Over time, I’ve collected many tiny mantras to live by.
Always hold the door. Keep my feet on the ground. Make time for kale and champagne. Walk, don’t run. Examine everything. Write it down.
Those are a few. They’re not literal – most are merely cues for other actions – like recognizing others and finding balance and humility and looking really hard at the world, always. But they work. Now and again I glance over my little list, and they remind me to be more as I’d like to be.
Here is one more:
When in doubt, remember anchovies.
I know, I know. Anchovies. Funky salty pungent greasy messy anchovies.
My family often ate pizza on Friday nights growing up, after my littler sisters were born and we moved to the “new house.” We ordered from a Windsor restaurant called Koolini, and my dad was on to something, because they make really delicious pies. Always on the side would be an oil-slicked plastic container, stuffed with anchovies.
Dad probably got a kick that his eight-year-old daughter would dominate those little fish – draping them over pizza slices and licking the salty remnants off her fingers. But once I tried them, they just made sense, and still do – savoury and intense and cured to the best possible texture.
Anchovies, like so many things in life, are better – delicious – if you can get past a false impression. Like so many things in life, we often don’t.
My day job has taken over my weeknights for the last while. On those evenings when more work looms past dinner, when time spent cooking is replaced with computer time, it’s been anchovies to the rescue. Draped over buratta on some baguette, bracing acidic tomatoes in a quick sauce, whirred into vinaigrette to douse over romaine or roasted cauliflower. Dinners with rewards so much greater than their efforts.
I eat these little fish and I think of all the wonderful things – people, places, foods, experiences – that we never get to know because they are gross, or not our type, or out of the norm. As I am remembering anchovies, I am remembering joys that are gained through an open heart and willingness to be less dogmatic about who I am and what I like.
What are your tiny mantras? And when did you eat your first anchovy?
At times, I enjoy living in a big city. I was reminded of this as we circled the tiny town of Jordan at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night in search of an open coffee shop (to no success). Toronto living comes with its conveniences – like nice little coffee shops that close after the summer sun sets.
But more and more I imagine that a life with some soft toe-hugging grass, a few fruit trees and a pair of chickens would be more than alright.
On Thursday, Sameer surprised me with a little road trip to St. Catharines for Outstanding in the Field. Here is the idea: one long communal table stretches as far as you can see through a farm field. A local chef uses this farm’s produce and animals to write and prepare a dinner. Wines from a nearby vineyard are gathered to serve with the food. A couple hundred strangers share the meal and the table.
Jim Denevan started what would become Outstanding in the Field as a series of farmer’s dinners in the summer of 1998. Soon after, he moved his tables into the fields, eventually setting up a traveling itinerary of dinners with guest chefs throughout California. Six cross-continent seasons later, his farm dinners have grown to thousands of guests toting their plates to tables on tour through North America.
Whitty Farms hosted this year’s one Ontario-based dinner at Thirteenth Street Winery. Doug and Karen’s farm is what you imagine a farm to be: rolling, picturesque, and story-filled. Doug led our 130-strong dinner party – Torontonians and Texans alike – through greenhouses, a bakehouse, fields and vineyards and shared stories of his hundred-plus year-old farm. We landed squarely between a crop of young sunflowers and grapevines, where a table was set for dinner.
What a dinner it was. Stephen Treadwell created a simple and charming meal from the land: a salad of Tree and Twig Farms‘ heirloom tomatoes (Linda grows hundreds of varieties!), Lake Huron perch with a radish-potato salad, veal ribeye with ratatouille and vanilla-roasted peaches to end things sweetly.
The food was very good. But more so, I experienced something curious and welcome as I shared platters of food with a group of strangers. We’ve left our communal table for a private one. As someone who tends away from crowds, I worried that I might feel self-conscious passing platters and conversation, and to some extent, this was of course true. But any awkwardness was overshadowed by our shared reverence and a migration into a field that hundreds signed up for – just to eat a meal. We put ourselves in the farm’s hands and brought to mouth what the earth underfoot and sky above created.
Seasons of the year: spring, summer, fall, winter. And seasons of life: sister, daughter, aunt, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.
Both arrive and leave before you have chance to notice. You never imagine that all this is going to change soon. Day by day it’s the same, and then you wake and it’s all gone and different and some pieces look familiar, but mostly not.
Last night I became an aunt. My sister a mother. My mom a grandmom. My grandmothers great-grandmothers.
My family is four sisters spread over an eight-year span. I’m the eldest. Sisters are a beautiful, difficult, impossibly rewarding thing, let me say. As we age the changes in our relationships are subtle but apparent. I’ve grown to appreciate more these women who are me slightly rearranged. I try harder to do good by them, knowing they will be with me all my life, friends unconditionally. Like no other, they have known me all my days, they have seen me through every season.
At moments it is so hard, being physically separated from my three sisters, who are together in Windsor. So much of the time I am jealous of them there, me here. I imagine them growing close, sharing days, living perfectly well without me. They live perfectly well without me. But proximity does not make family. Soon, Niki will head to university, Melina too. Less soon, we will each have families – whatever forms these families may take, wherever they may end up – we will gather for births and birthdays and markers of future seasons.
Our labels change and our seasons change.
Fruit trees are harbingers of the fleetingness. Last year, as peaches came and went, and I made peach-ricotta pizza to honour their visit. This year, I walked downstairs to a kitchen perfumed by another summer’s fruit. Knowing I’d soon be in Windsor – to hold a new nephew and to hug a new mother – I preserved them for later, to remember August 7, 2010 as something sweet and new.
