Being A Little Overwhelmed by Achieving a Goal

I am an author.

I have been saying for several years now, when asked what I do, “I’m a writer”.  It’s an easy phrase to toss off, until the inevitable follow-up question arrives.  “Oh, what do you write? Would I have read anything of yours?”  Fortunately for my ego, I can respond by saying I have been a magazine writer and editor, I wrote opinion pieces for my local newspaper, I was a radio journalist for a while, but now I’m trying my hand at both fiction and a memoir.

It is the memoir that was finished first, and it is the memoir that will be published and launched in just a couple of days. I chose October 1st because it would have been my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary and this book is so much about them.  And about my siblings and their families, and my extended, and so many friends, so many meals.  It was a work of love in very many ways to write.  Now it’s a work of faith to present it to the public and see what they have to say.

Oh, my friends and my family have been supportive in ways I truly was not expecting.  And that is both gratifying and humbling. What will be interesting is to see who else buys the book, who are the people I don’t know who might want to read my stories, cook my food.

Given the tiny sliver of success this first book has provided me, I am already considering how to follow up the experience, how to broaden the experience, so that not only do I continue to tell stories and share food, but create opportunities that will lead to stories and meals I cannot even imagine right now.

I have begun the process with the tentative step of a new blog (not that I’m giving up this one — that would be silly. And I need it!) and we’ll see how things develop over the next few weeks.

I’ll be back after the weekend after the launch (what a full first four days of October we have!!) with photos and stories and I expect a great deal more gratitude.  And somewhat calmer nerves.

The illustration commissioned for the front cover of GOOF, CARPETBAG STEAK & DIVINITY: A Memoir With Recipes.  The artist is named Kaoru Shimada or KART.

The illustration commissioned for the front cover of GOOF, CARPETBAG STEAK & DIVINITY: A Memoir With Recipes. The artist is named Kaoru Shimada or KART.


The Root of It All…

Root vegetables.  The staple of the winter dinner table.  Those vegetables which grow late in the season and keep well in the root cellar.  Those vegetables with the best price at this time of year, as hot house or tropical vegetables command prices well above their taste.

Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, squash after squash variety.  And let’s add cauliflower and cabbage into the mix as well, even though strictly speaking they’re not ‘root’ vegetables.    Vegetables that roast well and enrich stews and make hearty soups.  Still, by the time you get to the end of February… aren’t you just the tiniest bit anxious for spring and summer vegetables fill up your plate?

Asparagus!  Snappy thin stalks of emerald green asparagus with their purple tips.  Barely steamed, drenched in lemon butter served hot, or dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette served cold, either way reminding us that, oh thank god, spring is fully here.

Lettuce!  Soft, tender leaves support a dash of lemon juice, a swish of olive oil, and enliven a slice of roast chicken in a most temperate way, another gift of spring.

Tomatoes!  I want tomatoes that are heavy and sweet and make juice run down my chin when I bite into them.  The best of the locally-grown tomatoes is months away but they’re not the only, local, fresh vegetables for which I long.

Sparky scallions, crunchy pea pods and tender peas, the first crop of radishes, the first burst of spinach, tender baby spinach meant for salads, not older spinach in bags perfect for creaming and serving with (again!) root vegetables.

Even potatoes taste different in spring and early summer, when they are those lovely little nubs of tiny new potatoes, potatoes that are perfect for a pot of salty boiling water, cooked to tenderness, squashed open for a pour of parsley butter, a twist of fresh ground pepper.  These are not merely spuds, they are the taste of spring!

All this ruminating about root vegetables is a sign, I think, of how long this winter has been.  How long and cold and snowy, with little sunshine and seemingly no hope that we will ever see grass, or asparagus, again.  I pull dirt encrusted potatoes and parsnips out of burlap bags.  I go through my cookbooks once again, seeking another way to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear or, in this case, a delicious gratin of carrots and parsnips.  There is borscht one more time this winter, an excellent soup the first three or four times we slurped it down this season.  Roast cauliflower is coming to the dinner table this week, perhaps dusted with cumin and turmeric again.  Or perhaps smothered in a cheese sauce because everything, even root vegetables in March, taste better in a cheese sauce.


Cooking inventively is the definition of cooking well with root vegetables, and certainly in the winter months, I think it’s definition of cooking inexpensively. Perhaps our mothers, definitely our grandmothers, knew this sort of cooking, in an age when there were few hot houses, little transportation from Florida or California, and really no food coming from Chile or Israel or Australia.  So perhaps, because they were not tempted by tomatoes both over-priced and also, sadly, mealy, or thick stalks of Mexican asparagus that has woody ends and the lingering hint of illegal pesticides, or bags of baby lettuce for seven dollars and no guarantee it would not wilt before you got home, perhaps without those temptations, they would continue to cook and enjoy root vegetables.  Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that our mothers and grandmothers understood and lived better with the cycle of food that our four season climate gives us.

