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Cooking the foods of our ancestors keeps heritage alive

And what better way than with a pot of homemade soup?

One of the great truisms about food is that by cooking the foods of our forebears, we maintain or re-establish a link with our heritage.

My mother’s antecedents were off-colony Hutterites who arrived in Saskatchewan at the turn of the previous century from a colony in South Dakota. Earlier, my great-greats and their babes had made their way on foot from Ukraine and Russia to board one of six ships that transported over 1,200 Hutterites in steerage to the New World in the 1870s. As an adult, living in rural Saskatchewan, my grandmother, Sarah, a small, round woman shaped like a dumpling, milked cows daily for years. Her forearms were tight with muscles from that, and from turning the handle on the meat grinder when making sausage, and from killing and plucking chickens for the annual autumn canning. She cooked simply: braised beef, farmer’s sausage with potatoes and carrots, chicken soup with steamed dumplings, brown bread. For dessert, she made matrimonial cake, soft cookie sandwiches filled with dates, berry pies, strudel, and kuchen, deep-fried fritters rich with heavy cream. Occasionally she delighted us with sweet hocus-pocus buns, each filled with the airy remnants of a melted marshmallow. At Christmas we always had her dark fruitcake, toothy to the bite with raisins, figs, and prunes.

My father’s family tree is part of the Scots-Irish-French-English Protestant forest that reseeded Upper Canada, taking root in 1900. That side of my family lived in Ontario, and we saw them only rarely, but I do know that my dad grew up eating Anglo-style meat and potatoes, and I recall my grandmother Doris’s baking: her famous southern Ontario butter tarts, crisp-chewy chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies sprinkled with coloured crystals, and at Christmas, white fruitcake that glistened with jewel-like red and green cherries.

I cook like neither of my grandmothers. I prefer the food of my South Asian friends’ culture to the foods of my own, and sometimes lament — only half-jokingly — that I was born into the wrong society. But for my writer friends Madhur and Vijay, their families’ food does link them to their pasts. Their families endured the horrors of Partition, then arrived in Canada from the Indian subcontinent with little beyond mangos, spices and hope. It is my great pleasure, when with either of them, to share a cup of the spiced milky-black tea called chai before we cook some curry to share as well.

I love a meal composed of pakora, rogan josh, lentils, basmati rice, aloo gobi, and naan. In fact, the members of my family say “I know!” when I insist they take note that these dishes should comprise the menu of my final meal on the planet. Not that I foresee an early or imminent departure, but it’s good to be prepared; without cumin or ginger in the cupboard, how will my family cook these last favourite mouthfuls for me?

Scientists could analyze my preferences and give me a list of phenols, flavonoids and chemical compounds present in my favourite foods. Likewise, psychologists could ID my emotional connections. But I prefer not knowing on those levels. My own body tells me what ingredients agree with my gut, and beyond that, cooking, to me, remains one of the Great Mysteries. As Iris Dement sang, “I prefer to let the mystery be.” Cooks are the magicians whose capes conceal the transformation of matter. But for more pragmatic souls, the soup pot is the easiest spot to imagine common ground with my grandmothers. Both used dried pulses in their cooking: my southern Ontario Gran made Boston-style baked beans, and my Prairie Gram made lentil soup. Let’s leave off analyzing our palate’s mysterious preferences. First we eat — lentil soup, made with locally grown ingredients, eminently adaptable — to stave off the cold weather a little longer.

Lentil Soup

  • 1/2 c. raw lentils (or 2 c. cooked beans)
  • Handful of dried wild mushrooms 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 slices smoked bacon, chopped 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 sweet bell pepper, diced Thyme, curry powder, cumin or other herbs and spices to taste
  • 4 c. chicken stock
  • 1 c. cooked shredded chicken Lemon juice to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the lentils and mushrooms in unsalted water in separate pots until tender. Reserve with their cooking water. Heat the oil and sauté onion, bacon, garlic, and pepper until bacon is nearly crisp. Add seasoning to taste, along with the lentils and mushrooms and their cooking water, stock, and chicken. Bring to a boil, then add remaining ingredients.

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