I like to look people in the eye. I mean, I really look at them hard. In conversation, upon being introduced to someone new, in meetings… I tend to stare. In polite terms, I observe. Always, I am in violation of the Cardinal Rule of Public Transit – do not, ever, under any circumstance, look at a stranger on the streetcar with the faintest intensity.
My sister, Eleni, has three words she uses over and again when we share a restaurant meal: “Maria, stop staring!” It makes her crazy that I like watching people, that my gaze gets caught up in how they do things. Have you ever followed closely someone’s movements – watched how he lifts a utensil, the way he switches off knife and fork, or how he places the napkin when he leaves the table? That we each cradle a water glass or clink to a toast differently? I love all these gestures, I get absolutely taken away in them, and I suppose this makes me a difficult dinner companion if you’re not used to either – a) intense observation, or b) someone whose attention is fixated on the table next.
I remember an ex from my university days, Alex. He had a subtle – barely noticeable – way of pushing his bang back in moments of quiet apprehension, when otherwise his body language would not betray him. Everything is right, but he’s pushing back his bang: something’s amiss. These years later, I see his cue everywhere in others.
It’s a lot to admit publicly that I live by watching people live their lives. I worry that it seems pedantic to treat observation with so much mental rigour: a scientist collecting her data. But – what it means to be here, the infinite ways to compose a day, and the tiny actions that lead to the mundane and sublime? I will spend years puzzling over this stuff.
I really – and initially, against my will – like a genre of writing known as “stunt non-fiction.” The label’s a bit unfortunate, mostly because of the connotations in the word “stunt” – falsity or something done for attention. The genre refers to the recent explosion of writing about an author’s quest toward some kind of self-discovery through a gimmick. A few titles you will recognize - Julie & Julia, The Happiness Project, The Art of Eating In or Living Oprah. Each has a narrowly-defined scope and time frame: for instance, attempting every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or devoting an entire year to the study and living of “happiness.”
This type of reading provides me an easy, cheap thrill – the high someone else might experience from hours of reality television. The books aren’t complicated and the lessons aren’t profound, especially when they set out to be. The real meat is the 300-page glimpse into someone’s real – albeit, heavily edited – life. The minutiae within the less-considered bits make this genre exciting and infuriating. Powell’s puddle of woman and stuffed chicken on the orange and black checkered tile; quiet, keen bedtime observations from Rubin’s husband; or how Cathy’s experiment, to me, is a story about relationships, not avoiding restaurants.
It all comes back to the looking really hard at people: on the streetcar, at the table, through the words they write and omit, however uncomfortable… The individual bits often don’t say much. But in composite, our gestures are revelatory. Figuring out the lessons in each glance, each movement absorbed, each excruciating detail, and then comes the difficult part – using this bric-à-brac to some end, maybe to live better.
[Photo, with thanks, via.]
I have a soft spot for ritual. Not habits or routines, but the special actions we perform again and again that make us as we are.
My Great-Grandma Emmy, for example, would take toast and tea each night as part of her evening ritual. Two hot buttered slices of white toast and milky black tea in a fine-bone china cup and rattling saucer. She said it gave her good constitution. Tea and toast prevented ailments and made her strong. I never doubted it.
Every Friday when I was little, my dad brought mom three bunches of carnations wrapped in sturdy market paper. The stems were bound together with elastics. Mom carefully unwrapped her flowers, trimmed the ends. Carnations are hardy, so she’d pick through last week’s vases. She’d keep what was good, add the new blooms, stir together fresh water and food. All into the same vases on the same shelves and side tables. It was a sourdough starter that she fed each Friday, of pink and red and white and purple-flecked flowers.
My sister Eleni eats ears of corn in perfect single rows, kernel by kernel, so attentively, it sometimes makes me want to scream. She has a way of plucking the entire kernel out, so as to leave the cob completely naked. It’s not like my own cob, a sodden mess of corn-bits and fibre. Each August, I watch her, half-expecting that she might dive in and attack to make up for her years of decorous nibbles. But it hasn’t happened in the twenty-two that I’ve known her. Eleni eats corn with purpose and finely tuned ritual.
