Eat What is Put Before You

So many things go wrong in stories when someone craves something they cannot have. Adam and Eve; Rapunzel’s mother; Aphrodite’s golden apples. (Even that forbidden radish – Rapunzel means radish – is round and red.)

roast potato wedges and stuffed squash

We have a surfeit of apples. We have plenty of turnips (rutabagas if you prefer), onions, potatoes and carrots. All are local. I have beans, beans, and more beans in the freezer, and a few pickled. I had enough radishes at the end of the season to make radish relish. Local food, and while some of it wasn’t magazine photo pretty, there is lots of it. The apples were bought in 30-40 pound bags for $10 a bag, labelled “deer apples,” which are people apples, cooked, and the not so nice ones are goat apples, and a little treat for the chickens to peck at. There is lettuce and tomatoes and oranges, melons and pineapples and celery in the markets, but they have flown in from far away places, and are as expensive and delicate as peacocks at the north pole.

Local supermarkets advertise massive bags of produce from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia as incentives for us to come and buy not only the cheap raw vegetables, but linger long enough for the bakery products, the tiny cups of convenience fruit, the steamed mashed, extruded and lard-coated novelty oven fries. I load the buggy with the raw goods, lots of them, and after paying a pittance compared to the name brand boutique food, heft them into the bed of the pick-up. I sort through them at home, cooking, canning, freezing, saving. My refrigerator is mostly winter produce and flour.

If we ate the way advertised on television or in magazines, we would have no money left for rent. As it is, we get by each month by judicious planning and cooking from scratch. Real scratchy cooking – with the dirt still on. I don’t remember when I filled a grocery buggy (cart or trolley, if you prefer) with the brightly coloured plastic wrapped convenience or gourmet foods. Our generic brands in the biggest supermarket chain are in bright yellow wrappers with black lettering, and that’s as colourful as it gets when I am buying oatmeal or flour.

We eat baked beans and lentil soup, made  out of the jars of dried legumes I keep. Our bread is baked in-house, and often in the wood-burning stove. It’s also the best place for baked beans in the stoneware pot, slowly steamed in their molassy sauce. We don’t get take-out or eat in restaurants; both the budget and my dietary restrictions prohibit that. I don’t miss it, and my taste is for much less salt than is used in commercial cooking.

I used to think that locavore, slow-food eating would be way too expensive – and it was when I had to have fresh cherry tomatoes in January, and lettuce for a salad. That had to come from greenhouses, heated and cosseted, and shipped by special truck to special stores. What did my ancestors eat all winter? Potatoes, turnips, dried beans and oatmeal. Cabbage. Apples.

Sometimes it seems monotonous, especially when it’s toward the end of the month, the bills are paid, and the bank account rattles when shaken with the few coins left. The sustaining part is that we do have food, and we are willing to be satisfied with it. Yes, the last couple of days before the next cheque, we have eggs, potatoes and carrots for a couple of meals, or the closest thing to meat we can manage is some frozen broth heated with a potato and some beans, augmented with homemade noodles, but it is satisfyingly real food.

vegetable meal

Plain Influences – At Home

My parents liked the style of decor known as “Early American.” They had some really good furniture that they purchased through my grandfather, built in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, and based on Colonial and Early American design.

Moosehead chairs and cabinetmaker

The Moosehead factory was at 97 East Main Street, and my grandparents lived at 94 Summer Street. Dover-Foxcroft is in the “Yankee” part of Maine, south of Mount Katahdin. I grew up north of the mountain, in Caribou, Aroostook County, which is more Canadian.

The Moosehead furniture my parents purchased almost fifty years ago is now at my sister’s house in Bangor, on its third generation of use – and was sold by another generation before that.  I guess it is on its way to heirloom status.

Royal China, "Bucks County"

My parents didn’t hang onto this though, and it is too bad, because I still like these patterns and they are now quite collectable. The one with the yellow background is called Bucks County, and is a rather loose interpretation of Pennsylvania Dutch style. I believe it was sold by the piece at Woolworth’s, one of our local chain department stores. Woolworth’s was one of the old”Five and Dime” stores where one could buy glassware, socks, toys, kitchen items, and sewing notions. My paternal grandmother worked down the street at J.C. Penney’s, a clothier who also had mail order items. My maternal grandmother worked for a time at another five and dime, Newbury’s, in Dover-Foxcroft. She also worked for the grocery stores from time to time, including as a butcher. A&P stores carried this pattern of dishes as a premium.

