My mother was nearly the age I am now.

 

On that Sunday in late January, when all my uncles and aunts except Taunte Esther, who lived in Mexico, had gathered at their parents’ house to offer their fragmented grief in support of each other and their mother, Groosmame lay down in the afternoon to rest but did not wake up. She had had a stroke and died the following evening. My mother said time and time again how grateful she was that her mother would now not have to live apart from her husband, but she was mostly silent about her own staggering loss.

 

I can’t remember which year my mother made the strawberry-banana salad with mayonnaise-honey dressing for her parents, but it was in the final few years of their lives—perhaps it was the July 1978 strawberry season.

 

 

________________________________________________________________________________________



Elizabeth Unger Plett, May 6, 1901–January 29, 1979

Abram Reimer Plett, November 25, 1897–January 28, 1979

 

Aganetha (Nettie) U. Fast, December 3, 1917–January 5, 2003

Elizabeth (Lisa) U. Friesen, February 10, 1919–April 27, 1988

Henry K. Plett, November 17, 1921–August 23, 2006

Katherine (Tina) K. Fast, November 14, 1923–May 1, 2014

Jacob K. Plett, July 3, 1925–October 13, 2013

Cornelius K. Plett, September 17, 1927–November 4, 1927          

Thomas K. Plett, June 4, 1929–October 21, 2017

Esther K. Petkau, April 3, 1931–December 18, 2019

Klaas (Nick) K. Plett, February 12, 1933–January 31, 2020

Freda K. Schroeder, October 23, 1935–November 20, 2020

Mary K. Friesen, January 1, 1939–

Abram K. Plett, May 22, 1941–May 2, 2020



_______________________________________________________________________________________

 

Thank you to my sister Julene for her memories of my grandmother’s kiss and my mother’s exasperation. Thank you to Viola and Emily for discussing strawberry picking and our grandmother with me. 

 

Thank you Taunte Mary and Taunte Freda for sharing your memories with me! Your story about your mother's strawberry pie sparked the idea for this blog post.

 

I have drawn much of the material for this post from Family Diaries: Elizabeth U. Kornelsen and Abram R. Plett, Volume 1, 1917 and 1937–1959 and Volume 2, 1960–1979. An extremely big thank you to Taunte Marie for translating the diary of her parents-in-law from German into English. Thank you also to her daughter-in-law Erna Plett for typing up her translation and her daughter Lynette Plett for formatting and printing the diary. This is truly a priceless gift you have given our family.

 

My mother used overboard when she was sputting (mocking) and pronounced it with Plautdietsch vowels to more or less rhyme with the English gourd.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

A Carrot Cake Comes to Mind





the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation.

–Emmanuel Levinas

 

November, 1999. It was my first semester at University of Toronto. I was overwhelmed by many things that first year of my PhD, but what stands out in my memory is the required “Methods in Religion” course that all first-year PhD students in Religion had to take. It didn’t help that I was the only female in a class of six. We had been assigned Levinas’s Of God who Comes to Mind. I was in way over my head—I understood not one sentence! Not one sentence! The professor graciously tried to explain: “You can make a large donation to a homeless shelter and help a lot of people, but Levinas is speaking about meeting a street person on Bloor. Not only throwing change into his cup but recognizing in his face a fellow human being, and letting him see your face. This is Levinas’s authentic relationship.”  

 

June 10, 2014. We three sisters, myself, Julene and Rosabel, had tickets for the tribute concert Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed: The Music of Daniel Lanois at Massey Hall. The line up was impressive enough, but it was Emmylou who was drawing us there. It had been Rosabel’s birthday two days ago, and Julene and I planned to celebrate in an ever-so-low key way. I baked a carrot cake, which we were going to eat before the concert. I wasn’t sure how to transport a cake downtown on public transit without damaging it, so I cut four pieces. Four large pieces, even though we were just three, to snugly fill the container so that the pieces couldn’t move if I was jostled on the subway or if my container slipped sideways in my backpack. Massey Hall is no place to eat birthday carrot cake we realized as soon as we arrived—there’s no lobby to speak of and the seats are tight—so we walked one block to Eaton Centre and plonked ourselves down on the cushioned cubes in the aisle near the Shuter-Yonge entrance. I lifted three pieces of cake out of the container and placed them on the not-so-elegant plastic lid at the centre of our sister circle. I set the container with the lone piece of cake off to the side. Starbucks was only thirty feet away so I walked over and picked up three lattes. We didn’t sing happy birthday, but the cake was good!  

 

A man entered the mall off Yonge Street, where we had entered earlier. He hurried past us, heading straight to the James Street exit. He was obviously using the mall as a throughway. He spotted the lone piece of cake—all eight cubed inches of it with its substantial layer of cream cheese icing—and his hungry gaze didn’t leave the cake as he kept walking. And then, twenty feet past us, it’s as if he finally understood what his eyes had known all along. He turned. 


                                
 

I knew before he even spoke—“Can I have the piece?”—what he wanted—“Yes!”—I handed him the piece. I was honoured by his request; there’s no other way to say it. This fourth piece, it hadn’t been only a last-minute practicality meant to fill the empty quarter of my container. I had been guided to add it by the possibility of just such an exchange, one that transcended the pan handling dilemma I regularly encountered in Toronto. Our eyes met—a carrot-cake-cream-cheese-icing moment of serendipitous joy.

  

But he had also seen our latte cups. He paused, glanced towards Starbucks and asked, “would you buy me a cup of coffee, too?” “No,” I said in a moment of hardening. Perhaps I had given enough—perhaps he had asked for too much—perhaps it was I who had asked for too much. 



It has taken me more than five years to write this post. I have discussed it with several people, but would like to thank especially Christine Schloen, a great conversation partner and a top-notch massage therapist, for her insights into homelessness and panhandling.

Thanks to Douglas Fast for creating the Eaton Centre-carrot cake montage.

If you’ve never heard it, please listen to Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed me Yet, featuring a London homeless man and Tom Waits.

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.