My Mother’s cookbooks… my Mother was a cook, a collector of recipes and a master at using food to build community and family. Community, Family, and Church made up her culinary landscape, and her well of new recipes, and new relationships.
To call the Mum’s recipe collection, ‘My Mother’s cookbooks’ is a bit of a stretch, you see most are not in books. Oh sure, some of her collection are books, mostly community and church self publications, some are clippings but most are handwritten, in Mum’s hand, and attributed to the person who made it last and handed it or told it to her.
My Mum, Evelyn Margaret Walls was born second youngest into a family of 12 a few months prior to the stock market crash of 1929. Her formative years were difficult ones, work and money were short during the depression and war, but as she described it later…”We didn’t have money but because we lived in rural New Brunswick, we were not hungry. My family like most had a cow, some chickens and a garden. We didn’t have a lot of things but we had good nutritious food. Our choices were limited but we were the lucky ones.”
The habit of families engaging subsistence farming was not unique to this time or area in fact it remains a mainstay of life in rural New Brunswick communities to this day. The small Southwest Miramichi River valley community of Blackville was typical of many small towns and villages in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and the eastern United States. European settlement of this area of the province began in the 1700s with waves of immigrants from France, England, Scotland, Loyalist New England, and Ireland. A new land, new challenges, new people, and new traditions all combining to create unique food.
Growing up in central New Brunswick during the Great Depression and second Great war, Mum learned the importance of good food, the value of community and family. She seemed to instinctively know the role food plays in building loving and sustainable families and community. She understood the importance of sharing food and talking about food. She knew its link to tradition and heritage, and used it skillfully to break new ground, create new relationships and community.
One of my earliest frustrations as a toddler was that my afternoon nap interfered with helping Mum bake and cook. I recall vividly her insistence on my toddler self needing a nap and my equally insistent self not wanting to miss out on the fun, she usually won.
Browsing through the reams of recipes she left, I find myself thinking about those recipes and the people who cooked them. Cooks like my Mum…mostly women for whom the daily grind (and hassle of toddlers) cooking and baking for their families did not limit their interest in and commitment to good food. Managing a household means knowing how to make do… making do as a cook / baker means being creative and adaptable…and recipes prove it! Recipes are stuff of their time, and space, and they reflect the individuals who made subtle changes to ingredients or process. Recipes can reveal a surprising amount of information about those who ‘touched’ them.
Anyone who has researched family history almost certainly has women in their family who have been lost to time. Following the trail of such a woman with the limited documentation available is often frustrating and requires long term commitment to the search. Discovering more about the period, the region and the time it is possible to draw closer to these disappeared women.
Women like my 7 x G grandmother Elizabeth (Betsy) Lyons who existed, married Jeremiah Lyons and left this earth having given birth to at least 12 children but for whom little else is known. Interestingly, as I research and write more about the recipes in My Mother’s Cookbooks, I draw closer to her. Many of the recipes in the collection come from my Mum’s home community of the Southwest Miramichi River Valley, and a good number from Betsy’s descendants.
Small rural communities of the New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are not known for diversity especially during the 30 years of my parent’s ministry with the United Church of Canada. The communities of were largely homogeneous with little racial or cultural diversity, but not devoid. Mum managed to embrace the small bits of diverse culture and tradition she encountered, honouring and respecting those whose life and times intersected with hers using food. Mum recipes foster a link with the broader world.
In addition to the handed down recipes, this blog will weave family and community history to reveal the lives of individual cooks and the roots of the recipe in the community. Of course My Mum made changes to the recipes she collected as she prepared them to her own family’s taste. Where possible I will share any changes from the original she made to suit herself.
In the My Take portion of the recipe I will provide the changes I have made to make the recipe more healthy or more suited to current tastes. I will also make suggestions and recommendations for the ingredients which will produce the best result. My take for many recipes will simply be… no change required.