Up the Gatineau! Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 48.
What We Ate on the Farm
I was born in 1946 and was raised on Browns’ farm in Kirk’s Ferry in the municipality of West Hull (now Chelsea). My sister Shirley followed five years later. At that time, the farm was owned by Ferguson and Maud (Reid) Brown, the uncle and aunt of my father, Arthur. Ferguson was a highly respected and successful farmer, and Maud, his wife, was the youngest daughter of the Reid clan. Maud was a respected artist and gardener and played the organ at the summer Union Mission Church across the highway on Brown Road. They had no children to help with the work (and to eventually inherit the farm). In 1942, my dad, Arthur, and his new bride Musie (Ditchfield) moved to the farm from Meach Creek Valley to work for his uncle and aunt on the understanding he would take over the farm one day. For the first few years, my parents summered in a cottage across the road from the farm on what was to become Ojai Road, and would move into the farmhouse during the winter months. It was a good life, with many other farmer friends, but also with an unimaginable amount of hard work. Let me tell of some of the ways life was back in those days by looking at our food—a story of not just our family, but of the hundreds of farm families living up the Gatineau Valley at that time.
How do the foods from nearly three quarters of a century ago compare with what is offered in modern grocery stores? Does today’s diet contribute to our health problems? Where exactly does our food come from? These are all challenging questions, and there is no simple answer. But let’s recall the foods consumed back in the 1950s on our farm in the Kirk’s Ferry neighbourhood of Chelsea, then compare those foods with what we can buy today at supermarkets.
Probably the most significant difference is refrigeration. Yes, we had the means to cool with ice or electricity, but not necessarily to freeze food. There were few, if any, frozen foods available in the small, local stores in rural West Quebec. In what is now Chelsea, Winnie and Ross Ardell had a grocery store near the Larrimac Golf Club where we could buy our canned and dry goods, plus cheese and ice cream cones. Bread was delivered by a panel truck a couple of times a week from Ottawa. My parents seemed pretty excited when Ardell installed a walk-in freezer with lockers for rent. This offered a convenient and reliable storage that was a good alternative to the normal practice of canning and salting foods. I remember the freezer failing once and all the food melting, including the strawberries in my parents’ locker, forcing us to clean up sticky berry juice.
For many people, food was chilled with winter ice cut from the Gatineau River by farmers and stored in an “ice house” packed with sawdust. Harvesting the ice was dangerous, hard work; accidents were serious. Uncle Ferguson had his team of horses “go in” once, and he had no way to get them out of the river. This was a serious loss and extremely emotional for a farmer. Remember: horses in those days were like family; you worked with them and cared for them daily for years. You were measured in your community by your team. You put them to bed at night, fed and watered them, doctored them and shoed them. That is not a simple undertaking with a 2,000-plus-pound horse.
During the summer, the cottagers got ice from us for their “ice boxes.” This provided us a bit of cash. So did firewood, eggs, unpasteurized cream, milk and butter. Our large ice box in the milk house kept everything cool.
On the farm, we were always planting, harvesting and preserving food from gardens and crops for ourselves and our animals. It was considerable work that took experience to be successful. New settlers must have suffered terribly until they got established. Aunt Maud, who everyone in Kirk’s Ferry knew by that title, remembered stories passed to her about the Indians helping the first settlers through hard times. Old Indigenous trails crossed from Eaton Falls at what is now the Gatineau River Yacht Club to the Brown farm and into the hills to Meech Lake.
The first crops of spring were asparagus and rhubarb. Then came peas, yellow beans and baby carrots. The first new potatoes that arrived mid-Julywere a delight. Tomatoes were very important. And so was corn. How many cobs could one eat at a meal? Twelve seemed like a good idea. We ate what was available freshly grown, picked and cooked. Today’s diet of store-bought, pre-prepared food does not compare.
All the farm families depended on canning to survive the winter. My mother “put up” quart Mason jars of garden produce, numbering approximately 50 of stewed tomatoes, 20 of pickled beets, 15 of mustard beans, 20 of pears and 20 of peaches in syrup, plus plums, dill pickles, tomato juice, apple sauce and, of course, jams and jellies. Remember, too, all the food preparation was done on wood-burning stoves. That is why so many old farm houses had summer kitchens where the heat and smells were easily vented away. It was a hot job sterilizing all the containers, cooking and stirring the pots, using jelly bags to filter juices and stoking the fires. And the cooks still had to prepare three meals a day for the men and help with other farm chores. Every day except Sunday was a 12-hour day. Sunday was easier, but still a six-hour day, because many farm chores had to be done daily.
Breakfast was after morning chores, milking, and cleaning and feeding the animals. Typical was oatmeal with heavy cream or fresh eggs, ham or salt pork, toast and butter, with maybe maple syrup or jam and pots of tea and fresh raw milk. Chores started at 5 a.m., so breakfast was at about 7:30 a.m.
Dinner, as it was called then, was the big meal of the day, served at noon. The menu included boiled potatoes and roasted, fried or boiled beef or pork and maybe chicken on Sunday. Vegetables, if it was summer, could be carrots, peas, tomato or cucumber, with berries or pie for dessert. In winter, the vegetables were home-canned, and desserts were puddings or fresh, warm home-made bread and maple syrup. Supper came after the chores were done at 6 p.m. and often included leftovers from noon, such as fried potatoes, cold meat or fried salt pork.
The humble potato was the staple for all the local farmers. In the spring you prepared the field for planting in nicely tilled soft soil. Sprouting potatoes were cut into pieces—each with a sprouting eye. With a hoe, one man made a hole maybe six inches deep. The next man, carrying a bucket of sprouts, dropped one potato piece in each hole and kicked dirt over it. With good weather, plants surface above ground in 10 days. Then you must hoe out the weeds regularly. Potato bugs can kill the whole crop by eating the leaves, so you could put insecticide in a (jute) feed bag and shake this over the plant, or take extra time and hand pick the beetles from the leaves. This is the better way because, after you do this a couple of times, the bugs disappear.
