Preserving: Our Canadian Food Tradition and Memories with Grandma Maude
I preserve food. It is part of who I am. I cannot stop. (Here are the pages of my preserve recipes.) It is woven tightly into every fibre of my being. The master weaver of our Canadian family food tapestry is my mom’s mother, Grandma Maude. She smelled of moist black earth each growing season. She rose with the sun and faced each long day of really hard work, and thrived. She never endured work. She challenged each day to conquer her, yet knew it could not. She surrendered to dusk, deeply satisfied by the accomplishments of her day. I watched. I learned.
She worked the land. She sewed her seeds. She weeded and watered and whispered, “grow… grow…”. Every year, she harvested the fruits of her labour. And preserved them through the winter months. Every year we came in the late fall to help kill and can the chickens, clean and can the corn, pickle and can the beets and the crab apples. When the fruit came in from the Okanagan, starting at the beginning of August, there would be canning bees: peaches, pears, apricots, plums and cherries. Preserving happened all summer long starting with the rhubarb: jams, jellies, peas shelled and frozen, pies made and frozen. The work never ended and the cellar was bulging by the end of it all.
Round back of her old white cottage style two-story farmhouse was a door in the ground. When it opened, the smell was musty, and a big black hole was revealed with an old ladder leading down into nothingness. It was years before I was allowed to venture into that root cellar. Years. Maybe I was too afraid. Maybe I was just not allowed. I think I was only inside of it once. Maybe twice. The ladder was wobbly. The light overhead was dim and strung onto a string that left most of the space in darkness. Even with a flashlight, it was hard to see everything that was there. It was cold. And musty and smelled like carrots and potatoes smell when pulled fresh from the earth. The walls were carved into the dirt and held up by a framework of old boards. Shelves were built into that framework with mismatched wood and rows and rows of preserved food lined the shelves. Mom and grandma and other ladies would organize a little procession to fill up the cellar after a canning session.
Getting food from the cellar for a meal was a whole other ordeal. During winter, the door had to be cleaned off. It was freezing cold. Dark, and scary. But, everyone had one. Everyone. That is how one survived through the winter on the Canadian prairies. Frozen food wasn’t even an option at grocery stores like it is today. Peas and carrots and corn, yes. Nothing more, and those frozen vegetables tasted institutional compared to the flavours of the ones in the home freezer and root cellar. And who could afford to buy them anyway? Very few.
The first time Grandma taught me how to preserve fruit she was 72 and I was living in Lethbridge with my first baby, getting domestic. She came to visit and so I bought a case or pears and peaches and apricots and we canned. It was a lot of work. That was back in the day with the glass top and rubber ring on the jars when you had to turn them upside down to ensure a proper seal. The 36 quarts of fruit looked like jewels in the morning sun. That was a profound experience, and one I cherish and have worked to preserve as I have continued this tradition my entire life. Even back then, we rented a half an acre garden space with another young couple and I thrived as I rose with the sun and faced each long day of really hard work through the growing season, smelling of the moist black earth.
There are traditional recipes in my family that my mom, or I, preserve every year: apricots, pears, peaches… there is nothing like a bowl of home canned fruit with buttered toast when you have a sore tummy: that’s Canadian mommy love.
Above, are three traditional family recipes: canned apricots (without thyme), homemade cranberry sauce (perfect timing for this recipe), and Saskatoon berry jam. I married a man who comes from a country that scoffs at the idea of the 100 mile diet. Actually, they cannot understand it. They live on a 100 meter diet. Every family has a place where they grow their own food (including chickens and pigs), smoke their own meat, make their own cheese and charcuterie, and distill their own (brain removing) hard liquor. These people know how to survive. I have learned many new food traditions brought home to our family during my summers spend in the former Yugoslavia. One of my favourites is ajvar, another is what I call “Nectar of the Gods” or freshly pressed apple juice. I now preserve both.
As a child, cherries did not grow on the Canadian prairies. Sour cherries are now prolific throughout the region and preserving those on our backyard tree has become a new seasonal tradition. One of my favourite recipes for preserved cherries is below.
I grow several varieties of Heirloom tomatoes. Tomatoes are my favourite food. Grandma didn’t grow them. She didn’t grow anything that required a greenhouse. Buying small plants was a huge luxury. Buying tomatoes was also a luxury, though everyone had the red round ones: 4 to a dome-shaped yellow cellophane covered carton, from the local Safeway store. I grow far more than we eat fresh, and stumbled upon my favourite way to preserve tomatoes simply by working at preparing them different ways. Below is my ultimate preserved tomato recipe which has become an integral part of my weekly menu planning.
Preserving is pointless unless you eat it, by the way. That means you have to plan your meals to use your preserved foods in them. That was the way of life during Grandma Maude’s day. It is far removed from our way of life, today. Below is another new traditional family recipe. Another way to preserve tomatoes that is deadly delicious: homemade ketchup.
What do I do with my green tomatoes? I love green tomatoes, though prefer them ripened, but this is Canada. One learns to expect a good amount of green tomatoes to preserve. My green ketchup is a huge hit. It was created simply by trying to make something from my tomatoes. I started with a green tomato relish and evolved into this incredibly flavourful concoction that readers have also made and rave about.
I eat a lot of salsa: delicious, nutritious and economical is my mantra. It is unusual to not grow the ingredients for preserved food, yet makes perfect sense knowing how much salsa we eat. I don’t like to feed my family bottled foods made by big industrial companies with preservatives in them. This recipe, from Canadian Living, is as good as everyone says it is. What is more, I made enough for two years the first year I made it!
Earlier, I said I had gone a little crazy with preserving. This was one of those years, two summers ago. So, a little advice: make only what you know you will eat and plan to use preserves in your weekly menu planning. This year, I learned a great deal more about canning and preserving. I found it very difficult to include so many preserved ingredients into our menu planning – particularly the jams and jellies, as we really never eat any of them, though use them in baking. That was one of many big lessons for me. Gratifying to know I am still learning in the autumn years of my life.
I really do believe that the shelves above were my homage to Grandma Maude, as preserving Canadian food traditions from one generation to another provides a connection to those that came before in a very intimate manner. I have preserved memories of my Grandma Maude in every single jar in my pantry.
It is also my fervent hope that our younger generation will come to understand where their food comes from, how it grows, the value of the painstaking work it takes to put a nutritious, delicious and economical meal on the family table and begin to desire to be part of our Canadian food preservation tradition once again….
The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7, 2013. As participants share our collective stories through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity as I have through The Canadian Food Experience Project Challenge Five: Preserving Memories with Grandma Maude. Join us!