Not long ago I got thinking about the time when my grandparents had a stand at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. It was a mysterious, far-away place to me, where truckloads of produce, loaded up the evening before, magically disappeared.
When I was seven or eight, Granny allowed me to go with her and Granddad to the market for the first time. In those days, the north market was a vast building with soaring ceilings and drafts everywhere. Granny kept a little kerosene stove behind their stand for warmth, and I’m happy to have that little heater now.
When I was ten, my Granny got sick. She was unwell all winter and not able to help Granddad with her usual tasks. That meant that when my sister Linda and I got home from school, we’d be asked to help Grandad grade eggs. Although we didn’t enjoy the chore, there was no choice but to do it. Our egg grader was like the picture below, and you can tap on the link to see how it worked. Grandad took eggs from the collection baskets and placed them into the trough on the left. It was our job to put the eggs into cardboard trays, according to size, and these were place into wooden carrying cases.
Granny was too sick to go to the market so my cousin Paul and I went in her place. Then, in the spring, when I was ten-and-a-half, she died and I was devastated.
That same year, 1968, the old north market was demolished and vendors set up stands in a parking lot beside the construction site, and it looked much like the outdoor farmers’ markets that we’re used to these days. Vendors’ trucks were back up to the stands, and, like Granddad, many made a frame out of iron pipe that hooked onto the wooden racks enclosing the back of their pickup trucks, and they supported canvas roofs. The stands were folding tables, and customers strolled the rows of makeshift stalls in the open air.
One summer Saturday morning we opened the back of the truck and two bright eyes and a furry little face greeted us. My curious calico kitty, Kiss-Cat, had gotten locked into the back of the truck during loading the evening before. Grandad made a harness out of twine and we fastened it to the truck’s side mirror. All day I worried that Kiss Cat might escape.
Fridays in the spring and summer are among my best childhood memories. Memorable, but not so enjoyable, were long afternoons spent “peeling onions”; removing the dirty outer skins of two wheelbarrow-loads of slim green onions. We kids peeled, and then Mom bunched them, slipping on the rubber bands before putting them into pails of water to keep fresh.
Mom often picked wild violets, tying them into bunches and keeping them fresh in a pan of water so they could be taken to the market and sold. We girls had a long row of very prolific pansies that became quite a chore to pick and bunch every week, but the money from those was ours to keep. I think we were supposed to learn the lesson of reward from hard work.
Also in the spring, we’d go with Dad or Grandad to our bush lot, a mile down the road, to dig Marsh Marigolds / Cowslips which were put into newspaper-lined wooden flats. We also picked fiddleheads.
When the large grove of lilac trees growing at the back of our yard was in bloom, Dad would go out after supper to cut sweet-smelling branches. Tall buckets filled with water held the lilacs and their moist fragrance filled the evening air.
Friday evenings also meant a steady stream of family and friends arriving with things that Granddad would sell for them. I mostly remember the wonderful scent of lily-of-the-valley bouquets, brought by my aunts, and the poor bunnies raised by a neighbour boy. They arrived dressed and ready for sale, and I stroked their soft fur while mourning their early demise.
During the summer we girls had to pick strawberries or raspberries. We didn’t like bending or squatting to pick the strawberries, but at least the berries were big and the quart boxes filled quickly. The raspberry bushes grew in a long, long row at the foot of the yard. Picking raspberries was a thankless and endless job, especially on a hot day — and in my memory, they were all hot. A long piece of twine was threaded through a square, wooden quart box and tied around the waist. Several other boxes were stacked into the bottom one, and the berry-picking began. Quarts of raspberries took much longer to pick, and the canes were scratchy. When a box was full, we placed it in the shade of the row and started picking into the next box.
There were also peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, beets, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables in season. I was excused from picking sweet corn though. I was so allergic to the corn pollen, that being in the field set me to wheezing and my eyes watered and swelled half shut. I would have rather picked corn!
We sold chickens that we’d caught and plucked the day before. Plucking chickens was my least-favourite job, but at least we only had to take off the feathers. They were sold New York dressed — little paper bags covering the poor chickens’ heads — and the customers got to further prepare their poultry.
In the fall, apples were picked from the orchard, stored in large wooden boxes in our cooler, and sold throughout the winter. The windfalls were picked up from the ground and loaded into sacks. Granddad took these to a small factory in Wellesly where they were made into apple butter. We spooned the thick, brown apple butter from a big stoneware crock into cardboard containers, just like the iconic Chinese food takeaway boxes. Unbelievably, when a customer wanted a taste before buying, we held out the wooden spoon and they sampled by dipping in the tip of a finger.
Autumn always meant piles of pumpkins and many kinds of squash.
It was with this bounty that we set out each Saturday morning, eyes bleary after being awakened at 4 a.m. But it was a magical time too as we drove the nearly-deserted 401, from where we entered it at Morningside, and then south on the Don Valley Parkway to Toronto.
It always felt funny to drive right into the now rebuilt market building and right up to our stand so we could unload. When that was done, the man at the stand next to ours kept an eye on things while we drove to a nearby restaurant. Granddad sold a case of eggs to the owner and we had a quick breakfast together — always a bacon sandwich and hot chocolate for me.
All morning we were busy, selling to our regular customers and many new ones, and the stand gradually emptied. By lunchtime we girls were ready to go with our good friend and fellow vendor, Noreen, to another little restaurant for lunch. When we got back it was Grandad’s chance to have a break and we felt very important when we manned the stand alone.
We were always glad when we had sold everything and the day was over. On the way home Granddad always detoured off the highway so we could get a Dairy Queen cone. In those days you could choose from chocolate, butterscotch, or cherry dip, and I always had cherry.
This has turned out to be a wonderful trip down memory lane for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along.