*first published in the Glebe Report, Nov. 2014
My father had seven brothers and two sisters. He was one of the youngest and when he was born my grandmother said to my grandfather, “this one doesn’t go to barn, William. He stays in the kitchen.” And so from the youngest age, my father learned how to help his mother around the kitchen. When his brothers were milking cows, he was learning how to kneed bread dough, peel potatoes and make soups, which in our village are called ‘frico’. Frico is a fish or chicken soup which some people consider to be the national dish of Acadie; although those who like potato rappe would demur.
In a way, you could say that the decision of my grandmother to have one of her many sons helping her in the kitchen instead of milking cows in the morning changed my father’s whole life and maybe mine also. Dad became a very proficient cook and it was a skill that he never lost. When he joined the RCAF during the Second War, he took an interest in the food of the countries that he was passing through. In England, he learned how to make traditional English pub dishes like steak and kidney pie – and drink British beer. In Italy, he learned how to make pasta dishes and drink Italian wine.
When Dad first met my mother, her own mother wasn’t so keen on a French Canadian colonial boy marrying her only daughter. The fact that he spoke several languages and was smart as a whip impressed her less than he knew his way around a stove. When my parents married, my mother had never done much more than boil an egg and had to race to catch up to her new husband, and they became good cooks together. Dad transferred his own mother’s insistence on help from her sixth son in the kitchen to his own family where my sisters and I soon learned to wash dishes, clean kitchen counters and peel potatoes.
I don’t think Jamie Oliver or Martha Stewart are going to sign me for their kitchens up any time soon, but I like to cook and can put a meal on the table if you show me the way to the garden. And as I grow older, I seem to want to go back to my earliest memories of eating. I make crepes for breakfast, soups for lunch and meat pies for the Christmas ‘reveillon’ using the same recipe my father used. When grandchildren stay for an overnight visit, we often end up doing some cooking together in the kitchen, making the batter for crepes and squeezing oranges for juice. In the morning, I flip the crepe for them, so that the crepe flies up into the air, just the way my mother used to do.
Felix is learning how to peel a potato and cut vegetables, even though he doesn’t like them much. This summer Clea and Evangeline helped ‘Nana’ prepare some fruit for preserving as jam and compote. It quite surprising how hard the little girls worked, but they both persisted until their tasks were finished. They seemed to understand that this was about more than play. It was about having tasty fruit in the winter time and they knew already how delicious this could be.
As you’ve probably guessed, I think it is a good thing that children learn to cook and learn about the connections that we all have to trees and the strange green, red, orange and purple things that sprout in the garden. It is one thing read about making apple sauce. It’s another to pick the apples yourself and turn them into sauce. When I think back on the differences between my grandparents and parent’s generation and mine, one of the things that strikes me was how practically accomplished they were compared to people today. People today have lots of internet and info savvy, but come a crisis I would choose to rely on the people who grew up close to the land and absorbed in their growing a host of useful life skills.
I was fortunate to grow up just on the edge of that time and what is now mostly a lost world – but not quite. One of the first things, I did when we bought our house in the Glebe was plant our backyard parking lot with fruit trees. It’s amazing how much you can learn and eat from your own back yard. Even a small one.