Whatever this malaise that might affect my taste buds by mid-March, I will rally.  I will roast beets and roast onions to go with the pork chops and sauerkraut for supper. I will make another batch of carrot-ginger soup. And I just might “borrow” Neil Perry’s idea for squash pancakes and try a version of these unctuous and savoury treats for myself.  All of these choices will be delicious and nutritious, and because they are seasonal also inexpensives.  And I will try to remember that last summer, in the middle of corn and tomato and watermelon season, I scrubbed some new beets and roasted them, along with the some potatoes, to round out a barbecue meal because, as I said, “roasted beets are so yummy!”


Sexy Is a Fabulous Kitchen

It’s very busy inside my head.

This is, apparently, one of the signs of a truly introverted person, that s/he spends much more time, and more contented time, with an internal life than mixing and mingling with others. And it is quite true, for example, that I don’t like going to parties, unless I know pretty much everyone there because the noise and the effort are too much.  I am at my happiest when I’m with a small group of friends and/or family, or even when I’m just alone.  I read a lot, I write a lot, I dream a lot — dream time spent both awake and asleep. And these are fully detailed dreams, even the ones asleep, complete with sounds and colour, texture and taste. This is a rich life I have going on inside my head — and rich may be the perfect word for one little “room” in there.

I love to cook. With possibly the exception of washing up, I love the entire process of cooking, from searching out meal ideas and recipes, to buying or finding ingredients, to prepping these ingredients, to putting it all together and then finally to enjoying a great meal, I love to cook.

When I’m not cooking, I’m looking at gorgeous, fabulous, sexy kitchens (yeah, I think great kitchens can be sexy; I also think mohair blankets, Jamie Foxx, ripe peaches, Monet paintings and Marvin Gaye songs are all sexy) in which I might see myself cooking. Of course, these are wonderful kitchens… if only this was so or that was different. I do this so much that I think I could do a drawing of “my” kitchen with almost all details. With that, and about $250,000, I could have the kitchen my sister-in-law Rita says is impossible — the kitchen that could make a member of the Staines family truly happy.

It starts with the oven/range and hood.  Meet my dream cooker:

La Cornue

It’s French (d’accord!) and made to order by a company called La Cornue. They also do much more than just this incredible double oven (one gas, one electric, for different kinds of cooking) with multiple burners and grills and a “plaque” for long, slow, braising of such comfort foods as cassoulet and coq au vin, not to mention keeping soup on the simmer for a few hours. Sigh.

However, the one other product of theirs which will go in my perfect, fabulous, sexy kitchen is this:


Doesn’t that look so delicious you need to have chicken and roasted veg right now?? (At our table tonight will be sausage w/grilled cherries, pineapple & onions, mashed potatoes, green salad, just so you know.)

I also want two 18 cu ft refrigerator columns and one freezer column, same size. I have been known to conjure up amazing meals out of pretty much nothing, but having a well-stocked freezer & fridge makes conjuring a little easier.

Cleaning up is easier with a dishwasher but with all of you showing up for dinner all the time, maybe I need two of these:

miele dishwasher

This one is a Miele, but I have to say there’s still an internal debate going on – Miele v Bosch. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Naturally, after an incredible meal, coffee. Or maybe cappucino, or tea, or hot chocolate!  Whichever strikes the fancy, I want the do-it-all machine built-in, and not taking up counter space. This is another Miele product:

integrated espresso

But most of all, what I truly need in that fabulous, sexy kitchen is great fenestration. I want there to be lots of natural sun light and fresh air pouring in not just from one set of windows over the farm sink…

great fenestration

…but from several sets of such windows around at least two sides of the kitchen. And please, no curtains.  Ick is just waiting to happen to kitchen curtains.

Earlier today I shared these ideas (and many more) with a friend — a physically distant but long-time friend — who thought the food that came out of such a kitchen, my such a kitchen, might actually be worth the expense.  That made me smile as I know the money tree we planted in the backyard hasn’t yet blossomed and it’s going to have to be one healthy, productive tree to make this kitchen happen.

Still, a girl can have her dreams — always plentiful, always cheap, and so sexy.


