Domestic Pursuits

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.]

The Last of the Summer Herbs

Yesterday I went out one last time to snip herbs from my garden. A few more sage leaves; some oregano, as soft and shapely as a squirrel’s ear. Then three woody spikes of rosemary, and the last of the spearmint.

I dry herbs in the simplest manner possible: in bowls and colanders set out on the kitchen counter or on the dining table. Sometimes I strip the leaves first; at other times I wait until the stalks have dried and the leaves are easy to crumble from them. I store dried herbs in the same glass jars my mother saved her herbs in; a source of solace not only in the memory of these same jars lined up in her kitchen, but in the act of saving some of the very same herbs she gave me years ago as cuttings.

My mom’s herb garden was compact but ornate. Lined with granite cobblestones, it was divided diagonally into sections organized around an ornamental fountain and a narrow cross-shaped walkway, and in it she grew dozens of varieties of herbs, many of which she divided or took cuttings from to start me on my first herb garden. For several years I grew herbs in a round garden divided into sections like the spokes on a wheel, but because our garden is currently too shady for most herbs to thrive at ground level, over time I have shifted my herbs to containers grown on the various balconies and decks of our house, where they thrive in sunlight or dappled shade according to their needs, and where I can commune with them all the hours of the day.

Every year the variety of herbs I grow increases: this year’s plantings included basil, lemon thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, tarragon, pineapple sage, parsley, cilantro, dill, mint (spearmint and a potent, large-leafed mint labeled ‘Mohito Mint’ at the garden centre), rosemary and chives. And while in past years I have simply mourned the loss of my garden with the first frost, after my mother died I resolved to preserve as much of the summer as possible. Last year I dried half a dozen varieties of herbs, and managed to save just enough lemon thyme and tarragon (the herbs I use most in cooking) to last through the winter, but this year I made batches and batches of basil pesto, a batch of mint jelly, two batches of lemon verbena jelly, dried everything else I could to store in jars, and hung lavender to scent the house in winter. Tomorrow I plan to make chive butter, and then I won’t have to weep over the first hard frost.

Next year I plan further expansions to my herb garden. More lemon thyme, basil, parsley, tarragon, cilantro and dill for sure; and for the first time in a decade I would like to grow borage, an herb I love not because it is useful in cooking (it is mainly a medicinal plant), but because its drowsy heads of star-like purple flowers attract clouds of bees. More lemon verbena. More mint. More of everything, as soon as it becomes possible to set new plants into the warming soil on a spring day.

But in the meantime, harvesting and drying the last of the summer’s herbs is a kind of prayer, and every time I use these herbs during the winter it will be in thanks for the gift of the growing season and in faith of light returning to the hemisphere.