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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Last month I blogged about a Victorian tea party I attended on the grounds of a local museum. If you are a history lover, please join me for part two of the tour, a visit to yesteryear.
While the Victorian cottage is one of the original buildings on the museum site, there are many others. Most have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, as well as a local lighthouse.
The 1919 church with the original pipe organ in the corner.
The one room schoolhouse.
At the risk of sounding like someone from Little House on the Prairie, I seldom admit I once attended a one room schoolhouse. It was located less than half a mile down the road from our farm, within walking distance even for a first grader, and was the same school my dad and all his ancestors had attended. In 1963 the government closed all the remaining rural schools, and our parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus system was started a few years later.
What do I remember from my year and a half there? Not much, as I was only six. The big wood burning stove, so hot you could cook hot dogs wrapped in tin foil on top for lunch,
games of baseball for all ages at recess, getting the strap once (just a little tap on our hands) for talking in class and being made to stand in the corner with my cousin – much more humiliating. The teacher was always yelling and in a bad mood – can you imagine trying to teach 40 kids of all ages. It may sound archaic, but I suppose it would be similar to home schooling now, with different age appropriate lessons. As there were only three of us in grade one, myself, my cousin and an unkempt boy whose family no one knew, we did not get much attention, but I must have absorbed something from listening to her teach the older grades, as when we were given tests at the new school I passed with 92%. (They thought we were country hicks who would have to be held back a year). My new grade two teacher was pleasantly surprised and told my parents I was smart, a moment I remember to this day. I always had a friendly rivalry with the boy sitting in front of me over who would get top honors, sometimes it was him, sometimes me, and as I went on to graduate from the University of Toronto, it didn’t to me any harm, although I admit some kids who needed extra attention were not as lucky.
Compare this slate with the tablets of today. I vaguely remember the sound of the school bell being rung.
At the one room schoolhouse the grade ones were let out half an hour early, and my cousin, who lived next door, and I would dawdle along, catching tadpoles in the ditches, playing in the snowbanks and making up fairy stories, the road being lined with beautiful trees, (channeling Anne of Green Gables here), and arrive home the same time as my siblings. It seems I remember more than I had thought.
Here is a picture of the class of 1934, with the school in the background appearing larger than I remember.
This is a log cabin from 1874, not a replica but an actual cabin moved to the site to preserve a part of history.
My great-grandparents John and Ellen were married in 1870 and I try to imagine my Irish ancestors living in such a small drafty house during their early years on the farm. The old white farmhouse I grew up in had two parts, the initial smaller dwelling and a larger addition with bedrooms upstairs to accommodate their growing family of nine children.
This picture of an old stove certainly puts my complaints about the ongoing delays in my kitchen reno into perspective. What my ancestors would have given for such modern conveniences as a stove you could turn on with the touch of a button.
Not too keen on the sleeping arrangements, a loft accessed by very steep stairs. I remember my dad saying some of his uncles slept upstairs in the granary when it was new, which probably looked like this. I imagine it was freezing in the winter, hence the quilts.
Open concept floor plans were popular back then too! We have an antique farm table dating from 1870, longer than this one.
While most farms had large vegetable gardens, including rhubarb, and were mainly self-sufficient,
there were times you simply had to go into town for a few provisions at the general store,
and perhaps a new hat.
The model train room, which boasts three large train sets, is always a hit with the guys.
As well as the individual buildings, there is a large agricultural building full of old farm implements such as this cutter/sleigh. We had one just like it and my dad sometimes took it for a spin behind the Clydesdales.
There is also a large exhibition hall, with a marine room and different display rooms and lots of historical archives. It does seem strange that my Barbie/Skipper carry case has now achieved vintage status.
I remember playing with this doll house too.
Several volunteers were setting up the loom for a display of weaving the day of our visit, a time consuming process. There was no fast fashion back then.
And of course, I always enjoy looking at old medical exhibits, such as this infirmary,
Perhaps somewhere among those antique bottles is a clue for my (long neglected) murder mystery? Agatha Christie used the knowledge acquired during her days as an apothecary apprentice when writing her books.
When I think back to the changes in my profession over the past one hundred years – the invention of penicillin and antibiotics, vaccines, insulin – these are discoveries which saved lives. In my student days pharmacy labels were prepared on typewriters, not as ancient as this one as ours were electric with correcto-tape.
The last forty years of my career has seen the implementation of computers (a massive improvement for record keeping, drug information and drug interactions), clot-busters for preventing damage in heart attack and stroke, palliative care measures for end of life, improved chemotherapy, drugs for depression and mental illness, biologicals for autoimmune diseases, and more new drugs on the market than you can possibly keep up with. When I think of the future – targeted chemotherapy, gene therapy, cures for diseases never thought possible – it is amazing the amount of change that can happen over the course of a century.
One Christmas my father was given one of those autobiography books to document your life for the grandchildren. One of the questions was what are the most important changes you have seen in your life as compared to that of your grandparents.
