It’s early Spring in south-eastern Ontario and oh, wait, what?
This just in: the flowerbed is trying to kill me.
Based on how I feel about The Nature, you might have already guessed that I am not really a gardener type. In fact, I’m rather a grey thumb. That is, when plants get anywhere near me, they turn a sickly sort of grey and hang around, torturing me for a while with their droopy leaves and browned-up flowers and unrequited dreams of a life spent being watered, before finally expiring and leaving me with a plastic container thing-y that I don’t know what to do with.
I can’t just throw it away. Those plastic plant containers take about a zillion trillion years to compost down. Not like my poor, dead plant, which was composting (drama, drama) in the plastic container thing-y, long before it officially died.
Usually, I give the plastic container thing-y to Practical Man and he puts another plant in it.
Yep, he’ll plant a seed from the apple he was eating at lunch. Or, the stem of the celery we have in the fridge.
Not to give back to me, oh no.
He’s not stupid, that one.
He does, however, have a very green thumb. He can grow sticks, that man. Not to mention, bits of kale from the grocery store that I cut off before chopping up some to put in the oven.
Anyway, my point is that I don’t grow stuff. So, I’m not quite sure why there is a flower bed out to get me.
But, there is. Right along the front sidewalk (which no one ever uses because we live in the country and in the country you always enter people’s houses through the open garage door), it lies in wait. It and its companion on the sunny side of the house.
I have to confess that there are no windows overlooking the second flowerbed on the sunny side of the house so that one gets largely ignored because I can pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s not as if I wander around the perimeter of the house and see it all the time.
That side of the house is out in The Nature people. Don’t you read my blog?
So, I can see where the flowerbed on the sunny side of the house would feel put upon and maybe even downright hostile towards me.
But, with four windows facing directly out on it, the front bed gets a fair bit of attention.
It spends most of the day in the sun so it’s a little micro-climate of its own (that sounds like I’m all official and garden-y, doesn’t it?) that doesn’t require much intervention to keep things alive. That is to say, Practical Man no doubt revives it while I’m at work, but, full of perennials, a couple of bushes, and no annuals, I can pretend it’s just magically growing on its own. We mulched it last year with that store-bought stuff that looks seriously artificial and probably leaches chemicals into our water table, but I desperately wanted to make the flowerbed feel loved so that maybe, maybe, it would play nice.
I have viewed others’ gardens, replete with chemical mulchiness and they look lovely. Tidy. Weed-less. Just like I thought ours would look.
So, I don’t quite understand how when the blanket of snow came off and the softly-rounded heads of daffodils, pasque flowers and grape hyacinth started poking out of the ground, mere days ago, this source of Springtime pleasure and much celebration turned so very very quickly to Yes Indeedy, This Flowerbed Is Trying to Kill Me.
More on that in a moment.
In other gardening news, we pulled out two giant clumps of bushes in the lawn last summer and Practical Man has put down repeated layerings of grass seed, only to have the spots – a year later, still look like male-pattern baldness in our lawn. Now, the baldness doesn’t really matter because seeing it would require me to go out in The Nature, to fume over that which some suburbanites would find an atrocity, but I really don’t understand why grass won’t grow very well, even for a green-thumbed Practical Man, when you want it to.
Except if it’s in the flowerbed.
The flowerbed, which has only been “awake” (that’s probably not an official, garden-y term) for a little over two weeks, is full. Full, I tell you, of evil, extremely healthy and prolific G-R-A-S-S. Several, virulent country types, no less.
All that green stuff? GRASS!
All that straw-looking stuff? More GRASS!
And not the male pattern baldness kind either. This is full-head-of-hair-and-lots-coming-out-the-ears grass. Clever, clever grass that sneaks its way up the middle of a single iris stalk, barely out of the ground. If I didn’t hate it so much, I would admire its sneaky tenacity. To remove the grass root means digging up the entire bulb and painstakingly teasing away the grass. Painstaking is not in my vocabulary (unless it’s painstakingly licking every last drop of chocolate off the tinfoil it arrived in) and I can’t deal with more plant murders on my record, so I’m not doing that.
This weekend, while Practical Man installed the mower deck on the tractor in preparation for acres of lawn mowing over our male pattern baldness areas, I decapitated grass shoots in approximately 3% of a square foot in our front flowerbed and tried not to get all fainty (from the bending over and standing up) or spinny (from the turning my head recklessly looking for sneaky grass shoots) or fall down, weeping hysterically, every time my eyes accidentally swayed to the right or left of my “section”.
