My flash fiction entry for a Tablo contest:
My dad was born in 1931. He was a product of the Great Depression, an Irish Catholic boy raised in Lowertown Ottawa, in an area that was expropriated in the 1960s in one of the government follies of the time (Pickering comes to mind as another). He was born in a decade when jobs were sparse and money was tight. There wasn’t much to fall back on then; no unemployment insurance, no health care. Family and church were basically what you had. You made do to make a dollar stretch. Hand-me-down clothes were what people wore, and what you had was fixed or mended. You walked, or if you had a bike, rode. If you were fortunate enough to pay trolley fare, well you took the OTC. My grandfather was an OTC trolley driver.
My mother told me stories of marks made by transients on the fence posts, of her mother keeping a pot of soup on the stove to feed people who came to the door. This essay isn’t about my mother though, she is older and of the post WW1 generation. She also came from the other side of the tracks, an upper middle-class “Anglo-Irish” Anglican. Her story is for later. But, to set the stage, this was a time of iceboxes in the kitchen, of outhouses and indoor plumbing if you weren’t poor, of telephone party-lines and operators who answered when you picked up the receiver (or the horn if you still had one of those crank kind of phones) with an accented “Numba please!”. It was an age where milk was still delivered to the door in glass bottles, where Sunday was for church and family, where women cooked, sewed their own clothes if they knew how, and children were children, with not too much of a voice, certainly not with any authority figure. Spankings and the strap were still a discipline possibility. Family secrets were never told to outsiders and radio and newsprint were the media. There was no t.v. then, cinema was king. The “talkies” had supplanted silent movies, but many of the stars were still thriving: think Charlie Chaplin, Lawrence Olivier, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore to name a few. Big band, swing and jazz was the music of the day, prohibition was still on in the US (until 1933) but the only province in Canada that still had it was P.E.I. when the 1930s started.
When my dad was growing up, a lot more was expected of them than now. It wasn’t uncommon for children to leave school as soon as they could to help out on the family farm, or for city folks like my family was, to help meet expenses by working. At the time, to have a high school diploma wasn’t essential – it carried as much weight as a BA does now, which meant you could get a good job with a grade 13 (in Ontario) diploma – it was called a Senior Matriculation. My dad rode his bicycle as a courier when he was a teen, and he worked as a page in Parliament. By now this was the 1940s, but he was of the group of people whose older siblings or cousins were in World War II. By the time he was old enough, it was over. I’ve often wondered how easy it was for that group to get their first jobs just as the soldiers were coming back. Given that the woman who were holding down the jobs until the men came back mostly lost theirs, and unmarried women were expected to leave their jobs when they married, what did they do?
One thing I do know is this is a group who had a sense of adventure and they made do for themselves. My dad took a job that had him working in Churchill, Manitoba where he saw the northern lights and carried a flashlight when he went out at night because you wanted to make sure you saw the polar bears at a distance. He got his driver’s licence by buying a beer for the driver examiner (something others have told me did similar things). They were a little bit more rebellious than their war-aged previous generation; not quite as rebellious as the 40s, 50s and 60s generations after. Their rock stars were people like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day – I grew up hearing those albums played enough I got tired of them. While I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate Doris Day the way my dad did (oh, let’s face it – not at all), I have come to like hearing Frank Sinatra now because he does remind me of my dad.
My children’s grandmother is still with us, but her health is not that great. She is at a stage in her life where she is being cared for at home as long as can be done by her son, grandson, and her best friend. I loved hearing her stories of growing up on a farm in New Brunswick; of riding horses bareback and locking the door with a knife if there were ever a need to lock a door (once she remembered an escaped criminal), of a time when good girls married, unwed mothers went away and babies were put up for adoption, where school after grade 6 was optional depending on how much you were needed on the farm. For them, they weren’t rich, they age lobster sandwiches for lunch and were embarrassed with their “garbage food” sandwiches because lobster just wasn’t something that you ate if you had money. Funny how tastes change. She was a trail blazer, going to Montreal to nursing school after her doctor suggested it. She kept working as a nurse after she married; it was her career and that was that. In her 40s, a young widow, she got her BScN. I will always remember her swinging an axe as she chopped wood below the porch; we walked lobsters on the porch prior to cooking them, and we chased bats that got in from the stove and hung out on the curtains. I would joke that her answer to everything was kerosene because it seemed it was her answer to everything. If the world had had a huge calamity twenty years ago I know that she would have been more than capable of surviving in that cottage and she’d teach us all to do the same.