“When my grandparents settled here the land was all bush. Roads were Indian trails. People lived far apart. They had to build houses, barns, roads, clear land. Walking and horses were the main modes of travel. Machinery was crude or non-existent. Since then tractors and combines have been invented. Hydro, paved roads, cars, radios, toasters, tvs, micowaves, computers. Household goods and furnishings have changed such as washers and dryers, refrigerators and stoves, air conditioning in summer and furnaces in winter instead of a wood stove. My mother churned butter and we had an ice box and a root cellar for vegetables, an outhouse, no running water in the house and having to heat water on the stove for a bath. Materials are softer now than the scratchy clothes I wore as a child. You have toys now that we never dreamed of. The biggest changes are education and modern schools, and medicines and childhood diseases.”
My father was a child of the Depression, and one of changes he recalled was hydro. The farm didn’t get hydro until after WW2, 1947, and all of a sudden you had lights in the barn and weren’t milking cows by lantern light, and you could stay up late with hydro in the house. Worth thinking about the next time I grumble because the power is out a few hours due to a storm. As to the future, he commented on computers and the internet which was just starting up. In the twenty years since he died we now have – Google, Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, Siri, Spotify, Netflix, IPods, IPads, GPS, digital cameras and clouds which are not rain clouds, although we have plenty of those too! We are now testing cars that drive themselves, robots and artificial intelligence. It feels like something out of the Jetsons – that old 60’s cartoon about a futuristic world which was very predictive. Does anyone else remember the theme music?
What will the future hold? Maybe someday my old 1986 DOS computer, currently residing in the basement, with it’s orange blinking screen and large floppy disks, will be on display at the museum, resting behind the electronics exhibit, along with a Sony Walkman and a ghetto-blaster.
As a history lover, I feel it is important to preserve our heritage, and I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the past.
Postscript: My mother painted the log cabin (two versions), but she placed it in winter time, as my ancestors arrived here in late October, not expecting snow. Is the lighthouse a beacon to the new world? You can tell I’ve been hanging around the art world too much…
Postscript: This is my 100th post. I never would have imagined that!
“Mission Control to Earthlings: Volunteers needed to test Lunar Cake recipe. Only rhubarb lovers need apply.”
Rhubarb is one of those foods you either love or hate. I never liked rhubarb until a few years ago, but then my entire culinary experience consisted of a very tart rhubarb pie my mother would make for my dad once a year. We had a big rhubarb patch on the farm, and no matter how much sugar she used in the pie, it was so sour no one else would eat it. The rhubarb patch was rectangular in size and was beside a row of red currant bushes, with one black currant and one gooseberry bush at each end. Behind it, the odd spike of asparagus would appear in the early spring, these all being old-fashioned farm staples from a century ago. Today they would be considered heirloom varieties. Once established, those old rhubarb patches would live forever. I would sometimes volunteer to pick the red currants, as my dad would get his very own red current pie too. In retrospect those pies must have been something his mother had made, nostalgic reminders of childhood. We just thought they were sour.
Because the patch was so large and prolific and had been there for many years, people from town would stop by and ask if they could buy some. If you are a rhubarb-lover you always know where a good patch is. We would see the same people year after year, so one day we kids had the ingenious idea that we would have a roadside stand and sell bundles of rhubarb for 25 cents – a country version of a lemonade stand.
The rhubarb stand lasted all of one Sunday afternoon. There was little traffic on our dusty country road and we soon grew bored laying on a blanket under the big tree out front. On the rare occasion someone did stop, we would run to the house to get our parents, because we had been drilled in school not to talk to strangers, even those innocent souls out for a Sunday drive. (Makes sense right, well in the mind of a child). I think we grossed 75 cents.
Now as an adult, count me in as a rhubarb fan too. I especially love strawberry-rhubarb jam, rhubarb scones, and most recently a rhubarb coffee cake, which I’ve made the past few years from a recipe a dietitian friend gave me. This Canadian recipe is called Lunar Rhubarb Cake and was developed by an editor of Canadian Living magazine back in the 1980’s. It was so good, it went viral before viral even existed, with everyone saying they got it from their mother, aunt, neighbor. (A recipe which promotes sharing like that, is one small step for food-kindness). According to the food column in the Ottawa Citizen, the name lunar comes from the appearance of the top of the cake, similar to the crater-like surface of the moon.
1/2 cup butter (softened)
1 1/2 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 Tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sour cream (you can use 2% if you wish)
2 cups chopped rhubarb (you can increase by 1/2 cup more if you wish)
1 tbsp. floor
1/4 cup butter (melted)
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon (I omitted this, as in my opinion cinnamon goes with apple pie, not rhubarb)
Chop the rhubarb and toss with 1 tbsp flour. Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Mix 2 cups flour, soda and salt together. (I buy the premixed flour with the baking soda and salt already in it which is more expensive but saves measuring). Alternatively add the flour mixture and sour cream to the creamed mixture. Add the rhubarb to the batter. Pour into a buttered 9 X 13 inch cake pan. Mix the topping ingredients and spread evenly over the top of the cake. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, until the top is pitted and crusty and a skewer comes out clean. (It was 15 minutes longer for me, as my oven always cooks slow). Recipe serves twelve hungry astronauts.
