Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Canada Days*

The first time I felt old I was 17. I was baby sitting and my charge said he liked Elton John’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. I said I preferred the original Beatles’ version. He said, “the who?”

Of course I said, “not The Who, The Beatles.” 

Now Canada is 150 (Ringo is 77!), and I remember Centennial Year, she said with a creak. We students of Stilecroft Public School got to have a day of lessons in the one room schoolhouse at Black Creek Pioneer Village dressed in “period” costumes. Mine was a white blouse and an old skirt of my mother’s, green and white horizontal stripes with pansies on the white stripes.  It was floor length on me. She also made me a blue satin sash that I wore again when I married for the first time. Something old. The things we remember, eh? . . . Expo, riding the monorail, helping to print our class Centennial booklet on the mimeograph machine that filled the room with a wonderfully weird chemical smell . . . creak, creak, creak.

Fast forward to Canada Day celebrations 1980s-style. The reach of my cooking ambitions often exceeds my grasp, else what’s pizza delivery for, (apologies to Robert Browning). I attempted Cornish hens. The recipe called for them to be deboned, stuffed with rice (some of it wild, tip of the chef’s hat to our home and native land), then sewn back together for ease of eating, and served with a fruited curry sauce. I know, fusion run amok. Problem was I hadn’t allowed enough time for the little birds to defrost. Deboning was nearly impossible and almost ended in frostbite, but I did get them on the table and no one died. In attendance: an Italian, a Welshman, a Kenyan, a Scot and me. In 2017 my guest list doesn’t sound very diverse, but at the time I remember thinking this is what Canada is all about.

Last October I was giving my empty apartment a last look before leaving for a new house in a new town. I was scared. There was a folded square of paper on the floor. I nearly didn’t bother to pick it up. It was a letter dated June 5, 1956 from the CBC offering my father his first job in Canada at $2,584.00 per annum. He was 24 and in a new country. The offer included a pension, health and life insurance. That is also what Canada is all about.

The Staff of Life, the Roar of War

If you have any aspirations to bake your own bread you cannot go wrong with Janice Gill Murray’s The Canadian Book of Bread, which is out of print, but still available on www.abebooks.com. The recipes are easy to follow and truly Canadian in their diversity.

Michael Shara’s The Killer Angels is a fictional exploration of the Battle of Gettysburg as experienced by officers on both sides. It is timely in two respects. The Fathers of Confederation could not ignore the recently concluded American Civil War as they did their work in Charlottetown. It is, in part, why Canadian government has generally favored a federalist model. The Killer Angels is also apropos in our strident times. The book brilliantly illustrates the tragic consequences of assuming we understand a demonized opponent, and not continually examining our own reasoning and objectives for errors and obsolescence.

*The name of the boy in the second row from the top, third from the right is John Macdonald. Pinky swear.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Plan M

Some people - who may have been pulling my leg - have told me they miss Read’em & Eats, so I am revivifying my Frankenstein. More correctly my Frankenstein’s monster. See, I’m still a pedant.

I paused the blog because I found myself repeatedly writing about my mother’s decline, amid other personal chaos. In short, I felt that all I was writing about was how to hang on by your fingernails. I grew weary of that and feared you did too, Reader.

Three years later I have a firmer foothold on things. I think.

I scattered my mother’s ashes on the crocus lawn at Golders Green Crematorium. I have no belief in an afterlife, but I do like the gentle symmetry of having taken her home to the London that she loved, to her parents and sister. I don’t believe in “closure”. I do believe in scar tissue. It’s a sign of healing, and it’s tougher than the original. Watching my mother’s grey dust swirl away gave me a bittersweet sense of a task completed as best I could though perhaps to no effect. 

Last October the little dog (best boyfriend EVER) and I moved to Port Hope. This is not what I wanted, worked or hoped for, but that does not not mean it is bad. Politics and life are arts of the possible, or as I repeatedly tell my friends, “it’s all about having a Plan B”.

I’m now on Plan M. I have made it through my first winter, which is when I feared I might die of loneliness. There has been a steady stream of visitors and new friends found. I am unutterably grateful for both.

Now Reader, I know the question you most want answered is, what’s for lunch? Today it is Coronation Chicken Salad, The Hairy Bikers’ Recipe. If I weren’t eating alone I would have it with a rosé. Sunday I’m having some of my new townsfolk for drinks and nibbles. Among the things I will serve is a ricotta, prosciutto, garlic and basil dip that I first made for a long ago boyfriend (two legs, bad).

