Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bag of spuds

Photo: the Pier at White Rock, low tide, CT

Summer is the time to enjoy fish and chips on the beach, while sitting in the sun under a brilliant blue sky.

After enjoying the best halibut from Coney Island on East Beach, I visited the convenience. Piled in the hall at the back of the restaurant, I saw something I hadn't seen in a long time.

Bags of potatoes. How wonderful to know that the chips that go with that tasty halibut are made on the premises, from real potatoes.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Canadian railroad era over?

Left:
sign for BNSF  RR Police. 

Right: BNSF engine hauls freight past White Rock Pier


Passing along White Rock beach, it's rare now to see these railcar markings: CPR, CN or VIA. The warning sign suggests the tracks are now controlled by Burlington Northen Santa Fe, whose cars, including this engine, we see passing along White Rock beach while walking or drinking coffee at Whitby's on Marine Drive.

Last time I watched a train go by, there was one lonely Canadian wheat tanker. It seems so recent that those formed the whole train.

Canada no longer has a cross country passenger train, but the Amtrak passenger goes by here in the early evening, heading for Seattle. The sound of its warning whistle evokes an ancient nostalgia.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Crocosmia

Crocosmias are pretty summer perennials that grow from corms. When properly mulched, they are hardy to Zone 5.

The flowers vary in height and can grow quite tall. Mine needed staking.

A native of South Africa, this plant was, according to Canadian Gardening, popular in the Victorian era.

Amazingly, in the Blue Mountains of Australia, it is called by its other name, montbretia, and classified as a noxious weed.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Long-awaited Hydrangea blue

This hydrangea began its life pink, in a pot. After a patient wait while the plant established itself in the garden, I was delighted to see that its first outdoor blossoms were a brilliant blue.

Hydrangeas are usually blue or pink, depending on what's in the soil. By doctoring their soil with different elements, the colour can be altered to suit the gardener's tastes.

I've always preferred the more common blue ones -- at least they are more common in our area, where the soil tends toward acidity, and thus promotes that colouration.

These flowers can be white and also pale green. They come in various flower patterns: lacecap, mophead, oakleaf and more.

Recently a friend received a red one in a pot. She plans to put it in the garden, but the colour may change there once it's exposed to the different soil from that provided by the growers. To keep the flowers red, the soil must be kept very alkaline.

In pots, these flowers are beautiful and long-lasting gifts. In the garden, they are beautiful late summer bloomers that continue to flower right into the fall.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Assassin's Song by MG Vassangi

The Assassin's Song (Doubleday 2007) is enjoyable, educational and thought-provoking. This novel starts off slow and builds. Early on, I was bogged down by the foreign words the author chose not to italicize. These required effort, but they also added atmosphere; once I got used to them, the story flowed.

Karsan, the protagonist, grows up in the small town of Haripir in Gujarat, India. He is expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, the Saheb, hereditary keeper of the shrine of a (fictitious) Sufi mystic who came from Iran in the middle ages.

With his parents and little brother Mansour, Karsan lives at the shrine and mausoleum of Nur Fazal, the refugee mystic who died in Haripir after a long life of spiritual service. Just as Nur Fazal did, Karsan's father encourages the local people to practice their different religions freely and without friction. More than once, the Saheb defuses conflicts and prevents them from escalating.

But Karsan has other ideas than becoming a Saheb, a god-like figure. On the other hand, his Dad, more concerned with spiritual matters than worldly ones, refuses to let Karsan go to the next town to play cricket. He complies in spite of his disappointment.

But when he earns a chance to study at Harvard on a scholarship, he defies his father and leaves for the US.  He does not believe in his status as a hereditary spiritual keeper of the shrine, and though he respects his father, he rejects his religious destiny. He creates a new life in North America, far from his place of origin.

But life has a way of circling back upon itself. A chance visit to a church basement on Kingsway in Vancouver brings a surprise and evokes memories. Riots tear apart his home state in India, and his father the Saheb is unable to defuse the violence in Haripir.

Returning after long absence, Karsan seeks to discover the fate of his mother and father, and is disturbed when he meets the man his brother Mansour has become. His visit evokes shock, fear, grief and guilt, as well as the need to make decisions. Destiny also brings an ally who helps him come to terms with his past.

