Ned Stark was right. Winter did come. And now, the Oscars are coming.
I’ve noticed over the past few years how Oscar-watching has become trendy, shows like LIVE! with Kelly and Michael (that I might happen to watch every morning) have started to feature segments on how to host an Oscar-themed viewing party, with suggestions like red carpets, popcorn bars, Oscar bingo and movie-themed food; for example, cheese fondue inspired by one of this year’s nominees for Best Picture, the 70s era Argo. It’s great that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon–why not? There is something deliciously indulgent about hosting a party–on a Sunday night, no less–that revolves entirely around the glorification of Hollywood. But as someone who has been a devoted watcher of Oscars since before it was mainstream popular, I can’t help but feel a little territorial. The Oscars are serious business, not just another occasion for throwing a party, so if you’re gonna do it, do it with respect. It’s been with the help of awards shows like the Oscars that men and women of different ages, races and ethnicities have been able to break through prejudices, paving the way for following generations. It’s because of the Oscars that the true art form that is filmmaking is preserved, celebrated and the best of the best are encouraged to keep going for our entertainment. It’s because of the Oscars that women everywhere now know the difference between Neil Lane and Fred Leighton, and can spot a Marchesa dress a mile away. Essentially, it’s because of the Oscars that us mere mortals, for one night of the year, can feel like we’re a part of something fun, fabulous and glamourous.
That’s why four years ago Ace and I decided to start hosting an Oscars party (note: before it became trendy). The first year, we invited everyone we knew, many of whom showed up. We made passed hors d’oeuvres like lamb chop lollypops, shrimp skewers and cheese-stuffed pastries. The gist of it was simple: Everyone had to throw $5 bucks into a pot, and whoever had the most correct picks won the pot. The first year we had a few gamblers in our midst and a friend bought the picks of another friend who had a chance at winning based on the early rounds. That wily friend who bought the picks went home with over $70 bucks, most of which went towards a cab home. I was jealous, considering we’d spent $70 bucks alone on the lamb.
The next year, Ace and I had moved in together to a decidedly smaller place yet invited around the same amount of people. This was a big mistake, especially since one of the invitees took the Oscars more seriously than even I do and kept shooshing my guests anytime anyone spoke. But that didn’t matter because we had secretly driven to the country the day before to get our beloved puppy, Charlie. It was so much fun to surprise everyone as they came through the door with the newest addition to our family.
Last year our Oscars party consisted of only two: Ace and myself. We were coming off a raucous weekend at Blue Mountain and no one felt like making the trip downtown (for our friends in the North) or staying up late, again, with work the following morning. It was nice, but lacking the celebratory feel I’ve come to enjoy.
This year, we’re aiming to get it right. We’ll be serving food, but not premium lamb cuts. I’m thinking turkey chili with a variety of toppings to mix and match: cheese, jalapenos, chopped veggies…but elevated a bit, to make it Oscar-worthy. I might look into a few of the suggestions seen this morning (the idea of buying a red carpet is kind of hard to resist). The rules still apply: $5 a person and whoever gets the most correct picks wins the pot. Most importantly, we’ve got the right mix of people: our dearest friends who enjoy watching, and take it for what it is–but not too seriously.
I realize that my friends have probably wondered over the course of the past few years why it is I am so bent on keeping this tradition alive. In all likelihood, it will become even harder as our group moves on to the next phase and the babies start coming. But for now, I can’t help but revel in the joy the little girl inside of me feels when the music starts to play and the movie stars, young and old, are paraded across the screen for my viewing pleasure, surrounded by people I love to hang out with. There is something timeless about it, making me think about what it must have been like to watch so many years ago when Gone With The Wind swept the Oscars and the first black woman, Hattie McDaniel who played Mamie in the movie, won for Best Supporting Actress. Imagine watching that?! I’m reminded of so many Sunday nights over the years, watching with my mother, or my grandparents if I was spending the night at their house. The wonder and imagination that captured my child’s mind, allowing me to picture what it would be like if I ever got up there to make my own acceptance speech: who I’d thank, who I’d leave out. Would I cry?
My chosen career path in the world of literature has its own awards, certainly, but very few directions I take can lead me to an exalted place like that of the golden statue. But then again, that’s the magic of the Oscars: you never know what will happen!
