Chill November

     November is a dreary month with nothing much to recommend it.   Bare trees, gray skies, and chilly temperatures with nothing to look forward to except perhaps the Black Friday sales (we had our Canadian Thanksgiving in October) and the jingling of distant Christmas bells.   This year we had several pleasant weeks of t-shirt weather with record breaking temperatures, followed by sweater-weather perfect for yard-work cleanup, but now we’re deep in the chill of November. 

Unlike their human equivalents, the snowbirds, who are stuck here in the wintry north this year, deprived of their annual jaunts to Florida, Arizona, and all places warm, the Canadian geese are honking their way south.

Honk if you’re heading south….

This photo is courtesy of Linda, who recently blogged about a Canadian Goose Convention. It has always amazed me how the geese can elect a leader (hopefully without all the current drama), adopt a flight plan (ideally bi-partisan) and wing their way south in a perfect V formation to a better place in the sun.   But knowing how cantankerous geese can be, I doubt it’s all smooth sailing.   Anyone who has ever sought to capture geese in-flight has eventually given up, as by the time their loud honking announces their presence and you whip out the camera, they are long past.   We do have some geese who overwinter here in a park, where an industrial plant ejects warm waste water into a nearby creek, but they are annoying creatures who deposit green goop all over instead of winging their way south like good little geese should.     

This painting “Chill November” depicting the annual migration of the geese against a frosty background, was painted by Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, in 1916-17. 

Chill November – Tom Thomson, 1916-17, oil on canvas.

After WW1 had ended, a group of local women, who had been part of the Red Cross volunteers raising money for the war effort, decided to form a committee, known as the Women’s Conservation Art Association. Their aim was to purchase art for a public gallery they hoped to open someday in the city.  After four years of war and with the Spanish flu still raging, perhaps they dared to hope for a brighter future?

Their focus was on acquiring Canadian art, and at the forefront of this movement was the now iconic Group of Seven, (see Wikipedia link), an association of male landscape painters known for their scenes of the Canadian wilderness, especially Algonquin Park.  Tom Thomson (see Wikipedia link), although often included in this famous group, knew several of the members but died tragically before it was formed.    There is much mystery and speculation about his death during a fishing expedition in 1917. The official report was accidental drowning – his canoe found adrift and his body 8 days later with a large gash on his head – but was it an accident or murder, suicide or revenge – the tall tales abound.  He was only 39 and as often happens, the mystique surrounding his early and sudden death only added to the value of his work.       

“Chill November” was one of the art committees first acquisitions in 1920.   Last spring I attended a hundred anniversary exhibit of the painting, which was accompanied by artifacts surrounding it’s purchase and a preliminary sketch on loan from another gallery.

Wild Geese – preliminary sketch for Chill November – Tom Thomson 1916

The small (8X10) preliminary sketch Wild Geese, was painted “plein air” in the summer of 1916 in Algonquin Park and served as the model when he painted Chill November in his studio in Toronto the following winter as was his custom, for the wilderness trips were not suited to larger canvases.

I like to picture Tom lying in his canoe on a dark and chilly afternoon, studying that V formation, as the geese pass overhead – maybe having a sip of whiskey from his flask, for he was known to have a drink or two…

Chill November, is a large piece at 34 X 40 inches. This is not the best shot unfortunately, as the lighting was soft in the gallery with the spotlights making it too dim for picture taking. The painting itself was sacred of course, as anything of artistic merit is, but as a history lover, what I liked most about the exhibit was the historical documentation of the purchase.

Here’s a copy of some of the correspondence, as Dr. James McCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and early patron of the Group of Seven, tries to steer the art committee, towards this particular piece.     

At that time, $600 was a fair bit of money to spend on one painting, but they did, and here is the cash ledger book recording the purchase, and incidentally not a bad return on their investment with today’s current value at one million plus.   

There was lots of other historical information on display including a booklet documenting how it was loaned out over the years, for it was a well traveled painting, plus information about the artists life.

He displayed no early artistic talent – his painting evolved from his job as a graphic designer and his love of the great outdoors. From 1913 on he spend his summers working as a fishing guide in Algonquin Park, and once a fire ranger, sketching on the side, occasionally sponsored by Dr. McCallum who owned a cottage on Georgian Bay. Predominately known as a landscape painter, he was well into his 30’s before he sold his first painting (1913) and in his short career produced 400 oil sketches on wood panels and 50 larger oil canvases. Known for expressing self-doubt, he would sometimes give away his sketches if someone admired them – one was recently unearthed in someone’s basement and sold for half a million. A turning point in his career came in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada began to acquire his paintings, a recognition unheard of for an unknown artist. His love of color and broad brush strokes remind me of Van Gogh, although his subject matter was the wilderness – trees, skies and rivers.

