I’m learning the source of something about myself.
We’re all heirlooms, carrying an aura of past generations.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY VAN WAFFLE
My great-grandmother’s china has always seemed too fragile and lovely to use. But on its centennial last Valentine’s Day, my partner and I invited four friends to celebrate the love of generations at an old-fashioned tea party.
I called my great-grandparents Dommy and Poppy, but their names were Laura and Ken Ford. Ken gave Laura the hand-painted bone china tea service on Valentine’s Day in 1915. Seventy-six years later, after becoming confined to bed in my aunt’s home, Dommy gave the set to me.
We treasure heirlooms because they represent people who have died or live far away. We can’t see or touch those who are gone, but objects with no life of their own become relics of love. The item must be well and skillfully made to survive intact. Not all heirlooms are as aesthetically pleasing as Dommy’s china, with roses like a watercolour painting and subtle gold trim. But beauty is in the meaning. The patina of age can increase emotional value.
The laptop on which I’m writing cost a few hundred dollars but was only designed to last five years. The stories it translates from my mind into disembodied electrical signals might survive in magazines and websites, but the computer itself will be dismantled and parts of it recycled when the time comes. The thing has no future beyond a short span, sooner if it falls apart, much like a human body. Heirlooms can break and shatter, too, but we do our careful best to preserve them.
Ken Ford eloped with Laura Frederick on August 15, 1911. His parents disapproved of her, a daughter of German immigrants. Ken built a home for them on Victoria Avenue in Windsor. He worked as a draughtsman in a patenting office. Every workday for more than sixty years, he walked to the Detroit River and crossed, first by ferry and later on foot through the tunnel, to the Penobscot Building in Detroit.
He was an early adopter of new technologies. We used to have black-and-white movies of my grandmother as an infant in 1912, sitting on my great-grandmother’s knee on the docks. We have colour photos from the Great Depression, when my mother was little.
My grandmother, mother, and then I when I was a little boy attended the same school across the street from their house. I lived two blocks down. Each day Dommy and Poppy would watch and wave to me from their living room window.
Once a week I’d meet Mom there after school. Dommy and Poppy were quiet and gentle but their two yappy Pekingese dogs scared me. Dommy would serve me ice cold milk and homemade cookies at the kitchen table where I had to sit.
There was no running around with food in her house; no running at all, in fact. If you moved too quickly through the dining room, things inside Dommy’s hutch would clink. The hutch, even older than the tea set it contained, had come down to me, too. If I moved too quickly, Mom would scold and point to her grandparents’ fragile ankles. Dommy had broken her hip and no longer could climb the ladder to pick plums and apples in their back yard. It slowed down her body but never her mind.
So I’d sit at the kitchen table for my snack. The milk was the best milk in the world, colder than anything. Meanwhile, Mom and Dommy drank tea and gossipped in the living room. Poppy sat with them, smiling quietly. I don’t remember ever seeing him and Dommy more than an arm’s reach apart before he died when I was nine.
My mother, the eldest of six siblings, knew all four of her grandparents and all eight great-grandparents. Dommy was her little-girl name for grandmother. She distinguished them by surname (Dommy Tobin) or characteristics (Dommy Beads) but this Dommy, who she was closest to, was “Just Dommy.” They were only forty years apart. Mom never came out and said it, but I think Dommy was very much a mother to her.
My great-grandmother, Laura Ford, née Frederick, died in February 1996, a few days short of her 103rd birthday. I was fortunate to share the world with her for more than three decades. She was smart and kind but never spoke about herself. I don’t know much about her except what my mother knew. I can still see Dommy’s oversized hands gripping my infant daughter and murmuring in a tremulous alto, “Bless you.” But her deep voice, big hands, blind eyes, precise memory, and arthritic bones are long gone.
The people in my family have been so long-lived and my mother lived such a healthy life, I fully expected her to survive at least into her nineties, too.
Nearly everyone remembers my mother, Donna, as a warm, hospitable person. And yet she seemed to express her love best through food. She was practical and wouldn’t fuss long over things like bread or pastry, but in so many memories I see her standing in the kitchen, good smells emerging, as she prepared food for large gatherings of family or friends.
She didn’t teach me to cook so much as to bake and preserve. I took an interest in vegetable gardening and she encouraged this. I began experimenting early with things in jars: zucchini relish, peach chutney, pickled watermelon rind, herb vinegars, and jam from wild elderberries near the marsh.
Breast cancer took Mom when she was just seventy-four, in 2008. Her death was soft and sudden, and at the time I was too relieved to grieve.