It was like doing hard time. Like I was on a chain gang, except with grass and fainting and spinning.
Okay fine, there may have been some Feels Like Jagger music to help me cling to my sunny disposition. A girl can only take so much murderous intent from a flowerbed before she has to find her flowerbed anthem–What Doesn’t Kill You (Makes You Stronger)–and sing along with Ms. Kelly C.
It was at some point during this torture with a peppy soundtrack, that I remembered something.
Something wise and scientific and mostly, probably, almost certainly true. I recalled what my former colleague and (this is an official and garden-y designation) Master Gardener friend used to say:
“Perennial gardens are meant to be looked at from a distance.”
That means: keep far, far away from the flowerbed that is trying to kill me.
If you do, I might just get out alive.
Tra la la. It’s finally happening: the heady days of March in southern Ontario.
Oh sure, there have been blizzard warnings (and worse–actual blizzards!) the last three Wednesdays in a row, but that can’t drag me down because I know, with a cheesy song in my heart, that Spring is just around the corner.
That mythical, magical time that we collectively fool ourselves into thinking is in March–when actually, let’s face it people, it’s really May–but no matter, it’s time to start psyching ourselves up for it. Watching for any sign, no matter how teensy-weensy.
Is that an above zero Celcius breeze I feel tickling my neck?
Is that the asphalt/gravel on my driveway peeking through already?
How time flies (when one is pretending one is on vacation with the rest of the country, in the Caribbean)!
This is how we Canadians survive the winter: we pretend we live in Victoria, BC. We pretend winter only lasts from after Christmas until late February, unless of course that pesky rodent–friend to no one but The Weather Network (I mean, how can they lose?) on February 2–dooms us to what we all know is inevitable anyway:
that is, It’s Still Winter.
But, let’s not go there.
Surely, Spring is on its way. Just around the corner. Past that eight-foot high pile of dirty snow in the parking lot.
I can tell that Spring is nearly here by the way the complaining from my fellow Ontarians gets louder around this time in March. Even though we’ve barely had three weeks of real winter this year, it’s already begun with a vengeance. Yes indeedy, we love us some complaining about the weather.
It’s too CO-O-O-O-L-D! (Only Rolling Up The Rim appears to provoke any joy when it’s cold outside.)
Too much S-N-O-W-W-W-W-W!
Then, a few short months later:
It’s too HO-T-T-T-T!
It’s so H-U-U-U-U-MID!
No wonder Mother Nature is confused.
I can also tell it’s nearly Spring by the way the light changes. The changing light signals my urge to compulsively start sewing things for our vintage Boler travel trailer and our vintage, Fiat 500.
Useful things, like bunting and flowery pillow head rests.
I’m like a pregnant woman in her third trimester (or a Canadian on the brink of March).
I’m nesting, yep. God knows there are no birds doing that yet, even though, it’s practically (insert hysterical giggle here) Spring!
And, lest you think this is some sort of vintage-inspired female hysteria, men are not immune, either. Practical Man has been sniffing the air for weeks now. Air sniffing and more recently, hole drilling. Nary a maple tree in these parts is safe from his scrutiny.
It’s March after all. The season of joy, the season of nature’s bounty, the season of MAPLE SYRUP!
Oh sure, you need an ideal temperature of 3-4 degrees above zero during the day and 3-4 degrees below zero at night to produce the sap flow necessary for nature’s bounty.
No matter that it’s still -9 plus a windchill.
That doesn’t stop Practical Man from obsessively clicking over to The Weather Network and wielding his trusty tools until there is a tidy sap line just poised for a thaw.
Tra la la Spring: we are READY for you.
See you in May.
We were playing Old Maid and I was winning.
He was working on his PhD in engineering at the time and I think it perturbed him greatly that despite all his life experience, knowledge of standard deviation and parabolas (or whatever) and genetic predisposition (his mom–my grandma–was kind of a game genius), he couldn’t beat his eldest child at a simple, children’s game of cards.
Or possibly, it was the way his six-year old triumphantly cackled and danced around when he was stuck with the Old Maid (I’m sure I was just pleased to be making up for the indignities of a patriarchal society that thought that the punishment in a card game should be called something so awful, so tragic, so open to mockery as a SINGLE WOMAN OVER A CERTAIN AGE.)
This was before Bridget Jones, dontcha know and okay, so I might be having some slightly retro-active indignity not actually experienced at the age of six.
