Yet another rhubarb tale

One of our neighbours says she can’t grow rhubarb – it always dies on her. That must take a special talent. We can’t kill it. Not that we want to.

My Dad, age 6, and the giant rhubarb.

At every prairie homestead, occupied or abandoned, you can find caragana, honeysuckle and, yes, rhubarb. We had one long row of rhubarb in our farm’s garden. It was one of the first fresh foods, along with asparagus, that we harvested each spring. It was “heritage” rhubarb – the extremely sour green-stalked variety that my grandparents planted ca. 1917. My brother and I dipped stalks in sugar to eat it raw (doing so gave you bragging rights about how tough you were). Mom stewed it and made pies and puddings with it. She froze bags of it for winter use. There was never enough rhubarb to satisfy our longing for that delicious tart-sweet taste.

This spring we decided to move our rhubarb, in part because it was desperately in need of being divided and in part because it was in the shade of a large laurel willow tree. Also, we had plans for that corner of the garden which meant we would be unable to get to our precious rhubarb.

Rhubarb roots are not delicate, fragile, fibrous things. Oh, no. They are tough and thick as your forearm. They twist and twine around each other. They go half-way down to the molten core of the earth. No wonder it’s impossible to kill rhubarb (unless you are our neighbour). The roots were a mangled mess by the time we finished digging. Would the plants survive? Would they grow? Would we ever have fresh rhubarb again?

Foolish questions. Of course they survived. More to the point, they flourished. Last week, I picked our first crop and made rhubarb pie. Oh, that wonderful tart-sweet taste. There’s nothing like it.

Here’s my favourite recipe for rhubarb pie from Carol Acoose, a friend from my Regina days:

Rhubarb Custard Pie
4-1/2 cups of rhubarb, cut in 1″ pieces (more or less)
3 tbsp flour
3 eggs, beaten
1-1/4 cups sugar
1 tbsp soft butter
nutmeg to taste
pastry for single-crust pie

Mix all ingredients well. Pour mixture into pastry-lined pie plate. Bake at 400F for 15 – 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350F and continue baking for 20 – 25 minutes or until rhubarb is tender, custard is set and top is golden. Let cool. Salivate! Smack your lips! Enjoy!

#RhubarbPie #Gardening #Cooking #HannaHistory #MargaretGHanna

Purple Gas

In a previous post, I referred to “purple gas.” Prairie people are very familiar with the term; people elsewhere, not so much.

Beginning in the 1940s, the Government of Saskatchewan (among others) exempted bulk fuel purchases intended for farm use from provincial tax. This could amount to a savings of 10 cents a gallon, not an insignificant amount back then. Since this fuel was to be used only in farm trucks and machinery, it was dyed purple in order to distinguish it from domestic-purpose fuel (colloquially known as “bronze”) used in cars and other non-farm vehicles.

We used purple in the farm truck which was easily distinguished from non-farm vehicles not only by mud and manure permanently adhered to its body but also by the “F” on the licence plate. Purple (and diesel) also fueled our tractors and combine, and they were not exactly “fuel efficient.” Consequently, we had two 500 gallon fuel tanks, one for diesel and one for purple. Every so often, Dad called the bulk station and soon Mr. Conlan, and later Mr. Lalonde, arrived with his big tanker truck and filled our tanks. The reek of gas and diesel hung in the air, and on Dad’s clothes, for hours after these visits and Mom refused to let Dad in the house.

It was not at all unusual for the RCMP to stop non-farm vehicles and inspect for illegal purple gas. Woe betide the person driving a car who was caught using it. Fines ensued. Vehicles could even be impounded.

But there was a work-around, according to my anonymous but totally reliable source (not that my anonymous but totally reliable source would ever do anything of the kind). A solution that only a farm kid could dream up, a farm kid who wanted to take his newest “squeeze” out for a spin but couldn’t afford to buy legit gas. Pour purple into clear glass jugs, set in the sun for a few days, and voila! The sun had bleached out the purple dye so, go ahead, Mr. RCMP, check all you want.

In the 1990s, the Saskatchewan government abandoned the tax exemption. Now farmers pay the tax up front and receive a rebate. Purple gas has become a thing of the past although some jurisdictions still use it.

