(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