Cover of Schwartz’s memoir. Photo courtesy of Heritage House.
Ellen Schwartz was born and raised in an urban Jewish family in a New York suburb. In the ’70s, she and many other disenfranchised youth of America decided to go “back to the land.” When Ellen, her future husband Bill, and their friends started their communal homestead in the B.C. wilderness, they needed to become loggers, cabin-builders, gardeners, chicken farmers, apiarists, and woodstove cooks.
Schwartz merrily holds a stack of logs outside during the winter. Photo courtesy of Ellen Schwartz.
I come from a long line of great cooks on my mother’s side. My maternal grandmother, Gussie, a tiny, barrel-shaped woman with dyed auburn hair and a strong nose, was a natural in the kitchen. The only cookbook I ever saw her use was The Settlement House Cookbook, published around the turn of the twentieth century by an immigrant settlement organization whose charity her own family had received. Otherwise, she was a “little bit of this, pinch of that” cook. She made the most tender pot roast, the most flavourful chicken soup, the lightest matzo balls. Every Passover, she waited for everybody to take a bite of a matzo ball, then said, “I think they’re a little heavy this year,” waiting for all of us to protest, “No, Grandma, they’re delicious. Better than ever.”
My parents and I, and later my sister Audrey, lived with my grandparents during the years when my father was establishing his medical practice. From my time in “the old house,” I have a memory of my grandfather being sent outside to grind his own horseradish, to go with my grandmother’s homemade gefilte fish. I couldn’t stand the taste of the horseradish but loved the sharp, acrid fumes.
My mother, Ruth, though college-educated, was a classic stay-at-home mom of the 1950s. She was completely responsible for the kitchen: she did all the grocery shopping, prepared all the meals and school lunches, did all the washing up—at least until we kids became old enough to be assigned that chore. My father never tackled any culinary task more challenging than pouring himself a glass of iced coffee—coffee that my mother had brewed.
In my teens, I questioned this division of labour.
“It’s not fair that you have to do everything in the house. Dad doesn’t even get his own breakfast.”
My mother smiled. “It’s my pleasure to fix meals for him.”
I gritted my teeth and vowed that I would never fall into such a stereotyped role.
We ate a typical middle-class diet for the time: pot roast and roast chicken, sloppy joes and kosher hotdogs, sirloin and, my favourite, tuna casserole topped with crushed potato chips. The only exotic dish in my mother’s repertoire was sukiyaki. In the early 1950s, during the Korean War, my parents and I had lived for a year in Japan, where my father was serving as a doctor in an American field hospital. There, our housekeeper, Yoko, taught my mom a few Japanese dishes. My mother’s sukiyaki was highly Americanized: slices of strip steak sautéed with peas, carrots, and green beans, served over white rice, with crunchy chow mein noodles on top.
Every Sunday morning, my grandfather rose early and visited a local Jewish deli to pick up the fixings for brunch: fresh hard rolls, bagels, lox, tomatoes, and onions. When he climbed our back steps and knocked on the kitchen door, all three of us kids and my mother ran to answer it. We adored him, especially my mother, and he doted on her, his only daughter. He’d step into the kitchen, handing my mother the bags. They’d speak for a few minutes; then, with a kiss and a wave, he’d disappear down the back steps to make his delivery at my aunt and uncle’s house, a few blocks away.
We rarely ate salad; when we did, it was iceberg lettuce with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Most other vegetables—green beans, peas, corn—were frozen (except in the summer, when we got delicious Jersey corn from nearby farm stands). We had apples, pears, bananas, and oranges in the house, but dessert was typically canned fruit, instant pudding, or Jell-O.
By 1967, when I graduated from high school, I was a healthy, well-fed girl with no sense of where her food came from or how it was produced. A typical breakfast, which I threw together before dashing out the door to school, was a slice of toasted Wonder Bread, topped with Skippy peanut butter and dusted with Nestlé Quik powder.
In college, all that changed. One of the first influences was the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which was making the rounds among my friends. I picked it up and began to understand the environmental consequences of our society’s use of pesticides. Although organic farming had of course been practised for millennia, the organic food movement was just beginning to gain traction in North America. I started patronizing natural food stores, buying organic, steel-cut rolled oats and friendly-bacteria-laden yogurt. I wasn’t sure if these foods tasted better, or if I felt healthier, but I certainly felt righteous.
White rice out. Brown rice in. Fast food bad. Homemade food good. Sugar: white death. Honey: nature’s bounty. By my junior year of college, when I was living in Madison with my boyfriend Ned, I was baking my own bread (read: bricks), cooking thick, sludgy pots of lentil soup, and making my own granola.
The biggest change, however, came when I read Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. The author described not only how to eat a healthy vegetarian diet but also the environmental depredations and cruelty of the North American meat industry. I was horrified—and inspired.
Next time I went home for vacation, I declared, “I’m a vegetarian.”
My parents, especially my father, were alarmed. “But what will you eat instead of meat?”
“Rice. Vegetables. Lentils.”
“That’s not enough to stay healthy,” he argued. “You need animal protein.”
“No, I don’t, Dad. That’s just propaganda put out by the meat industry. You can get complete protein by combining stuff like beans and rice.” I showed him some of the recipes in the book. “See, if you combine soybeans with whole wheat flour, the amino acids balance out.”
I brushed that argument aside. “Did you know that meat production uses more energy per pound and produces more waste than any other type of farming?”
“No, I didn’t. But meat is a highly concentrated protein, so a small amount is enough to meet your nutritional needs.”