If you are anything like me, despite the frigid temperatures and horrid driving conditions that come with it, you believe that if it has to be winter there might as well be snow. I hate that the last few Christmases have not been white and believe that if I’m going to live in Canada, I want to reap full benefit of four distinct seasons. So, with that said, it was to my great delight that this week the Gods decided to throw me a bone and it snowed and snowed and snowed. It has been consistently -10 or colder since Tuesday and despite the fact that my face is so red it looks like someone took a scouring pad to it and the skin is flaking off in random patches, I couldn’t be happier.
In my house, our meals are dictated by our mood and the season. Accordingly, when the snow came on Tuesday, the hubby and I decided we needed an appropriate meal to accompany the wonderful weather. I remembered that awhile back we’d purchased a few pounds of beef short ribs, now lingering in the freezer, in anticipation of such a day. I decided they were the perfect way to celebrate one of the things I like best about winter, which is the excuse it gives you to stay inside and eat cozy, comforting meals.
Perusing our cookbooks, I decided to check out what Mario Batali had to say about short ribs. Molto Italiano is not my cookbook, it’s my husband’s. While I have great reverence for what Batali does, I find his cookbooks intimidating. Even this one, with it’s subtitle reading “Simple Italian Recipes To Cook At Home”, is anything but. His methods, ingredients and even the knife cuts are a little too exacting for my tastes–to the point that I had to get out the measuring tape to make sure the ribs were cut into 3 inch cubes, the onions diced into 1/4 inch pieces. But what hooked me about the recipe I eventually decided on despite my reservations–Shortribs in Barolo–was the fact that it called to cook the ribs in Barolo and also drink Barolo while eating it. What’s not to love about a recipe that gives you permission to indulge?
I decided that since the wine was the star of our meal, I should probably read about what it was I was actually drinking. Dusting off my trusty copy of Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible I relished flipping through the pages that described the Piedmont region of the Italy section. Barolo, it told me, is made from the robust and austere nebbiolo grape that makes tannic wines sometimes accused of being too powerful, which is also the reason people love it. The introduction to Barolo begins with this: “Close your eyes and imagine it is evening in the dark foothills of the Alps: A fire crackles in the hearth of a stone farmouse; game is being roasted slowly in the oven. Wine in this setting becomes more than a beverage. It is solace.”
She had me at ‘Close your eyes’.
The marriage of wine and this particular cut of meat was indeed solace. After braising for 2 hours in the wine and a simple tomato sauce, along with the holy trinity of carrots, onions and celery, we dug in to a meal that warmed the cockles made it clear why this is a wine to drink and a meal to eat on a cold winter’s day.
And the leftovers were even better.
Here’s to winter, to wine and to grown up snow days. Cheers!
When I was a little girl, I loved going to the library. Whereas other children might have longed for the toy store, the video game store or the mall, I got bored and very tired at those places in a short period of time. But the library was somewhere I could spend hours in, and I did. Back in Richmond Hill where I grew up, there used to be a small public library in an 80′s style brick building. Everything about it was brown: brown on the outside and brown on the inside, with brown shelves, brown tiled stairs, brown banisters, and beige-brown carpeting. It was one of the most comforting places in the world for me and I was very sad when they abandoned it for a new, multi-level structure that was “modern” and traded in cozy brown for cool gray. Before the change, on weekends my mother and I would head to the small library to trade in our old books for new ones. It was the best! I could take out as many as I wanted and after perusing the shelves and reading excerpts of the ones I thought I would like, I would leave with at least 5, maybe more, and usually got through most of them by the time we next visited the library. This satisfied my insatiable need to devour as many books as possible. Best of all, it posed no pressure. If I didn’t like a book, I didn’t have to read it and could move on to the next. It also offered the chance to happen upon new and wondrous stories that I felt pride in discovering all on my own.
I no longer go to the library to take out books. I don’t know when I stopped, but I suspect it was sometime between when they changed the library’s location to the hideous gray building and when the ubiquitous Indigo chain took over and that became the new fun thing to do. My mother and I traded in our library-lending habit for a book-buying habit. It was a novelty then, and even now I have to admit I love spending time in Indigo with a cup of something from the in-house Starbucks, listening to jazz or whatever soothing music is playing over the speakers, and perusing the shelves for my next great read. The problem and the difference is that, unlike with the library books where I could take out as many as my heart desired and it didn’t matter if I happened to take out a dud, with Indigo visits I’m actually investing my very own money. Sure, I could still go to the library, there is nothing stopping me. Or one of the second-hand, smaller bookstores scattered around the city. But Indigo is close and I don’t mind supporting the publishing industry at full price with my funds. It’s just that, because I am spending my money, I need the book to be a good one. I am not interested in spending money on a dud, and I am really not interested in haggling with the slightly angry cashier about why it’s okay that I’m returning a book after reading nearly half of it (I’ve done this, and it is not pleasant).
