It serves as a reminder of the woman who shaped my vision and memories of food. Nourishment, nurturing, health, happiness, wellbeing, care, compassion, community, culture, giving, sharing, safety, comfort, pleasure, conviviality, provision, hospitality and finally, gratitude. The woman, from whom I learned much and celebrate daily, is my grandmother.
Born in a tiny village in rural eastern Europe in the early 1900s, my grandmother was one of six born of parents who farmed and raised livestock, challenged yet committed to working to make a better life for their hungry brood. They understood and respected Mother Earth and her seasons; born of thrift grew skills of planting, harvesting and cooking seasonally by hand from scratch, never wasting. Preserving, pickling and fermenting for the cold winters ahead, sowing and picking in spring and summers, birthing and raising animals for the kitchens, grape growing, winemaking and distilling of spirits, and glorious baking for both their daily bread, and to celebrate.
Celebrate their life and what they had, with food.
My Nana, with her devoted and loving husband and partner, worked with their hands to forge a life with three children, all born, not ironically -- on the wooden table in the tiny farmhouse kitchen. When the horrors of World War II loomed, my grandparents and their tightly knit community pooled their ingenuity, bravery, resources and contacts to move their families by ship to a new country: Canada, land of opportunity and freedom. Without a word of English and bearing only the possessions they could carry, they braved stormy seas with fear, trepidation, sadness and sickness to arrive as winter loomed. Settling in southern Ontario, the fruit trees and farmland comforted as the community began to build their lives anew. And celebrate the humbling opportunity, with gratitude.
The culture of celebration – for what was considered revered bounty, from the earth -- travelled well with my grandmother, from the beloved home country to the family’s new life here. Hospitality was evidenced daily as friends, both old and new, neighbours, distant relatives, their relatives and the community all curiously visited and rejoiced to share stories, language and traditions of the home country and bond in the new land of peace. Food was the common denominator representing conviviality, community, opportunity. Her hearth became the home for others. A commitment to giving and sharing was paramount under her roof and a sense of bounty prevailed, which remains a lasting memory. No-one should need or want when others were lucky to have. Guests were welcome – no, expected - to drop in to share whatever was on the tree, in the garden, cupboard or on the stove. Friends shared their bounty too, in true hunter and gatherer spirit. The gatherings became happy moments, joyous and festive whether or not there was a reason.
We continue the culture and tradition to this day, reimagining our mixed-Euro heritage as Canadians, grateful for what my grandmother built and shared, and celebrating the opportunities she had. Sharing her bounty and culture of hospitality with us to humbly share with others, as we try to do.
I celebrate my food hero: my grandmother, an inspirational woman whose dedication to feeding and caring for her family and friends remains eternal and without parallel. She taught her cultural concept of gratitude; hard work, triumph, and sharing. The power of community, and of helping others, both with and without food. For all we have been, and who we can be.
And in this traditional time of celebration, please donate to Community Food Centres Canada to support its valuable work bringing the power of food to low income communities across the country. I hope you’ll consider making a donation in honour of your food hero too.
Susan Willemsen is the President and founder of The Siren Group Inc., a boutique public relations agency specializing in the consumer marketing and lifestyle sectors