Kitchen memories

Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook

Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.

When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.

Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice.  This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.

And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!

cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions
-open and drain one can of chunk white tuna
 -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
-drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter.
-pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top.           
-bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.

 ( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)

Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:

 -put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish
-place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered
-mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking
 -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions
-serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side

I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.

 My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and  melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.

Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.

In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.

I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.

I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story.  It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.

 Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.

 This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.

 Baked chicken
 Potato salad
 Corn on the cob
 Watermelon
 Chocolate cake

I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.

Good food is good food.

The End

Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:

  • Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
  • Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)

How very 80s!!

Look back, look ahead

I know it was a horrible year, and yet it was somehow a good year for creativity. The work wanted to be made.

Writing

I finished the first draft of my first novel—as yet untitled. I have been living my own dictum. You only learn to write by writing, I tell the students I teach and tutor in academic writing. The more you write, the more you experiment, the more you learn how to write.

James Hillman said that “truth is revealed. It cannot ever be told. It has to appear inside the telling or through the telling.” Never have I found this more resonant than in writing fiction. I started out with a vague idea for a story, but it has only been inside the telling that truth has been revealed, an exciting and serendipitous—perhaps even magical—process.

I was privileged to have the first six months of the year off work and the second half working at home. This flexibility allowed me to establish a regular writing time in the mornings, so most days I wrote at least a paragraph and sometimes several pages. The novel is about 300 pages long. I will leave it to rest for a few weeks before I go back with an eye to editing. My small but loyal writing group helped me stay motivated, and I am grateful to them. I loved hearing other writers in the group read their work.

I published 18 blogposts in 2020. Long ago Michael helped me to be content with “3 plus me” (it’s written with a wineglass writer on my mirror). That just means if I like it and three other people like it (Michael is inevitably one of the three), then I am happy.

One of the posts this year was a beautiful guest blog by my sister.  And we collaborated on a second one. I love collaborating on blog posts and I welcome any of you to get in touch with  me if you want to write together.

Editing

This year I was accepted into Simon Fraser University’s Editing Certificate program and I have completed 3 of the 12 courses. I aim to finish in 2021, and intend to start my own freelance editing and writing coach business. I have done this kind of work as a side gig for years, but now I am ready to formalize my training and freelance in a serious way. Editing is a profoundly creative act. All of those decisions to be made about word choices and paragraphs, sytnax, architecture, punctuation. . . .

In my reading about editing, I came across Susan Bell’s, The artful edit, an interesting book about how to edit your own prose and hone your understanding of other people’s. I loved the way she takes the reader through the masterful editing of The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. She has provided me with so many ideas both in editing my own work and as I apply my skills to my clients’ writing.

Sewing

I sewed in fits and starts this year, but as I look back I realize I was productive, though it often didn’t feel that way. I finished the textile art piece Eight Worldy Winds early in the year. The piece now hangs on my office wall to remind me of the transitoriness of feelings, fortunes, and life itself. Then the pandemic shifted me into giving mode—I wanted to make small gifts for people. So I started with potholders I had promised to friends a long time ago, then I delved deep in my scrap supply to make one-of-a-kind bags for other friends. After that, I sewed masks. I have to admit, that was a duty more than a joy. Then I started making aprons for people I love. By the final apron, I felt I’d perfected the pattern. I almost forgot about the blue cape I made (my courage cape) out of an old wool blanket. So much fun!

I went back to a bigger project with the Rhapsody in Blue quilt. It’s one of those weird quilts that actually look awful close up, with the mishmash of colours and patterns. But the total effect is pleasing. I started machine quilting of the top today, after pinning the whole quilt with safety pins. It’s the first time I’ve tried using curved safety pins to sandwich a quilt, and I like it. In the past, I’ve used the spray adhesive between layers, but I find it is not secure over time, and sometimes it takes me a while to finish a quilt top (now, especially, with a puppy).

There is something incredibly liberating in free motion quilting. And it’s a physical act; my whole torso sways and moves as I push the material under the needle, forming loop de loops. 

Puppy raising

Raising a puppy is a creative act. Just as raising children calls for creativity every day, so does having a puppy in the house. I used to make up games and stories, craft activities, and innovative ways to distract and delight my children. Now I am doing the same kind of thing with Marvin.

Going forward

I put sewing and writing on hold during our first few weeks with Marvin because it was an immersive experience—all of my energy was need to do my paid job and engage with and train the puppy. Those few weeks taught me an important lesson. I felt drained and bereft without my creative outlets. It is not just a luxury to take time to write and sew. Creativity is my lifeblood; creativity gives me momentum to keep on going; creativity feeds me. Especially in this year of the pandemic, I have leaned heavily on creativity, and I am so grateful to have the time to pursue my creative acts.

This year I let go of some things—drawing and my aspiration to learn to play the ukulele to accompany my singing. I just can’t do everything. So I focused on writing and sewing. I’m not sure what I’ll focus on in 2021. Some contemplation is in order.