Enter: Heather’s Picks. Even as I write this, I hear the groans of literature buffs and anti-establishment readers across the globe. I should be looking elsewhere, heading for the classics, old and new, that don’t need to be grouped under a huge poster of a blonde-headed CEO to signify their greatness. And I do–sometimes. But other times, when all I want is a story that I can literally melt into, that grips me to the point where I’m not sure whether I live in Toronto circa now or Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920s, Heather has got the skinny on good reads. At least, she has in the past.
For nearly a month and a half now, I’ve dragged my dog Charlie into the Indigo at Bay and Bloor while on one of our daily walks to see if something new and interesting has appeared under the big head of Heather displayed on the poster above her picks. There are a few offerings: a book about Leonard Cohen (who I know I should care about and be interested in, as a Canadian among other things, but I’m not), something about a hare and its amber eyes, and a few others that I’ve judged and dismissed purely by the front and back cover copy. And the rest have been there for nearly a year, if not longer, and I’ve read most of them. Out of sheer desperation, I finally settled on two new ones: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich and Inside by Alex Ohlin. I’m halfway through Midwife and while it is eminently readable and rather engrossing, it’s just not something I would rave about or remember long after the book is done. In fact, with all the darkness the author describes, of pulling babies out of mothers’ wombs by ripping their limbs off and other such things, I find I’m having trouble sleeping after I put it down. Kudos to the author for writing such a realistic tale of fiction, but it’s not exactly my cup of tea. It remains to be seen about Inside, but I fear that Heather might have lost her touch. That, or there’s just not much out there at the moment that fits in line with the stuff I love to read.
Which brings me to the gems I have found amongst Heather’s picks that, had I discovered them on my own among the shelves at the old library, without any marketing to prompt me, I would have literally crowed about my finds with pride from the rooftop. If you’re into non-fiction/biography, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls haunts me–in a good way–to this day, as she retells the story of her life in poverty and the struggle to rise out of it with unflinching honesty and humility. Who can forget Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes? One of the few books in my lifetime of reading that has actually made me cry. But the ultimate, indisputable, great Heather-pick of all time has to be Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the true story of the life of an ordinary guy named Louis Zamperini who lived the most extraordinary life one could ever hope to think up, let alone actually live. It was the perfect amalgamation of everything I’ve ever wanted to read in a book: a story so compelling it sucks you in and you can’t–won’t–put it down unless absolutely necessary; a true story that reads as good as fiction, if not better; a story that teaches you, inspires you, and makes you sad when you hit the last page and it has to end; a story that, despite all the success to be found in the research, accuracy and attempt to do justice to the life of the subject, it is at its heart still just a story, but a really great one.
The only thing that Oprah and I have in common is that we both love to give books as gifts when we stumble on a great one. I’ve passed Unbroken along to a few people, my husband included. I was finally able to convince that this was one of the few books we could mutually enjoy, our tastes running in complete opposite directions. Without fail, anyone who reads it has the same reaction: “I can’t believe this is real”. Well, as all great, larger-than-life stories do, this one finally and not surprisingly caught the attention of Hollywood and is going to be made into a movie, directed by none other than Angelina Jolie (really?!) as I discovered in a story forwarded me by my father in law: http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/unbroken-incredible-life-louis-zamperini-025425007.html
So, am I just lazy, relying on Heather for my next great read rather than my own instincts? Have I lost that thing that I had as a kid, that made me enjoy hunting for the book as much as reading the thing itself? Maybe. Times have changed, my life has certainly changed and I guess I’ve given in more than I like to admit to the ease of Indigo culture. But, in the end, I suspect my goal and Heather’s are the same: to find a story that moves me. That moves us.
This Christmas will be my first Christmas as a MARRIED LADY. I’m still finding it strange and funny every time I say or write the word “husband”, so much so in fact that this week I tried to revert back to referring to Ace as my boyfriend…he wasn’t having it. So, whether I like it or not, I’m married now and with that and the fact that today is the Winter Solstice (or, the end of the world) I’m finding cause for reflection on Christmases past, present and future; from my time as a child, when I still believed in Santa Claus, to a teen and young adult when life was so topsy-turvy that the last thing I cared about was Santa Claus, to now, as a married woman on the cusp of the second trimester of my life, where I have come full circle to believe in Santa Claus again, because I think life is just a little more fun with him in it. Christmas is about tradition, rituals and doing the same thing every year because that’s just what you do. And now that Eug and I are laying down the foundation for our own family, deciding on what traditions to keep and which to let go, I’ve realized that, more than anything, my Christmas traditions revolve almost entirely around movies.
