A Miser’s Feast

As soon as I walked through the door into my in-law’s house I was lured to the stove by a mouth-watering aroma. Lifting the lid I saw diced potatoes, turnips and onions in a light broth.  How could something so seemingly ordinary smell so wonderful? “What’s this?” I asked, turning to my mother-in-law. “Stewed potatoes,” she remarked.

In the six years I had lived in Newfoundland, I had never tasted stewed potatoes.  If it is true that every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose the silver lining on this cloud was that my mother-in-law had cooked this pot of soup for her ailing husband, and I was invited to share the meal.  Later, talking to others, I learned a meal of stewed potatoes was common years ago; quick and tasty, and enjoyed by kids and parents alike.  I suspect the not-so-secret ingredient in a good pot of stewed potatoes is diced salt pork.

To cook Stewed Potatoes, dice about 1/2 cup of salt pork fat and saute in a frying pan until crisp. Add onions and saute. Add diced potatoes and turnips and just enough water to cover the vegetables. Cook until tender. Optional: when the vegetables are half-cooked, add a bit of cod and cook until tender.

Truly, it is a miser’s feast. And why a miser’s feast? Because it costs so little to make.

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Every St. Patrick’s Day I remember my dear old Irish granny.  Peggy was Irish but grew up in Wales, and my mother always said when it came to food, my grandmother never wasted a thing. For instance, if a goose were cooked, then the goose feathers were stuffed into mattresses and pillows; the large wing pinion was used for sweeping the hearth and the smaller wing feathers for brushing flour or oatmeal while baking.  No part of any butchered animal went to waste.

Looking through a Welsh cookbook on soups and savories, I was intrigued to find a recipe for Cawl: a basic dish of meat, root vegetables, potatoes, onions and cabbage.  Cawl is considered to be the national dish of Wales, but here’s the interesting part; in North Wales, Cawl is also called lobscows, from the English for ‘sheep broth’.  Coincidentally, the Newfoundland cookbook “Fat-back & Molasses” includes a recipe for Lob Scouce.

Just think about it.  Many Newfoundland residents trace their ancestry to England, Ireland and Scotland, but here is a national dish from Wales that has made its way into kitchens on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. It intrigues me that my Irish granny, raised in Wales, cooked lobscows, while someone else’s granny in Newfoundland served a similar meal called lob scouce. Fascinating stuff!

Browsing through the Welsh cookbook, I see the people of Wales made use of potatoes, onions, and bacon on a regular basis.  The Miser’s Feast in their cookbook is very similar to the stewed potatoes that Len’s mother served his dad, except the Welsh used bacon rather than salt pork. the following is very simple and well worth trying.

Cover the bottom of a heavy saucepan with whole, peeled potatoes and a sliced onion. Cover with water and a little salt and pepper, place the lid on the pot and bring to a boil. Place bacon slices on top of the onion and potatoes; replace the lid and simmer slowly until the potatoes are cooked through and most of the water absorbed. Enjoy.

The Welsh, like Newfoundlanders, are very fond of onions.  Their recipe for Onion Cake (so called because, for lack of a baking dish, a cake pan was used) is delicious; I’ve tried it.

You will need about two pounds of potatoes, one or two onions, salt & pepper, and one cup of beef stock.  Butter the inside of a baking pan generously.  Peel and thinly slice potatoes and soak them for a few minutes to draw out the starch.  Drain and dry in a clean cloth.  Cover the bottom of the dish with a thick layer of potatoes, then a layer of finely-chopped onions, season, and dot with butter.  Continue until the dish is full, finishing with potatoes and dotting the top with extra butter.  Add beef stock.  Cover with foil and bake in a hot oven for about an hour, when the potatoes should be soft and cooked right through.  Ten minutes before the end of cooking time remove the cover to brown and crisp the top.

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When March winds and blowing snow batter your home, get out the pots, pans and potatoes and have a go at something new.  Taste and see; you might find a miser’s feast your family will cherish forever.

Crows Making Tools?

Sacred Bay and the surrounding islands are chock-full of pack-ice, and looking out my front window I’ve been wondering, why are there crows on the ice in the tickle, and what they could be doing?   (Dictionary of Newfoundland English: TICKLE  A narrow salt-water strait, as in an entrance to a harbor or between islands or other land masses, often difficult or treacherous to navigate because of narrowness or tides.)

Harbor Island Tickle and Harbor Island: a favorite nesting site for sea birds.
Harbor Island Tickle and Harbor Island: a favorite nesting site for sea birds.

In British Columbia we saw plenty of crows and thought of them as noisy pests.  I guess I never attributed much intelligence to birds of any kind.  However, one of the more enlightening experiences of my life was at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, where I saw Vending Machine Chickens.  When I dropped a quarter into a coin slot and looked into a glassed-in pen, a live chicken sprang up and, with its beak, tapped out a cheerful tune on a toy piano.  As soon as the tune ended the vending machine coughed up a little ‘bird treat’ and the chicken was rewarded for playing the piano.   I thought that was pretty fascinating stuff.

Some people consider crows a bad omen and most probably think they don’t have a grain of sense, but I wonder if that can be true.  For instance, these birds clean up road kill, eat insect pests, and alert us to ‘big doings’ in the woods or along the shoreline.  They alerted me early one morning to a lone coyote tracking southwest on the ice towards Tucker’s Cove.  I’m pretty sure, too, that if or when a polar bear makes his way across the ice to Ship Cove on a seal hunting expedition, the crows will be the first to let us know.

Crows have their own highly evolved language and society; living in close-knit families of at least nine birds, with the leader acting as lookout, stationing itself at the top of the tallest tree while others forage or attend to crow business.  If you hear a crow scold, he is warning of an approaching predator, a fox or an owl.  A rallying call means the predator is closing in.  An assembly call is sounded when it is time to mob the enemy.  Then there is the dispersal call, which is the crow equivalent of “scatter!”