Some versions of this recipe call for buttermilk or sour milk instead of sour cream. The batter will be quite thick with the sour cream.
The cake keeps well in the fridge and was incredibly moist even after a week. It transports well too, should you wish to take it to a party in another galaxy. I think it would work well with blueberries when the season arrives, because as we all know rhubarb season is way too short!
Maybe if my mother’s old-fashioned rhubarb pie had a crumble topping we might have eaten it too, as the sweetness balances out the tartness of the rhubarb, similar to the popular combination of strawberries and rhubarb. Although I’m not a huge fan of strawberry-rhubarb pie, mostly because of the pastry, I have made a compote by stewing equal parts of rhubarb and strawberries on the stove and adding sugar to taste. It’s nice mixed with vanilla yogurt or ice cream or just eaten plain.
I’ve been envisioning my own rhubarb patch in the backyard, so I bought home this last week, although it’s been too cold to plant it.
Although eaten as a fruit, rhubarb is actually a vegetable. While the stalks may be edible, the leaves are toxic to humans and animals due to a high concentration of the poison, oxalic acid. It is a perennial which likes cooler climates. Plant in full sun, spacing 3 or 4 feet apart in a row. Patience is required as you can’t harvest the first few years until established. Newer varieties last about 15 years. You can also divide existing rhubarb plants (root balls) in early spring, so I might be on the hunt for an old patch down a country lane….
Flash forward to 2025 – mission accomplished….hopefully?
Our old white farmhouse was surrounded by lilac bushes, which were often out in time for Mother’s Day, an occasion we always celebrated on the farm with a big family meal which my mother prepared. Looking back, it seems strange we made her cook on Mother’s Day, but then my grandmother always came over, so she probably considered it her daughterly duty, and was happy having all her kids home, even if it did mean we ended up doing two hours of dishes by hand in the days before the dishwasher. Out would come the lace tablecloth and the good china, and the long farm table, dating from 1870, would be extended to its maximum length, with later another set up in the kitchen for the ever-growing collection of grandchildren. Of course, this was in the days before going out for brunch became popular, which we tried occasionally but which was often a disappointment, restaurants always being so busy that day, and the kids not being able to play outside, where the lawn and orchard would be sunny with dandelions.
Those old farm lilacs were common in the countryside, with almost every farmhouse (which back then only came in two types, white clapboard or yellow brick), sporting a bush or two. But ours were special, as they surrounded the house on three sides. If it was a nice day with a south breeze and the windows open, the smell was heavenly. The fragrance would waft in through the kitchen and living room windows, and also the upstairs bedrooms, as the bushes were quite tall.
We also picked some to bring inside and put in vases, something I still do to this day. Even when I was older, I would always take a bouquet or two home, wrapped up in tinfoil, to put on the kitchen counter.
After my father passed away and my mother moved into town, my sister brought her two lilac bushes as a house warming present. They lasted about fifteen years and then had to be cut down. I planted two lilac bushes in the corner of my yard ten years ago, and they are now starting to look spindly. One bush smells like what I remember, the other does not. Of course, they are late this year, like everything else, so these are pictures from last year.
There are over 2000 varieties of lilacs, according to the International Lilac Society, in a wide range of colors, sizes and blooms. Common lilacs generally prefer cold winters, well drained soil and full sun. They are low maintenance and require little watering, once established – my kind of plant!
My neighbor has the darker purple kind, which does not smell nearly as nice, but then maybe I’m just being nostalgic.
All lilacs are lovely, (except those four foot Korean Dwarfs, my Miss Kim never bloomed once), but it is the old-fashioned kind I love the most. While the nursery sold me the variety known as “common lilac” they certainly don’t seem as hardy as those old farm lilacs, which must have been heirloom stock, as they were still going strong at eighty years plus. (Some varieties only last 10 to 15 years.) The “common lilac” has the largest and longest blooms and the most fragrant flowers and can grow up to twenty feet. Ours would be pruned back once in awhile when they got too tall, (only prune immediately after the spring bloom), but they were always leafy and full, and the branches made excellent spears for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a backyard bonfire.
I was told my grandmother planted them sometime in the 1920’s when she was newly married, after the house was raised, a basement put under it and a veranda added. She also planted a row of white spirea bushes beside them, so it formed a little alcove. I would sometimes take a book or magazine there and sit and read, sheltered from the wind, stopping once in awhile just to breathe in the scent. Here’s the view, looking out.
After my mother moved, the house and the lilacs were bulldozed down to make room for more acreage – a sad fate after so many years of providing beauty. I wish I had thought to take a cutting or two, but I was busy with life and not much interested in gardening then.
