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!!

Kinship with Animals

My friend Nancy and I walk along the streets of her leafy neighbourhood.  Suna, her little Shiba Inu, sniffs the shrubs and grass as we go. I notice a doe standing in the shadows a stone’s throw away. 

“Look.” 

“Yes, sometimes the mother deers think that Suna is a fawn, and they follow her because they think I’ve stolen their baby.”

I laugh at this endearing testament to the deep protective instinct mothers feel. Sure enough, this doe looks with interest at Suna, a plush fox-like dog with a curlicued tail. Her coat is the same colour as a fawn’s—I can see why the doe might wonder. We continue to walk, and I notice the doe has started to follow. Soon, she increases her pace and is very close behind us, an avid look in her eyes as she stares at Suna. Indeed, she seems determined to get close to the dog, and we walk a little faster to put some distance between us. The doe canters elegantly around parked cars on her slender matchstick legs, moist black snout and huge almond eyes leading the way. Nancy and I are alarmed. Might the doe attack us to get closer to what she believes is her offspring?

“Let’s go,” says Nancy, and we begin to run down the middle of the quiet street, Suna in tow. After a block or so, we slow down, and I see we have finally lost the doe. I feel strangely thrilled by this brush with an animal. To see close up her ardency—the quiver of her black nose, her flicking tail and tall twitching ears. To empathize with her desire to rescue something she thinks is hers. I wonder what would have happened if we had simply stopped. Perhaps the doe wanted nothing more than to make contact with Suna, to sniff and nuzzle her. She would quickly realize, “this is not my fawn.” 

It’s been a fortnight of animal encounters. About two weeks ago, a nest cradling six or so baby robins in our yard was the epicenter of a grand battle between parent robins and several crows determined to capture and devour the babies. The bush is outside our bedroom window, and early in the mornings, we could hear the desperate chirping of the parents, the caw-caw of their opponents, the tiny cheeps of the chicks, and the rustling of the bush where the nest was located. It seemed that every day, one or two fewer chicks resided there. And soon there were none. Now the nest sits unoccupied, a bowl of fallen petals. I was angry at the crows and heartbroken for the robins, while at the same time recognizing how sentimental I was being about the ways of nature. 

Empty Nest

A few days ago when I visited my favourite Arbutus tree in our local park, I witnessed two Great Horned Owls sitting about six metres away from me on a branch overhanging the Colquitz River. Astounded at my luck, I crouched on the riverbank, one hand resting on the smooth bark of the Arbutus, and observed them for several minutes. They looked calmly at me. I had a staring contest with the one on the left, and she was the first to blink and look away. The fellow on the right swivelled his large tufted head in a complete rotation. My kin.

Owl kin

Then there was a Cedar Waxwing sighting as we walked through a grassy meadow from the mall to our house a couple of days ago. His head a golden crested helmet, the vermilion patch on his wing like a talisman. I didn’t identify him at the time; when we got home, I got out the Golden Field Guide to the Birds of North America and found his picture. An old childhood memory surfaced: Our family lived in Boston one summer while my Dad did something at Harvard. We rescued an injured Cedar Waxwing, keeping him in a cardboard box. Care and feeding involved an eyedropper. I have a murky feeling that there is a bad ending to that story, involving a cat. My sisters probably remember more than I do.

I’ve had numerous heron and rabbit sightings these past two weeks too, and yesterday morning the insistent mournful cry of a Northern Flicker punctuated my morning meditation. Our neighbour is the lucky one to host the hollow tree where the family lives. He reported today that baby Flicker pokes his head out of the hole a little more each day. This morning a chevron of honking Canada Geese passed over me as I watered the garden. I drank in the sight and the wistful sound, the sound of yearning.

Heron fishing in Colquitz Creek

I don’t think there are more animals and birds in our urban environment than there used to be. What has changed is my level of observation. Not working, slowing down, and staying close to home means I notice more of what’s happening around me. 

This strong feeling of kinship with all of these animals has affected me. In January, I eliminated animal products from my diet. My bad cholesterol (LDL) has been too high for years. My doctor told me it was genetic and changing my diet would likely not have an effect. I disagreed: I proposed to eat vegan for six months and get my blood tested at the beginning and end of the period. Though at first I missed cream in my coffee and chunks of cheddar with my apples, I’ve grown to enjoy plant based cooking and eating.

It’s easy to tell people you are not eating animal products for health reasons (dietary veganism). How can they argue with that? If you say you’ve chosen this diet because you don’t want to harm animals (ethical veganism), some meat-eaters become uncomfortable and defensive. (I know because I felt this way.) I hate to cause discomfort, yet as I continue into the final month of my experiment, I realize my reasons for not eating animals products are not so simple as they first were. 