There is a special horse-drawn plow for hilling the potato rows. The horse walks between the rows pulling the double-winged plow, which pushes earth around the plants. This keeps the new potatoes buried and avoids the telltale sunburned green patches.
Come late September, you must pull up the dried plant and shake off the attached potatoes. Then, with a special fork with eight teeth [tines] you dig up the potatoes from the ground and lay them out to dry. You want a sunny, dry day for this, because the potatoes need to be bone dry before being put in storage bins for winter. You don’t wash them—just let the loose dirt fall off as you bag them. We would put up some thousand pounds, plus carrots, turnips and a vegetable called mangel: it’s like a turnip for the chickens.
Another important harvest was maple syrup, because sugar was a luxury. That was in early March on our sugar bush just south of where Pawley Road now is in Larrimac, at a second farm owned by Ferguson. As the weather warmed, the maple trees started drawing up stored sap from their roots. To collect this, we used a hand drill to make a slightly upward hole in the tree on the southern side about two inches deep and maybe three quarters of an inch wide. Into this we hammered a steel spile, like a funnel, which had a hook to hold a bucket below. On a good day early in the season, sap would fill that bucket every day. As the season progressed, the trickle diminished. Ideally, cold nights just below freezing and bright sunny days are the best. The sap was collected by hand in pails and taken to barrels in the pickup and back to the farm for boiling down. An outdoor fire pit with large boiling trays bubbled all day. When it was getting close, it could be finished in the kitchen, where better care was possible. About 22 gallons of sap boiled down to one gallon of syrup. At the right moment, it was bottled in sterile jars and sealed. We would make about 10 gallons of this gift from the gods each year.
We also raised our own meat. Pork was the mainstay, because it was easier than beef. Beef is big and a lot of work to butcher and store without refrigeration. The slaughter would be in late fall. A beef carcass has the hide stripped away. The hide could be taken to a tannery in Hull for cleaning and turning it into leather, which was useful for things like harness repairs. Pigs were not skinned, but “shaved” with a special tool—a round concave sharp disc attached to a handle. The carcass would be dipped in a barrel of semi-hot water. The coarse hairs were shaved off. Thus, you have no hair on your pork roast! My uncle Sherwood Ditchfield always got the pig’s head to use for something called head cheese. I never tried that!
Certain parts could not be stored, such as the liver, tongue or heart, so they were eaten fresh and were all good. The beef carcass would have to hang in the barn for a couple of weeks and then be cut up into quarters and some smaller pieces. Some pieces would have been brined—stored in large earthenware, fivegallon crock pots with rock salt and water and weighed down to keep it all in the brine. However, most of the beef was stored in the granary oat bins. The oats acted as insulation, so if there was a mild spell for a few days the beef would not spoil. We had meat saws and butcher knives and cut up pieces as required. The beef was not prime. It was usually the oldest milk cow, so it was tough and stringy and used mostly for stews or boiling. Roasts were something special, but always well done.
Pork could be cut into proper portions and smoked or salted. I am quite sure we ate salt pork belly—which looks like bacon—four to five times a week. The meat was cut into slices twice as thick as bacon and fried until crispy. Makes me hungry thinking about it! It had to be freshened—soaked in water—to get rid of most of the salt. A pork roast was the usual Saturday lunch with lots of gravy, boiled potatoes, pickled beets and maybe cabbage or carrots. The adults all drank black tea in a cup and saucer. The pot sat on the wood stove all day, so the tea was plenty strong. Uncle Ferguson would drink from his saucer. The children all had milk— lots of it, from the ice box in the ice house. We had a fridge, but they were rather small in those days, so many things were out in the ice box.
Then there was chicken. We had good old Rhode Island Reds. They were pretty good layers and big enough for Sunday dinner for six people. It was my Aunt Maud’s job to prepare the Sunday chicken. She was a tiny person and had her own wee axe for the job. She would catch the chicken in the hen house using a six-foot stiff wire with a hooked end to snare the chicken by the leg. She had a big wooden block on which the chosen chicken would rest its neck and head. One swoop of the wee axe and the body would be free of the head to run around in circles for a minute. Maud would then dunk the chicken in a pail of hot water. That loosened the feathers, which now came off in handfuls. Maud would singe the chicken with burning brown paper bags held over the wood stove. This burns off the tiny hairs covering chicken skin. Then the naked chicken was cut open and eviscerated on newspaper covering the kitchen table. There, we could find all kinds of interesting biological information unique to fowl. There were usually some eggs forming—from small pea-sized to fully formed with a soft membrane shell. Then the gizzard, full of little rocks that served as the chicken’s “teeth” grinding up grain. The heart and liver were good to save too, but you had to cut out the gall bladder from the liver or it would spoil it. Wash the chicken off and it was now oven ready!
Of course, there were many other foods, such as strawberries and raspberries, either wild or from the garden. Hunting sometimes got us a deer or game birds and one time a young bear. We never went hungry or complained. That is the way things were, and there was little or no choice. I think we were all pretty healthy, as we used no chemicals (other than pesticide on the potato plants) and no artificial fertilizers, and the food was always fresh and well prepared. I can eat the fashionable raw cheese today with no concern and have never had a cholesterol problem. Despite what John Denver sings, “Life on the farm was kind of laid back,” it was a lot of bloody hard work that never let up. But it did have many rewards too, including lots of healthy fresh food that is often so difficult to find today.
The story of Browns’ farm is detailed in Volume 20 of Up the Gatineau!, penned by Carol Martin, a great niece of Maud (Reid) Brown.