Thanksgiving redux

turkeyToday, I went shopping. There were mounds of apples, corn, plums, cabbage, tomatoes, turnips, carrots at the market on Blenkinsop. It was a treasure house of food. Much of it is grown locally.

I’m grateful. I’m grateful that the present isn’t the past. When I was a kid, stores didn’t have a cornucopia of exotic food—mangoes, papayas, red, yellow, green peppers—and even if they had, we couldn’t afford them.

We ate a lot of local food. Bush rabbits were a favorite. A .22 shell cost half a cent. If we were a good shot, we only needed one .22 shell to kill a rabbit. Then we took it home with, hopefully, two or three others, and we skinned them, gutted them and gave them to our mother who made rabbit pie with carrots and turnips and gravy. We caught perch at the dock. My father was a commercial fisherman so we always had fish. We also ate a lot of ducks in the fall because the ducks got caught in the nets and drowned. My father sent boxes full of ducks. My mother and I sat on the back steps, plucked and cleaned them. We didn’t have the sense to just slit open the breast, take out the meat and throw the rest away. If my father was lucky at hunting, we ate venison.

When my father and his uncle were trapped in their winter fish camp by an early breakup, they were down to some flour and lard. They had been trapping muskrats on the side so had traps in place. They started skinning and eating the muskrats. My father said they stood them up, heads still on, around the side of a pot of boiling water. He was pretty thin by the time he arrived home.

Now, I go to the Blenkinsop store and buy ground lamb, chicken thighs, the occasional steak. I visit Fairways and buy lamb shoulder chops from New Zealand. Fairways is a local chain. It has large Chinese vegetable sections and aisles of ethnic food. There are things I’ve never eaten. Taro root, bitter melon, chicken feet. I believe the fresh green pod peas are flown in from China. My grandmother and mother grew peas in their garden. We sat on the steps shelling them into a large bowl. Once we ate them there were no more peas until the next summer. Nobody flew peas half-way around the world.

We got some things it is impossible or nearly impossible to buy today. Icelandic skyr, a sort of yogurt but for the initiated, far superior. Blood sausage made locally when animals were slaughtered. Lifra pilsa, liver sausage. Friends of ours would sometimes bring the first milk a cow produced after a calf was born. It was considered healing for people who weren’t well. Most of these things, and others, disappeared with the disappearance of the small farms and dairies and the more stringent health rules.

However, for all the things that have disappeared, there has been a cornucopia of food because of cheap transportation. Grapes in December. Unbelievable! Mangoes, not just one, but many kinds, all year long. I had never tasted a mango until my wife brought one home when we were first married.

Today, I saw trays of something I didn’t recognize. They were trays of sweetgrass, organic, locally grown. What next, I thought. I bought some mushrooms. My mother never bought mushrooms. I don’t know if they were there to buy. Now, there are rows of mushrooms, brown, white, exotic, wild. I bought the white ones. They were on sale. My step-grandmother, Katherine, was a mushroom expert. With her advice, it was possible to pick the large white mushrooms in the cow pastures. I learned to pick those and to pick morels. The mushrooms could be hung up on strings across the ceiling of the kitchen. They were fall decorations. Here, on Vancouver Island, I used to pick chantrelles and oyster mushrooms. Now, I just put mushrooms into a brown bag in the grocery store.

We made the most of what was available. Wild raspberries that grow well in old brush piles, high bush cranberries in swampy areas, wild plums, Saskatoons, wild strawberries (finicky little berries that were intensely flavorful), pin cherries, chokecherries. Here, I only pick blackberries. In the stores, for exorbitant prices, there are commercially grown raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. Still, expensive or not, they are available and there are worse things to spend your money on.

We are blessed. High prices for food, or not. We live in abundance. So much so that we waste too much. My mother and grandmother, my step-grandmother, wasted nothing. Having enough food on the table for a family was a challenge. It required knowledge, skill, experience, work.

When I sit down for supper at my daughter and son-in-law’s tomorrow evening, I will be grateful, not just for the food we will eat at that meal but for all the meals that I have eaten all year. Thank you to the farmers, ranchers, orchardists, fishers who take big risks and who work hard to produce these meals. Blessings upon you. May the rain come for those who so desperately need it. May it stay dry for those who need it. May the storms over the water not be too fierce. May your prosper.

Thanksgiving hunger

Have you ever really been hungry? I don’t mean peckish as in, “I think I could use a cup of coffee and a kleinur to tide me over until supper time.”

I mean hungry, with nothing to eat for the last day or so, the kind of hunger that means a constant headache, a pain in your stomach, so hungry that you’d eat things you normally wouldn’t? Hungry enough to eat out of a dumpster? Hungry enough to steal, to beg? To stand on the divider between the traffic lines with a piece of cardboard saying, “Hungry.”?

So hungry that you cried? So hungry that you’d beg? Please give me something to eat.”

As hungry as the Icelanders in 1783 after the Laki eruption? In Iceland to steal food was the worst sin imaginable but when three out of four animals die because of ash and sulfur dioxide and there’s no meat and milk, stealing food becomes a matter of survival. Ten thousand people died, that’s one out of every five people.

