Surely anyone who’s ever fed someone with love is a food hero. I’ve been fed and nourished by so many people, choosing one from among them is virtually impossible. In my neighbourhood in Waterloo, when I was little, everyone simply fed everyone else’s children, or at least that is how it seemed to me. There was Mrs. Kirby next door, with nine kids of her own, who never thought twice about sharing her stacks of sandwiches with us; and Mrs. Lemke, across the street, who made vast plates of French fries for her children Donnie and Gitty and sometimes for us too. (That was always a banner day, although I now suspect that there were times when potatoes and oil were about all she had in the pantry.) Then there was Mrs. Caputa, our Hungarian princess/nanny, who gave my brother and me and our friends illicit hot dogs and bologna for lunch (she also fed them to her miniature schnauzers); my best friend’s mom, Mrs. Rowe, down the street, made dessert every day. She was that perfect “hot chocolate mom” and we’d go to her for cookies and band-aids as necessary.
So for me, the idea of naming a food hero is a bit tricky. If I could, I’d choose a place rather than a person, to be my hero, because it was during the seventies, in Waterloo County, that I learned about the intrinsic connection between food, place, memory and comfort. I was a young teenager, experiencing the fallout of my parents’ divorce. We had moved away from Waterloo and my brother and I only came back to visit my dad occasionally. But when we were there, we were welcomed by my father’s girlfriend, Cory, and her 3 kids, and there was always, always, food. Cory worked full time in the newly minted computer department at the University of Waterloo, but when she was home, she cooked. In a small kitchen in her beautiful red brick house, at counters too low for her 6’ height, she made rye bread, pickles, sausage, stews that bubbled all day. We had pancakes with her father’s maple syrup stored in a gin bottle, or if there was company there might be roast duck and chocolate mousse. Her shelves boasted the TimeLife cookbooks, Julia Child, Food that Really Schmecks and The I Hate to Cook Book. She took me to the market and we bought melon that smelled like sweet earth, pickling dills by the bushel, strange zucchini flowers, fresh cheese and chickens from the Mennonites—I could go on. Through her I began to learn to cook, but also to remember and to understand: to have eaten food like Mrs Lemke’s barbecued pig tails and her dreaded homemade summer sausage, or Mrs Kirby’s jellied tongue and beet salads, or the schnippled green beans with sour cream that someone always brought to school picnics, is to have been part of this place, to have belonged there.
Waterloo County is a place where food grows everywhere, and the German and Dutch and Mennonite settlers, recognizing the potential bounty, nurtured the land and created a small but magical world of carefully crafted, naturally local foods. Even if the pantry is sometimes virtually bare, the land provides. The ingredients, the remembered tastes, the hand-me-down recipes, the market smells, these are the identifying markers of #myfoodhero, Waterloo County.
Thanks to Kirsten for contributing to our #myfoodhero campaign, which supports Community Food Centres Canada to offer empowering food programs that build better health, skills, and belonging in the communities that need it most. Join Kirsten by making a donation today!