Last fall, I bought two Bloomerang Lilacs on sale, a variety new to me, but then I’m always behind on the latest gardening trends. (Here’s a link to more info.) They are similar to the popular Bloom Again Hydrangeas, and will rebloom in the summer and fall after a short rest. They will only grow to 5 feet, making them more like a shrub than a tree. Mine seem to have survived the winter nicely and even have buds on them. I like the idea of having lilacs for three seasons, as a week or two in May seems much too short.
If you’re ever in northern Michigan in early June, check out the famous Mackinac Island Lilac Festival (link – added to bucket list). No cars are allowed on the island, but you can cross on the ferry and stay at the Grand Hotel (where Somewhere in Time was filmed) and tour via bike or horse drawn carriage – now that really is going back in time. Visiting this lilac paradise is a nice way to welcome summer after a cold and snowy winter. Here are a few pictures from Victoria Magazine, May 2000 issue.
Happy Mother’s Day!
One of the best things to enjoy about winter is skating. In fact, years ago you wouldn’t have been considered Canadian if you didn’t like skating, my generation having been raised on hockey and a daily dose of outdoor exercise. If you were a true Canadian, you never missed watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights. I admit I haven’t skated in years and thought to take it up again in retirement, but my last Bone Density test was not good, so I fear my skating days are over. Watching the neighbors kids through my kitchen window is the closest I have come to the sport lately, and although I might have been moaning about having to do the dishes by hand at least I had a pleasant scene to gaze upon, especially after school when the spotlights were glowing, and the flurries flying. Still, I was wondering, what if I built my own skating rink? I have such a big square rectangle of a back yard, that it seems a shame to waste it.
Now that the neighbors have moved, I seldom see any children playing outside in the winter or in the summer either. When I first moved to this subdivision there were always games of street hockey after school, now everyone is inside on their video games. I grew up skating on the farm. There was a low spot behind the barn which made for an excellent skating rink when it was flooded. Here is a picture my mother painted of it, complete with the family dogs. My brothers and cousins would sometimes go to the pond at the back of the farm to play hockey, but it was a long way to walk, there and back, in the cold.
Although skating was one of my favorite winter activities, I was not thrilled about having to wear black skates. They were hand-me-downs from my brother, but my mother probably figured it didn’t matter as who would see us, way out in the country,
But even at age six I knew that black skates were for boys – girls wore white skates, for figure skating. By the time the arena was built in town and free skating hours were held on Sundays, I had a pair of white skates as I simply refused to go otherwise. The best thing about skating in the arena was the music blaring from the loudspeakers, but it was the sixties and we had the Beatles and other groovy tunes. While cleaning out the basement a few years ago I found the diary I got for Christmas the year I was eleven. We had a skating rink at school that January, courtesy of some long forgotten but dedicated teacher, and practically every day the entry is the same – “went skating at lunch hour”. Re-reading the diary, I seem to have been obsessed with skating, but maybe I had nothing else to write about – our lives were simpler and more uneventful back then. By the time the February thaw came I had given up on both the skating and the writing and the rest of the diary is just a series of blank pages.
The winters were colder too and longer, at least it seems so in retrospect. I remember my cousin and I once skating over the fields when we were teenagers – there was such a hard crust of freezing rain and ice on top of the snow that the whole farm was our skating rink that weekend.
My dad remembers a few years where the winter was so cold and the ice build up so thick that it was possible to skate on the river. That would be dangerous now, and probably was then too. My mother lost a childhood friend, a teenage boy who fell through the ice. She was to go with him and another friend that day, but she didn’t have any skates. My dad saved up $5 in the Depression to buy his first pair of skates.
Skating must be in my genes, as my maternal grandmother hailed from Holland, where she remembered skating on the canals in the winter. While every small town in Canada has an indoor skating arena, there are very seldom any outdoor rinks anymore, and by outdoor rinks I mean big community rinks, not just a small square of ice in someone’s backyard. Occasionally someone’s attempt to build a backyard rink gets shut down because of zoning bylaws or neighbors complaining about the noise, but kudos to the brave dads who attempt it, as they are the ones standing out at midnight in the freezing cold flooding the thing every night.
Being outside in the fresh air was always part of the fun, layering up with double socks and mittens and thick scarfs around our necks and faces…..and then coming in hours later with red cheeks and frozen fingers to warm up over hot chocolate. Some winters are just not suitable, it’s too mild or rainy, or just not cold enough – you must have a consistent spell of below freezing weather….the old six weeks of winter thing. We did not even get our first major snowstorm this year until January 19, so this has not been the best year for making ice, but we are now in for a prolonged spell of below freezing windchill weather, so why don’t we have more outdoor rinks? I see parcels of empty land here and there around town and think now that would make an ideal skating rink. It seems to me that it wouldn’t be that expensive to build a temporary ice rink, and think of the fun the kids could have. We have splashpads now that cost $150,000 instead of swimming pools. You can skate in an arena where ice time is rare and always scheduled, but there’s nowhere to play a pick-up game of shimmy. Many larger cities have skating centres, like Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto. You can skate on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, but the weather is much colder in our nation’s capital. If I’m ever in New York in the wintertime I would risk falling and breaking a hip just to be able to skate at the Rockefeller Centre – but first I would make sure I have travel insurance!