Or, how about the potato famine in Iceland between 1862 and 1864? Icelanders, unable to grow grain because of the Little Ice Age, had started to grow potatoes. The potatoes suffered from blight. This time only five percent of the people died.

Or how about the volcanic eruption in 1875? The one that made a situation with political repression, dreadful weather, worse. That meant people, particularly in the North East, desperate.

Desperate. Like, I’m desperate because I can’t afford to go to a concert? Desperate because I can’t afford to buy a new couch? Or desperate as in if we can’t get to North America, we’re going to die of hunger.

Desperate for food. Desperate to eat.

There were no Pilgrim Fathers in our background. Thanksgiving came to Canada with American settlers (refugees?). Doesn’t matter. There was reason for Thanksgiving. If we hadn’t imported Thanksgiving, we’d have invented it. Food on a plate. Enough food stored to last the winter. One Ukrainian settler in the Gimli area said, “We came to eat.” So did the Icelanders. We spread out all over North America finding good places to eat. Not five star hotels but good land, good fishing, good cattle ranching, good jobs, good housing. Good everything.

Look how hard we searched. Nova Scotia, Kinmount, New Iceland, Winnipeg, The Dakotas, Argyle, Swift Current, Foam Lake, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Point Roberts, Boundary Bay. Even Alaska. Looking for a place where we could feed ourselves.

Look at what our families found, what they created, what they can put on their plates today. From private meals at Thanksgiving to fowl suppers, we honor the people who sailed to North America, who took trains, who took boats across the Great Lakes, who walked, who rode horses, who kept moving, always looking for a place where they could produce enough food to feed their families, where no one would die of starvation.

To my Icelandic ancestors, to my Irish ancestors, to my English ancestors, my thanks, my thanks for the food on my plate. Bless, bless.


Thanksgiving for angels

At Thanksgiving, my mind turns to angels. The strange thing about angels is that most people have it wrong. They think they should have wings and wear white robes. Nope. Real angels look just like you and me. They often enter our life, then disappear into the hurly burly of life. I expect there is lots of demand for their services.

One of my angels appeared just outside Denver, Colorado.

We’d been living in Nevada, Missouri for four years. Great job in a college for young women but the opportunity to return to Canada had come in an unexpected phone call  asking me if I’d like a job at the University of Victoria. It might seem like an easy decision but it wasn’t. I loved southern Missouri. I loved the heat (my bursitis disappeared), the shower roses, the pecan pie, the cicadas, the sense of living every day with history, the people with their soft drawling voices (my son’s name, Val, was drawn out to about three syllables, stretched like golden toffee).

However, the lure of Victoria with its charming Old England fakery, its harbour, the ocean, fresh fish, its moderate climate, its monkey puzzle trees, Murchie’s tea house, a hundred different things made me say yes, sure, of course.

We loaded up a too large Uhaul, we took everything, the piano, new stove, the kids, the cat.  The cat and the kids were in the car, but  you know what I mean and, early one morning, we eased away from the curb outside our house with the mulberry tree, past the pecan and redbud trees, and soon were in Kansas.

All went well until we were just outside of Denver then the car overheated on a steep slope. I am congenitally incapable of understanding motors;  however, even I could see that our fan belt had broken.

There I was in the middle of nowhere, a wife, two kids, a cat, a trailer. If I’d been a fix-the-motor with strange stuff like my father, I would have used a pair of my wife’s panty hose or something but I’m not. At the moment of greatest despair, a truck pulled up behind me, the trucker got out, said, “Ya’ll havin’ trouble?”

He took a look, then said, “They’ll be fine, you come with me.”  He took the broken fan belt, I hopped into the truck and off we went. It was a long drive to the next place with a garage that had car parts for sale. It was hot. He reached into a cooler, opened  a can of cold beer and handed it to me. I don’t normally drink beer but I wasn’t turning it down.

The garage didn’t have the fan belt we needed. “That’s okay,” the trucker said. “There’s a garage down the road.”

Over hills, down hills, until we came to another garage. They did have a fan belt. We turned around and headed back to the car. My wife, daughter, son, cat were limp with the heat. No shade. Wickedly large sun.

He pulled out some tools, loosened things, pried on the fan belt, tightened things. I started the motor. Everything worked. I was weak with relief.

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

He laughed. “Nothin’,” he said and squeezed my shoulder. I got a business card off him before he disappeared down the highway with a wave.

His truck disappeared over the crest of a hill.

“Nothin’,” he’d said. “Nothin’. You don’t owe me nothin’”.

I sat sideways with the car door open, overcome with relief.

“We made our way through Oklahoma, through Utah, through Washington State, onto the ferry at Port Angeles, cleared customs and parked in the driveway of our rented house in Victoria, safe.

I’d had one book published then. Bloodflowers. I opened boxes until I found a copy and I signed it to “Our highway angel” and mailed it.

“Nothin’,” the word rings like a bell in my head every time I think of that highway, no houses, no commercial buildings, no people in sight, the baking sun, the heat, my wife and kids, the car and trailer immobile. “Nothin’.”

That’s what angels say when you ask, “What do I owe you for kindness, generosity, time, effort?”