Growing up, movies were a huge part of my life, and they still are. I am the only person under the age of 50 that I know of who loves watching the Turner Classic Movie channel. If I hadn’t been so shy, I likely would have moved to L.A. as a young teen to try to make it as an actress, whittling myself down to 105 lbs and taking on scripts that called for awkward and inappropriate sex scenes that would ultimately garner me an Oscar nomination. But as I said, I was shy, so my way around that was to watch the movies other people acted in, to immerse myself in the stories, learn from them, sometimes even imitate them, and then from there, become a writer of my own stories in the hopes of selling the rights of my best seller to a Steven Spielberg-type, who would then turn my book into a movie, which would of course garner an Oscar nomination. And then, at the very least, I’d get to walk the red carpet.
My grandfather was a projectionist at Famous Players, so I came by my love of the cinema honestly. When my mother was a little girl, he used to bring her with him to work and she would get to see all the films that we now call classics as many times as she wanted to. After decades of service with Famous Players, when the landscape of film, the big studio system and all the prestige and magic that went along with it had given way to a new age, he retired. But that didn’t stop his love of the “pictures” as he called them and so, every weekend that I spent with him and my Granny, he took me to see a show just as he had my mother. He would proudly pull out his discount card that showed he was a former member of the Famous Players team. Invariably, my grandfather would chat up the young, pimple-faced ticket booth operator, inquiring of former colleagues of his with names like “Rocket” or “Bugsy” who had also long-since retired or passed on. But it made him feel good to be connected with that world again, to remind the young fella’ in the booth that he was once a great projectionist, part of the Golden Age, to show that he knew people. Between the efforts of my Papa (as my grandfather was so nicknamed, though to this day I don’t know why) and my mother, I’d seen many of the classics by the time I was ten: Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Women, Some Like It Hot, An American in Paris, all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals…to name only a few. I didn’t really understand what was going on in them, not in the same way that I do as an adult, but still, they somehow made sense to me and I was exposed very early to themes of love, sacrifice and honour, which have shaped me as a person and are also the reason why for many years friends would comment on the fact that I spoke like someone from a different time, a different century even. It was as though long after the movie had ended, I was still living in those places, with those characters on the screen, and I relished in all of it.
When it came to Christmas it was no different. The movies characterized every part of the holidays for me. It’s a Wonderful Life was an early favourite, but new ones came to be an integral part of our tradition as well. I remember helping my mother wrap presents watching the claymation version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I now own it and watch it every year as I wrap the final few gifts to put under the tree. Mickey’s Christmas Carol is an animated, shorter version of the Dickens tale that is, in my opinion, the absolute best version of the story. The first time I saw it was in the theatre with my Granny, who was born and raised as a child in Scotland and so especially got a kick out of the Scottish Mr. Scrooge, which played on the stereotypical miserly old Scot. Not a year goes by that I don’t watch it and tear up when Scrooge McDuck finally realizes the error of his ways.
One of my family’s all-time favourites is the hilarious, A Christmas Story, which my parents in particular get a kick out of because it reminds them so much of their own childhood. We watch it every year, after dinner on Christmas day, when we are so stuffed the only conceivable action is to lie in front of the television in varying stages of food-induced comas. One year, we tried introducing a new Christmas movie after dinner: Bad Santa, with Billy Bob Thornton, a crude and lewd Christmas story that I don’t recall having anything resembling a moral to it. That Christmas, my mother was so offended she went to bed early and Bad Santa did not make a return appearance at our festivities.
When Eug started coming around for Christmas, it was like new life had been breathed into our traditions because I was seeing them through his eyes,as though for the first time. He marvelled at how many presents we had under the tree on Christmas morning (so much so that his particular enjoyment of this tradition made it into his wedding speech). We introduced him to all of our favourite Christmas movies that he’d never before seen, his experience having been limited to Home Alone.
In looking back on it all, my family traditions over years gone by have melded together and shaped what Eug and I have started together as our own little family. The first weekend of December, we head over to the Summerhill nursery with Charlie in tow and pick out a tree. Without fail, each year Eug declares “This is our best tree yet!”, which reminds me of my father who used to say the exact same thing when we would bring home our own fresh tree (my parents now stick with a perfectly formed fake one). We head home, open a bottle of red wine and put on Love Actually while we decorate the condo in preparation for our annual Christmas party. Throughout the month of December, in no particular order, we watch: Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, The Santa Clause, Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Mickey’s Christmas Carol, all while wrapping presents and cooking various comforting, wintery dishes. We save the best for last on Christmas Eve, when we head out to the Church of the Redeemer at Bloor and Avenue to listen to the carollers (the one and only religious event we partake of all year) and then head back home to order a pizza and watch Home Alone, heading off to bed afterwards with full tummies and the presents all ready to go for when we drive home to my parents’ the next day.
