A classic recipe for making old-fashioned pickled beets. Meet an amazing prairie woman and read her story. Also get her recipe for creamed garden vegetables. (Or skip directly to recipes.)

Mabel's pickled beets

The Canadian Food Experience Project (August)

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7, 2013. As we, the participants, share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us. This month’s topic is:

A Northern Alberta Canadian Food Hero:

Mabel Johnson

Some heroes wear capes and fly through the sky, others leap into burning buildings to rescue frantic victims, some save lives in war-torn or ravaged countries.

And some spend their lives quietly and selflessly serving others, feeding bellies and souls. That is my hero: Mabel Ann Johnson, a northern Alberta pioneer woman who represents all farm wives and the many other pioneer women who helped build Canada into what it is today. She also happens to be my mother-in-law.

Mabel Johnson, a Canadian Food Hero

At 88 years old, she has accumulated an impressive amount of contribution to the food culture of the small northern Alberta farming communities of Valhalla Centre and Hythe. When she was born in 1925, travel in the country was by horse and buggy, water was pumped by hand and heated on the woodstove, and feeding the farm family was a labour-intensive, full time, year-round job for every hardworking farmwife (in addition to the time spent outside helping in the fields and in the barns).

When I asked Mabel how young she started cooking, she said: I never really cooked when I was a child. Mama was such a good cook, she did it all herself, with the help of my oldest sister. I had to help outside, doing chores and tending the garden.  It wasn’t until Mabel was 20 and married with a family of her own, that she started cooking, but she inherited the amazing cooking talents of her mama, because she is a natural and creative cook.

Mabel’s garden is legendary in the northern Alberta community she lives in. Every year for the past 65 years, she and her husband, Marvin (now 92), have planted 700 to 1000 hills of potatoes (even more in the years their seven children still lived at home) and many rows of carrots, peas, beans and other vegetables. For the last 30 years or more, Marvin and Mabel give away sacks and sacks of their garden’s bounty every fall to the needy families in the area. Mabel still puts up hundreds of jars of canned fruits, vegetables and jams every year. Their table always welcomes any visitor, traveler or worker lucky enough to be in the area at meal time. During the years of cooking for the growing family, every summer saw a handful of nieces and nephews come to spend the school holidays at the farm. They came ‘to Auntie Mabel’s to fatten up’ (Marvin’s words).

Mabel working in a part of her huge vegetable garden

Mabel working in a part of her huge vegetable garden. The potato portion of it is just to the left of this photo and even larger than this side.

Mabel, along with Marvin, has produced and prepared almost all the food that went into feeding her family over the years, from raising and butchering chickens and turkeys, pigs and cattle, cutting up and canning the moose and deer Marvin hunted, to picking wild berries and tending her gardens. They homesteaded and cleared the trees from the plot of land that is their farm and yard. Their garden has been in the same spot for 65 years, generously producing enough to feed themselves and half the countryside.

picking saskatoons

picking saskatoons

hands full of saskatoon berry stains

sometimes the family helps

In 1950 Mabel joined the Valhalla Centre group of the Alberta branch of the WI – the Women’s Institute, and has continued to be a member to this day, still holding yearly meetings in her home. That is over 60 years of service ‘For Home and Country‘. Over the decades, Mabel and the women in this group catered for countless weddings, organized, prepared and served a multitude of local functions and dinners to fundraise for the community and the WI organization. Their funds supported childrens’ groups and programs in the community, and aided many families that suffered hardships and disasters. For many years now, Mabel and Marvin have also personally supplied all the vegetables for the annual WI harvest supper at the Ashdown Hall every October, and she has baked countless pies to donate there and to every other function in the community.

Mabel and Marvin have both also donated their time every few months over the last many years to cooking for the Hythe Legion for its fundraising dinners to support numerous worthwhile projects. Mabel’s skill and experience in cooking for large crowds, and Marvin’s talents as chief potato peeler and cook’s helper, have been invaluable to preparing these dinners.

Alberta Women's Institute memorabilia

some of Mabel’s WI service pins and memorabilia

Mabel drinking tea out of her WI cup

In her early 50’s, Mabel became an ’emancipated woman’ and started working outside the home, cooking for the Hythe Pioneer Senior’s Home for 12 years. She was up at 5:00 in the morning to be there by 6:00, worked full days preparing food for more than 60 residents, then came home and never missed a beat, making meals in addition to her weekly quota of bread, cinnamon buns, and pies for the family. After that was all done, gardening, caring for her chickens and picking roots in the fields were her ‘relaxation’.

Mabel rolling up another batch of cinnamon buns

rolling up another batch of cinnamon buns

Mabel’s buns, cinnamon buns, and pies are legends in themselves.

