Showing posts with label traditional foods. Show all posts
Showing posts with label traditional foods. Show all posts

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eat...just like old times...part two

One of my grandfather's four apple trees

My grandparents’ garden, where I spent many a summer reading books and eating raspberries, is still producing in October. There are 4 apple and pear trees, grafted so many times that they form unusual shapes, that bear 20 different varieties for which my grandfather cannot offer names. The simple greenhouse still houses pimento peppers and pickling cucumbers. Portuguese winter kale, paler and softer and sweeter than that which you find in the grocery store, is flourishing and there are still plump blackberries on the (unthinkably smooth) vines. Pumpkins are hiding in tall grass.

The pumpkins in question

When I was little, this garden was my hideaway. I was always a bit of a loner, preferring to spend the long summer days reading books and stuffing my face by myself. The garden was the perfect spot to pass the time: I could sit undisturbed and enjoy the sun and whenever the urge struck, I would just reach up a grab a snack. Cherries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and green peas kept my belly full. I remember eating so many cherries that I would get a stomachache. I can also remember afternoons spent with my grandmother in the basement, fingers green from shelling peas to store in the freezer. I am not sure how many of my peas escaped my mouth, but I at least I though I had contributed.
 Pomace from wine making the week before my arrival is pungently fertilizing the resting soil. I am sorry I missed the crush. While many grandfathers make their own “two buck chuck” from commercial wine juice, my grandfather has grapes shipped here and actually crushes his own wine, which is then stored in oak barrels in the basement.

The seeds for this kale came directly from Portugal

Not that a touch of grandfatherly thrift isn’t present: instead of making wine from 17 cases of grapes, he learned that he can create it from fewer cases if he adds raisins. I just found this out. I had always wondered why it tastes like raisins…I guess my palette isn’t so useless after all. I remember as a child watching this process with an intensity befitting a future food geek. On tip toe, I would peek into the pungent barrels, frothy as the yeast did their business. When the barrels weren’t present, I would bound into the basement at speed. When it was winemaking time, some part of me expected that quiet and stealth were necessary so as not to disturb the alchemy at hand. The grapes are crushed via a small hand crank crush that sits on top of the barrels. I always wanted to try and crush the grapes myself and would attempt, each year, in vain to muster up the strength necessary to get the crank a full turn, always succeeding only when a strong hand came to my assistance. One turn, and my work was done. My little hands had made wine.

In this house, the next meal begins as soon as this one is done. Breakfast dishes cleared, one must set to marinating meat for dinner. There are ingredients to be defrosted. More food from the cold room brought up to be crammed, impossibly, into the overloaded fridge.

The basement in any Portuguese home is where the dirty work of feeding a family really happens. There is a second fridge, an area under the stairs that serves as a pantry, barrels for wine, a cold storage room, a deep freeze and of course, a bar where the men congregate to drink and gossip.

Taro...not just for poi...we fry it in the drippings left over from making linguica

In preparation for our arrival, linguiƧa, or Portuguese sausage, has been chopped, filled and cured in the basement. The cold room is filled with this fall’s harvest (and the surplus of shopping trips that could feed a small army). The a deep freeze is filled with blackberries, raspberries and rhubarb, beans and peas…but not cherries this year, as a late frost stunted the supply down to 15 pounds.

Having been a vegetarian for 14 years, my grandparents are still confounded by what I will eat. Not eating bacon (my childhood favourite) is suspicious. Actually, not eating meat at all is suspicious. The young me ate steak, bacon and chicken with vigor. My grandmother cannot reconcile that my tastes could have changed so dramatically. The first trip back to Terrace after changing my eating habits as a teenager, my grandmother was convinced that it was my mother who would not let me eat meat. She implored my mother at every meal to allow me to eat each dish, as it had once been a favourite.

My grandparents seem to be more accepting, or at least used to my unusual lifestyle choices. The first morning I was here, my grandfather took me to Save on Foods and instructed me to buy whatever I needed. At the checkout, the cashier saw my 82 year old grandfather and a basket full of tofu, plain yogurt, All Bran Buds, veggie burgers, sprouted grain bread and soy milk and astutely remarked that she didn’t think grandpa would be indulging in said delicacies.

This trip, I have initiated an even stranger habit: taking pictures and video of the everyday dishes that my grandmother has made for our family for years. I am actually shocked that she has allowed me to document her in the kitchen. Notoriously camera shy, I managed to convince her that I was not taking pictures of anything but the food and her hands (and if I caught a few of her in the process for my own memory books, no one needs to know).

Where my grandmother has been accommodating, my grandfather has been surprisingly enthusiastic. Each meal, he kept dreaming up new delicacies to document and stories from our food history to be shared. I wish I could document every last bit of this incredible knowledge because my grandmother famously refuses to write recipes. Hers is an expertise that doesn’t bother with such crude utility. For her, food is a living, breathing substance that needs to be expertly coaxed and crafted to perfection despite variations in weather, taste or texture. A recipe does not offer the subtlety required to produce such nourishing fare.

