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A Fork in Each World

(by Heather West)

"I don't have to point out to the women in my audience that those ladies

they see before them, both of those ladies cooked three meals a day—one of them for

20 years, the other for 40—and no summer vacation." (Our Town, Thornton Wilder)

My friend has messaged me to ask if I want to go to dinner. I think perhaps it is possible—didn’t we just bring back in-person dining? Take-out is an option, although the food-packaging waste bothers me. But what really is on my mind is the quote from Our Town. The play takes place in a much simpler time, when both dining and the role of women were much different—the latter much more constrained. It’s a reference to a lifestyle that barely anyone I know lives these days—out of bed before anyone else in the family to cook a hot breakfast, then lunch at noon and dinner at six. But it’s a quote that resonates with me because I have seen it in action.

At no point in my life have I had anyone cook me three full meals a day without being paid for the service. Even when I was growing up on a farm in Ontario 30 years ago, a hot breakfast (boiled porridge) was only a last resort if breakfast cereal had run out. But there are remnants of that self-sufficient, pioneering mindset that have run through my family, from mother to daughter, coloring my opinions on food to this day.

My family has undergone an odd transition between country and city in the past 30 years, one which has left me with a foot—or should I say, a fork?—in each world. Stereotypical tales of country life conjure images of a woman, back bent over the stove, hands roughened from immersion in the washbasin, with broken nails limned in orange keratin from peeling and preparing carrots. My mother never fit this stereotype. (Well, okay, the orange tint is real, but it wears off in a few days.) Every year it becomes significantly more difficult to make a living wage from a farm; even 30 years ago, someone had to have another job. Mom worked as a nurse in the city (London, Ontario), with access to a more sophisticated modern life, and has citified friends and colleagues to keep her up on the latest styles. She has elegant tastes, and can unerringly pick out the most expensive item in any dress boutique, jewelry store, or restaurant. But after the shopping is done, you will generally find her at home weeding a garden.

I grew up in the country, from a long line of women who also made their homes in the country. It was not very long ago that such advantages as rural high-speed internet, reliable winter road maintenance and even electricity were perks at such addresses, not to be taken for granted. I promise you, the prospect of going out for McDonald’s pales quickly when you realize it means digging four feet of snow out of the driveway to leave and the likelihood of digging the driveway out again on your return because it hasn’t yet stopped snowing.

So my mother, my grandmother, and their mothers before them all had to be prepared to provide the necessary daily nutrition in case of emergency or sudden isolation. Which means a vegetable garden. The larger the better. On my mother’s farm, the size of the vegetable garden has recently tripled. Squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, peppers, sunflowers, peas, beets, sweet corn, raspberries, potatoes, carrots, strawberries, elderberries, apples, grapes, tomatoes—there is a little bit of everything there. I can’t remember a single year when it was all pristinely weeded and groomed—life just seems to get in the way most summers. But that does not seem to impair the yields very much, and there is always the resolution that it will be better maintained next year.

Every year, starting in late August, the race begins to get it all picked and preserved before it is overripe. Three full-sized chest freezers and hundreds of mason jars don’t even accommodate it all some years. The animals on the farm (sheep in years gone by, cows in present times) feast on the post-harvest remnants of the plants. The fruit is transformed into delicious jams and jellies. Baskets and baskets of these preserves go out every Christmas, and the jars are all carefully returned each year by recipients who want to stay on my mother’s good side and get another basket next year.

Even “citified-little-me” is equipped to participate in this seasonal round of preserving. My tiny kitchen has space to hold a big canning pot for heat-sealing jars, and I invested in a food processor. I drive out to the farm as many days as I can to help get everything done. My main pursuits are tomato salsa and grape jelly, but I have all the recipes and know-how to do more as needed. The information is actually provided on inserts in packages of pectin and on government pamphlets from days-gone-by, so even in cases of internet outage I can figure it out.

I also have access to another little tradition: The American Woman’s Cookbook, first published in 1938. My grandmother owned a copy, and so does my mother. I received one that Mom found in a thrift shop (the 1961 edition) so the chain is complete. This book covers everything you’d ever need to know about preparing anything even remotely edible. Want to know how to prepare squirrel stew? I have you covered.

I’m thinking about these traditions when I see the message from my friend about dinner tonight. I know that on the farm, Mom is lifting a chunk of hamburger from the freezer (custom-butchered from the farm's cows), feeling down to the bottom of a dirty burlap bag for potatoes to wash and peel, and deciding whether to pull from the freezer corn sliced from the cob in the steam of a July night or peas shelled in the cool breezes of an August afternoon. In the snowy city where I live, snow plows have done their job, and I can go where I please to fill my stomach. How far I’ve come in only a generation.

But it is important to me not to forget the way back to the farm. Because much as all that weeding and picking and preserving and bottling sounds like forced labor (trust me, I had definite conclusions on this topic at age 11), it all comes out of love. Women like my mother, my grandmother, and their mothers before them did it because it was their end of a pact. The husband was tasked to protect the family, and the wife was tasked to feed it. For modern women like me, the feeding part includes such features as drive-throughs and curbside grocery pickup. But in essence, it is the same chore, repeated over and over, generation after generation, night after night. What makes the drudgery endurable for so long? What makes us miss our mothers and grandmothers when we catch a hint of a familiar culinary aroma? What makes young brides sign up to be the food provider for a whole new generation? Behind it all, it’s love.


Heather West is a singer and actress who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She can be found at and on Backstage.

Grandma’s Gingerbread House

1 1/2 c. vegetable shortening

2 c. sugar

2 eggs

1/2 c. molasses

4 c. sifted flour

2 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

2 t. cloves

2 t. ground ginger

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Cream shortening and sugar together.

Beat in eggs.

Add molasses and dry ingredients.

Roll flat and trace cardboard pattern pieces.

Place on greased baking sheets, arranging similarly-sized pieces together.

Bake for 6 - 15 minutes until lightly browned and crisp (smaller pieces will bake more quickly, while larger pieces take more time).

Cookies spread while baking, so trim the pattern piece again after baking, using a sharp knife.

Assemble pieces using royal icing.

Decorate with icing, fondant and candies as desired.

(See 2021’s gingerbread creation here.)


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