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.
Looking at this julienne on Wednesday morning, my first thought was, 'Joel Robuchon would kick my ass all the way back to Canada.' The idea made me smile. Remember Jamin? *sigh*
Probably in 2023, Joel Robuchon has a posh school in France that would charge me tens of thousands of dollars to learn to cut julienne his way. Wonder what it costs to do a stage in one of his restaurants?
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
When I worked in France, the executive chef said that when presented with anything below standard. The tone was incredulous, like he was being presented with a lunar rock. You could tell how far off course you were if you could see his tonsils. Humble pie is super tasty.
One of the joys of still standing in front of a cutting board is knowing I fell for the right profession. I still love chopping. Don't get me started on mis en place. Knife skills are the first and last lesson.
I'm writing a novel.
The process is interesting. I've had a lot of advice from writers and have a small group of readers.
One Canadian writer told me to write the first draft through to the end with little editing. That's Haruki Murakami's practice. The only problem is it doesn't suit me right now.
Another suggested I write a chapter as close to complete as possible. That's been golden. It got me thinking about character depth, the subtle ways it's expressed, the relationship between characters, and the world around them, including nature. The advice was freeing.
It's still a first draft. And it's also a fleshed-out chapter. There's a second chapter almost there and a third needing some work. It's barely a start. And it's real progress, given I work full-time.
The writing is still young and a bit stiff. I know from working with pro-editors that it will loosen up and become more of what it should be in time. I feel like I'm still finding my voice.
The way is full of surprises. I'll spend a two or three-hour period writing. And when I am away, things surface. I add highlighted notes to Scrivener, put them in my Notes app on my phone or record voice memos if I'm on the move or at work. The story is always with me. And time away is productive.
I've also been laying the foundation simultaneously. The structure is evolving — there are character sketches, chapter outlines, and a couple of years' worth of research starting during the pandemic. It needs more underpainting.
I learn new things about the process all the time. This week, I began tracking food for continuity's sake. There's a fair bit of cooking, which must make chronological sense.
I sometimes fantasize about having 12 to 24 months to devote to this in an MFA program. When I studied at the Humber School for Writers, most of my peers had novels in progress. I studied creative writing purposefully. This feels natural. I'm here for a reason.
I also fantasize about hiring a coach to help with organization, tracking progress, setting goals, and projecting milestones. But none of that is possible right now. And for many writers and artists since time immemorial, it's not a prerequisite for creating.
What I do have is a circle of support. The work is simultaneously engaging and unnerving. Making something from scratch is nourishing. It's a cocktail of hope and insecurity. I have dreams. Are they outrageous? Would a man ask that?
What becomes of it is not my concern today. Pressing on is.
I saw two stories this week about artists and their creative process that spoke to me. This on printmaker Jacob Samuel (watch the video). And this short reel of the late painter, Pierre Soulages.
I went to a wedding last night. Barely took a photo. I had a good time. Caught up with people, including a few from my years at Rundles.
Musically I had something lined up and then I heard this Greg Allman song and it fit the day and the mood. A musician of tremendous depth.
I went for a walk last night with a friend. We processed some of the global events of the week. She said to me, ‘what is obvious, again, is that humanity is a thin veneer.’
The next morning, on the subway train to work at 6:15 a.m., two men were arguing at the other end of the car. I couldn’t get the gist of it from a distance, but it sounded crazy. It was distressing to hear and made me tense. I was on alert for signs of escalation.
Then, a young mother and her little boy got on at a stop and sat down opposite me. He was six or seven and flashing a big toothless grin — all his top front teeth were missing. His legs were dangling just above the floor. He was happy. They both were.
They got off at Spadina station. I imagined them going to the Jewish Community Centre for a morning swim in the saltwater pool. Maybe she was passing along the habit of caring for the physical body to her son.
Humanity was right in front of me. What I focus on is a choice. And a privilege.
If you’ve worked in restaurant kitchens for any time, you know people who have fled war.