Remember, creativity is your birthright. It’s not granted to just some people—we are all born with innate creativity. As children it seems more accessible and we rarely question it, but then its force seems to fade for some people. I encourage you to spark your creativity if it’s dormant. Write a poem, cook something new, learn a song, write a song, draw a comic, sew something. Make a birthday card for a friend. You never know. . . . 

All my best to all of you. Thank you for reading. 

 

Eyes fresh for this yard

img_1361a boy wearing his white
coat zooms peppery
figure eights

while like a tree, I stand
at the center 
of infinity.

scales drop away
as I look from eyes fresh
for this yard:

wet jade carpet strewn
with bay leaves, 
pine cones,

a yellow leaf falls from a 
raspberry cane, one fat
winter rosehip.

I listen to the 
wind while chickadee familiars
hop the fence, 

grey squirrel makes his
everyday leap into the
holly bush,

and figs grow plump
in December, auspicious
winter harvest.

A crux in our towering
fir is bed to the
racoon family 

and one night, a lone
owl perches there to blow
her song.

standing in the yard,
I wait for her next
breathy note,

voice from an
other world,
alto yearning

then notice a shape
across the fence,
waiting too.

crushing the last light from
the day, dark sky presses
down at four

and Marvin’s orange 
leash traces symbols 
of infinity.

still like a tree, I
marvel: my eyes fresh 
for this yard. 

Meet me in the kitchen

By Madeline and Jude

On Monday, our provincial health officer extended social gathering restrictions until January 8, 2021. You could almost feel British Columbians deflate: a long sad sigh. At first we were distraught. We must forgo visits with our families and friends for Christmas. My sister Jude had been planning to come visit, to meet the new puppy, Marvin, and hang out and cook together as we usually do. Distress softened to disappointment. Then acceptance. Instead of connecting in person, we would connect by writing together about kitchens and food.

A kitchen is the beating heart of a home, the place where people gather, where alchemy takes place. As well as providing us with nourishment every day, cooking is our creative outlet. It can be a calling. I believe it is my sister’s calling.  Jude is an intuitive, skilled cook who seems happiest in her kitchen, cats nearby, CBC on the radio. I love sitting at her wooden table, watching her work or standing beside her, chopping on the big scarred board that’s been in our family for decades. Lately, my sister’s been musing about the well-loved tools that comprise her essential kitchen.  And I’ve been appreciating Socca, a flatbread originating in Southern France.

Jude and Mad (2009) in the kitchen of All Mex’d Up, a taco shop Jude started and ran for 10 years in Port Alberni.

Jude:

My essential kitchen tools have been collected over many years of home cooking. I have deep affection for many of my well used pots, pans and various items. As much affection as one can have for an inanimate object. Which for me, is a lot. Most of these things have been with me for years, or in some cases decades. They have survived in my kitchen because they are dependable, hard-working, and often beautiful.

The cooking vessels that get the most use in my kitchen are simple. I have a two cast iron pans, a 10” and a 6”. I believe I bought both in thrift shops. They are heavy and solid with great heat distribution and if you treat them right they are non-stick.  I also have a wok that has been with me for over 30 years. I bought it in China town in Toronto and it travelled across the country with me, it has served me often and well. It is great for stir frying, deep frying and all types of  Asian noodle recipes. I think my favourite vessel is a dark red enamel coated cast iron Dutch oven that I use almost daily in the winter months. It sears, simmers, braises, and is perfect for my slow cooking life. And it is beautiful.

I have a thing for wooden spoons. I have them in all sizes and shapes and from many corners of the world. They are a perfect prize to pick up while travelling, light and easy to carry . They are also lovely to handle and practical. They don’t scratch pans, they don’t get hot and burn your hand, and they age beautifully. 

Cutting boards are another essential tool. I have a few, mostly wood. My favourite is a 2” thick riveted board that was a wedding gift to my mother. So it has always been part of my life. I remember  using it as a Ouija board when we were teenagers, there are still some marks we made on one side. My kind of heirloom.

And now for knives. These tools are my best friends and my foe. I am admittedly bad at sharpening. I just can’t seem to get the angle right and often end up with a blade worse than when I  started. So I get mine professionally sharpened when I can. My long-time favourite is a 8” Henkel with a riveted handle my mother gave to me many years ago when she could afford it and I couldn’t. It is a good weight for my hand and when it is sharp it performs marvelously. I also love my wooden handled wide tooth serrated knife, another gift from my mother, it slices through a crusty loaf or a ripe tomato with ease. I always have 3 or 4 paring knives around, just the cheap ones. Very handy. 

A fairly recent addition to my kitchen is my mortar and pestle. It is large and very heavy, solid granite with a smooth salt and pepper exterior and rough interior bowl. At first I was a little shy and didn’t have good results. After watching some of my favourite tv chefs I figured out that you really have to have some patience and put your back into it. I now use it all the time. I compose my Caesar salad dressing in it, make pastes for curries, and my electric spice grinder hasn’t been out of the cupboard for a while. The end results are very rewarding.