Oh, and Russell. I can’t forget my dear friend Russell. He died in 1986 at age 50. He was like my father, a world traveler but he did get a degree – never quite finished his PhD. He was raised in Northern Ontario on the shore of Lake Temiskaming, a quiet Catholic boy who loved to sing. He had stories of digging out of the house when snow went up past the door sill, and he, like my father left home as soon as he could to work and for him to get educated. Russell got involved with the CCF and knew Stephen Lewis. He lived in Africa, the US, Granada and Brazil – he had real shrunken heads hanging from hooks – they had eyebrows I remember. He loved to play his ukulele and sing in a deep baritone voice; one of his favorites was The Bastard King of England. To this day I miss Russell, and like so many of his generation he couldn’t understand why I didn’t just hop on a plane and follow my dreams. I’ve tried, and have succeeded in a minor way but nothing like him. Or my dad. Or Christine.
These are our parents, those of us who are in their 40s and 50s now. These are the people who shaped us, who taught us to fix cars with a wrench, a prayer and a bit of duct tape. They smoked like chimneys and drank and didn’t apologize. They just did their thing and expected us to understand that. It seems silly, but now they are leaving us through time and disease, oh how I wish I could go back and do like they did; what is it about my generation that we always had to be told what the rules were and how to go about things?
Anyway, lately I’ve heard too much about losses related to this generation. So for now, I remember them with one of my dad’s favorite songs; and in particular Russell who passed 29 years ago on June 29th with a song of my own that I wrote to help get over his death.
And here’s Russell’s song (click the link below):
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike2.5 Canada License.
Russell’s Song, vocals and lyrics, sung and played by Catherine M. Harris
There’s a movie that was released in 2014 that captures this generation beautifully – it is “Still Mine” and can be seen here: https://youtu.be/EXfLcK-p8K0
Vermont is what we call a macaroni and cheese recipe that I adapted from a web page for Vermont visitors. It uses Vermont sharp cheddar. I don’t, I like to use Tex Mex or Nacho shredded cheese. It also had too much butter to be healthy so I changed it to be a little more to our tastes. The basic recipe is below. I also add things depending on my mood. Some add ins include tomato, spinach, or peas. The picture shows a version I made with diced stewed tomatoes and some of the milk replaced by tomato juice from the canned tomatoes, and with fresh spinach leaves.
The recipe serves 4 as a meal, 6 as a side.
Use a 2 quart (2 litre) casserole dish, no lid.
2 cups (500 ml) elbow macaroni
1 to 2 cups (250 to 500 ml) shredded cheese for the topping
1/4 cup (62.5 ml) olive oil
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) salt
1/4 tsp (1.25 ml) ground black pepper
1/4 cup (62.5 ml) flour
1 3/4 cup (437.5 ml) milk (I use 1%)
1 1/4 cup (312.5 ml) shredded cheese (I use Tex Mex or Nacho blend)
Cook the macaroni, adding vegetables (not tomatoes) to the pot if you wish. This will cook about 10 minutes, with 5 minutes to bring the water to a boil (15 minutes total).
While the macaroni is cooking, pour the olive oil in a sauce pan and add the salt and pepper. Heat the oil on medium-low for a minute or so (don’t let it get so hot it’s smoking). Add the flour and stir until the mixture is smooth (my dad used to call this the “rue” when making gravy – hint: this is also how you make gravy).
Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the milk, stirring the whole time. If you are adding diced tomatoes and juice this is when and where you do that. When it is stirred in and smooth return the pan to the heat, and gradually increase the heat to medium-high, stirring constantly. When it is thick and bubbly, remove from heat and stir in the shredded cheese.
At this point the macaroni should be ready to drain. You should check the doneness of the macaroni as you are cooking the sauce as it’s better that the macaroni be a little under-cooked than over cooked. Drain the macaroni and put in the casserole dish. Pour in the cheese sauce and mix well. Sprinkle the remaining shredded cheese over the top, amount based on your taste.
