Wild Harvest: Sumac Season

A few days ago, while preparing staghorn sumac to dry for the winter, it occurred to me that sumac–whose tart berries, processed into a powder, are popular in Middle Eastern cooking and were once culinary and medical staples in First Nation and subsequent settler households–could make an interesting jelly.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac–Rhus typhina–is a medium-sized shrub native to the Great Lakes region. Thickets of sumac, easily identified by fuzzy, antler-like branches, bright conical drupes ripening in late summer, and brilliant scarlet fall foliage, are a familiar sight along Ontario waysides. There is a popular belief that sumac is poisonous, but most varieties are not toxic, and staghorn and other edible varieties of sumac have a very long history of culinary, medical and social-ceremonial use. Sumac is reportedly a very high source of vitamin C: its most common traditional culinary use in North America is in a tart, cooling lemonade-like drink. In Middle Eastern cuisine, powdered sumac is nearly ubiquitous as a spice or condiment, and is well known as a principal ingredient in za’atar, to which it bestows its dark red colour and tart citrus-like taste.

Medically, sumac is reported to be a useful topical antiseptic and coagulant, and to have been widely used in traditional First Nations medicine. Sumac is also reported as an important ingredient in kinnikinnick, an herbal preparation used in social as well as ritual smoking. Among the print sources I have consulted so far, Robert K. Henderson’s The Neighbourhood Forager (Key Porter, 2000) offers the most detailed inventory of sumac’s reported traditional medical uses.

Sumac also has high concentrations of tannins, and the leaves and bark of certain sumac varieties have been widely used in Mediterranean leather-making for many centuries. In his fascinating, excellent book Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking (Abrams, 2018), Jason Logan passes over sumac in favour of black walnut for brown ink and pokeberry for a true red, but staghorn sumac’s ready accessibility, high tannin content and relative (certainly to the reportedly toxic pokeberry he chooses for its reliably crimson ink) make it a good option for experimentation with colour. Toronto container gardening expert Gayla Trail has reported success with using sumac berries to produce red dye, and the US Forest Service includes sumac as a traditional red dye source in its ethnobotany database.

Note: I am a geographer, not a botanist, and have an amateur-level knowledge of sumac, its uses, potential allergy interactions (sumac is reportedly related to the cashew plant and at least one source links it to mango) and potential risks. Before using sumac or any other wild plant, it is important to do your own research relying on high quality published sources.

Note also: In the Toronto area, sumac drupes usually reach peak ripeness in August or early September. The drupes are best if picked before rain. To avoid potential particulate contaminants from fuel exhaust, it is best to pick sumac away from busy highways. If you wish to harvest sumac, please trim the drupes carefully with a sharp blade rather than tearing them from the tree. Take only a few drupes from each tree, and leave plenty for wildlife.

Wild Apple Sumac Jelly

Sumac jelly references in published works are uncommon. My sumac jelly recipe is a modified version of a one published in Blanche Pownall Garrett’s Canadian Country Preserves & Wines (James Lewis & Samuel, Publishers, 1974), a book focusing on early settler foodways in Canada and early Canadian recipes. Sarah B. Hood’s excellent preserving guide, We Sure Can (Arsenal Pulp press, 2011), also includes a tested sumac jelly recipe that uses apple pectin, a natural alternative to commercial pectin. [Her book also includes an easy-to-make apple pectin recipe.]

Apple sumac jelly has a bright claret colour and a tart taste. The batch I made is delicious on sourdough toast. I plan to use it in place of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, as it seems to me it would suit turkey or chicken wonderfully. It would also be an ideal accompaniment to cheese.

Please note that I am an amateur and my recipe is based on a first-time experiment. For next summer’s batch I will almost certainly adjust it. If you are interested in trying sumac jelly, I recommend starting with the tested recipe in We Sure Can.

Ingredients

Sumac berries, 8 cups (from 8 to 12 whole drupes)
Wild or tart apples, 4 cups, stemmed and quartered
Water, about 12 cups
Commercial pectin crystals, 1 package (I used Certo)
Granulated sugar, 8 cups
Lemon juice, 1/4 cup (this may be optional, as the apples and sumac seem sufficiently acidic for food safety, but I included it to be sure)

Instructions

** This recipe makes 13-15 125 ml jars of apple sumac jelly (or 7 to 8 235/250 ml jars). It relies on well-established hot water canning techniques and easy-to-obtain equipment.**

Remove sumac berries from drupes. This is easily and fairly quickly done by drawing a fork downward through the drupes until the berries pop off. Some recipes recommend boiling the drupes whole, but it is my understanding that the stems are higher in tannins than the berries, and it is also easier to boil and process the sumac berries off the stem. A large sumac drupe can produce about 1 cup of berries.

