Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Most Important Meal, Or When Will it Be Morning?

Matthew Arnold of darkling plain fame used the term “touchstones” for moments of excellence in literature. I have touchstone moments in books, movies and life, ones that ring viscerally true. One is in Casablanca. Ilsa in a state of emotional exhaustion tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for both of them. Our situations aren’t quite comparable. No Nazis around (that I know of) and happily I have a valid passport, but I have wished for someone to spell me with my emotional knapsack. I miss my dad. 
He gave me my first cooking lesson. Breakfast, and not just any breakfast, the full English: eggs cooked in the fat from the bacon, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms and a “fried slice”. Such is this meal’s fame that in Amsterdam pubs feel it's important not only to offer an English breakfast but to publicize that it is “cooked by an Englishman”. One pub felt it necessary to underscore this point with a supplementary sign guaranteeing an “Englishman on Duty”.
Well, in that case, fire up the toaster! In one of several pieces that are honestly unfinished, dishonestly “in progress”, I have a character who breakfasts himself out of depression. He eats breakfast three times a day until he’s ready to start again. I remember being 17 and heartbroken over a story I’d written. I’d got a great mark on it, but as I told my dad, “I put everything I know in that story.” I was written out. Dad removed his pipe long enough to growl, “Sandra, it’s not just the bad things in life that repeat themselves.”
I clutch that touchstone in the dark hours. It gets me through until it’s time for breakfast. 
Canadian, eh?
Canadians like to imagine we are hardy survivors, who according to Pierre Berton know how to make love in canoes. In fact most of us live in urban centres clustered along the 49th parallel and don’t know our J stroke from a J cloth. 
It is my long held belief that camping is simply housework in the worst possible circumstances. My lack of wood lore made me as uncomfortable as a rainy night in a pup tent when I came to resume work on a mystery set in northern Ontario circa 1960. This is how I came to read Cache Lake Country, Life in the North Woods by John J. Rowlands, illustrated by Henry B. Kane.
Originally published in 1947, the language is self-consciously quaint (animals are critters and aboriginals of few words) and yet it still feels artless because it has the random flow of a diary with no thought to segues. Rowlands takes us thorough a year month by month, sharing his observations of flora and fauna and giving advice on how to stay warm, fed and dry. 
He explains how to make moccasins, how to purify murky water and provides several recipes including one for salting blueberries. He tells you which species of woods are best for various paddling conditions: spruce for flat water, maple or ash for rapids. The optimum rate for sustained travel is 25 strokes per minute. But before you fall into the temptation of double entendre, this is a chaste and manly book. The only women folk are aunts and sisters who live at a distance and send useful packages of tinned goods.  

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