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Alice C. Bateman
One of my absolutely favourite childhood meals was a special one that my Grannie made every night when I was quite young, while she and Grampa still lived on their farm; one she called Midnight Tea. To my young self, my grandparentsí farm outside of Thornton, Ontario was a magical place, huge and sprawling, with a big old house and a giant barn like the one we had at home before it burned down when I was around four.
Being in a large family, it was a privilege to be allowed to go and have a holiday at Grannie and Grampaís place. Sometimes I got to go all alone, and enjoy some time to myself with my own thoughts, a luxury I treasured even as a small child. My Grannie and Grampa had time to see the individual in me, to spend time showing a young and curious person how things were done around the farm; how to use the hand pump that brought water to the kitchen, how to clean the hundreds of eggs that the farm produced each day, how to prepare different foods for cooking, baking, or preserving.
Just this very moment, my mouth smiled wide at the memory of blackberries growing all along the tree-lined country lane that was my grandparentís driveway. Mmmmmmm, warm blackberries, ripe and juicy in the summer sun! I donít think Iíve ever tasted anything better in my life! To this day just the sight of a blackberry can turn me back into a five-year-old, contentedly pulling the lovely berries from their thorny bushes, not minding a bit about the scratches that were impossible to avoid or the bees buzzing by my little ears as they searched for their own preferred sweetness.
My Grannie was the Egg Lady for the small city of Barrie, just a town at that time. Some of my fondest childhood times were accompanying her on her egg route, in the ancient, dusty red pickup with no driverís door so Grannie could jump in and out of the truck to deliver her eggs as expediently as possible. I loved her so much, and I loved that old truck. On those occasions when I did get to ride with her, I can remember my heart swelling with pride at the thought of my busy Grannie, out there making money by doing something people needed, a few pennies at a time. And people loved her, I could see it in the faces of the ladies whoíd come out of their houses to greet her the minute the truck would pull into their driveway.
I remember being at my Grannieís side, sitting on a high stool, learning how to very carefully hold the eggs so that we could get any dirt from the henhouse or the barnyard from the shells before we carefully nested them in their baskets for delivering. She taught me a light and delicate touch, something that translated into being good at working with feathers as an adult.
My Grannie had a gentleness of spirit and a gentleness of touch that I remember so clearly; it seemed that she and I had an entirely different relationship than she and others in the family had, and I believe it grew out of those times we shared over the eggs, on the few solitary sojourns I was permitted to my grandparentís farm.
Meals on a true farm are not anything like any meal Iíve ever eaten at anyoneís house in the various cities Iíve lived in as an adult. A supper on the farm did not simply consist of meat, potatoes and a vegetable or something simple. It seemed that the entire contents of the pantry came out to adorn the table, filling the huge surface so completely that it would begin to get difficult to find space to put just one more item of food. Sometimes I would go under the table and listen, because I thought it should groan under the weight of so much food!
In these days of prettily packaged everything, obtained from the mesmerizing displays at the huge grocery stores, it is difficult to describe just what real food was likeÖ Food that was picked fresh and ripe from the gardens and orchards to prepare, wonderful tasting things like plum and peach preserves, put up at the height of their season. Pickles and jams and jellies, all made with love at the height of their goodness, by hand. Cookies and muffins, pies and biscuits, homemade bread and buns; my nose is going crazy right now, remembering the smell of my Grannieís homemade bread! How wonderful it was!
Farm women used to spend most of their days in the kitchen; it takes a long time to prepare or preserve fresh food, to peel and chop fresh vegetables instead of opening a can or other container, to bake the biscuits and have them timed right so that the men would have them hot to sop up the steaming gravy from their plates Ė and all of this prepared on a wood stove, another wonder of times gone by that I miss. I baked my very first cookies in the oven of a wood stove!
Food and mealtimes used to be a central theme in farm households, and my Grannie always made sure that there was more than plenty to go around for everyone. I canít remember how many times I was nudged to have just one more little slice of raisin pie, or one more yummy molasses cookie, before leaving the supper table.
Midnight tea was special, because the dayís work was all finished, the men were tired and hungry after doing their late evening barn chores, and the women and girls knew that their own work would be done for the day as soon as this one final meal was finished.
We didnít prepare any new meat for this feast, simply spread the entire table with whatever might be left over from the lunch and supper meats Ė beef and chicken were the meat mainstays, both raised right on the farm Ė and all the delicious preserves and condiments, plates of cheese, fresh homemade bread spread with fresh butter, glasses of milk still warm from the evening milking.
Somehow, even the clean up chores didnít seem like chores, they just had to be done. Most often two women or girls or a combination of both would wash and dry the dishes, amidst so much chatter and laughter that the time just vanished and the job was done before anyone had time to resent having to do a chore. A third female would clear and wipe the table, sweep up the crumbs off the floor, and put the chairs back where they belonged.
While this was being done, the men would retire to the big living room, to the brown horsehair sofa and the overstuffed chairs, for a smoke and a bit of a chat before bed. Everyone knew their roles in this kind of life, everyone had a vital part to play in everyone elseís care and feeding and well-being. Nobody had to wonder if they were loved or not, it was obvious in the minute by minute and day by day life on the farm.
In my mid-forties now, divorced with seven children of my own ranging from five to twenty-eight years old, I yearn for the simple days, the times when life was straightforward, when the things that truly are important were done naturally. Good nutrition came straight from the earth to our tables, we thanked God for our bounty at every single meal and again before retiring for the night. And it seemed that God made good and sure that bounty continued.
Unfortunately, all things change. My grandparents have both been long gone to their reward, my Grampa when I was only fourteen, right after the farm was sold and my grandparents moved to a small suburban home. I believe to this day that my Grampa just felt that he wasnít needed anymore once he didnít have the farm to work, so he went Home.
Grannie died on Christmas Day of 1989, alone in an old folksí home, to my eternal sadness and shame. I so wish I had been with her that day, instead of enjoying myself with the rest of the family at my parentsí home.
Over three hundred people came to Grannie's funeral; even though she had long since ceased to be the Egg Lady, my red-haired Grannie was still loved by many people.
As much as I miss both of my grandparents, there is nothing in this world that I would exchange for the wonderful memories I have of being a part of the life of the farm where they lived when I was young. A home with no running water but the hand pump in the kitchen, where the indoor plumbing consisted of crude closets with chemically treated 50 gallon drums as toilets, hidden under wooden seats, one in the house and one in the shed, and where the chicken coop stank to high heaven.
Where, in my memory, my Grampa is still the tall and handsome, vital man he was when I was seven years old, walking hand in hand with him along the path between the barn and the house, taking Grampa into the house for the lunch Iíd helped Grannie prepare. Where Grannie still turns as we enter the old country kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron as she greets Grampa with a kiss on the cheek after their morning apart.
Where the sights and smells of food had a deep meaning, when food was served as an offering of love to us from God, and from the women of the family to the men. Our complex world would perhaps benefit a great deal from a little down-home simplicity.
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