Prepare jars in water bath canner: Wash jars and two-part lids in warm water with soap (I use Bernardin–Ball in the US–jars and lids with screw bands, which are readily available and highly reliable). Place jars in canner. Cover jars with two inches of water and bring to full rolling boil. Boil for 10 minutes. After boiling, turn off heat. Leave jars in, and drop in lids and screw bands. Remove just before filling with jelly. [Note: canning supplies, including large, non-reactive pots, jars and lids, funnels, jar lifters, magnetic lid lifters, etc. are sold inexpensively at Canadian Tire.]

Place sumac berries and apples in a large, *non-reactive* (e.g., stainless steel) pot. Cover with water, cover pot, and simmer until apples are soft, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Using a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth or a jelly bag, strain out liquid into a large bowl. Do not press or squeeze as it may make the jelly cloudy. If fine sumac hairs flow through the cheesecloth or jelly bag, sieve a second time. This should produce about 7 cups of apple-sumac liquid, a deep burgundy in colour.

Measure out 8 (yes, eight) cups of granulated sugar. [Note: if this seems like a lot of sugar, consider how jams and jellies are used: a spoonful at a time. Amortized over a year, especially if your diet is mainly healthy, this is a small quantity of sugar to add to your day, and is a lot less harmful than the high fructose corn syrup found in most commercially processed foods. If it still seems like a lot, low-sugar commercial pectins are available, as are homemade pectins. I have not tried them and cannot report on their efficacy at this time. I am not a fan of artificial sweeteners, however.]

Measure out 7 cups of liquid and pour into large, non-reactive pot (it is worth rinsing the pot first to remove any stray sumac fuzz). Stir in one package of pectin crystals (I used one 57 gram package of Certo brand pectin crystals). Bring to boil.

Pour in 8 (yes, 8!) cups of granulated sugar and 1/4 cup lemon juice (the lemon juice may be optional, as tart apples and sumac are high acid on their own) and return to a boil that cannot be stirred down. Boil hard for one minute or until the jelly’s set or gel point is reached (a candy thermometer showing 220 degrees Fahrenheit is one method; pouring out a few drops onto a cool plate to see if they ‘gel’ is another).

Remove and drain sterilized jars. Fill carefully with jelly mixture using canning funnel, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Using a non-reactive stick (I use a wooden chopstick), make sure there are no air bubbles trapped in the jelly. Carefully wipe rims of any stray drops (which may interfere with sealing). Carefully place lids on jars without touching their underside (this is why a magnetic lid lifter is a valuable tool). Spin on screw bands until resistance is met but do not overtighten.

Place jars in hot water bath. Jars should not be touching or tilted (when I make a larger bath of jam or jelly, I process the jars six or seven at a time, to ensure they all seal properly). Place lid on pot. Bring to a full-rolling boil and boil for 10 minutes (at elevations above sea level, you will need to boil longer: there are many guides online for boiling times at various elevations). After 10 minutes, turn off heat.

Using jar lifter, remove jars from hot water bath. Do not tilt, and do not touch or press lids. If the jars have sealed, the metal lid should ‘pop’ down audibly (this may take a few minutes). Do not touch for at least 12 hours. Jars that do not seal should be refrigerated and used within a week or two. Sealed jars should keep for a year, subject to the usual cautions about preserved foods.

Note: ‘traditional’ canning techniques involving paraffin wax, turning jars upside-down or using certain kinds of jars are no longer recommended as they do not meet contemporary food safety guidelines. The Government of Canada has published a very good overview of home preserving safety guidelines.

And also note: only low acid foods–foods whose combined acidity is less than 4.6 pH–can be preserved using water bath canning techniques. According to my research, apples usually have a pH under 4, and sumac has a low pH of about 2.5.

Sumac for Za’atar

My own introduction to sumac as an edible plant came in a recipe in a Middle Eastern cookbook that called for za’atar. I make fairly extensive use of (mainly European and North American) culinary herbs and spices, but had never heard of za’atar. Za’atar, it turns out, is quite easy to make at home–provided one has access to dried sumac. Fortuitously, I learned about za’atar in the early fall, when ripe sumac were still at their peak, and simply biked down to the lake to pick a few drupes for processing. Now, late every summer I pick a dozen or so sumac drupes to preserve for the year ahead.

Ingredients for dried Sumac

Ripe sumac drupes, about 8 to 12

Instructions

Strip berries from stems. Air dry in a wide, shallow dish for 1 to 2 weeks, turning occasionally.

In a food processor, pulse berries to separate fluff from seeds.