Having a backyard rink would be fun for the adults too. I’ve often thought a skating party would be nice idea for a New Years Eve party, for all ages – the music – the outdoor lights – a bonfire – hot drinks – good food. Chili and potato soup, or lobster Newburg and champagne if you want something fancier. I used to talk sports with one of my work colleagues, who was a real hockey fiend. Every year I would joke, “Bob, do you think this is the year I will have a skating rink?“ and he would reply, “If you build it, we will come.”
I still have my skates – they are in the basement somewhere. Am I brave enough to take a spin? I wish I had a rink outside my back door….
Song of the Day: Joni Mitchell – I Wish I Had a River
Beverage of the Day: Hot Chocolate made with imported Valrhona French cocoa….at $20 a box it’s expensive but worth it and not at all bitter as dark chocolate can sometimes be.
There’s nothing nicer than a snowstorm in January, especially when the early morning news is telling everyone to stay home and take a snow day, and the local radio station is listing the bus cancellations, and school and business closings. There’s no second guessing, should I go out or not, when they start telling everyone to stay off the roads. When I was working, I dreaded winter as I had a long commute – it might be bright and sunny when I left home but by the time I got to work in the snowbelt region it would be a raging blizzard. If you didn’t go in, you were home safe but sorry as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and/or a 24 hour shift. When I worked in a small rural hospital if it was an exceptionally bad storm, the staff who lived in town would be collected by snowmobile – no need to stay home, we will come and get you! Many a snowy night I drove home in whiteouts over unplowed country roads where I was the only fool on the road. A friend of mine once ran into a pack of wild dogs/coyotes on her drive home – they must have been disoriented in the blizzard to have come so far out of the bush and refused to get off the road. After I changed jobs, it was even worse, as there was no backup staff or plan. I only remember my workplace being closed once due to snow and only then because my boss had wisely but reluctantly made the decision…..but that was the year we had a snowmageddon and the national guard was called in to deal with all the stranded cars on the highway, many of whom had been there for over 24 hours. I did not even get a snow day as I was called in to cover a shift near where I lived for someone who couldn’t get in. It always amazed me how busy we would be on those days, and how many people would be out and about during snowstorms, even when they were telling people to stay home. Of course, there would be the expected increase in emergencies – car accidents, heart attacks, pneumonia and such, but then there would be the others. I reached the conclusion that there are people who just do not like being stuck at home during a snowstorm, they must be out and about…to the grocery store for milk, the library to return books….any excuse will do. Personally, now that I am retired, I am grateful for the opportunity to stay home when the weather out there is frightful.
Who doesn’t recall the excitement of an unexpected day off school when you were a child. I think we remember them because they were so few and far between. Last year there were about ten days when the buses didn’t run here and another five or so when the school was closed altogether. Snow, fog, freezing rain, some of which never even materialized but the school board must make the decision at 5:30 in the morning and there are liability issues. I remember one year our rural bus was cancelled for several days. We made snow angels, built snow forts and snowmen, played fox and the goose in the pristine whiteness and had hot chocolate (the real stuff with cocoa and milk) when we came in from playing, and usually grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch.
My dad would plow out the lane-way with the front-end loader on the tractor but basically we were snowed in until the county roads were cleared, which was never a priority for the township. My ancestors went to church in this old cutter when the roads were impassable.
I guess you could say the one horse open sleigh was their backup plan! (This picture is from the 1940’s when my dad still had the big Clydesdale horses).
The month of January can be quite pleasant, once all the stress and merry-making of Christmas is over. The days are quiet – it’s a good time for personal reflection, journal writing, and soup on the stove. You don’t have to socialize if you don’t feel like it, you can read and watch movies and putter around the house with no agenda in mind. You can bake and eat with no thought of exercising off those calories. It’s much too cold and icy to go out, although you might be brave enough to shovel the driveway if no one volunteers to do it for you. It’s a time of year to be savored. All is white without, all is warm within. You can go to bed at night and listen to the wind howl and be grateful for hearth and home.
While a snow storm can be a blessing in disguise, a forced stop to our constant whirlwind of activity, if the storm goes on too long cabin fever can set in. I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic if the driveway and street aren’t plowed out after 24 hours. I want to stay home but I like the idea that I can get out if I need to. Of course, if the hydro or heat goes out or the pipes freeze that is a whole other story…..not fun at all. And if the winter drags on too long into March that can be depressing indeed.