MG Vassanji deftly moves his readers from India to New York to Winnipeg to Vancouver. The reader glimpses the history of India, including the painful religious conflicts that led to partition, the spiritual ideals of Sufi mysticism, and much more.

Most of all, through the sympathetic and well-drawn character of Karsan, this story portrays the powerful tensions between tradition and modernity, individuality and family duty, self-determinism and fate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Awww, they just love me

When the first waitress called me 'my love,' I thought she must be British, but she wasn't.

I wondered I'd done to deserve this effusiveness. Thought it was probably a slip of the tongue -- perhaps she momentarily forgot who she was talking to, mistook me for a friend or relative.

But no. By the time I finished my dinner, she'd used the same phrase twice more, and thrown in a 'darling.' This was beginning to grate: I finished my coffee and left before she could do it again.

A week or so later, the same thing happened again at a different restaurant. Aha, I thought, this must be something they have added to the curriculum at server school.

Decided it couldn't be. After all, this is not France. Serving meals is not considered a profession worthy of training, though we may sometimes wish it was.

But if these waitresses had been products of superior training, they would have been working at an upscale place. They weren't. 

I guess it's just a new meme, like the one that changed the common Canadian greeting "Hi," into the updated American style "Hey." Exactly how these things catch on, I'll never know. You just wake up one day, and they have.

As for these waitresses calling me sweet names, well -- it's all very well to be welcoming. But to call a customer you've never laid eyes on before "my love" or "my darling" as you fill the water glass sounds patently insincere.

In fact, I'd consider it a kindness if they'd restrict their expressions of affection to something a little more restrained.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Neeps and Haggis

Photo: neeps, haggis and tatties (potatoes) from Magnet
  
In Scotland yellow or swede turnips are called neeps. They are mentioned periodically in the books of Alexander McCall Smith, along with other dishes he apparently favours: pasta, halibut, and a special type of scalloped potatoes.

The mashes in the picture above are worthy of The Big Bang, a wonderful but alas now-vanished sausage restaurant in Oxford. The haggis, of course, is another matter, an entirely Scottish thing.

Or is it? For the past fifteen years, Todd Wong, a fifth generation Chinese Canadian and graduate of Simon Fraser University, has celebrated Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a combo celebration of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day.

It's a very Vancouver thing, but Ottawa, Whitehorse and Nanaimo have now tried to imitate it. Incidentally, turnip cake is also a New Year's Food among Chinese, but that recipe is made with a different kind of turnip, a white one.

Monday, July 23, 2012

From too little experience to too much

Writers can come up with an astonishing array of reasons whey they can't finish this piece or that piece, why they can't write the book they'd planned-- at least not now.

One of my excuses has been experience. When I was young, I put off tackling fiction, telling myself I would do it when I had lived more, acquired enough experience.

Now that I'm finally working on a book-length project, I've found another excuse. I have too much experience. My knowledge is about things that happened so long ago that they are out of fashion. Nobody knows about or cares about my themes, plots, characters, settings any more.

Fortunately, my Muse knows that is not true. Though it often appears otherwise, the world is a place of balance and symmetry. I have a story to tell: ergo, somebody wants, needs, awaits my story.

Also, the writing gene is persistent. The relentless need to finish my book creates intense pressure within me. There can be no peace until I finish. And that is a good thing.

That knowledge assures me that I can and will finish my novel, no matter what tricks my monkey mind plays in its effort to make me give up.

Writer's block may be real or it may not; either way, I refuse to let it defeat me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The urge to migrate began in the wild berry patch

Image: World migration patterns: Liu Institute for Global Issues, UBC

There's a human tendency expressed by the common English proverb: the grass is always greener in another pasture.  I'd be willing to bet that many languages have similar sayings. There seems to be an innate desire in us to keep moving in search of better conditions.

For me, it all started with berry picking. Teacup in hand, I ventured into the wild berry patch with my mother and sister to help them harvest enough berries for a pie.

My approach was to rove from bush to bush, seeking raspberries that were riper and more delicious than the ones at the place I was currently picking.

My sister, three years older, was better at harvesting. "Stick to your bush," she would say. When I didn't comply, she made up a song about picking all the berries in one place before moving on.