Using a food mill or sieve, separate berries from seeds. When completely dried, store in an airtight jar for up to a year.

For Za’atar

Note: dried sumac can be used on its own as a flavouring or condiment. In my experience its flavour becomes richer and more complex with storage. I use it whenever I make a Middle Eastern dish, and especially like to swirl it into the yoghurt sauces and dips that accompany many such recipes.

There are numerous recipes for za’atar available online. Za’atar and sumac are also available at many larger spice shops. I have read that in Israel and Arabic countries, most households will prepare their own blend, so it is worth experimenting.

Ingredients

Dried sumac
Oregano
Marjoram
Thyme
Sesame seeds
Salt

Instructions

Grind sesame seeds in a food mill or mortar & pestle.

Add additional ingredients and grind together.

Store in a sealed container.

Sumac for Drinking

There are two schools of thought on ‘sumac-ade’ or ‘sumac lemonade.’ The first suggests boiling the sumac berries with sugar to produce a syrup-like infusion. The second recommends against boiling sumac on the grounds that boiling will release tannins and produce a bitter taste. Interestingly, both techniques involve about the same quantity of sugar and in my experience produce a similar-tasting sumac drink. Simmering takes a bit longer, but ensures the sugar is fully dissolved and produces a richer, more complex, syrup-like flavour. But for a quick sumac drink, processing sumac berries and then infusing them into cold water or a pitcher of iced tea or lemonade seems a perfectly fine plan.

For a ‘cold-pressed’ sumac drink

Sumac berries, 1 cup
Sugar, 1/4 to 1/2 cup (or to taste)
Water, 1-2 cups (for blending); plus enough to fill a pitcher afterward

In a blender, process sumac berries and water together until sumac berries are fully separated from seeds and liquid is quite dark. Strain liquid through muslin into a pitcher. Add sugar and water to fill pitcher. Stir well and serve.

For a boiled sumac syrup

Sumac berries, 2 cups
Sugar, 1-2 cups
water, about 4-6 cups
Optional: 1-2 tart apples, quartered

Place sumac berries in a non-reactive pot. Cover with water and add sugar. Bring to boil; lower temperature and simmer for about 10 minutes until berries are softened and mixture is dark and aromatic. Let cool. Strain liquid through cheesecloth to separate seeds and sumac hairs. Refrigerate. If covered and refrigerated, syrup should keep for up to a week. Add 1-2 tablespoons to a glass of water, or 1-2 cups to a pitcher for a sweet-tart drink rich in vitamin C.

Sumac Mead

Staghorn sumac is rich in malic acid, making it an ideal if unexpected candidate for wine-making. I have never tried it, but this recipe for sumac mead sounds delightful and even easier than making wine. I hope to try it out next month.

A Note on Foraging

I am so pleased with the results of my apple sumac jelly experiment. For the last several years I have made increasing efforts to use local, wild and untended plants that tend to be overlooked or even unwanted in urban settings. For years we have collected mulberries from street trees to make into ice cream or baked goods, and this year for the first time I made (delicious, especially when swirled into plain Greek yoghurt) mulberry jam. Last fall I made crabapple jelly, which was incandescent and lovely in every way.

Although I grew up harvesting wild plants and learning about their uses from my mother, I am not an admirer of the contemporary ‘foraging’ movement as commonly practiced, as it seems to lack adequate awareness of the most basic principles of conservation, despite paying lip service to them.

One example of destructive foraging is the extirpation in many areas of wild leeks, or ‘ramps’ resulting from enthusiasts (or pickers for commercial sale) trampling delicate forest floors and pillaging entire groves of plants. The problem has gotten so bad that the Province of Quebec has banned the commercial harvesting of wild leeks and several US states have implemented protective legislation.

I have also seen this happen with fiddleheads, whose overharvesting has denuded entire river bottoms where they were once plentiful. This is not even a new problem: in the 1980s my mother would run commercial harvesters out of ravine beside our house, after they descended in droves with large garbage bags they’d hoped to fill for commercial sale.

There are, however, many plants, particularly in cities, that may be harvested sustainably and even positively. Garlic mustard, for example, is an invasive plant in Ontario whose leaves reportedly make excellent pesto. Garlic mustard grows readily in disturbed soil and in parks and woodlots: pulling the plants and eating their prepared leaves is a positive act of conservation.

Crabapples and mulberry trees are common street trees in Toronto, where I live. For the most part they are ignored, except when their fruit falls on sidewalks and elicits public complaints. Picking and using their fruit is an excellent way to positively rethink their presence in cities.