Anyway, sexist game name and premise aside, there’s another reason that I rarely play games these days. It’s because even though I am a delight 98% of the time, it turns out that when it comes to games, I am like my father. Since neither my father nor I appear to have inherited his mother’s game genius gene, we do, like most humans, tend to lose sometimes. A situation that leads quickly to the confirmed evidence that we are what you call Very Sore Losers.
I hope no one writes that on my tombstone.
And, I have become quite familiar with this darker side of my personality because when Practical Man and I have played Poker on holidays or Cribbage when we are camping in the Boler, he wins EVERY TIME.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, but actually “wins” is too mild a word. “TROUNCE” is more like it or maybe “WALLOP”. I sort of get it when it’s Poker (even though I’ve played since I was a pre-teen) or Cribbage in the Boler (because, how can I concentrate when I’m hanging out in the Boler that I l-o-o-ve?) but, I have the role of public wordsmith in our family. How come he always, always beats me in Scrabble and Upwords?
It’s annoying, I’m sure you can understand.
All this losing and blah, blah, blah.
So, then I act all mature and refuse to play.
But, since it’s the festive season and in our family, that is a time for games, I suggested to Practical Man that we have a couple of friendly games of crokinole on Christmas Eve.
Y’know, just for fun.
(In the interests of full disclosure, my mother’s side of the family are crokinol-ers from way back.)
Practical Man asked me for the rules, all innocent-like and then proceeded to TROUNCE and WALLOP me in game one, despite my God-given genetic pre-disposition to crokinole greatness. So, we started on game two of the best of three and suddenly, inexplicably, it seemed as if I actually stood a chance at winning.
It was practically a Christmas Miracle!
Even better, Practical Man had the unfortunate luck to hit the crokinole checker directly into one of the pegs on the board, four turns in a row. If you haven’t experienced this, let me just emphasize that when the checker hits one of the pegs on the board, it bounces back at you in a fairly humiliating sort of way.
Mwah, ha, ha!
On the fourth time, so giddy was I about the prospect of winning a game that I succumbed to a fit of giggles which quickly turned into “can’t stop laughing” followed by “falling off chair laughing” which is the universal sign in my house for “she’s about to faint“.
And so ended my magnificent path to crokinole glory. I had to spend the rest of the evening on the couch with my feet in the air, trying to get my nervous system to calm down and the blood flowing consistently back to my brain.
Nervous system: I know I’ve told you this before, but, you are seriously high maintenance.
And by the way, I WAS WINNING!
My great grandparents’ crokinole board from the farm in Grey-Bruce County lives with my uncle Gruff and his family. The original wooden board was always super polished and smooth or as my dad would say:
SmooooTH (rhymes with “tooth”).
(When he’s not being A Sore Loser, my father tweaks language in delightful ways like this.)
You could see your face in that crokinole board.
Having been thwarted at winning once this week already, I decided to press my luck at the Boxing Day festivities at my parents house.
Before I knew it, I was sitting down to a friendly game of crokinole with my two cousins and Practical Man.
I was pretty sure that with me and my two cousins SURELY all having at least a pinch of the family crokinole gene, I was definitely on a winning team.
Game one went like this:
- Practical Man and my cousin (team one) scored 80 points (we were playing to 100) in round one.
- Me and my other cousin (team two) scored 10 points in round two.
- Practical Man and my cousin (aka crokinole shark) took the game in round three.
Ladies and gentlemen: I give you possibly the world’s shortest crokinole game.
Cue my Sore Loser face.
My uncle Gruff’s daughter number two subbed as Practical Man’s new partner. Gruff’s first daughter and I decided that we were not “Losers” but rather “Points Deficient” (also – we were fond of the fact that PD is much harder for the enemy team to sign on their foreheads than L). Being only Points Deficient and not Losers, we talked the talk. We were “working a strategy” for the best of three games.
Then, she confessed that she had drunk more wine than she thought.
So, I did my best to distract the enemy team by blurting out random diversions like “German slippers” and this helped me and my cousin (aka tipsy teammate) slide to a tenuous victory in game two.
I was on a winning team! Well, at least a tied-for-winning team.
Then, it was game three. Turns out that Gruff’s daughter number two alternated between being a crokinole savant and being the Julia Child of crokinole (that is, highly entertaining while simultaneously klutzy). Her partner, Practical Man, used some of his more aggressive manoeuvers to fling checkers off the board and on the carpet but, he was often successful at clearing the board of our checkers. My partner and I patiently gathered points, clawing our way, step-by-step ever closer to the magical 100.