The Home Ec Teacher, The School Girl and The Bed

In my last blog post, I talked a little about my mother’s childhood and how her experiences growing up with a maid did NOT translate to her adult, married life with six children, one dog, one husband and a large house.  WE were the maids… and yes, we’re probably better off for it.  Doesn’t mean I don’t wish someone else had done the dusting!  Still, our experiences, and our mother’s, have given me great stories to share…

There is a “truth” in my family that my sister remembers everything, particularly those things that happened before I was born.  Which is interesting, because I’m two years older.  VHS Andy, we call her… although I suppose we should change that to DVR Andy.

Anyway, the point is Andy has a trove of stories about our family life that some of us – most of us – don’t remember the same way she does.  As much as I hate to admit it, she probably has it right more often than she doesn’t, so I’m going to say that this version of the story I’m about to relate is exactly what did happen.  The fact that I knew this story before she heard it is of little matter – it’s how she heard that helps make it so funny.

To give you a bit of background… we grew up in a small city, two small cities sort of, the “Twin Cities”, and when our parents were kids, the cities were even smaller. Joy was a Kitchener girl, Ross was a Waterloo boy, but as there was only one (public) high school, everyone went to the same school, everyone knew everyone else, and everyone talked about everyone else.  And if you were the child of someone who was well-known in the community, you might even be talked about a little bit more.  That hadn’t fundamentally changed when the six of went through high school – even though there were many more (I think 7 more) high schools in the two cities than when Joy & Ross were going through school.  As a result, not only were we remarked upon as the children of our parents, but in some ways, also of our grandparents.  It’s an interesting way to progress through puberty, and certainly isn’t nearly as true now as it was then but still…

Sometimes the acorn doesn’t get the chance to roll away from the tree!

So… close your eyes and pretend it’s a beautiful September day, the first week of September, and you’re a 13-year old girl, excited about being back at school, seeing your friends again, getting into your classes, finding out who your teachers will be, figuring out if you’re going to enjoy being Queen of the Castle as a Grade 8 student.  And in this happy, confident mood you walk into Grade 8 Home Economics. And the doors to Hell open.

Your Home Ec teacher is staring at you.  As Andy explains, it was a glare that could paralyze.  You’re ordered to come to the front of the room and demanded to tell your mother’s name.  “Mrs. Staines.” And what is her first name? “Joy”  And before she was married?  “Musselman”  By now, your friends – and everyone else in the classroom – is staring at you, too.  Staring at both you and this short, angry, older teacher who can hardly hold back her contempt.  There is a very long pause, and then you are commanded to sit at the front of the room.  A desperate attempt to argue your friends are over there, at the back of the classroom, where your staring at me might not be so frightening, is ignored and you are forced to sit down, in the front row, first seat, to be watched.  Stared at.  Contemplated as if you were the subject of her next vivisection project.

It was a cooking day and as a class, the girls made tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  It’s not easy cooking with a short, angry teacher attached to your elbow, intently watching everything you do, making sarcastic comments about knowing how to turn on a stove.  It’s not easy, and just a little embarrassing.

Frankly, I think it’s a lot embarrassing, but then, I had my own problems with Home Ec.   Anyway, Andy is not a happy camper and somehow it all has to do with Joy and her Home Ec experiences 26 years earlier.  This could be the only day all year there is no dawdling after school….

So you run home, into the kitchen where Joy is sitting on her stool, in the corner, cigarette lit, coffee at her elbow, book on the counter.  “What did you do to my Home Ec teacher, Miss Waite?  What did you do??? She hates me and it’s all your fault!!”

Joy had an uncanny ability to be perfectly still, perfectly silent, so that you couldn’t tell, couldn’t begin to figure out what she was going to say, what she was going to do.  Until she started laughing, laughing so hard and so long that tears ran down her cheek. This is not making you happy, you are not laughing.  Your entire Grade 8 experience seems to be headed up shit creek and your mother has the paddle. “What did you do??!!”

So while wiping up the tears and occasionally still chuckling, Joy explains, explains that 26 years ago Miss Waite was Joy Musselman’s Home Ec teacher, trying to teach the girls in the class how to make a bed with nurse’s corners.  They had to learn to make the bed properly, they were marked on it, it was part of the curriculum, it was required.  Only, well, Joy refused.

She didn’t have to make her bed at home, she told Miss Waite. The maid did all the beds at home, and she certainly wasn’t going to do at school what she didn’t have to do at home.  You can imagine how that went over, that that argument worked even less well than the one about having friends to sit with at the back of the classroom.

Joy was given detention that day… and the next day when she refused to make the bed… and the day after that when the damn bed was still not made.  In fact, she was told there would be a one hour detention every day after school, until she made the bed.

