Food of the Past    (12.01.21)

Last week I created an old fashioned, north country supper.  One that my Mom, born in 1900 and recognised by more than me as an excellent cook, would have been proud to serve.  I don’t think this happened by chance.  I think I was guided a bit by a couple of things that happened the day before.

The first occurred during a visit to a respected local historian.  I have been searching for information about the old stagecoach service that ran between Calgary and Banff.  A friend recommended that this historian might have something worthwhile to tell me.  I learned a few things from her and her husband, and was graciously loaned several books that might have something that I can use.  What also happened was a great discussion about times gone by - not just yesterday, but many decades ago.  It is the sort of thing that a gathering of grey hair does - it’s in our blood, now that it is old and tired.

It was natural that we got around to talking about food.  We talked about how different it was for our parents and grandparents who didn’t have the services of refrigeration nor the availability of a huge selection of fresh greens and other ‘summer’ vegetables all year round.  It is almost impossible to detect what season it is when you walk into a modern grocery store.   Everything is available almost all of the time.  The only thing different is the price on the tag above the food.  I guess there is one other difference - the label on the food.  Oranges from South Africa!  Good grief - I don’t need an orange that badly.

The next event to influence me, was a virtual Rabbie Burns supper that I went to that evening.  I say virtual, because we didn’t really have a supper, but we did have all the normal Burns presentations and poetry as well as some real Haggis.  By the way, the Haggis was terrific.  Throughout the talks given, the status of the Scots that Burns related to was brought up again and again.  In summary, they were poor and underprivileged.  Most meals were based on oatmeal or porridge and their winters were as long as ours. Once again, they made do with simple food using what was available.


The next day it was my turn to shop for and cook supper.  As I turned into the fresh vegetable aisle at the local California-owned grocery store and saw the red peppers priced at $4.69/lb, I stopped in my tracks.  “Wait a minute,” I thought.  “This is the middle of winter and I’m living in the Alberta foothills.  I’m not going to be hoodwinked in to trying to stick to a summertime menu at some exorbitant price, just because I can.”  I stood there in a bit of a daze and let my mind drift back to think about my Mom and what she would have been cooking in the middle of January in Regina in 1947.  There, at that time, she had a small icebox for storing food and limited selection in the local grocery store.  I also thought about her sister who lived on the land south of Calgary, where she and her husband practiced mixed farming with wheat, cattle, pigs, and chickens.  There they used a root cellar for keeping their home grown food, mostly root vegetables, for as long as possible.

My Mom wouldn’t have the choice of whether to buy red peppers or not.  They simply weren’t available.  What is more, even in the summer, the local market gardens only produced green peppers.  What she would have the choice of were different meats, eggs, cheese, bread, and root vegetables.  She also might have been able to get some cabbage, although by January that would have only been available in the better grocery stores.  Her sister probably would have had to eat cabbage in the form of pickled cabbage or sauerkraut that she had pickled herself.

So, I stepped back in time, made my choices and came away with a food bill that was about half of what it would have been if I had just let myself go and get whatever was available.  What I ended up with was a small steak, a cabbage, and a couple of yams.

While I have a lot of my Mom’s recipes for her great baking, I have little on the day-to-day cooking that she did.  She was a magician in the kitchen, but it all came out of her head, which was filled with decades of great cooking ideas.

When I got home I tried my best to remember a winter’s day supper at home.  What I came up with was creamed cabbage, mashed yams, and a nice steak.  I confess, I did add a little something that Mom and Dad never had - a great bottle of red wine.  This wasn’t because wine wasn’t available, but because, like most turn of the century (the last one by the way) prairie folk, they couldn’t stand wine.  What they did drink was Scotch, and in that we are still connected.

I didn’t lash on the butter and cream as Mom would have done, as we don’t cook with dairy or gluten these days.  Nevertheless, I was able to create a good facsimile of one of Mom’s meals.  It was excellent.

I’ve decided that I’m going to work at this approach during this winter.  It won’t happen at every meal, but I think it will be fun if not a bit poignant.  Never mind, these days I seem to enjoy memories like this.

A winter's day prairie supper from the past  -  mmmm good!