I knew what I was giving up with alcohol. I had a fabulous education in wine. And I liked getting drunk.
Growing up in Niagara, I knew grapes as the delicious fruit bought at the Saturday morning market in Welland or Hamilton. Then, it was mostly Italians growing them for wine. Good earth and lush green vines under a cornmeal-yellow sun.
I was taught wine tasting by Billy Munnelly at the Stratford Chefs School. It's hard to express how much I learned. Fuck. Like a fantastic Irish conversationalist, he talked to us about the grape and gave us a thirst to imagine the relationship with food. It left an imprint on me.
Giving up drink was an acute loss. It felt like a funeral. Initially, I thought I might have to say goodbye to cooking and restaurants. I cried so hard with my addiction counsellor about that. Who was I without those things?
From a very early stage in recovery, I did things that would get me serious side eye in some circles. I took the suggestion to make the experience my own seriously. I had to learn how to do restaurants all over again. People in Stratford taught me that glassware was important. I could drink sparkling water out of crystal wine glasses. What a gift. I needed the lesson to feel comfortable eating out.
Then, I had some exceptional experiences in Europe. I went to places where care was taken with non-drinkers. At Aubergine on Royal Hospital Road in London, I met the standard bearer of grace, Jean-Philippe. He gave me a sense of belonging and to this day remains the high-water mark. (At the time, Gordon was in the kitchen and ranting in the media about not hiring women.)
I can't remember when I decided I could smell wine. Again, I think it was sitting in the aroma cloud hanging over a restaurant table. Watching the amorphous shapes of red wine through glass dance on a white tablecloth — in the afterglow of dinner. A deep seduction. Now I ask for THE glass with a puddle of wine in it. On a rare occasion, I've needed a spittoon.
A lot of the industry in North America couldn't figure out what to make of me in the '90s. I was an impossible problem to some. You can't imagine the mountain of scuffed Libby water glasses I've had to drink from in beautiful restaurants. Do not put one down in front of me now.
In 2000, I was offered a champagne flute of fresh squeezed blood orange juice and sparkling water instead of Prosecco at a River Cafe send-off. Soon after, in restaurants, I began asking for something nice before dinner that wasn't a Shirley Temple or cranberry and soda and still getting blank stares from waiters.
Sell me something, please. Isn't that why I'm here?
The problem was never my not drinking alcohol. It was a commercial defect of character in restaurateurs and chefs. An absence of business imagination that was costly mostly because of how long it went on.
The choice of beverages now thrills me. My favourites include local kombucha. There are curated alcohol-free tastings and superb non-alcoholic beer and wines. What a relief the whole thing has caught on.
It's such a pleasure knowing other sober restaurant people. I felt lonely for the longest time.
I make a boozy fruitcake at Christmas. Some summers, I make Rumtopf. I enjoy both without apology. I would run a mile with knee replacements for Baba au Rhum from Edulis or Abel in Lyon.
You get the idea.
So many things I couldn't admit for a long time. Does that annul my membership of almost three decades? Does how I live mean I need to return all my chips? This is what I'm trying to discern. I want to be myself. But do I still qualify?
Jay sent me this wonderful video of Stephen Fry reading a letter written by Nick Cave.
"Even though the creative act requires considerable effort, you will be contributing to the vast network of love that supports human existence."
Alyssa sent me a video text of Halo-Halo from a new Phillipino restaurant in the East End.
My people get me.
This song is poetry.
Image credit: composite image, Blackbird Turdus merula isolated on a white background, © Shutterstock.
Theo and I were driving regional roads heading to Hamilton from her home in Welland. I'm in my late teens. The car was a boat, had a long front end. I asked my uncle Peter last night what she drove. He told me my grandfather Harry — who didn't have a driver's license — liked being a passenger in a flash vehicle,
"I recall Theo had this yellow Chrysler with a 383 cu in engine. Fucking thing just flew."
I laughed hard reading his text. It's a gold-star image. Brought me right back. Theo behind the wheel of a car like a Newport, Fifth Generation, handkerchief scarf tied over her permed hair, and smoking a Peter Jackson.
So, Theo and I are driving. It was around this time of year, November. There wasn't much snowcap on the fields in the Niagara peninsula. It's when she told me about loving trees in the winter even more than in summer — when they were leafless and skeletal. She talked about the shape of the trees we looked at out the front window. The winter landscape changed for me that day.
I loved winter running in Stratford, on days when the sky was azure, and the sun bleached snow was soft serve white. Our breath made ice clouds — like comic book speech bubbles. Sweat turned to frost on our running clothes.
Cake, again. A winter hobby. A good reason for a long walk.