So, what are the ingredients for a perfect snow day – comfortable clothes, but you don’t have to get dressed at all if you don’t want to, stay in your PJ’s. A nice pair of thick socks is a requirement and you must have a stack of books or magazines. I always have some books on reserve for just such days.
A cozy chair in front of the fireplace or in front of a window where you can watch the snow softly falling is ideal. Add some soft pillows and a comfy throw, plaid is perfect.
A cup of spiced tea is lovely to sip while you read…and if you get sleepy while reading, simply move over to the couch for a long winter’s nap. But first throw something in the crock-pot so you can awaken to the delightful aroma of homemade stew. If you feel like baking, chocolate chip cookies or brownies are always a good choice and much appreciated by the neighborhood snow shovelers. I always enjoy watching the kids on the neighbor’s skating rink from my kitchen window while I do the dishes, twirling around in their colorful Nordic coats and scarfs like a real-life Gap ad. Somehow the weather is seldom too bad for a game of ice hockey. Sometimes there is even night skating under the spotlights, the flurries falling, the slam of the puck against the boards, he shoots, he scores. After supper, it’s movie time – and popcorn and hot chocolate. Later you can watch the storm highlights on the evening news and be glad you are not out in it – and so, to bed. Tomorrow all will be sunny and bright like a winter wonderland…..and regular life will resume, refreshed by this quiet moment of winterlude.
Quote of the Day:
Brew me a cup for a winter’s night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I’ll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair. (Minna Antrim) Song of the Day: Snow – from White Christmas – Bing Crosby & Co.
If you have ever dreamed of packing in city life and moving to the country then this book is for you. Canadian author, Brent Preston turned fantasy into reality in this account of starting an organic vegetable farm and ten years of trial and error and back breaking labor before finally achieving a profitable outcome.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A must read manual for city dwellers and lovers of the organic food movement about a family who chose to leave the rat race and follow their dream of running a profitable organic vegetable farm. Dust off those fantaseeds and learn the gritty reality of where your food comes from.
Although he might have started out with a simple plan in mind, by the end of the ten years he had mechanized his operations, hired agricultural co-op students for summer labor, perfected a delivery service and marketing campaign, and ended up specializing in just three crops, one of which was lettuce. One of the things he did initially was to participate in the local farmer’s market every Saturday morning, but after a few years of this he packed it in. If you think about it, never a weekend off for you or your kids, up at 4 am to load up the truck and then later in the day unloading the unsold produce. Plus, while he said while he enjoyed the social aspect with the regular customers and the other vendors, there just wasn’t enough profit in it to continue. Better to cater to the fancy restaurants who would pay premium for anything fresh and organic.
There is no doubt we are what we eat and organic food is in – food in it’s natural state. Ask a person who has been lucky enough to live to be over ninety and chances are they grew up on a farm. So farmers markets are booming because organic food is so popular, but are the farmers doing well? I grew up on a farm, 100 acres, so I know how hard it is to make a living on one and how much work is involved. We had a dairy farm with Holsteins when I was a child and my dad had a small herd, three milking machines and a cream contract. He got up at 4:30 am every day to milk the cows, then he would come in, shave and have breakfast (bacon and eggs and perked coffee), as we were getting up for school, by 7:30 he would have left for his other job, home at 4:30, early supper, then milk the cows again, and he would be in bed by ten or falling asleep while reading the paper. On the weekends there were all the other chores to do. Even back then you couldn’t quite make a living on a farm without a second job, and with a growing family, he finally switched to beef cattle instead and cash cropped corn, soybeans and wheat, and while that was a lot of work too, we were finally able to take a family vacation without being tied to the milking schedule. Now farming is big business, a thousand acres or bust. There was an article in the local paper recently about the International Plowing Match which listed a combine as worth $500,000, and a tractor with GPS the same. My dad’s first tractor in 1948 cost $1000 and had a side seat upon which we kids would ride – heaven forbid, no one would let kids do that now. My elderly grandfather who died in 1951, was against the new-fangled modern machinery, as they had to sell his beloved Clydesdale horses in order to buy it. The last tractor my dad bought came equipped with air conditioning and a few years after he died, they had CD players, now they are steering themselves. While farming may be mostly mechanized now, organic vegetable farming is still labor intensive, especially during the harvest. It’s not a job many people want to do, and often the farmers must hire seasonal workers from Mexico or Jamaica to help out.
September is the best time of year to visit a farmer’s market as it is bursting with the last of the summer produce and the early fall harvest. While the peaches and berries may be almost done, the plums, pears, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, new potatoes and onions are coming in.
