A Piece of Peace
WE ARE A DISAGREEING BUNCH," Mom Skanes, my maternal grandmother, used to say about our family. It was true – but it's little wonder we disagreed, considering our Irish, Scottish, and English roots. Add to that the fact my grandmother was one of two strong matriarchs, and it's easy to understand why things didn't run smoothly.
Her "disagreeing" meant argumentative, but she would never have used that word – it's one step away from "fighting," and she couldn't have stomached either word to describe her family. Disagreeing was a milder description, though there was nothing mild about how we did that. We disagreed about most things – especially religion and politics – and rarely agreed on much, but agree or disagree, food was a soothing constant.
We were food lovers, sated in that love by an assortment of great cooks and bakers. Each of our houses had a large dining room table around which satellite card tables were set up for the youngsters, who longed to reach that magical age of twelve, when their chair was squeezed into place at the adult table.
Meals took hours to prepare and sinks full of water to clean up after. In between, we bowed our heads, murmured grace, and opened our mouths to eat instead of disagree. Winter meals were heavy and hearty, soothing forces to fight off the effects of the weather that etched the windows with frost. For me, few things were as comforting as gingerbread, a staple in both my grandmothers' kitchens. A warm slice with butter melting on it was (and still is) just the thing to banish the cold.
While both my grandmothers mixed gingerbread batter in similar crockery bowls, the similarities ended there. Mom Skanes' loaf was better by far. Its texture was finer, and it was moist and rich, with a strong flavour of ginger. It never burned on the bottom. Her recipe was something of a family treasure, one of the few things her father could give her when she left home to cook for strangers in another Newfoundland community. When he died, she became the guardian of that treasure, and after she passed away, I took up the role. I never met my great-grandfather, but Mom Skanes spoke nostalgically about him. George Roberts was a storekeeper in Spaniard's Bay, and – strange for a man in an early twentieth-century outport – he loved to bake.
Gingerbread was his favourite thing to make and eat, and Mom Skanes (then just Ethel) followed him around the store, gathering ingredients, some of which arrived in barrels from other parts of Canada or England: blackstrap molasses, sugar, and flour. Ginger came in smaller amounts and was powdered.
Gingerbread is thought to have been introduced to Europe in 992 by Gregory of Nicopolis, an Armenian monk who taught French priests how to make it. At Vadstena Abbey, Swedish nuns made it to calm indigestion. For centuries, gingerbread fairs were held in medieval French and English cities, where it was often shaped like animals, flowers, knights, or saints. So popular was this food that Shakespeare immortalized it in Love's Labour's Lost: "An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread …"
North Americans have been making gingerbread for a couple of hundred years, and while George Washington's mother may have made a great gingerbread (she was credited with a recipe), I doubt it was as delicious as my grandmother's.
Neither my great-grandfather nor my grandmother knew much about the history of ginger or gingerbread, though they wouldn't have been surprised by its enduring popularity. What they knew of many things, including ginger, was what had been passed down to them, and a slice of gingerbread was as satisfying a welcome to family and friends as any could be. Father and daughter wouldn't have disagreed about that, and neither did the rest of us.
Styling was done by Alison Ramage: Creative Culinaire, a passionate prop and food stylist with a specialty catering company that develops custom recipes and menus for clients. aliramage-creativeculinaire.com