December 07, 2007

Cranberry Bog-Down

I'm heading for the store. Apparently there is a cranberry shortage - not enough farmers, too cool a summer, too much demand.

Not enough cranberries!

And according to the buyer I heard on cbc radio - it ain't getting any better soon. He advised everyone to buy and freeze.

So if you're hoping for fresh cranberry sauce in a few weeks - it's time to get strategic.

December 06, 2007

no gain, no pain

I started walking home from work again. Or at least an hour of the way home. For exercise, you understand. I'm no martyr.

I'm almost halfway through chemo now, sitting here with my laptop and mug of tea, and able to tell you, that, apart from getting used to the weirdness of having a head more akin to a billiard ball, than a head, so far so good. I'm working full time, and once I'm through the first few days, after the first few waves of nausea are beaten back by drugs, after the Sunday I spend sleeping on the couch, I'm back on track.

So here's the kicker - the week after chemo I feel like I'm eating for Canada. It's not hard for me to have two breakfasts, two sandwiches for lunch, potato chips on demand, fruit, carrot sticks to balance the front part out, sweets, chocolate, double helpings for dinner...

...and so, until this week I was avoiding the subway in fear of germs, but now...I gotta tell you I'm in more fear of cellulite.

Surprised the hell out of me. Lordy - I'd do a logger proud at the table. Or I'd scare him back to the woods.

So some of my graces - you know I always thought I had three graces in my life, but I've discovered my life is full of graces - got together on Tuesday night and we drank wine, we ate dinner, and they cooked freezable meals for me. I'm going to share their recipes if they let me...one of them you'd already know - Wild Mushroom Soup

I now have piles of macaroni & cheese, shepherd's pie, vegetarian chile, and chicken marbella sitting in the freezer, in individual containers - ready to be thawed, heated and consumed...now if I could only remember that order while in my ravenous state.

The other kicker is how strong flavours really entice me - none of this bland, wishy washy stuff - give me flavour. Not heat. Flavour. Heat, bad on the mouth and stomach now. Flavour good on the tongue and palate now.

In this state it's not hard to live in cookbooks. I read them, devour them, live through them.

And having indulged in a beautiful cookbook called Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by two Canadians who live to travel, cook, then write about it -

huh...note to self...interesting dream job where the kitchen reno would be a write-off...

I was transfixed by the possibility of learning how to make cold spring rolls - the Vietnamese ones. I remember eating them for the first time in a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal - I was with a group of friends the day after a wedding, the small kitchen restaurant kept rolling these rolls out the door, and I just kept rolling them down my gullet. I was intrigued by the texture of the wrapper, the blend of the vegetables and the fresh kick of the fresh mint. Oh and the dipping sauce.

So when Alford and Duguid wrote that it was entirely within my power to make them in my own small kitchen - I was up at the corner grocer in a flash.

They take some practice. So don't try these as your guests are walking in the door. Unless you're prepared to order pizza.

Rice Paper Roll-Ups with Shrimp and Herbs
- adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet

I think the key to these is to prep everything, have it ready to assemble and then go...the other key is what the authors suggest: do it with friends.

12 medium shrimp - I made these with only vegetables, and I imagine you could use anything you fancy...pork strips? chicken?
3-4 oz dried rice vermicelli, soak in warm water for 20 mins and drain
15 rice papers (about 8" in diameter - I used 5" - Use 8", better)
1 1/2 cups bean sprouts, blanched in boiling water for 3o seconds and drained
3/4 cup of grated carrot tossed with 1 tbsp of rice vinegar and 1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup of mint leaves
30 chives, or the greens from scallions that you've cut thinly into slivers
1/2 cup coriander leaves, but I substituted parsley, because there is little I don't like in the fine world of herbs, but coriander is it.

Boil water in a large saucepan. Cook the shrimp until firm to the touch, 1-3 minutes. Lift out immediately and cool on a plate. Shell and devein them and split them lengthwise.

Use the same boiling water to cook the vermicelli, just for two minutes until they're soft. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Place a bowl of warm water nearby - large enough to hold the diameter of the rice wrappers. Wet a tea towel and lay it on the counter or workspace you'll be using. Pull all your ingredients in front of you.

Start by putting one rice paper in the bowl of warm water for 30 seconds until soft. Lift it out gently and lay it on the wet tea towel.

The recipe calls for 1 tbsp of the noodles to be laid on the bottom one third of the wrapper, then the same of the bean sprouts.

I then laid the carrot mixture and herbs on that, then the mint, and started rolling, I added slivers of red pepper since I wasn't using shrimp, and the parsley. Once you have it rolled over once or twice, fold over each edge toward the middle and then keep rolling up. Moisten the edge with water.

Place seam side down on a platter which you keep covered with a second moistened tea towel.