Our local market is open Wednesdays in the summer and Saturdays year round. Even in the winter, the inside of the old building is full of root vegetables and cheese and butcher shops, but in the nice weather the outside stalls see the most action. They really need more space, but it’s been in the same place for eighty plus years and you don’t mess with tradition. Located in an older residential part of town, there is one small parking lot and you have to drive round and round waiting for someone else to leave. With about 50 spaces for 200 people it’s kind of like musical chairs for grownups. Luckily, no one lingers long. While you can get a pour over coffee with freshly roasted beans, there is no cafe to sit in or cooked food available. We don’t see a lot of homeless people here but one day a woman with her cart piled high with all her worldly possessions asked me for some money, and with my hands full I shook my head no, but then after putting my produce in the car, I went to find her, and gave her ten dollars, which I suspected might go to drugs but who knows? A friend of mine keeps Tim Horton’s coffee shop gift cards to hand out for this reason, but there is something so very sad about begging in front of a place with so much plenty.
Even in the winter I will visit about once a month, because there is still cheese, and apples and oranges to buy, but I’ve often wondered why they open at 6 am. All the vendors are yawning by noon, or closing up early as they have been up since four loading their trucks. Wouldn’t 8-2 be more civilized hours? If they are supplying restaurants do they need to buy that early? If I don’t get there by 11:30 (or I’m still playing musical chairs), I may miss my favorite cheese stall or they might be out of Gouda.
The cheese wars can be fierce. There are two cheese vendors, right across from each other, and the Battle of The Gouda got so bad last year, they both decided not to post their prices. They will glare across the aisle if they think you have abandoned camp, but if they have run out, what is the alternative? My grandmother was Dutch, so I grew up on Gouda, the mild form, not the spicy seeded variety she bought from The European Shop.
The market cheese is better than at the grocery store and they will give you a sample if you are undecided. Even if you know you will like it, a sample will often tied you over if you got up early and missed breakfast. Buying cheese at the market is also much cheaper than in the grocery store so I usually stock up on aged cheddar as well as the Gouda. The one cheese vendor has recently retired and been bought out by the egg lady beside them, who I don’t think has gotten the hang of the weigh scale yet as she is very generous with her pounds, or kgs. I don’t buy eggs from her though as I can’t stomach those brown eggs with the bright yellow yolks. It reminds me of the eggs growing up on the farm, but I know free range chickens are all the rage and I am sure they are full of omega-3’s.
I like to look at the flowers, the glads are out now, but I seldom buy as I have lots of flowers at home.
I have my own semi-successful potager, so I don’t feel the need to buy tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce, but one whiff of the dill brings back memories of my mother canning dill pickles. You can get a free bunch of dill with every large purchase.
The early apples are starting to come in, which will soon mean spies and pies. I can smell the cinnamon now.
My favorite time of year is when the summer fruits are available, the strawberries and peaches. You can get a bushel of overripe fruit for ten dollars and make a whole batch of jam for what you might pay for two jars. There is a jam vendor also, for when you run out, who also sells homemade fruit pies. So definitely there is a cost savings, and the food is so much fresher and better tasting, not to mention not loaded with tons of preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Not everything is better at the market though. Sadly, it is home to the world’s worst bakery which sells the most tasteless bread ever baked, not to mention tarts with uncooked dough and a scant quarter inch of fruit filling. The next time I walk pass, the owner asks if I want something so I venture a tactful complaint – I figure if no one tells him he can’t fix it. He tells me he hired a new baker so I bought butter tarts this time. Same thing. I gave up. There must be an art to making play-doh like that? Butter tarts are a national institution in Canada but I have a fine recipe inherited from my mother. We have much better bakeries in town but I suppose once a vendor has tenure in the building, it’s for life, and so many people don’t know what good pastry tastes like. But the bread – there’s simply no excuse. Bread is the staff of life, but so is good nutritious food. If you ate today, thank a farmer!
PS. Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving today!
Strawberry fields forever. It sounds like a strawberry lover’s dream, but fortunately the science of greenhouse genetics has come up with a new strain of strawberry plant which bears fruit for four months – June, July, August and September. Last year I planted two of these ever-bearing varieties which produced enough berries all summer to garnish a salad,
and provide the odd nibble, both for me and the birds.
I think the birds feasted, whereas I was more like Emma of Jane Austen fame, the pleasure was in the anticipation. (see literary postscript below)
Although the farmers markets are now full of gorgeous red berries, there is a certain satisfaction to be had in growing your own or in visiting a farm to pick your own fruit, plus it is certainly cheaper. The farm outside town sells quarts for $6 versus $2.50 to pick your own, a significant savings if you are buying enough to make jam or freeze.
I remember going strawberry picking when I was a teenager, (long past the age when helping out was fun), and then spending a couple of hours at the kitchen table hulling the stems before my mother would place them in freezer bags. We always had a long freezer at one end of the farmhouse kitchen, a freezer so vast and deep that if you tried to get to the bottom of it to find the last roast or bag of corn you might topple in. Every summer those berries would go in the freezer and the next summer they would get thrown away. I remember my mother making a strawberry shortcake in the winter exactly once and nobody liked it because the berries were soggy, but there is a vast difference between fresh and frozen soggy.
