Friday, January 15, 2016

The Food of Our Families

So the holidays are over, and the steady, but long, slow, and cold march towards spring has begun. I know many of you have been enjoying (or, if you love winter, mourning) an indecently mild season. Here in the far north, we too enjoyed a delayed onset of real winter weather, but the full-on deep freeze did arrive a few weeks ago. It will most certainly remain for months yet.

In our house, we're keeping our spirits high and the mood festive by keeping the kitchen cranking despite the holidays having now passed. I've decided, in these dark cold days, the best thing I can do to help my family feel cozy, happy, and close to each other, is make homemade food that engages them and contributes to them (whether they realize it consciously or not) feeling nourished and cared for.
Who isn't happy when baking cookies????
For me, preparing food is an act of love. The quality of that food is, admittedly and inevitably, also an expression of how chaotic the day has been: "Well, swimming lessons this afternoon, so cold leftovers and dried-out bread tonight kids!" But that's life, and that's okay. Whenever possible, though, our food is made from scratch, with our hands, and with careful attention to nutrition, cost, enjoyability, and overall experience--a conscious and deliberate expression of consideration and caring for each other.

David helping put the bread in the oven.
I'm sure I'm by no means alone in equating cooking with showing love. In fact, I'd guess most people, at least to some extent, must view food and cooking this way. After all, eating is one of those few things we absolutely must do, and ensure those less independently able around us do, multiple times each day. The only other thing I can think of that has this level of necessity and frequency is elimination (yes, I'm talking about peeing and pooing) and, although some people may disagree with me (you're sick, people, sick!) that activity has far less potential for deep enjoyment and communal sharing than eating has. It, therefore, makes sense that, practically from the moment of our birth, we weave highly personal meaning and symbolism into food and eating, much of that meaning relating to love, nurturing, and family.

For many of us, the holidays are certainly when that meaning and symbolism becomes most deliberate and prominent. Burdened much of the time by too-busy lives, time constraints force us into allowing both food provisioning and family interactions to become perfunctory. The holidays give us a chance for slowing down and reconnecting. And many of us do that by, among other things, reaching into our culinary roots and carrying on family food traditions. In our house, for example, we welcomed in 2016 with olliebollen (a Dutch version of donuts eaten on my husband's side of the family) and cider donuts (the type of donuts traditionally eaten on my side of the family).

Happy 2016!
This refocusing and remembering during the holidays is wonderful, important, and certainly not to be diminished or dismissed. But, nevertheless, throughout this holiday season, I spent a lot of time thinking about how fortunate I was, as a child, to grow up in a household where a stream of homemade food wasn't just a holiday event. Special holiday foods most certainly do stand out in my memories: sea-foam candy, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls, frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies, apricot jewels, and powdered hickory sticks, all marched forward from the kitchen in a steady, sugary stream as Christmas approached.

A smaller work space, a greater level of disorganization . . . 
. . . but otherwise just like we used to make with Mom.
Well, almost just like we used to make with Mom: Owen decided it would be more fun to ditch
the cookie cutters and go freehand to make a map of Alberta. Those are Edmonton, Calgary, the major highways,
and the oil sands all represented in Christmas sprinkles. How educational yet festive!
But, although the stream of homemade food was decidedly more sugary during the holidays, that constant flow of creations from my mother's kitchen was a year-round event. Especially in my early childhood, virtually everything, from bread to spaghetti sauce, cookies to fried fish, was made from scratch. As an adult looking back, and as a parent and partner thinking about my own family's daily nourishment, I feel deeply blessed that homemade food was so central to daily life.

And it wasn't just the fact that our food was homemade that made it so special. It was also . . .  adventurous. Not adventurous in a "foodie culture" and frequent-restaurant-goer sort of way. Adventurous in a live-off-the-land, do-it-yourself, homegrown sort of way.

My parents were deeply committed, not just to making homemade food, but to using what you have, making the most of what you've got, rejecting an ever-more consumerist lifestyle and instead recognizing the resources and potential bounty already at your fingertips--and they were constantly putting physical labour and elbow grease into making that potential bounty a reality. Back-to-the-lander and hippie tomes like The Natural Foods Cookbook, The Moosewood Cookbook, and one (I wish I could remember the title!) with recipes for beaver, porcupine, and woodchuck graced our shelves, and creations from these books and from our land graced our table. Like other kids, we were accustomed to things like beef, chicken, and pork (from the grocery store) for dinner. But we were equally accustomed to arrivals like venison, rabbit, goose, and squirrel on the plate. In those early days of my parents "homesteading," if it was available on the land, and it could be eaten, it was likely to appear baked, broiled, or fried.

Cute, right? Also delicious fricasseed.
Of course, some of the live-off-the-land experiments were more successful than others. Family lore tells me there was once a failed ("creepy" is the word my mother uses) experiment with starlings that everyone would sooner forget (something had to be done about the vermin threatening the fruit crops!!!). I was too young to recall, or perhaps I've blocked it from my memory completely, but as far as I know, small birds never arrived at the dinner table again.