 Until I worked in a commercial kitchen I didn’t appreciate the relevance of tongs. Tongs become an extension of your hand, and next to knives are the most guarded tool of a chef in a busy kitchen.

So, along with a set of stainless steel measuring cups and spoons, a whisk, a rubber spatula and a fancy digital scale, these are my essential kitchen tools. 

 

Madeline:

Socca. What a revelation—I can have “bread” in 45 minutes!  When Michael and I started reducing carbohydrates in our diet, I discovered this traditional grain-free flatbread from Provence. Socca’s few ingredients are chick pea flour, water, olive oil, salt, and pepper. You’ll need a good frying pan—I use our 12-inch All-Clad, but seasoned cast iron works well. You can use a 10-inch pan for a creamier, thicker bread, but I prefer thin bread with a crusty edge.  

Place the pan on the middle rack of your oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.

While the oven is preheating, add the following to a bowl:  1 cup of chick pea flour (we use Millstream variety, local to BC), a cup of lukewarm water, a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil, about 1 tsp. of salt and several grinds of pepper. Mix it and let it sit. It should be the consistency of pancake batter.When the oven is preheated, carefully remove the pan with good oven mitts, pour olive oil to coat the bottom, then pour the batter into the hot pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. When you remove the pan from the oven, use kitchen tongs to pull the flatbread out of the pan and onto a rack. The edge will be lacy and crunchy, the inside of the bread velvety. Socca is delicious on its own, as a side to soup or curry, in a grilled cheese sandwich, or topped with almond butter.

Mark Bittman (New York Times) adds onions and herbs, fried lightly in the oil before the batter is poured into the pan. David Lebovitz adds cumin. These additions are delicious. But when the bread craving comes upon me, I make it fast, plain, and simple.

Thrifty

I haven’t had the energy to write blog posts lately because I am writing a novel, so I was very happy when my sister sent me a piece she wrote this week, inspired by reading Elizabeth Hay’s wonderful memoir, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir. The thrifty mother in that book made Jude think of our Mom, so she wrote this story called, simply, “Thrifty.” Thank you Jude, for being the guest blogger today and for memories of our mother.

by Judith Walker

 My fridge is in a sad state. My previous fridge was original to the over twenty year old mobile home I live in. It tucked in nicely between the dishwasher, the overhead cabinets, and a wall. Replacing it was not easy. Fridges these days are huge, shiny double doored affairs, enough space to store food for a village. I do not want or need one of these, and I do not have the space. I was happy to finally find a fit, but my joy did not last long. Almost immediately the door shelf broke and had to be fixed with packing tape. Next, the precariously balanced glass shelves gave away. So now I have a cold cavern with one shelf and a couple of bins in my attempt to keep it organized. It is noisy and annoying but it does its job of keeping food at a safe temperature, so I will keep it until it dies. I dread that day. Things are piled high in there, multiple recycled containers with this and that, bags of cheese, squashed plates of leftovers, at least the veggie drawers are still intact. I have had a tiny dish of cranberry sauce buried in the pile since Thanksgiving dinner over a month ago. I refuse to get rid of it. I have some local turkey cutlets in the freezer that I will cook eventually, so I may use it…why buy a whole can for that? And as far as I’m concerned turkey needs cranberries.

 I hate waste, the older I get the more I grieve our planet that is drowning in garbage. I am disgusted by our consumer culture, the cheap throwaway products, the over packaging, the careless greed. I am thrifty, but not obsessive (yet). I am my mother’s daughter.

 Mom was born in 1929, the eve of the depression. She grew up in hand-me-downs and shoes that didn’t fit. Her parents were immigrant farmers, there was always enough food but it was a hardscrabble life and being the sixth of seven children and a girl she was made to feel a burden and not an asset. She was picking grapes on the farm by age seven and her dad taught her to drive when she was twelve so she could “take Mama to town.” The only book in their house was the Bible, something she loved to tell us while reclining amongst her overstuffed bookcases. Some of her few joys as a child were once- weekly piano lessons and a pony she shared with her much favoured older sister. She did not attend school till grade five, I’m not sure why, I think her parents did not let her go to school barefoot and needed her on the farm. Against all odds she became a respected professional in the academic world. Her thirst for knowledge and a chance meeting with a woman who would become her mentor and best friend propelled her towards a path of self-respect and achievement.

 When Mom became a wife and young mother times were hard. Dad worked at menial jobs while pursuing a degree. Mom was at home raising her girls and trying to make ends meet. One of her oft told stories was when she shared her accomplishment with a friend after making a stew from a lamb neck. Her friend replied, “Virginia, you are making a virtue of a necessity.” Later in life she told that with pride.

