We gathered at my parents’ house on a mild autumn evening, clucking over Mom and Dad’s recent renovations, sipping Dad’s homemade wine, letting our appetites build for the fowl supper. Our neighbour Ken commented on the line-up he’d witnessed en route. “Halfway down the street and around the block,” he claimed.
I was disinclined to believe him – this was a small Saskatchewan town, a bedroom community of Saskatoon, after all, with a population of 1,500. Surely its residents had better things to do on an autumn Sunday evening than line up for a turkey dinner. But Ken was proven right when we drove over to the community hall, and we took our places in the line-up. In the days following, I would learn that nearly 1,000 tickets were sold.
We have been attending this annual dinner with our family and neighbours ever since we moved to rural Saskatchewan in 2010. In the years when I felt cranky, I misheard it as “foul supper,” and in others, with yellow leaves filling my eaves and rain barrel, I heard “fall.” Regardless of pronunciation, fowl suppers are a prairie harvest tradition, usually held under the auspices of churches and volunteer community groups, with women dishing up and washing up in the church kitchen the day of, and women cooking and baking in their home kitchens for days in advance.
The suppers may have begun as fund-raisers, but became events unto themselves, even when times were tough: Nellie McClung mentioned fowl suppers in her 1916 book, In Times Like These, and the Grande Prairie Northern Tribune ran a notice in its 19 October 1933 issue: “Don’t forget the old-time fowl supper at the United Church on Oct. 25, 6 to 8 o’clock, concert following.” Nowadays you’re more likely to find such a reminder on Kijiji or Facebook, and modern MLAs are hopping on the bandwagon by hosting fowl suppers for constituents – albeit at considerably steeper ticket prices than the cash my family coughed up for the small-town meal we attended, which was mercifully untouched by political speechifying.
Regardless of which small town you find yourself in, the fowl supper menu is changeless and most of it is homemade: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mash, rutabaga, carrots, salad, buns, and pie. Pie, glorious pie, in all manner of flavours, including – this lucky year – homemade butter tarts. As I picked up a plate of apple pie and added a tart to my plate, I observed many others doing the same thing, usually with a grinning glance around. The presence of Ontario-born butter tarts on a prairie groaning board is a small indicator of our mobile population: I’ve eaten them in Newfoundland, too, as a partner to figgy duff following a traditional Jigg’s dinner.
Fowl supper tables are communal, so when we sat down, I was elbow-to-elbow with a stranger, who promptly introduced himself before tucking into his spuds and turkey. Several tables over, I saw some good friends, our nearby neighbours, but they were deep in conversation with their tablemates, so visiting waited until we’d all eaten our pie. As I munched, I recalled the bartering power commanded by butter tarts in the bidding wars that accompanied school lunchtime in my childhood. A butter tart could get you anything, but who’d want to trade it away?
These tarts are in my battery of “best presents” that I draw from when I start making edible gifts for the holidays. Make plenty: they freeze well. So first we eat tarts with a pot of tea, and then we visit.
Lemon Maple Cranberry Butter Tarts
Here’s my adaptation of my Southern Ontario grandmother’s classic. Makes 2 dozen 3” tarts or 4 dozen small tartlets.
2 c. flour
¾ c. butter
salt to taste
½ c. ice water, more as needed
½ c. butter
½ c. brown sugar
¼ c. corn syrup
½ c. maple syrup
the juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
½ c. dried cranberries
1 t. vanilla
Pastry: combine flour, butter and salt on the counter until mealy. Add the water and mix gently, then smear “fraisage” once. Form into a disc and chill before using. Set oven at 400 F. Roll out pastry and cut circles to fit muffin pans or tart pans.
Filling: heat the butter and sugar until the butter melts, stirring. Combine the remaining ingredients and add the butter-sugar blend. Mix well, spoon the filling into the pastry-lined cups and put the tins onto baking sheets to catch any spills. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 F and bake another 10-15 minutes. Cool in the pan.