When Valerie Shannon prepares her grandmother’s famous lemon pudding, she finds herself savouring each spoonful, knowing the treat was a delicacy for the family matriarch growing up.
“It had ingredients like lemons and sugar and butter that might have been items that were harder to come by,” said Shannon, a retired Montreal nurse.
Her grandmother, who lived to be 99 years old, worked as a maid in Northern Ireland all her life before immigrating to Montreal in 1926 due to sectarian violence — after partition and the Irish Civil War.
Shannon imagines her grandmother first learned to make the unctuous recipe she’s come to love for one of the wealthy families to whom she was in service. She then passed it on to Shannon as she was about to be married to leave something sweet for her growing family.
“[The recipe] just makes me appreciate all the things that I have that I don’t have to worry about, and it also helps me think about where my family roots are and really, the extraordinary life that [my grandmother] did lead,” said Shannon.
This recipe — which calls for melted butter “the size of a walnut” — along with Shannon’s story can be found in a community cookbook created by the Montreal City Mission (MCM) and Montreal’s St. James United Church.
Launched last month, the free online cookbook, titled Gathering At Table, contains close to a dozen recipes submitted by seniors involved with the MCM and church — including their personal connections to their dishes.
It was created in the hopes of connecting people from different communities by way of gathering around the table together and sharing stories about their respective cultures.
“Through the food, you began to tell people who you were and what you value and what you’re about,” said Shannon.
WATCH | Seniors share the stories behind their recipes:
Recipes, tales from around the world
The Gathering At Table project began in 2020, bringing together newcomer and Canadian-born seniors every two to three weeks, depending on COVID-19 restrictions, to discuss food, eat and share memories from family meals long ago.
The group of seniors would meet in a dining hall in the church on Ste-Catherine Street, sometimes bringing in the dishes they were discussing and other times chatting between mouthfuls of food provided by the MCM.
Arwa Nofal, an outreach co-ordinator with the MCM, says the goal of the project was to connect members and break isolation. But it became so much more.
“I feel like we are family here,” she said. “We created bonds and friendships together from [total strangers].”
She says all the recipes and stories come from different cultures, including Germans, Palestinians and Trinidadians.
“It’s a beautiful combination,” said Nofal.
For Salwa Sadek, the group gave her a chance to share the fond and funny memories she has of her grandmother’s soup back in Egypt — along with a life lesson she learned from eating it.
Laden with cooked veal or beef cubes, the dish wasn’t a favourite for Sadek as a child because of the meat. So she’d often sneak chunks under the dining room table and feed them to her grandmother’s cats.
Until one day, her brother caught her. And she’ll never forget what he told her.
“You have to let them know how you feel about it, what you like [and] what you don’t like. You don’t have to please everybody,” Sadek recalls her brother telling her.
She says her family took the news well, and she took pride in asserting herself.
“That was a great lesson for me,” she said. And, naturally, it’s the recipe Sadek chose to share in the cookbook — meat and all.
‘No longer the other’
Born in Cape Breton Island, N.S., in the early ’50s, Reverend Arlen Bonner says his family “lived on the lower socioeconomic side of things.”
As the oldest of six kids, the pastor at St. James United Church said while there was always enough, “there was never plenty.”
But one recipe in particular always afforded him a couple of bowls and a full stomach: his grandmother’s corn chowder.
“It was an economically based meal,” he said. Costing next to nothing in ingredients, the recipe could make a “huge pot of nourishing, hot and sustaining food that could feed 25 to 30 people, easily.”
It’s also a meal that allowed Bonner’s family to linger together at the table — something he believes can help build deep connections between family and strangers.
He says the Gathering At Table project has allowed people of different backgrounds and religions to engage with each other’s cultures in a casual way, where people can learn what it is to be a neighbour to those who might once have been considered “the scary other.”
“When we get together now with these familiar faces, you know, there’s embracing, there’s hugging, there’s smiles, there’s genuine delight,” he said.
“It’s no longer the other; it’s us.”