Dr. McCallum’s history of first meeting the Painter of the North

He does look like a lumberjack in that picture, but he cleaned up well.

His most famous painting, The Jack Pine, an iconic image of the Canadian wilderness, resides in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (Wikipedia link)

Jack Pine – Tom Thomson 1917

The women’s art committee continued to raise money and bought several other Group of Seven paintings, which along with Chill November, were part of the 25 pieces they donated to the city library in 1956 when they disbanded.  I remember going to visit the art room atop the main library branch, and being underwhelmed.   All the good stuff was stored in vaults for security reasons.

In 2012 the city finally got it’s own art gallery, to the tune of 9 million dollars worth of fund raising.  It was a case of either having a proper temperature/humidity-controlled environment or getting rid of all the art.  Much public complaining ensued about wasting tax payers money, especially when they renovated an old heritage building downtown, but with the aid of government funding and corporate donations plus a large benefactor after whom the gallery was named, they met their goal, a hundred years late. (They now number 1253 pieces in their permanent collection, many through private donations). There was a lot less complaining after the Beaverbrook Masterworks exhibit came through in 2015 (a major coup for a small gallery) and the public got to view the famous 13 foot high Salvador Dali painting, “Santiago El Grande.” – truly an awesome sight. Even those who haven’t had much exposure to art, can learn to like it, myself included.  

I had little interest in the art world until my mother started painting (age 87) and exhibiting (age 90), and even now I sometimes find it to be a strange and foreign land. (When I was in school you were either an “artsy-type” or a “science nerd”, now known as a “STEMi” but never both, now most colleges want a well-rounded individual). If someone had told me decades ago that I would be hanging around the fringes of the art world in my retirement I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m still puzzled about why one painting is worth so much, while another, much nicer, is not. Art tends to be subjective, while science deals in reality. Abstract painting seems to be very popular, but is the genre I struggle the most to appreciate and understand, as well as art installations which may be thought-provoking but sometimes just seem too weird. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in my younger years, left me baffled over the display of a solitary three-dimensional fence post, similar to the weather-beaten ones on my parents farm. I recall taking a picture of it for my dad.  

So that brings us to the question – what place does art and culture have in lifting our spirits in troubled times, for 2020 has definitely been a year of gloom and doom.   If you don’t have art, music, books, movies, or whatever form of culture you happen to enjoy, aren’t the days all just the same – work, eat, sleep, repeat, with nothing to look forward to and nothing to soothe your soul. (Books are my preferred form, but lately while walking, I have Moonlight Sonata on endless repeat. It seems the perfect soundtrack for these gloomy November days).

What possessed those women one hundred years ago to spend their left-over funds on art?  They were war-weary, and pandemic-weary. Certainly, there were more worthwhile and practical causes to spent the money on, with returning soldiers unable to support themselves and the Spanish flu leaving many families without incomes.  Or did they feel the world needed some culture instead, a glimpse of hope for a brighter future?  Maybe they felt buying a piece of beauty was the better purchase, something to lighten their days and to last for always.  

Here is a letter documenting the turnout to view the paintings in 1920, (hopefully they wore masks).

The Library building was crowded and hundreds of people came to see the paintings….

Even if you’re of the opinion that Chill November is a rather gloomy picture, you have to admire it’s very Canadianness.  It’s the way the country was, a land full of wilderness….and geese on the wing!

What will be remembered of us, a hundred years from now?   Time will tell…..in the meantime – bundle up.  It’s chilly out there!  

The Jane Austen Society

This month’s literary salon pick, The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, is a novel set in post-WW2 England about a group of villagers determined to maintain the legacy of Jane Austen by opening a museum at Chawton House, the cottage where Jane spent the last eight years of her life and the most productive period of her writing career.  

Who would have predicted that Jane Austen would still be so popular 200 years later, with her face on the ten pound note, dozens of biographies in print, and entire museums devoted to her fame, not to mention the whole tourist trade to places she visited, lived, or described in her novels.  