It took a while.
There was a round with only 5 points scored.
There was a round with ZERO points scored.
Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you possibly the world’s longest crokinole game.
Cue my Sore Loser face.
The darn posts on the board: they leap out at your checkers, not to mention, we are highly suspicious that they may be magnetic.
My grandpa and my uncles could all do some kind of Jedi-voodo-crokinole magic and bounce their checker off pegs, knock about three of the opposing checkers off the board and land snugly in the hole that is worth 20 points.
I’d like to see them beat me at Old Maid.
Finally, one of my childhood dreams has come true:
I spent last night in a Little House on the Prairie episode.
At least, that’s what it sounded like, if I closed my eyes.
I wasn’t wearing a calico dress (although, let’s face it, I would have, if I could have found one) but nonetheless, I managed to pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, wearing calico, at a dance in the church/school, swooning over Almanzo (Manly) Wilder.
I was actually wearing jeans and a voopy blouse, at the firehall/library, swooning over Practical Man, so it was kind of the same, really.
After over a decade of living in the country, Practical Man and I went to the Friday night jam session at the firehall/library. The same firehall/library, which has my favourite librarian (her name is also Christine; I don’t think that’s a coincidence) and which, Practical Man rarely hesitates to point out, is just under 5 km from our front door, which is a very good thing because it means that you get a break on your insurance rate. Over 5 km and you’re out of luck.
I can’t believe I know that thing about insurance rates. What is happening to me?
Anyway, the sandwich board sign we have driven past for over a decade advertised “Friday Night Jam Session: All Welcome. 7-10 pm” so even though I wasn’t wearing calico, we decided to go. We were slightly late and smelling heavily of garlic, on account of having just consumed a super tasty dinner of bruschetta made out of cherry tomatoes, basil and garlic from our garden.
Fresh bruschetta is totally worth the social consequences.
We found some chairs at the back of the room and, trying not to exhale garlic fumes too much, settled in to see what was what. There was a couple waltzing near the front, a lady crooning some old, lovely song at the microphone and a plethora of musicians behind her, playing assorted instruments.
The man next to me leaned over (dangerously into the garlic fume zone, I might add), nodded his head in the direction of the waltzers and said, “Can you believe they’ve been married 70 years?”
Since I have entered the middle of ages–and strapping university football players have alarmingly started asking me things during career counselling appointments like, “If I were YOUR son, what would you tell me to do?” even though I feel 23 and FAR too young to be a university student’s parent–I might have described the man next to me as “a young man” except that even though he was easily 20 years younger than I, he and his wife and I were all a good 30 years younger than everybody in the room. Practical Man leaned towards my ear and whispered, “Even I feel young in this place!” and although I, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, have married an older man, I agreed with him.
He DID look young (and not entirely dissimilar to Almanzo Wilder, if I squinted a little).
The man who was young (ahem, like me), appeared to know everyone in the room and told us that this place was “like family” and “don’t be nervous to sing because everyone is really nice”.
I had not come to sing or play guitar: I had come to get the lay of the Friday night jam session land (and to pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Because, here’s the thing:
Not everyone can sing.
I can carry a tune but I’m not sure it’s public-performance-get-up-on-a-stage kind of worthy. And, I have more than one music-loving friend who is completely tone deaf. Listening to them belt out a song with the car radio is sort of torture. But, I always let them do it. In fact, I sing along. When I was a teenager, I used to always roll the windows down with my friend Niggle, because the pain of listening to him sing (I use that term loosely because really, there was only one note) was lessened somewhat if I was simultaneously exposed to fresh air.
And lots of it.
But he loved music and I couldn’t rob him of that. The joy of music is that it’s free to everyone, regardless of talent or tone-deafness.
Sometimes, this is a slightly painful philosophy to uphold.
Last night, the singers were not professional. They were, more often than not, septua or octo-genarians, but enthusiastic and often, quite capable. It really was like an episode of Little House on the Prairie, with Pa playing the fiddle and Ma and Mr. Edwards dancing and Laura and Mary clapping.
Okay, I’m back.