At a conservative estimate, over the last 65 years, she has made over 65,000 cinnamon buns (the last batch just last week), and over 23,000 pies (7,200 of these for the Pioneer Home, the rest for the family and community). These numbers don’t include the loaves of bread baked twice-weekly, or regular dinner buns – she has made more of these than cinnamon buns! (I need to wipe my brow just thinking of all that work.) Mabel has been a one-woman baking virago her whole life. There are few people in the Valhalla neighbourhood who have not enjoyed her baked treats over the years.

And for the last 35 years, she has not been able to taste a single crumb of her own baking. Mabel was diagnosed with celiac disease in her fifties, but that has never stopped her from turning out her amazing baked goods by feel and instinct alone, to be consistently perfect batch after batch, every time. Now that several of her children also have celiac disease, she has adapted many favourite family recipes to accomodate the new dietary requirements.

In addition to her prowess in the kitchen, Mabel has been a passionate quilter, presenting a handmade quilt to every member of her own family and to every baby born in the Valhalla community for the last 40 or 50 years. This woman of many talents is also a prolific oil paint artist (having had her own shows in local galleries and competitions) and keeps fit by walking – alot. For the last three decades or so, Mabel has walked 3 miles every day (cross-country skiing them in the winter) and it’s been only in the last 3 years that she has slowed down to about 1½ miles a day (in 3 half-mile sessions spread out over the day). She wears a pedometer and tries to do a minimum of 5,000 steps per day. Since she started walking, she has walked more than once around the world in total miles!

Mabel is also a lover of the written word. With all her seven children, she placed a huge importance on reading, always making time for books between the many farm chores. She is the family poet and has chronicled the life of each family member in verse. Two years ago, when Mabel was 86 years old, she self-published a cookbook and kitchen memoir, with the aid of her daughter-in-law Linda. She included all the family’s favourite recipes along with anecdotes and musings of her life in the kitchen over the last 65 years. This legacy is treasured by all the family members, and many of the community, and will be passed on for generations to come.

Marvin and Mabel with her cookbook

Mabel and her cookbook, with Marvin (her greatest supporter and chief recipe-tester)

Watching Mabel in the kitchen is a joy. She is a master of efficiency, moving quickly and methodically, cleaning up her dishes as she goes, so there are never more supplies or mess around her than what she is working with at that moment. That is how she worked in her years as a professional cook, and that is how she works in her own kitchen. Every morning that there are guests in her house, she has at least one pie cooling, and usually a batch of cinnamon buns and dinner buns in the oven (and the kitchen tidy) before the guests are even awake (I speak from many years of first-hand experience). She can churn out huge dinners for 40 family members as easily as she makes a lunch for herself and Marvin.

Mabel has always taken pride in working with the freshest local foods (usually homegrown), making delicious, healthy meals to feed family and neighbours, often using ingenuity to stretch little into much. She has generously and gladly shared her talents and the fruits of her labours with her family, her community, and any stranger that needed it. She has used her creativity and talent with food and cooking, not only in a professional capacity, but as her way to give back to her community and to help make it a better place for everyone she has ever come in contact with, and for future generations.

Mabel Johnson is representative of the strong pioneer stock of a bygone generation – women who worked selflessly to build a life and build a community in harsh conditions with little more than the skills passed on from previous generations. In their lifetime they have seen the hugest technological changes of any generation – they are the bridge from our past to our future and have so much to teach us. Mabel has been the epitome of the strong prairie woman her whole life, living as an example to others . . . and always doing it with a smile.

When I said to her that she has sure done a lot with food and cooking during her life, her answer to me was, “Yup, and I love everything about it”.

 * * * * *

Kitchen Frau Notes: Most other pickled beet recipes I can find use some vinegar and some water, while Mabel uses straight vinegar for hers. It seems like they would be too sour, but believe me – they are just right: amazingly flavoured and perfectly sweet-sour. Everybody loves them and can never get enough of them.

Mabel uses a spice bag for her pickling spice, and reuses it for several batches of pickled beets. She often only pickles 3 or 4 jars of beets at a time, and seals the spice bag in a small plastic bag after use, then keeps it in the freezer until the next time she makes a batch, reusing the spice bag for up to 12 cups of vinegar.

I usually make bigger batches of pickled beets at a time, and have to confess I have been lazy, sometimes just putting the pickling spice loose into the brine. I use 1 tablespoon per 6 cups of vinegar, and try to make sure I get some of the spices into each jar with the brine, but the flavour won’t be as consistent in each jar. It also depends if your eaters mind the bits of spices in the jars. Mabel’s way is more elegant.

