Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Do the best you can, with what you've got...

When my husband and I met, I was a nearly completely inexperienced cook. Not absolutely completely inexperienced, if you consider throwing together "student fare" to be "cooking". My university roommate and I worked wonders with a small appliance called a "Hot-pot Express"… It was basically a glorified, wide-topped kettle that you could cook soups and things in, as well as boiling water. We were connoisseurs of Kraft Dinner. Regular experts with a package of Ramen noodles… But to tell the truth, we didn’t actually eat a whole lot during those years. My student days were "lean years" in more ways than one. Truth be told, I worked so damn hard, half the time I forgot to grocery shop, let alone eat.

So, when my then-fiance and I moved in together, I really didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing in the kitchen. We had re-located to Vancouver-- he with a brand new job, me having given up any and all professional work to follow him and "start fresh". I spent my days, in our small apartment at the tippy-top of an office building in a nastier part of the downtown core, wondering what on earth I was going to do with my life… and what the hell I was going to make for dinner.

I made a lot of mistakes in those early days. Just ask The Husband. When I say "a lot", I mean, A LOT. In the very beginning, the main error I made was that I honestly thought I could learn to cook well, simply by studying recipe books. I poured over the classic, "The Joy of Cooking", for HOURS… but the fact of the matter was, when the authors would instruct me to perform basic tasks, like "truss the chicken", I didn’t have any smacking idea what Ms.Rombauer and her cronies were talking about. Those were the bad old days BEFORE the Internet, people... I couldn’t just whip over to the computer and Google the word "truss". Actually, come to think of it, had I looked up the word "truss" on Google, I probably would have discovered a LOT more than I had bargained for…

The months of "Joy" in MY kitchen were hardly joyful. They were frustrating. And wasteful. And, more often than not, quite nauseating. On especially disgusting occasions, like, for instance, the night I made a meatloaf that was riddled with FAR too much rosemary, and turned out as flat as a pancake, my beloved would catch my eye across the candlelit table and whisper huskily, "It’s a White Spot night, Sweetie…" And we would grab our coats, bolt for the door, and whip over to our favourite family restaurant, "The White Spot". The White Spot and their hearty, down-home cooking undoubtedly kept us from starving for the better part of a year or two.

The "Fanny Farmer" cookbook was a revelation to me. FINALLY, after months and months of attempting recipes that were clearly beyond my meagre skills, I found an enormous tome that was chock-full of instructions on how to accomplish the very simplest culinary task. My cooking slowly began to improve. The spark of real enthusiasm was ignited.

And then, I discovered James.

James Barber. Better known as “The Urban Peasant”.

James had a television program that aired nearly every day. And from the first time I saw his beautiful, Santa Claus-like beard, and voluptuous physique (that clearly belied the fact that he was enamored of good food), I was hooked. Because he not only SHOWED ME how to prepare simple, delicious, healthy meals, he showed me how to do it with FOOD THAT I ACTUALLY HAD IN MY FRIDGE. And for those ingredients that most people might not keep around the kitchen, he listed ideas for SUBSTITUTIONS!!

One of the things I will never forget about his show, is the way he would stop in the middle of his preparations, his twinkly eyes locking on his camera-audience. He’d smile at "me", and say, “Remember! You do the best you can, with what you’ve got!!” I was pretty certain that he wasn’t simply referring to whatever food we happened to have in our kitchen at the time… I believed that he was talking about my rudimentary skills, too. James gave me confidence. And, over time, he gave me skill, as well.

James inspired me to taste food as I was cooking it, to be imaginative, and to experiment with recipes. In his opening segment, there was footage of him snooping through the produce department of our magnificent Granville Market, simply for pleasure… and so, I began doing the same. What fun it was to do my weekly shopping in a place that excited the senses, instead of slogging through a dreary supermarket! Imagine my delight, when I actually SPOTTED him at Granville Island once or twice, meandering through the stalls that were laden with fruits and vegetables and baking and cuts of beautiful meat and fish... I was never brave enough to approach him-- he always seemed far too enraptured and "in his own world" to be interrupted by the likes of ME…

One day, however, I actually got to meet him. It was in a completely different environment, however. It was a few years later, once I had re-started my theatre career, and was up-grading my skills in my spare time, by apprenticing with an old-school milliner in a beautiful hat studio in Gastown.

I was working alone that afternoon, and was sitting at the sewing machine, carefully stitching away, while the shop was empty. Then, suddenly, James Barber, in all his benevolent glory, strode into the shop with his lady-friend, and began leisurely admiring all the hats that were on display. He had a very good eye for design, and for style… After a time, he asked me if the lady could try on one of the enormous, wide-brimmed hats-- I remember it had a most beautiful long black feather on it, that stretched out and peeped over the edge of the brim, the very tips of the frond draping slightly over the wearer’s eyes. I helped her to position the hat on her head, and James had been exactly right in his choice-- the style was charming on her. Even more charming, he led her by the hand to my work-table, had her sit down in my chair, and said softly, “Now. Just imagine… you wearing this hat, and us, together, eating an absolutely splendid meal…”

He bought her the beautiful hat. She blushed and beamed…

And I now have a lovely memory of a man who “kept me company” during those early years, when I was feeling quite lost and unsure of myself.

I was deeply saddened to see his obituary in The Globe and Mail this morning… James Barber died of natural causes, at the age of 84, at his farm on Vancouver Island. But what lightened my heart was when I read that he was found sitting at the dining room table, an open cook book in front of him, with a pot of chicken stock on the stove.

He died happy. What more could one ask for than that?

Thank you, James. You definitely did your very best, with everything you had.


painted maypole said...

what a great memory. i adore the hat story.

Multi-tasking Mommy said...

WOW! I honestly thought that good cooking came to you naturally! Sounds like you worked really hard to get where you are today.

We tried your yummy chicken fingers last night...delish! Thanks for the recipe :)

Emily said...

What a great post! I am reading Julie and Julia right now, so this was the perfect companion.

Candygirlflies said...

Thanks, MTM! Glad you enjoyed the sesame chicken... it's one of our favourites, for sure.

And yes, just like any other "art", learning to cook WELL takes practise. But I have found that there is no substitue for hands-on practise, preferably after another cook has actually SHOWED you how to prepare something... There are many, many basic skills to master-- like chopping correctly, kneading different types of dough, combining ingredients ("stirring" as opposed to "folding", etc...)

But no amount of book-learning can teach a cook to have that special, instinctive "flair". You know what I mean? I think that it takes years and YEARS to develop... and I'm certainly still working on it!!

Luckily, working on it is a LOT of fun!!

xo CGF

shawn said...

One episode of James that stands out in my mind was filled "camp fire cooking" recipes ... the recipe that REALLY stood out for me, and that I tried later was making bannock (fry bread)and using whatever you found in your pack ...

The liquids that day were coca-cola and orange juice ... and along with dried apricots and I think some beef jerky - he demonstrated the creative possibilities of a simple recipe in the hands of a genius.

He was a true gem - he taught us to have fun in the kitchen and to trust that we are more capable that we may actually think...

Works for me.

shauna said...

I was so excited to track James Barber down and then saddened to hear he's passed away. What a great tribute!

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