That worked in the short term, but the lure of the less familiar eventually prevailed. Once I was old enough to go berry picking alone, or with my younger brother, we felt no compunction about straying from one bush to another, picking a few berries from each, then moving on in search of the proverbial greener pastures.

Was this the beginning of my urge to see the world? I left my hometown before I was eighteen, and settled in Vancouver, first in the city, then the suburbs. With only brief absences, I've lived here ever since. But I have seen many distant places and hope to see many more.

Even though I feel well-rooted, especially in the seasons when the garden is best, there is always the latent urge to explore, to taste new experiences. The human is a migrant creature, and I'm no exception.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Rutabagas

Photo: Rutabagas, from organic garden info

Rutabagas are not the most elegant vegetables. Yet like beets, they are virtuous. They are quite easy to grow in cold climates and keep well, and they are full of carotene.

This vegetable was a staple in my mother's pantry. The cooking methods were basic: boiled and mashed with butter, salt and pepper, or added to hearty winter stews.

As children, we sometimes snacked on pieces of raw rutabaga when Mom was preparing the vegetables for the pot and dinner still seemed a long time away.

Today these turnips are seasonal vegetables we eat at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our family enjoys them boiled and mashed with a little maple syrup. Occasionally, I use them in stew. I'm very fond of turnips, and so is my daughter. My husband can definitely do without them.

In the UK, rutabagas are called swedes. Visiting Oxford a few years back, I was delighted to find mashed swede on the menu of a restaurant called The Big Bang. As its name indicated, the place specialized in sausages, or bangers, and various kinds of mash and pickle. As well as mashed swede, mashed potato and mashed carrot were on offer.

Alas, the Big Bang is no more. Proprietor Max Mason, formerly of the Royal Navy, originally planned to keep the restaurant open for only a few months, but he kept serving his simple and delicious fare for seven years. The popular restaurant closed its doors in August 2011.

It's been nearly a year since the Big Bang of a farewell party that closed off Walton Street. Now I wonder: where are those hungry Oxonians getting their bangers and mashed swede?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Beets

 Photo: Beets World Community Cookbook

The scary lady farmer was proud of her garden, especially her beets. One day we had to wait for Dad while he talked to her husband. She left us alone awhile, then came over to accuse my little brother.

"There's tracks in my beets, and they look like his." She pointed a finger straight at Dave's chest. He was still too young to go to school and was innocent; neither of us had moved from the spot we were told to wait. But we were both too scared to say a word in his defense.

I like beets. The roots are colourful, tasty and nutritious, and can be eaten cooked, in soups, pickled or raw in salads. The fresh young leaves make wonderful salad greens, and both tops and roots are great for juicing.

As I learned from a long-ago roommate, the dye-like red water from boiled beets can be mixed with henna to add colour to fading hair. I never tried it myself, but it looked good on her.

Most people don't eat enough vegetables. Beets have many virtues. These days, they come in pink and gold, as well as the classic burgundy red. Recently I tasted my first beet chip: interesting, as the diplomat would say.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Angus Wilson: a biography, by Margaret Drabble

Image from amazon

Margaret Drabble's Angus Wilson: A Biography (Martin Secker & Warburg 1995) is not only a careful telling of many aspects of the life of a brilliant novelist whom the author knew well, it is a detailed portrayal of post-war literary Britain.

Wilson worked at several US universities and travelled widely, and Drabble's well-crafted book gives fascinating glimpses into various locations, as well as cameos of numerous writers Wilson knew, both within the UK and beyond.

Brilliant but eccentric, Wilson was one of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. One of his exploits was to run around the lake naked.

According to a 2010 book by Sinclair McKay, reviewed in the Guardian by Patricia Brown, other behaviours that earned him censure there included throwing a bottle of ink at a WREN, a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service. In later years his biographer records that although Angus Wilson was a kind and generous supporter of other writers and many good causes, there were times when he was unable to control his temper.

Beginning in 1937, Wilson worked at the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum. He left this steady employment with a degree of trepidation, to become a full-time writer. He was hired by the organizers of the avant-garde University of East Anglia at its inception, and worked there for many years.

There he got to know his future biographer, Margaret Drabble and the talented Rose Tremain, and there too, his work influenced that of that towering contemporary writer, Ian McEwan.