Yes, I want to be healthier, and I predict my blood test in July will be good news. But I also feel close to my animal family: the owls, the mother deer, the big rabbit who scooted in front of me on the path, the robins, the gorgeous Waxwing, the Flicker, the geese. Even the damn crows. Sure, I know none of those animals is on the menu. But I extend that feeling of kin to the big dairy cows with sad eyes hooked up to milking machines at the Saanich Fair last September. The chickens I imagine stuffed into too-small cages. The lambs my father used to raise on his farm and send to be butchered. My kith and kin, just as much as Joy, our Ragdoll cat lying beside me on the couch is family. I don’t know what I’ll do when this experiment in eating is over. What I do know is that I like this feeling of being connected to all sentient beings.  

Joy

On unprized poems and why we write

Five years ago I got interested in corn.  I found out about maize, its history, breeding, and physiology, about Barbara McClintock’s work on maize genetics, leading to her Nobel Prize. I looked into corn’s many creation myths told by Indigenous tribes and cultures. I read about how genetically modified maize under the product name StarLink was sold in hundreds of different food products (for example, Taco Bell tacos) before it was recalled, not approved for human consumption by the FDA.

I was also interested at that time in giving objects voice in my poems, making objects subjects.

I spent some time reading, researching, and then writing a poem in which I envisioned a cob of corn speaking to a little girl at a Fourth of July picnic.  I wanted to express how food is sacred, it has its own history of being used, abused, loved, and narrated by humans. With a 7,000 year history, corn is an especially rich source of stories.

I entered the resulting poem in CBC’s poetry contest that year.  Of course I didn’t win.  David Martin deserved the prize for his ambitious poem, “Tar Swan.”

But not winning meant that I buried the poem deep in my computer’s archives and banished the thought of it.  It was, after all, “unprized.” But does that mean it’s not worth sharing?

I’ve been using Caroline Sharp’s A Writer’s Workbook to get my daily writing practice back on track. Today, I came across her inspiring words of encouragement:

 “Practice, practice, practice. Stretch your voice. Assert your talent and speak loudly because this is a short time we have here, to be alive, here and now, with this pen and this piece of paper.  This day matters and this word matters and your story matters.” (p. 34)

So take heart, writers.  Keep writing. Don’t permit not getting the prize stop you from setting words down and then sharing them. We write to communicate, and if we keep waiting for prizes and praise, we may never connect to readers.

 

Corn speaks

I

Alicia, before you eat me,
listen, child,
listen:

Teosinte is my wild cousin five genes distant,
her leafy bush concealed a few hard nuggets,
hardy ancestors to my lush abundant bumps.

Before your big white American teeth
crunch me, think of my long history.
How centuries ago, early farmers in what
we now call Mexico worked to breed,
selectively, the very best parts of me.

Native Americans mythed me into being.
I am sister to squash and beans, I am
Mother corn. I shake my thighs in secret to
birth my maize.  Sons and grandsons,
voyeurs, are dismayed, disgusted.

Are you amazed?  When you see an ear of corn
looks like a baby wrapped in silk blankets
you might pause.  But eventually you’ll see we are always
already cannibals, my dear.

I am Mondawmin, the sky-boy. I came
down to earth, surrendered my fight with Wunzh, was
buried bare and bronze in the earth, sprouted green with
silk-bright hair so hunters could stop
wandering and become farmers.

You eat pure history in my sweet starch.
Butter slides like sweat across the brown ribs
of the tiller of primordial fields.
Time throbs your tooth against the cob.
Alicia, stop girl and bless me!

You eat the creamy flesh of time,
you are connected to the calloused thumb of a
brown woman who seven centuries ago
culled the best and plumpest kernel from the plant
and bred me into being.

Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.

II

Okay Alicia, your corn is done,
spent cob lays on your plate,
dull remnant of a summer feast
beside the stub of a stale hotdog bun.

Has any other food been used, abused, so vigorously?
Kellogg’s, Karo, your will be done,
but those sly modifiers, those slick scientists
crept into my buttery insides and played with
my genes; those white coats took my soul when they called
their stuff Starlink and hid it in a taco shell.
Fool’s gold it was, fool’s gold.

I love to serve, to submit to your extractions of
sweet, of starch, of ethanol to run your
cars, but don’t mess with my soul.

Alicia, warn your people that I am not
just vegetable. I am woman, mother, sister, boy, god, goddess,
baby. The history of the Americas rests deep,
deep in my kernel.
Get back to basics, girl. Get back to sacred.
Third week of August, ancient tribes
worshipped me, my yellow more precious than gold.

Bless me girl,
Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.
Bless me.

IMG_0165

Inspired by “Corn Maiden” by Marti Fenton