Cook in a 375 degree F / 190 celcius oven for 25 minutes. At 25 minutes, remove from oven, sprinkle with paprika and return for 5 more minutes. This is done when it’s bubbly and the top is nicely browned.
Total time to make is approximately one hour. Don’t ask me how many calories this has. I don’t want to know. 🙂
Making baked beans is a bit of an art – what’s crucial is the sauce and that is very much dependent on personal taste. I’ve tried several recipes and found the answer was simply to take the one that most suited my taste and adapt. My main complaint about bean recipes are they are too sweet, or alternatively, quite bland. So I took the recipe from the back of a Webster’s Farm Soldier Bean bag. Webster’s Farm is a Nova Scotia company, and solider beans, as far as I have seen is a maritime peculiarity. I haven’t seen them anywhere else and when my children were small when we went to the cottage in New Brunswick in the summer we would always come back to Mississauga with a few bags of soldier beans. So, for the uninitiated they are a large meaty beans. I normally use Great Northern Beans because they are also large meaty beans, just a little more available and less expensive.
To make baked beans the first thing you need to do is to soak them. Pour the beans into a collander, rinse them off and check there’s no rocks or other debris. Place the beans in a container large enough to cover them with water and to allow for swelling as they absorb the water. I usually put the beans in the large pot I’ll be cooking them in. Cover the beans with at least two inches of cool water. These will need to soak overnight; check midway if you can to ensure that they don’t need more water – also, draining and replacing the water half way if you can will reduce the gassy effect of beans somewhat.
When the beans are done soaking, rinse and then put them back into the pot and cover with cool water, leaving 2 inches of water above the beans. Bring the beans to a boil – keep an eye on this, bean water gets this weird foam that boils over if you’re not careful. When the beans are boiling, scoop off the foam, reduce heat to simmer and cover. Cook until the beans are cooked, firm but not crunchy; try not to overcook as that will make the beans a little mushy. This cooking part is usually about 45 minutes but I have had to simmer for a couple of hours – it depends on the soaking time given. Once you add the sugar and the vinegar later on, the beans will not get any softer so keep that in mind. A tip from the beans package says that if you remove a bean from the pot, blow on it and the skin cracks it’s almost done.
When the beans are the right firmness, drain and put them in the container you will be cooking in. More on the how of cooking is after the sauce recipe.
4 tsp (20 ml) dried mustard
1/2 cup (125 ml) brown sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) molasses
2 tsp (10 ml) salt
1 tsp (5 ml) maple syrup
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) pepper
1/4 lbs (113 g) salt pork or bacon (I don’t put this myself – could also put roast beef)
2 tsp (10 ml) vinegar
1 cup (250 ml) tomato ketchup or tomato sauce
1 large onion
Combine all the ingredients except for the onion in a bowl and add 2 cups (500 ml) warm water. Pour over the beans. Chop the onion and sprinkle over the top of the beans. Top off with enough water to have 2 inches or so above the beans (not more than that – less if you want less sauce). If you want a little heat, try adding a tsp or two of chili powder or Tex Mex powder. An hour or so before the cooking is done, take a cup of the beans and mash them then add them back to the pot to thicken the sauce. Do this to the amount of thickness you prefer.
Cooking choices: these can be cooked on top of the stove (bring to a boil, bring down to low and simmer, covered for 4 to 6 hours); in a crockpot (cook on high for 4 – 6 hours); or baked in the stove at 300 degrees F/150 degrees celcius for 4-6 hours.
This can also be done in the Instant Pot with either fresh or dried beans. I prefer to soak the beans overnight so they aren’t so hard but you could follow the bean softening instructions for Instant Pots. Once your beans are soft you cook the bacon and onion on saute, deglaze the pot with a bit of the sauce (or water), add the beans to the pot and cook on manual for 25 minutes with 15 NPR. If the beans are too hard cook for 5 or 10 minutes longer depending on how soft you want them to be. When done put on Saute and mash the cup of beans and stir back in, then saute until the sauce is your desired thickness.
Saving for later: what I love about these “weekend beans” is that I can freeze them in meal sized containers and use them throughout the month. I will make a pot on one weekend and it often last two or three weeks frozen before it’s time to make another pot.