Family Heirlooms

Last night I went looking for an old recipe of my grandmother’s. I started by looking at all of the the recipes that my mother had handwritten on cue cards when she moved away from home at 18.  While there are a bunch of treasures there, none were what I was looking for.IMG_20150924_200627Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting to find the recipe I was looking for in there, so I was not disappointed when it wasn’t there.

Next I got out my grandmother’s cookbook.  IMG_20150924_194321IMG_20150924_194442I don’t know if it was her only cookbook, but there is no denying that it seems to be very well used.

I was looking for a specific strawberry shortcake recipe.  Of course, having never seen the recipe, or likely even eaten my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake, I don’t really have any way of knowing when I’ve found it. There were a surprising number of shortcake recipes! Some were original to the book, others were pinned onto it’s pages.

IMG_20150924_195106But I think that one of these may be as close to her recipe as I can find.  IMG_20150924_194831There were a bunch of other treasures in that book too.  Like the program from the St. James Parish (Lake Lenore’s only church) Sliver Jubilee in 1958.  It was folded up and stuffed in between the pages of the cookbook.  I tried to hum some of the songs, and then when I was done admiring it, I folded it back up and put it back into the cookbook to be rediscovered another day.

IMG_20150924_194630Oh, and let us not forget the cooking instructions for rice which grandma wrote on the inside front cover.

IMG_20150924_200204Hey, they were a meat and potatoes kind of a family, and I completely understand. The best part of that little note is that I can picture my mother, my grandmother and I together in my grandma’s kitchen, grandma looking for a recipe, and my mom (who was a bit of a know it all about food) telling her how to do it.  I can see grandma jotting down my mom’s instructions in her book.  I can’t be certain that this memory was about rice, or that it actually ever really happened, but it’s a happy memory, so I’ll just pretend it is.

I know it’s a little late in the season, but who wants to make 4 different strawberry shortcake recipes with me?  I’m no longer looking for grandma’s recipe, but I’d love to know which one is the best!



After my maternal grandmother died, and around the time that my grandfather was moving out of the farmhouse and into the big city to be closer to family, and to live a slightly less independent life, most of my family went out to the farmhouse to help clean the place out. This action, of course, was combined with the ability to “take” things that they may have wanted from the home.

That side of my family is Catholic. In my family, it’s quite common to ask for an item that once belonged to the deceased, something to hold onto, to use, to value and appreciate. Something to connect you, over and over again, to the deceased. A relic, of sorts.

When asked what I would like to remember my grandmother by, I asked for something from her kitchen. My grandmother’s kitchen was her domain, her kingdom. She was the literal and figurative head of state in the kitchen. I liked to cook and figured that something from her kitchen would be a practical as well as sentimental choice.

I was given a long handled wooden spoon, a short handled cookie flipper, and a highly annotated book of recipes published by a now defunct spice company. My grandmother wasn’t much of a consumer. She and Grandpa lived in a small town with few very places to shop, so the concept of popping over to Walmart to buy something new when the old one broke wasn’t a quick option. The items in my grandmother’s kitchen had to withstand the test of time. They were well used and well loved, sturdy and practical. I forever see these traits in the relics from her kitchen. The wooden spoon handle is long enough to avoid a steam burn when stirring a big pot of soup or stew and the flipper gets neatly underneath even the most delicate of cookies, and the short handle means few mistakes when transferring things from the cookie sheet to the cooling rack. The cookbook, well that has notes about which recipes worked and which didn’t. It’s also a scrapbook, with recipes clipped out of newspapers and taped to its covers or jammed between its pages.

I haven’t looked at the cookbook for a long while, but the other night one of my aunts asked if I had my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake recipe. Now here’s the thing about family recipes: you have to speak the language to unlock their secrets. Grandma’s strawberry shortcake was fresh strawberries, whipped cream, sugar, and biscuits. The strawberries and whipped cream would have been a given, so I’m pretty sure that I’m just goint to be looking for a biscuit recipe. When Grandma made strawberry shortcake she would cut the biscuits with a mason jar ring and stacking them to double height before baking. These facts likely won’t be in the recipe either (thanks for that reminder, Aunty Joan).

When my mom moved away from home when she was 18 she wrote out a bunch of her mother’s recipes by hand onto index cards. Later on, my mother took cooking classes, and the cue card with directions for chop suey fell to the back of the box, but within these cue cards are some real family heirlooms. The cue cards had more information than just the requisite list of ingredients! They include cooking temps and assembly instructions. Thimble cookies remind you to make a thumbprint in the middle of the dough and fill it with jam (raspberry is best!). Date roll ups tell you to roll the dough thin and slice them crossways. Whenever I’m looking for one of my grandmother’s cookie recipes, I head straight to the cue card box. I might just find the strawberry shortcake recipe in there too!