On the third day of not making the bed and having to sit through detention with an unmade bed and an angry teacher, Joy arrived home after her father, the man from whom she learned the word “stubborn”.  When questioned as to why she was getting home so late, she told him about the bed, the nurse’s corners, the detentions.  She asked if she had to go to detention the next day and was told she did.

Now for the fourth day, the Home Ec teacher, the school girl and the bed are all in the classroom, Miss Waite watching Joy, Joy watching Miss Waite, the bed just sitting there waiting for someone to pull up the blankets. And then there’s a knock on the door. Miss Waite opens it, to a woman in a uniform and crisp white apron.

“May I help you?” asks Miss Waite.

“Is this Miss Joy’s classroom?” is the response.

A little bristling and the uniformed woman is told Joy is in a detention and asked why she was there.

“I’m the maid.  I’m here to make the bed and take Miss Joy home.”


An Introduction to a Well-Fed Life

Welcome to the introduction to my proposed book “GOOF: Meals & Memories From a Well-Fed Life” which is about food & family & friends, with recipes and pictures along the way.  It’s intended to be part memoir and part cookery book, and I hope turns out on paper as brilliantly as it’s going in my mind.  There are no recipes attached to this intro, yet, but I am culling recipes from my mother’s files and my kitchen diaries, so there will be some in the next posting.  Do let me know what you think!

I can’t think that there are many kids in the world whose mother’s favourite recipe got its own newspaper story, but that’s what happened to Goof.

My mother was running the kitchen at the YWCA in Kitchener when a story about the Y’s kitchen and catering turned into a saga about this casserole dish, infamous in our house for being a delicious way to stretch a pound of ground beef, a tin of tomatoes, a whomping bowl of noodles, and a lot bits of leftovers into a casserole the kids would eat happily.

Stretching ingredients was key to life in our household, what with having six kids you could count on having for supper every night, never mind friends who might have been invited to stay, usually without checking with Mum first.  Still, she never said no, so many nights one side or other of the table would see kids scooting their bums down the bench to fit in one more child.

The best way to stretch ingredients, as any frugal cook knows, is to make a casserole.  As most mothers will tell you, however, casseroles aren’t always a hit with kids.  Too many things you don’t like can be hidden in there, plus the word “casserole” is kind of boring when you’re eight years old.  So such casseroles as we ate all had great names, to make them more fun, and thus taste better (never discount the tastiness of fun in any recipe).  Thus, a simple hamburger casserole became “Goof” and a hard-cooked eggs in cream sauce dish became “Golden Rod” while baked spaghetti with veggies (both leftovers) became “Noodle Pie”.

My brothers and sister don’t remember quite as clearly as I do the sameness of our meals when we were really little, but until I was into my teens, there were some dishes that were made again and again and again, and there was very little experimentation with choices of ingredients.  Part of this, I know, was because my mother refused to feed us individually.  What she made was what we ate, or we didn’t eat.  If there was something in a dish you didn’t like, pick it out if you had to, try it once for sure, and then just eat the rest of it without complaining.

So to avoid listening to too much complaining (there was always some – I hated mushrooms as a kid, David couldn’t stand peas, and so forth), she would stick to the tried and true meals she knew we would swallow.

More than this, however, was our father.  He didn’t like new things to eat any more than we did.  Introducing him to new foods, new cooking methods, was an adventure our parents took together as we got older, they entertained more, and they trusted themselves to experiment more in the kitchen.

I say “they experimented in the kitchen”, although it was mostly Joy who learned to cook first, often from recipes Ross would find in a magazine or book.  As it turned out later still in life, Ross became a pretty good hands-on cook himself, but for many years it was mostly Joy in the kitchen.  Along, of course, with her own gang of prep cooks and dish pigs.

We are often asked, the six of us, when and where we learned how to do so much in the kitchen, and the answer is always it started with peeling carrots.  Or potatoes.  Or, at an even more basic level, learning how to cook started with doing dishes.  Lord, but we washed a lot of pots and pans, mixing bowls and cooking utensils, and under very strict scrutiny, with constant reminders that the outside of a bowl should also be considered dirty so wash it!  From washing pots to peeling potatoes was a huge step with even more scrutiny.  “I’d actually like to have some potato left to serve the guests! Scrape them, don’t gouge them.”