Angus Wilson's novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), a daring portrait of British society, was considered a ground-breaker in the field of fiction. First known for his short stories, he later wrote biographies of Dickens and Kipling. He published several novels, many of which were reissued, as well as a number of collections of short stories. Michael Millgate's interview of Wilson appeared in the Paris Review in 1957.

He also wrote regularly for the Observer and other magazines and served literary organizations including PEN. In a cautious manner at first, he campaigned for gay rights in the UK.

Sir Angus Wilson won many honours and was knighted in 1980 at the age of 67, which brought him even more engagements in an already overflowing literary calendar. He was a brilliant speaker, but though he travelled, wrote, taught and spoke tirelessly into his seventies, there were many speaking requests he had to turn down.

For years, he and his partner and secretary Tony Garrett lived in a cottage in Felsham Woodside in Suffolk. (Tony, who was some years younger, had tackled the job of typing Wilson's manuscripts and keeping his schedule organized after losing his own job at the parole board because of his homosexuality.)

Wilson was over seventy when, tired of Thatcher's Britain, he departed with Tony for St. Remy in France, where they lived for three years. However, this could not last: due to ill health and the impossibility of climbing the stairs to their flat, Angus Wilson returned to England with Tony. When he died aged 78 in 1991, his powers were sadly declining.

Drabble's biography, at 670 pages, is a marathon read but a satisfying one. Her portrayal of Wilson and his times is built up through salient details about his works, his friends and sample incidents from some of the many literary parties and events he attended.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Indian Summer Festival closes with a stellar panel

The second annual Indian Summer Festival wound down with a literary panel on the subject of identity. Hal Wake, artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers Festival, did his usual great job as a moderator. The three panelists, all acclaimed novelists with roots in India, and were asked to address the question "Who do you think you are?" (a nod, said Wake, to Alice Munro, though in her story the question is not serious but rhetorical.)

Gurjinder Basran left the land of her birth when she was only 20 months old, moved to England with her family and then came to Canada and grew up in Delta. Part of what drove her to write Everything Was Goodbye was a feeling of betweenness. In the Indian community, she didn't feel Indian enough, and in Western Canadian context, she felt too Indian.

Basran's novel began its life with Mother Tongue Publishing in 2010, and won the BC Book Prize and the Ethel Wilson fiction prize. Subsequently it was picked up by Penguin and re-published in 2012, and became the Chatelaine Magazine Book Club Selection. Ms. Basran's reading and her answers to Wake's provocative questions were thoughtful, intelligent and heartfelt.

Anosh Irani, whose told the audience his given name means immortal, grew up in Bombay, where his grandparents immigrated from Iran. Since he overcame his initial homesickness after coming to Canada in 1998, he considers himself a man with two homelands, and also feels strong ties to his Persian roots. He resists answering questions about identity that have been framed by others, and he sees the Canadian identity as being in a constant state of evolution, with his own identity being a small part of that change.

Ancient cultures like those of India, he says, have strong oral storytelling traditions. When these stories are written down, something is lost and something is gained. Irani has published three novels and a play. A story of religious violence in Bombay, told through the eyes of an orphan, The Song of Kahunsha (2007) was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson and CBC Canada Reads, and has been published in thirteen countries, becoming a bestseller in Canada and Italy. His job as a writer, says Irani, is to disturb. Characters, he added, can lead the writer to abandon the facts, which leads to a higher spiritual or emotional truth. He read from his latest novel, Dahanu Road (2010).

David Chariandy, from Scarborough, Ontario, is a member of the Faculty of English at SFU. He agrees that the ethics of writing serve a higher truth. Calling Toronto a "diaspora capital" for people from the Caribbean, he explained that his mother is black and his father of Indian descent. When his five-year-old son showed signs of Caribbean speech patterns, he was amused but his father was disapproving. Attitudes change with generations.

His comments on identity were interesting. When people ask who he is the answer he gives depends on who's asking, why they're asking, what they want from him. He believes we construct our identities both by remembering and by forgetting. He read a poignant passage from his novel Soucouyant (2007), in which the protagonist's mother is losing her memory:

"She began to excuse herself from the world we had come to know."