 In those early years Mom revelled in her maternal role. She made us dolls, doll clothes, tiny furniture from popsicle sticks, perfect for our cardboard box tiny houses. She set up an easel in our back yard and we had unending recycled paper from old bill boards. She baked bread and let us help turn the leftover dough into cinnamon buns. Mom let us express our wild side. She encouraged curiosity and exposed us to as much art, music and books as she could. She also cut our hair and sewed our clothes. Mom was not a lover a fashion at this point in her life, clothes were utilitarian and needed to be functional, and cheap. She took apart her old dresses and somehow made them into shifts for us, to be worn over a turtle neck and tights and passed down the from sister to sister. I don’t remember ever feeling deprived. When we moved from funky California to an upper middle class neighbourhood in white Toronto my friends and peers were kids of doctors and lawyers. They had school clothes and “party clothes,” dresses in pastels with poofy arms and white shoes. My best clothes were a kilt, a turtle neck, knee socks. And my little cowgirl boots. That is what I wore to parties with my rich friends. I remember being gently mocked, I didn’t really care. I knew and they knew that I was  a cool kid.

 As my mother’s career advanced so did her income. She bought a shitty house in a great neighbourhood and made it into a beautiful home. I remember her, in her fifties, in a bikini on a hot summer day pulling up tiles in the back. She loved that house, that home. She lived there for over forty years. Almost half of her life. She never stopped her thrifty ways. She bought the best, but always on sale, she never paid full price. She was an ardent recycler until her last years when she told me “I just don’t give a shit any more.”  Can’t blame her.

When I visited her a few months before she died we talked about what would happen to her things when she died. At one point she opened a drawer in her kitchen, the junk drawer. There was a nest of hundreds of elastic bands in the corner. She looked at it and looked at me, and in a plaintive voice she said “I just wish I could find somebody to give these to!”

 Oh mom. I told her nobody wants your old rubber bands. Look mom, they have lost all of their elastic! How long have been there? Decades? Oh mom. Poverty mentality.

 I am sorry I was so dismissive. I honour my mother in many ways.  I will never stop missing her voice. I  have a beautiful sock doll she made for me. And some of the tiny furniture. And a drawer filled with twist ties, well used baggies, and rubber bands.

Perfectionism and Birthdays

I’ve started several blog posts in the last few weeks, yet I talked myself out of finishing every one of them. I told myself that writing blog posts about quotidian things is frivolous during this pandemic. If you are writing in these difficult times, you need to have something profound to say. The news is serious, life is serious, people need succour. But lately I have realized that our small everyday acts of creativity are far from frivolous—they nourish us and keep us sane. So bring on the poems and the sewing, the novels-in-progress, the drawings, the baking, the quilts and the aprons. The blog posts. And all of the mistakes we make as we create. All of it is keeping me going right now. 

Having a Hallowe’en birthday is special because birthdays are special. My mother acknowledged the Hallowe’en side of my day of birth by buying a pumpkin-shaped cake for my first birthday, and later on by decorating with orange and black streamers, putting a jack-o-lantern on the table, or letting us bob for apples. Later, when I became a mother, my own birthday was eclipsed by trick or treating, which was absolutely fine. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about perfectionism and birthdays, and how perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect, and about how children’s birthdays can be a breeding ground for perfectionism, which is a soul-killing characteristic that I wish to banish in my life. 

For some reason, it was important to me—to my very identity as a mother—that I design fun, exciting, wonderful birthday parties for my kids. Decorate your own cupcake with five colours of icing and a dozen candy toppings. The year I made a cake from the pages of Women’s Day magazine featuring a swimming pool made of blue Jello and a path made of chocolate covered ladyfingers. We rented a Bouncy Castle twice—had it set up in the back yard for the August birthday one year and the front yard for the September birthday a few years later. We didn’t have lots of money, but I always figured out a way to pay for extras like that. We put on a teddy-bear tea party one year (bring your teddy-bear!) and  a trip to the reptile zoo another year (poor reptiles! What was I thinking?).

Oh yes, the year of the hockey card cake—I painstakingly cut the players from hockey cards then glued the cut-outs to popsicle sticks so they could skate across the white icing on a sheet cake. That was also the year we hired John Demers, a children’s musician (kind of a low-rent Raffi, but actually better than Raffi) to play his guitar and sing in our yard for the children. There was a magician one year. I’ll never forget the tears I cried over making the bright yellow Big Bird cake—I borrowed the cake tin from a friend and worked so hard to get the icing the right colour. All this effort for a one-year old child who didn’t know the difference! Who probably just wanted to lick the bowl, that would have been enough. There was the year Greg and I blew up something like a hundred balloons so the boys could fasten paper bags on their feet with rubber bands and play the “stomp the balloon game.” I’m sure my fancy birthdays drove Greg crazy! 

And then as the kids got older and grew into adults, I upped my cake game and kept trying to perfect the Butter Brickle Cake, the recipe from Dufflet’s Bakery in Toronto. Three layers of pecan meringue with caramel sauce and whipped cream. I experimented with baking the meringue so it wouldn’t stick to the foil. Spray it with Pam first? Maybe parchment paper instead of foil? Higher temperature? Lower temperature? Maybe bake them a bit longer?  Was the caramel sauce too runny?  

