I wrote a blog for “Cooking the Past”, the marvellous Montreal-based public history project run by Stacey Zembrzycki, Cassandra Marsillo, and others. Asking people to reflect on food, and more particularly cooking, during the pandemic, the organizers seek ways to understand home, the kitchen, and our historic selves during moments of crisis. In social isolation but not alone, the kitchen (a place) and cooking (a practice) allow us a context for examining how the experience of food and food-making enables resilience, cut with sadness and cheer. Such reflection takes us beyond nostalgia, exploring the ways historic practices enrich our capacities to dream of what might be. Here, my mother’s story and particularly her relationship to baking prompted some reflection on my own world.
Food has always been important in my family. My father was an only child. His father left L’Ardoise during the First World War. Like many poor Maritimers, most of his family left Nova Scotia and lived far away – Boston, Montreal, and a residue in L’Ardoise. Relatives, Samsons and the broader family of Martels, Mombourquettes and Landrys, would often visit our home outside Halifax. This fully anglicised, frozen-pizza-eating boy joined them at the table but was unable to speak their language, and unwilling to share their feasts of lobster, eels, and various bivalves. My mother’s family were closer. Descendants of Highland Scots from Glenfinnan, their Jacobitism long forgotten but still evident in certain habits of dissent, the MacInnises were more clannish, much more seeking of each other’s company. My mother’s family was my family. My childhood revolved around western Cape Breton in general and Inverness in particular: summer picnics at the beach, Easter and Thanksgiving dinners, odd weekends, all spent somehow connected to family, and food.
The full piece can be found here.
My mother, Ann, was not known for her cooking. She was the youngest of nine, the princess in a working-class family from a coal town. I never met her parents, Dan Tom, the blacksmith, and Jessie, but heard stories of sage words, and endless kitchen conversations. Coming of age, working class in the 40s and 50s, none went to university, though my mother – the youngest and therefore “spoiled” – spent one year at Mount St Bernard, a “ladies college” associated with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. That training in hand, she joined one of her brothers, two of her sisters, and thousands of other poor Nova Scotians working in “the Boston states”. My mother died quite young, when I was 25. Years later, at a funeral for her older brother in Boston, an older woman I had never met before approached me and said “You’re Ann MacInnins’s son”. I do look like her, and we sat down and talked. She told me how she and my mother had left Cape Breton together and shared an apartment in Boston in the early 50s. She regaled me with tales of two young women in the city. They danced, went to bars, and dated suitably Catholic boys – if not necessarily good Catholic boys.
If a part of me was horrified by these stories – my mother?!?!? – I was also amazed to learn that she was a typical young woman. But these stories also reminded me how untypical she was. She returned to Halifax around 1956 and took a position at the Nova Scotia Power Corporation, quickly rising to be the secretary to the company vice-president, a job she kept until 1967. She had a group of working friends with whom she remained in contact for the rest of her life. They were all very much like her: smart, independent, modern women. Some of them married, some of them left work, some of them remained, some bore children, some didn’t. I recall several of these women well, and I think they gave me a different sense of women’s place in the world – a place they would determine for themselves: high-placed “secretaries”, a university Registrar, small business owners. I recall well Jessie Boyle – at whose cottage on the Bay of Fundy we often visited and where I first ate salmon minutes after it had been pulled from a weir – who was smart, funny, and very good looking. She had that patrician, faintly English accent still carried by old Halifax families. She never married, but worked in a professional position all her life. My partner Ingrid loves this photograph of my mother and some of her work colleagues as the image of the Mary McCarthy woman – the new woman of the 1950s who found work, fulfillment and struggle in the modern office. Of course many didn’t, and simply moved on, but it’s a lovely image of these new modern women – and their not-so-well-hidden bottle under the table – forging new lives.
Why this digression on my modern mother? Because in our family, Mom was the one who wasn’t considered a very good cook. In a family where women put together huge meals, baked breads and cakes, and other delicious sweets from morning to night, Mom worked. She worked in Boston; she worked in Halifax; and when she left the Power Commission she continued working on the local school board and engaging in numerous other community roles. Looking back at this as an adult, I now know this was amazing – and that she did this while enduring cancer and ultimately a serious heart condition is all the more amazing. But, in our family of great cooks, she wasn’t considered a good cook.
The thing is, she was a fabulous cook. My memory of food in our household was endless wonders: the modern things like those little meatballs in sauce that I just loved and the spaghetti dinners with the exotic Kraft parmesan cheese, and the old-fashioned things, like the bread pudding (bread, butter, brown sugar, hot water, my God I can still taste it), salt cod and green tomato chow, and the simple pleasures of that classic Maritime poor people’s food: bread and molasses (which really means biscuits, butter, and molasses, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly so easily). Even as a child, I seem to have understood that food was very important to her as I made her a little recipe book when I was 11. As I grew older and began to have some interest in making food, we began cooking together: very cool 80s things like cheese cakes, quiche and chicken cacciatore. I was learning, though slowly. I actually burned out her classic 1950s Sunbeam Mixmaster – a wedding present! – by stupidly putting in cold cream cheese. In the last few years of her life, I no longer lived in Halifax, but when we were together, we were usually doing something in the kitchen.
What I came to realise about my mother’s family reputation as a cook is that it all came down to the fact that she didn’t make great biscuits. She made biscuits, but they somehow didn’t quite measure up, and that allowed the other women in the family to smile and say, “Ann’s not a very good cook”. It was never mean-spirited, always a gentle teasing from women I know adored my mother. As I eventually figured out, biscuits were the true test of these women’s kitchen skills: that they be light but firm, soft but substantial, delicate but holding up to hard butter. And they had to be hot on the table and served with tea 30 minutes after someone dropped in unexpectedly.
I still make biscuits. They’re not as good as the famous ones made by my Aunts Marie or Evelyn, but most people say they’re good. I take pride in not using a recipe, simply mixing flour, salt and baking powder, cutting in butter, adding milk, gently kneading, baking, sharing. All these things connect me to my mother, and Jessie (and, I confess, I watched Evelyn very closely one time while visiting her in Montreal – what is her technique?). Not using a recipe, though, also means that sometimes my biscuits are not so great, and I’m never quite sure why (though enough butter and molasses forgives many sins). I love the fact that these actions tie so much together, that in that simple combination of flour and butter is a tangible dimension of my past. And of course as a historian, it’s also a reminder of how my past is connected to broader pasts and food and kitchens all over, happy ones, sad ones, ones hosted by good and strong women.
Social distancing has amplified my experience of home, and of the strong woman with whom I share it. She’s much busier than me – a tougher job, more video meetings, broader family responsibilities – and we’re apart most of the day, though sharing the same home. We’re together early in the day for coffee and in the evening for dinner. Together but apart, the kitchen is where we eat, where we talk, and where our past and present lives converge. A Winnipeg-born child of east European refugees – often reminding me that as peasants of the steppe they aspired to be working class – she epitomizes the modern woman, and produces endless soups in which to dunk biscuits. I proselytize the gospel of molasses, but she is decidedly agnostic. We find our common ground in cabbage, salt cod, and Sicilian whites. These moments, enforced by a virus but lightened by powerful stories and the tactile experiences of food, reawaken our pasts, reminding us that strength is nourished in many ways.
And for the record, my mother made great biscuits.