Our family has a purple gas incident that involves our 1958 Ford, a neighbour couple, a ram, and an unsuspecting RCMP officer.

From about 1968 to 1975, my parents and their good friends, George and Muriel Morrison, jointly owned a flock of sheep. For the first couple of years, Dad and George “borrowed” a ram to, well, you know what rams do. They decided they needed their own ram, so off they went to Regina to the livestock auction to buy one.

During this time, my parents were living in Moose Jaw so that my brother could attend school. George also lived in Moose Jaw. Neither had a truck to bring back the ram, so a truck-owning friend agreed to meet them at the auction mart and ferry said ram back to the sheep yard.

All four drove into Regina (about 75 km away) in our 1958 Ford. Dad and George bought the ram. The friend with the truck did not show up. Now what to do?

Dad took the back seat out of the car and stowed it in the trunk (remember cars with giant trunks?). They covered the floor with plastic, and between Dad and George, with the help of a bucket of oats, they managed to wrestle the ram into the back where they crouched, uncomfortably, holding the ram in place. Ram was not amused. Neither were Dad and George but what else could they do?

Mom and Muriel got in the front seat, Mom driving. Half-way between Regina and Moose Jaw, she saw the flashing lights of an RCMP cruiser behind her. Being a good law-abiding driver, she pulled over and got out her licence and car registration.

“I’m checking for purple gas,” the RCMP officer said, and walked back to the gas cap. Just as he walked past the rear door, the ram stuck his head out of the window, gave an ear-splitting B-A-A-A-A in the officer’s face, and further expressed his displeasure with the situation by taking a big dump of you-know-what.

What Dad and George said cannot be repeated in public. The RCMP officer decided he didn’t need to test for purple gas. Mom drove home, windows rolled all the way down. The ram was delivered to the sheep yard. The car received a thorough cleaning.

We still laugh about it.

#PurpleGas #FarmFuelTax #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #PrairieHistory #SaskatchewanHistory #MargaretGHanna

Grandmothers

It takes a village to raise a child, so says the adage.

Or a grandmother, according to anthropologist Dr. Kristen Hawkes at the University of Utah.

Her thesis is as follows: grandmothers perform “motherly” duties, such as feeding and tending young children, thereby allowing mothers more time to forage for food and more energy to have more children. She developed this hypothesis while working with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer society in Tanzania. Hadza mothers were able to forage for food and care for a child as long as they had only one child. The birth of a second child limited the mother’s ability to both forage and care for the existing child, and that’s when Grandmother stepped in to help.

From this hypothesis, Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers were a significant factor in the evolution of modern Homo sapiens because a grandmother enabled the birth of more descendants thereby increasing the probability of her genes surviving in subsequent generations. This, in turn, led to slower aging and increased longevity. Her reasoning is complex (you can read more about it here).

Another study published last year in Current Biology argues that the ability of grandmothers to be able to participate in child care was dependent on geographic proximity. The authors examined familial data from 17th and 18th century St. Lawrence River region (now the Province of Quebec). They found that the presence of a grandmother not only increased the size of the family but also the number of children surviving to age 15 (read about their study here).

Grandmothers did more than look after children. They were essential as midwives to help bring children safely into the world. Childbirth is one of the most deadly periods of a young woman’s life. It’s impossible to say what the death rate per 1000 live births was when we lived the hunter-gatherer life, but statistics from 18th century Europe and the USA paint a deadly picture. In England, the death rate was 10.5 per 1000 live births, dropping to 7.5 deaths in the last half of the 18th century. It was just as deadly in the United States, about 12 deaths per 1000 births, dropping to about 6 deaths per 1000 births in the 19th century. Even today, it is still the sixth most common cause of death among women aged 20 to 34. So, grandmothers who had survived childbirth knew from experience how to help their daughters successfully give birth.

Grandmothers were also the keepers of stories and traditions and knowledge (so are grandfathers, but sorry, men, this post is about grandmothers). These wise old women had seen it all; they’d lived through childbirth and disease, possibly even famine and war. They knew how to negotiate difficult situations and how to survive in times of scarcity. They were a pillar of security and confidence in an otherwise insecure world.

