The Essential Woman

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First, there was the need for our pioneer ancestors to find food but, once having found it, they needed to preserve it. My great grandfather, after he moved to Gimli, once went hunting in the dead of winter, deep snow, bitter cold, and came back with nothing. When he did bring game back, his wife needed to know what to do with it.

It’s no good having managed to hunt or grow or harvest wild food and not be able to store it in a fashion that means it is available for the coming days, weeks, months. This was particularly critical during times that were out of season. We have become so used to grocery stores, just imagine that, grocery stores where you can buy groceries of all kinds, many from distant places, fresh peas in the pod from China, mangos from California, rice from Thailand.

We have, I’ve noticed a wide variety of eggs to choose from. There are those everyday eggs, the ones produced in huge chicken factories. However, we also have eggs from chickens fed only on a vegetarian diet. We have eggs with Omega 3. We have free run eggs. The eggs aren’t actually free run. It is the chickens that get to run about instead of being confined in cages so tiny that their legs rot off. There is a difference between free run eggs and free range eggs.

When I was a child, there was only one kind of chicken egg. I say chicken egg because you could also, for a short time each year, buy duck eggs. If you were at an isolated fish camp in the spring, you could collect seagull’s eggs. It probably was illegal but when my mother wanted to bake a cake and there were no fresh eggs available, that’s what being isolated meant, most things were not available, she would hike herself down to the shore and plunder a nest.

However, those farm eggs, I don’t know why they were called farm eggs, maybe because they were bought locally from the small mixed farms in the area or from farmer’s wives who went door to door selling eggs. Fresh from the farm, no intermediaries. A woman in a babushka who said something like, “You wanna buy eggs, missus?”
My grandparents lived in Winnipeg, had just managed to survive the Great Depression, and my grandmother put three meals a day on the kitchen table because she’d learned how to not waste anything, including eggs. There was no such thing as a freezer. They had an ice box. That was a fridge with a compartment at the top where you could put a block of ice that you bought from the ice man who came once a day with horses and a wagon. It helped keep milk and cream from curdling and it did keep milk and fish cool but it didn’t preserve anything. The freezer was the closed in front porch. Once the temperature reliably stayed below zero anything that needed to be preserved by freezing could be put in boxes on the porch.

Eggs were a problem. You didn’t want to freeze eggs. Also, in those days, there were times when the chickens quit laying. Eggs were in short supply. They also became expensive. You wanted to buy them when they were cheap. When those ladies in babushkas came to my grandmother’s back door, my grandmother said, “I’ll take twelve dozen.”

Then she sterilized a couple of stoneware crocks. She put a pint of water glass into nine pints of water. She packed the eggs into the crock, filled it with the water glass and put a fitted wooden lid onto it so the waterglass wouldn’t evaporate. She stored it in a corner of the house but where it wouldn’t freeze.

I remember being sent to get eggs out of the waterglass. I think I usually said “Yuck, agghh, oohhhh,” because of the feel of the waterglass. The eggs lasted a long time but by the time the last ones were being used up the shells were rubbery. However, I don’t remember the taste being affected. If my memory serves me correctly, the white of the eggs were “loose”. I think that is how my grandmother described them. Scrambled, it made no difference. The taste of the fresh eggs when they were available, when the price dropped, was better, no doubt about it. Still, if the choice is waterglass preserved eggs or no eggs, we chose waterglass eggs.

Women, during my grandmother’s time, even during my mother’s time of raising a family, were encyclopaedias of food producing, collecting, preserving. Their knowledge was critical to their family’s survival. My grandmother wasn’t a pioneer woman. She left a prosperous family in Ireland to move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a bustling city that was called the Chicago of the North.

The vast transportation network, financial network, agricultural network that brings us pineapples in January, vast amounts of frozen fruit from Europe, taro root from wherever taro root grows, didn’t exist. Those fresh Chinese sugar peas at fifty cents a package were flown here in a commercial jet. In the 1930s and 1940s there were no commercial jets, no jets, airplanes were small, the distances they could fly, short.
Women and women’s knowledge made survival possible.

Men married women off immigrant boats, women they’d never seen before, because they knew that on their own, they could not survive. History is replete with pictures of cowboys astride horses herding those little dogies but it was their wives who knew how to cut them up, preserve them and put food on the table while the temperatures were forty below, the wind whistled and snow piled up to the eaves.

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