Showing posts with label Frenchtown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frenchtown. Show all posts

25 March 2014

Remembering Frenchtown

Frenchtown, probably in the 1930s
In the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th, nearly a million French Canadians emigrated to the United States. They went to New England to work in textile mills and to the Upper Great Lakes region to work in the lumber camps.

14 October 2013

A New Name

I had high hopes seven years ago when I began blogging. I thought I'd experiment with French classics and explore my French and French Canadian culinary roots, talk a bit about my beloved Grandma Annie, and help the college freshman and sophomores I was teaching learn about blogging.

The name I chose was "French Kitchen in America," for that was what I was attempting to create. Our mortgage was paid off, and my husband and I were enjoying traveling to France, exploring Paris and the southwest of France, where we knew someone with a marvelous country home we could rent. I had visions of exploring new food while in France, and recreating the recipes in my own kitchen.

If I'd known what I was doing I'd have started my culinary adventures closer to home. A smaller start with less grandiose plans would have been the wisest course of action and easier for me to maintain when life got complicated.

In fact, my blog became a reflection of my life, which has changed dramatically since June 2006. I quit teaching and writing for a living, took a new job from which I retired last year. It's been nearly a year since my last food post.

I have been eating, of course, and eating rather well, but food has taken a bit of a back seat to my other projects, which include looking after my mother, who is 90 years old and has Alzheimer's Disease. She is in an assisted living facility, and I try to visit 2-3 times a week. I'm her laundry lady and the woman who does her makeup. I love to see her smile and make her laugh. I share these goals with my younger sister.

My sister and I have been attempting to clear her home so we can get it on the market. During the course of that we have learned much about our family and each other. Most of us go through this process, and I recommend it as part of life's more difficult but certainly rewarding activities.

Also during the course of this process, we unexpectedly lost one of my two brothers. If you have lost a sibling, you will understand the layers of this particular type of grief.

You may also understand my particular need for comfort food at this time. Coupled with the onset of cold weather here on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, it is especially fierce. I will need to get back to the gym soon.

I will need to get back to the kitchen soon, too. I miss it. Right now it's just a room I pass through from time to time. Yes, we still eat meals but more often than not, it is my husband who does the cooking. Or it's a grilled cheese sandwich.

Lots of recipes and cookbooks turned up in my mother's pantry, and in an old kitchen table with a drawer that we just sold to a local antique dealer. I hope to make some of them and share the results with you in the next year. We've also encountered some of Grandma Annie's favorites, most of which I no longer consume, but which I will happily share with you.

The blog's new name reflects the neighborhood where my grandmother and mother grew up, the west end of my hometown. More commonly known as "The West End," the neighborhood has its roots in the decades after the Civil War, when French Canadian families left their rocky, Quebec ribbon farms for the promise of prosperity in the textile mills of New England and the lumber towns of the Upper Great Lakes region.

I was lucky to know the West End in the 50s and 60s, when grandparents still spoke French at home and neighbors - often related by bloodlines or Quebec village origins - shared the bounty of backyard gardens.

I dedicate this post to my mother and my late brother (above, with me, in a backyard in Frenchtown), and as always, Grandma Annie.





09 July 2012

Grandma Annie's Kitchen Door


On warm summer days, Grandma Annie's kitchen was breezy and cool, thanks to a complex but purely accidental system of cross breezes from east and and west. The new exterior door that opened into the remodeled pantry and the adjacent "back bedroom" windows allowed the easterly breezes to enter the room while the lone kitchen window and the window and exterior door off the back hallway provided access for westerly winds.

Annie's house, which probably has it roots in 1863 when the neighborhood was developed, grew  higgledy-piggledy over the last decades of the 19th century, serving once as a general store with an owner's flat above and later, when Annie's father (known to longtime readers as Pépere) renovated the structure in 1930, a stately, two-flat house with little setback from Dunlap Avenue and Bellevue Street where they intersect in the heart of Frenchtown. Annie lived most of her adult life in the downstairs flat, but spent her childhood living upstairs.