Anyway, the rules of the Friday Night Jam seemed to be:
- if you want to sing/play, sign up on The List
- when your name is called, you get to sing/play two songs, max (don’t be hoggy of the microphone, even though it’s super fun to sing into one)
- no song shall have been written after 1955 (we’ll make an exception for Buddy Holly but only because Don does that stuff really well)
- audience shall clap enthusiastically for everyone
- dance if you’re inspired (waltz, foxtrot, two-step…ie REAL dancing only)
- there will, of course, be a lunch
The musical repertoire was from before my time (because I am oh-so young!) but often recognizable and sweet, even if I didn’t know the words. Practical Man kept singing along.
He seemed to know the words to that one.
And the next one, too.
As in, ALL the words.
This is what comes from having a May-September romance. He really is the Almanzo Wilder to my Laura Ingalls.
Around 8:15, there was The Lunch.
One of my favourite things about country parties and Legion dances is that there’s always The Lunch. It’s so vintage feeling and there is some magical formula that makes those triangle sandwiches always taste so good when you’re eating them in a firehall/library.
Then, it was back to the music. There was someone playing a fiddle (because that’s what you call a violin in the country):
There was also a harmonica, keyboards, guitar, base and even a mandolin (I love to imitate a mandolin, the way my dad does when he’s singing along to the Mr. Bojangles song, but I won’t do that here).
The couple celebrating their 70th anniversary would occasionally get up and waltz.
Mitch (the young man sitting next to us) and his bride Brittany did the two-step to a jaunty number.
There were some mumblers (think: Jeff Bridges in True Grit, not Bob Dylan) and painful singers who hadn’t quite cracked what key they should be in, but overall, it was lovely and rural and vintage-y.
That is, until, Mitch leaned over and said, “I guess you can see that you and us are quite a lot younger than everyone here.”
Before I could nod and act nonchalantly as if I wasn’t old enough to be Mitch’s mother, he continued, “I’m 26 and Brittany’s 22. What are you, 30?”
That’s when this episode of Little House on the Prairie became:
The Best Night Ever.
It’s easy to live a vintage life in the country. For example, our house comes with some property and on it, a little forest.
And having a forest, as we do, Practical Man likes to meander through it daily. He communes with The Nature in a way that I will never understand.
I love him, anyway.
You may recall that The Nature is my fair-weathered friend. Or rather, my only-in-weather-where-it’s-not-too-too-shivery-and-not-too-sweaty-and-there-definitely-can’t-be-any-bugs friend.
That is, approximately 3.6 days per year.
And, any of you who are sympathetic to The Nature and shocked at my cantankerous relationship with it, you can just calm down. The Nature is not all sweetness and innocence. The Nature has its moods, lemme tell ya. Just ask anyone who lives in the Canadian Maritime provinces right about now.
Up to their wazoos in snow, for the umpteenth time, they are.
And, if you don’t know where your wazoo is, well, if you ask a Maritimer, it’s approximately 3 feet above the average bungalow’s roof.
But, Practical Man doesn’t share my suspicion and distrust of The Nature. He’s a frolicker in rain or shine, snow or bugs. It’s weird, I say, from my perch safely indoors, where I am quite content to look outside through a window (in the manner of wise Canadians before me.)
Being a frolicker and fan of The Nature as he is, Practical Man’s favourite time all year is here: maple syrup season.
Very vintage activity.
Did you know that you can make that stuff you put on pancakes out of TREE JUICE?
The Nature is so weird.
In February, Practical Man starts to feverishly check the weather network…I mean, his Farmer’s Almanac…several times a day and then, proceeds to tap any sugar maple trees at the first sign that the temperature is going a few degrees above zero (Celcius) during the day and a few degrees below zero (Celcius) at night.
This year, we are nearly a month late.
The Nature likes to toy with us humans in this way.
We usually have around 30 sugar maple trees tapped, give or take. Some trees are thick enough around, that they can handle two taps:
I feel an affinity with these trees. Being thick enough around, I think I’m a two tap tree, myself.
Hook me up. I can take it!
But, I still say an extra little thank you under my breath when I pass these guys.
Practical Man came up with this ingenious sap collection system, using old (cleaned) water bottles, some sap tubing, a spigot (the part that goes into the tree) and ta-da! plastic wine glasses from the dollar store. The wine glasses have their bases removed and the sap tubing is threaded through their necks so that the glasses hang upside down over each bottle neck. The sap then drip, drip, drips down into the bottle.
This upside-down-wine glass system prevents rain and when it’s warmer, moths, from getting into the sap. The big bottles also mean that on days when the sap is really flowing, there will be no tragic overflows, as can sometimes happen when you use the old system of buckets like these:
There has been enough sap in one day some years that these buckets fill completely and then…shock, disaster! They overflow, losing precious sap on the ground.