My favourite line about learning to cook is that we all got started in our culinary lessons as soon as we were tall enough to see the top of the stove, but in reality learning how to cook, really cook, happened when we were ready to use a knife.  Of the six of us, although most of us have worked in restaurants and kitchens at one time or another, only Greg went on to make a full-time career of cooking; he’s the one who went to George Brown and did his apprenticeship and has his papers to prove that he’s a chef.  But if he doesn’t have his papers or toque handy to show you, just ask him to chop an onion.  Such great knife skills!  As for me, I’m a little faster and a little more skilled now than as a child learning, but nothing like Greg.

I can still remember being guided in making carrot coins, learning why having them all the same width was better, seeing the difference in interesting appearance between a straight-on cut and an angled one, and then eventually the joy of carrot sticks both thin and thick.  And from cutting carrots, I learned how to cook them, glaze them, season them. Surely my parents threw dinner parties without carrots, but in my mind it doesn’t seem so.

But there was much more carrot coins to having people over for dinner.  There was The Table to be set.  So that too became a series of lessons, in how to make a table look gorgeous and welcoming at the same time.  This was also how I learned about salad forks and dessert spoons, about wine glasses and water glasses, about centrepieces that encourage the flow of conversation, not block it.

Ross and Joy hated having meals served from the kitchen.  They wanted the bounty on the table, with the bowls of veg and potatoes filled to brim, the platter of meat or chicken nearly overflowing, a reminder to their guests (and to their family, because our meals were served in the same fashion, from bowls and platters on the table) that what was here, hot and delicious, was meant to be share and savoured as a happy, convivial group.

Dinner plates were in a pile at Ross’s end of the table, along with the meat.  At the family table, the first person served (unless there was a guest) was Max, the youngest, and then Michael and so on up the line to me.  The plates went from Ross to Joy, who would in turn serve the two veg and potatoes (or sometimes rice, sometimes noodles).  You always had to tell her when to stop serving one spoon before you meant it.  At the end, Ross would carve Mum’s portion and send his empty plate down the line, along with her serving of meat, down to her.  His plate, now filled with veg, would come up the other side of the table, and he would stop nibbling at the meat to serve himself.

Oh, and let’s not forget the condiments.  Pickled beets, mustard relish, governor’s sauce (or governor’s lumps, Ross would say), chili sauce, brown sauce, horseradish, pickles both dill and sweet.  Joy was big on condiments, and they all were passed around at most suppers with, you should pardon the expression, great relish.

And of course salad.  Not at every meal, and sometimes not leafy greens.  My mother’s favourite salad was spinach with thinly sliced onions and crispy bacon bits (the real stuff, not out of a jar!) and dressed with a home-made sour cream dressing that is peculiar, I think, to Waterloo County.  Actually, when we were little, the only dressings on salads we had were home-made. Just simple oil and apple cider vinegar (white was fine, but apple cider had a little more flavour) and brown sugar and a pinch of salt.  No pepper because of me; that could be added at table.  To this day, I cannot abide the taste of pepper on vegetables.  I used to hate it on everything but as my own cooking, and tasting, skills grew I learned to appreciate the depth of flavour pepper could offer.  Just not to veggies, thank you.

After I left home, my mother got back into the habit of adding pepper to the vegetable dishes, and so on a visit home a bowl of glazed carrots (!) came to the table, seasoned with fresh ground black pepper.  I didn’t say a word about it, just accepted the plate heaped with a wonderful meal, including those peppered carrots.  And after a bite of everything else, I put a carrot stick on my fork and picked up my knife to try to scrape the pepper off the carrot.  Quietly, not making a fuss about it.  Except that I was seated to my father’s right, and he saw what I was doing.

Ross sighed and put down his own knife and fork, told me to do the same and give him my plate.  He got up from the table and went into the kitchen and started banging around in the cupboards.  Joy asked him what on earth he was doing.  “The girl doesn’t eat pepper.  I’m not going to watch her scrape off every carrot on her plate, so I’m rinsing and re-heating them.”  Which he did.  Which, in turn, had everyone at the table laughing.  But I loved my carrots!

I remember a lot of laughter at the table when we were children, and more still as we’ve grown up and gathered too infrequently for extended family meals.  But I also remember learning table manners and how to carry on a conversation.  And I remember learning not to be a soprano.  My sister, Andrea, and I were always being told to lower the tone of our voices, to modulate, to not screech like a soprano.  At some point I know I asked Joy (who was a gifted, classically trained singer) why we shouldn’t be sopranos.  The way I have always told this story is that because, Joy said, in opera the alto tries to get the man and then dies for trying, but the soprano succeeds in getting the man and then dies for succeeding.  I think my mother’s point was to live long enough to enjoy the rewards, with a well modulated voice.