Mabel's pickled beets

 Mabel’s Pickled Beets

  • beets
  • pickling spice
  • muslin cloth and cotton twine
  • white vinegar (about 1 cup/quart of beets)
  • sugar (about 1 cup/quart of beets)
  • salt
  • pepper

Scrub beets clean and cut off the tops, leaving ¼ inch (.5cm) stems attached. In a large pot with a lid, cover the beets with water. Cook beets until tender. The cooking time will depend on the size of the beets. Try to use similar sized beets in the same pot. Large ones can take up to an hour to cook. Test by poking with a fork.

While the beets are cooking, sterilize the amount of quart-sized canning jars you think you will need for the amount of beets you have, plus a few extra. Keep the jars hot.

Cut about an 8 inch (20cm) square from clean, rinsed muslin or several layers of cheesecloth. Place 2 tablespoons of pickling spice in the center and draw up the edges to make a bundle. Tie with cotton kitchen twine and trim off the raw edges to about ½ inch (1cm).

In a large saucepan, put vinegar and sugar in a 1:1 ratio. (Use 1 cup vinegar to 1 cup sugar). Each cup of vinegar will fill about 1 quart of beets, so make up as much as you think you will need, plus a bit extra. Place the muslin bag of pickling spice into the brine and bring to a boil. Boil for two or three minutes to allow the spices to flavour the brine. Squeeze out the spice bag with a spoon against the side of the pot, and save it for another batch (wrapped and in the fridge if for a few days, or the freezer if longer). Keep the brine covered and simmering on the stove while you prepare the beets. Put the metal lids into a pot and cover them with water. Bring them to a low simmer and keep them hot also.

Drain the cooked beets. Peel the beets by slipping them out of their skins with your hands. Try to work with them as hot as you can, to keep them from cooling off. Cut the beets into large (1 to 1½ inch) chunks and pack them tightly into the hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving 1 inch (2.2 cm) of headspace. Work with one or two jars at a time.

Working quickly so the jar doesn’t cool off, add 1 teaspoon salt to each quart (½ teaspoon if using pints) and add a shake of pepper to each jar. Pour the boiling hot vinegar brine over the beets, trying not to get it on the rim of the jar. Cover the beets completely, and leave about ½ inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean cloth rinsed in hot, hot water. Place on the metal lids, screw on the band until it is finger tight, and set onto a tea towel laid out on the counter. Do not move or disturb the jars until they are completely cool. You will hear a pop as the lids seal, and will see that they are sucked downward, with no little raised area in the middle. Any jars that don’t seal can be kept refrigerated and used up in the next few months.

Alternately you can process the jars in a boiling water bath according to canning instructions.

 * * * * *

Kitchen Frau Notes: When Mabel makes these creamed vegetables in early summer every year, it is the signal to the family that the garden is ready. Everyone anxiously awaits this signature dish, and she often makes a huge pot of these tender young vegetables as the main meal, served only with freshly baked white dinner buns.

In the days when they had their own cows, and delivered cream to the Valhalla store to be picked up, Mabel made this dish with fresh cream. Now she makes it with canned milk, and it is just as good.

Mabel's creamed spring vegetables

Mabel’s Creamed Garden Vegetables

  • new garden potatoes
  • 1 new garden onion, with green part attached
  • new garden carrots
  • new garden peas
  • 1 to 1½ cups (360ml) heavy cream or 1 can evaporated canned milk
  • cornstarch
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh dill (optional)

Scrub the skins of the potatoes clean and cut them into large chunks. Dice the onion, reserving any green parts to add later. Scrape the carrots clean and cut them into large chunks. Shell the peas.

In a large pot, boil the potatoes and the diced white part of the onion until about half cooked. Add the carrots and continue cooking until tender. Add the peas and sliced green part of the onion.

Make a slurry of several tablespoons of cornstarch mixed with water until smooth.

Drain part of the water off the vegetables if there is a lot, and add the cream or milk. Bring back to a boil, and add a couple tablespoons of the cornstarch slurry, stirring as you pour it in. Keep adding a little more at a time until it is as thick as you like. There should be quite a lot of sauce.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add a little chopped fresh dill if desired.

Mabel’s words: “When the potatoes are really little it is the best time to make this. Sometimes the peas & carrots from the garden aren’t ready as early as the potatoes – then you will have to slice the spuds.”

 creamed spring vegetables

Guten Appetit!

View past Canadian Food Experience Project entries here:

June, 2013: My First Authentic Canadian Food Memory: Buttery Sauteed Mushrooms with Spruce Tips and Chives

July, 2103: A Regional Canadian Food: Saskatoon Roll or Saskatoon Cobbler and How to Freeze Saskatoon Berries

Mabel and her cookbook - 1Mabel and her cookbook - 2Mabel and her cookbook - 3

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