Unfortunately, our modern world has removed most of us from our grandmother’s sphere of care and influence. The need to move to where work is has splintered families across countries and continents. Social media provides one means of keeping in touch, but it’s no substitute for sitting snuggled up to your Granny while she reads you a story or feeds you your favourite cookies in defiance of your mother’s edicts or shows you photographs from the “old days.” Social media don’t allow you to have a sleep-over at her place, or help her weed her garden, or hug her or be hugged by her.

Grandma Hanna with baby Margaret

Like most kids growing up in the 1950s in prairie villages and towns who had their grandparents nearby, our paternal grandmother, Addie Hanna, lived only a quarter-mile from our farm, in the village of Meyronne. She played a significant role in our lives: she looked after us when Mother was in the hospital, we went to her little house after school for milk and cookies and a visit, I learned to ride a bike in her back yard, and we often slept over at her house just because we could. We had Sunday dinner at her place, or she at ours. She sat with us in church, she tolerated us at Ladies’ Aid meetings that Mom dragged us along to, and she tut-tutted over what she viewed as inappropriate behaviour. She was just “There,” and it wasn’t until I left for university that I learned how unusual it was to have a grandmother so close to hand.

Addie Hanna, ca. 1955

Perhaps that is the reason I decided to have her “narrate” my book, Our Bull’s Loose in Town!: Tales from the Homestead. It is a way of honouring all she lived through and all she contributed to our lives.

Thanks, Grandma.

#Grandmothers #Childbirth #ChildCare #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #MargaretGHanna

Prairie Architecture: The Barn

(Written in response to Challenge Your Camera)

Every farm has one. They may be of different sizes and configurations, they might be build of different materials, but they all have the same function – a place to shelter livestock during inclement weather, a place where cows/sows/ewes/horses give birth, and a place to keep their fodder and bedding.

This is the barn I grew up with. My grandfather, Abraham Hanna, had it built in the summer of 1917, the year he moved the entire farmstead one mile, from the east side of Sec. 25 clear across to the west side, just north of the village of Meyronne, Saskatchewan. It was built under the direction of local carpenters, Norman Hisey and R. Leadley, who built to last – huge old-growth fir posts, beams, joists and rafters are the “bones” of the barn. Mr. Leadley had the misfortune of falling off the roof and, as my grandfather recorded in his diary, “was badly injured.” When the barn was finished, Mr. Hisey painted “Cloverdale Farm” on the roof.

It no longer houses livestock – the last horse died about 1949 and my father sold the last of the cattle about 1968 – but I remember it as a place filled with the aroma of manure and straw and chop and cattle. Those aromas seeped into the concrete floor and the fir beams, never to leave. Three milk cows – two Jerseys and a Guernsey – stood in the stanchions to be milked, their tails constantly switching back and forth, threatening to swat the unwary milker. The bull filled one of the box stalls both physically and psychologically (I was terrified of the monster). Two other box stalls were well-used come March and April as “birthing” rooms; I remember Dad coming in from the barn and announcing, “We’ve got a calf!” The barn cats ruled, semi-wild creatures that birthed in the mangers or the hay loft, that sallied forth to hunt mice and rats and gophers, that vanished in a trice when we walked in and peered suspiciously at us from their hidey-holes. The former horse stalls housed equipment or were boarded up to hold grain.

The loft housed the straw pile and the chop bin and flocks of pigeons and barn swallows and sparrows. The straw pile was our “mountain;” my brother and I trekked up and down it, rolled in it, threw handsful of straw at each other, and then spent an eternity picking straw and chaff out of our hair, our ears, our clothes. The chop bin – “chop” being oats chopped into a coarse, flour-like feed – was the bane of our chores. It always clogged in the chute, forcing us to hammer at it with the shovel until it dislodged and came thundering down, covering us from head to toe in an itchy cloud. We spat it out, dug it out of our ears, tousled it from our hair, slapped it off our clothes and then carted 5-gallon pails of it in our little red wagon the 100 yards or so to the chicken coop.

Hisey and Leadley built well – the barn is as straight and solid as it was 103 years ago. The neighbour who bought our farm respected the barn’s antiquity – he painted it and reshingled the roof. It now looks almost like new, although the roof no longer proclaims “Cloverdale Farm.”