The audience asked interesting questions, and the evening was most enjoyable. As I left the auditorium, a Shiamakdance leader tapped my arm to compliment my dancing. He recognized me from the fun Bollywood Grooves session that preceded the panel at SFU Woodward.

Handwriting, my old bugbear

"The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on..." wrote the poet Omar Khayyam almost a milennium ago. With this metaphor, he captured the futility of regret about past actions.

Although I have spent most of my professional life training others to communicate effectively, I have a checkered history when it comes to handwriting.

This may be a moot point now; some say handwriting will be replaced by printing and word processing. Kids now learn keyboarding so early that they have no time to practice writing by hand. Handwriting in connected script may be a dying art.

Nevertheless, the feeling of my hand racing across paper has been an important part of my life. The sensation of scribbling is deeply satisfying, and it connects me to a long chain of pleasing memories.

When I was in grade four, I failed this basic skill. In those days, we had a double-line notebook called The Maclean Method of Handwriting, and all the kids were supposed to adopt the same style of written script.

I couldn't do it, or maybe just wouldn't. I could barely stay within the solid and broken guidelines at all. My teacher was displeased, and awarded me the grade U, unsatisfactory.

My transcription troubles persisted. In grade nine, I signed up for typing class, and though I tried hard to master the skill, my fingers just wouldn't go where I wanted them to. Even though I bought a used typewriter with money earned in an essay contest and practiced at home, my failing marks in typing remained consistent. That year, my name did not appear on the honour roll. People who had even one failing grade were not included.

Eventually, as my hands and body matured, I learned to type. This hard-won skill has been one of the most useful I've ever acquired. Indeed, since I got my first computer in the late eighties, I have probably typed or keyboarded almost every day.

Over the years, I have made many attempts to improve my penmanship, but none of this effort has made much difference. Maybe it's a matter of personality. People like me are more impatient to get the ideas down on paper and indifferent to how those words and sentences look, as long as they are legible.

Right now, I am having a busy few weeks at work, and there's a lot to keep track of. One of my strategies for making sure I attend to necessary details is to write myself little post-it notes. Unfortunately, as I get busier, my handwriting seems to get worse.

The other day, I found a crypic note I'd written to myself, but reminding me of what? I can't decipher my own handwriting.

The moving hand of the poet is all very well, but what about writing that's too illegible to read? Perhaps it helps the writer maintain a certain innocence, not knowing what to regret.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Alstroemeria

Planted last year, these alstroemeria blooms have been thriving in the front garden since early June.

A native of South America, the Peruvian lily, or Lily of the Incas, was named after the Swedish botanist who brought the seeds to Europe. According to Joy's Florist, these flowers symbolize friendship and devotion.

The first time I saw these flowers in a bouquet, I asked the flower seller what they were.

"Alstroemeria," she said.

"Exotic," I thought. "Probably semi-tropical."

I couldn't have been more wrong. The nursery woman explained that though Alstroemeria is called a "tender perennial," it thrives here in Zone 8, and can be grown in climates as cold as Zone 4.

Here on the warm southwest coast of British Columbia, we are lucky to be able to enjoy a much wider range of garden plants than most other parts of Canada. Even so, I seem to be magnetized by Zone 9 plants that are native to the Mediterranean and California.

These lilies make wonderful garden plants. Tough perennials in our climate, they multiply freely. As well as  blooming for weeks and weeks in the garden, they last for ages as cut flowers.

Many Peruvian lilies come in variegated pastels. My bright red one, above, is unusual and I love it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flowers on the bus

The other day on my way to work, when I got on the B Line at Commercial-Broadway and was greeted with a most unusual sight.

The bus driver, a middle-aged woman, had a bouquet of fresh flowers tucked in beside her fare machine. I imagined her in her garden with pruners, clipping the pink roses and daisies and thinking how pleasant it would be to have something on board the bus that would shake up the usual repetitive routine.

Her brainstorm pleased a lot of passengers. In all my years of riding on transit, it was the first time I had seen such a thing.

I applaud this driver for bringing flowers aboard, not only for her own pleasure, but so that the passengers could enjoy them too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Roses wild and tame

Photo: Alberta wild rose by Mark Gordon Brown

Roses are revered flowers. Ancient wild ones are the originals from which the numerous variations we see today: shrub roses, rambling roses, and tea roses, to name a few.