The famous Butter Brickle Cake (recipe below for all of the stalwart bakers who wish to try)

All of this work at making birthdays wonderful is fine and beautiful. A noble intention: I wanted my kids to feel special, happy, and loved. None of this is wrong. But what gets me is how I tried so hard. The anxious perfectionism driving my doing is what I’d like to eradicate. I think I took a neurotic pride in these exertions, looking down my nose a little at the families who ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut and an ice-cream cake from Dairy Queen and let the kids play in the yard for a couple of hours and called it a birthday party. But at the same time, I envied the relaxed looks on those parents’ faces—they were enjoying themselves, sitting in their deck chairs drinking beer and laughing while the kids made their own fun. No need for hired entertainers, fancy party bags, or even paper invitations. Just call a few friends and tell them to come on over. No need to try so hard.


The word perfection comes from the Latin noun perfectio and the adjective perfectus, both of which are derived from the verb perficere, “to complete.” So perfection is tantamount to wholeness, completeness, and—to use the Buddhist concept—suchness. Something is perfect simply because it is. It is perfect just as it is, mistakes and flaws included. (p. 29)

When I read this paragraph yesterday in Vanesa Zuisei Goddard’s book, Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion,  I felt a click of recognition. My therapist has been talking lately about Madeline at capacity. Being all of myself, allowing all of myself to be. To feel my suchness. That’s perfection. 

I wish now I’d been a bit more relaxed as a mother. Perhaps more “being” and less “doing.” More carefree. Welcome the mistakes. Don’t worry so much. Only make a fancy cake if I felt inspired to, not because I was driven by a Women’s Day image of what good mothers do.There’s no shame in buying a cake.

If I have an intention for the year ahead, it is to stop trying so hard, to relax deeper into my suchness. Instead of pushing myself into each new day with a list of “shoulds,” I plan to pause and see what emerges from my depths. What do I, in my perfection, want to experience today? 

Butter Brickle Cake 

This cake, by Dufflet Rosenberg, is a sensational combo of pecan meringue, rich caramel, and whipped cream filling.

Pecan Meringue

6 egg whites
1.5 c. white sugar
4.5 oz. toasted pecans, finely chopped (you can toast in a cast iron fry pan on top of stove, or in oven for a few minutes)

Caramel Filling

1 c. white sugar 
.5 c. buttermilk
.25 c. butter
1 tbsp. corn syrup
.5 tsp baking soda
few drops vanilla

Whipped cream filling

2.5 cups whipping cream 
.25 c. dark rum OR a tsp. of rum flavoring

Meringue: whip the egg whites in large bowl til soft peaks form. Add 2 tbsp of the sugar and beat until stiff peak forms. Fold in remaining sugar and pecans. Line baking sheets with parchment paper, and spread three 9-inch rounds on the paper. Bake in 200-degree oven until firm.  

Caramel filling: in small heavy saucepan combine all ingredients. Sir and cook over med. heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils. Boil without stirring until mixture reaches soft-ball stage (236 degrees – if you’re not sure about what this is, look online or in Joy of Cooking).  Remove from heat and cool 2-3 minutes. Spread mixture evenly over meringue layers, reserving .25 cup for decoration. 

Whipped cream: whip cream until stiff, fold in rum or flavoring. Spread some cream on each layer and then pile the layers up. Cover top and sides with remaining cream. Decorate with butterscotch swirls and pecan halves. Refrigerate until serving. Makes about 12 servings. 

Pockets

In the basement of my mother and stepfather’s house, I look through the closet where Mama’s coats hang. These are her extra coats, at least twenty of them. A black suede jacket by Anne Klein, a gold rain cape by Pierre Carden, an army-style blazer by Eileen Fisher. Size 12, size 14, large, large, large. I wish they fit me, but I swim in them. Except the cape. 

It’s raining, and I didn’t bring a raincoat. I came to Toronto to see my father in hospital, where he lies with a fractured pelvis. I left Victoria in a hurry and packed lightly—just a small overnight bag with a few clothes and a box of KN95 masks. I try on Mama’s rain cape and my hands go to the pockets. Change, Kleenex, a shopping list, a Stim-U-Dent, “the most recommended piece of wood in dental history.” 

I inherited my mother’s gum disease and her love of pockets. The best jackets and coats, dresses, and pants have pockets. Places to stash the things we might need. Mad money, my mother told me, was the money you took on a date in case the guy was a jerk and you needed the bus fare home. Pockets are secret places to slip your hands into when your fingers are cold or restless. Places to finger a hidden thing. 

Wearing the long gold cape, light as tissue paper, I start to rifle through pockets of the other coats. The treasures I find, I pile on the floor. I take just a few sample items and make an arrangement: a toonie, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Clean Kleenex, wads of it. Stim-U-Dents. A paper clip. The business card of a jeweller up on Bloor Street. Some scraps of paper with her handwriting. 