ChallengeYourCamera #PrairieBarns #PrairieArchitecture #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #MargaretGHanna

Christmas Traditions

Part 2: Christmas Angel

The top of every Christmas tree has something, usually either a star or an angel, to provide the finishing touch to all the lights and baubles and tinsel and garlands that sparkle and glitter and twinkle below. Ours is no different – we have an angel.

But she’s not any old angel.

Once upon a time, many years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, a little girl accompanied her daddy to the hardware store. She went everywhere with him because he was her hero and, in his eyes, she was his little angel (boy, was he mistaken! but I digress).

While her father conducted his business with Mr. Enticnap, the little girl wandered around the store admiring all the decorations for sale. And then, she saw it. Her! The most beautiful angel in the whole world. In the whole universe!

Her silvery shining hair was held in place with a golden diadem. Golden wings spread wide behind her. Her flowing gown was bedecked with golden stars and in her right hand she held a wand tipped with a star. And she shone because you could put a light inside her.

The little girl ran over to her daddy and in her best whiny six-year-old voice pleaded, “P-l-e-a-s-e, Daddy, will you buy her? P-l-e-a-s-e!”

Of course, he did.

She has graced our family’s tree top ever since. She came with me when I moved to Alberta and she continues her duties here.

Mind you, after more than 65 years, she is showing her age. The golden diadem is slightly askew. The starry wand has been glued back into her hand several times. Her wings are not as bright. Her backing is so warped by the heat of numerous tree lights that she is now held together with wire.

She is still the most beautiful angel in the world but not because of her looks. No, that beauty is a result of 65 years of memories, and particularly that one special memory of a father who loved his daughter so much he bought her the angel of her dreams.

#ChristmasMemories #ChristmasAngel #ChristmasTrees #FatherAndDaughter #MargaretGHanna

Chores!

“Margaret, today I think we should do . . .”

Uh-oh. I knew what that meant – Mom had a chore for me to do.

Mom loved the Royal “We.”

Doing chores for Mom often meant doing chores with Mom. And doing chores with Mom was always an adventure. It was a time for stories, jokes and laughter.

Especially jokes. Mom was never above pulling a fast one, even on her daughter.

Like one time when we were doing dishes – Mom washing, I drying. It devolved into a game of “I can wash faster than you can dry!”

I was keeping up but I seemed to be drying an inordinately large number of saucepans. Wait! Didn’t I just dry this saucepan?

Mom!

She laughed. “I wondered how long before you noticed.”

Instead of putting the saucepans away, I had put them on the stove. Which stood beside the sink. Within Mom’s easy reach.

Silly me!

#ChildhoodMemories #HannaFamilyHistory #NonFiction #FamilyHistory #Humour #DoingChores #MargaretGHanna

The “Chocolate Squares” Caper

I made “Chocolate Squares” the other day. That’s what we called a certain decadent, toothachingly-sweet, calorie-laden, carb-ridden, chocolatey dessert when I was growing up. Only when I was well into my adult years did I learn they had another name: Nanaimo Bars.

“Chocolate Squares” have a special place in my memory bank because one day, when I was maybe 12, I decided to make them. On my own. No help from Mom. I was a “big girl” now.

We had received the recipe from Mrs. Hill, one of my grandmother’s friends. It was hand-written on a 3″x5″ file card. And, as with many recipes from people of that age, details were sometimes a bit sparse – they assumed you knew what to do.

I didn’t know that.

The first layer was no problem. I melted the butter, cocoa and sugar in the double boiler, then added the beaten egg, the crushed graham crackers, chopped nuts and coconut. Once it was well mixed, I spread it in the pan.

So far, so good.

The recipe for the second layer read “Spread on . . .”, so I spread on the icing sugar and sprinkled on the Bird’s Custard powder. Next came ½ cup of butter.

That’s when I realized there might be a problem. How do you spread ½ cup of butter, even when it is soft, into a powdery layer of icing sugar? Not only that, but then I was supposed to add some cream. Things did not look quite right.

Time to call in the expert. “Mo-om!”

Mom was in the living room or maybe in her sewing room doing something, certainly not housework. She was a staunch believer in the “Housework if necessary but not necessarily housework” philosophy. There were so many other things to do that were far more interesting or rewarding than – Ick! – housework.