There are numerous good published guides to edible wild plants: I have listed some in the Sources section at the end of this post. If you do good research, and if you harvest carefully and sustainably, it is possible to enjoy the fruits of the wild city.

Some Sources

Berglund, Berndt and Clare E. Bolsby, 1971. The Edible Wild. Pagurian Press. [A very good, reliable guide to wild plants in Canada and the US.]

Coon, Nelson, 1957. Using Wayside Plants. Hearthside Press. [A very good book on using wild plants for food, medicine, art, and crafts. If you can find any edition of this long out-of-print book second-hand, you are in for a treat.]

Garrett, Blanche Pownall, 1974. Canadian Country Preserves & Wines. James Lewis & Samuel. [A book exploring traditional Canadian foodways and recipes.]

Gibbons, Euell, 1962. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Alan C. Hood & Company. [The ‘classic’ forager’s guide; highly worthwhile reading although not always reliable, and I have a few issues with material that appears borrowed from other published works.]

Henderson, Robert K., 2000. The Neighborhood Forager. Key Porter Books. [A very good introduction to urban foraging.]

Hood, Sarah B., 2011. We Sure Can: How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food. Arsenal Pulp Press. [An indispensable guide for anyone new to home preserving. Includes many tested recipes.]

Logan, Jason, 2018. Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking. Abrams. [A simply wonderful book about using wild, native plants to make inks.]

Moncrieff, Helena, 2018. The Fruitful City. ECW Press. [Moncrieff mentions sumac only in passing, but The Fruitful City offers a compelling case for making good use of the fruit trees that grow practically untended along urban streets and alleys.

Garden Report, July

Every morning, shortly after dawn, I go up to the third floor deck to tend to the garden, sniff the scents of the new morning, and take a census of my horizon of trees.

Every morning has a different scent. This morning the air had a northern, almost September smell, until the sun breached the horizon. Yesterday the air was redolent with woodsmoke, drifting upon a wind that soughed in the cedars. The day before that the air smelled of the lake. In the hour after dawn the city, or my part of it, is silent. No traffic sounds, no sirens, not even an airplane. This morning the air is perfectly still, and only the birds and I are present to sing the morning open. The air is scented with ailanthus blossoms, opening about a week later than usual but as secretive and summery as ever.

Unknown heirloom tomato cultivar with complex blossoms.

This year I am growing at least five varieties of tomatoes, including “Summerlast’ (early-fruiting patio-sized supposedly long-fruiting determinate tomato plants, of which I have six plants going), ‘Rapunzel’ (a newish hybrid tomato that reportedly grows long, gorgeous tresses of cherry tomatoes; this is by far my tallest tomato plant so far, heading for five feet already as it begins to flower), San Marzano (two very sturdy plants, both flowering now), an unknown (because I failed to save the labeled starter pot) tomato plant I bought at the Junction Farmers’ Market, and several ‘heirloom’ tomatoes.

‘Heirloom’ is a bit of a misnomer, as there are many heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Heirloom or heritage tomatoes are typically open-pollinated, older, non-commercial cultivars. Reportedly they tend to lack the disease resistance and uniformity of commercial cultivars, but in compensation they are inherently more biodiverse and interesting to grow, and produce tomatoes of sometimes wildly varying sizes, colours and shapes. My ‘heirloom’ tomatoes came labeled as such at the Canadian Tire garden centre, with the note that each plant might grow quite differently depending on its variety.

This has definitely been my experience this year. Each of my heirloom tomato plants looks quite different. All are vertically inclined, although not rampantly so, and their leaves and blossoms are somewhat idiosyncratic. My favourite, so far, is the heirloom tomato pictured above, whose leaves emerge curled and inverted, almost as if blighted, but then unfurl, completely hale. The blossoms are also unusual, large and multi-layered. I have read that large blossoms produce large tomatoes, and am looking forward with considerable curiosity to see what this heirloom plant produces.

On the third floor deck I am also growing two containers of corn (this year’s wildcard), zucchinis (only two of which survived the early ravages of squirrels digging up the seeds; zucchini are supposedly easy to grow, but each year mine succumb to some new peril and/or fail to produce fruit), three large tubs of very large red potato plants, two eggplants, two sweet peppers, red onions, everbearing strawberries, garlic, and several varieties of herbs (lemon verbena, pineapple sage, lavender, basil, catnip).

Third floor back deck garden, late June 2019.

Most of my 22 varieties of herbs (this year’s herbs include lavender, basil, catnip, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary, dill, tarragon, rue, summer savory, winter savory, marjoram, fennel, cilantro, parsley, pineapple sage, chamomile, sorrel, curry plant, borage) are growing on the second floor front balcony (shown below), alongside a few more tomatoes, bush beans, carrots, beets, more garlic and more red onions. Our radish have been pulled, and I haven’t yet decided whether to simply seed more dill or risk salad greens in the summer heat in their currently vacant container.

floor front balcony garden, 1 July 2019.