A few of said recipes are to come…stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eat...just like old times...part one

Tree Carvings on Ferry Island in Terrace BC

As I write, I am sitting in the house that formed my primary education in food. My mother is Portuguese by birth, having arrived on chilly Canadian soil as a child in 1959…and I am Portuguese by acculturation via these four walls. I grew up, for all intents and purposes, in my grandparent’s house here in Terrace. The small, simple house at the end of a quiet street, anchored by a giant old cherry tree and flanked by lovingly tended gardens. The house where there is always more food than its inhabitants (and neighbours, for that matter) could possibly eat. Where my grandmother does not greet you with a traditional “Hi” or “So good to see you” but “Did you eat?”

After 48 hours here, memories are flooding back and now in a more reflective state, induced no doubt by my recent foray into motherhood, I am starting to make myriad connections between who I am now as a dietitian, a cook and an eater and my formative food experiences which occurred right here.

Life in this house revolves around food and wine. Everyone who enters will either help themselves to whatever is on the kitchen counter - cake, boiled taro, fried broad beans – or will be lovingly force fed these and more upon taking a seat. If you don’t eat, my grandmother will offer more and different types of food until she finds one that you like and will eat. Not being hungry is unfathomable and therefore you are refusing because she has not correctly guessed what might be appetizing to you.

My culinary history is filled with a historically appropriate dichotomy of traditional and “modern”, simple and processed, home grown and store bought. Arriving in Canada without immediate access to the foods she knew and wanting to make a life in harmony with her new nation, as was common for immigrants of the time, my grandmother embraced Canadian foods with open arms. Mid century marvels such as Shake and Bake chicken, Jello molds, Cool Whip and Duncan Hines cake mixes shared pride of place alongside the familiar caldo verde, feijoa assado, massa sovada and arroz doce of our Azorean homeland. I remember as a child eating all of these traditional foods happily but still wanting the brand name treats I saw on the Saturday morning commercials. So I pleaded for my grandmother to buy Lucky Charms (from which I removed the toy and left in the cupboard, uneaten). I bought Chips Ahoy and Oreos instead of eating homemade meringues and butter cookies. But I sat down and ate every kind of vegetable imaginable (Brussels sprouts! Kale! Cabbage!) without complaint. And then I downed Pringles for dessert. Now that all of the grandkids are grown up, the processed foods feature somewhat less frequently than the foods of my grandparent's youth but the chips and candy are still hiding in the same spot…ready for snack attacks whenever they occur.

I spent my childhood watching my grandmother move deftly through the kitchen with admiration. A chair beside the counter was my prime vantage point. There were bowls to be licked (cake batter and cookie dough) and chicken to be shook and I didn't want to miss a minute of it. The turning point in my culinary education occurred one day when I was waiting to shake chicken. My grandmother had received a phone call before she could stuff the first piece in the bag, leaving me on the chair, staring at the chicken…dying to shake it. Patience was not one of my early virtues, sufficed to say. Pestering my grandmother as to when we could make the chicken, she simply stated, “you can do it yourself”. I could? This was serious business. I had not touched raw chicken before. It was slimy. And weird. But as my pulse quickened with the weight of the decision, my impatience finally outweighed my trepidation and so the fingers gingerly grabbed the chicken and placed it in the bag and shook away. Emboldened, I tried another piece, then another, until I proceeded to finish the entire batch.

Do you remember those commercials, the one where the little girl exclaims “It’s Shake and Bake…and I helped!” That day, I did...indeed.
My grandfather, as in many traditional European homes, dictates the menu by virtue of what he will and will not eat. This makes learning to cook in this house more difficult. One can assist my grandmother, but taking over the menu will leave you at the mercy of my grandfather’s critique, honed by years of exacting standards at my grandmother’s hands. My mother knew better than to try and take over the reigns until she had her own family to cook for. I, however, had to learn the hard way.

I remember getting permission as a child to make dinner with my friend, T, one summer vacation. We decided to make fajitas. My grandfather took us to the grocery store to gather our ingredients and once at home we set out creating chaos in the kitchen from which a fairly passable meal emerged. We were so excited to present the first “real” dinner we had ever made. I must have been 8 at the time but what I remember most vividly from that experience was that my grandfather informed us that we had sliced the steak incorrectly, going against the grain.
My grandfather had been a meat cutter when he first arrived in Canada.

Thankfully, he was not able to dampen my enthusiasm for cookery…but let’s just say that young child never again attempted to feed her grandfather. My husband, however, has fared far worse experiments and eats them without complaint. How times have changed...

More to come,