It’s a further testament to her continuing popularity that An Interview with Jane Austen remains my most read post, at 150 some views, from every country in the world, with several more added weekly.  Yes, some frivolous little piece I dashed off for Valentine’s Day two years ago is more popular than any post I’ve slaved over for days.  But to give credit to Jane, other than the interviewers questions, most of the words are hers, famous quotes from a book I received for Christmas that year, The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen.   The post itself was inspired by a question – which dead person you would most like to interview?  I can’t imagine my small blog of 300 readers is high up on any google search list, so I can only surmise that it must have been shared by a Janeite on one of the many Jane Austen websites.

     I would not describe myself as a Janeite, having only ever read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and watched the movie versions, the dashing Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth, and the petulant Gwyneth Paltrow who forever spoiled Emma for me, and the classic Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.   Other than Pride and Prejudice I find her life more interesting than her books.  

        JA was born in 1775 and lived most of her young life with her large family of siblings at the rectory in Steventon, where her father was a clergyman.   Upon his retirement, they sold everything (including a thousand books, for hers was a well-read family) and Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra.   Bath was a very social place and it’s widely assumed this change in residence was partially intended to find marriage partners for the daughters, but that was not to be, for despite rumors of several failed romances Jane never married.   After the death of their father and the rental of diminished living quarters, her wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by a childless couple in need of an inheritor, eventually offered his widowed mother and sisters the use of the steward’s cottage on his large estate and so they moved to Chawton House in 1809.

The cottage was a large L-shaped building, quite near the street and a busy crossroads, so the thundering of coaches passing by offered little privacy,

but there was a large private garden at the back and they were grateful to finally have a permanent residence of their own.   

Although she had written earlier drafts of her novels, this was the scene of the final revisions and the long hoped for dreams of publication, starting first with Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously with the seventh and last, Sanditon, left unfinished.  (Although never published, PBS filmed a horrible adaptation of Sanditon last January which was universally condemned. Jane would certainly never have approved of the unhappy ending.)

Jane Austen’s writing desk

She wrote at this small desk, still a fixture of the museum today, placed by the window for maximum lighting as she wore spectacles, and was known to cover up her manuscript if there was an unexpected visitor at the door. From her niece’s recollections we have an image of Jane sitting by the fireplace and laughing, as a sudden thought occurred to her and she leapt up to write it down. Much of her early writing originated as a means to amuse herself, and her family, as there are only so many samplers you can embroider before you die of boredom.    

   After her untimely death in 1817 at the age of 41 (of Addison’s Disease), her mother and sister lived on in the cottage, with Cassandra dying in 1845. Although Jane lived long enough to enjoy some initial publishing success and literary fame, it was after the publication of a biography by her nephew in 1850, that her literary reputation was revived, and it has remained steady to this day.   

      Today Chawton House is the site of the Jane Austen Museum. (link to a virtual tour of the house). As well as original clothing and furnishings of the period, several of her letters are on display, as well as some jewelry (two topaz crosses) given to the sisters by their naval brother. The nearby great house houses a JA library with first editions of all of her books. Jane memorabilia is in such high demand that one of her handwritten letters was recently auctioned off for $200,000, a four page missile to Cassandra, dealing with fashion trends and family news. It saddens me to think of a future with no such memorabilia, only emails and texts which we blithely delete. I’ve never been to England but Chawton House would be high on my list of historical sites to visit. Although thousands of tourists frequent Bath every year in search of Jane, I’d prefer to see where she wrote, not where she went bathroom dancing.

Now back to our book club selection. 

Here’s the publishers blurb: “Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.”

About the author:   “Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.” (Goodreads profile)

Quite a distinguished resume, but what’s so interesting about Natalie Jenner is that in her 30’s she wrote five unpublished books – Five. Unpublished. Books.   There’s a lot of tenacity there.   After her husband developed a serious illness, she turned to re-reading her favorite novels for solace, including the JA novels.  Later, when he had recovered, she was contemplating writing a novel set in a great house similar to Downton Abbey but decided to change it to a fictional novel about how the JA museum came to be.  For research she took a bucket list trip to a Jane Austen Festival in Bath, (yes there are many of these conventions) as well as the village of Chawton, in order to immerse herself in the world of all things Jane.  