I wonder how things will build and take shape as the years go by, what new movies will become an integral part of our holidays, whether our children will like the ones we grew up on or if they will have new favourites of their own. I am filled with the spirit of the season that has less to do with gift giving and more to do with time spent with family and friends, loved ones remembered and new memories to be made. Even though it has been many years since they passed, because of the love and enjoyment of the season instilled in me that is inextricably linked to the movies we watched together, I can still recall what it felt like to crawl up on the couch beside my Granny and Papa, secure in their warmth, my parents making last-minute preparations as we watched some Christmas film, enveloped in the magic of the holiday and the world on the screen in front of us. And I am grateful.
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Until next time, in 2013…
Fair warning: today’s post will be short and perhaps even a bit incoherent. I’m on a few hours of sleep thanks to Mr. Ace snoring through a head cold over the past few days, that he so generously passed on to me sometime Tuesday evening. I’ve also tried to make a dent in my Christmas shopping since yesterday afternoon, cold notwithstanding; a little here, a little there, so that if anything, I don’t wake up one day next week in a panic realizing I still have to buy 875 gifts.
Despite these seemingly dismal aspects of the week, it’s not been so bad. I can’t really complain when my husband, even in all his grumpy-snore-face-sneezing-ness, stays home for 2 days straight and we can hang out together. Bonus! And Christmas shopping on Bloor Street is relatively painless, heightened by bursts of fresh air when you leave one store to go on to the next. The thing that I can say has darkened our days is that we finished the last episode of the last season of The West Wing on Sunday night. I feel as though some of my very dear friends, namely POTUS, CJ, Toby, Leo and Josh and Donna (who FINALLY bone in the 7th season), have fallen off the face of the earth and left me hanging.
Since October, every spare moment we’ve had to relax has been devoted to ploughing through all seven seasons. Years from now when I look back on the first few months of my marriage, the overriding thing that I will remember is watching The West Wing. This would not be so remarkable for others. But in my case, for the most un-politically oriented person on the planet, to not only understand but actually enjoy a political drama is a huge feat for the writers of the show, for my husband who convinced me to watch it, and also for me, for giving it a try.
Politics used to scare me. In fact, they still do. For whatever reason, we were not taught current politics in the formative years of my public education. We touched on certain prime ministers, certain historic events of government, but it wasn’t until recently that I even knew we had a Senate in Canada. I of course can’t blame this entirely on the school system. I’ve never had much interest in the subject so I never chose it as part of my electives, and unless I need to brush up on a major situation, it’s not something I follow in the newspapers. Mostly, if I need to know what’s going on in the country with Stephen Harper and Dalton McGuinty and lots of other people whose names I know but not much more, I ask my Mom to fill me in because she makes it actually sound interesting. There, I admitted it.
As for American politics, they’ve always seemed a little less confusing, probably due to the fact that the system is often covered in the movies and is certainly highly exposed on the North American news scene. Despite my marginal grasp on governmental goings on in the US of A, never have I ever used Wikipedia so much as when watching this show to try to figure out the difference between Senate and Congress, what the heck a filibuster is, and to decipher the slew of acronyms for all of the different organizations. But even with all of that, a non-politico such as myself was able to get right into it thanks to the high-level accessibility of Aaron Sorkin’s writing (who then gave way for new writers by the 5th season that carried on reasonably well) and the humanity they attached to every situation.
I cried when the final episode ended. And I was completely moved by the show in its entirety. This might sound silly, crying and being moved by a television show. But I’m reminded of the first time a book made me cry. It was the second instalment in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Dragonfly in Amber. The two main characters were about to be separated by a span of 200 years and I remember sitting on the four-poster bed in my old bedroom in my parents’ house and bawling my face off, imagining what it would be like to live in their shoes. I have since then cried only a handful of times when reading a book and even more rarely do I cry when watching television. So for me, it really is an amazing achievement when something that is fake, made up, fiction, induces real emotion. It’s not silly, because from the depths of a writer’s imagination we the audience are made to think, question, escape, learn and empathize. TWW certainly did that for me. I now know more about politics than I would have otherwise and it made me feel a little bit less apathetic to the daily ins and outs of national and global circumstances.