In Toronto, brilliant career dishwashers came to the city from Sri Lanka in the mid to late eighties as part of a great wave. Generations of people — mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, grandfathers, daughters, sons — fleeing a brutal civil war at home. I work with two men who came during that period. They are the backbone of the team.
In many restaurant kitchens right now, there’s a person who knows war first-hand or has family living in a warring country — Ukraine leaps to mind.
I’ve heard stories of war. A few told by children.
Many people live through unthinkable hardship. Our privilege is being sheltered from those horrors.
Walking and talking about life’s important stuff with a friend is good for my spirit.
A perfect French croissant and a cortado are too.
I looked for music to calm my anxious heart.
I made the first poppyseed babka of the season, today. It's to share at work tomorrow. I make the filling and it is so good.
Here's a bit of perspective. I asked someone at work if they were doing thanksgiving, and they looked amused and gave me a forthright 'no.' I live and work in a city where people from many cultures don't do this holiday. Who can blame them? The company has to be fantastic for me to enjoy turkey. (Roast a chicken, and I'm all yours.) It's a day that finishes with pie and a big pile of dishes. That could be a Thursday at my place.
I can get with the idea of an agrarian holiday — the harvest. And I need to avoid gross nostalgia. Because getting goods from farms to markets and tables is difficult from a labour perspective. There are abuses.
Any story involving the celebration of white settlers is disturbing. What we stole from First Nations is devastating to consider in fullness. I can't even imagine what that last word means. Many people can't look yet. And it needs immediate repair in a way that will challenge us. First Nations are clear about the debt. What we owe. Will this be an age of reparations? I hope so.
This is some of what I'm grateful for right now:
This image of cultural and political leadership from the other day.
The kids are alright. Here's a group of elementary school students playing Led Zeppelin's Kashmir on xylophones. I want to hug their music teacher.
I'm working with a good kitchen team. They're making me a better cook and human. A small group of women and men lead in a way I respect and admire. Thirty or more years separate most of us in age. But I'm still teachable. That's attractive. If this is my last kitchen stop, I'm leaving the industry the same way I came in, as an apprentice.
Allan Jenkins posts fabulous minestrone photos. I've been faithful about following Marcella Hazan's Minestrone di Romagna recipe because of the pleasure of sitting in front of a bowl. She was careful — a scientist. I like her lead. But Jenkin's minestrone has an independent spirit — a classic vegetable soup made by a free and mature cook. I would expect nothing less, given minestrone is an expression of the garden at that moment. It’s hard to codify. He's helped me consider the way I make mine.
My mom eats two Thanksgiving dinners. One is from her friend Janet on Saturday. The second is from Elaine on Monday. It comforts me to know she's cared for. Feeding others is the spirit of hospitality. It’s a good human practice.
It should be clear by now I'm a night person. But the colour of the eastern morning sky is a wonder. I'm no convert, though. The middle of the night is too fine.
I got a haircut yesterday that needs more work. The shape is good, but it needs finessing. Online, I shared dismay at the cost and results. I don't feel all that way today because the foundation is good. At any rate, a young woman I know sent me this DM: "I'm sorry you don't like your hair, but I'm sure you're just as vibrant as ever." Exactly what I needed to hear. Good medicine.
I live in safety. Many people around the globe this weekend don't because of war, famine, and persecution.
I hope your knees are under a dinner table at home or in a restaurant with the people you love. That might include family.
This song reminds me of the Aretha Franklin song I shared a few weeks back. It's a modern spiritual. I can't stop listening to it. I briefly heard a podcaster talk about Cleo Sol and went looking for her new album. It is good.
Think about all the women who stood and threw their arms up as Billy Jean King launched her racquet in the air.
One of the many pleasures of ageing is being an eyewitness to history. For a moment like this I'll gladly take the extra pounds around my waist.
Growing up, the only time a tennis match was on the television in my house was fifty years ago — for the Tennis Battle of the Sexes. I was ten and a half years old on the day Billy Jean King showed Bobby Riggs all her talent. The four of us in my family were some of the ninety million people watching the match around the globe. Well, half-watching and half-playing because we were kids. We knew it was important without understanding why.