Now I pore through her recipe boxes in an effort to reconnect. Cards come up from my aunts, cousins, sisters-in-law, and friends of the family, but more than anyone else, Dommy is identified as the source: Dommy’s nine-day pickles, Dommy’s pear marmalade.
I begin to form new impressions of my great-grandmother through her cooking. I imagine her as a young woman raising a family during the Great War. Ken and Laura carefully concealed her German ancestry, as the times made necessary, but she had an intense work ethic. She must have grown much of their food in the back yard. Most of her recipes are for preserves¾pickles, jams and conserves. Others, like Dommy’s date and nut loaf, make the best possible use of simple ingredients available at the time.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that these are the things I most enjoy making, because they’re the kinds of things Mom taught me. She must have learned them herself at Just Dommy’s elbow.
I find myself expressing love the same way as those before me. My partner, Danny Ouellette, helps me put away jars of jam and chutney to share with loved ones. When friends visit, we always end up standing around the stove munching hot goodies. Nothing imparts comfort like a fragrant kitchen.
I’m learning the source of something about myself. We’re all heirlooms, carrying an aura of past generations.
The base of each object in the tea set is lightly inscribed “Hand-painted Nippon.” This Japanese porcelain was highly valued early in the last century and is still in demand by collectors. To my eyes, however, this set is more natural and delicate than anything on eBay. I learned to soak the long-unused cups and saucers to restore moisture, render it less fragile.
The day of the party we served a selection of teas. I love tea and now collect pots. I chose a black Ceylon tea for Dommy’s pot and we all had some. The other pots held Earl Grey, Arabian mint green tea, and an Ayurvedic medicinal tea with a woody fragrance. Along with Valentine truffles, muffins, and jam, Dommy’s china again served tea after decades of careful protection. We enjoyed its mystique in the company of friends.
I often wonder what Poppy wrote on the accompanying love note a century ago. If I could reply I’d say, “Thank you from the future.”
Van Waffle is a Waterloo-based freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Edible Toronto. Editor Gail Gordon Oliver and her husband Steven were two of the friends he invited to tea last Valentine’s Day. Van blogs about nature, gardening, and local food at Speed River Journal, www.vanwaffle.com.
Dommy’s Date and Nut Loaf
This simple, lightly sweetened quick bread is crammed with fruit and nuts, perfect for a tea party. I use unbleached Daisy Flour from Arva Flour Mills near London, Ontario. It imparts a wholesome flavour my partner describes as “not like white bread.”
2 cups chopped dates
1 cup boiling water
1/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 ½ cups granulated cane sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Grease and flour two 9- x 5-inch loaf pans; set aside. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the chopped dates. Add the butter and stir until the butter is melted. Add the sugar and eggs. Mix well to combine. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt; make a well in the centre. Pour the date mixture into the well and stir just until all ingredients are combined. Fold in the walnuts. Divide the batter evenly into the two prepared loaf pans. Bake in a 325° F oven until the top of each loaf is firm and a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean, about one hour.
Dommy’s Rhubarb Conserve
In my great-grandparents’ day, conserve would have been served as a dessert. A conserve is like a jam but with chunks of fruit. The texture here comes from walnuts and citrus peel. Rhubarb is easy to freeze, and frozen rhubarb is readily available, making this a good winter recipe, too. Stir it into plain yogurt, spread it on scones or muffins, or serve it alongside a cheese platter.
I use an old-fashioned hand-cranked meat grinder to grind the citrus. I doubt it’s the same one my great-grandmother used, but maybe; this one came from my mother’s storeroom.
Makes 6 or 7 500mL jars
5 cups fresh rhubarb cut into 1/2-inch pieces or thawed frozen rhubarb
5 cups granulated cane sugar
3/4 cup walnut pieces
Peel the oranges and lemon. Scrape the white pith from the peel and from the outside of the fruits; discard the pith. Cut the oranges and lemon in half. Remove and discard the seeds. Put the fruit through a food grinder or coarsely chop it.
In a medium pot, stir together the orange and lemon mixture, rhubarb, sugar and walnuts. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 2 hours, stirring frequently to prevent the rhubarb from settling and scorching. Ladle into sterilized half-pint (250mL) canning jars, leaving 1/2-inch of headspace, place the lids on, and process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Check the seals. Refrigerate any jars that fail to seal and use these within 2 weeks. (Alternately, freeze the conserve in freezer-safe containers, leaving some headspace for expansion.)