Sometimes I sorrow over not being able to grow more vegetables at ground level on our shady city property (currently our ground-level growing is limited to rhubarb, raspberries and red currants), but between patios, verandahs, balconies and decks we are able to dedicate about as much square footage to vegetables and herbs as we might manage in the soil, without the same risks of soil depletion and problems with pests.

Third floor back deck, plants aglow in the early morning light.

Still, at some point we will retire from urban life, and then I will have a half-acre vegetable garden, an arbor for fruit trees, and a kitchen garden filled with herbs.

Summer of my Terracotta Soldier

Representatives of Qin Shi Huang’s teracotta army, guarding my apple mint.

At a street sale on Saturday morning, in a silk-lined box set out on a table, was a souvenir set of four terracotta warrior figures. Without really meaning to do so, I found myself buying the figures for five dollars.

Qin Shi Huang (259 BCE to 210 BCE), the first Emperor of China, is well known for unifying disparate territories into a cohesive Chinese state, for major public infrastructure projects including the Lingqu canal and the Great Wall of China, and perhaps most widely, for the thousands of life-sized terracotta figures buried at his necropolis near Xian and rediscovered in 1974. The terracotta army, which includes 8,000 warriors, along with chariots, horses and other military figures, has become a popular tourist attraction, and many visitors buy souvenir warriors, made mainly in miniature, to pack home in their suitcases. Souvenir warrior sets are also sold internationally at museums hosting traveling exhibits. In 2010 the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto hosted one such exhibition, and this I suspect is the source of my terracotta warriors.

My aesthetic runs more toward Upper Canada cottage than Qin dynasty China (although of course as a geographer I am interested in Qin’s public infrastructure approach to nation-building; my daughter also has an abiding interest in Chinese history, and it is from her that I learned about Emperor Qin in the first place!), but I didn’t buy these terracotta warriors for any intellectual or aesthetic reason. I bought them because they reminded me of my mother, a life-long yard sale hound who would have snatched up these warriors either to display in her dining room or to pack away as a present. If she were still alive, I would have brought these to her as a gift, knowing she would chortle over their history, and their size and detail, before setting them out in a grouping on a windowsill or shelf.

But because I cannot give these terracotta warriors to my mother, I brought them home and set them in pots in a sheltered corner of our veranda balcony, where they keep watch among the mint. Emperor Qin might grimace at the tiny territory these warriors defend, but I think he’d smile at the setting.

*

P.S. At the same street sale I also bought this wonderful contemporary pot, salt-glazed by a local potter whose name I wish I had thought to ask. I love its texture and shape: organic, yet formal. This pot is also spending the summer on the veranda, but in the fall I think it will come indoors to join my collection of 19th century jugs and crocks.

Rhubarb Report

These fat nubs are my rhubarb, planted last summer and, after overwintering, poking through the soil in the narrow garden plot beside our garage and promising a first proper harvest to come in June!

Rhubarb reportedly prefers well-drained, fertile soil in full sun, but the garden plot where we have planted ours has thin, stony soil and only partial sunlight. It is also partly beneath the eave of our neighbours’ garage, meaning it receives only peripatetic rainfall. But last year it seemed to do quite well, and I’m hopeful that this year we’ll get a decent harvest.

A decade ago this stretch between our neighbours’ garage and our back walkway was dry and stony, and underlain by shards of glass and broken concrete. I resolved to turn it into a garden where I could grow raspberries, and here is what it looked like last June.

I’ve set in a row of old bricks to hold soil and moisture, and every year I amend the soul liberally with compost. To me this strip–about 18 inches wide and about 12 feet long–is evidence that almost any space can be made into a garden with a little care and a willingness to experiment. It does have limitations, though: last year we planted zucchini along here, which flowered but never fruited and eventually developed powdery mildew.

This year I would like to grow a few sunflowers along here, and am tempted to colonize the garage wall with hanging planters for lettuce or other shade-tolerating edibles.

But for now, the big news is that the rhubarb is up!

Birthday Me, Circa 1974

… and birthday me, circa 1975, when Easter coincided with my birthday and my mother made a bunny cake, the instructions for which almost certainly came from a Family Circle or Woman’s Day magazine.




