A Very Merry Christmas

I hope you’re having a peaceful, happy day today.

I’d like to share the recipe for one of my favourite Christmas treats – sucre à la crème. When I was growing up, my mother and I would make trays and trays of desserts for the big family Christmas meal my parents used to host, along with their Boxing Day open house. Cookies, squares, cakes, and candies, but of them all, we looked forward to sucre à la crème the most, especially if we were lucky enough to have a batch from one of my mother’s aunts back in Manitoba.

My mother is French-Canadian, but her family comes from the francophone communities anchored by St. Boniface. Our Christmas meals have always reflected this and it just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have tourtière, boulettes, and sucre à la crème. We’ve even occasionally had a réveillon after Midnight Mass, with goose, then had an anglophone Christmas dinner with my father’s Irish family in the evening.

Cooking the sugar.

Sucre à la crème is a sort of fudge, but it’s nothing like what you’d find in a candy store or market stand. It’s a simple affair of sugar and cream (obviously), versions of which pop up around the world. In Scotland, they’ve got tablet, in Mexico there’s dulce de leche, Italy has penuche, and India has burfi. There are probably tonnes of other examples, too.
The Québécois version uses maple sugar, but those trees are a little rarer on the Prairies, so my family’s recipes use mostly brown sugar. My mother’s aunts were famous for their versions, though my Tante Pauline’s was undisputedly the best, with my Tante Leona’s coming a close second. My mother and I went through their recipes for sucre à la crème recently and realized that they were all a little different and that the versions evolved over the years. When I was a teenager, I learned to make it with two cups of brown sugar, one cup of whipping cream, and a teaspoon of vanilla. When we were looking at the other recipes my mother has, this was what we found:

Tante Pauline’s Version

2 cups brown sugar (1/2 c white)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
walnuts

Sauce

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup whipping cream

Tante Leona’s Version

3 cups brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
2 cups whipping cream

Mom’s Version

2 cups brown sugar (1/2 c white)
1 1/4 cups whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla

In all cases, combine the sugar and whipping cream, whisk together until well-blended and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the mixture sugars the spoon (a metal one is best) and forms a ball when dropped into a dish of cold water. Remove from heat and stir vigourously, adding the vanilla when the candy is just beginning to stiffen. When the scrapings are becoming solid, it’s time to pour the candy into a buttered square pan. Chill in the fridge for several hours or overnight, then cut into small squares. It keeps for a week in the fridge or several months in the freezer.

Sucre à la Crème

I lost my sucre à la crème making mojo for a few years; for some reason I just couldn’t get it to set. When I went to my mother’s house this year, we made three batches, using my mother’s recipe. All but one was perfect and the imperfect one wasn’t bad. I think what made the difference was the two of us working together, just as we did when I was a child.

What are your favourite holiday traditions?

Roxy under my parents' Christmas tree.

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It’s That Time of Year

Branches against the sky.

The day after next, I can officially begin listening to Christmas carols. I like to wait until December, so the season doesn’t lose its shine too quickly. I like the standards and traditional songs, especially Medieval carols, and I also have a soft spot for Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’m especially looking forward to pulling out Susan McKeown and Lindsey Horner’s Through the Bitter Frost and Snow and Nativité by Vancouver choral group Musica Intima. Sadly, I think I’ve lost my copy of the Chieftains’ Christmas album, but I’ve got enough music to get me through the month.

Lovely ceramics from Blackbird Studios.

My favourite part of this season is getting together with some folks, baking holiday cookies and squares. I also love visiting craft fairs and seeing what the independent stores around Vancouver have to offer. I don’t like the way consumer culture goes into hyper drive at this time of year, though. I most admire those who take the time to find or make meaningful gifts, without getting carried away by quantity or expense. The Kitchn is always a good resource for homemade gift ideas, but there are tonnes of others, too.

So many Make It posters!

For Vancouverites, the holiday craft fair season starts with Make It, a huge four-day craft show. I was lucky enough to score tickets, courtesy of the Bee Vancity crew, and the photos you see were taken there. Got Craft? has put together a quite comprehensive list of upcoming craft fairs and sales that should take care of just about anyone’s shopping list. Local, unusual, and often sustainable – this sort of gift-shopping can be an antidote to the corporate Christmas model.

The folks at the Just Work (www.justwork.ca) table.

I don’t take it for granted that the yearly love affair with Christmas traditions is universal, though. Something I never fail to do each year is to be mindful of the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas, or participates in winter celebrations the way that I do. A little mindfulness is one of my traditions, too.

My Friend Monster's stuffed creations.

Now tell me, what does December hold for you?

Jacqueline Robin's beautiful black and white ceramics.

Bourgeois Populism

New pizza place opening soon on Victoria Drive.

