Our neighbours are one of the reasons Dave and I are able to live in the country. Admittedly, as writers, we have the wrong skill sets for rural life. Dave can edit a short story like nobody’s business, and he’s a fabulous writer, but he’s not so good at manual labour or at troubleshooting failed machinery. And me? Well, I am good with animals, a screwdriver, a hammer, an axe, but give me a crashed septic tank or a misbehaving water pump or stalled snow blower, and I revert to Plan B: call the specialists.
Our neighbours help out – with friendship and moral support, by keeping our long driveway ploughed out each winter, and with practical advice to bolster what we learn from our hired-gun specialists with the hefty price tags.
But our neighbours really shine when the chips are on the table. Not long ago, my brother the metal sculptor came rushing in from his shop where he’d been grinding metal, shouting, “Call 911! There’s a fire!” When I stepped outside, a column of black smoke marked the spot for the entire countryside to see, and the flames were already visible as they roared through the shop.
The volunteer fire department arrived within twenty minutes of my call. I know that in nearby Saskatoon, the fire department’s emergency response time is under seven minutes, and twenty minutes can seem like a terrifyingly long time when you are face to face with a ravenous fire, but that afternoon, those minutes flew by.
Half a dozen of our neighbours showed up in advance of the firefighters. We all muscled what tools we could reach out of my brother’s shop, then retreated when the fire advanced. I’d never been that close to such flames, and its sheer uncontrolability and magnitude humbled me. We moved on to the barn, which was built in 1900. The barn’s timbers were as dry as an old joke, its upper level crammed with straw waiting to torch the yard if the fire spread. The old John Deere garden tractor and the snow blower took several people several minutes of effort to roll out of the barn and across the yard. By then, the dried grass was going up. Flames were creeping northward, toward the house. The flood that had surrounded our yard in 2011 was still in evidence, no longer a lake but enough of a slough to fill buckets. One neighbor went south, shovel in hand, in case sparks flew to the pasture. Two of us split off, running with heavy buckets sloshing and banging our legs until we up-ended their contents on the smouldering grass. Fill, run, repeat, fill, run, repeat.
The fire trucks, tankers and water hoses arrived, and checked the spread of the grassfire, and saved the barn. But without our neighbours appearing on our yard when that plume of black smoke sent up its SOS, the results could have been catastrophic. If the wind had shifted to the south. If the grassfire had spread more quickly. If the fire had reached the barn. Or the house.
Reliable as the changing seasons, those good neighbours all understood the risk a grass fire poses on the prairie. We are beyond grateful, to them, and to the volunteer departments who showed up. I hope I never have to return the favour, but I will if need be. But first we eat my favourite butter chicken, ideal for a crowd of hungry firefighting friends.
Serve this luscious dish with basmati rice, flatbread and lentils. From Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet
4 T. butter
2 onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. grated ginger root
4 T. mild garam masala or curry powder
8 large boneless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
4-6 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 T. tomato paste
¼ c. white wine
1 c. chicken stock
1 c. whipping cream
Lemon juice to taste
salt and pepper to taste
minced parsley or cilantro
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onions and half the garlic, half the ginger and half the spices. Cook over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle the remaining garlic, ginger and spices on the chicken pieces and mix thoroughly.
When the onions are tender, add the chicken, wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, and stock. Mix well. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until tender, stirring from time to time and adding additional stock if the liquid level drops too low. Remove the lid and simmer briskly until thickened if the sauce is too runny, stirring several times. Add the cream and simmer to reduce. Taste, adjusting the balance with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro or parsley.