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Weekend reads: Mother's Day edition
A tribute to food, family - and my favourite "birthing person"
My mother’s favorite cookbook is The Cooking of Provincial France. Before I had ever heard of its Francophile authors, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, I knew about the pretty amber book with the soufflé on the cover. It was jammed in a cupboard above the fridge, and my mum would stand on her tip-toes to pull it down whenever she was in the mood to make something special.
For reasons best known to my mother, she has always been enamored of France. Something about the country’s language and philosophers and music and love of life — the savoring of every moment of pleasure, every hunk of baguette, every last square of dark chocolate — has always spoken to her. I gather that it all began with this volume of the famed Time-Life Foods of the World series, The Cooking of Provincial France, which my mother was given by an Italian friend who knew enough about food to know what she was giving.
My mother hasn’t been to France yet. The closest she’s gotten, I imagine, was during one of her trips to visit me in Toronto. I took her to a Parisian creperie in Yorkville, where airy batter was tenderly smoothed onto griddles, cooked, topped with homemade tartinade and fresh strawberries, and carefully folded onto plates. It was a breezy summer day and we sat in chairs out on the sidewalk and sipped our café au laits without speaking. The servers drifted in and out of the shop, delivering orders in lyrical bursts of French, and an accordion player planted himself near us and began to play. I looked over and saw that tears were rolling down my mother’s cheeks.
My mother discovered French food at a dinner party in the 1960s, when she sampled a heavenly fish recipe from The Cooking of Provincial France. Concetta, her Italian film- professor friend, happened to have the book and was generous enough to give it to her.
It wasn’t an easy time in my parents’ life. They were living in inner-city Pittsburgh while my father pursued his graduate degree in psychology at Duquesne. They often had no money for food, and had to wash all their clothes by hand. The apartment they lived in was so dilapidated, it once filled with clouds of soot — one hundred years of grime that had built up in the vents and were released when the heating system was replaced — which left a black film on all of their belongings that lasted for days.
They eventually moved on to the famed Project One commune in San Francisco, where my mother became its head cook. Every night she made a soup, a salad, a main and a dessert for sixty or so people, all from her cherished book.
When my brother and I were growing up, my mum supplemented the hippie macrobiotic cuisine of the time — and the hearty shepherd’s pie fare she herself was brought up on — with the best of rustic French country cooking. Chunky vegetable soups garnished with thin trails of pesto; cream of carrot or cauliflower purees; delicate, buttery quiches with cheese; simple seasonal salads; flaky tomato pies; glazed strawberry tarts bursting with summer sweetness.
I took these delights for granted. I took it for granted that my mother went to the trouble of creating such beautiful food, particularly in the era of the boxed macaroni and cheese and Fruit Roll-Ups that I so coveted. I couldn’t comprehend that her passion was anything unusual, anything out of the ordinary.
So I didn’t understand what she was entrusting me with one day in grade nine when she handed over her prized cookbook to take to my French class for show-and-tell. I carted the book to school. I unpacked it and made some random remarks, possibly about cassoulets. And then I left it in the chilly classroom, abandoned, never to be found again. My mother was devastated. I felt terrible.
But then I forgot all about the slim tome. And if my mother had mournful cravings for the pâte brisée recipe contained within it, she didn’t mention it.
Many years later, I myself fell in love with cooking. It started with Weight Watchers. Admittedly, this is not the most poetic beginning to a love affair with food, but it is my beginning and it is the truth.
I was thirty-one years old. My diet was appalling. It consisted mainly of soggy Asian takeout, Tim Hortons bagels, coffee and absurd amounts of drugstore chocolate. Unsurprisingly, I was overweight.
The problem was that I found myself working in quite possibly the most glamorous magazine office in all of Canada. My coworkers were willowy reeds with supermodel hair and manicured nails and closets full of stylish clothes. One of the interns wore Louboutins to work, for goodness’ sake. When I left the office, it was to interview celebrities or attend cocktail parties peopled by similarly skinny sylphs. All day long, I looked at layouts of celebrities (an exercise in boosting self-esteem, as you would expect). I did not like how frumpy I felt, how unpolished. I did not like fussing over clothes that didn’t fit right. I did not like how I appeared in photos. Plus, as I’ve said, I was pretty unhealthy.
Clearly something had to be done. But what?
I had absolutely no idea. So I started going to Weight Watchers meetings, where I sat among a motley crew of Torontonians and heard, for what felt like the first time, that it was not a good idea to eat processed foods if you wanted to lose weight. (How I had missed this message in my counterculture childhood is beyond me.) The program advised me to eat mainly fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and, in much smaller quantities, high-quality meat and dairy. These simple guidelines were a revelation.
