It would be a far stretch to claim cooking as one of my dad’s strengths — apart from grilling well-done meats, hard boiling eggs, tomato soup from a can, and his one signature dish “Gail’s Goulash” (a concoction of wieners, macaroni noodles and ketchup), most meals for our family of six were prepared by my mom. No stranger to the kitchen, he can be found supervising the mass-production of haggis for Christmas banquets and Robbie Burns dinners and at-the-ready with a suspiciously clean apron to carve whatever beast has been roasted for our large family get-togethers. He avoids cruciferous vegetables (because that’s all there was to eat as a boy), puts ketchup on everything, considers “spices” (including black pepper) the enemy, and dislikes chocolate cake or ice cream, yet loves chocolates and chocolate bars.
My dad is a different kind of food hero: he is a grower and a producer, maintaining a country vegetable garden and maple sugar bush. While many local families loaded up their cars to head to warmer climes or exciting ski destinations for March break, my dad would load his four kids into the Scout snow plow to drive to the sugar bush just outside of town. There we would spend full days with another farm family tapping tree trees, emptying buckets of sap into pails, boiling down sap in open pans, keeping the fire going, and doing our best to keep warm with no shed or shelter. Our daily snacks and lunches would have today’s dietitian's fainting and nutritionists wagging their fingers — a jug of bright-coloured Freshie, a thermos of milky hot chocolate, wieners to roast over the fire, eggs to hard boil in the sap, and sometimes bannock to cook on sticks over the open fire and dip into the darkest sap. There was as much maple water as you could drink, providing the energy to disappear for hours at a time with the farm dog, explore the woods, make snow forts, test our luck on thin covered icy ponds, run up the road to the warm barn to cuddle reluctant barn cats, swing from ropes in the hay loft, and climb into the calf pens to master our rodeo skills. At the end of the day, we would pile back into the Scout — soggy, sleepy, smelly, sticky — fire up the CB radio and alert mom we were on our way home for supper, with a milk can full of boiled down sap in tow.
At 76 my dad, slower and stiffer, still heads out to the bush to “sugar off” most years. There is a sugar shack now to help keep him warm, and his grandchildren look forward to visiting their Papa at the sugar bush on their March breaks. Us kids never leave our childhood home without a jar or jug of smoky syrup from the cold cellar.
Looking back, I’m glad we never went anywhere “special” for March break — understanding and appreciating the work (and fun) that goes into growing and producing food, and loving outdoors during wintertime, are things that have stuck with me my entire life. And I have my dad, #myfoodhero, to thank for that!
- Trace MacKay is the Program Evaluation Consultant at Community Food Centres Canada.
Thanks to Trace for making a donation to the #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 Trace by making a donation today!
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