Crows on the power lines awaiting their daily snack.
Crows on the power lines awaiting their daily snack.

A video circulating on YouTube demonstrates an unusual friendship between a crow and a kitten.  An elderly couple in Massachusetts found a stray kitten in their yard.  They tried to feed it but it was too wild and they feared it would starve.  Then one day, along came Moses, a crow, and he fed the kitten worms and insects; even going so far as to insert the food into the kitten’s mouth.  If the kitten ventured onto the street, Moses cawed and flapped until it returned to the yard.

Behind our house, we have a family of crows living at the edge of the wood.  If I crank open the casement window in the dining room and toss a piece of toast on the snow bank, within minutes a crow is perched on the top of the nearest tree, scoping out the ‘find’.   Soon, two or three crows are perched on tree tops around the yard, but they keep their distance.  When Len and I get up from the table and all the dishes are cleared, only then will they flutter to the ground, waddle cautiously to the piece of bread, and carry it into the woods.

Most interesting of all, in the Coral Sea east of Queensland, Australia, on New Caledonia Island, there are crows that actually make tools by modifying pine needles and leaves, or by sharpening twigs, which they use to lever bugs out of crevices or grubs out of logs.  One crow in captivity took a piece of wire, fashioned it into a hook, and used the hook to pull a bit of meat out of the bottom of a piece of pipe.

So, it seems to me, whether we like to admit it or not, crows are pretty smart creatures, and might be up to a lot more than we know.  If my ears and eyes were as sharp as a crow’s, I might be able to see and hear what they’re doing out there on the ice at Harbour Island Tickle.  One guess is they’re fashioning implements: knives, forks and spoons, out of bits of ice, in anticipation of the annual seal hunt.  I mean, if their Australian cousins are making spears and hooks in New Caledonia, then their Canadian cousins ought to be just as enterprising.

You can take the crow away from his resources, but you can’t take the resourcefulness away from the crow.  At least, that’s my guess.

Pandora’s Box

It never occurred to me when I hurried through the library doors that the myth of Pandora’s Box could be anything but a myth, but as sure as the legend of Pandora exists, what happened at the Edmonton library surprised me—especially me—even if I am from the city.

According to Greek myth, Pandora was the first mortal woman.  One day, she was given a small box as a gift from the Greek Gods—as a wedding gift—but was told never to open it.  However, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her and she succumbed to temptation.  She was horrified when all the evils of the world—hate, anger, sickness, poverty, and every bad thing you could imagine—flew out of the box.  Realizing her mistake, she shut the box before Hope, the final endowment, was released.

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I enjoy the library and everything it represents: it’s a place for study and research, with codes of etiquette that people are expected to obey, such as preserving a serene environment within its walls.

At the St. Anthony town library, I can walk in, greet the lady behind the counter, and search the shelves for books and movies, often becoming so absorbed that I overlook anything else happening around me.  But I can’t say the same for the Edmonton library, which is a beehive of activity with people of all ages passing through its doors at all times of the day.  So, with that in mind, I waited at the library door at opening time, thinking surely that most of the patrons would scramble for the computers, which they did.  My idea was to get to the DVDs, choose one or two, and skedaddle before anyone else moved in.

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The DVD section is downstairs, with movies neatly cataloged on shelves, divided into sections and running more than half the length of the library, with hundreds of DVDs to choose from.

But, just as I began to sort through one particular section, unbeknownst to me, the lid of Pandora’s Box was creaking open.

I heard her before I saw her.  Her approach was not unlike the approach of a thundercloud passing in front of the sun, or like the chill one feels when a cellar door opens.  A death-rattle cough and loud sniffles broke the silence as she rounded the corner.  I flinched as she moved right towards the Classics section of DVDs where I stood.  Without a by-your-leave, she muscled her way in and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me, and then started pulling handfuls of movies off the shelves and looking them over.  Annoyed, I looked pointedly at her and said, “There are plenty of DVD movies on all the other shelves.”

Judging from her height and weight, she might have grabbed me and shelved me with the same force she was demonstrating with the DVDs, but I hadn’t finished looking through that particular section, and I decided to stand my ground.

“I’m sick!” she barked, obviously assuming the best defense was an offence.

“Then you should be home in bed,” I suggested, still attempting to search the movies.

She grabbed another handful of DVDs and shuffled through them like a card shark.  “I can’t lie in bed all weekend without some movies!” she hurled at me between coughs and sniffles.

“But I’m looking through this section,” I argued, “Why don’t you try that section over there,” pointing to long rows of DVDs stretching all the way to the end of the wall.

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“You’re rude!” she shrilled loudly, “This isn’t some grocery store line-up, you know!  I don’t have to wait my turn!”

“Can’t you wait just five minutes while I choose my DVDs?” I challenged, noting that a male librarian, shelving books a little further down, was retreating to a safer distance.

“You’re not polite!” she cried, jabbing a finger in my direction. The force of her voice notched up the lid on this particular Pandora’s Box of accusations.

I pulled out Jane Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park, clasping them to my chest like armor and delivered my final argument.  “So, even though I was here first, and asked you to kindly wait, I’m supposed to step aside and let you take over, is that it?”

She was summoning another breath to deliver her final tirade—very likely chock-full of spite, not to mention spit—as I brushed past her and the male librarian–and hurried up the stairs and out of the library.

*****

If Hope was the only thing that remained when Pandora snapped the lid shut on the box— then my dearest hope is that I never meet that woman again!

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You can take the girl out of the city but, when it comes to standing your ground at the library, you can’t always take the city out of the girl.