Roses in various colours are symbolic: red roses speak of love and are associated with Valentine's Day. Yellow ones may be given as gifts of farewell. White roses stand for purity and innocence.

This flower has also been used to symbolize secrecy. Referring to secret meetings as sub rosa is derived from the Roman custom of hanging an actual rose over the meeting place when confidentiality was required.

Floral essences made from rose petals have long been used in a variety of perfumes and cosmetics. In Turkey, for instance, the city of Isparta is known for the cultivation of damask roses. The petals are distilled into perfumed oil called attar of roses, or rose otto. Its fragrance permeates the region.

On a recent visit to London, I forgot my hand cream and bought some Rose Otto from a health food store in Southampton Row. It's the best and most fragrant cream I've ever used.

Especially in Middle Eastern countries, roses are used in food. Rose syrup is poured on pastries or eaten with custards, and rose petals are made into jam. Rose hips are also used to make jelly and jam, and they can be steeped into a tasty and nutritious herbal tea.

A clump of bright pink shrub roses flanks the entrance to King George Station. No matter how roughly they are cut down, they always come back. I love their toughness, as well as their beauty and perfume.

I make it a point to stop and smell these roses every day -- they remind me of growing up in a small town on the Canadian prairies. This rose is the floral emblem of the province of Alberta.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lilies, salmon and red

Photo: Carol Tulpar 2012

Lilies are beautiful summer flowers and many of them are fragrant. These black-throated ones bloom around the same time as the clumps of orange and gold tiger lilies.

Wild tiger lilies grew on the little-visited north side of our farmhouse when I was a child in rural Alberta. Every year I watched for them and willingly waded into the tangle of nettles and thistles to examine their unusual curled-back orange petals.

Soon the salmon coloured ones will come into bloom. I will move the pots closer to the door, as these have a gorgeous fragrance, even better than that of the pink Stargazers or the white Casablancas, though both of these varieties are delightfully fragrant too.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The vegetable man

Photo: step-by-step cook

The first Savoy cabbage I saw was grown by a Dutch immigrant who'd arrived in Canada after WWII. He was probably relieved to be able to grow food in peace, in the rich black alluvial soil of Braun's Island in the Skeena River. The farmer went door to door, selling freshly harvested vegetables from his truck.

The first time he came to our house, Mom bought onions and a cabbage; finding these good she expanded her purchases in later visits to include yellow and green beans, beets and carrots. In the fall, she bought potatoes by the sack, and different kinds of turnips.

I don't recall this farmer having tomatoes for sale, or peppers. In those days in the north, tomatoes were a rare treat, and a crop not attempted by local growers. We ate them two ways: in salad with iceberg lettuce, or sliced in sandwiches with mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

Mom didn't buy peppers, even if the vegetable man had them. Like broccoli, they were off my mother's culinary map, and only entered our house when as teens, we kids began to cook.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Swiss chard

Photo: Daniel Mosquin, on UBC Botanical Gardens website

Every year when my neighbour and I do a nursery run, I am seduced by the beauty of Swiss Chard. The gorgeous colours of this healthy green, almost never seen in stores, make me think I will take care of and harvest the plants. I never do, and they bolt before I get around to picking and cooking the colourful stems and leaves.

I first saw chard, an all-green variety, as a child. A neighbour grew it and gave it to my Mom. It looked a lot like spinach, and at first it didn't appeal. I didn't like spinach then.

It seems to me that Swiss chard was out of fashion for years, at least among city folk. It was hard to find, and for those who did find it, there was only one way to cook it: steaming.

My daughter discovered it a few years ago; she sautees it, just showing it the pan, and then adds a bit of balsamic vinegar. Delicious, and very nutritious. According to the World's Healthiest Foods, it is rich in phytonutrients called betalains. It also has loads of polyphenyl antioxidants, and is a great tonic for the blood. Our grandmothers knew this, even if not scientifically.

Every spring, we enjoy a few meals of chard, bought in season from a farm market, or from Two EEs Farm on the Fraser Highway, a great place to buy naturally grown heritage produce.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Rhubarb

Photo: CBC Calgary

Pie plant, Dad told us, was the translated Norwegian name. Alchemized by sugar and baking, these tough and sour stalks became rhubarb pie, crisp or crumble.

