Saturday, August 22, 2009

Food and love... food is love

Like many people in this part of the world, I have a complicated relationship with food.

Thankfully, it’s not the eating that’s the complicated part.. just the cooking.

It’s not really surprising when I think about it. My mother didn’t learn to cook until she got married (at 39) in an era when it was taken for granted that wives were homemakers and cooks. But she grew up in a house with a cook and a maid and so never needed or had an inclination to learn.

It must have been a shock to suddenly realize that she would have to plan and prepare meals, learn to shop and buy food in a Canadian grocery store where so many of the foods were unfamiliar. Like many housewives of the time, she relied on the only thing that seemed familiar: bad British cooking. My childhood was replete with overcooked meat and boiled canned vegetables. Italian food consisted of macaroni and cheese. Fresh fruits and vegetables were unknown to me.

I did however bask in the delicious glory of my mother’s baking. Where she learned this, I don’t know but it was something that obviously came naturally to her. Most of all I remember her bread. The heavy moist smell of yeast rose up from underneath a damp linen tea towel covering her great stoneware bowl on the kitchen counter. My mother’s energetic punching and kneading of the billowing sticky dough. Loaves upon loaves would come steaming from the oven… brown and earthy, white and soft. Slathered in butter, it was the stuff that golden childhood memories are made of.

She made flaky, buttery pastry which became pies filled with blueberries or chocolate cream or lemon meringue or spicy apples. Tall – albeit often ever so slightly lop-sided – layer cakes swathed in butter cream icing. Crunchy, savoury baked fruit crumbles sparkling with her beloved Barbadian brown sugar.

Meal-times however were increasingly a minefield of barbed comments and marital warfare between my parents. We rarely had company over for dinner and so, rather than finding a natural pleasure in sharing food with friends and family, it became a weapon – its value diluted by quick, cheap fixes.

Thankfully, I’ve never had any qualms about eating, somehow managing to sidestep that horrifying generational legacy of obsession with weight and dieting, the fear and guilt over food that women often impart to their daughters. Aside from a brief, humourless fling with margarine, I enjoy eating food that is prepared with whole, natural ingredients (including sugar, butter, and bacon!) in satisfying quantities.

The problem of course is that I don’t like to cook. It’s not that I’m a bad cook – people tell me I cook quite well. I just can’t be bothered. I know I’m not alone… actually that’s a big part of the problem. Cooking for one is no picnic (pardon the pun but it’s actually quite appropriate given that in the summer I often simply make a sandwich rather than prepare a meal). The idea of flipping through cookbooks to find something appealing, shopping for ingredients (because of course there isn’t much in Mother Hubbard’s cupboard), and preparing a meal to be eaten alone isn’t terribly interesting… and to do that seven days a week!? The lead-up to having friends over for a meal is fraught with anxiety (damn you Martha Stewart and your Food Network cabal!).

And so truth be told, despite the fact that I love eating good food; that I champion whole/slow food cooking; that I love watching good food being prepared; that I revile over-salted, nutritionally-poor, prepared food… I eat it all the time. There, I’ve said it. My freezer is usually filled with a variety of pre-packaged entrees and my fridge rarely contains more than condiments, a few beers or a half-empty bottle of wine, and restaurant left-overs.

Chris would be so disappointed – not surprised, but disappointed nonetheless. He loved to cook. He was fearless and intuitive in the kitchen, somehow everything was ready at the same time and the flavours all complimented but never overwhelmed. I was his willing sous-chef, happy to chop and slice, measure and de-bone at his side. Being in the kitchen with Chris was like dancing – he led and I followed. And so now I stand alone in my preposterously well-equipped kitchen with Chris’ beloved Henckels pots and pans, his Wüsthof knives, his gadgets and cutting boards.

I could force myself to cook – hoping that by simply following a routine, I would eventually slip into a practiced pleasure of creating delicious meals from simple ingredients. Probably a naïve proposition…

I could engage the services of a personal chef or food delivery service. Choosing from a menu of options and having nutritious, ready-to-eat meals at the door or in the fridge – expensive but convenient…

I could eat out at restaurants several nights a week, bridging interim nights with left-overs. No doubt the inventory of worthwhile venues and willing company would quickly be exhausted and the exercise become even more tedious than actually cooking…

I could trek to one of those meal outlet stores where they have ingredients already chopped and prepared – you simply have to assemble what you want and cook it at home. Perhaps a practical solution bridging pre-packaged and healthy meals…

I could keep eating rubbish while watching Big Night, Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Julie & Julia, or any other foodie movie – closing my eyes and imagining the smells and flavours of real food.

Or I could go to Italy or France for a year and learn what it is to simply enjoy good food as a normal part of every day life – without all the fretting and sub-zero refrigeration.

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a 'What the hell?' attitude." ~ Julia Child