Handwriting that opens a valve spreading warmth through me. Hey, Mama, it’s you! I’ve opened hundreds of envelopes and packages addressed in that warm energetic cursive. For years, there were frequent letters filling me in, encouraging me, describing events and ideas, asking me how are you? how are the boys? Handwritten cheques, recipe cards, Christmas and birthday packages and “just because” packages. 

And lists—lists that summon an image of Mama getting ready to go out to do her daily errands.

She would tell me during our weekly calls, “I’m just like a European housewife, now. I shop every day.” I can see her in her sunglasses, her dark smooth hair in a classic bob. Pink lipstick. She is dressed all in black, and she tucks the list into her jacket pocket, slings a shopping bag over her arm. She calls for the cat Cicero, making sure he’s inside before she locks up and gets into her black Echo, buzzing up to Fiesta for the good Ace brand ciabatta. For the green net bag of bright oranges to halve and squeeze for juice every morning, using the old-fashioned cut-glass juicer. Mayo—a large jar of Hellman’s to be slathered on the sliced ciabatta and then layered with Asiago cheese and slices of the best-quality salami. A stop at the drug store for heart pills, for “dry shampoo.” I can see the funny little purple and white cannister of “Nuvola Dry Shampoo” on her vanity—that powder she sprinkled on her oily scalp to assuage some anguish she had about her hair.  

Pocket collage

I take off the rain cape—too dramatic. I worry it would draw attention to me as I walk along the street; I want to go by unnoticed. But I ask Petros if I can have her summer robe from the upstairs closet. It’s been 19 months now, but her clothes are all still here. I reach to the back of the closet and pull out the robe, still smelling of her.

Hey, Mama
What is 11 by 15?
Is it the size of a photograph 
you wanted to frame?

Did you ask 
Ma, Nung Uk 
at Golden Jewellery
to make
your ring smaller
so as to 
fit 
your
dwindled
finger?

I hope you don’t mind
that I took your  robe.
The Calvin Klein 
black jersey one
you wore in 
your final 
days. 

I was careless:
forgot to check
the pockets and
when I pulled it 
from the washer,
a fine white
confetti decorated
the dark folds.

The day before I left
I asked him, 
Could you ever
love another
woman?

No, he said. 
I would always 
compare her to 
Virginia. 

I want to write a poem about aprons

Aprons are on my mind. I sewed four of them, starting with a free pattern online (https://suzyquilts.com/free-modern-patchwork-apron-tutorial/), and soon started to modify the pattern to make it my own, changing this and that, adding pockets. Then I went to Fabricland with my youngest son and he chose fabric for an apron—animals of the African Savannah—sepia on beige. He chose a bold white on brown polka dot fabric for the lining. When I finish the apron, he thinks he might wear it while tattooing (it will get covered in ink). I bought some lovely tablecloths and placemats at Value Village, piled up now on my sewing table, which I’ll cut and shape into another apron for a friend who loves purples, pinks, and blues. 

What is the appeal of aprons? I love their practicality, their long history worn not just as a cover by women to protect their good clothes when they cooked and cleaned, but worn also by craftspeople, tradespeople, waiters, workers of all kinds throughout the ages. The cobbler at his bench, the candlestick maker pouring wax, the man with tongs at the forge, the woman throwing pots, the child sloshing poster paints over a piece of newsprint. 

I want to write a poem about aprons.  During my year off, I signed up for “Masterclass,” an online offering of video classes by “masters.” For us, this expense has been mostly a waste of money. We paid $240 for a one-year subscription because I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to write a novel from Margaret Atwood. I soon discovered that although she is  a wonderful writer, she does not inspire me. She seems truculent in her mini-lectures, and she says things like, “the garbage can is your best friend.” I feel discouraged. So I watch a few videos of David Sedaris talking about how to write humour. He says we should write in a journal. Of course. Don’t we all already? But I’ll never be very funny. So I abort that class. 

I don’t want to learn percussion from Sheila E. or Skateboarding from Tony Hawk. Nor am I interested in cooking with Wolfgang Puck or building a fashion brand with Diane von Furstenberg. But Billy Collins, the poet, seems promising. So I start to listen to his videos, to read his poems, and I feel encouraged. “Poems are the expression of thoughts and feelings, but they are no longer embarrassing, sort of like a diary without a lock.” I like that. He invites us to write a sentence, the first sentence, and then shape it into four lines for the first quatrain of the poem. So I do that. And then I write another, and another. And the poem, like the apron, grows.

I want to write a poem about aprons

The boy who wore my first apron—a 
simple Home-Ec project in denim—was  
jeered at by the other kids in the mall
where we hung out to smoke and flirt.

He pranced around the spewing fountain 
in the badly sewn thing, making lewd 
gestures, cupping his groin. Everybody  
mocked, so I joined in their laughter.

Uneven seams, unravelling, only an hour
old and the pocket falling off already: a 
garment of mistakes. Sewing is for old women,
home economics a massive bore.