I highly, highly recommend revisiting this classic show if you didn’t catch it while it originally aired or you’ve been avoiding it for reasons akin to my own. In fact, I’ll sell you my old DVDs!
And with that, I’ll sign off to go recoup some of my brain matter and get through the rest of the day.
When my husband and I started dating almost four years ago, food was the medium through which we got to know each other and eventually fell in love (although he maintains he fell in love with me much earlier when, at a mutual friend’s party, I took a pause in our deep conversation to do a keg stand). Friday nights were spent exploring Toronto’s culinary scene; Saturday mornings were spent at the St. Lawrence Market, perusing the various butchers and cheese mongers to decide on that night’s dinner, which usually involved inviting over friends who we could experiment on and show off in front of. Much of our travels have almost entirely revolved around food and wine. The photos of our most recent trip to Scotland and Italy reflect this in abundance, to the dismay of Facebook friends, whose comments are generally some version of “Why are you not fat?” A fair question.
You can discover a great deal about a person through cooking: what they’re like under pressure, the level of attention they pay to detail, their organization skills, their conversation style. I discovered that my husband (then boyfriend) was a complete disaster in the kitchen, using pretty much every pot and pan he could get his hands on. He couldn’t talk while cooking because he was not able to do both at once, even if one required nothing more than verbalization. His organizational skills were naught. Often we would have the main course finished and getting cold before the appetizers were done, and it usually took about 3 hours to cook even the simplest of meals (all the while, our poor friends were sitting around, wondering why they accepted the invitation when they could have just gone out for pizza). While I (who had been cooking for myself since I discovered that frying tilapia in a skillet was a fast, cheap and waistline friendly way to feed myself in university) preferred not to work from a recipe step by step but would rather take the basic premise and run with it, Eugene knew only one way to cook, and that was to follow the recipe EXACTLY. If I said “Let’s just throw a salad together” he would look at me, completely nonplussed, and very quickly hand over the task.
The debate of recipe versus no recipe came about again while on honeymoon. Before leaving, I’d purchased a book for him, called How to Cook Like a Man by Daniel Duane. I tried to read the book myself but couldn’t get through it because all the guy talked about was his fanatic obsession with working his way through the canon of cookbooks and how misunderstood he was for needing to use a recipe, something he viewed as an almost sacred undertaking. I just couldn’t relate (and the writing was not awesome). Eugene, on the other hand, laughed out loud the whole time he was reading it and “totally got it”. I quizzed him as to why following a recipe was such an integral part of cooking for these men, and he explained it to me in this way: “I don’t know what things are supposed to taste like, and I don’t know how they are supposed to get there. I know that salad dressing has oil and vinegar, but I don’t know the proportions of each, and if I guessed, I’d screw it up.” This made sense to me. I also realized that the only reason I knew things like ratios of salad dressing components and other fundamentals of cooking was through practice, the constant repetition of cooking from Monday to Friday and Sunday night (filling in the other days with take-out or dine-out), something he didn’t have.
Getting back to real life after the honeymoon meant a return to the weekly routine of cooking and lunch making, a job that, unless incapacitated, falls to me. In our house, we have a rather traditional division of labour that works well for us: I am the cook, laundress, cleaning lady and homemaker who spends the time in between building a writing career; he brings home the bacon, takes out the garbage/recycling and walks the dog. At first, after the hullabaloo of wedding and honeymoon, I was really excited to get back to the normalcy of weekly cooking, but I soon got bored. It’s true that I rarely make the same thing twice, unless it’s a house favourite (fish tacos, beef stew and pasta with garlic and olive oil among the top choices) and this is because, as the one who does the job day in and day out, I have chef ADD. My mind and my stomach need to be constantly stimulated in order to stave off the apathy that threatens to overtake and result in my just ordering Swiss Chalet. The boredom came sooner than I’d expected and so I challenged myself: I would take a page from Eug’s book and try cooking from recipes. No substitutions, no adding my own flair, no improvising if I didn’t have an ingredient. Down to the letter.
I realized very quickly that I was not up to the task of working through a book like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I own, but generally shy away from due to its daunting size and convoluted recipes. I was reminded of a dish my mother-in-law made and I’d devoured: french beans with hazelnuts and crème fraîche, taken from Laura Calder’s French Taste. If you don’t know who that is, she is a chef and star of The Food Network’s French Food at Home. She’s the one that, despite not being a native of France, has a near-perfect accent that initially fooled me and whose enthusiasm and penchant for capturing the essence of French culture and cooking in an accessible way is uncanny. On a more recent trip to the MIL’s house, she made another one of Laura’s dishes, a tian of provençal vegetables, that was equally scrumptious. I’d found my book.