Royal China, "Colonial Homestead"

Some of it may have been gifts from my grandmother. I had a couple of pieces I bought in an antique shop, but passed them along when we were downsizing the household.  “Colonial Homestead” has images of different domestic scenes of early life in New England.

The tilt-top table was still popular in New England homes into the twentieth century; I remember examples in older homes. Here it is shown as a chair; if one needed an extra dining table, the back swung down.

This spinning wheel looks very much like the one I own, built around 1880.

I don’t know if the artist who designed this series went to a colonial museum to draft the illustrations, but I suspect he did. He may have gone to Historic Deerfield, a “village” of 11 authentic Colonial houses. (http://historic-deerfield.org.)

Ashley House, Deerfield

Plimouth Plantation is another source for very early Colonial material. (http://www.plimouth.org). We visited Plimouth Plantation and the Mayflower when I was a child, and it was very exciting for me.

Living history at Plimouth, ca. 1627

Some of my ancestors were in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the 1640s, although they were not Puritans (“Pilgrims”). They may have lived much as the settlers at Plimouth did.

I will write more on these topics soon; let me know if you have questions or topics to include.

Crofting – A Wee But and Ben

Croft House, Shetland

This is the type of cottage called a “but and ben.” It’s two rooms, one  a parlour or a keeping room, a place for gathering and socializing. The second room would be  kitchen, family room, and bedroom. Additional sleeping would be in a loft. There would be fireplaces in the two rooms, for heat and cooking, but fairly primitive ones. A but and ben would most likely be built of stone and roofed with thatch. The floor might be hard clay or it might be flagged. Rushes would cover the floor for insulation and cleanliness. I realize that we think of rushed floors as something rather dirty, with crumbs and insects hiding amongst the plant stalks. But a properly rushed floor was swept up at least a week and fresh rushes put down. I imagine that one had to be careful with the fire, though, lest a spark leap into the dried rushes. When people went out they banked the fire with pieces of peat to keep it smouldering but not flaming. When they came back in, they pulled off the heavy peat layer and built the fire with dry peat or wood.

Our own house is not much more than a but and ben. It has a small shed at the kitchen entrance, now used as a kennel. Eventually it will be our pantry and coat storage in the winter. Then one enters the kitchen, a good sized room for a small house, where we have the woodstove. It is the warmest and sunniest room in the house, and with a little re-arranging, we will use it more for for sitting. The parlour is where the spinning wheels reside.

Carding and spinning, Shetlands

Upstairs, we have two bedrooms and a bath. The house used to be home to some large families. Sleeping arrangements were probably a little more casual than we expect now. All the children might be in one room, or all the girls in one, the boys in the other, or the littlest ones had cots in the parents’ room. Older family members might sleep on benches in front of the fire. My grandmother remembered that when they lived on the farm before her father died, she had a cot in the dining room. She didn’t know why she wasn’t given a bed in one of the bedrooms, but apparently the extra room was reserved for an elderly aunt. The idea of “privacy” was a bit foreign to my immigrant great-grandparents. In Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, they were used to small houses and close quarters. The large farmhouses we admire were much more common in North America, where building materials were plentiful. Of course, people worked and even lived outdoors much of the year. There wasn’t much reason to have a big house, considering the amount of work and the scarce materials it required. Some Highlanders built their cottages right in the cleft of a hill, building up front walls with stone and roofing with timbers and thatch across the sides of the hollow. I imagine they looked rather like hobbit houses. There was always the danger, though, that a heavy snowfall and subsequent avalanche would collapse the roof and bury the occupants.

When my parents were first married, most houses were about 900 square feet, with a large living room, small kitchen, and a couple of tiny bedrooms.  Within a few decades, the average newbuilt American house was at least 2000 square feet, while family size was shrinking. Each family member seems to need his or her own zone of privacy, to engage in activities alone – watching television, surfing the net, social networking, exercising. Parents worry that they might not be able to afford a house big enough to  give the children each their own room, and still have rooms for leisure activities. They may not even enter all the rooms of the house in the course of a week. More developments go up every year, with more of these mostly empty houses. They cost a lot, and they are expensive to maintain.