The stakes were high, but there was plenty of theatre and fun about the event. Bobby Riggs was obnoxious — an athletic Archie Bunker. "Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order," he said. Who can forget the Sugar Daddy t-shirts?
Helen Reddy sang I Am Woman. King was carried on the shoulders of men — Cleopatra-style — into the stadium. She would leave as the Queen of all our hearts. I teared up watching this tribute narrated by Venus Williams.
On September 20, 1973, Billy Jean King won a tennis match. Became a legend. And she has not squandered the privilege. She continues to work for our good.
Gender equity levelled the prize field for the U.S. Open in 1973.
Away from celebrity sports circles, women have gone from earning $0.57 in 1973 to $0.82 in 2023 for every dollar a man makes. Twenty-five cents over 50 years. Still, eighteen cents to go. Another thirty-six years.
2059. Would men call that progress? Can your daughters wait?
Wage transparency would get us there sooner. It's a good labour practice.
Have you ever dealt with a man you knew wasn't your equal?
A man dead sure of his superiority? Who knew nothing about you? But had calculated your worth? A personal Bobby Riggs?
I have. I could probably put a team together. I can't imagine for what sport. It makes me laugh thinking of the t-shirts I'd put them in. Who should I hit up for sponsorship? There are a few star players. Should I make them wear headbands?
Here's the match as we saw it. Howard Cossell was on one of the mics.
The Philadelphia Freedoms is the name of a co-ed tennis team Billy Jean King played with from 1974 to 1978. Elton John honours a friend here. Together, they have raised hundreds of millions for Equal Rights and HIV/AIDS causes. This is a lovely short read about the song and their friendship.
My grandfather Harry would come home from working on a boat on the Great Lakes and wouldn’t want to go anywhere. Unless Theo was driving. A guy happy to be on dry land with his wife behind the wheel. He was an affable easy-going passenger. They did loads of road trips.
They had another arrangement. Shortly after Harry came home for a time, Theo would be off. She travelled solo to some interesting places. I admired that in her and have emulated her on occasion. Going solo is another kind of travel. It’s an experience of anonymity and autonomy.
The first book Theo gave me was James A. Michener’s The Drifters. It was purposeful. She was passing on something important.
The love between Theo and Harry, in some ways, was unconventional. Independence is something they both came to value. Time on their own was normal and important. That changes the dynamics of being a couple.
This is another kind of road trip.
Returning from a family gathering in the near south.
I was living on the promise of seeing Fallingwater. And then plans changed for the driver. The man behind the wheel was going home — Raleigh North Carolina to Hamilton Ontario — bathroom breaks only. By then, being held hostage in a vehicle with him was familiar. We had one of our near-fatal relationship-changing arguments outside Pittsburgh.
We stopped. That tells you something about my will. I was ruthless. I didn’t know when I’d be back down that road again.
I dropped him in the parking lot. Did not look back. Took all the time I needed. I’d sat in dark art history classes looking at slides of the place and experiencing a sense of falling in love. Art does that to me. The thought of being so close to that beauty was everything. Passing it was impossible.
A postcard of Serena fell out of a book recently. It’s where I hide memories for surprises. Standing in that alcove looking at her on that day I knew I’d done the right thing. The image took me back to the nice time I had…by myself.
What a horrible thing to visit Fallingwater with your daughter.
I think a lot about the man who knew what was in my heart and decided to drive past.
Of course, things happen as they do. But I cried hard about it this week. Writing is often the turning point.
My dad was not unique. He was a man of his time — the authoritarian. But there’s still no shortage of grossly self-focused men today. Often, they come wrapped up in several active addictions. Many never get right with the people they use and hurt. They miss out on so much real human relations.
The song landed early Saturday morning as a complete surprise. Everything about it fit. The lyrics are handcrafted. And that guitar lick.
Also, it’s been too long since I took a road trip.
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