For the past 3 weeks I’ve been cooking my way through French Taste, and staying true to my goal of following her recipes without exception. So far, I’ve gone through the following dishes with varying levels of success:
Chèvre Salad: Resounding success! How can you not love goat cheese rounds wrapped in bacon?
Cocotte Eggs: Absolutely delicious and so easy to make. Eggs cracked in a ramekin with smoked salmon and crème fraîche then tossed in the oven. Easy peasy.
Mushroom Parmentier: A vegetarian version of Shepperd’s pie that uses browned mushrooms as it’s base.
Halibut Poached in Herb and Citrus Olive Oil: If you have a huge vat of excess olive oil like we did, this is a great use of it and quite simple.
Pepper Steak: Beef tenderloin with wine soaked peppercorns and, again, crème fraîche. Made even better if you have good quality meat.
Provençal Rack of Lamb: A super easy lamb recipe if you’re afraid of making things like lamb, which I am.
Tian of Provençal Vegetables: Kind of a disaster, not nearly as good as my MIL’s.
Green Beans with Hazelnuts and Crème Fraîche: Delicious, and almost as good as my MIL’s.
Warm Fennel Salad with Olives, Pine Nuts, and Orange: This is for anyone who thinks they don’t like fennel. Trust me, you do.
Nutty Pasta: One of the few vegetarian recipes you will find in the French repertoire, this is healthy and full of nut protein. And easy.
As far as cookbook’s go, I think that this is a good one, if not a perfect one. As I’ve indicated, the recipes are varying degrees of easy but a certain foundation of cooking and knife skills are required to read between the lines. In fact, with certain recipes I wondered if they’d even been tested, as there seemed to be steps missing here and there that a novice-ish cooked would have completely fumbled. I suspect this is more of an unfortunate result of copy editing rather than anything else, but a definite problem. I also found that the cook times were not long enough and the oven temperatures were slightly off, but this is to be expected as every oven is different. And, as you may have noted, you need to be prepared to invest in crème fraîche, a thicker, tangier version of sour cream. And is double the price. If you enjoy French food and are looking to find a way to cook it without getting in completely over your head, this book is a great choice, especially for weekday cooking. Ms. Calder also adds in little extras about “French life” to complement the food sections, such as the importance of a good apéritif and how the French approach wine with food.
What I’ve discovered on my journey is that, first and foremost, my husband is well-fed. As far as following recipes goes, I must admit, I’m a bit of a convert. This is not to say that I think following a recipe is preferable to cooking freestyle, but there is some comfort in having it all laid out for you. Grocery shopping is much more organized, especially if you know what you want to cook that week, a task made easy when you can choose from a plethora of recipes all found in one book; and while I’m not as harried a cook as my husband, following a recipe took much of the flurry out of the experience, which was welcome on the days when I felt so tired I just needed to get through it in a clean and efficient manner. Mostly, I learned that the fun of following a recipe is seeing what you read on the page come to life right in front of your eyes, from your very own hands, an added bonus found in the food actually tasting good.
In the debate of recipe versus non-recipe, Kitchen Nightmares: Allison versus Eugene, I have to say that I now land somewhere in the middle, have come to an entendre of sorts. So I guess what they say is true: marriage really is about compromise.
I haven’t read What To Expect When You’re Expecting–I’ve had no reason to, since I’m not expecting. I have seen the movie though, and it was fun. Why am I talking about this? Well, recently it has come to my attention that I am not the only one to find herself in a particular situation, in which one by one it seems that everyone, good friends, cousins and other relatives, is either pregnant or recently delivered of a blessed child. I used to think I was the only one for whom babies and pregnancy were a complete mystery. As an only child, and the youngest except for 2 cousins from a large family on both sides, I was never around babies because I was the baby; had no brothers or sisters to help diaper, and the only memory I have of taking care of my younger cousin was when I accidentally let her slide off the bed at our grandparents’ house and she hit her head on the concrete floor of the basement, a secret I only recently divulged to the family for fear that I had damaged her (she is, in fact, completely intact and a lovely young woman, so phew).