We love living small. We don’t lose each other in the house as we did in the last big house where we lived. With a little creativity and re-arrangement, I think we could fit in a small floor loom, which is something I have wanted for years and years. And we like being together – neither of us feels the need to retreat into private space. I’m hoping that this summer we will be able to have guests here at the croft. If the weather is good – and it usually is – it will be very pleasant to sit in our garden, admiring the flowers and herbs. We could fit quite a few around our kitchen table too. And then we can sing,

“Just a wee deoch and doris, afore ye gang awa’; there’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but and ben…”

 

The Kitchen Prayer

all things come of thee O Lord

One of the bonuses of living in a rectory is that we have first pick at the church rummage sale. This seems to be a universal bonus for clergy families. The rationale (at least my rationale) is that we can find things that we know are needed by those who can’t afford even to shop rummage sales. I have gathered in children’s clothes, kitchenware, and work clothes for people who needed them from my own churches in the past. We either write a blanket donation check (usually more than the goods were marked) or we tally it up and give the dollar amount.

I had a list; Mother Kay is away and I knew what was needed. Now, some of it is for us, admittedly, but we are so far behind in replacing lost household items that I need a head start.

It was a good bunch of stuff.

Canning jars – quart and two quart, square. The perfect homesteading canning jars. Four boxes. The prize of all rummage sale prizes!

Two winter sweaters, one for each of us, a pile of children and baby clothes for struggling families (including our own) and a new, still-cello-wrapped family Bible for Kay to present to someone. (Clergy have first dibs on all Bibles at church rummage sales. Dear Father John Pearce, now with the Lord, used to pull them off the shelves in thrift shops, walk up to the sales clerk and ask, “How much for these Bibles?” even if they were clearly marked. I don’t think he ever paid for one, because the answer was always, “For you, Father, it’s free.” He gave them away within days. There really is a need and hunger for the Word in this world!)

Two new quilting patterns, and an Amish doll pattern -you know how expensive those are! A pile of Icelandic yarn and knitting needles and patterns. Fabric remnants.

A knife block with two Henckel knives and steel. A beautiful honey pot. A casserole dish and carrier. Two aprons.

And this:

“Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I’ve not time to be

A saint by doing lovely things or watching late with Thee

Or dreaming in the dawnlight or storming heaven’s gates,

make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

Altough I must have Martha’s hands, I have  a Mary mind,

And when I black the boots and shoes, Thy sandals, Lord, I find.

I think of how they tread the earth, what time I scrub the floor,

Accept this meditation, Lord, I haven’t time for more.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy love, and light it with Thy peace.

Forgive me all my worrying and make my grumbling cease.

Thou who didst love to give men food, in room or by the sea,

Accept this service that I do, I do it unto Thee.”

It is a simple letter-press card, about 5×7, in a plain wooden frame. It is signed “Klara Munkers” and at the bottom is the chi rho, over a large M, flanked by loaves and fishes. I think I have some old prayer cards by this publisher; I will have to see if it is the same emblem. It is dated 1960, so I don’t think I violated any copyrights here.

Need I say that this is how many of us live? We have the daily duty of feeding our families and others, and caring for their well-being in the most mundane of things, such as washing up. We aren’t St. George slaying dragons; we are Brother Lawrence scrubbing pots. Jesus compares the loyal followers to those servants who sit up in the kitchen, waiting for the master, making sure that all is in order for Him, and He then tells us, “What you do for the least of these, you do for Me.”

When we fail in our daily work, when we put off the ordinary but necessary tasks because we have so many more interesting and exciting things to do, we fail our Lord. He gave us our families and neighbours in trust, to care for them as He cares for us. I’m not saying to be rigid and obsessive, but an attitude of “housework isn’t important” or “cooking is for those who like to do it” fails others. It is an honour to do these things, to care for the children of God. He don’t need to be heroes, we don’t need to be important. We don’t need praise and recognition – we have His approval and thanks already.