Discussion:

This was an enjoyable read, even if you aren’t particularly a JA fan, in much the same genre as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the Chilbury Ladies Choir.   I’m sure the movie rights have already been sold.   In true Jane Austen style, the author manages to pair off most of the characters, some more successfully than others and some in a politically correct way, although I had difficulty getting a sense of the two characters who were mirrored after Emma and Mr. Knightley.   A minor point, but there’s one graphic scene (me too/movie starlet on the casting couch) which seemed out of place. This was noted in a a Goodreads review, and it’s like when someone points out a flaw, you can’t un-see it.   The reviewer said she quit reading after that, saying that such a jarring scene had no place in a Jane Austen-like book.  I wouldn’t abandon the book over that but subtle allusion might have been more appropriate, or perhaps some gentle editorial guidance.  

This book debuted on the bestseller list, as any book with JA in the title is bound to attract attention due to the sheer number of her fans worldwide.    (I wonder if I changed my website to The Jane Austen Homeplace, if I might attract a few more followers?)

Jane Austen must have had a strong belief in herself, and a premonition that her works would live on, as she left the bulk of her estate (400 pounds, the proceedings from her books), to her sister Cassandra, with the unusual request that 90 pounds, a considerable sum back then, be set aside for a burial at the prestigious Winchester Cathedral, instead of the local churchyard where her family could visit.  Her brothers made no mention of her literary life on the tombstone, perhaps deeming her novels too inconsequential to note, but thousands of tourists flock to her grave-site every year to pay homage to her literary greatness.      

The extraordinary endowments of her mind!

#Maple Leaf Montage – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story. Autumn went out in a blaze of glory.

Autumn Blaze maple tree
Yellow maple
Fiery red
Orange crush
Yellow sunshine
The inspiration behind….
The painting……Autumn Trees
A magic carpet ride
A colorful montage
All the leaves are down…..
Crunch crunch on my daily walk…..
The glory days have passed us by…
A preview of what is to come….

#Once in A Blue Moon – Soundtrack Saturday

Let your photos and music tell your story.

A little midnight soul music for Halloween…..
Blue moon….
You saw me standing alone….
You saw me saying a prayer for….someone I really could care for….
And then there suddenly appeared before me….
The only one my arms will ever hold….
I heard somebody whisper please adore me…..and when I looked the moon had turned to gold…..
Blue moon, now I’m no longer alone……without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.
The Bride of Frankenstein and Mr. Bones – together for all eternity.
Happy Halloween – watch out for ghosts!

A second full moon in the same month is referred to as a blue moon. This only happens once every 2 or 3 years, hence the expression once in a blue moon meaning rarely, and only every 19 years does it occur on Halloween night. Tarot card readers say a blue moon signifies change and according to medieval folklore it foretold that something impossible or absurd was about to happen – as if we needed anything else this year – so stay tuned!  

Hold onto your hats folks – it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

#The Story of Pie – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story.

The Source – a trip to the apple orchard to buy six different kinds…because everyone has their favorite….
There’s nothing like a ripe juicy apple picked right off the tree…
Northern spies are the best for pies…
Perfect for peeling, my kitchen place mats wipe clean…
Time to bring out the plaid pie plate…
The end result, warm out of the oven….
The last piece, minus a bite…..
Even better with ice cream…..
The inspiration behind the painting…
Bushel of Apples
Jane Austen was right – two hundred years later!

The Last of the Pinks

I don’t bother with fall decorating outdoors as my pink Knockout roses (see link) are still going strong, and pink and orange (as in pumpkins etc) are not the best color combination in my opinion. It may be odd to see roses in October, but Knockouts are repeat bloomers and they’re usually in their 3rd bloom cycle in September with roses appearing right up until mid-November if we have mild weather. Although obviously not as abundant as in June, they do well considering that I have long given up all pretense of fertilizing and watering.

Fall is late here in my part of Ontario with no frosts so far and the trees just catching fire. The temperature today was 50 F (10 C) with another nice week ahead, with a few days in the 60’s, although there is already snow out on the prairies. While I would love to prune them now as I do my other roses, the timing is key, and so I wait and then curse in the spring and sometimes in December too as pink does not go well with Christmas decorations either! By then they are definitely the worse for wear especially when the rest of the yard has been tidied up but it’s much too cold too tackle any outdoor work. One year it snowed while they were still blooming, and that was a very strange sight.

More than a dusting of snow…

I’m presently busy with the art world, with mom’s exhibit opening next week and writing time scarce, so I thought I’d post a few pictures of them, in their final days of fall glory.