In those years, a pattern coalesced: 
over and over, I betrayed myself.
The second arrow, finding my raw 
heart, buried his head in the pulp. 

Perhaps I want to sew aprons 
now to atone for my crimes against 
myself, self-betrayal just another 
stab at finding love when I was young. 

I dump drawers of fabric on my 
sewing room floor, mounds of blue
and green crash like gelid waves 
off the coast, a tossed bed for the sunset.

Colours and patterns converse
as I move the hot iron over their 
grateful hides. Next, the rotary cutter
slices straight lines to invent a silhouette.

The machine hums with ambition,
the brown paper, resisting my pins,
crinkles and bends, and I cut with the
grand yellow-handled scissors—a shape.

The thing comes together by itself—I, only 
a hand maiden, am guided to choose, to match, 
to press, and slice, and pin, to cut and shape
and press again, deferring to a greater power.

National Public Radio plays jazz 24 hours a day, 
the jazz gem of the Palouse. I love to hear the DJ say,
“the jazz gem of the Palouse,” sweet assonance.
So, breezy drums, sax, trombone, a plucky bass,

they blow the score for a blockbuster movie, a
dramady called Madeline Makes Aprons, 
the story of a girl who slowly learns the art 
of loving the shadow, the mistake, the first creation.

Madeline makes aprons

An eye for detail

This morning I sat at my desk in my pajamas, writing, enjoying the way the light spilled from the lamp onto the scarred surface of the wood. Appreciating these last couple of days of not working. After a whole year off, I go back to my job on Thursday. My phone was on silent, but I noticed a missed call pop up on the screen. It was from the hair salon where I had booked an appointment for 11 a.m. Lots of time yet. I called back and asked if there was a problem….Did they need to reschedule?

Detail from a drawing by Michael Carpenter. Pastel on paper.

“Well yes, your appointment was at 11 and it’s 12.”

“It’s 12? No, it’s 8:58 a.m.” Pause. “Wait a second, where are you?”

“Alliston, Ontario.”

“What? Really? Oh my God, I am so sorry. Aren’t you the Gallery Salon on Yates Street in Victoria, B.C.?”

 “Where? Victoria? No, we’re in Ontario. Our salon is the Gallery Salon, and we’re on Victoria Street in Alliston.”

I was deeply apologetic, and then we both had a good laugh about it. After I ended the call, I thought about the details that I should have twigged on yesterday. I was looking online for a local salon that had a high rating—the Gallery Salon came up, located on Yates Street in Victoria. But I couldn’t find their website so looked for a Facebook page. Sure, the Gallery Salon has a FB page, but I didn’t notice it was a different Gallery Salon, one located in Alliston, Ontario. I tried to book with their online app, but got a FB message to call them to schedule an appointment. 

Why didn’t I notice the 705 area code when I called? In the back of my mind, I figured the area code was some new cell phone code, like 778, which startled me when it was first introduced. The owner mentioned HST when we talked about pricing. Why didn’t that detail wake me up? in British Columbia we charge Provincial Sales Tax (PST) plus Goods and Services Tax (GST), whereas Ontario businesses charge a combination of the two, called the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Perhaps I had temporary amnesia and thought time had slipped back to 2011 or 2012 when B.C. briefly charged the HST. 

In any case, my mind had done a superb job of filtering out information that didn’t align with my expectations. Selective perception? Frightening, really. 

What does it mean to have an “eye for detail”?  I expect myself to have eagle eyes because I am an editor-in-training. But each of us notices some details and not others. It depends on your focus, your task, your mood, your intention. Today I was interested in the details of lipstick shades. I was writing about Phyllis’s lipstick:

“Her lips, Geraldine noticed, were the colour of the heavy hardcover Roget’s Thesaurus she kept under her bed. Claret red. Revlon’s “Certainly Red.” The shade matched Phyllis’s certainty, her sophistication. Not like her grandmother’s “Candy Pink” from Avon, sold by Wilma from upstairs, the Avon Lady and Garnet’s babysitter. No, not that silly, girlish, domesticated pink. Far from it.” 

I looked up Avon and Revlon lipstick shades from the early 1950s and old book covers of Roget’s Thesaurus (Geraldine, a 13-year-old philologist, keeps a dictionary and a thesaurus under her bed). So many shades of pink and red. Burgundy, geranium, candy floss, salmon, cherry, garnet, ruby, watermelon, and blood.

Some days I notice almost every plant we pass on our walks, marvelling at variegated leaves, unusual blooms, the shape of needles, the saturated cobalt blues and plums of the hydrangea petals. Other times I barely register my surroundings, my attention drawn inward or wrapped around an intimate conversation. An eye for detail, like everything else, is variable, relative, and contingent on context. 

As I finish my first course in the editing certificate and work on the final assignment this week, I am grateful that I can switch on my eagle eye when I really need it. When it’s time to proofread, I can shut out distractions and use a ruler to move slowly down a page of text, my antennae out for anomalies, typos, extra spaces. When it’s time for big picture detail, my mind can range like a camera viewfinder, alert to where prose needs a signpost, where a key transition needs ballast. 

