This appeared as my column in the Toronto Star on June 25, 2005.
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 bseball 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 when I bake her wonderful country version of Raspberry Cream Pie.
Evelyn learned the recipe from her mother who, she says, “could bake anything. She made it in summer whenever there were raspberries.”
Evelyn has maintained this tradition and, during my visit last July, she and I plucked big, ripe berries at the excellent pick-your-own farm Dentz’s not far from her home. Try to make this during the all-too-short raspberry season which is excellent this year.
Raspberry Cream Pie
To streamline, use storebought frozen pie shell and instant custard powder. Use homo or 2 per cent milk, not skim. Egg whites should be at room temperature before beating for meringue. This is best eaten the day it’s made.9-inch/23 cm unbaked pie shell Filling: 2 large eggs, separated 2 tbsp + 1 tsp cornstarch 2 cups milk ½ cup granulated sugar 1 tsp vanilla extract Pinch of salt 2 cups fresh raspberries Meringue: 2 tbsp granulated sugar ¼ tsp cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 400F.
Prick pie shell all over bottom and sides with fork. (If dough puffs up after 5 min., prick more holes.) Bake about 8 to 10 min. or until golden brown. Cool.
In medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks and cornstarch until smooth.
In medium saucepan, cook milk, sugar, vanilla and salt over medium heat, whisking at intervals, until mixture just begins to bubble. Gradually add about one-third of mixture to egg yolk mixture in bowl, whisking constantly. Return to milk mixture in saucepan; cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture just begins to bubble again. Reduce heat to low; cook, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 3 min. Transfer to bowl; let custard cool at least 30 min.
Spread half of cooled custard into pie shell; smooth top. Arrange raspberries on top in even layer. Spread remaining custard over raspberries.
Preheat oven to 400F.
For meringue, in medium bowl, using electric or hand mixer, beat egg whites, sugar and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Spread mixture evenly on top of pie. Bake 5 to 8 min. or until peaks are browned. Chill in fridge at least 30 min. before serving.
Makes about 6 servings.