I was telling a friend today that I’m a mixture of the bourgeois and the populist. Well, neither of those words is a perfect match for me, but that’s what I came up with today. My blog reflects this, with my definition of community encompassing everything from social justice issues to local shopping. One must embrace the contradictions of one’s nature, I suppose.

Sometimes though, the mixture can be a little hard to handle.

Today, I took the photo at the top of the post. I always have contradictory feelings when I see a new restaurant starting up in the neighbourhood. I like the expansion of food choices within walking distance, but fear the trend these openings represent. Right now, we have a number of produce vendors, food markets, and small merchants along the Drive. These are the sort of businesses that get pushed out with gentrification.

Our neighbourhood also seems to have been promised to developers for mid-rise, suburban-style condos. The number of rezonings approved by council is rapidly increasing. Long-time residents, who support independent businesses, are being pushed out of the neighbourhood. I suspect they will be replaced with folks with a suburban perspective, along with greater demand for chain stores and restaurants.

I like my mixed-income, (somewhat) diverse neighbourhood, that’s still able to support a video store, an old school diner, and a walkable street culture. Decrying the expensive, car-centric housing developments that are slated for this area gets one dismissed as an out-of-touch NIMBY. But what about the community that exists here? Surely there’s a way to preserve it, one of the most functional neighbourhoods in the city, while making room for new businesses that add to the ambiance?

I suppose not.

Le Weekend

Showy grasses, against a Japanese maple.

It’s election day in Vancouver this Saturday and as I’ve said before, while voting isn’t the only or best way to make change, leaving it to one’s political opposites isn’t a very good idea. I’m going to have to fit it in early, though, as it’s a busy weekend.

One of my favourite events of the year takes place this weekend, the Eastside Culture Crawl. It’s worth planning a vacation around, even though we’ve settled into the rainy season. Here’s my post about last year’s Crawl, if your interest’s been piqued: Art Anchors the Eastside. Scout Magazine has put together a list of places where you can rest between studios and have some great food and drink. That’s just a jumping-off point, of course; there are tonnes of great spots within walking distance of Crawl studios.

I’m going to wait to do my Crawling until Sunday, as there are too many other events going on this Saturday. After voting, I’m heading over to Festival de la Poutine, to get in touch with my French Canadian heritage and take my less-than-perfect French for a stroll. But who am I kidding, really? I’m going to eat a lot of poutine. Don’t judge; it’s part of my cultural heritage, just like tourtière, paté de cochon, and sucre à la crème.

Bare branches against the sky, with an evergreen in the background.

Later on, I’m going to drop by Terra Madre Day, put on by Slow Food Vancouver – local chefs, using local ingredients, preparing samples and giving demonstrations. Local food organizations and producers will be there, too. It’s going to be a great way to connect with Vancouver’s foodshed.

I’m not going to make it there this weekend, but if you’ve got kids, you’re going to want to make time for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Family Fuse Weekend. They’ve got some great performances, workshops, and activities lined up – it’s definitely not your average kid-centred event.

Alley, just before dusk.

Finally, and more seriously, it looks like there’s going to be a big rally on Saturday at the Occupy Vancouver site beside the Art Gallery. I’m going to make some time to drop by there, to show my solidarity. I’m all for feeding the stomach and the mind, but some things are more important.

A Day for Remembrance

Fall flowers.

Today is All Saints Day in some places, Día de los Muertos in others. It was also knows as All Hallows, which is where Hallowe’en came from (All Hallows Eve). It’s a day of remembrance for those who have passed and I’ve also always thought of it as a good day for broader reflection on the impermanence of everything around us. Reflecting on impermanence gives us space not just for letting go, but also for honouring what’s lost to us.

In that spirit, I’d like to share some photos that I took on a recent trip to Mayne Island at the Japanese Garden. It was built by residents to acknowledge the loss of one-third of their community to internment in World War II and to honour the history of those Japanese Mayne Islanders. The garden, uncoincidentally, is a beautiful place for reflection.

A small bridge.

                                             

Running water leading down to the pond.

                                             

A view across the central pond.

                                             

A waterfall among the foliage.

                                             

A bell along the forest path to Mayne Island's Japanese Garden.

Patio’s Progress

Literature students will have to forgive me the alliteration stolen from John Bunyan. I just couldn’t help it. As you may have guessed, last week we had a patio put in our backyard and I used its progress for a little photo practice. Here are the results.

Weeds pulled and ready for its transformation.

                   
                   

Sand laid down.

                   
                   

Edge tiles.

                   
                   

Tools

                   
                   

Partly completed.

                   
                   

Another view of the completed patio.

                   
                   

Closer view of the tiles.

                   
                   

Completed patio, with new raised beds on the side.

The Land Where We Stand

Graffiti, based on a First Nations salmon design, on a roadway.

