Stories Have Roots


Stories Have Roots


The most wonderful thing about reading my grandmother’s cookbook is discovering snippets of stories that include my dad/great-uncles/grandfather, some of whom I knew only a short time, others not at all. A tale about my great Uncle Jack-o and his brothers being outfitted in sailor suits for a proper photograph; references to a ‘prep-school type’ who lives with her - my fifteen-year-old dad; a Nova Scotia family recipe adopted – then refined - by her mother in Ottawa. Little glimpses into her personal life which I treasure like artifacts dug from the past, help me come to know a woman by whom I am not only intrigued but with whom I am coming to identify, even to love.

When she alludes to one of my father’s favorite childhood poems, A.A. Milne’s The King’s Breakfast, and the fact that his majesty did like a little bit of butter for his bread, well…I am swept back in time, listening to that formerly little boy, now a parent, reading bedtime poems to me, then remembering reading those poems to my own children, sharing with them something from my childhood, something from my dad’s. Maybe something from my grandmother’s, too. My grandmother’s reflections remind me of time’s ephemeral yet eternal nature, of how generations of families can be grounded in stories that hang somehow suspended in time.

When those stories are in some way connected to the cottage where she and my dad and I and my kids each summered every year as children, I greedily eat them up, poring over and over her references to people and places I know so well: neighbors Bessie and Julia Burwash, who shared their secret recipe for lemon syrup with favorites like the Armstrongs; Wagonblast’s butcher shop in Arnprior where the Sunday roast could be purchased; the little Marshall’s Bay train station, where cottagers arrived each weekend for happy times playing clock golf on the lawn, reading on the hill and picnicking at the beach. I also discover a woman previously unknown to me except as some sort of mythical being, a sad-eyed woman in still photos, smiling enigmatically out at the world, a smile which prompted the naming of their sailboat, the Smiling Jane. A new figure in my life, suddenly very real, who is exuberantly alive, generous, funny, and beautiful, complicated, loving, and smart.

One of the stories my grandmother tells with fond amusement has to do with my great-grandmother Emily and an old butternut tree that once stood at the edge of the property; the story has become a bit of family lore, one my mother loved to relate, the details of which I am astonished to learn are mostly accurate. The grand old tree central to the tale has since been lost to disease, but in its heyday produced oodles of fruit which, one especially productive summer, Emily instructed her children to gather, picking up as many baskets of the sticky, green, lemon-shaped nuts as they could. These, she was determined to pickle. Just the way one would a walnut, of course, instructions the author rather wryly quotes her mother’s as giving, hinting archly at a somewhat less than successful outcome.

The tale is too long to relate in its entirety here – turn to p.102 in Cooking With a Grain of Salt for the complete version - but here’s how she opens the anecdote: A tendency to experiment with food can apparently be inherited, like buck teeth or dementia praecox. I often think of Mother as I quietly put the result of one of my more imaginative efforts in the step-on-it tin below the sink. Mother was a terrible cook but her spirited interest in the creation of food never forsook her. While I seem to have dodged both an overbite and a schizophrenic personality, the same cannot be said of a tendency toward editorializing, as you may have observed. And although it's not every reader’s cup of tea, I am more than delighted each time I recognize my own writerly impulses in my grandmother’s work, particularly when I am writing to amuse or instruct, the art of which she was a master. Then there’s my love speaking directly to you, dear reader when telling stories. And finally, there’s the fact that while the first matriarch was reported to be a terrible cook, the rest of us are pretty good ones. 

Five generations of women have fed their families and produced pickles every summer in the same unremarkable, often unworkable kitchen for more than a century. Talk about loving to cook, successfully or otherwise!  My grandmother continues the story of that summer by explaining:

We didn’t get off to the cottage till very late that summer, but by the first of August Mother had us all collecting butternuts. They were large and hard and sticky and we collected a great many, being paid by the quart. Then mother got to work and the cottage reeked of vinegar for many days….it was discovered that in spite of the care spent to them no human tooth could make any impression on them, were invulnerable to anything but the blow of a hammer. Mother by this time had lost the recipe, and most of her interest in them, but felt sure it had said something about letting them stand of the winter, to mellow. So when we closed the cottage we left them mellowing.

Apparently, filling the cottage kitchen with the acrid scent of burnt sugar, then filling mason jars with pounds of preserved peaches each summer is simply part of a long-standing tradition in my family, albeit one that many friends wonder at my determination to continue, especially during the dog days of summer. Despite the hindrances of cooking in that place and at that time, I honestly look forward to repeating the process, year after year. The neighbors gush over the gifts, and, of course, I love telling the stories, as you may remember.

The best part of the tale comes at the end: The following summer, hard as ever, we buried them quietly in the woods. Mother was far from downcast. I still admire a memorandum written in her own distinguished hand with a pencil the pine sheeted kitchen wall. “Pick butternuts before July 15th for sure”, it reads. Finally, I understand my mother’s determined search for butternut saplings in the forest. Now, I long to discover on which wall my great-grandmother wrote that advisory. My daughter suggested we, too, add notes of instruction for family recipes on the kitchen walls: choose a cool day for marmalade; *NB no one likes creamed corn; keep nuts in sealed jars! Words to remember. Words that make connections and tell stories.


Sarah Prospero


Sarah Christie Prospero lives and writes in Almonte, mostly memoir, and is happy to be realizing at last a long-held dream to be doing exactly as she pleases - most of the time, that is. Sarah’s work has previously been published in the Globe and Mail’s First Person, in Canadian Stories, on CBC’s Sunday Edition, in the on-line magazine Story Quilt, as well as in Ariel Chart.

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