They often look scraggly this time of year, shooting off in all directions, but are almost the same height as the deck.

I took these photos on the sheltered side of the house as the colors are more vibrant in the shade.

The bushes at the front are fuller but more blowzy, the wind having knocked many of the petals off.

Photo taken Oct 20
By the garden gate – photo taken Oct 20.

I have other pinks in the fall – the odd hydrangea, a leftover dinner-plate hibiscus, but they are usually finished by the end of September.

Pink phlox

My phlox was especially lovely this year.

Unknown species but pretty in pink…

This flower in the side yard belongs to my neighbor, but I’m not sure what it is?

Photo taken Oct 20

The pale pink climbing roses on the front trellis are repeat bloomers too, so I don’t cut them back until they are finished.

The last rose of summer…
Burning bush blushing…

A definite sign of fall, this burning bush looks almost pink in the shade.

And that’s it – the last of the pinks until next year!

The Last of the Pinks – painting by Joni’s mother

#Fall Colors – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story. Not all the fall colors are on the trees.

A visit to an apple orchard…
A bin outside the grocery store….
My neighbor’s peppers….wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too!
Admiring the nursery stock while buying bulbs
A burning bush catching some afternoon rays…
Ivy creeping along the back fence…
Sumac on my daily walk…
Pumpkin spice and everything nice…
Cider House rules…because an autumn day calls for cider and donuts!

Rural Roots – My 4-H Calf

This would have been the 170th year of the largest county fair in my region.  Traditionally held mid-October on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, it attracts over 50,000 people every year – except this one, when it was cancelled like everything else.    It originally took place near a tavern in 1850 and featured only cattle and horses.   Now it has its own permanent fairgrounds and features the usual fair fare – midway, exhibit halls, livestock barns, grandstand shows and more junk food than you could possibly eat.

Brigden Fair - old pic

Everyone wearing their Sunday best…..in 1900?

My ancestors immigrated in 1846 and I like to think of them attending those early years.  My dad remembers the fair being a highlight of his Depression childhood when he would be given the princely sum of 25 cents to spend as he wished.   Back then everyone went to the fair, and they still do.

It was our tradition growing up to attend the fair on Thanksgiving Monday, (we had our big turkey dinner on Sunday), in order to catch the noon parade.   After a tour of the exhibition halls and a walk through the midway my dad would spend the rest of the afternoon in the cattle barns watching the judging of the livestock while we womenfolk would head for the much more interesting horse competitions.   

Bridgen fair cattle 2 (3)

We would meet up at 5 pm when they would be awarding the prize for the last show of the day – the 4H Beef Cattle Grand Champion, with the winner headed straight to the abattoir.  (This is probably TMI for all the vegans out there, but it’s a fact of rural life, you eat/sell what you raise.)  

So imagine my surprise to come across this ceramic creature when I was buying fall bulbs at a city nursery.

Calf ceramic

Sure it made a nice fall display, sitting there on that bale of straw, but at $198 I can’t imagine anyone who would buy it?   Farmers aren’t known to be too sentimental about their livestock.   Now if it was a horse maybe….

This cute little fella reminded me of my short-lived 4H calf.    For those of you who are city folks, 4H (their motto is head, heart, hands and health) started out as a rural Boy-Scout-type organization, fostering life skills in youth ages 7-21, learning by doing etc.   Although they have branched out into other programs, they are still going strong in many rural areas.  According to last years Fair Exhibit Prize Booklet we have a local 4-H sheep  club, a 4-H beef club, a horse club, baking club, quilting club and one for the younger set age 7-9 called Clover Buds.

We never belonged to 4H growing up in the sixties, as life was busy with school, chores and my brothers had baseball and hockey, but my sister joined the 4-H cooking club one year when she was 12.   They met on Saturday mornings at a neighbors farm to prepare a dish, but she was to try out the weekly recipes at home.   She was teased so mercilessly by my siblings, over such delicacies as Welsh Rarebit and Blueberry Buckle, that one night at supper she burst into tears and declared, “You guys never want to try anything!”  And it was true, we weren’t very adventurous.  (I can be absolved as I was always a picky eater who had zero interest in cooking.)  The Purity cookbook states that Welch Rarebit is a cheese sauce and egg on toast concoction, but it might have been the dry mustard/cayenne pepper/Worcester sauce we objected to.   The Blueberry buckle wasn’t too bad, more cake-like, but we were pie people.   Then there was the long blue calico dress that had to be sewn for Pioneer Days, which involved many tears and much work, and was tossed aside after a few hours wear.   So that was the end of 4-H until one summer afternoon when we were bored to tears, the way kids used to get when there wasn’t a constant source of entertainment streaming at them 24/7.