The hallway that ran along one side of the downstairs flat included an exterior door that allowed us to enter and exit on Bellevue Street. The egg man and the man who sold peas and beans used this door. The hallway was cold and mostly unused in winter, except for vegetable storage. It connected Annie's heart-of-the-house kitchen with the back room, a sort of keeping room where my grandmother stored extra pots and pans in a large red bead-and-board cabinet, surely built by Pépere, as well as her sewing machine, her cheese box full of old recipes and her herb-drying rack.

The door between the kitchen and hallway was a heavy, 19th century model with two windows, painted a dark brown on one side and creamy white on the other. When the family who bought the house from my aunt nine years ago gutted the interior - bringing the structure into its third century and creating a comfortable one-family home - they gave the door to my sister. She uses it as garden art.

I think it looks charming in her garden, don't you? It's like having Grandma Annie with us.

Annie's sewing machine is now in my sister's living room, while Pépere's garden cabinet is part of mine. Once I've cleaned it out, I promise it will make its way into a post here.

In the upstairs flat, where my grandparents reared Annie and her siblings, Pépere built an early version of kitchen cabinet, with a flour or vegetable bin, utensil drawers and other conveniences that rival today's fashionable and efficient kitchens. I wish I had taken a photo of this kitchen before the house was sold.

No matter, for that kitchen lives on in my memories, too.


26 February 2011

A Kind and Gentle Memory in Cruel Times


I often dream of Grandma Annie's house in Frenchtown, and I still drive past it when I need reassurance in these crazy times. My heart catches and I whisper that I miss her.

I miss her wisdom, which she probably never knew she possessed. She judged no one, understood boundaries, and knew her place in the world. She was light a light that we all rallied around in darkness.

Here she is with me. As she is now.


06 January 2007

The Sounds of Sunday

For two relatively short periods — once when I was a baby and again a few years later when money was tight — my parents lived with Grandma Annie and Memére in the old cedar-shingled house at the corner of Bellevue and Dunlap in the heart of Frenchtown.

We slept in the flat upstairs when I was a newborn but later moved to the rear wing of the long, narrow house.

I still dream of those back rooms. Along with the old kitchen, which I described in a previous post, there was a large bedroom and a much smaller one.

The room I slept in was close to the kitchen. Usually the smell of eggs or bacon frying woke me in the mornings.

Sometimes on rainy days, Annie would make pancakes or waffles with a fruity syrup. I will always associate the sweet tart aroma of associate blueberry syrup with the sound of rain beating relentlessly on windowpanes.

But it is Sunday mornings I recall the most clearly. Annie and her mother rose early for mass, and the sounds of their voices — arguing, as mothers and daughters do — woke me and kept me from falling back asleep.

Alone together, they spoke only French. I don’t recall their conversations. Perhaps Memére had misplaced her gloves. Maybe Annie was missing a hat pin.

I waited for them to leave, for the front door to slam so I could burrow back down under the covers for more sleep.

When they returned home, Annie would start breakfast. The sounds changed, coffee percolating, eggs breaking, juice pouring, toast popping.

When breakfast was finished, she would begin preparations for Sunday dinner. Pans rattled as she removed them from cupboards, the refrigerator door opened and closed.

Over dinner, there was much conversation, and everyone lingered long over dessert.

Sometimes in the afternoon, relatives from “up north” would visit and the living room would be noisy with the swooping cadences of French Canada.

Other times, the afternoons would be long and somnolent, with the only sounds — save for the turning of newspaper pages — coming from the mid-afternoon mail plane.

The rhythm of my life has changed considerably over the years. But the sound of two women arguing in French, the clatter of pans in the kitchen and the drone of a single-engine plane on a summer afternoon can instantly transport me to that other time.

And the smells, too, but that is another post.

21 December 2006

Kitchen Tools: Annie's Pie Crimper

December darkness came quickly and stealthily to Old Frenchtown, sneaking around the corners of the ancient weather-beaten barns and sheds.