Have you ever seen a Practical Man weep?
I blame The Nature.
Now, we leave one “demonstration tree” with its old-fashioned bucket so that kids and visitors can see how it used to be done.
Don’t let that lid fool ya. It’s cool and vintage but, it doesn’t keep out much rain or moths.
Then, depending on The Nature and the speed of sap flow, Practical Man collects sap for a week or so before he boils it off into syrup. You can’t store sap for too long without it spoiling and you can’t keep a Practical Man cooped up in the house, when the smell of Spring is in the air.
Early in the morning, on boil day, Practical Man goes to the stove he built for maple syruping (maple syrup turns into a verb in Ontario in the Spring). He gets some logs and kindling…
And then, he starts a fire in the stove…
It burns at approximately 3 trillion degrees.
Our stove is an old household oil tank, turned on its side. Holes were cut in the (now) top to hold six pans over the fire. A door was cut in the (now) end so that he can load the logs (and chewing gum). He’s got draft holes with tubes running through the firebox so he can control the burn. A chimney off the (now) top/back of the tank draws the smoke up and out.
Those things up against the tank are paving stones. They insulate the tank somewhat so that you can get near it without singeing off parts of your skin (important for when I come out to play, since I come from long line of klutzes, including one person who cut herself on an onion bun.)
To keep the sap until he boils, Practical Man stores it in (new) clean garbage buckets. If it’s getting warm, he packs snow around them to keep the sap cool until boil day.
Yep, that’s sap ice in there. It hasn’t warmed up yet, but I won’t complain (see earlier note about The Nature and the maritime provinces) because that would just be rude to our PEI, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick friends.
On boil day, the sap is gradually put in the 6 pans over the fire. It begins to evaporate off the water and leave the sugar behind. We keep adding more sap as the steam boils off and the remaining sap keeps concentrating and so on and so on. It’s kind of a steamy miracle, really. Or, as I like to call it:
A maple syrup facial.
Then, all day, there is a lovely little dance that involves moving sap from one pan to another. Adding sap from the buckets to the coffee cans around the boil pans so that the new sap can warm up a bit before it’s ladled into the hot pans. Skimming the froth off the top of the sap in the pans, as it boils. Slowly, slowly, over hours and hours, the water evaporates and the remaining sap gets more and more concentrated in sugar.
(Or something like that. Honestly, I’m mostly the photographer, lunch fixer and product tester.)
All I know is, it takes a long time, a lot of work and a lot of patience. At the end of which, you get 40x less syrup than you had sap.
That is…40 litres of sap yields approximately 1 litre of sugar.
I know: all that time, work and patience and we get…what, what, what?!
And how’s this for a little more math: today, we boiled 190 litres of sap and we’ll get around 5 litres of syrup (that luxurious excess is because the first boil of the season is usually sweetest).
This is the part where I confess that I would (might) have boiled sap into syrup once and thought, “Wow, that was really neat (and boy, was it a LOT of time, work and patience.)”
I would never, ever have felt the need to do it again. Nope.
But then, I tend to the indoors and am a die-hard chocolate girl. If you ever find trees that yield sap that turns into chocolate, sign me up! I will boil that baby until the cows come home.
And, I am afraid of cows.
This is maple syrup season #11 for us and Practical Man still loves it.
He looks cute in his lumberjack ensemble too.
What can I say? It keeps me coming back year after year.
The sap is getting syrup-y now. And bubbly. All the better for the maple syrup facial.
Not sure why my eyelashes are sticking to my face.
The fire gets stoked some more:
Slowly, slowly, the pans boil off enough water that the remaining, concentrate sap gets moved to the centre pans. It sounds simple – oh, yes – just move that hot, steaming, scalding pan full of hot, steaming, scalding sap!
Well okay, then.
I’ll stand over here because I am a documented fraidy-cat.
The centre pans contain the most concentrated of all the sap and will become syrup. There is a magic formula that involves a full moon, barometric pressure, the boiling point of water and whether you’re facing east and standing on your left foot (just kidding – you need both feet on the ground when you’re dealing with hot, steamy, scalding sap.)
Anyhoo, today, the super secret special maple magic thermometer had to reach 7 degrees Celcius (that’s hot, steaming, scalding to us lay people) above the boiling point of water before the sap would be the right consistency:
That is to say, it wasn’t SAP anymore.
