Unprecedented torrential rains – an atmospheric river – have caused major flooding and landslides in British Columbia, cutting the interior off and closed highways for days. This meant no trains leaving the harbour, no trucks and no cars coming through with supplies, causing shelves in grocery stores to empty. Panic buying didn’t help either. I looked at our pantry and figured we’d be alright for about a week before I would have to get creative and invent some new pasta and rice dishes. At least my neighbour’s chickens are laying unperturbed by climate change. ‘It’s a mess,’ Camp said after we made ourselves comfortable in our usual corner at the seaside pub. Luckily, I’m not involved in shopping or cooking, since Muriel takes care of all that.’Continue reading
I was early and luckily a couple just freed up our usual table in the corner on the patio overlooking the harbour and the calm waters of Howe Sound. The view never tires me and there is always something to watch. I’ve seen seals popping up their whiskered heads for a look around; herons are a common sight waiting patiently at the end of the dock and once in a while an eagle cruises overhead, getting the best view of all. I was jolted out of my reverie by my friend who had just sat down.
“You’re early, “ he said, sounding kind of grumpy.
“Clare is in the city tonight, for a two day conference,” I explained to Campbell who is known as Camp, owner of Coast Books – a non-profit public service enterprise – as he calls it.
“Oh, does that mean you can have a few extra beers.”
“That is never an issue. Who stepped on your shadow today?” I asked, “you seem to be in an owly mood. Nothing to do with Muriel I hope.”
Camp gave me a shifty look from under his bushy eyebrows. “No, Muriel is fine. Mind you, I hardly see her these days what with summer break at the council and her daughter Sophie in town. It’s the Feds who are bugging me. I just found out that we need a federal permit for the harbour expansion and that could take months. It’s a snag I didn’t expect. “
“Oh,” I said, “but it’s just a formality right.”
“Let’s hope so but this is just more fodder for the opposition. With a dismissive wave of his hand Camp changed the subject. “Anyway, this beer tastes good and the view is spectacular.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said and added: “I might just have to eat here for a change since I don’t feel like cooking for one, maybe have one of those sixteen dollar burgers.”
“I don’t know about you but I can barely afford to drink here, never mind eat. A burger and a pint will add up to $ 30 with tips. I can buy food for the rest of the week for that amount.”
“Tell me about it.,” I said. “At least some greens, eggs and fruit are grown locally but at exorbitant prices. I try to buy locally but more often than not I end up buying the Mexican tomatoes and the Argentinian bananas. Or what about meat? Have you seen the prices lately? Pork is the only bargain in the meat department,” I lamented.
“Lucky for us infidels and gentiles. Almost forces one to become a vegetarian, Camp countered and then went on to expound: “Humans are omnivores, opportunistic feeders, meaning they can process both: vegetable and animal proteins. Vegans, and to some extent vegetarians, are lifestyle choices, some dictated by religious dogma, like the Jains and most Hindus and even Jews. Atheists and Christians have one thing in common: they love their bbq’s.”
“Thank God for that but I think you’re out on a limb here Camp. Food choices can be rather complex, dictated by health, affordability, availability and subject to information and food education. Remember when the Atkins diet was all the rage. The protein only diet. We called it the teamster diet. All those chubby drivers were in food heaven. Losing weight by eating only meat. It drove the caterers crazy.”
“Did it work?” Camp asked.
“For a short time until they were all so plugged up that they became very irritable. Nothing worse than a teamster full of shit.”
“Food is politics,” Camp said, shaking his head full of unruly grey curls. I was afraid he was embarking on one of his passionate soliloquies. “When I grew up we had to eat everything on our plate because the Africans were starving and meat was only served on Sundays and holidays.”
I stopped him right there and said: “Where I grew up we had to eat everything on our plate because it was hard to come by and meat was for holidays and special occasions only. The rest of the time we ate innards: Liver, tripe, kidney pie, blood pudding and even fried brain. I also remember having to sit and eat my porridge with raisins, forcing it down bite by bite until I was allowed to get up from the table. I hate porridge and raisins to this day.”
Camp laughed. “At least you were taught respect for the food on the table. I’m not so sure if that holds today. I doubt that many families even sit down for a meal together. It’s everybody for themselves, eat whenever you have the time, eat standing up in front of the fridge, and cooking is a senior’s hobby and for those parents who can find the time.”
“Three isles at every grocery store are freezers, full of pre-cooked, frozen dinners.” I said.
Not to be outdone Camp doubled down: “And one isle is for chips alone. Can you believe it? Chips or as the English call it: crisps and a whole other isle for pop.”
