Kristina Groeger is a food writer and photographer when she’s not working in the pastry department at the Ritz-Carlton. She’s prolific on Twitter and Posterous and maintains a funny food blog called Put a Fork In It. We’re running this piece she wrote, about her boyfriend’s French-Canadian grandmother, in the lead up Mother’s Day and the launch of the newest Apron Strings videos. Enjoy.
by Kristina Groeger
On a raw, chapped, Canadian Wednesday morning we gather our things in the dark for a three day trip to Montreal from Toronto via our 15 year old Volkswagen Jetta. I use the orange light of the street because I’m sure my pupils would burst with the thought turning on a light switch. Half asleep dreams of proper beer on winter patios (cheering for a -real- hockey team) kept me going before I got that first crappy burnt Tim’s coffee in me.
Being recently unemployed, I’m used to waking up on my own schedule. I decide to follow the love of my life, Charles, on this business trip of his because I truly have nothing better to do. His grandmother flatly refused any thought of him/us staying in a hotel. This was a large factor of interest. Being a cook, I knew she would give me some inspiration during an endlessly depressing job search.
Grandma Claire lives alone (bless her heart) in a lovely little apartment with a pantry packed with preserves, maple syrup and cheeses I’m sure even Afrim Pristine doesn’t know about. She reads to the infirm, goes for walks in the mall, secretly loves reality television and speaks not one word of English.
After a long drive and late arrival I awake on the 50 year old pullout bed in the spare room 10:00am. Me and my broken back are all alone, so I’m sure Charles has left for work already. I hear the voices of many loud people coming from the living room. I am so embarrassed that I’ve slept in so late, so I quickly pull something together to say “bonjour” to this party that’s happening in the living room.
Entering the living room, the television is on full blast and there isn’t one person in the apartment. I’m incredibly confused. I look around and the entire church of St. French Canadiantown is having mass on TV and Grandma is in her room snoring away on her mid day nap (at 10:00am). Able to sleep to the sound of the TV, but not to me walking around she wakes up. “Avez-vous bien dormi?”, she says. “Oh yeah, I’m in Quebec”, I forget. Time to turn on my “Francophones”.
The two of us have a lovely breakfast with preserves, leftover tourtiere, homemade habitant ketchup, old cheddar, fresh bread and the cast of “Bonjour Matin Salut Soleil”. We try hard to understand each other, but it’s tough. The coffee is the best my memory’s ever tasted. My French grammar is terrible and she speaks really fast. I’m certain I hear her loud and clear when she asks in French when/if we’re getting married. I pretend to not understand that part.
The broken English/ Broken French girls decide to go to the supermarket to make our grandson/ boyfriend dinner. I help her walk over giant patches of ice and snow banks that reach the second floor of her apartment. My heart breaks at the idea that she does this trip daily, alone. Her two sons (uncle in laws to me) come over very often to be with her, but I’m sure she goes alone without them knowing. I have trouble with my footing, I’m glad I’m here with her today.
Walking past the heated doors I watch her in her daily ritual. She grabs the coupon magazine and reads it faster than Commander Data on Star Trek. “Les œufs sont disponibles à la vente, je vais acheter deux”, * she says. We walk through the produce, she gathers her things. “Bonjour Madame Claire” says the 15 year old with a spray hose in his hand. They have a conversation for at least 10 minutes. I miss a lot of inside jokes. They laugh really loud and I’m left staring at arugala. Walking past the fish section I hear another “Bonjour Madame Claire”. Fish wasn’t on her list today, but she walks over anyway. After picking a salmon, the fish-man tells her to pick another fish (that much I can understand). She points to another. He tells her to pick another. They have a conversation as well. I stare at something weird called Coquille Saint Jaques. As we line up for the checkout, she anxiously pulls her Lotto Max tickets out. She didn’t win this time, but she has a 10 minute conversation with her young friend who knows her by name as well. Tabernac. What a popular lady.
Our little visit warms my heart. Not only is her daily visit to the supermarket a need for nourishment physically, she is a part of this little community. Their jobs would be dull without people like her and her day wouldn’t be quite the same without the relationship with them.
Dinner is a simple salmon dish with mashed squash/potato and salad. After spending 100$ of my unemployed money on a meal at an expensive Toronto joint a week previous, I’m certain they could never reproduce her cooking. On my job search, do I really want to cook in a restaurant that over complicates things? This trip has been a success.
Feeling fully restored, she tucks us in (literally) after rounds of card games and drinks. We heed her very personal bedtime advice mentioned every night before bed: “Pee pee, l’eau, do do”. Go to the bathroom, drink a glass of water, go to sleep.
* The eggs are on sale today. Let’s buy two!
Homemade Habitant Ketchup
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp celery seeds
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1/4 tsp whole allspice
- 2 pounds tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 5 tbsp maple sugar (this is what makes it habitant!)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 anaheim chile, chopped
- 1 clove garlic
- Wrap cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon, celery seeds, red pepper flakes, and allspice in a layer of cheesecloth; tie into a bundle and put into a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat along with tomatoes, salt, vinegar, maple sugar, onion, and chile; smash and add the garlic.
- Cook, stirring, until onions and chiles are very soft, 40 minutes.
- Remove spice bundle; purée sauce in a blender until smooth.
- Strain sauce through a mesh strainer into a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat.
- Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 30 minutes. Add more salt, sugar, or vinegar, if you like.
- Transfer ketchup to a glass jar. Set aside; let cool. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.