Thursday, March 31, 2011

Grandes Dames: Grandma Blanche

Circa 1930s, in front of the perennial border.

This is the first in a new series of entries about the ladies and men who have played a formative role in shaping my thoughts on domestic activities.  There is no greater influence in my life in this regard than my maternal grandmother, Blanche.

Born in 1904, she grew up on a farm near Lynden, Ontario, where one of her designated chores was to hold the chicken still while her brother chopped off its head. Her father's farm was typical old-fashioned mixed use farm.  My great grandfather Frank grew a variety of vegetables and other crops, raised animals, made his own sausage and sauerkraut, and grew his own fruit.  He was also an amateur photographer and he processed his own film and photographs.  (More on him later).

Images of early life:  the old farm house, Blanche's brothers, Leo and Frank, and a favourite photo of mine, my grandmother and her sister Winnie, peeling potatoes - at work from an early age.
Blanche and Winnie on the beach at Port Dover.  'MBM' is how my grandmother referred to herself:  Mabel Blanche Mannen.

I love these old photographs of family and leisure life.  The family at the beach. The photo on the bottom left shows Blanche and Winnie again.

Blanche was the third of four children spaced four years apart, two boys and two girls.  My grandmother had only a ninth grade education because her parents could only afford to board her at Brantford to attend high school for one year. She spent much of her life working hard, in ways that I can only imagine, as a domestic servant, maid, store clerk, housekeeper, waitress.  She worked upstairs and downstairs in grand houses.  She worked in the dining room at Ridley College in St. Catherines.  She worked at Eaton's department store.  She worked at the Majestic Restaurant in downtown Hamilton.  She worked hard, and she was pragmatic and sensible.

She was the sort whose hands must always be busy, never sitting down.  When she did, she liked to watch tennis on television.  She read murder mysteries and crime fiction. But she was usually busy - cooking, cleaning, gardening, tending to hundreds of houseplants (African violets were a particular favourite), sewing, baking, canning, pickling. She was happiest when she was busy.

Perhaps typical of her generation, she saved everything.  Scraps of cloth.  Lengths of string.  Thread.  Yarn.  Bits of paper.  Buttons. Postcards.  Hardware.  Nails.  Screws. All of these things carefully organised into envelopes, tins, jars, and boxes, all carefully repurposed.  Much of which, I have inherited.

She baked mean pie crust, and made amazing lemon meringue pie. She was also a clotheshorse. More to follow on Blanche, her collections and her pie crust, in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Forward.

Eggplants with their seed leaves.

In winter, I hibernate. Hence the long silence from yours truly.  In spring, my energy returns, and so does my enthusiasm for things domestic. Last week, it snowed.  Nevertheless, now is the time when I begin to plan for outdoor activities later in the spring.  Namely, beginning the garden, which starts with seeds.

Back in February, I made a trip to Tregunno Seed Co. on Catherine Street North to pick up potting soil and pots. I ordered my tomato and eggplant seeds online, from The Cottage Gardener and The Cook's Garden.  The Cottage Gardener is a family owned nursery near Port Hope, Ontario, that specialises in rare heirloom varieties of tomato.  They have a vast selection of tomatoes, but also grow many other heritage and unusual varieties of other vegetables. The Cook's Garden is an American seed company.  They have a few varieties of tomato and eggplant that I like and have not found anywhere else.

Seed Packets.

Every year, I like to try a few new varieties of tomato, along with my favourites.  I love tomatoes, and in summer time, I eat several tomatoes everyday.  I also like to can whole and stewed tomatoes to eat plain and to cook with - San Marzano.  Last year I also grew a variety called Principe Borghese, an Italian variety grown for sun-drying.  These are repeat for this year. My ultimate standby is the powerhouse tomato Brandywine, a huge, beautiful, flavourful red fruit. Wonderful for eating fresh, cooking and preserving.

This year, I may have slightly lost my mind as I decided to grow 11 different varieties.  2 varieties will be for preserving - canning and drying.  The rest will be for eating fresh, and canning as well.

This season's other players are a multi-hued cast ranging from white (White Queen)  to yellow-orange (Jaune Flammee, Nebraska Wedding and Valencia), to multi-coloured (Big Rainbow), to red (Rose de Berne and Bloody Butcher) to purple (Black Krim).

Seeds are amazing.  An enormous tomato plant will grow from each of these dry little seeds!

 Once I have the seeds planted (3-5 seeds per pot), I water them, and place them inside these plastic domes in a sunny window until they have germinated.  Once the plants start coming up, I will begin rotating the trays - the plants seek sunlight, so will lean toward the light -  unless rotated daily, you will have spindly, crooked plants! Once the plants are about 1-2 cm tall I remove the domes.  If the weather is warm, I will put the dome-covered trays outside.  In the sun, the trays become like mini greenhouses.

Tomatoes toasty and warm in their little greenhouses.

Three weeks ago, I planted 5 varieties of eggplants, and I now have little seedlings.  Soon, they will need thinning, but I am waiting until they start to get their second leaves. As soon as the snow melts, I will begin putting them outside in the cold frame during the day.

My darling eggplants. Are they not adorable?

After danger of frost, I will plant my babies out in the garden -by my Grandma Blanche's rule of thumb - after the May 24th holiday, or when the black walnut trees begin to leaf.