Sawdust decorated the floor. Expert cuts of meat were displayed and the best of homemade sausages hung. Seville orange marmalade, candied ginger, chocolates and biscuits lined the shelves. My father and cousin Jack sold fresh cut Christmas trees from the roof of the store at Yonge Street and Delisle, lowering them down by rope to customers on the sidewalk.
First was the bowl of hot boiled wheat porridge called frummety (which bears little resemblance to the medieval frumente). Served with heaps of brown sugar and, during his childhood, fresh cream. He loaded up a huge bowlful.
Then came the cooking of the famous mixed grill, Butcher’s Breakfast, the ingredients of which have become family legend. Sausages, side bacon, back bacon, calf’s liver, and the infamous calf’s sweetbreads. (In the olden days it also would have included William O’s spiced beef). The securing of the sweetbreads became an “announcement” weeks ahead. “I’ve ordered my sweetbreads”, Dad would proclaim weeks before Christmas when coming in from work. Then we knew that all was right with the world.
Sweetbreads, for those of you unfamiliar with organ meats, are beef pancreas and various glands. Again, a throwback to the British genealogy of the Ward’s of Nottinghamshire. The year he could no longer acquire calf’s sweetbreads, but only the lesser quality, baby beef type, was a sad proclamation.
I have a feeling that my father probably taught my mother how to cook. The cooking of the Butcher’s Breakfast mixed grill required the skill of an efficient short order cook, each meat product requiring a different cooking time.
The sweetbreads and liver were de-gristled and rinsed under cold running water. Sausages were started first. Then the sweetbreads, bacon, and finally, the liver, which went on last, with liberal sprinklings of salt and pepper. Standing beside the stove I was making mental notes. Liver, I was quick to learn, only took 3 minutes per side. Year after year I watched my father cook this miniature feast.
My father didn’t particularly care if any one else wanted to share this feast with him. When all was ready he sat down in front of this plate of pure meat with a grin from ear to ear. He really knew what he liked and went for it unabashedly.
My father was integrally involved in all the Christmas Day deliberations in the kitchen. Next came the preparation of the roast turkey with traditional sage-infused breadcrumb stuffing in the large cavity and it’s requisite sausage meat stuffing at other end. Having grown up above a butcher’s shop, his own grandfather, father and uncles would have cooked up a storm for days before Christmas, not for themselves but for the Toronto ‘aristocracy’. Carried on horse-drawn carriage, or sleigh, delivered to the rear of many mansions in the Rosedale area, were cooked racks of lamb and roasts received by the housekeeper. As a young boy my father would accompany the driver on these hurried deliveries. And he eventually became a delivery boy himself. On his bicycle he would sometimes hitch a ride back up the Yonge Street hill (below St. Clair) holding onto the back of the streetcar, but hopefully not in the middle of winter!
On Christmas Day the Wards finally took the time to cook for themselves and what a feast I can imagine. When I was a child Christmas Day was one of the few times we connected with the Ward clan from ‘down east’. I remember my Dad making the effort of calling on the telephone to speak to his parents and sister. In fact there were times when the phone lines would be so jammed and it would take us many tries. All activity would cease for a few minutes and we would gather around the receiver.
My father had a particular Santa-like quality, that being a jovial mischieviousness which would show up in countless ways. A heavy brick wrapped up in a box masquerading as a present, a holly berry bowtie, party game prizes. My mother wasn’t privy to any of it until ‘the reveal’. Many times our parents would share our holiday table with single people, refugee families, childless couples and always our weird spinster aunts (that’s a topic worthy of it’s own blog post!).
After dinner Dad would spring into action organizing silly party games and prizes. There was the requisite shooting gallery with the little plastic pistols with the suction cups. And the word jumble game and perhaps a board game or two, including a giant floor Scrabble game he made himself. He always had a final present for everyone to open. There would be Big Band Christmas music playing in the background. He would then warm up the car on the coldest of Winnipeg nights and drive the old aunts home. My father would always insist on doing the dishes himself after everyone had gone, giving my mother a break. His generosity and equanimity was palpable at Christmas. He must have flopped into bed exhausted yet happy.
In 1983 my father suggested that they volunteer to be “Mum and Pop” at the IVCF International Christmas. So he was able to share his joy for the Feast of Christmas with young students so far away from home.
For me, the Butcher’s Breakfast became the one golden thread tying Christmas to Christmas. It informed me of my birthright, to claim my place among the Ward Family.