(Makes about 4 cups)
I am a lazy preserver. I’d rather bag and freeze seasonal excess than get out bell jars and a pot of water big enough to bathe a newborn. So: I used some of this compote from the pan for a sweet-savoury French toast with herbes de Provence. I let the rest cool and ladled it into freezer bags by the cup, to enjoy later.
1 quart peaches (~20 medium)
3 Tbsp water
aromatics to taste – I used 1/2 a vanilla bean, scraped and a piece of cinnamon bark, but lemon zest, dried fruit, almond extract or nutmeg would be nice, too…
In a heavy-bottom saucepan, cook ingredients over medium heat until they reach a consistency you like. Keep in mind the fruit will thicken slightly as it cools. I cook at a low bubble for about 25 minutes until I have something more than a sauce, but less than a jam. Jar and refrigerate for up to a week, or let cool and freeze in one-cup portions to defrost mid-winter, when peaches are far away.
Look, friends: a garden.
Remember last month (my, it’s been long) when I wrote of an impending move? Well, here we are, in a garden. It’s a good one: full of ferns and a cherry tree and an elegant green canopy of a concord grapes, unripe – and mint to stir juleps for us all an evening over. There’s just enough moss between the stones to make things right under bare feet. It’s so impossibly far from the city right inside her.
Tonight I drank tea in the grass and inhaled just-rained-on air. I brushed my hands over the mint like my Yia-Yia does to oregano, bringing it close to my nose on my fingertips.
There are bumblebees about, on account of the summer and the flowers.
In my mental stack of photos, here is the scene: he and I sit by the pool at his parents’ house. He holds a camera, a dented little silver point and shoot, and the grey string dangles in the annoying way that you know will end up blurring half the frame. He wields the camera haphazardly and our bare feet float in the water. I wear knockoff Ray Bans of my father’s that I found on the kitchen counter. My hair is in the half-wet state that happens when the sun is so hot it evaporates everything but laughter and the quiet in-between. He clicks and the camera’s aperture whooshes.
And I take in his pale skin, and then the blindingly bright turquoise water, and then the dangling grey camera string and I push it aside out of the next shot – one of many in the mental stack of photos I flip through.
As I typed his name into the little search box on Facebook, it was with an uneasy impulse, the kind that I act on to spite my better judgment. Never mind that the relationship’s been over for years (and I’ve been over the relationship for years). Having spent a disproportionate chunk of my relatively young life with the boy by the pool, these photo albums were heavy.
I ended up flipping through some sets he had made public before closing the tab with reddened cheeks. Ever since, I sift through these photo-memories and they remind me of people once loved. How do they become fleeting thoughts from something so permanent? This man, under ever-so-slightly different circumstances, probably would be here now, sitting across the room as I write. He’d look up over his glasses and cock his head and flip the long bang from his eyes and return to his very serious reading. It’s kept me up at night – that I hadn’t given him a thought for months, maybe even years. (For a very long time.) That my subconscious was so impolite to not offer him even a nod here and again. But now, look! He is stuck in my head taking photos.
Photos are powerful things. Maybe that’s why I have a difficult time keeping them around, why I never want to be frozen in anyone’s lens. The memory above is stop motion and lens flare on a sunny day. It’s all photographs: the ones tucked in some drawer in my childhood bedroom, the ones stuck on an old hard drive, the ones taking up space in the tiniest place in that far corner of my brain reserved for unrequited nostalgia. (For reference: it’s the same place old song lyrics hide, the ones you sing from heart ten years later with a huh.)
Involuntary memory. Proust and his tired madeleines, his volumes of things past reduced to tear-shaped cookies and an easy analogy. The truth is, I hate that people-as-memories come and go as they please. Forever is presumptuous. But we put so much stock in creating memories, moments, things to look back on when the trigger hits – with no assurance that it ever will.
Like Proust’s protagonist, my easiest analogies involve food, and here is another. Memories are the recipes we make over and again, only to forget them. The boy by the pool could have returned bearing many forgotten dishes: split pea soup or sweet-sour caponata… but he’s brought along aglio e olio. At first it seemed an odd choice – a hot day and hearty pasta, but it makes sense now. Starchy and familiar and comforting and just foreign enough – exactly what the person I remember would bring.
It makes me sad and hopeful at once, thinking about these memories I am still making. Maybe I should keep a recipe box of the very best ones to revisit years from now, knowing I will forget. Perhaps I should let others with cameras freeze me in time, that I may accidentally stumble out of their farthest corners one day. There: at the side of a swimming pool, holding hands, laughing.
Aglio e olio
There are many versions for this classic Italian peasant dish of pasta, garlic and cheese. Some use chili pepper flakes, which I omit. Others use anchovy at the base. This makes for a richer sauce – break a couple down in the olive oil before cooking the garlic if you use them. While most people chop the garlic, I slice the cloves thinly. It makes for a gentler sauce and crisp nibs through the pasta.
100g uncooked spaghetti
2Tbsp of your favourite cooking olive oil
6-10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
a heavy handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2Tbsp shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, or another hard cheese like Gruyère or Asiago
salt and pepper, as needed
Bring well-salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti al dente. Drain in a colander.
In the same pasta pan, fry the sliced garlic over low heat in the olive oil, letting it brown just barely (any more and it will burn). This should take a couple minutes. Your kitchen will smell like heaven as garlic.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the pasta, stirring quickly. (It will sizzle like mad.) Toss in the parsley, cheese and cracked pepper. Taste for salt. Serve piping hot.
Makes one big bowl, with enough left for tomorrow’s lunch.