We set off fireworks on the beach, in the 1950’s, and celebrated something called “Dominion Day”. It was the season’s first really big get-together at the cottage and signaled the start of a long, lazy summer dedicated to swimming and sleeping in, building sandcastles, chasing fireflies, eating outdoors and all of those simple pleasures long associated with Canadian cottage life.
But times change and I recently happened upon a piece in the Toronto Star which voiced the opinion that “going to the cottage” was no longer the quintessential summer recreational experience for Canadians. A series of interviews with urban dwellers cited the main reason as the hellish drive up north on Friday and the long weekend spent planning how to avoid the traffic coming back. But others seemed to be bored by the languid, outdoorsy cottage experience and preferred either to travel or to stay in the city where there were so many other “more exciting” things to do.
I’m not surprised by this article — as an adult, I never really wanted to do that weekend “going up north” thing. But as a child in southern Ontario I adored my summers by the lake.
My cottage experience involved going south, instead of north, since my parents owned a cottage on Lake Erie. We would arrive in mid-June, my mother and I staying for the whole summer, my dad working in the city, but driving down on the weekends. The cottage was only about an hour or so from our home — we lived in Brantford — but the first weekend trip, towards the end of June, demanded the logistics expertise of a military expedition. Packing took up the entire week before we left on Friday night, and I recall sitting in the crammed back seat of the car across from the cat who, variously. glared at me balefully, yowled piteously, or threw up on the seat beside me. We never actually transported the kitchen sink, but I do have a picture in my head of my mother making the ride with an electric frying pan in her lap. Our modest cottage had nothing in common with the glitzy, Muskoka mansions pictured in Cottage Life magazine, but it was also not at all a primitive log cabin; it had electricity and indoor plumbing and a TV (although, for a few years, all we could get was the Erie, Pennsylvania channel). So it wasn’t that we didn’t have kitchen utensils at the cottage, you see, it was that we needed to take “the good frying pan” and “the good coffee perk”, “the good chopping knife”, and so on.
Anyway, cottage cuisine captured the breezy essence of summer food and always tasted so much better than anything cooked in our stuffy and un-air-conditioned house. Much of it centered on seafood — my father had a small boat and liked to fish. He caught perch and pickerel and bass and even pike (or he said he did — I could never tell one from another). I clearly remember the unhappy occasion when he decided to teach me how to fish. Not only did I refuse to touch the bait (ugh, worms) but I became hysterical when I saw the metal hook pierced through the mouth of a living creature. (Yes, my dad often did wish he had had a son.) None of this stopped me from eating the fish, by the way. Cleaned and filleted immediately and broiled or fried in batter, it was always cooked with an adherence to that old Canadian principle: Measure the fillet at its thickest part and cook for ten minutes, for each inch of thickness. No fancy sauces necessary — just squirted with lots of juicy lemons.
Besides, the fish was often served with mayonnaise-rich potato salad. And here, I must confess, my mother never made her own mayonnaise, but used that bottled kind (Kraft? Hellman’s?), right out of the jar. No matter, it tasted wonderful and despite the fact that, since then, I have had all sorts of more elegant salads — German potato salad, French potato salad, which I also like — my favorite remains that old-fashioned version with the commercial dressing. (I do add a little Dijon mustard to mine give it a bit of zip.)
The food that we ate at the cottage was comfortably uncontrived. Much was done on the barbecue — hamburgers, hotdogs or steaks or ribs accompanied by the splendour of the ripest, reddest tomatoes or green and yellow beans fresh from our home garden or golden corn on the cob dripping with butter and salt. And our meals tended to be convivial and communal since there were many cottages nearby and our backyards all converged. Peering back, through the rose-tinted sunglasses of nostalgia, it seems like one the happiest times of my life.
A few years later, alas, as I edged toward my teens, I was sent to camp for the summer. There we mostly ignored the tasteless food served in the camp’s dining room and sustained ourselves with Mars bars, Tootsie Rolls, red licorice Twizzlers and potato chips bought at the camp’s tuck shop. But that’s another story …
And here’s a really simple recipe for new potatoes, in case you’re already sick of potato salad.
Salt and Vinegar Potatoes,
adapted from a recipe in Gourmet magazine, July 2000
2 and 1/2 tbsp tarragon vinegar or cider vinegar
fleur de sel or Maldon salt to taste
1 and 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1) Cover potatoes with salted cold water by 1 inch and simmer until just tender, about 10 minutes. (Do not overcook, they should stay in one piece.)
2) Drain potatoes and rinse under cold water. While potatoes are still warm, gently toss with vinegar and salt. (You can use any kind of coarse salt, if you don’t want to use Maldon or fleur de sel, but if using coarse sea salt, crush it lightly first)
3)Cool potatoes to room temperature, stirring occasionally and gently toss with oil.
You could use either red or regular potatoes — and add a sprinkle of chives or parsley just for colour. This is supposed to serve 8, but be aware that usually it is so addictive people eat it like potato chips.