“When I grew up fast food was a buttered slice of bread dunked in Ovaltine, much to the chagrin of my mom.”
Camp laughed. “We did the same thing but with sugar.”
“Today, fast food is the mainstay of the American diet and pop, which is basically artificially flavoured sugar water, the most popular drink.”
“More popular than beer?” Camp asked, raising one of his shaggy eyebrows while at the same time raising his pint to illustrate the point.
“I read somewhere that Americans consume 20% of their food in the car. That means, burgers, pizza, fries and pop.”
“And then they toss the empty packaging out the window. Have you ever noticed that most of the roadside garbage is fast food containers.”
“And did you know that US schools class French Fries and Pizza as vegetables?”
“That is just wrong,” I said, “What does all this fast food do to the brain?”
“You are what you eat and drink,” Camp said while holding up two fingers for Vicky to see. This was going to be a thirsty Thursday. “On the other end of the spectrum are the health food fanatics. Food obsession is every bit as damaging as food negligence. Diets and fads, eat like a pig then starve like a fashion model,” he added.
“Everything in moderation, as Clare always maintains,” I said.
“Would you boys like to eat?” Vicky asked, plopping down a couple of menus. and then offered the coupe de grace: “Thursday is prime rib night; two for the price of one.”
“Come on Camp, my treat. I don’t want to eat alone. Let’s go for it.”
“What’s the vegetarian special?” he coyly asked Vicky who gave him a wary smile.
“You’re kidding me? Not on prime rib night!” I exclaimed.
“I got you, didn’t I. You thought I’d gone over to the other side.”
“I need another drink..”
“I’ll join you, Cheers.”
“You can’t just put the pot on the stove and then walk away!” Clare unceremoniously admonished me very early on in our relationship. “You can’t cook and write a letter all at once.”
“Why not, the water boils by itself,” I answered, put in my place, feeling like you know what.
“Because you need to stir the noodles otherwise they turn into a clump of glue and you also need to watch the beans which don’t take as long as the pasta. Cooking is not just heating up a bunch of stuff. Cooking is, playing, feeling, tasting, experimenting, spicing and above all: timing !”
“Timing,” I said, feeling confident once again, furtively glancing at my watch. “I’ll set the timer to exactly what it says in the instructions. No need to watch the clock, dear.” Looks of exasperation were my just reward.
“Timing relates to everything being ready together. You cook the potatoes and the meat together, have the salad washed and prepped and make sure it’s all ready together.”
It took a while but I finally figured it out. As I slowly fell in love with cooking Clare gently stepped away from the stove, leaving me in charge of the kitchen. I gathered recopies from my mom, my sister who is to this day a gourmet cook and I also started to invent my own dishes and discovered a latent talent to improvise. I became especially good at leftover cooking, probably as much from necessity as design. I can whip up a salad out of a tomato, a leftover baked potato, some onions, a half dozen olives and some oil and balsamic vinegar. I concoct pasta sauces and pizzas out of garlic, bacon and basil or peppers, tomatoes, salami and cheese. Anything goes in my kitchen now and I dare anybody to call me an idiot while I soak the old bread under the water tap and then re-bake it in the oven. It will be just like fresh from the bakery. Which reminds me of a proverb my dad quoted every time we kids wrinkled our noses about the day old bread.
“Old bread is not hard but no bread is hard!” I guess you had to be in the war to appreciate not just the finer things in life but also the ordinary.
I also discovered that cooking is like lovemaking – both require passion, playfulness and attention to details and both go better with music. A slow stew simmers along to the blues, a sizzling steak cooks fast like rockn’roll and enchiladas turn out better with Latin rhythm. I listen to a lot of Lila Downs while chopping tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. For soups I prefer a little reggae and salads go well with country music.
In cooking, as in religion, there are commandments, meaning there are definite do-not-do’s or cardinal sins. I only adhere to three of these:
# 1: Do not overcook unless it’s a stew
# 2: Do not drown unless it’s a soup
# 3: Do not serve cold unless it’s a salad
There are exceptions. For example: you cannot overcook eggplant and there are occasions like parties where cooked food like salmon or roast can be served cold. And there are cold soups like gazpacho or warm salads like potato salad.
The main thing about cooking is that somebody appreciates the results. That’s why cooking is what brings people together, what builds memories and no celebration is complete without food. Lucky for me Clare is the most appreciative benefactor or my cooking skills. She always compliments me, never complains and always eats what I concoct. Happiness is good food and sharing it with the people you love.