Our farmhouse strawberry shortcake was not like any of those anemic-looking store-bought cakes or biscuits garnished with a few berries. My mother would start with a golden cake mix, (never white), baked in a long glass pan, and then crush a big bowl of berries (leaving some whole) with a bit of water using a potato masher, adding sugar to taste.
When it was served you would cut your own size of cake, crumble it up, and then the bowl was passed around with a big spoon and you would ladle on a generous portion, certainly enough to make the cake soggy and wet with berries and juice. Whipped cream was optional. I still make my strawberry shortcake this way. Guests who were not used to this old-fashioned version might find it a bit odd but in retrospect it was more like a trifle.
I had a wonderful homemade strawberry trifle last week at a church dinner and nothing beats homemade, but if you want a quick alternative just layer the leftover cake and berries with store-bought vanilla pudding cups (instead of custard) and garnish with whipped cream (from a can but scratch would be divine). It makes a nice easy desert plus it gives me an excuse to use my Downton Abbey thrift shop crystal goblets.
I made a non-alcoholic and an alcoholic version, adding some brandy to the bottom layer of cake to make it soggy, and it was very good indeed.
Last summer I made strawberry freezer jam for the first time (as part of my Jamfest frenzy), and into the freezer it went, where it still resides and will soon be thrown out……it must be genetic!
I am trying to be more conscious of food wastage, as studies show we throw out a quarter of the food we buy, but a fresh strawberry is such a wonderful thing and the season so short I think we can be forgiven for being extravagant in our stock-piling. Is there really any comparison between a fresh picked berry and those berries the grocery stores pass off as the real thing the rest of the year – tart, tasteless and hard and pulpy inside to withstand shipping.
Still on the rare occasion I need jam for scones I can easily buy a good brand of strawberry-rhubarb jam from my friend’s shop.
I did however make a fresh stewed strawberry-rhubarb preserve this year,
equal cups of strawberries and rhubarb, with a tiny bit of water plus sugar to taste, cooked down to a soft texture on medium heat, which I keep in the fridge and mix with vanilla Greek yogurt, because with all the varieties of yogurt available why don’t they make a strawberry-rhubarb flavor.
Literary postscript: Jane Austen’s Emma wherein Mr. Knightley has issued an invitation to Donwell Abbey, “Come and eat my strawberries: they are ripening fast.”…..”Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. — “The best fruit in England — every body’s favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one’s self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade.”
My sentiments exactly. 34 C today or 40 with the Humidex….
A few years ago when I was still working I took my 90 year old mom for a drive in the country to visit her farm (not the homeplace which no longer exists.) She rents the old white farmhouse (old farmhouses only come in two types – white clapboard and yellow brick), to a lovely couple and the wife showed us around her very large vegetable garden, and gave us a couple of jars of pear jam she had just made and some big fat beefsteak tomatoes. We sat out on the veranda and listened to the birds twitter. It was quiet and peaceful. I remembered thinking what a lovely lifestyle. Although my roots are rural it had been a long time since I was out in the country. I grew up in on a hundred acre farm in the 60’s and 70’s and while I hope I am not romanticizing the past, I do seem to remember it as being a simpler more peaceful time. My dad had a dairy farm with Holsteins, (which needed milking twice a day so no family vacations for us), then later beef cattle, and he also cash cropped. It was a good thing to be self-sufficient and not always reliant on a grocery store, but it was also a lot of hard work, as was canning during the long hot summer, as my mother can attest, although she also often says looking back that we had the best of times.
It was a century farm, settled by my dad’s Irish ancestors in 1849, who had escaped the worst of the potato famine just in time. They arrived in Canada penniless in October of 1846 in a party of twenty or so, three having died on the coffin ship on the way over, and they lost one young 15 year old son in the bush after having jumped ship during the cholera quarantine in the St. Lawrence River. I have a record from the National Archives of Canada for the three brothers who had to borrow one pound for water transport from Port Toronto to where they settled. My great grandfather, who was fourteen, stayed behind in Ireland because he had a chance to go to school with the landlord’s son, and came a year later through New York. An uncle was sent to pick him up, which seems amazing as the land was all trees and wilderness. My great great grandmother walked thirty miles along Indian trails to the nearest post office to get the letter telling them when and where he was coming. It was October when they arrived here, and the Indians helped them build a hut, otherwise they would never have survived the first winter.
Several years later they bought the homeplace – for poor Irish tenant farmers to own land was a dream come true. The homeplace was sold and the house and barn torn down twenty years ago after my dad died and now all that survives is the silo. My mother painted it in 2005 from an aerial photograph, which is the picture above and on the home page.
While I am nostalgic for the country lifestyle, farmland today is way too expensive to live in the country, and farming is for the most part big business. One day I was driving down our old line and there were four big combines out in the field (trying to beat the rain), and I thought, well there’s a million dollars there. The small family farm is a vanishing business, to survive you have to go big. So much of life is about survival but it is a good thing to remember where you came from, and it is also a good thing to know how to make your own jam!
Song of the Day: Out in the Country – Three Dog Night