They say history is written by victors, and the victors were almost always men. Herstory is often lost to us, except perhaps in the recipe books, boxes, clippings and cards handed down from mother to daughter over generations. I still use the Christmas pudding recipe that my great-grandmother wrote down in the late 1800s.
I spent a sunny morning in the fall with my friend Pearl Doupe, and as we cooked her mother’s pumpkin pie together, we talked about growing up on a farm near Ponoka, baking days with her mother and grandmother and Christmas on the farm.
Pearl’s family represents many generations of settlers in the Ponoka area. The Doupes came from the Pyrenees, via Ireland, emigrating to Canada to escape the potato famine. Her great-great-grandfather Amos headed for Vancouver but stopped in Alberta when he liked what he saw. He bought land from the CPR and went about creating a farm for his family. Her mother’s family are Olmstead, originally from England, they settled in the Dakotas before moving up to Canada in the early 1900s when the Canadian government was encouraging settlers to the prairies.
When Pearl was born the Doupe farm was one of many in the area farmed by the original settler families, all radiating out from the church corner with the church, cemetery and school at the centre of the community. When Pearl’s brother came along the farmhouse was bursting at the seams, and her parents built a house “just over the hedge”.
The family still gathered in the farmhouse kitchen for meals, and it was rare that there were only the six of them at the table. Breakfast at seven after the morning milking, lunch at noon and supper at six before the evening milking. At harvest time food would go out to the fields, a big pot of chicken and dumplings or a stew, with sandwiches and coffee in the afternoon. The farm provided most of the produce, fresh milk in gallon pails every day, beef, eggs and meat from chickens, and a large vegetable garden. All the children were expected to help out and Pearl remembers that there was always something to do, weeding the vegetable patch, cleaning milk pails and dairy equipment, collecting eggs and helping in the kitchen. Pearl is a great cook and learnt her skills watching her grandmother and mother in the kitchen. Bread was a weekly task, and one of her earliest memories is coming home from school smelling the bread cooling by the open window as she got off the bus. Preserving, canning and pickling was an important part of the kitchen calendar, and as the seasons rolled around the produce was preserved for the winter. If they grew it, they preserved it, and the store cupboard was always full of jars of fruit and vegetables, pickles, relishes and jams, pumpkin puree, salsas and sauces.
Pie making took place in the fall during harvest time. When the men were out in the fields the women of the family would get together and make dozens of pies for the freezer: apple, peach, rhubarb and strawberry, sour cream and raisin, pumpkin, blueberry, chokecherry and saskatoon.
Christmas on the farm was a highly anticipated event with food at the centre of the festivities, and preparations began weeks before, making Christmas cakes and cookies, shortbread, fudge and toffee. The week of feasting began on Christmas Eve at Grandma’s house, with turkey and ham from the Ferrybank Hutterite colony, corn, mashed potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce and gravy. Dessert was the apple and pumpkin pies made in the fall alongside scoops of ice cream from the creamery in town. Christmas Day was spent with the other side of the family so another turkey dinner, “the whole ten yards”, and as Boxing Day was her grandparents’ wedding anniversary another turkey dinner was served! Simple farm food, wonderful ingredients prepared with skill and love.
As we cooked from Pearl’s mother’s pumpkin pie recipe card, stained and food-spattered from years of use, we reflected on the history that the recipe represented, not just for Pearl and her family, but also the history of the women settlers of Alberta, their joys and hardships as they made a life for their families, using the work of their hands and the produce of the land.