Originally posted on March 1, 2014.
This appeared as my column in the Toronto Star on June 25, 2005.
IN MEMORIAM: Evelyn died in May, 2015.
Evelyn Smail has been driving her aging, slightly rickety Ford sedan slowly along the bumpy country road for several miles.
I am her lucky passenger.
Happy to be sitting beside her on this sunny midsummer afternoon.
Glad to be along for the ride amid the gorgeous countryside of the St. Lawrence Valley about 60 kilometres south of Ottawa and an hour’s drive from the Quebec border.
Content to savour the peace and quiet while she points out an occasional landmark: the wood-frame, one-room school she attended, the little church hall where she helps out at strawberry socials and turkey suppers and big mounds of freshly bailed hay that dot the fields belonging to friends she’s known all her life.
She has just stopped at the home of one such buddy, Alan Groves, to ask directions. Our destination: a farm, located in the tiny village of Lunenburg, which my grandparents once owned and where I spent a few summers as a young child.
Moments later, a ruddy-cheeked man emerges from the compact farmhouse and, smiling, comes to greet us. As he leans into the car on Evelyn’s side, she shares some small talk.
Then, after a pregnant pause, she cuts to the chase: “Al, remember the time I went to Montreal to mind that baby all those years ago?”
“Yep, I think I do,” Al replies with an affable grin.
“Well,” she continues, speaking slowly and turning to me with perfect dramatic timing, “Here she is.”
I don’t know who felt more proud at that moment, Evelyn or I, but I will say it was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
It turns out Al knows the way to the farm of my childhood and informs us it’s only a kilometre or two away. At this point, Evelyn’s recall of our itinerary kicks in and we’re away to the races – at about 40 km an hour, that is.
Sure enough, I can vaguely remember the big verandah and gingerbread second-floor balcony of the farmhouse my wealthy grandfather Aaron Nisse bought soon after he settled in Montreal, having fled Latvia during the Holocaust.
He bought the place in 1942 from a fellow Jewish refugee called Ben Baikowitz who was having trouble making enough money from the small mixed farm to buy feed for his animals.
My tall, handsome grandfather, known for his business acumen and the wicked twinkle in his bright blue eyes, had a favourite adage: “Do me ein favour, I’ll do you ein favour,” which I recall him uttering often in his distinctive German/Russian accent. In keeping with this tried-and-true strategy, he paid Baikowitz a nominal sum for the farm on one condition: that our family be allowed to spend summers there.
It was during one such visit that my parents met Evelyn, who had a job cleaning and shopping for the Baikowitzes. My father, then a medical student, had the bright idea of asking her to come to Montreal as a nanny for me, with whom my mother was pregnant, while the young couple finished their studies at McGill.
Although Evelyn’s parents, Nolan and Pearl Rupert, were nervous about sending their daughter off to the big smoke, the pretty, auburn-haired 17-year-old arrived later that summer to live with us at my grandparents’ elegant home in Snowdon.
She had never seen an escalator and, she adds shyly, “never even drunk a Coke,” but soon took to city life and stayed almost two years.
“I loved it,” Evelyn recalls. “I had a friend from Cornwall who was looking after a baby next door and we would take the bus downtown, go shopping and walk to Mount Royal.”
She and I became so close that my mother now admits she was jealous. But when my dad got a job in Halifax, Evelyn decided to return home. She began working at the nearby linen mill in the small town of Iroquois and soon met Will Smail whom she married in 1949.
They moved to his family’s farm in the tiny village of Brinston not far from where she grew up. The couple raised pure-bred Holstein dairy cattle and grew corn, hay and oats to feed them.
Their son Gary lives in Edmonton; Kathy, their daughter, lives in Ottawa. Both are married with children.
Sadly, Will “took a stroke,” as Evelyn is apt to say, 20 years ago. His health frail and dwindling, he is now in long-term care at the local hospital where she visits him most days.
Meanwhile, she’s surrounded by family and friends. “This is the best place in the world,” she says adamantly of her rural home. “Everyone looks out for each other. If my garage door doesn’t go up, someone’s here.”
If you’re wondering how Evelyn and I connected after more than 50 years, it was her doing.
I was in the studio of an Ottawa T.V. station about five years ago to talk up my cookbook The Best Of Food (The Toronto Star) when a middle-aged cameraman wearing a baseball cap squeezed a crumpled piece of paper into my hand.
On it were the names and phone numbers of Evelyn and her daughter Kathy. The reunion a few months later at her Brinston home was tender and tearful. These days, I visit each summer, we keep in touch by phone and the memories are sweet.
Evelyn and I used to pick raspberries together at the pick-your-own-farm Dentz’s not far from her home at the beginning of the summer. Evelyn used to make pie with them – I haven’t perfected her recipe. This a gorgeous raspberry cake.
This is a slight adaptation of Deb Perelman’s recipe from Smitten Kitchen. 1 cup of raspberries is about half a pint (6 oz/175g) of fresh raspberries. This is a sweet and simple cake – delicious served with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or fruit yogurt.
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup butter, softened
⅔ cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar, divided
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest (optional)
1 large egg
½ cup buttermilk*
About 1 cup fresh raspberries
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
Beat together butter and ⅔ cup sugar in large bowl, with an electric mixer at medium-high speed, until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla and lemon zest, if using. Add egg and beat well. At low speed, add flour mixture in three additions, alternating with buttermilk and mixing until just combined.
Spoon batter into prepared cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter raspberries evenly over top and press lightly into the batter. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tbsp sugar.
Bake until cake is golden and cake tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to room temperature. Invert onto plate and slice.
*Make your own buttermilk: Add 1 tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar to 1 cup milk. Stir and let sit for 10 minutes.
Makes 8 servings