by John Hall

Ontario in the dirty thirties was a much different place than it is today and most people lived in a rural or semi-rural environment. Toronto was a big city to those who visited once a year to go to the CNE, but by today's standards, Toronto would be a large town or at most, a small city. There were no large housing developments and houses sat on much bigger lots than they do now. The back yard, as we called it, was used for a garden and such things as decks and swimming pools were unheard of. Rich people could afford to grow flowers as well as vegetables, but the poor used every piece of ground to grow food for the long winter that was coming and had to be survived.

My aunt lived in Toronto on Amroth Avenue, about one or two blocks east of Woodbine. Her house was small and the back yard occupied more space than the house. I have the impression she grew practically everything she and her husband required to feed themselves for winter, with the exception of meat, of course. I remember her garden so well because she had a peach tree and her peaches, ripened on the tree, tasted much better than anything we buy in today's supermarkets. She preserved them in jars and stored them in a cold room in the basement and when we visited her at Christmas, or she came to visit us, we had preserved peaches. Toronto was small in those days and the streetcar ran along Danforth Avenue to Main Street where it turned around because there was no more Toronto. There was no Scarborough either, and it was a long way to Pickering and Ajax where a big ammunition factory was built during the War. Today, Danforth and Woodbine is almost part of downtown Toronto, but it was out in the country then.

In towns, people grew carrots, turnips, beets, asparagus, squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and many other vegetables. Practically everything that could be preserved in jars was, 'done down for the winter' and stored in the basement. There were, however, some things which couldn't be put in jars and had to be stored in another way. Many people had a root cellar, usually dug into the side of a small hill, and vegetables and apples were stored there because a root cellar was cool in the summer, but not below freezing in the winter. We didn't have a root cellar so we had to put ours in jars, but we put apples in the pit and our favourite was the spy apple. Each fall we dug a pit in the back yard and lined it with straw. The hole was quite deep to make sure things didn't freeze, but it wasn't very large because we didn't have that much space. Once we had lined it with several layers of straw, the apples were carefully placed so they didn't touch each other and only the best were chosen. Dad got them from a friend, an Irishman called Dan O'Connor who lived near us and had a large orchard. He grew the best apples I've ever seen and his Macintosh and Spies were big, juicy and delicious. Each apple was hand picked to make sure there were no bruises and carefully placed in a pocket of straw. This was done until the pit was full and then more straw was added until all were covered. The top was filled with dirt and the pit closed for winter, with a little sign placed on the top saying, "Do not open until Christmas." The sign was a family joke, but appropriate because that's when we opened the pit and took out our apples for Christmas and I've never tasted any that could compare with the spies we had on Christmas morning. Today, the spy apple has almost become extinct in Ontario, but there is nothing on the market that can compare with Dan O'Connor's 'pitted spies' taken from our homemade root cellar in the back yard, or Aunt Laura's Toronto-grown, ripened-on-the-tree, preserved peaches.