When Dad brought home a rhubarb plant from a neighbour, I was astonished to see him divide the large taproot with the hand axe, and then plant out the divisions in three deep holes full of fresh soil and compost.

For years it thrived on the south side of the house, and each summer we kids would pick the first fresh sticks, then dip the ends in sugar and eat them raw.

When Dave and I got older, we learned to make biscuit dough and created "rhubarb duff," naming it after the plum duff the sailors were eating in a book we were reading at the time -- Kidnapped.

Rhubarb crisp or "duff " (rhubarb cobbler) is best eaten fresh and hot, and a garnish of vanilla ice cream never hurts. Awhile ago, my green-thumbed friend and neighbour gave me some of her rhubarb crumble. Made from her garden rhubarb, it tasted just like Mom's.

Pinky also gave me a cooking tip. If you boil your rhubarb sauce with a bit of apple juice, it doesn't need as much sugar. She also likes to add orange rind to the crust of her crumble, giving it a je ne sais quois. In my world, a bit of cardamom improves the crumb crust. Thus our traditional family recipe has evolved to include it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Raspberries, queen of fruit

Photo: Calgary Public Library food blog

The chain of raspberry memories goes back to childhood days of picking them wild. First, under Mom's tutelage, I picked into a china teacup. Later, I ventured into the berry patch with only the dog for company. Every time the bushes rustled, I thought about bears.

My raspberry memory chain has a unique link of gold welded to the day of my daughter's birth.

On that sunny afternoon, the kitchen was fragrant with the heady scent of fresh raspberry jam. Scrubbing the floors energetically, I sensed that the birth was close.

Perhaps on that golden July day, the new baby sensed the sweet presence of cooking raspberries. As an adult Yasemin still loves homemade raspberry jam with croissants. Her favourite dessert is Christmas trifle, which I make with local raspberries frozen the summer before.

No other food fragrance says high summer like a pot of raspberry jam, the most flavourful there is. These days I cook it on low, in small quantities, with a few granules of fine tapioca to thicken it, and only enough sugar to take the edge off the natural tartness of the berries. That version keeps a week or so in the fridge, and tastes a whole lot better than the heavily sugared store-bought one.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Strawberry memory chain

Photo: homegrown strawberries in pot, CT 2012

Even in these days when we can buy imported fruit and vegetables in any season, local seasonal foods, especially fruits and berries, are still very special.

To see and smell a basket of fresh picked local strawberries in a farm market is to board the memory train that goes back in time. To make the most of this journey, I take my berries straight home to wash, hull, and sort.

Fresh strawberries are perishable; no matter how flawless the fruit, or how recently picked, there are always a few that go in the bin and some that go straight into the jam pot.

The smell of strawberry jam evokes a long chain of past summers. Without a day or two when the kitchen is filled with the aroma of gently boiling strawberries, the summer season feels incomplete.

As a child in a small town, I picked wild strawberries along the railroad tracks with my brother. We lay on our bellies and sighted through the grass beneath the low foliage to glimpse the tiny red jewels.

Wild strawberries are tiny and grow sparse on the plants; on these excursions, we brought no containers, but popped these sweet juicy treats straight into our mouths.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sunday morning garden

Photos: Mooseys Country Garden

Canada Day is here, but I will not be sallying forth to celebrate with the crowds. If it's dry enough, I'll sit on the deck to enjoy the garden.

The peonies are nearly over, and I'm pleased to have brought in bouquets of them during the past weeks, to enjoy while sitting at the table, and upon walking in the door.

It's good for peonies to be picked. They are so heavy that picking the early blooms lightens the branches so they retain the strength to hold the later blossoms as they come into flower.

Before they open, peony buds have tiny ants walking over them: in fact, some say that when there are no ants on them, peony buds blacken and die.

Of course we don't want these critters in the house, so I give each bloom a big shake when I pick it, then watch while arranging the flowers to make sure there are no more stray ants.

Peonies come in pinks, whites and reds. Most of ours are pink, but we have some particularly fragrant white ones with red throats, and streaks of red on their outermost petals.

Now the late lilies are coming on; more about them next Sunday.