Spring Bulbs

I’ve been sick all week with a cold, but went out yesterday afternoon to rake the front gardens. Dug the leaf rake out of the garage, located a few yard waste bags, brought out the pruning secateurs, and found one remaining pair of wearable gardening gloves (I buy them in bunches each spring at the dollar store, but more seem to disappear over the year than ever actually wear out).

Every fall I pile fallen leaves onto the garden for winter insulation. The challenge, in the spring, is to rake them off at just the right time. Too early and sprouting greens may end up frost-bitten; too late and the bulb tips will already have begun poking into the leaf litter and get nipped off by the rake. The prefect day to rake is a mild, sunny day followed by rain, and yesterday was mild and sunny, while today a light mist is falling.

While raking, the only signs of life I noticed were thin green strands of scilla (squill) marshaling themselves for the season. But ten minutes after I had finished raking, the tips of crocus had begun to appear all over the garden.

It is so good to have my hands in the soil again after the winter. The earth is alive and warm and rich, and there there is increasingly good research evidence that healthy soil microbiomes contribute positively to agricultural yields as well as to good human health. There is evidence, too, that healthier soils produce sweeter crops. I am not a soil scientists, but ‘know’ from long experience that in the spring the soil feels particularly alive, even sentient. And I try to treat it the way I would any other living thing. [Anyone interested in a fascinating, accessible and beautifully written book about soil would do well to read William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (1995; 2007).]

This morning it was raining lightly, and overnight the front garden had grown a green cast. Bulbs are popping up all over–crocus, scilla, tulips, narcissus, hyacinth–and so too are the green beginnings of dame’s rocket, goldenrod, echninacea, bergamot, creeping Charlie, iris, mint and serpent garlic. For several years I have planned to dig up and reset the front garden, which has grown rather wild. But getting the timing right will be just as important as it is when first raking the leaves off in the spring. Too early and there’s the risk of digging over plants worth keeping; too late and the soil will have grown hard with midsummer drought.

I’m not quite sure what I’d like for the front garden. It enjoys a west and south exposure but is lightly shaded by our large honey locust tree. Years ago we designed it around a large, elevated slab of limestone atop which sits a sundial. This edifice is surrounded by a ring of limestone meant to serve as a walkway, but the some of the limestone has gotten buried and the walkway was too narrow to be practical. I am thinking, I suppose, of renewing the garden as a quadrant, perhaps with more perennial herbs toward the front alongside perennial flowers. I do like the wild English garden effect, and so do the cats who lie hidden in it on hot days, but think it could also work better if it was just slightly more formal. Something to dream out in the coming weeks, I think.

After the Storm

Two years ago, on the day the ice went out in the lake, my beautiful mother died.

Her breath, which had raged in her throat all afternoon, grew lighter and fainter and further away, and then stopped, like the wind after a storm.

After her death I did everything that needed to be done, and bore everything that needed to be borne.

I kept all her secrets.

*

Yesterday, on the first day of spring, I took my bike out of the garage and rode down to the lake. The ice had gone out, all of it except for a few slabs heaved onto the shore by a storm. From underneath each one came a musical tinkling as hexagonal columns of ice sheared off in the sunlight.

I shared a sandwich with a pair of swans, and moiled in the gravel for beach glass. I found part of a tiny porcelain insulator, a Bakelite wheel, four fat nuggets of frosted slag glass, five pieces of blue transferware, and the cobalt rim of a very old crock or pitcher. I brought them home to value and keep, and to learn what may be learned from them.

Beach glass, Lake Ontario, 2019.

So much wreckage, softened and worn by the erosion of time. Not all of it washes ashore–the lake keeps a few secrets–but enough pieces of it make landfall for parts of the story to be pieced together. Beloved crockery, broken and discarded, returns to haunt or heal.

After a storm is the best time to find beach glass. During a storm waves scour the lakebed and churn up the shore, obliterating and then reshaping it. Afterward, the rough outline of points and bays remains the same, but on the beach itself, everything has changed.

A beachcomber will, with diligence, uncover the familiar landmarks and, by observing the pattern of the waves and the spill of sediments along the shoreline, identify where artifacts are most likely to wash up.

And this is what I did yesterday; what I’ve been doing for two years. I waited out the storm and watched the shore and gathered what could be retrieved.

The Queen of Sheba

Today is International Women’s Day, and this morning I woke up thinking of my grandmother, Helena Inazella Damery (nee Black), seen here circa 1933, who knew how and when to wield an axe. She was widowed early, and supported herself for decades on a rural farm in the Canaan Valley, New Brunswick, planting her own fields, hunting, building whatever she needed (including an indoor bathroom, in aid of which she inveigled a highway works crew to dig a septic system in exchange for gossip and a drink!), cutting lumber for her woodstove, traveling to Moncton and Fredericton to work, and writing sardonic letters that make me wish I had known her as an adult. On the back of this photograph she has written, “The ‘Queen of Sheba’ Ha ha!”