She also had a warped sense of humour.

Mom walked into the kitchen, took one look at my messy spread-on-as-the-recipe-said layer and burst into peals of laughter.

I was devastated, traumatized. For life. (No, not really but it sounds more dramatic, doesn’t it?)

When she finally stopped laughing and had wiped the tears from her eyes, she said, “You’re supposed to MIX it before you spread it on.”

“But, but, the recipe didn’t say anything about mixing it!”

Like I said, some of those old recipes are a bit shy on details.

Anyway, Mom helped me scrape the mess into a bowl where I mixed it up, as I should have, and then continued with the rest of the recipe. The Chocolate Squares turned out just fine. Only Mom and I knew how they had almost been made.

#BakingAdventures #BakingDisasters #Baking #ChildhoodMemories #HannaFamilyHistory #NanaimoBars #MargaretGHanna #Humour

Rhubarb Season

Garnet (my dad) aged about 4 or 5. Caption on the back of the photo reads “rhubarb 4’10” high, a good crop in one of the good years.” Photo probably taken about 1927 or 1928.

When I was growing up on the farm, there were two sure-fire signs of spring – the first feed of asparagus and the first feed of rhubarb. Daily, we visited the two longs rows of asparagus, the one long row of rhubarb, searching for those first nubbins breaking through the soil. Especially the rhubarb.

And then, there it was! We yanked an armload of rhubarb stalks and marched triumphantly to the house, precious booty in hand.

Our rhubarb was the old-fashioned green kind, to be eaten only with generous amounts of added sugar. The first feed was always plain and simple — stewed rhubarb, often served with cream. Real cream! The so-called whipping cream you buy in the store is a mere pale imitation of the cream from our Jersey and Guernsey cows. So thick, you could stand a spoon in it. You could cut it with a knife.

Or so I recall.

Only after we had sated our appetite for rhubarb on its own did Mom then turn to rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie. We filled numerous freezer bags with chopped rhubarb to see us through the winter.

And then rhubarb season was over. But we had memories of what had been, memories that would remind us of what was to come.

A couple of springs ago, when rhubarb season was at its peak, our writing group decided to collect rhubarb recipes. And so I give you:

Rhubarb Pie, a recipe (sort of)
(With apologies to William Shakespeare)

How shall I make thee on a summer’s day?
The day’s so hot and sultry, yet my mouth
Doth water at the thought of rhubarb pie.
I don my hat and brave the summer heat.
I pluck an armful, and with sharpened knife
Cut thee in dice like rubies shining red.
Thy tangy taste I soften some with sugar
And flour holds thy juices well at bay.
Thy pastry bed I make with flour and lard
That glistens like a pearl ‘neath summer moon.
Once mounded in the dish, I crown thee last
With butter and with nutmeg and a cap.
Then bake one hour full, and when ‘tis done
The joy of eating pie is soon begun.

#Rhubarb #RhubarbPieRecipe #Sonnet #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #WilliamShakespeare #MargaretGHanna #FarmLife #MeyronneHistory #PrairieLife

Dogs and other farm animals

Almost all of Abe’s diary entries are terse, impassive, descriptive statements: “did this,” “did that,” “so-and-so visited,” etc. From time to time, though, his humanity shines through, no more so than when he is writing about certain of the farm animals.

Jack the dog
Every farm has at least one dog. They are as likely to be a mutt of uncertain and unknown parentage as they are a pedigreed purebred. They are companion and work dog combined. They guard the yard and house, herd cattle, and catch rodents. They chase cars and get into scraps with skunks and badgers. They follow you in the yard and in the field, play catch, and plop down beside you when you pause to rest. They nudge you with their muzzle when you need cheering up, listen attentively to everything you say, and demand nothing more than a scratch behind the ears or a pat on the head. They eat table scraps, chew up old bones and dig holes to bury their “treasures.” They howl at the moon and bark in response to other dogs’ barking. They live outside; they sleep in the barn when it’s cold or, if they’re lucky, on an old mat in a dog house. Some die of old age, some meet tragic ends. When they die, we mourn the passing of a dear friend. Continue reading “Dogs and other farm animals”