Tonight I’ll pull out the relics and start the hunt. Seeing my mother’s handwriting, and my grandmother’s handwriting, well, it’ll likely make me cry. Maybe I’ll drink some wine while I do it.

Airplanes, frogs, and raspberries

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of my summer break in the prairies with my family. My mother would carefully orchestrate my time so that I spent a fair chunk of time at summer camp north of Toronto (stories for another day), and another significant portion with family.  I was generally sent to Saskatoon, and I was picked up and driven out to spend time with my Grandma and Grandpa, and then driven on (or placed on a bus – once) to visiting a few of my aunts and uncles and cousins.  I guess it eliminated the need for my mother to put me in daycare, but more importantly it gave me the opportunity to spend time outside of my neighbourhood and outside of the city.

I often traveled by myself from Toronto to Saskatoon.  I mean, it’s not like my mom pinned $20 to my chest and wished me the best of luck. I was always under the constant supervision of a flight attendant, who received me into her (always a her) care, and who walked me off the plane and directly to the outstretched arms of family.  Saskatoon airport was quite small and I remember one year deciding that I didn’t need to wait for the flight attendant to walk me safely downstairs to meet my aunt and grandma, so I got off the plane by myself and headed along the hallway and down the escalator to pick up my suitcase.  What I don’t remember is the frantic look on the face of the flight attendant who came racing downstairs looking for me, but I was reminded for years after that there was one.  In my mind, it was no big deal.  Doesn’t every 9 year old fly halfway across the country by themselves every summer?

I imagined my mother spending her summer pining away for her only child, crying herself to sleep every night. Parents, that’s what you do when you have time away from your children, right?

I have a number of very happy memories of those summers. Summer camp was great and all, but I’m much more likely to wax poetic about my time in Saskatchewan. I remember catching frogs for my grandfather so that we could use them to bait the fishing lines. He kept them in a hand made terrarium out behind the garage until it was time to head to the lake. I remember when Grandma would send me out into her garden to pick raspberries with an ice cream pail hooked onto a belt around my waist. I’d bring in my haul and she would sort the berries, picking out the largest and prettiest for my Grandpa to top his ice cream with. I remember swimming in lakes with my cousins, knee boarding, campfires, ATV rides, pick up trucks, chopping wood, and picking saskatoon berries. I remember watching my grandmother bake cinnamon buns. I remember the smell of burning sugar when I was allowed to help make jam. I remember upsetting half the town when I swooped in and won at Bingo in the seniors centre one night.

It was a different world than my life at home. Comfortable and foreign at the same time.  As an only child, it seemed strange that there were all sorts of people who looked like me, who had the same eyes or nose (even if I was the only one to have a dark tan and a head full of curls). It was a novelty to pile so many people into a van or truck or camper to head off to the lake.  At home it was just mom and me, with plenty of distance between us.  Out there it was rooms with bunk beds. And it didn’t matter if I was leaving from Grandma and Grandpa’s, or from one of my Aunts’ places to fly home to Toronto, I was always allowed (instructed?) to pack some jam, or peaches, or pickles to bring home to my mother. Fish and sausage were carefully wrapped in newspaper and stuffed into corners of my luggage (or if we were lucky, packed into a box all by themselves). While it didn’t seem unusual at the time, I’ve come to realize the effort that went into making all that food, and the generosity of those gifts. At the time I only knew that Grandma’s raspberry preserves were my favourite, that “the twins” always had baking in their freezer, and that Aunty Joan would find you some sausage if you asked nicely. And while I knew it was something special back then, it seems even more generous to think of it now.  My thanks were always met with an explanation of ” ‘Lisha, you’re family”.

A few years ago I jumped into part of my family’s tradition.  Not the part about taking in small children for weeks at a time.  Rather, I put up shelves in a corner of the basement, and invested heavily in mason jar futures.

Every year this undertaking grows. Recipes, once googled and printed, annotated in excruciating detail, now become notes jotted in margins. Too many green beans? You can pickle that! Clementines on sale? Marmalade! Dill pickles by the bushel. Beets stain everything not red but a beautiful fuchsia, and when run through a meat slicer, they create a most gruesome murder scene. Big jobs get the help of friends who share in the work for a share of the spoils, and rumors of canning have neighbours sending messages asking for a jar or 2.

People say it’s a dying art. In an age of the supermarket, the farmers market, and even the craft fair, truly knowing someone who still does these things by hand is a novelty. I assure you that there are no cutesy labels in my basement, only sharpie marker notes scrawled on snap lids. I have no real idea how much it costs me to put food in jars for later, but I’ll bet it’s no cheaper than grabbing a tin or a jar off the grocery store shelf.  All I know is that when fruit or veg are on the counter, threatening to turn brown before their time, my first thought is put a pot of water on to boil and head to the basement to find a bunch of empty jars.

The other day I heard myself offering a friend the opportunity to raid the pantry before she went home. Now if only I had a terrarium for frogs.