“Dad! It’s a matter of justice. Why should a tiny percentage of the world’s population, like us, be able to eat meat while everyone else starves or is malnourished? If the millions of acres now devoted to meat production were converted to grains and legumes, everyone on the planet would have enough to eat.”
“So everyone should suffer with a plant-based diet?”
“Suffer! You want to talk about suffering? How about the animals?” I recited the appalling facts about animal slaughter.
“How can you eat meat knowing that?”
“Those conditions are terrible,” my mother acknowledged. “That’s why I buy kosher meat. The animals are killed under humane conditions.”
“There’s nothing humane about murder!”
After I returned to school, and for years afterward, my father sent me a steady stream of frightening articles from medical journals. But, since these were from the medical “establishment,” which in my mind was in the same dubious camp as polluting industries and our war-mongering government, I brushed them off and continued to eat a vegetarian diet.
When Bill and I moved to Galena Bay in the summer of 1972, we knew that our back road would not be plowed in the winter and so we would not be able to get into town often to buy groceries. That meant we had to stock up on staples to see us through the snowy months. But how much would we need? I had no idea. Better too much than not enough, I thought, and on a trip to Vancouver that fall, I purchased fifty-pound bags of oats, rice, lentils, powdered milk, and soybeans. We loaded the huge bags into mouse-proof galvanized-aluminum garbage cans in the tool shed. As we fastened the lids, I felt secure. It could snow all winter and we’d still have enough food, I thought.
I had never eaten soybeans before, except as a fried, salted snack food, but was excited to incorporate them into our diet, since Diet for a Small Planet said that they contained more protein than any other legume. One day I cooked a batch of the pale yellow beans. It took three hours of boiling to get them to an edible stage. They were bland and unpleasant in texture, even when drowned in tomato sauce (and, as we soon found out, were highly gaseous). I tried soybeans in a couple more recipes, but each time Bill and I found ourselves picking them out of the dish and leaving them on our plates.
Guiltily, I left the barely used bag in the tool shed. Eventually I dumped forty-eight pounds of them on the compost pile. Over time, moths flourished in the oats, and the brown rice went rancid. They joined the soybeans. Most of that initial purchase went to waste.
No young woman, especially a rebellious one, wants to admit that she is just like her mother. But in one significant way I was: I did all the cooking.
Secretly, I was happy. I loved cooking, loved trying new recipes and ingredients, loved putting healthy meals on the table. So I brushed off the embarrassment of falling into a stereotypical role and threw myself into my next challenge: learning how to cook on a woodstove.
Our first woodstove, a Findlay, which we salvaged from a tumble-down cabin in Beaton, was a relic of old-time craftsmanship, with scrolled iron filigree around the edges, and white enamel doors on the oven and on the warming oven above the stove’s surface, which was perfect for proofing bread. It was also extremely inefficient. Even after I got the hang of starting the fire in the woodbox—crumple newspaper, criss-cross thin sticks of kindling over that, lay on a slim piece of fast-burning cedar, remember to open the flue, and light the fire—either the woodbox smoked or the fire burned out too quickly or the pieces of hemlock I placed on top of the cedar didn’t catch. The fire was always too cool or too hot, resulting in food that was either undercooked or burned. When the fire was too hot and the pancakes I was cooking turned black underneath, Bill christened them “carbon cakes.” Even I had to laugh, because that’s exactly what they were.
Then there was baking. A woodstove’s oven receives heat from the firebox, which is typically located on the left side of the stove. This means that the oven is hottest on the left. And that means that you have to turn your baked goods around a few times to make sure they cook evenly.
It took me a while to learn this. For the first several months, my cakes tended to rise quickly on the left, forming a small mountain that burned on its left flank, while the right-hand side fell into a doughy, uncooked valley. I can’t count the number of times I went, “Oh, shit!” and dashed to open the forgotten oven door, only to discover a half-burned, half-raw mess of a cake or bread, which went straight into the compost.
A year or so later, we bought a brand-new Enterprise Woodsman woodstove. This was a large, square, black, unlovely beast. It had no filigree, no curves, no enamel, but it was well designed and very efficient. A water reservoir hooked onto the left side of the firebox, so I could get warm water for washing up by dipping into that instead of having to heat pots of water on the stove.
By now, I was much more competent. I had learned the properties of different species of wood and knew how to use them to get the result I wanted: cedar to get the fire going, hemlock for a low, steady fire, slightly hotter fir for stovetop cooking, and beautiful birch, our longest-burning wood, for steady baking heat. I had also learned where to place things—for example, to put a pot of water directly over the firebox to bring it to a boil, then move it about a foot to the right to keep it simmering for soup or stew. And I mostly remembered to turn my baked goods. I felt like an accomplished pioneer woman, wise in woodland lore.
I still produced carbon cakes—just not as often.
Excerpt from Galena Bay Odyssey: Reflections of a Hippie Homesteader by Ellen Schwartz (Heritage House, 2023), reprinted with permission of publisher.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. All photographs courtesy of Ellen Schwartz, unless noted.
Ellen Schwartz is the author of eighteen award-winning books for children, as well as one non-fiction
book for adults, a collection of profiles of women singer-songwriters. In addition to writing books, Ellen
works as a corporate writer and editor and as a freelance magazine writer who has published hundreds of
magazine articles. Ellen has taught creative writing classes for many years at the college and university
levels. Her passions include reading, jazz dancing, baking, and hiking. After a decade of being hippie
homesteaders in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, Ellen and her husband now live in Burnaby,