I have reassured myself that if I weren’t so distracted yesterday by multi-tasking (making a hair appointment while reading my email), I would have noticed I was talking to the owner of a salon located 4,274 kilometres away from my hair. When I set my intention, I have a grand eye for detail.

And yet, I still need a haircut. . . .

Update

In my last post, I said that I would let readers know the results of my fundraiser. Thank you to Barbara Churchill who purchased the Four Seasons quilt for $260—all proceeds went to Black Lives Matter, Vancouver B.C. 

No takers for my piece, the Eight Worldly Winds, but that’s okay. I like to see it hanging above my new desk, which is actually a used kitchen table we bought for $20 last week. I’ll be working from home now, and this is my home office. Thank you for reading. Stay safe.

Eight worldly winds hangs above my new desk

Threads connect us

I have been sitting in discomfort, searching for  how to begin. Fear of making a mistake keeps me from acting, from speaking. Perhaps some of you reading this feel the same way. Are you a privileged white person, trying to figure out how best to speak up, how to be part of the solution? Are you getting a crash course in systemic racism and wondering what to do with all the emotion and information? We can give money to Black Lives Matter causes if we’re financially able. But something more is being asked from us right now. 

White silence is complicit, white silence is oppression. If you are white and you have a social media following, you have a responsibility to use that influence to draw attention to Black voices. I don’t have much of a following (but huge gratitude to those who DO follow me) and I am certainly no influencer. Nonetheless, I want to use some of my space today to draw attention to two incredible Black women textile artists: Sarah Bond and Bisa Butler.

From Modern Quilt Guild’s website

I’ve been following Philadelphian Sarah Bond on Instagram for a while, appreciating not only her beautiful quilts, but her frequent mention of herstory. A descendant of slaves, Bond is inspired by the quilts of her ForeMothers and by modern quilts, combining ideas from both into her bright geometric creations. I especially admire her scrappy diamonds.

Follow Sarah Bond on Instagram at @slbphilly Here is an image from her IG feed of one of those scrappy diamond quilts in delicious blues.

One of her recent projects is quilting together blocks created by young people at the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA), an amazing organization that  “empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change.” Their hands-on workshops are held across the United States. Check them out.

Fibre artist Bisa Butler’s vibrant portraiture needs no introduction to people in the textile arts scene, but until recently, I was oblivious to her work. Her bright Kool-Aid colours and realistic fabric portraits are legendary. As an art student at Howard University, Butler was influenced by Romare Bearden’s collage and the AfriCOBRA collective (one of the inspirations for the Black Arts Movement). As a young mother, she learned how to quilt and developed, through these combined influences, her unique fibre art style. Her work celebrates African American identity, history, and culture through intense fibre portraits. Sometimes she uses pieces of clothing from her family history in her work. This short film, Quilting for the Culture, will introduce you to the woman, her work, and her aesthetic: 

on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bisa.butler

I’m in awe of the skill and talent of these two women. I aim to continue learning more about Black artists, especially Black women artists and Black textile artists. 

My creative space

As I prepare to return to work in two weeks, I’ve been cleaning up my creative space and reviewing the last six months of sewing. It’s been a productive time as the pandemic kept me close to home, close to my sewing machine. I find sewing brings joy and soothes grief—and I need that right now as our world is shaken by Covid-19, police brutality, and racism.

In January, I finished Four Seasons, a scrap quilt. After that, I sewed purses, potholders, and face masks galore and gave them all away. I also sewed my first garment, the “Courage Cape,” out of a $5 thrift store blanket. I made a couple of banners: “Thank You” to our health care workers, which hangs in our front window and “Black Lives Matter,” which hangs on our front door. 

I finally completed Eight Worldly Winds, the first piece I’ve made that I dare to call “fibre art.” A series of eight triangular pennants arranged in a mandala feature a stag as protagonist and illustrate the eight worldly winds from Buddhist teachings. These consist of four opposing pairs of pleasures vs. discomforts: happiness/ suffering; praise/ blame; fame/ disrepute; and gain/ loss. Pema Chodron has a gift of making this teaching relevant to our lives:  

“We try to hold on to fleeting pleasures and avoid discomfort in a world where everything is always changing. Our attachment to them is very strong, very visceral at either extreme. But at some point it might hit us that there’s more to liberation than trying to avoid discomfort, more to lasting happiness than pursuing temporary pleasures, temporary relief.” 

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, 54-55

I am offering Four Seasons (approximately 38″ X 45″ quilt) and Eight Worldly Winds (35″ circular wall hanging) for a suggested donation of $250 each.  All money raised will be donated to Black Lives Matter Vancouver (and I’ll post the receipt for funds donated here on the blog). Free shipping (my donation) in North America. If you are interested, please send me an email: maddyruthwalker@gmail.com

Love, Madeline