Though I love examining rituals in others, I can’t name many of my own. There is one, but it’s hardly ritual at all: each night, about 30 minutes before I sleep, I wander about the apartment turning off lights. I tidy couch cushions. I turn on my bedroom lamp and turn down the covers. I prop up my pillows and pull whatever I’m currently reading from the shelf, until I’m sleepy, 20 or so pages later. And one other: each morning I count the squirrels. My walk to work takes me through Allan Gardens, and my little friends come and go with the weather. I know spring is here, because squirrels are everywhere this week, grey and black dots flitting through the grass.
I think ritual is one reason why I love to cook. Thomas Keller has said that we cooks always want to do new things in the kitchen, but really there isn’t anything new about our pursuits. Cooking is repetition, completing a task over and again to do it better, a delicious monotony. It’s rituals: chopping an onion, sharpening a knife, stirring a pot of risotto in wide circles. I like that the more I cook, and the more things that I cook, and the better I am as a cook – the basic rituals of chopping, heating, stirring, tasting and repeating are still at heart. They create my humble morning oats and also the most mind-bogglingly complex of dishes.
Oatmeal is one of those ritualistic foods we don’t give much attention to, I think. We eat it for its virtuousness – what is more wholesome and austere than a bowl of oats? But there is something about the flaked grains, and how they swell in liquid, universally accepting of other flavours. They fill the belly uniquely, comfortingly. I think for many people, oats as breakfast are an unintended ritual, a consequence of deep-down knowing what’s good for us. They are the best kind of consistency.
I make heaps of variations of oatmeal – sometimes with fruit or nuts, seeds, chocolate, cookies – so many mix-ins! Below is a method for my staple oats – for days when I’ve run out of bananas, don’t want to chop apples and have depleted my milk stores – and it may be the nicest version of all – fluffy and soft with bits of seed.
Having chia seeds in the cupboard and hempseed in the fridge is a worthwhile investment. These oatmeal additions are satiating, textural, full of good fats and round out a simple bowl of starch so nicely.
1/3c dry old-fashioned oats
~2/3c cool water
1Tbsp chia seeds, soaked in 3Tbsp water (see photo)
1Tbsp hulled hemp seeds (I like Ruth’s SoftHemp or Mum’s Original Hempseed)
1Tbsp nut butter (I like MaraNatha Raw Almond Butter)
1Tbsp raspberry jam (or your favourite kind)
In a pan, cook the oats and water to your desired consistency, about 5 minutes. While cooking, combine the chia seeds and water in a small bowl and stir well. Let them sit to form a thick gel. Remove the cooked oats from stove. While still warm, stir in almond butter, bloomed chia seeds and hempseed. Transfer to a bowl and top with jam. This is the most basic (but still delicious) version – you can dress it up with milk, fruit, coconut, nuts, seeds, chocolate… the possibilities are many.
(And yes – those are all my bowls of oats pictured above!)
I’ll just say it: if I never have to walk into another grocery store again, I will be okay.
Don’t get me wrong, I love grocery shopping more than the average person. I’ve been told by my housemate that it’s a regular anthropological study, watching me in a produce section. I fawn over the vegetables, make notes, and roam around haphazardly taking in the stock. I pick up apples one by one, run my thumb over their skins with care, much as I imagine a goodly squirrel treats his walnuts. Eventually, I gather a bagful of acceptable specimens. I pull heads of lettuce off the shelf until I find the prettiest and frilliest of the lot. Max has taken to giving me a head start when we shop together: we usually cross paths somewhere around the preserves and honey. I can’t help it. Grocery stores are nice places.
But it’s late-March in southern Ontario. I’ve finally tucked my parka away in the closet until next year. Parka-less, I’m stuck in the grocery store, under the fluorescent lights and the fake umbrella tree in its entryway. See, Toronto’s many markets won’t be open for another month or so. Count on your fingers with me: this is almost five straight months that I’ve been seeing Whole Foods. We’re entering a long-term relationship. Each year, I forget my city’s long winter. I expect a fling with the grocery store.