‘Lena, as she was known, was born at Cherryvale NB in 1914. She was the eldest of seven children born to William Harold Black and Edith Helena Black (nee Corey). In 1937 she married my grandfather, Thomas Murray Damery, and together they lived near Hunter’s Home, a few miles downstream until his death in 1965 and the illness that resulted in her death in 1988. They had two children: Cecil William Damery, who died in 2003, and my mother, Bernita Helena Harris (nee Damery), born in 1944.

After my mother died in 2017, I came across several boxes of documents in the attic of her house, including about 100 letters from her mother. A few days ago I began sorting and cataloguing them, appropriate timing, I think, in advance of International Women’s Day. My mother and grandmother were not always close–my parents moved to Ontario in 1971 and returned ‘down Home’ infrequently, and my grandmother felt somewhat abandoned–but ‘Lena’s letters are always loving and rich in detail. They are also somewhat sardonic, reflecting her judgments of relations, coworkers and acquaintances to whom she was required by convention or relationship to remain civil in person. In addition, they reveal a private bitterness about some of the challenges she confronted in the years after my grandfather’s premature death–running a rural household without help, driving long distances to a series of poorly-paid housekeeping jobs–but also a triumphant pride in her ingenuity and persistence despite these difficulties.

Here are a few representative excerpts from her letters:

[25 July 1972]: “I shot a porcupine the other night, 2 shots with the 22. he had kept me awake the night before chewing on the back of the wood-house. I gave him a decent burial the next day. I tried to shoot a ground-hog but took buck fever, the old gun just shook, then when I got over that, I didn’t want to shoot him in the back, so I missed, but the mud flew in his face. I’ll try again the next time I’m home.”

[26 April 1973]: “This man came knocking on my door, he was returning to Fredericton […] from a convention, in Moncton, when his back, white topped car developed trouble, oil, and power steering lost, etc. I took him up to phone the tow truck, he helped me wash my car. I gave him coffee, cookies, and good conversation, thought I might have to sleep him too, but the town truck arrived after several hours wait. […] He told me he wasn’t married. [….] Yesterday in the mail came a box of Smiles and Chuckles Turtles, and a “gratefully yours” note, a very small token of his appreciation for my kindness and helpfulness during his stop in my neighbourhood. Frankly, I never expected to hear from him again, even though he asked me to call in to see him if I was in town. Now I have to write and thank him for the candy, and I’m in a quandry because I would like to leave the door open a few inches, and I don’t want to appear to do so. ha ha ha!”

[9 October, probably 1973]: “[B]elieve it on Sunday morning, I had a good s _ _ _ in my own john and flushed it all away. There is still quite a lot of work to do, but give me a little more time. I didn’t know how I was going to get a cess pool and septic trench dug. I couldn’t afford to get a man with a machine to come from Sussex or Jemseg, and they charge from the time they leave home, around $200 to $250.00 even though the job only takes a short time. So I made a deal with the boss of the [highway] construction crew in exchange for “bull pens” on my property, they dug my cess pool and ditch. He gave me a bottle of lemon gin, and we had a little drink (gin and 7Up) and I got them a bottle of Bacardi’s Rum. I had gone to Sussex one afternoon and when I came home the big machine was at work. They had the cess pool all dug, and ready to start the ditch, so I just stood around and yakked with the men. “

I don’t know whether my grandmother would have described herself as a feminist. She would, I think, have been far more likely to make a joke about burning bras in the fire barrel behind the barn, “ha ha ha!” But she was a survivor, and a person who made purpose out of persistence, and on this day it is a special privilege to read her loving, sarcastic, personality-revealing letters.

Reading: The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book, 1918

Years ago for a dollar at a yard sale, I bought this well worn copy of The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book, published in Brockville (Ontario, Canada) in 1918.

1918 was the final year of the First World War and the cookbook, according to its publishing note, was produced “for the benefit of Red Cross Work.”

During the First World War, Women’s Patriotic Leagues sprung up in cities and towns across the British Empire; in Ontario, there was also a Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League, funded by the Grand River Territory in support of the allied war effort. Women’s Patriotic League activities focused on direct and indirect war efforts ranging from knitting socks for soldiers, fundraising for Red Cross activities, educating housewives about food conservation, supporting families whose loved ones were fighting overseas, and maintaining morale in war-wearied regions.

My cookbook, which sold for $1 in 1918, is filled with “tried and true” recipes standard for the era. But it also has features that make it unique.