I hope to resume posting once a month. I’m thinking about things such as how to use up a whole container of buttermilk, my favourite picnics and my very own all Canadian brunch. I welcome suggestions. Now for things to read. . .

A Triumvirate of Titles

When my mum was ill I found it hard to read. I played countless games of solitaire on my iPod. Immediately after the move I found it easier to knit than read (a cardigan, a pullover and and a shawl). Nonetheless I have been reading over the the last three years. These are the three titles that come immediately to mind. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, definitely a desert island book for me - this won lots of awards and was widely reviewed, so I won’t explain further. I gave multiple friends Penelope Lively’s essays on aging Dancing Fish and Ammonites for Christmas a couple of years ago. Iris Origo’s War in Val D’Orcia is a memoir that should be ranked with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Very well, alone.


I just spent a week in Antigua beside a pool set in a garden right out of a Rousseau painting. To me proximity to a pool is a sapphire beyond price. 
My mother didn’t enjoy the water, in contrast to my father who swam like a torpedo, so it is odd that she is the one who taught me to swim. This is how she did it. She stood in the shallow end of our community pool. I stood a few feet away and threw myself at her over and over. She would catch my hands as I floundered. We did this day after day for weeks. (Selfishly I never stopped to consider that this must have been incredibly boring for her.) One day, at last, for a magic moment, between push off, splutter and grasp I floated. I knew what it felt like to be borne up by the water. I knew how to swim.

I remembered that as I crawled forward and backwards in my Antiguan pool. And I remembered her watching me as I swam at a B&B we stayed at on a weekend getaway. I said, “you should come in it’s beautiful”. She said, “when you love someone you get as much pleasure from seeing them enjoy themselves as doing it yourself”.

In her long dying I sometimes tried to rouse her to eat or do her physiotherapy by saying “this isn’t the spirit that built an empire”. I was thinking of a famous cartoon from 1940 that was reproduced in my grade 12 history text book. A British Tommy on a beach head shakes his fist at enemy aircraft and says, “Very well, alone”. She, who had survived being bombed in the Blitz, would roll her ice blue eyes and resume her descent.

When Taylor told me that about a week before she died, she grasped his hand fiercely and told him “I love you, you know,” for a petulant moment I thought, “she hadn’t said that to me in years”.

She’d shown me that she did, over and over. When I was a kid there were lots of romantic slogans, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”, “love is wanting for someone else everything you previously desired for yourself”. Both wrong of course. 

Her dying reminded me that love is wanting for someone else everything they desire for themselves, even if it means you must let them go. So, good bye Shirley Violet Glaze, thank you for teaching me to swim. Very well, alone.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Because this is supposed to be about food, here is a recipe I adapted from an old Food & Wine article by Dorie Greenspan and ate with gusto in Antigua.

2 cups chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup couscous
1 carrot finely chopped
1 green pepper diced
1 small zucchini diced
3 green onions chopped fine, including green tops
1 Granny Smith apple cut into a small dice
1/3 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup drained and rinsed chick peas
1/4 cup lemon juice

Poach the chicken breast in the stock into which you have whisked the spices and one tablespoon of the oil, remove the breast and allow to cool. Return the stock to boiling and stir the couscous in a steady stream. Put on a lid and remove from the heat. Whisk together the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Dice the chicken. When the couscous has cooled, fluff with a fork. Mix in the vegetables and meat. Toss with the lemon/olive oil dressing and season with salt and pepper. Serves six to eight.

What I Read
What do you read at the beach? No mystery there, mysteries. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse annoyed a little - the detective, Albert Campion has amnesia so you are lost along with him for the first two thirds. Murder in Grub Street by Bruce Alexander features the real life blind Judge John Fielding (brother of Henry author of Tom Jones) as seen through his “eyes” and protege Jeremy Proctor. A very satisfying read. I ended the week with Josephine Tey’s Singing Sands, her last and wonderful Inspector Grant novel. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What can you do?


In these blurry days between winter and spring it is hard to decide what to cook. In the last four weeks I have made scones imagining cream teas outdoors and huddled over a bowl of mulligatawny for warmth. The latest pie was chicken, olive and preserved lemon, because it struck a balance between the heartiness required by winter and the fresh warmth of Mediterranean flavours. The sun shone, ice melted and I made Marcella Hazan’s minestrina tricolore, a light sort of vichyssoise. The temperature dropped and a pot of bacon and lentil soup with pasta seemed in order.