It was SYRUP!
(I think applause is warranted. It’s taken us hours to get to this point, honestly, I can’t believe you don’t think this deserves a standing ovation).
Finally, it’s time for another treacherous journey: from the last hot, steaming, scalding pan into the first of the filters; a paper one inside a wool one:
Drip, drip, drip.
Yep, it’s definitely syrup.
And, that means that no matter what The Nature has up its sleeve from here on out:
it’s definitely Spring.
This is a post about a retro food joint. But, it is not a post for foodies.
There are no whole foods or cheffy types here. Can you smell the frying onions? Can you hear the creaky floors? You’re almost there, then:
The Harmony Lunch in Waterloo, Ontario.
Sounds like an old-school country song, doesn’t it? I’d like to write one.
Never you mind the peeling paint because Harmony Lunch is proudly old-school and tatty around the edges.
This is not a place that LOOKS vintage.
This is a place that actually IS vintage.
Show some respect.
Harmony Lunch started in 1930 and is still running, not to mention something of an institution on my dad’s side of the family. My Great-Uncle Fred (Grandpa Lou’s brother) was the die-hard regular: he used to go there for lunch every Saturday. When he and my Grandpa Lou opened the door, this is what they saw. This is also what I saw last November, when I had lunch there with my aunt H:
I bet you’re wishing you’d worn your cufflinks aren’t you?
I don’t blame you.
The very first thing you must do, upon entering, is line up some tunes on the jukebox in the corner.
A-wimoweh, A-wimoweh, A-wimoweh, A-wimoweh, The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Love Me Tender, what a jukebox, it is!
Then, you absolutely have to head quietly into the retro phone booth.
Sure, you have a cell phone but that won’t help you slip into your superhero costume, now, will it?
Then, have a little wander into the vintage washrooms (it’s a cultural experience):
They’re located right next to the jukebox.
(There might have been a little dancing in the toilet stalls.)
Then, finally, finally, settle yourself on one of these authentic vintage diner stools. Just ignore the modern-day ATM machine over there and focus on the way your feet come gently to rest on the bar at the base of the counter.
Aaaaaaah. Now you’re feeling it.
Since we’re sitting comfortably, let me ask:
When was the last time you had a real-for-true, made-with-full-fat-actual-ice-cream, milkshake? Not one of those edible oil products you get at the fast food joints.
Behold the chest of ice-cream-lovers’ dreams (complete with handy bottle cap opener on the front):
And, when was the last time you had a real-for-true, made-on-an-old-fashioned-milkshake-machine milkshake?
The kind where they scoop the ice cream from the–I say it again–chest of ice-cream-lovers’ dreams into a metal milkshake container thingy (I’m pretty sure that’s its official name), add milk and real chocolate sauce and then whip it into a chocolatey, bubbly, ice-creamy frenzy of joy?
P.S. I also love, love, love the colour of the machine.
Feel free to swoon over it, as you should. I’ll just be over here reminiscing about my lovely milkshake and super fun day with my aunt H.
Now, seated on the vintage lunch counter stool, sipping your milkshake from heaven, you survey the menu, in all its plastic-y glory and humble words:
The hamburgers, dear readers, are not made from grass-fed beef, nor do they come with chevre, foie gras or any other kind of french-ified condiment. These are made with plain old pork. They are also flat, flat, flat, having been squished on the flattop that stands out in the open where those at the lunch counter can watch everything being made.
THE HARMONY LUNCH LEGEND
When I was a child and my father and grandfather took us to Harmony Lunch when we were in Waterloo visiting our grandparents, there was an old, old man who staffed the grill and kept the fried onions cooking on Saturdays. My dad told us, in a hushed voice, that the same man had been staffing the grill since he was a boy. My grandfather then told us, in a gravelly, hushed voice, that the same man had been staffing the grill since HE was a boy. The old man at the grill and the fried onions were the stuff of Harmony Lunch legend.
I think they were also what made our mom usually wrinkle up her nose and decline our lunch invitation.
And, even though there was an old man my aunt H and I could see “in the back” but not at the grill this time, I’m pretty sure that the same old man is still responsible for the quintessential Harmony Lunch experience. Because, after all, it was Saturday, our family Harmony Lunch day, the day of memories and legends! And, you haven’t really been to the Harmony Lunch until you and your clothes and hair and coat and earlobes SMELL like the Harmony Lunch; that is, like the old man’s frying onions.
