I grew up on a farm in rural Quebec in Canada. My parents were hard working, entrepreneurial people. My Mother and Father both came from families that provided for generations ‘off the land’. We raised beef cattle and cropped corn, grain and soybeans later. To maximize the investment in farm equipment necessary to achieve scale, my father plowed fields, planted and harvested crops for our neighbours on a fee basis. Eventually, this service evolved into a farm equipment dealership, a franchise, and tractors and such were sold and repaired in the building constructed near the sight of our former outhouse, not far from my bedroom window. (more on outdoor plumbing another time J)
Days were long, beginning before the sun rose and ending after the sun set. My parents knew how to fix things that needed mending and make something out of ‘next-to-nothing’. Mother Nature was both a treasured partner and an unpredictable foe. Weather, pests and market conditions controlled by faceless entities affected our income and return on investment.
Sweat equity really meant sweat! And sweat we all did! There were no breaks, no family ‘resort holidays’, no ‘lie-in’ days. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, we worked. We all worked. Parents, children, grandparents and extended family and when needed, and only if needed, hired help. This was my life from ages 9 to 16 when I left to explore the big, wide world.
Our farmhouse had 2 kitchens, a summer kitchen and a winter kitchen. Air conditioning was a foreign concept to me, but I understood that, seasonally, we adapted to use one or the other to cook meals. Each kitchen was equipped with a wood stove, later an electric stove top and oven for the winter kitchen, a refrigerator, giant freezers and long trestle tables with benches and chairs to expand to accommodate the number place settings needed for each meal. Often, 15 or more neighbours and workers sat with us and shared meals like family.
I still marvel how my mother could, with no warning at all, expand the place settings and servings of home cooked meals to make any last-minute guests feel welcome and nourished. We lived and ate organic long, long before it was in vogue.
We bought very little from the grocery store in town. We grew our own vegetables, raised our own meat and eggs, baked bread and picked berries and fruits seasonally. There were years in my childhood that my Mother even milked cows, skimmed cream and churned butter. The convenience of the delivery of milk, butter, cheese and ice cream from a local dairy later on seemed like a luxury of progress!
Five decades later, I have not out lived the memory of cramps in my hands and fingers from peeling enough potatoes, carrots and parsnips to feed the gang when crops were harvested or new buildings were erected. I think I washed and dried dishes in my sleep for years after. Wash the dishes, set the table, clear the table – repeat! That was my summer ‘vacation’ from school.
My mother and I would make a dozen or more pies at a time, mixing, kneading and rolling dough and cutting fruit. Every single day of the ‘make hay while the suns shines’ season, I baked 2 or 3 cakes or pans of squares and multiple dozens of cookies – always from scratch. Apparently, Mr. Pilsbury and Mr. Oreo did not know where we lived. Gallons of coffee, pounds of sugar and butter fueled the hard- working men.
My mother, as it was the custom, believed that hard working folks deserved appreciation and nourishment at least six times per day; hot breakfast, morning coffee with cookies and squares, hot, full course lunch with dessert, afternoon coffee with more sweets, hot dinner (known to us as supper), more desert and before bed, a “lunch” around nine p.m. which included more carbs and sweets, perhaps some toast and cheese or peanut butter – assuredly helping us to sleep soundly after a physically exhausting day!
Above the door frame of the summer kitchen hung a painted plaster plaque that captured my Father’s end of day sign off “Another Day . . Shot to Hell!”.
As surely as he said this with irony and bemusement each night as he climbed the stairs to bed, we all knew with certainty that the sun would rise again the next day and our work would begin again.
Without fail, another day, another season, another year - the farmers’ Encore.