First, my copy includes numerous handwritten recipes, most in pencil but a few in black or blue ink. This is a cookbook collector’s dream: to find a handwritten record indicating how the book was used, and when, and by whom. My book has no owner’s name, unfortunately, but the names of many of the women who supplied the recipes written in by hand are included; e.g., “Mrs. garland’s [sic] drop cookies,” “Edie De Wolfe” (“A good Molasses Cake”), “Blanche’s ice box rolls,””Lemon pudding – Stella’s,” “Mrs. C. C. Cooke” (“Xmas Cake”), “Mrs. Jas Davidsons” (“Cake,”) “Aunt Cecha’s [??] Cookies,” “Marie McWilliams” (“Tomato Sandwich Filling”), etc.. Researching these names would almost certainly help indicate how they were connected, likely through a church or other community network in the Brockville or Leeds County region of Ontario.

The handwritten recipes, which list specific oven temperatures suited to the use of an electric range with thermostat (there are also two handwritten “icebox cookie” recipes), also indicate that this book was likely updated by hand for at least two or three decades, even as technological changes may have made some of the 1918 instructions (e.g., “bake in a moderate oven”) seem dated.

Nearly all the handwritten recipes are for desserts or pickles, and as a result it seems hardly surprising that the printed pages with bread, cake and pickle recipes are the ones that appear most used, at least judged by spills and annotations. A few of the printed recipes in other sections have checks beside them, indicating they had been tried and approved, and others have handwritten annotations and substitutions. But for the most part this cookbook reads like a compendium of community events and social gatherings at which fancy cakes–and their recipes–would have been shared.

A second feature of this cookbook that stands out is the section of War recipes, mainly involving substitutions for white flour and refined sugar. The section is prefaced by the following rhyme–

“If you would be healthy, wealthy and wise,
Eat less meat, waste less wheat,
Cut down on sugar and pies.”

–intended, presumably, to bring food conservation beyond the immediate imperatives of supporting the war effort and into the broader domain of frugality and physical health.

There is a lengthy introductory text in the War Recipes section summarizing some important procedural differences between bread made with white flour and baked items made with whole wheat, rye, oat, barley and rice flour or meal, or with potato (mashed or in starch form). It is an intriguing read a century later, at a time when alternative flours are appreciated for their nutrient advantages and lower glycemic index numbers. Indeed, the 1918 recipe for Sweet Potato Muffins (flour, baking powder, salt, mashed sweet potatoes, milk, water, egg) reads like a pared-down version of this contemporary recipe produced by the Canadian Living Test Kitchen in 2009!

The War Recipes section also includes a recipe for Canadian War Cake, which appears to be a simplified fruit cake:

Canadian War Cake

One cup brown sugar, 1 cup water, 1 1/2 cups seeded raisins, 2 tablespoonfuls lard, 1 teaspoonful cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoonful cloves, 1/2 teaspoonful salt.

Boil together for five minutes and cool. When cold stir in 1 teaspoonful soda dissolved in a little warm water. Add two cups flour sifted with 1/2 teaspoonful baking powder.

Baking instructions are not indicated, but I am guessing this is a cake that would be baked in a “moderate oven” for 25 minutes, in keeping with the other recipes.

In all the years I’ve owned this cookbook, I have never yet baked from it. But a surprising number of the recipes seem strikingly current, and when there is time during the summer, I plan to test out a few, such as this one:

Fried Egg Plant

Cut a nice egg plant in thin slices, lay in salt water two or three hours, then steam until tender. Make a better of 2 eggs, 1 teacupful sour cream, 1 teaspoonful salt, 1/2 teaspoonful soda and flour to thicken. Dip the slices of egg plant into the batter, fry till a light brown in boiling lard. Serve hot.

I might even, I suppose, give Canadian War Cake a chance.

The Women’s patriotic League Cookery Book is reportedly a hard-to-find book in print, but for those interested, the complete text is available online here, thanks to Archive dot org and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

[Text and images not to be reused without permission and attribution.]

A Piece of the Storm

“From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That’s all
There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”

[Strand, Mark, 1998.A Piece of the Storm. From Blizzard of One. Knopf: 20.]

For twenty years I have loved this poem, the first of many of Mark Strand’s poems and essays I have read and loved. I have the book, with the clipping of the newspaper article in which it first appeared to me tucked into it. I remember the stillness it left in its wake.

For me the “city of domes” was and will always be Kingston, Ontario, where I lived within sight and shadow of its cathedrals. I first read the poem in another city, sitting in a chair in a south-facing window with the domes of another city shadowed and sunlit in the distance.

I awoke this morning with the certainty that has risen in me for months:

It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.