Dave and I live in my grandparents’ house in rural Saskatchewan. Back in the day it was a three-room farmhouse, the long narrow kitchen its beating heart, the other two rooms chilly and dark – heated only by the wood stove and illuminated by kerosene lanterns. Electricity came in the 1950s, when the local farmers formed a co-operative to string the wires across all their farms, but they were sparing in its use.
Gran was a canny cook, frugal, simultaneously fierce and gentle. I have fragmented memories of her holding a hatchet, a chicken in its dying Ichabod Crane moments lurching – headless – around the yard. She put up those birds in quart sealers, packing white and dark meat on the bone into the jars and simmering them in her canning pot. On our visits from airbases across the country, I would tiptoe down the steeps basement stairs, fumbling through the cupboards to find the right jar among the plenty that lined the shelves – chicken, dill and mustard pickles, peaches and pears, plums, jams, applesauce.
Her garden was a haven on hot afternoons. The rows of corn and raspberry canes were ideal for hide and seek. In the strawberry patch, I would drop to my knees and forage while my brothers leaped among the plants like jack rabbits.
My grandfather slaughtered a steer each autumn, its carcass twirling on a hook in the back reaches of his garage, blood setting under his fingernails as he and my dad used a saw and scimitar to take the beast apart like a jigsaw puzzle. Gran and Mom wrapped and froze the meat, some of the brown packages invariably making their way home with us in a cooler to take up residence in our own freezer. There was a smokehouse, too, with a small hatch to feed the fire, and I remember sausages and slab bacon, smoked pork hocks and chops, and densely textured smoke-kissed ham unlike anything on store shelves. Nowadays whenever I walk into a good smokehouse, its fragrant air careens me back to my childhood.
Gran’s cooking was simple, relying on what they grew themselves, augmented in summer by cases of peaches, apricots, plums, pears and apples from the Okanagan fruit truck. In winter, cabbages, beets, carrots and onions filled wooden bins and boxes of sand in the basement. Her bread was made with flour from the mill in town, from grain my grandfather and other local farmers had grown and harvested. She kept a crock of starter on the counter, and her pancakes and breads were alive with its deep, fermented, bubbling laughter. For dessert, she made date squares, apple kuchen, apple pie, apple strudel – I have an indelible memory of our hands almost touching through the windowpane of finely rolled strudel dough – and cookies, sometimes gingersnaps that bit back, sometimes big, soft raisin cookies.
The house remembers them both, but especially her. It isn’t haunted, not in the spooky way that TV shows like to portray, but in a deeply rooted presence, a sense of reassuring repetition, and in our matching culinary ethos, as well as in the way my face is slowly tilting toward the etched planes of hers when I look in the mirror in what had been her bedroom. There are much worse things than growing older in my grandmother’s shadow.
Beet and Cabbage Borscht
At cooking school in Vancouver in the early 1980s, I learned to make a version of this earthy soup that my grandmother would have barely recognized, with shredded duck, garnished with a profiterole stuffed with duck paté. It struck me as odd until I remembered my grandfather hunting ducks, and my grandmother frying duck and chicken livers, then grinding them up with fried onions to make a rich spread that we smeared on her sourdough bread and dipped into our borscht.
Feeds a crowd.
4 slices bacon, diced
olive oil for the pot
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
2 cups diced beets, raw or cooked
2 cups finely shredded cabbage
½ cup diced carrots
½ cup diced celery
2 Tbsp. herbes salées (salted herbs) or ¾ tsp. each dried basil and thyme
8 cups chicken stock
2 cups diced potatoes
1 lb. shredded cooked meat, your choice, optional
salt and pepper to taste
minced fresh dill or chives
sour cream or yoghurt
chicken liver paté
Heat the oil in a stock pot, add the bacon and sauté until the fat is released. Add the garlic and onion, and sauté until fragrant and half tender. Add the remaining vegetables, stir and sauté for several minutes, then stir in the herbs, stock and potatoes. Simmer, covered, until tender. Add the optional meat and heat through, then balance with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish and serve.