I made Christmas cake on Friday night. The fruit was macerating for a month — 775 grams of golden raisins, dried cherries, apricots, currants, mixed peel, and a shiver of candied ginger. My favourite combination. The recipe is from early Nigella. (There's a photo in the cookbook, Feast, of the only time I met her — in the early 2000s.)
Fruitcake is a seasonal gift to myself. I love the recipe so much that I'm careful to not give too much away. There's a limit to my generosity. I'm not looking to change your mind if you don't like it. The dried fruit alone cost me $35 at Bulk Barn.
One of the brilliant cooks I follow in England shared an Instagram photo last year of a slice of fruitcake served with an aged and crumbling farmhouse cheddar. Now I'm stuck on it. Dried fruit and sharp cheese are a happy marriage.
I've never done the fondant icing. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate it. Fruitcake is a matter of preference. The baker's imprint is on it.
(I also bought all the ingredients to re-make the almond cake. Stay tuned on Instagram next week for Part Two, where I redeem myself.)
I'm trying to increase my satisfaction with small things. And spend more time outside noticing the shape of trees. A strategy for the holidays.
I've played this song so often this week that it runs in my blood. I hope it brings you a heap of clotted cream pleasure. Oxford American showed me the way to Ethel Cain. After reading the bijou piece, look for the ballad, A House in Nebraska.
"Listening feels like eavesdropping on a confession Ethel is only ready to tell herself."
My grandmother Theo's living room. Her stack of books and papers.
Stories still to tell. But I need time away — a week or a month. I can't say.
What comes first, the words or the song?
I'm a terrific cook and baker, and sometimes I fail. I want you to know that. In the kitchen, I'm gentle with myself — the antidote for all those years working in French restaurant kitchens.
This photo was in my Instagram feed last week. I can't swipe past an almond cake. That right there is love to me.
There was an occasion, and I made it one night after working all day and spending a few hours writing. I hit the kitchen at 9:00 p.m., which is a cool time if you don't wake up at 5:00 a.m. Conditions could have been better.
It's an egg leavened cake. A delicate creature. Think soufflé. Almond flour and fine cornmeal give it structure. Honey adds sweetness. A tart lemon and rosemary syrup soaks into it after baking. It's a keeper cake. On day three, it's perfection — moist, dense, a Yo-Yo Ma of flavour.
Baking international recipes calls for some MacGyver calculations. Just know that for an egg-leavened cake, if you have a different pan size, it's better to go slightly bigger. If it's smaller, the centre has trouble rising and will often sink.
I turned my oven on to preheat. The big mistake is it was the upper element only.
The cake is made without a hitch (having two bowls for my mixer is essential for beating egg whites alongside the batter).
I put it in the oven and then sat down to read. Twenty minutes later, I smell something burning. I wonder who's having toast in the building. Then it dawns on me the smell is coming from my kitchen. When I open the oven door, the top is charcoal. The colour of a Basque cheesecake. I take it out, curse a little, and then in a few silly manoeuvres, cut off the top and return it — centre wobbling — to the oven. It works but is so far from perfect.
In my mind, I hear Julia Child saying, "Never apologize." And I won't. Because I make nice plans, and sometimes they go sideways.
I will bake the cake again under better conditions (I have to for Gourmet Traveller and Emma Knowles). Because it's a beauty even with all the problems. The flavour of the honey comes forward with sitting. I used almond flour with the skin on which alters the colour of the cake.
This is a good recipe for American Thanksgiving. You can make it on Monday or Tuesday, and it's wonderful on Thursday evening with a big heap of thick cultured cream the colour of okra flowers, or a fat quenelle of boozy ice cream with a claret-hued slice of poached quince.
For those who are curious, my favourite almond cake recipe is from Joyce Goldstein. She made it when she was a celebrity chef in residence at the Stratford Chefs School. I went on to make it for bistro menus at the school during the Christmas season. There's marzipan in the batter, and that's never a bad thing.
Cake is a measure of my mental health. Baking is a way I protect it. I am not alone. It's also good for friendships. Right now that's important, again on the well-being front. Connecting with others in an upside down world seems vital.
My heart is breaking. The loss piles up in numbers that are unimaginable. A big part of our world's future. A generation or more. Rudimentary news knowledge, has me nervous. I've asked Google war-related questions in the last week. Crisis tumbles into crisis. Lies roll on to lies.
So I'm night baking. At home. Aware of my privilege.
There are artists who leave us before we are ready. We experience cultural loss, even though some leave us with much. I would have liked to see Matthew Perry get old.
And Whitney Houston. The golden imprint of her voice. Imagine being in that audience. The quiet way she starts and then looses herself to it. Her range was impeccable.
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