The initial signs of winter’s approach in the country are subtle. Scores of birds gather on hydro wires alongside rural roadways, while the first significant frost or dusting of snow spurs flocks of wild geese into action in anticipation for the long journey southward. The garden has dispensed its final harvest of potatoes, while in the orchard a few leftover apples, wrinkled and brown, cling stubbornly to the bare branches. In the barn, cracks, crevices and window frames are methodically stuffed with jute bags in defence against whatever mother nature might have in mind. Further signs of the approaching season used to include the yearly ritual of dragging the weathered wooden coils of snow fence from the tangle of weeds behind the shed; or perhaps the sight of Frank Johnston’s truck backed up to an open cellar window and the clatter of coal nuggets being shovelled down the steel chute into the basement bin.
While these outside activities advertised the relentless march of time towards another season, inside our old farmhouse it was a rather cozy time of year, at least it seemed that way for a kid growing up in the mid-nineteenth century.
I’m reminded of the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread that inundated our kitchen during the shortening days of autumn, and biscuits fresh from the oven. Slit in half with a pat of butter, these tasty delights complimented almost every meal. Awash in bacon grease and fried to a golden brown, they proved an especially delectable (if not particularly healthy) breakfast treat.
This time of year brought the aromatic tang of chili sauce simmering on a cast-iron stove to the tune of a crackling wood fire; a ritual which began by gathering together the tomatoes salvaged from the garden before the “hard frost.” The condition of the tomatoes, whether over-ripe, half-ripe or green, mattered little. The first priority was sanitizing dozens of pint and quart sealers, accomplished by immersing the glass containers in boiling water. The water was further utilized for removing the tomato skins. A couple minute’s boiling followed by a dunking in ice-cold water, allowed the skins to easily slide off.
The tomatoes were then sliced into small pieces, discarding any severely bruised sections as well as the tough area surrounding the stem. With the addition of onions and peppers, appropriate spices and sweetener, the mixture was then strained through cheesecloth into the glass jars. The final step was placing the jars in boiling water, allowing the lids to properly seal.
Pickles were processed in numerous configurations in accordance with a virtually unlimited cucumber supply. Seven day pickles, nine day pickles, dill (ugh!) pickles, icicle pickles, mustard pickles—all found homes on our cellar shelves.
Home-made soup was a mainstay. Beginning soon after school began in September and lasting well into the spring planting season, this staple served an important role in rural nutrition. A ham bone, turkey neck, beef knuckle or chicken carcass, combined with whatever vegetables were available—tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beans, celery, corn, peas, even zucchini—blended with seasoning and spices, providing wholesome goodness, especially during winter’s temperature extremes.
The coming of winter of course meant the arrival of another tradition: Christmas cake. The launching of this event varied, anywhere from mid-November until mid-December. Whether this disparity was related to moon phase, temperature, barometric pressure, the first snowstorm, or simply Mom’s mood, I can only guess.
Whatever the inspiration, there came the day when Mom would sit down at the kitchen table, retrieving the well-worn scrap of paper tucked within the pages of her Kate Aitkin cookbook. I always found it noteworthy the time Mom spent studying this particular recipe, while “regular” recipes were committed to memory. A dash, a sprinkling or a whiff might suffice for that run-of-the-mill sponge cake, I suppose, but apparently not for this festive delicacy.
Pen in hand, Mom would list the essentials needed, then check her cupboard drawers, shelves and spice racks for those in need of replenishment. Flour, baking soda, oranges, lemons, raisins, citrus peel, walnuts or perhaps almonds. Discussions developed annually over what was best, or if, indeed if, any formulation of nut was required. Price often seemed the deciding factor.
Molasses was a staple, as was lemon juice, but other citrus flavours varied from season to season with consideration again given to cost. Both brown and white sugar was paramount, perhaps some currants, candied cherries (green and red), vanilla, almond icing, a melange of spices. It was an extensive list.
I always made a point of being available to lend a hand when the various ingredients were being mixed, chopped, diced and sliced. The genuine reason for my presence was to lick the excess batter from spoons and bowls, test-taste the candied cherries and raisins, and sniff the intoxicating aroma of vanilla. In later years, kids would get high sniffing glue. I got off on vanilla.
Getting the proper batter consistency was an important step and it was always a dramatic moment when Mom poured the batter carefully into the waiting pans; these metal containers, greased with butter, lard or other such lubricant, were veterans of decades of wood-fired heat and had absorbed a perpetual ground-in hue that varied somewhere in colour between strong coffee and caramel.
Then into the oven went the creation. At this point, Mom might adjust the heat output by perhaps adding a bit of slow burning hardwood to the fire. Controlling the temperature was a challenge, a task that proved easier when she got her first electric range. It seemed like hours, I don’t actually remember how long it took, before the four or five cakes of varying dimension were removed from the hot oven. At this point the individual pans were carefully inverted, the finished product sliding easily onto thick brown paper spread on the counter.
In my mind, Mom’s fruit cake was unequalled. I think it was the issue of moisture content where contenders parted ways. Dad enjoyed telling people the secret was the liquor Mom added. Practically any description of alcohol was unheard of in our house, so the rumour that a shot of rum or brandy may have found its way into the batter was intriguing. Mom insisted that moisture content was attributed simply by the amount and variety of “fruit juice” employed. End of discussion.
A perennial last on the list candidate each fall was the installation of storm windows. What caused my father’s chronic delay I never understood; maybe he thought by procrastinating, winter could be somehow deferred or avoided altogether. Even Mom’s not-so-subtle hints, “Elsie says Murray had the garden plowed, the lawn chairs put away and the storm windows installed two weeks ago,” failed to provide the desired motivation.
When hints, subtle or otherwise proved unsuccessful, Mom tried a more direct approach. She recruited us kids to help lug the awkward wooden encumbrances from the grimy basement to the yard where she would initiate a grand production of washing and polishing the glass surfaces, a presentation she knew Dad couldn’t help but notice.
Finally, when no longer able to find something new to insulate, fabricate, or to otherwise forestall the inevitable, Dad would reluctantly turn his attention to the project. A half hour easily passed trying to recall where he might have last used the ladder, and maybe an hour repairing a broken rung or two. Next was a thorough inspection of the summer screens, mending any rips or tears in the fabric before putting them away in the basement. Some semblance of repair was inevitably in order for the storm windows as well; perhaps a piece of metal strapping or a few well-placed nails to re-inforce a cracked or split wooden frame.
This repair, remake and restore phase, was strictly a delay tactic, and generally undertaken on one of the nicest of autumn days, when the sun still radiated warmth and the ground was relatively dry. However, the day chosen for the actual installation would more often than not be met by a miserable mixture of rain and snow, driven by a northwest gale, with ice seemingly in its breath. Gusty winds threatened to snatch the storm windows from our father’s grasp as he teetered on the slippery ladder, which I or one of my brothers would desperately be trying to steady on the slushy unstable surface of the lawn.
Fingers numbed by frost, trying to insert an awkward window assembly into a wooden-framed cavity swelled by dampness, called for a degree of less than friendly commentary on Dad’s part. And certainly, Mom, gnawing away at him about the pleasant autumn days missed through procrastination and simple stubbornness, did nothing to diffuse the sour mood.