The Cost of Shelter – Where is Your Palace?

no palace for the King of kings

Have any of you been looking for housing lately? We expect to move into our own place at the beginning of the year, but where? And how much will it be? It looks as if everything is way more than we can afford!

Now, I’m not very fussy. If it keeps out the snow and rain, can be heated with a woodfire (safely) and has some form of sanitation and a water source, we’re pretty much okay with that. We would prefer, obviously, a garden, some sheds or barn for animals, a quiet, natural setting. But we have been happy in a nineteen foot travel trailer and a 300 square foot cabin. We don’t need much.

Housing is expensive because it is a valuable commodity. It should be a basic human right – shelter. We live in manufactured mansions while many in the rest of the world live in what barely counts as shelter – it doesn’t keep out the rain, or animals, or thieves. (Yes, thieves steal from the poor all the time – a few dollars, medications, a wedding ring, even food.)

But for the poor, housing and basic shelter are a constant struggle. Nothing will bring me to tears and all-out panic faster than the prospect of being homeless. I find looking for affordable housing to be exhausting, discouraging and frustrating.  We hear things like, “We will need a deposit,” although every place we lived together has been in better condition when we left than when we moved in; “no pets,” although my old sheepdog has neve done damage, barely makes a noise, and I always clean up after herin the yard, and heaven knows, it would break our hearts (hers and mine) to be separated now;  “you’ll have to take it month-to-month, I may want it back for my daughter in three months” or “you’ll have to sign a lease because people move out of here after just a couple of months and I’ll want the whole year’s rent,” which means there is something terribly, terribly wrong.

If I could buy a house it would be cheaper by the month, but even if we can scrape together a down payment, I don’t have a job and we won’t qualify for a mortgage. There are cheap properties in rural areas, perfect for homesteaders like us, but after a year and more of financial disaster due to Nicholas’s stroke, we have no credit.  We don’t have parents to co-sign. My father is the only surviving parent, he is in his eighties, and he is in another country.

One author we like, Ferenc Mate, in his book A Reasonable Life, pointed out that it used to be that when a couple got married, they went out to the edge of the village, everyone helped build a house, and the young people moved in. Land and property weren’t commodities – they were community property. Oh, in the days of feudalism, one had to ask the lord if it was okay to put up your hut or cottage, but likely he’d say yes, because a newly married couple meant soon-to-be-born babies who would grow up to be productive labourers.

Just about everything we see on real estate and housing, home decoration and family life, is geared toward selling us the American dream – the big house, the rooms full of furniture, kitchen heavy with granite countertops and stainless  steel appliances and expensive cookware. But people don’t seem to live in these houses; they merely exist, moving between bed, car and soul-grinding job. They long for escape. So then we see the advert with the father finding the family members scattered in different rooms, all of them connected to a different electronic device. He takes them on a vacation in a motorhome to make them reconnect around the campfire, under the stars.

What?

That house, in this market, must have cost a half-million dollars; everyone is in their own room. They are not talking to each other because they are comfortable in upholstered furniture, passively receiving communication through television and the internet. Is there some reason they can’t build a fire in that fieldstone fireplace in the barn-sized living room, turn off the devices and talk to each other in their own home? A half-million dollar home, filled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of furnishings, and they have to buy an $80,000 furnished, self-propelled dumpster to have a conversation?

All right, I’m serious about this. We are looking for, first of all, community. We want to live among other Christians, we want some self-supporting work, we want to grow our own food. I don’t know yet how much we can pay in rent, or if we could possibly buy something with a low down payment and low monthly payments. We are clean, tidy and skilled. We are quiet. We aren’t perfect. We have the occasional light drink but you would never know it. We are good neighbours. I am used to being called out of bed in the middle of the night because someone is in need of help.

Is it possible? Does the medieval sense of community still exist? Is it possible to recapture the sense of the early church in being Christians together?

We are poor financially, but we are rich in knowledge. Who needs that in their community? Who has room?

“Victory in Jesus” Gardens

We have a yard that is mostly walnut and maple trees. My garden was a washtub with tomato plants and herbs in it.