My mother is in palliative care. Cooking is therapy and perhaps my food choices mirror the oscillations in my mother’s condition. I’m going to go all reckless on you and risk a poetic mash up. For a long time my mother has been more than half in love with easeful death, and longed to go gently into that good night. But that’s not how it works.

Every now and then, less and less frequently, she has a good day. By which I mean she stays awake for almost an hour at a stretch, drinks her juice without prompting and is able to hold the glass herself. Good days are rarely followed by good days, no matter what I do. I know this, but it does not prepare me for the shock of the bad days when she feels awful and is too tired to even talk on the phone to a friend of half a century. In this instance knowledge is not power. In fact, it doesn’t help a bit.

Tomorrow when I leave my mum I will come home to zuppa ci verza alla bergamasca. As I write this I am soaking the chickpeas. I will feel a little better because I made it and the buttermilk bread I will eat with it. It’s something I can do. A little victory, but aren’t they all? I intend to accumulate as many as I can, one spoonful at a time. They are a celebration of the good days and a salve against the bad.

Earthy pleasures
Clare Leighton is famous for her woodcuts, which have a muscular vitality. Her two best known books are The Farmer’s Year and Four Hedges which are both structured around the annual cycle of sowing, growth, harvest, rest and renewal. Reading Four Hedges makes you feel that you are following a friend around her garden. She doesn’t bother with lengthy introductions to herself or any of the other characters, because we’ve all known each other forever. She works with such enthusiasm, you long to be invited to help.

If you are a gardener, you will feel an even closer kinship with her when she talks about the tenderness she feels towards plants she has nurtured over many seasons, and the brave hope that planting bulbs represents. I often think of my last, lost garden and wonder if the new owners are taking proper care of my rhodies and if the crocus and trilliums have naturalized. One last poetical paraphrase: one could do worse than be a sower of scilla.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Winter of Pie


Ground Hog Day 2014 is over and I emerge from my blogging hibernation to announce that this is the Winter of Pie. Not the “American as” apple pie or the cherry pie that is the test of Billy Boy’s girlfriends, or the slutty “easy as” pie. No, none of these. Rather the savoury pie. 

Admittedly it has an unsavoury past. Before ovens wore burnished steel and were obligingly self-cleaning, meats were baked in inedible pastry “coffyns” that were re-used. I told you it was unsavoury. This is the sort of pie from which four and 20 blackbirds would sing. There are reports of coffyns filled with live frogs being brought to the table. In a discarded novel called Warts and All, Jane Austen says, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman must subsist on frog pie if she is ever to skewer a prince” . . . OK, I made that bit up, but the rest is true. 

For such a feeble joke I might be made to eat humble pie, which is a corruption of “umble” pie. “Umbles” are the offal of deer. Where else could you learn these things?

The Winter of Pie has been thrown off course sporadically by Christmas and the traditional yule tide power outage, and sundry other shocks that we are all heir to. The first pie is pictured above. It’s ham, cheese and leek. Since then I’ve made a beef and olive pie - my sun dried olives were a little too powerful. A pork and prune pie with apple mash was moving. Spiced lamb with beans topped with mash was pleasing, but the best to date was Moroccan lamb with apricots. Harissa spice was a wonderful counterpoint to the sweetness of the meat and fruit, while the puff pastry topping made it truly decadent. These are all to be found in Sophie Conran’s Mini Book of Pies.

This winter feels as if it’s been February since December. What I wouldn’t do for a coffyn full of crocuses singing spring. I think I’ll fill the hot water bottle again and ponder my next pie.

A Bounty of Books

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last year, even embarked on e-reading at last, but I’ll just mention these three. In Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise the nuances of the characters’ feelings reminded me of George Elliot, and the unconventional plot will keep you guessing.

I cite the next two because they are fun in and of themselves and brought to my attention a whole range of books that would otherwise have escaped my notice. Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree is a sort of reader’s diary. He discusses what he’s bought, what he’s read and thought, and not read and why. If you are a bibliophile you will probably laugh out loud or at the very least smile in recognition. Have you ever bought a book knowing you would never read it, but wishing that you were the sort of person who would? Me too. 

Hornby directed me to John Carey’s Pure Pleasure, which is his must reads from the last century, it includes novels, poetry and non fiction. As a result, my Collected Auden is beside my bed, two or three poems a night, and so to sleep, hot water bottle still at my feet.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Re: Past


Writers have a lot to say about the past. “You can’t go home again.” “The past is a foreign country.” Then there is Proust’s meticulously remembered madeleine.