The Barn in Winter (2005)

The Barn in Winter – painting by Joni’s mom 

While my brothers helped with the chores when they got older, I wasn’t out in the barn that much – there was nothing to do there.   Sometimes there would be a new batch of kittens, and if my cousins were over, we might jump in the hay mow which we weren’t supposed to as the middle section had rotten floorboards under the bales.   My dad had Holstein milking cows then and I remember the pails of milk being lined up in the hallway, but you had to stay out of the way and you definitely couldn’t go near the milking stanchions or you might get kicked by a cow.  Occasionally, we would take the dog for a walk back the lane-way to get the cows for milking, but mostly they came up on their own, like clockwork.   Here I am with Sally Ann, the oldest and head cow, and the only one with a name.

Cow - Sally Ann barn helper (4)

I’m really liking this jacket I have on.   L.L. Bean still sells this type of barn coat.  

So we decided one bored afternoon that we would train our own 4-H calves and parade them around the barnyard on a rope, like they did at the fair.   Here’s a photo of mine.

calf my four H (4)

What surprises me about this picture is my outfit – I’m wearing a cute white eyelet top that surely was not part of my regular play clothes.   And my hair, a towhead after a summer of sun.   Now cows aren’t the brightest of animals to begin with, and the poor little thing was not very obedient, so the 4-H calf was abandoned after a few short hours.   Judging from the size of my brother in the background, (my mother is supervising and taking the picture) I’m likely seven years old, much too young for a 4H calf anyway, although I don’t recall my older siblings lasted any longer with theirs.

Although not obvious in the picture, the calf had a big ugly goiter on its neck.   I wish I could say that’s what first inspired my interest in pursuing a medical career, but I just found it yucky.    Besides, it was really a horse I wanted anyway.

I don’t know what happened to my 4-H calf – it was gone in a few weeks.  It’s unlikely you could treat a hypothyroid calf back then, and you certainly couldn’t sell it for veal.  (My mother served veal exactly once, as we all refused to eat it on principle.)   Although I took a veterinary medicine course in 4th year (an easy elective we called Barnyard) I’ve never dispensed any thyroid for animals, large or small, although I’ve seen some strange meds (Ventolin inhaler for a horse?) as we had a veterinarian’s office close by.   Most likely the calf went on to the Big Barnyard in the sky.

My dad eventually sold his milking herd and switched to cash cropping and beef cattle, as they were less work than milking twice a day.   A milk quota is worth a million plus now, and the majority of dairy farms are mechanized and large scale.  Those small family farms hardly exist anymore, it’s a way of life which has mostly disappeared.    

Ghost Barn – painting by Joni’s mom

So, when I visit the nursery for plants next spring, I expect to see that ceramic calf on sale for a substantially reduced price, and I hope to be able to attend the fall fair again next year.

PS. I should add that our animals were treated humanely, with grazing in the fields, and no antibiotics or growth hormones. We also had free range chickens for eggs long before it was popular. I guess you say we were organic before organic was cool.

Me and my pet chicken…

PS. No matter where you may sit on the vegetarian/carnivore spectrum the decision to eat red meat or not is a personal choice. In the early 80’s my brother married a vegetarian (or a herbivore as my young niece delightfully described her, they must have been studying dinosaurs) which was not that common back then when 10 oz. porterhouse steaks were a fixture on restaurant menus, but nothing was ever said by my dad who raised beef cattle and my mother just added a few extra dishes to the holiday table…mac and cheese for Thanksgiving, deviled eggs for Easter and rice….yea bring it on! Not that my new SIL expected anything, but you know, to be hospitable. I know I lucked out in the parent department as my folks were nice easy-going people who were always willing to set an extra place at the table….but I wonder if people generally were just more tolerant to differing viewpoints back then? Now it seems like you can’t even give a dinner party without a long list of someone’s dietary restrictions and an accompanying lecture on why they are right!

