John Diefenbaker's mother was a pretty good cook. She could turn a prairie chicken and a few string beans into a delicious meal, and did so often.
The family had moved west from Ontario in 1903 when young Diefenbaker was seven. Their home near Fort Carlton (where Dief's father was a school teacher) served as a community centre and stopping point for locals, travellers and new homesteaders.
In his memoir One Canada (Vol. 1) Diefenbaker recalls North West Mounted Police officers stopping by: "No doubt it was coincidence but they usually arrived at mealtime." Indian folks dropped in for tea and Metis leader Gabriel Dumont visited "now and then" with a gift of game for the stew pot.
Their daily diet was typical for Saskatchewan at that time. Day to day, they ate rabbits, wildfowl and chickens. Vegetables were dropped off at their door (until they had their own garden) and the local Mennonites provided sausages and hams. They picked wild mushrooms and berries by the pail full. His mother, Mary, made excellent butter (with milk from their one cow) which she traded at the store for "occasional groceries" such as flour and prunes.
Several of her cookbooks – including Good Housekeeping's Favourite Recipes and Menus – is held at the University of Saskatchewan Archives. It's well used, frayed at the edges and splattered with the memories of cake batter and tomato sauce. It includes this recipe for baked string beans, which I halved, since I'm not expecting any police officers or Metis hunters to drop in for dinner.
Baked String Beans and Bacon
2 lbs string beans
6 slices bacon
1 1/2 cups light cream or thin white sauce
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
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. Season with salt and pepper. Heat, stirring, until bubbling and thickened. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.
Cut string beans into one-inch pieces and cook in salted water until tender. Meanwhile, dice bacon and fry until crisp. Drain beans and add bacon, white sauce, salt, pepper and 2 tbsp melted butter. Place in a greased baking dish. Mix bread crumbs with remaining 1 tbsp melted butter and sprinkle over beans. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes, until golden brown.
Check out more recipes from Mrs. D's favourite cookbook.
(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.)