I try to keep the land in mind. It’s easy to get distracted by asphalt and concrete, by cars and people, and by the ideas we impose upon the places that we live. It’s why I get upset when I read about politicians in the Fraser Valley trying to rezone land in the Agricultural Land Reserve for more housing developments. It’s also why I’m trying my hand at square foot gardening in my own back yard. Cycling infrastructure, wilderness protection, and development downsizing are all examples of keeping the land (specifically its health) in mind.

But keeping the land in mind goes beyond protecting its physical reality. It’s also about keeping its history in mind. There has always been settlement in the region that’s now called Vancouver. The land I live on is Coast Salish Territory and it has a history beyond its colonial one. I keep this in mind, too, whether I’m thinking about political actions or community celebrations.

The photo at the top of this post is of some graffiti on a road not far from where I live. It reminds me of lost salmon streams and of the peoples who lived here before the pavement. They’re still here and the land I’m standing on is part of their still unceded territories.

Some Autumnal Distraction

Rocks along the ocean, with a marina and a bridge across the water.

September’s nearly over and I’ve started to do a fall cleanup of my backyard and garden beds. (You can guess at the state of my yard right now, since I’ve tried to distract you with a nice ocean view, instead of sharing a photo of my garden.) I’ve got an extra incentive to get that clean up done, as we’re having a patio put in starting Friday and the contractor’s also going to build me a raised bed along the fence. I think my days of fighting with blackberry cane and morning glory will soon be done. There’s still a little life in my vegetable garden, with beets and swiss chard going strong. I even found a few more cucumbers today. I’ve brought the dill in to dry, but should have several more weeks of the other herbs. The warm, sunny days aren’t quite over, but the nights are cool and damp. I like to think I embrace the changing of the seasons, but sometimes I need a little distraction from winter’s approach. Luckily, it’s going to be a busy autumn.

This weekend’s particularly busy, starting with Knit Social‘s yarn sale and swap. It’s also Culture Days weekend, a cross-Canada celebration of arts and culture. The CBC is kicking it off on Friday, with a day-long outdoor festival. The Vancouver International Film Festival starts on the 29th, which is so good that some folks plan their annual vacations around it. Saturday’s Faeries’ Ball looks like a lovely way to recapture youthful fantasies and will be just a taste of what we can expect at their House of Faerie Bad Things later this month. I think that haunted house might give the Secret Souls Walk a run for its money. Sunday mixes cycling with art appreciation for BIKENNALE, a free tour of the Vancouver Biennale sculptures.

Perhaps after the weekend’s over, I’ll be too tired to notice the turning of the seasons.

The First Year

It’s been a year since I started this blog. My intention was to write mostly about community, in all its forms (well, the ones that occurred to me, anyway). Around the time I was setting up the blog, I learned that French Fridays With Dorie was beginning that October and I joined. I have a mild food blog obsession and had run across some Tuesdays With Dorie posts. I liked the idea of cooking through a whole cookbook and the comments sections of TWD posts were very lively. French Fridays sounded like it would be fun and challenging, so I couldn’t resist.

I worried that having two separate post streams might be annoying or confusing for people who were interested in one subject or the other. What I found, though, is that my French Fridays posts have become community-building in action. Participants read each other’s French Fridays posts, but often read and comment on the rest of one another’s blogs, too. We’ve even gotten to know each other a little. Somehow, what I thought would be an entirely different stream has come to be an exemplar of what I’ve been trying to explore here.

I knew this anniversary was coming up and I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. Then, Elaine of California Living tagged me in the Seven Links Game. It sounded like a perfect structure for a little retrospective.

So, here goes:

The Family You Choose

Photographic tiles against a grey wall.

Who are the people you call when you’re in need, elated, or down? Chances are, not everyone you’d name would be family. For some people, there wouldn’t be a single family member on that list.

I’m lucky. I’ve got a relationship with my family of origin. No matter the challenges, we’re there for each other. It’s not true for everyone, especially for people whose families refuse to acknowledge their identities. Though estrangement can happen for many reasons, queer and trans folks are more likely to have families that don’t accept them. It’s from these communities that the concept of chosen family arose.

A chosen family is one that you create, made up of people who love you through everything – difference, distance, and disagreement. The members of my own chosen family have subtly imprinted themselves onto the DNA of my soul. I’ll be celebrating those folks at the Chosen Family Picnic later this month. There are so many days of the year given over to celebrating our families of origin, it seems fitting to dedicate one to this less visible expression of family.

I’ll never understand how someone can look at a child, sibling, or parent and reject them for their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Maybe that’s because my own coming out processes passed almost unremarked by my family. As I said, I’ve been lucky.) Humans are resilient and connection surpasses biology, so people can forge new bonds with people whose love shows them no limit. It’s a matter of finding those folks when you need them.

If you’d like to see a really beautiful expression of Chosen Family, there’s still time to see the Chosen Family Portraits project at the Museum of Vancouver – the exhibit closes September 30th.

Check out my 100th post, too – I’ve got a little giveaway happening.