The Great Canadian Butter Tart

Butter tarts are a uniquely Canadian dessert.   Like other iconic Canadian foods such as maple syrup and poutine, they originated in 17th Century Quebec, where the wives of early French settlers made use of the available ingredients of maple syrup and dried fruit to whip up a treat to make life in the wilderness a little more bearable.   Their experimentation led to the evolution of the modern butter tart, although most recipes today do not call for maple syrup.   

As Canadian as maple syrup….

This decadently sweet tart consists of a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg, baked until the filling is semi-solid, ie nice and gooey.  Raisins or nuts are added, with the raisin debate being a whole other topic, along with the degree of consistency, runny or firm.  Butter tarts tend differ from other sugar-based pies such as pecan pie in that they have a runnier filling – no cornstarch or flour required.  

Other than those basic ingredients, there are as many variations as there are family recipes, many dating back to the pioneer days.  Butter tarts were all the rage in the early 1900’s, appearing in many cookbooks and have since become an ingrained part of Canadian cuisine.   There are several butter tart festivals held every year, including one in Midland which sells over 50,000 tarts, with the contest portion attracting bakers from all over to vie for the Best Butter Tart title.  Like a rib-fest for dessert lovers you can walk around and sample to your heart’s content.

My inspiration for this post came from a trip to the bakery which used to sell my favorite version (past tense intended).    Their pastry is good, but I had noticed the filling kept getting skimpier and skimpier, and the last batch, which was pre-ordered and boxed before being paid for, were basically just pastry shells with a thin scraping of filling , and at $10 for 6 tarts they were certainly no bargain.  My second favorite source, a local coffee shop, sells tarts with plenty of filling but their pastry is thick and hard as a rock.   Maybe those two could marry and produce the ideal butter tart progeny, or….maybe I could make my own, for a lot less money too!  

My mother made butter tarts when I was growing up but they were usually reserved for the fall of the year when she was deep into pie-baking and made use of the left-over pastry.   A batch or two often graced our Thanksgiving table along with the apple and pumpkin pies.   So I got out her old recipe, which was vague in the way that my mothers recipes often are, (she was never one of those cooks who measured) and we proceeded to experiment.  

My mothers recipe…..more or less…..

 They turned out as we remembered them, not overly sweet, with the multiple eggs making for a firmer consistency, but I thought they needed more sugar.  I didn’t have my glasses on, but if I had read my own notation, it very clearly stated that!   As for the bake 10-15-20 minutes, her oven is temperamental so I left them in longer in an attempt to get the crust brown and the filling got too firm….but the end result was a perfectly good butter tart.

Mom’s old 1950’s tart pan.

The recipe made twenty tarts, and try pawning off tarts during a pandemic when we’re now back in our smaller social bubbles and they are encouraging people not to congregate for Thanksgiving (which is next weekend here in Canada).   

Anyone care for a butter tart?

Moving on in my search for the Great Canadian Butter Tart, I wasted much time googling and then referenced back to my old farmhouse cooking bible, the Purity Cookbook, first published 1911, and there was the recipe for the best butter tarts ever!   

Unlike the previous recipe this one called for corn syrup. I used the dark corn syrup for color. It had been so long since I bought corn syrup I didn’t even know it also came in a colorless format. I omitted the salt and lemon juice as I like a sweeter tart.

I added a bit more sugar to taste, and a bit more butter as there was some left in the bottom of the dish.  (I am my mother’s daughter after all.)   I pre-baked the store pastry shells for 5-10min, as I was using her oven and then added the raisins. (no need to presoak the raisins).

Those of you who might die if you ate a raisin (which is but a wrinkled grape) can use nuts or nothing if you prefer.   The pioneer women used currants. 

 I baked them for exactly twenty minutes and they came out with the perfect degree of runniness.   The pastry was a bit browner than I would have liked, but flaky and good for a no-name store brand.  If using my oven, I may not have pre-baked the shells and would just have left them in for 20-25 minutes.  Live and learn is the lesson for an inexperienced cook like me, with a perfectionist streak.

All in all, both my mother and I gave them a ten – and thought they were the best butter tarts we’d ever eaten – simply perfect in taste and texture.  They were even good after a few days, although I stored them in the fridge and heated them for ten seconds in the microwave.   The recipe made twelve, enough for a sweet treat with a mug of hot tea every night while watching the evening news. Most days you need that to carry on. 

Tea and tarts….

Keep calm and Butter Tart On – maybe a slogan for next years festival?