Only the shops on Dunlap Avenue were bright with red and green lights — the shops and the little IGA store located just north of Grandma Annie’s back yard.

Often we went home with Annie in the evenings for a comforting supper in her bright kitchen. The house was cold and dark when we entered, but soon the furnace would roar on and Annie would walk toward the back of the house, shedding her dark coat and hat as she went and neatly stashing them in her closet before turning on the kitchen light.

She’d ignite the gas oven with a tiny poof! and light the burner under the kettle. Always, there was tea to be made and bread to be sliced and pickles to be placed on a cut-glass, leaf-shaped plate.

There would be ham or chicken or turkey and vegetable soup, for Annie’s suppers were simple but homey affairs. Always there was dessert, served with a twinkle in her eye, because of course, it was her favorite.

Annie’s sweet tooth was legendary in family lore.

In the years before she married my handsome Irish grandfather, Annie worked as a seamstress for one of the many French Canadian dressmakers who had shops downtown. On her first payday, she walked past a candy shop on the way home — and promptly spent all her earnings on sweets.

As an adult, Annie loved to bake cakes and cupcakes and pies. The latter is something she shared with my father, her son-in-law. Pies were his specialty, when he wasn’t cooking dinner.

Especially at Christmas, my father made pies for people: Librarians, elderly ladies living alone, old family friends. He rose early on Christmas Eve and made a variety, from fruit pies to cream pies. By 9 a.m., he’d have the car loaded with pies for delivery.

This year, there will be no exchanges of lavish gifts. Instead, I asked my mother for Annie’s pie crimper.

Really, that is all I need.

11 June 2006

My Kitchen — and my Grandmother's

What makes my kitchen French?

I did not set out to create a French country kitchen, not the kind featured in home-decorating magazines. Too contrived for my tastes.

Still, my kitchen has a few of the accouterments of what is thought to be a typical French kitchen, including a ceramic rooster and a wire wine rack, the latter tucked away in a cool corner.

But I have no blue-and-white tiles, no copper pots — only one piece of pottery I purchased in France, a colorful serving tray.

A French kitchen is all about food anyway, and the spirit in which it is prepared and consumed. Forget carved cabinet doors and racks of gleaming pots.

If you like to cook, and you like French food, your kitchen can be as French as the most over-decorated room in Architectural Digest (which regrettably really isn’t all that much about architecture).

In my kitchen, bottles of olive oil and spices are within easy reach. A jar of herbes de Provençe is always nearby. A bowl of tomatoes sits on the counter. Every scrap of food is used, and if it cannot be used, it is carried out to the compost pile.

I think of my grandmother often when I cook. Her kitchen was always tidy, and it was important for her to keep everything in its place. (Not so in my kitchen.)

Grandma Annie lived in Frenchtown in the small Michigan town where her parents settled in the 1880s. The neighborhood included a meat packing plant, an ironworks and a small retail area. Small grocery stores abounded and farmers often came to town peddling eggs and vegetables. Annie’s home, purchased by her father in 1883, once included a small grocery store on its ground floor.

Annie bought her eggs from a German farmer. Neighbors traded produce from their gardens: Green beans, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes. Mid-morning or in the early evenings, she would set out, basket on her arm, for the home of a neighbor who had fresh produce to share.

Annie’s kitchen had only one west-facing window, but it was never dark. It was a cheerful red-and-white, very much in the style called “retro” in today’s shelter magazines.

What made Annie’s kitchen French? Her love of food and cooking. It was a love that extended throughout the home, a home the family owned for 125 years.

My memories of Annie include sunny summer mornings when she would sit on her back step and shell peas, or cooler days in late summer when she would bake a cake or a blueberry pudding and her kitchen would be redolent of vanilla and almond.

These are simple activities I have tried to make a part of my own culinary life. Come high summer, I clean corn and shell peas on my deck, within yards of my compost pile. In cool weather or when storm clouds gather, I, too, gravitate to my kitchen to bake an apple crisp with cinnamon. The aroma and the activity provide comfort.

What makes your kitchen French? How does it comfort you?