But in talking to my other non-pregnant friends and family, I’ve realized this is a world of mystery for many people. I keep hearing a phrase repeated that I’ve proclaimed a good many times myself, which is, ”I don’t really know anything about babies, this is the first time someone close to me has been pregnant”. It occurs to me that there are books to prepare couples for first-time parenthood; there are books to prepare newly-minted parents for what comes after. But there is no resource to help prepare the people around the new parents for what to expect…while they are expecting, and beyond. And, if you are a good friend or close relative, you can’t avoid wanting to help, wanting to know what’s going on so that, if anything, you can avoid asking the very inane question,”How are you?” that will elicit an equally nondescript response.
I myself was thrown in and had to learn on my feet a few years ago, and have been collecting knowledge and tips to help me ever since. For those of you in the non-expectant phase and who are slowly becoming surrounded by babies, I thought it worthwhile to impart what knowledge I have gleaned so that, if anything, you might appear a little less “deer in the headlights” when your BFF hands you the little squealing person that, up until a few days ago, resided inside of her.
While the person is pregnant, your first reaction, which will likely last for many months, or even until after the baby is born, is going to be one of awe. It’s weird and feels like some kind of paranormal activity has occurred when you start to see the belly grow and realize that this person who you used to play dolls with, watch movies with, get drunk with, is now a vessel for another human being. It’s okay to feel weird about it, because I promise you, she feels even weirder. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to get to know the bump. They will prefer your interest to disinterest at every stage, no matter how clueless you are.
Prepare to become well-versed in the debate of C-section versus natural delivery. You will discover that with a C-section, the downside is that you can’t really move or lift anything for weeks after the baby is born, but the upside is that you get everything brought to you and don’t have to deal with stitches…down there. Ideally, most women would prefer to give birth the old-fashioned way just to experience it, but this is when scary words like “episiotomy” start floating around your vocabulary, a procedure that has become a particular fear of mine.
Once the baby is born, you will become very familiar with the state of your person’s nipples, if they are trying to breastfeed, which you will discover is not as easy as they make it seem in the movies. It’s so hard! Not every baby will take to it, and even if they do, it is a very trying period for the mother. It will become clear as to why high-born ladies for many hundreds of years hired nursemaids to feed their babies. They couldn’t take the time to deal with that when they had to get ready for a ball.
Everything will change, and it’s okay that everything will change. Get-togethers for the first few months will be difficult to arrange. It takes at least 2 hours to get out the door for a new mother, and once they do, almost immediately the baby will need to be changed or start to cry. Topics of discussion, priorities, everything shifts. But that’s the best part! You are getting to experience a whole new way of life without the sleepless nights.
On that note, you are going to want to help and are going to realize very quickly that there is not much you can do except be there, to talk to, to hang out with while the kid is sleeping or feeding. So do that. Just be there, be normal, because you are likely one of the few things in their life that still is.
What I’ve discovered more than anything is that, if you are in and around your childbearing years, you will start thinking about having your own baby. What it would be like, what you would do or not do, when you want to have one. Or, in my case, if you want to have one. For many years, I thought that I did not want to have children. Not because I didn’t like them, but because I was too scared I’d screw them up somehow and I couldn’t justify having children just for the sake of procreation; I was pretty sure the world could survive without my genetic proliferation. I was content to just have dogs, which are like perpetual babies anyway.
Then, when the right person came along, I realized that I did want to have babies, a family to call my own, especially if it meant the babies would be little versions of him. But it seemed such a long way off that I didn’t really ponder it beyond that. And now here I am again…babies, babies everywhere, and I find myself needing a reason. With the ups and downs of my health over the last years, I’m frankly terrified of what would happen to me on only 2 hours of sleep at a time. I’m almost certain I’d become a terrible zombie-monster hybrid and would definitely look like something someone dragged out of a swamp. Would I be able to handle it? The other night, I pressed my new-ish husband with a flurry of questions: Why do we even want to have children? What if they’re awful and mean? We’re certainly going to spend less time together. What if we fight all the time, or worse, start to hate each other? If we have to spend all of our time going between school and soccer practice and doctor’s appointments we will lose the thing that makes us “us”! More importantly, what if they turn out to be serial killers?
He listened patiently as he does when I go on these panicked rants from time to time. When I’d finished, he responded simply with, “And what if they bring us the greatest joy we’ve ever known?”
Good enough reason for me.
So, my friends of friends with babies and relatives of relatives who are expecting, I leave you with this: Don’t panic. Expect that, even though it’s not your baby, and it’s not your time, this is an experience you can learn from, share in, and then rest your head at night knowing that when and if the day comes that you decide to go down this road, you’ll be all the richer for having stood by, watching as everyone else did it first.