Don't be fooled. This guy's apparently nothing but bones.

In addition to the adventurous approach with wildlife, numerous experimental meals came from whatever was the current bumper crop in the garden. This was excellent when the bumper crop was tomatoes (yeah! spaghetti sauce!), not quite as excellent when the bumper crop was spaghetti squash or, inevitably, zucchini. I recall looking askance at dishes like baked spaghetti squash and stuffed monster zucchini. Although we children found these dishes rather non-delicious, my memory (perhaps faulty) is that we ate them, and on some level appreciated them, anyway.

These zucchini have nothing on those of my childhood.
While most people malign zucchini generally, and huge, monster zucchini especially, I strive to carry on the tradition of growing ridiculously huge, nearly impossible to eat, zucchini.
After all, from a kid's point of view, what fun is a 5-inch zucchini?
If it's to be any fun at all, it must at least be the size of your leg.
Other contributions from our land to our table were far less experimental . . . and far more undeniably delicious! My dad kept honey bees, and I remember the amazing smell of hot metal, melting wax, and burning honey that's produced as an uncapping knife slices the top layer of wax from the comb and the dark honey begins to ooze. This smell is seared into my memory beside images of my father looking ready to land on the moon in his beekeeper's suit, smoke puffing from the aluminum smoker, and more troubling but equally fascinating, my father walking up to me in the orchard with foaming blotches of baking soda and toothpaste plastering his neck, arms, and hands (the result of a honey-collection effort going terribly awry) .

A potentially safer method of obtaining sweet stuff was via the plentiful maple trees. One year, when I was very young, a deal was struck with the neighbours. I remember trudging with my father through the snowy forest on a neighbour's property while taps were screwed into the trunks of the big, sleeping trees and white, plastic buckets were hung beneath. Sometime later (days? weeks?), we returned to collect the buckets. My memory wants to add our brown-bodied, black-maned horses, Sixer and Justa, to this image. I see them plowing through the snow, shaking their long manes and pulling a cart filled with buckets of water-clear liquid behind. But I'm sure this is a manufactured memory--a product of years of studying a painting that hung on our living room wall: a flannel-shirted, bearded man leading his team of horses through the snowy forest collecting maple buckets. But, regardless of the means, our real-life buckets were hauled home (probably in the back of a pickup truck) and poured into a giant metal pan that seemed large enough to boil a horse . . . well, a goat at least . . . over a raging fire. I remember a small crowd of adults I did not know gathered round this operation, an operation that was nearly too hot to approach, and hours and hours of that winter day burned away. At the end of all the pouring, burning, smoking, and boiling, a few small jars of dark maple syrup were sealed and, I assume, shared around.

--sorry, no photo here. these were the days of big cameras and kodak film. it's unlikely anyone hauled out a camera to snap a picture, but if anyone did, it's certainly buried in a shoebox and long lost.--

But it wasn't just my parents who were instilling a land-based, do-it-yourself approach to food. There was also my older sister's obsession with foraging for wild, edible plants. She made bitter and zinging salads of dandelions, violet greens, and sorrels. We regularly ventured up the dirt road to pluck the spicy red wintergreen berries from the dark, rambling patch on the far side of the garden fence. She gave me a good case of hives one time with a sumac tea that she insisted was from an edible type of sumac. On another occasion, I joined her on a tuber-digging expedition. The objects of our hunt were the daylily patch by the driveway and the cattails growing in the ditch down the road. The plan was to submerge the tiny tubers and rhizomes in water and pummel them, which we did with a rock in a wooden bowl. This pounding was meant to release the starches, and the water would wash the starches free of the roots' tough, fibrous strings. We would then let the water evaporate, leaving the starches behind. We were making flour of course (of course!), and after a day of hard labour, we had a whole tablespoon of daylily/cattail flour to show for our efforts. I believe it was dumped into the next batch of muffins so all our hard work wouldn't be completely wasted.

All-in-all, Libal dining was not a simple meat and potatoes affair. It was a way of life. Sometimes it was refined. Sometimes it was frontiersy. Sometimes it was scrappy and nutritionally suspect. But it was usually meaningful, often loving, and almost always interesting and engaging.

Now, for my own kids, although I suppose it's good there's no monstrous gander with a six-foot wingspan waiting to attack them as they venture into the backyard, I do deeply wish there were chickens and honey bees outside the back door. I wish there were acres of apple, plum, and cherry trees to pick from, fields of wild strawberries to forage and turn into jam, and forests harbouring secretive edibles waiting to be explored and discovered.

But few of us are lucky enough to grow up with this type of field-to-table privilege. Maybe my kids will have the chance to experience it one day. But, if not, I'm grateful that I at least have the ability to give them the experience of a warm and working kitchen, with homemade food marching out of it to wrap them in love, nourishment, and family tradition. Let this carry us through to the first hopeful shimmerings of spring and new plants ready to creep up from the ground and towards our table.

Boys! Supper's ready!

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