Diefenbaker was born in a small town in Ontario in September 1895. In 1903, when he was seven, his family moved west so his father, William, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, could take advantage of the healthful prairie air.
William took a teaching position at a one-room school near Fort Carlton, a mounted police depot and former fur trade post mid-way on the wagon trail between Winnipeg and Edmonton. Their home and school served as a community centre and rest stop where locals, travellers and new homesteaders were welcomed for a friendly conversation and a bite to eat.
In his memoir, One Canada (Vol. 1), Diefenbaker recalls North-West Mounted Police officers dropping by, humorously noting: "No doubt it was coincidence but they usually arrived at mealtime."
Residents of the local reserve frequently came for tea, and Gabriel Dumont, leader of the Metis uprising of 1885, visited now and then with a gift of game for the stew pot. "He could speak no English but he could shoot, and he gave us some examples of his marksmanship," writes Diefenbaker who, as a boy, was awed by the stature and stories of the legendary Metis hero.
Their daily diet was typical for prairie settlers at that time. Day to day, they ate rabbits, fish, wildfowl, prairie chickens and domestic chickens. Neighbours brought them Mennonite sausages, cured hams and garden vegetables until the Diefenbakers had a garden of their own. They picked wild mushrooms and berries by the pail full at a time when the prairie was bountiful in wild fruit. Diefenbaker lists a typical haul at 30 quarts of strawberries, 50 quarts of saskatoons and 100 quarts of raspberries!
In 1906, the family moved to a homestead near Borden, Sask. (the province of Saskatchewan having been created the year before), where they kept a milk cow and planted a large garden, particularly potatoes. Mary made excellent butter, which she traded at the general store for groceries such as flour, sugar and prunes. Her harvest meals were exceptional, and it was not unnoticed by young Dief that the harvest crews, usually consisting of 15-20 men, slowed their pace of work so they could stick around for one more meal.
"Mother was a good cook," he writes. "We always had plenty of wholesome food." Diefenbaker was so enamoured of his mother's cooking that he saved her cookbook, Good Housekeeping's Favourite Recipes and Menus From Our Kitchen to Yours, which is now part of his collection at the University of Saskatchewan Archives in Saskatoon.
Mary's cookbook includes this recipe for baked string beans. The original recipe calls for an unspecified "fat" for which I used butter. I also cut this recipe in half, since I am not feeding a harvest crew or a couple of active prairie boys.
Baked String Beans and Bacon
2 lbs string beans
6 slices bacon
1 1/2 cups light cream or thin white sauce (see below)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
To make a thin white sauce: On the stove, melt 2 tbsp butter in a small pot. Add 2 tbsp flour and blend well. Pour in 2 cups cold milk. Heat, whisking vigorously until bubbling and thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut string beans into one-inch pieces and cook in salted water until tender. Dice bacon and fry until crisp. Drain beans and mix with bacon, thin cream or white sauce, salt, pepper and 2 tbsp of melted butter. Place in a greased baking dish.
Mix bread crumbs with remaining 1 tbsp of melted butter and sprinkle over beans. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes, until golden brown.
A page from Mary Diefenbaker's favourite cookbook: the food spatters may tell us this was one of her favourite recipes.
(This article first appeared in Grainews)