My mother is adrift on an ebb tide of dementia. If near death experiences are described as traveling towards the light, dementia is a cruel pulling into darkness. 

Once upon a time my mother was fun loving and funny. Now she is petty and resentful. Our visits are full of senseless repetition and unbridgeable silences. Once upon school lunch times she read to me: anything from studies of the Iroquois to Coral Island while I ate peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches. Once upon an Eastertide she would leave rhyming clues to the whereabouts of chocolate eggs at the foot of my bed. 

My mother was an unenthusiastic cook and at bad at it. But I loved it when she made her beef curry, this not too hot, not too bland, just right stew. I would happily have eaten bowls of rice dowsed only in the resulting rich red sauce. 

Where was the recipe? 

My mother had a small suitcase worth of recipe clippings. There were hundreds of them, for pies, cakes, stews, and casseroles not one of which she ever made, but no sign of the curry of times past.

Then I came up on the 18th edition of The Radiation Cookery Book, which includes recipes for Beef Tea, Bread Cheese Cakes and Stewed Eel: take one eel and 1/2 a pint of white or brown sauce . . . It is a charmingly paradoxical book. A guide, it claims to the most modern kitchen craft, with elaborate capitals such as you would find in a medieval manuscript. It is a book that was four years old when my mother was born. Why she kept it, I’ll never know. To the best of my knowledge she never used it, except as a scrapbook for other recipes she never cooked. The curry recipe was taped to the back cover:

2 pounds of stewing beef
1/4 of cooking oil
1 medium onion sliced thin
1 medium apple chopped
1 tblsp curry powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp ginger
28 oz can chopped tomatoes
6 oz can tomato paste
2 tblsps lemon juice
1/2 cup hot water
2 beef bouillon cubes

Trim the beef if necessary. Heat the oil in a dutch oven. Add the onion and apple, cook until the onion is transparent. Lift out the onion and apple and set aside. Add the beef to the pan and brown on all sides. Return the apple and onion to the pan. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Cover and simmer for about two hours. Serve with rice.

Messrs. Wolfe, Hartley and Proust may know a thing or three about the past. I know that though my mother lives, I will never see the mother I loved again. But when I savor that fragrant beef I know one more thing about the past: you can eat it.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

When is a meal a telescope? Or, a tale of two Nigels


No grasshoppers, I am not teasing you with a mind dislocating koan. 

I love how books and meals can telescope ever outward. I’m thinking of how Frances Partridge’s diaries lead me to Selina Hasting’s biography of Partridge’s eccentric traveling companion, the novelist Rosamund Lehmann, and then onto her book The Weather in the Streets.
I’m thinking of my recent adventures in the kitchen. Giving up the fight against insomnia in the wee hours (when are the big hours, BTW?) I listened to a podcast in which Nigel Barden described a pasta dish of pancetta, sage, parsley and chestnuts, mmmm. I’m a big fan of the chestnut, which you can now get roasted, peeled and vacuum packed for those of us deprived of an open fire.

I used smoked bacon in the absence of pancetta. The sage came from the garden of the house I am leaving, which made me sad, but I took the occasion to invest in a pot of parsley I’m hoping will winter in the window of my new home. Definitely a dish worth repeating, but not two nights in a row.

So I turned to another Nigel, Slater this time and his Kitchen Diaries and found “a hearty vegetable supper for a windy evening”. A savoury crumble of courgettes (zucchini to us North Americans) and Lancashire cheese, I had nearly all the ingredients - including the windy evening - but not the walnuts. I was dubious about the walnuts anyway, and I had half a package of chestnuts. 

Weirdly I’ve just remembered another wonderful dish involving chestnuts and brussels sprouts by none other than Nigella Lawson. Is there such a thing as Kitchen Karma? Or is it three degrees of Nigel?


Robert Hughes, In Memoriam 
Robert Hughes, the art critic and writer passed away last month. I learned a great deal from his Shock of the New, which illuminates the historic and political context of modern art and hugely enjoyed his autobiography Things I Didn’t Know. I periodically checked to see if he had finished a second volume. I’m sorry there won’t be one. Then I remembered I had had a copy of The Culture of Complaint for years, but not read it yet. 

Written in the early 1990s, the book is as impressive for its foresight as its wit. Hughes anticipates the current state of the American right with uncanny clarity and provides the most cogent critique of political correctness that I’ve ever read. While Hughes didn’t believe art had any “moral effects” his criticism and analysis are a vaccination against cant and a spur to challenge received opinion. Long may he be read.