And no, we’re not talking fancy, modern, caramelized onions with a touch of balsamic. These are plain old fried onions.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can sneak over to the Harmony Lunch for some plain old fried onions on a burger and come home to your resident foodie, all innocent-like.
That smell lasts for days, trust me.
For the true Harmony Lunch experience, aunt H had the flat, flat hamburger (with fried onions, of course!) and a side of french fries with gravy (for sharing).
It’s also important when you’re eating at the Harmony Lunch to sample and share the onion rings.
Well, okay then.
And, check out that shiny Arborite counter!
For dessert, you could choose a slice of classic diner pie (probably coconut cream) and/or opt for one of the vintage candy treasures to be found by the cash register.
Popeye’s (candy) cigarettes!
And, of course, that not retro but quite necessary after-lunch-at-the-Harmony-Lunch favourite: TUMS.
Let’s face it. Not everyone is brave enough or will deign to eat at the classic landmark that is the Harmony Lunch.
But, those of us who do, get the pleasure of visiting a by-gone era, not to mention by-gone and current loved ones like:
Uncle Fred and Grandpa Lou
Aunt H and my dad,
and of course,
that old man who has been there since I was a kid, frying the onions.
I think I owe The Nature an apology.
If you read this blog with any regularity, you may recall that I do tend to complain about The Nature a lot. Since childhood, I have avoided it like…well, like mosquitoes and poison ivy and frostbite and wind burn. But, I realized today that I don’t, in fact, truly dislike The Nature, as much as I sometimes think I do.
I just like the Starbucks version of nature.
I like the Frank Sinatra version.
That is, I like it my way.
Like today: today was The Nature at its sparkly winter best.
It was the kind of sunny, crisp and perfect day that we often get here in southern Ontario, Canada. The kind of day where, you can bundle up a bit and snuggle into some cozy mittens and a good coat’s hood. You can pretend that you’re in a little cave in your hood and the wind can howl but you’re all snugged up in your hood (as long as the wind is cooperating and blowing in the right direction) and you can giggle to yourself and marvel at how much better a hood is than a mere hat, even though hats are among your most favourite things in the whole world.
Then, when you get out in The Nature, you breathe the clean, cold air and act as if you totally meant to fall on your face as you skid off a patch of snow while attempting to stomp around in your–magnificent hood but, unfortunately also–boots that don’t have anywhere near enough traction.
As you were, neighbours. Nothing to see here but a woman on her keester.
Today wasn’t a snow pants day (but remind me to talk about that some other day because snow pants are one of life’s great joys that not enough adults indulge in) and it wasn’t a snowshoe day, so I was wearing my quasi-citified boots, instead of my “I mean Canadian winter business, heavy as two Godfather cement bricks boots” (which perhaps explains the falling on my face).
Anyway, triple axle achieved, I wandered back through our property, traipsing through the skiff of snow with intention, with purpose. I put stray thoughts of rabid packs of coyotes out of my mind and pretended that The Nature and I were old pals and bosom friends. Into the Woods (humming songs from the play/movie), I went.
Then, I segued onto the farmer’s lane that joins our property and walked up to the giant field.
And, not just any giant field: this is a giant field of dreams.
That is, the field that a kindly neighbour has plowed around the perimeter. It is a cross-country skiing/snowshoeing/traipsing around in your quasi-citified boots masterpiece.
So around it, I went. (If you build it, they will come–or in my case, traipse, while trying not to fall on my keester again).
Last year, The Nature was having one of its temper tantrums and the ground was covered in a thick layer of ice with a gigantic pile of snow on top for the entire winter. There was no perimeter on the field of dreams. There was only heartache and sweating and occasional hysterical laughter as we tried to snowshoe in drifts up to our hips.
But today, it was grand. All the cells and atoms and thing-a-ma-bobs in my heart and brain and elbows went “boing, boing, boing” as they filled up with sunshine and started dancing around inside me, filling up my cozy mitts and magnificent hood.
No wonder I felt a little dizzy.
I traipsed on, around and around the field I went, holding my arms out at the sides to steady me so I wouldn’t fall over while my sunshine cells did their dancing.
As you were, neighbours. Nothing to see here but a dizzy woman walking.
Then, I thought it: the thing that makes me realize I need to apologize to The Nature:
I thought these four, incredible words: “I am having fun.”
In The Nature.
And, with a gasp, I realized that today is not the first time that has happened.
As you were, neighbours. Nothing to see here but a mostly-indoor woman enjoying The Nature.