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Ways into the past

Whenever I eat rice pudding, which isn’t often these days, I think of my grandmother, Violet, when she was raising a family in the 1930s. A proper young Englishwoman newlywed to my veterinarian grandfather, and transplanted to a small farm in BC, Vi had to learn to cook and clean and do all the things an upper-middle class upbringing in England had allowed her to avoid. Among the recipes she developed were three for rice pudding: a classic, baked for a long time at low temperature in the wood range; a rich one, which included whipping cream and almond slivers, and one that was called Wash Day Pudding, made by steaming rice in a cotton bag over hot rinse water. Served with homemade butter and sprinkled with brown sugar, it kept my mother and her siblings happy and allowed Vi to carry on with her chores.

Violet made a memorable lemonade, and my grandfather made a fantastic ginger-marrow jam, both of which survive in recipe form and both of which spawn, if not memories (she was very old by the time I was born; he was dead) transportive emotions—when I make or have any of these foods or drink I enjoy a sensual, parallel experience that leaps generations.

The only time I’ve had a similar experience was walking a field on the old family farm in southwestern Ontario, thinking that my father and grandfather had walked and worked the same ground. For fleeting moments, I was in a world very close to theirs.

I was pondering recipes, and history, after reading Helen Lammers-Helps’ column in this issue on old cookbooks. Old cookbooks evoke the same kind of feelings as family recipes, though in a more general way. To read through some of the old cookbooks we’ve stashed away is to visit a world innocent of worries about cholesterol, or transfats and is instead fixated on heartiness and thrift (ways to make use of every cut of meat).

Before she died, my mother gathered all the old family recipes into a booklet, had it printed and distributed to the family. Not only does it contain the actual recipes, but she annotated it with enough detail to make it a kind of family history. Now when I enjoy my grandfather’s ginger-marrow jam, I know that he was making use of produce local farmers had given in lieu of cash.

I cannot explain why that detail is so particularly satisfying, but it is.

High honour

Small Farm Canada columnist Dan Needles was recently made a member of the Order of Canada. As much as we like to think the honour was for his good work on page 46 of each issue, we know it was really recognition of his entire body of works, and most especially the wonderful Wingfield Farm stage plays. Of Dan, the Citation from the Governor General’s office said, “[H]e has been praised for capturing the essence of Canada’s farming communities. . . His works rank amongst Canadian theatre’s most popular and longest-running productions.”

Well done, Dan!