Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Let it be a feast

One of the things I loved about being a stay-at-home mom, one of the things that I identified with most strongly, was cooking my family's meals.  I felt personally sustained as I fed them.  It's trite to say, one of the most important ingredients is love, but saying it's trite doesn't make it less true.  I knew that best when my marriage ended, and I spent eight months living with my dad.

In the kitchen, when I was married, my style of cooking wasn't drawn from any particular country or philosophy, but a mirepoix of various people I'd watched and things I'd learned over twenty or more years.  

My mother was Ukrainian, my father was English.  When I was a kid, that usually meant lots of eastern European soul food, pierogies and cabbage rolls and goulash, alternated with large hunks of meat with a side of starch and a green vegetable.  My dad dated an Italian lady after my parents split up, and the first time I cooked with her, age thirteen or so, we made fresh lasagna, from the piles of flour on the table that we kneaded with water and fed through the press to make our own noodles, the gazillions of tomatoes we canned to make sauce, the ricotta and hardboiled eggs and pounds of mozzerella.  His next girlfriend gave me a mostly-vegetarian/alternative cookbook by Jane Brody, which would inform my meat portion choices for the foreseeable future, and my first lesson in home-baked bread.

When I was in university and making more of my own food choices, I was mostly trying to stave off recurrent problems of constipation and anemia.  The constipation started after some minor surgery during first year, and the codeine in the painkillers afterwards, and was a painful vicious circle.  The anemia I came by more naturally - my body just couldn't seem to process iron.  When I was doing my own shopping, I was able to control both much better, upping my raw vegetables intake and lowering my meat consumption.  I was a slave to Crescent Dragonwagon's Soup and Bread cookbook, and invested in my first copy of The Joy of Cooking, an endlessly fascinating resource that twenty years later I still think no kitchen should be without.

Married, I did most of the cooking, and gradually increased the amount of time I spent in the kitchen till it was a huge part of who I was.  I made much of my kids' baby food from scratch, baked probably half the bread we ate, canned peaches and pears in the summer and tomatoes every fall, picked and froze strawberries and blueberries, made raspberry jam and garlic dill pickles, froze bones and vegetable scraps to make my own stock.  When we bought our house, I finally braved my fear of lighting the barbeque and cooked outside all summer, had a kitchen herb garden, grew my own tomatoes from seed, braided my own chilies and garlic wreaths.  The last year I lived with my wasband, I was making my own wine at home too.

Living with my dad when my marriage broke up only emphasized the sense of loss, mourning for the life I used to have.

My brother, as I've mentioned earlier in my still-a-baby blog, was living with my dad around the same time.  While I had veered off preparing gigantic pieces of meat being the centrepiece of a meal a long time prior, my dad had grown up this way, and my brother, like my father, was definitely what I heard referred to once as a meatatarian.  Don't get me wrong, I love a steak or a chicken breast as much as anyone...but the size of steak that would regularly land on my plate at my dad's house would have fed my family of five the way I served it, as an accent as opposed to the main part of the meal.  My dad has this amazing kitchen, with beautiful knives and stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, and watching him buy ready made salads and boil-in-the-bag vegetables to go with the steaks and pork tenderloins and chicken breasts that we ate every night seemed like a complete waste of that beautiful space.  I yearned to make spaghetti sauce or lentil soup and bake my own rolls to wipe the plate or the bowl clean.  They looked at me kindly, but it was pretty obvious they were not into eating what I wanted to cook.

I was grateful to be invited to live in my boss' basement for about six weeks while I looked for a place in the same neighbourhood as my office.  It cut my daily commute from four hours both ways to about fifteen minutes, and I suddenly had a new lease on life, not to mention a whole lot more sleep!  I had a bar fridge and a hot plate, a pot and a frying pan and some assorted cutlery, a couple of plates and glasses and mugs, and I felt like a chef in the best appointed kitchen on the planet.  I was reverent that first night, chopping garlic and green onions and a yellow pepper and sauteeing them with the couple of pieces of leftover salmon and scallops I'd had with my sashimi lunch, along with some white wine and a few grinds of pepper, set aside to cook a couple of handfuls of fusilli.  I ate my pasta with a bowl of baby greens and cherry tomatoes tossed with raspberry vinegar, and felt like I'd regained a little bit of myself.

Two years later, living with my boyfriend, who is a spectacular cook and who also works from home, we have fallen into a routine where it ends up being him who cooks most of the time. not only dinner, but he also spoils me by making and delivering lunch to me nearly every day at work. I eat and deeply appreciate the meals he puts in front of me, but there's no question I feel like I gave something up when I accepted him being the primary cook.  It makes more sense, with the hours I work, but I still felt dissatisfied.  I make a big breakfast every other Sunday when my kids are here, but quite literally, that's about it.

I have a friend who does direct sales for a company called Victorian Epicure, and about four months ago I placed a small order, because I like to support my friends.  On a whim, I bought raspberry vinegar, a couple of earthy uncommon spice blends, and some kaffir lime leaves.  The night she delivered my order, I told her that I really missed spending time in the kitchen, and she was nothing but encouraging.  Go for it, she told me.  You've proved over the last couple of years that you're a fighter and you can do anything you want to.  So...cook!

My boyfriend and I have a running joke.  That was terrible, I'll tell him.  I mean, thanks for feeding me, I appreciate you putting food on the table and everything, but it was really, really awful.  He'll respond by saying, I was aiming for you feeling like it had been eaten once before, so I'll have to try harder next time to thoroughly disgust you.  It's lame, but it's been going on for awhile with no signs of stopping.  I felt gratified when my first foray back into the kitchen, a deep dish double crust chicken pie with onions, carrots, celery and a ton of mushrooms, with a side of buttered potatoes, earned not only the remark, wow, that was beyond gross, but also the confession, this is so bad I'm going to end up making myself sick eating it...after three pieces.

Little successes.  Lasagna, albeit a far cry from my first, with no-bake noodles we inherited when his parents emptied their pantry when they had their kitchen redone, and with sauce I made from commercially canned tomatoes, and garlic bread.  A giant pot of lentil soup, with roasted vegetable stock made from scratch.  Herbed rosemary buns and barbequed sliders with assorted vegetables (asparagus, mushrooms, vidalia onions, cherry tomatoes and broccoli) grilled in a basket.  Cranberry-pineapple-zucchini oatmeal muffins.

Tonight I made carrot-ginger soup - super simple, just garlic, grated fresh ginger, chicken stock, carrots, cumin.  Sautee garlic & ginger, add stock, carrots & cumin.  Cook till carrots are soft.  Puree and serve.   Watching my boyfriend wolf down a third bowl of this warm, deep orange soup , greedily swiping slice after slice of rye bread and raw broccoli around the edges to catch the last drips, I had the sensation again that I had finally taken a little of myself back again.

If my life is a journey, let it be a feast.

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