Next, I landed on the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. The tone was instantly appealing — all pleasure, no pointless deprivation. Its author, Mireille Guiliano, whom I later tracked down, suggests in the book that women cut out processed foods and takeout; drink lots of water; walk everywhere (thankfully eschewing the gym); enjoy bread, chocolate and cheese in moderation; eat slowly, in courses; and plan one’s daily meals around a variety of fresh, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables. She maintains the secret to a fit figure is to redefine your relationship to food — to find joy in eating — and to simply use your head about how and when to indulge. It was another revelation. Here was the cultural wisdom that Michael Pollan had been talking about. The French had honed their eating habits over centuries, and they were more than happy to pass along their formula.
The more I read, the more it became obvious that I was going to need to learn how to cook. And Guiliano made it all seem so easy. Throw together a little grated-carrot salad or a beautiful mixed vegetable soup. Cook up a piece of fish with olive oil and lemon. Enjoy a single piece of dark chocolate for dessert, or perhaps some perfectly ripe cherries. Suddenly, eating well didn’t seem so difficult. So I started to try a few recipes. To eat actual, full meals. And enjoy them, guilt-free.
And here is the French paradox that everyone marvels at: I did not starve myself to slim down. Far from it. The more I ate — good food, real food — the more weight I lost. First five, then fifteen, and finally twenty pounds. Food became less of a mystery, and I began to feel connected to what was on my plate in a way that I hadn’t when I was absentmindedly scarfing down fast food. I felt alive. And I liked the way my little black dresses fit.
Next, I signed up for cooking classes at the local college. I made lasagnas and sole bonne femme, roasted whole chickens and baked pork chops with prune stuffing. To be honest, I didn’t have much natural ability. But people had been cooking every night for centuries. Surely I didn’t have to be gifted to make a decent dinner?
At the magazine, after I took over as editor of the food pages, I conferred with chefs, asking them over and over again if culinary skill came down to talent, or if passion and practice could get you there. I asked until I got the answer I was looking for. Over a cup of tea, Jamie Oliver gave me a playful piece of advice that’s held me in good stead: “Just do what you’re fucking told.” As in: Just follow recipes, already — it’s not rocket science.
And so, down long-distance lines, my mother read me her recipes. Bran muffins, banana bread, lemon yogurt salad dressing. Every week, we would detail the dishes that we had cooked the previous week. At the time, we favored Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. On opposite coasts, we slow-roasted tomatoes and ate them on hunks of baguette slathered with triple-cream Brie.
After having roommates for years, I moved into my own apartment and filled the tiny space with cookbooks. I spent hours in my galley kitchen stirring soups and sauces, rolling out dough for tourtières, baking brownies. I discovered that I could cook just fine, thank you very much. Once in a while I could even be great. Also, happily, my friends’ standards were spectacularly low. As it turns out, most people these days are accustomed to eating greasy takeout. A homemade meal — however basic — beats eating out of Styrofoam any day of the week.
Every now and then I would scour the Internet looking for that book that I had lost all that time ago. I couldn’t seem to get the title right; lots of books came up in my search, but none of them had that familiar golden cover. Once I even found photocopies of some of the recipes and sent them to my mother. But it wasn’t the same.
And then one day, I was sitting at my desk at work. It was a press day, and I was editing a cover story on Prince William and Kate Middleton. It seemed obvious that they would get engaged soon, which made me pleased. I wanted a coffee, and so I decided to venture out for a latte at the dreary mini-mall next door to our office tower. Please know that I almost never left my desk, and especially not on a press day. But I had to have a shot of caffeine to heighten the surge of contentment that I was experiencing.
Once the pages had been filed, I pulled on my enormous sunglasses and grabbed my oversized handbag and slipped out of the building. As I crossed the street, I was suddenly hit with an overwhelming urge to visit the Goodwill store in the mall and peruse their cookbooks. It was hot and humid, and when I entered the cool mall I walked right past the coffee shop and into the thrift store. I made a beeline for the cookbook section, heeding some strange magnetic pull.
There, on the first shelf that I looked at, was a familiar amber cover. I felt a jolt of recognition seeing that soufflé.
It was The Cooking of Provincial France. I lifted the beautiful book off the shelf and flipped through its immaculate pages full of photos of markets and fish and flowers and cakes. I could have cried. It was $3.49.
I left the mall and called my mother. Two decades later, I told her that I could return French country cooking to her, a lost sliver of her soul.
An excerpt from my book, Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life.
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