There’s been some strange behaviour on my part. Take today, for instance: I grocery shopped on my lunch hour. I efficiently toured the aisles. On autopilot, I packaged kale and chard and a whole bag of alphonso mangoes, yielding and begging to be peeled. My favourite produce man brought me a bouncier bunch of cilantro from storage (he’s started to anticipate my requests, after all these dates). Breakfast tea, olive bread, preserves went into my basket. Twenty minutes later, I was back in the sunshine walking to the office.
Hoisting the bag over my shoulder, I recoiled. What on earth had I become? I was – dare I say it – an efficient grocery shopper.
As it goes, efficiency has taken over my dinner table as well. A steady stream of avocados parade through my kitchen. They ripen and get squished in warm wheat tortillas, slathered in the tangiest Greek yogurt I can find, sprinkled with cumin and sea salt and cracked pepper, heated through ’til the wrapper is spotted with golden bubbles. Which – if not inventive – isn’t terrible, once you taste it.
Come May, my neighbourhood market will be back, and I’ll be back to asking a million questions about asparagus and radishes. I’ve started a countdown. Until then, efficiency will tide me over.
Warm Avocado Roll
This is hardly a recipe at all, but it is delicious and takes two minutes from pan to plate. I’ve decided, in my many samples consumed since February, that it’s just the cure for grocery store blues. Cumin – in one-sixteenth teaspoons – it’s magical stuff!
1/2 very ripe avocado, sliced
2 Tbsp whole milk yogurt (thick Greek varieties work best, here)
a sprinkle of coarse salt, a shake of ground cumin, a turn of black pepper
1 small whole wheat tortilla
Place the tortilla shell in a nonstick or greased pan over medium-high heat. Line the middle with avocado slices and dollops of yogurt. Sprinkle with salt, cumin and pepper. Pull up the sides and squish down so it all sticks together. Let it heat through. Eat, over the sink. Repeat for dinner until the markets finally open, wherever yours may be.
The more I cook, I realize that I like simple flavours and few ingredients best. It occurred to me the other night as I stirred a Greek peasant soup that’s nothing more than some chickpeas and lemon simmered in broth. This weekend visiting Sameer, it was sweet butter lettuce, pomegranate arils and thin apple slices with a wisp of dressing. Most of what I eat is a few things, lovingly combined.
I’ve been cooking for a long time – and when I was younger, I reveled in complexity. I devoured molecular gastronomy and made multi-step brioches and attempted salmon sous-vide in my university kitchen (a very bad idea: salmon is not meant to be sous vide, as it goes). My salmon excepted, this cooking is often beautiful. I wouldn’t be so enamoured with Grant Achatz and Ferran Adrià if I didn’t appreciate complicated food. But in my own kitchen, more and more it’s less and less.
Anyway, tonight I pulled together dinner. A blended soup of broccoli, celery stalks, vegetable broth and black pepper finished with a swirly glug of olive oil. And I’m afraid that’s it. It tasted so good: a little sweet, creamy, warm and with an unusual depth considering its five ingredients and no aromatic base. I wanted to share it right away so you could make it, too. But a recipe for boiled broccoli seems unnecessary, given all the gorgeous and complex things out there to make and eat.
Instead I leave you with this: next time you see a most beautiful head of broccoli, buy it – for me. Slice it up (stems and all) with a stalk or two of celery and cover it with good vegetable stock. Simmer for 10 minutes or so. Test for salt and pepper. Blend. Slurp with some olive oil from a big white mug – and feel the kind of contentedness only soup brings.
Camera discreetly pointed toward the ground, someone will inevitably ask me: “What on earth are you taking a picture of?”
Those who know me well have an answer for that one: I love to take photos of my feet. Walking, standing, in the air, under a table – there’s something kind of poetic about documenting where the trusty pair takes me each day.
(Psst… the middle couple are my favourite, how about yours?)