My family had large gardens when I was young. Both sets of grandparents had large gardens. Have dirt, will garden. The farm never left our souls. We grew food, we ate it fresh, we canned and froze it. We gave it away. We gleaned fields of peas and potatoes, orchards of apples, wild bushes of berries, riverbanks of fiddleheads, maple trees of sap, hedgerows of hazelnuts.

I am delighted now to think of that connection to the past.

Our parents and grandparents grew Victory Gardens during the last European war – people were encouraged and supported in digging up their yards and growing their own food, so that crops could be diverted to the support of the troops. Many European families had to wild-gather to survive during and after the war.

We were still just a few years past being an agrarian culture. People knew how to make a garden.

I don’t think any of our neighbours has a vegetable garden. This little town is proud of its shade trees, its luxurious lawns, its air of ease and privilege. When I lived in rural parishes, people left bags of corn, tomatoes, green beans, onion and zucchini on my doorstep. One parishioner dropped off a few homegrown vegetables here this year. I bought the produce I canned.

The food bank here is in constant need of donations. Industries have closed in this area; other people are chronically unemployed or underemployed. It looks like it will get worse rather than better. (And just to bring this up – local farms employ migrant workers to pick apples, tobacco, ginseng and cabbage. The reason? Local people don’t want these seasonal jobs. The work is too hard, the pay too low, and if they take them, they endanger keeping their government-paid benefits. I can’t take even seasonal work until my immigration status is settled, except to work for the church. I did field work as a child and teenager. It isn’t that hard.)

In a land of plenty – in the garden region of Canada – why are people receiving boxes of dried dinner ingredients and cans of soup? Why don’t food banks have great resources of fresh food? Some do – because someone had the inspiration to solicit donations from farmers and farmers’ markets.

But we could all be doing more to feed those in need by planting a new kind of victory garden – I’ll call it a Victory in Jesus garden, from the old Baptist song.

We could be feeding ourselves and the poor, improving local nutrition levels and health. We could be reducing our reliance on transported, carbon-hungry resources. We could be getting rid of harmful lawn-maintenance practices and chemicals. (One reader wrote me earlier this year to say she had persuaded her church to plant a garden on the church lawn. That’s what I mean.)

The black walnut trees on our lawn are at the end of their growing years. The best thing to do with them would be to cut them down and sell them to a craftsman for fine furniture. This would also get rid of their messy nuts and the squirrels who live on them. Not much will grow around black walnuts, except the maple trees which are also as big as they can get, are dropping dead limbs, and hogging the arable area of the yard with roots. I love trees, but these are at the end of their lives, and they will soon be a hazard. I say take them down, use the wood as possible, and plant something like fruit trees, a little more in keeping with using the yard for a garden. (Don’t get me started on the line of overgrown cedars along the fence.)

Gardening is work, more than many people think they should have to do. But why shouldn’t we turn our hands and hearts to the earth, and share in its production? We are divorced from the natural world; we try to corner it in parks where we are comfortable with mown lawns and trimmed trees. We like the idea of wild spaces, but we don’t want to live in them. Our homes are air-conditioned and warmed so it is always perfectly temperate inside, and we never have to wear climate-suitable clothing. (I had a friend in past years who literally ran from car to building, building to car, car to home because she didn’t want to bother putting on a coat even in a mid-Atlantic winter. It took a while to persuade her to carry suitable winter clothing in her car so that if the car broke down she wouldn’t freeze to death.)

It’s autumn here in the North; most of us are done with the garden. The last of the basil came in for pesto here; the other herbs are potted and in the shed, hardening up for a possible winter indoors on a cool windowsill. (Herb plants do not like our overheated homes.) But there is next year. I want to be in a place suitable for a garden and more. I want to grow not just for ourselves, but for those who are unable to grow for themselves.

It’s one thing to receive a bag of canned goods and a loaf of plastic-wrapped bread when we are in need. But it is impersonal and industrial. It’s almost as if someone says, “Here you go – this is good enough for you.” But when we are given, in need, fresh tomatoes, a head of lettuce, a bag of sweet, long green beans that just taste of sunshine and clean water, a paper-wrapped loaf of still warm, fresh bread – we feel loved. We feel part of the community. We feel the gracious hand of God on us. Someone cared enough to grow and bake for us. We become part of the family.