You should really serve these immediately, but apparently they'll keep under the towel and plastic wrap for a couple of hours. We didn't give them the chance.

I love how they suggest serving them: "To eat, place a leaf of lettuce in your palm and lay a roll-up on it. Wrap the lettuce leaf round one end of the roll-up as if you were wrapping a cone in a napkin. Use a small spoon to drizzle on the sauce as you eat, mouthful by mouthful."

Speaking of which, I made up their recipe of "Vietnamese Must-Have Table Sauce" which is wicked easy and delicious. It's a combo of lime juice, fish sauce, water, rice vinegar, sugar, garlic and bird chile...

I'm anxious to dig into some more of these recipes - in fact we're starting to plan our new year's eve annual tasting dinner and this book is a great contender as the anchor of that dinner...upon which our transition into a new year, with new hope, rests...No pressure.

December 03, 2007

standing up for your fruitcake

It's December and the smells of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg start drifting through me by habit. I think it's what coils around my DNA actually. Maybe it's a seasonal chromosome, maybe red and green, flaring once a year like a beacon to my nose - triggering a longing for mincemeat tarts, Christmas pudding, and yes...believe it...fruitcake.
No one I know likes fruitcake. I feel alone.

Laurie Colwin in Home Cooking quoted Abe Lincoln: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."

And that sums up the very clearly delineated world of fruitcake.

But that world has its own cracks. And to the left here is where I think fruitcake world cleaves itself. Where it goes terribly, terribly wrong. This is the fruitcake that lives up to the Johnny Carson joke: that there really is only one fruitcake in the world and it's just regifted year after year.

Candied peel. Piled and glistening and drowning the cake underneath. Wrong.

I'm not alone, as it turns out. Since I first posted this, fruitcakers have crept forward to declare their fruitcakeness. It started when a friend came up to me last week to talk about Christmas pudding - she talked wistfully about how her mother-in-law made it when she was well and able. She hasn't had it in years. She also loves mincemeat tarts - which means she loves that combo of deep spice and sweetness, that is distinctly British. And fruitcake. A kindred spirit.

Last year I brought you a recipe for homemade mincemeat. As I look forward to my first tarts of the season - and to Mum's Christmas puddings, which she made and doused in brandy long ago...(hmmm for which I have no recipe yet, and I'm not sure if she's ever written down after decades of puds and brandy) - I bring you this time, for those who will admit to needing one, a fantastic recipe for...The Fruitcake.

What I love about this family recipe below is that it's full of what I do love: raisins, sultanas, currants...and while it calls for some candied peel, we replace it with dried cranberries, or dried cherries.

This recipe comes from my aunt and an ancient magazine recipe from deep inside her recipe box. Years ago I transcribed it to paper. Mum tried to read it to me last night on the phone. The paper is frayed and broken and smudged and stained.

It isn't just for Christmas at Auntie Mag's, fruitcake, complete with royal icing, is everyone's birthday cake - and Mum made me one for my wedding, also dressed in royal icing and flowers - which I'm happy to say I ate all myself since Steve would prefer to have nothing to do with the fruitcake chromosome. So birthdays, weddings, family holidays - a celebration of life -

Serve yourself a chunk with a big mug of tea - turn your back to the naysayers and be smug about it. And it'll last six months in a proper cake tin wrapped up, so you can indulge.

Our family fruitcake

14 oz (400g) sultanas
9 oz (250g) raisins
9 oz (250g) currants
4 oz (100g) stoned prunes, chopped
5 oz (125g) mixed chopped peel (substitute dried cherries or cranberries if you prefer, and I do)
4 oz (115 ml) sherry
1 orange, both rind and juice
1 lemon, both rind and juice
5 oz (125g) glaced cherries, quartered
12 oz (350g) softened butter
10 oz (275g) dark, soft brown sugar
14 oz (400g) plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice - distinctly British - it's a combo of 1 small cinnamon stick and 1 tablespoon each cloves, mace, ground nutmeg, coriander seeds, and allspice berries
1/4 tsp nutmeg, grated
6 medium eggs
2 tbsp apricot jam
2 tbsp black treacle, aka molasses

Wash and dry dried fruit and put in large pan with prunes and peel. Add sherry rind and juice of lemon and orange stir fruit mixture over moderate heat until steaming for five minutes. Turn into a bowl and make sure no juice is wasted. Cool, cover and leave overnight.

The next day, add cherries and nuts to mixture.

The first time I tried this in a standing mixture, I thought I'd gone to heaven. You can do it without the machine, and you'll earn enough muscles to grant yourself an extra slice of cake when it's done.
Preheat your oven to 275 degrees F.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
Sieve all dry ingredients together and add 4 tbsp to creamed mixture. Beat eggs. Gradually add to creamed mixture, beating well, add a little from measured quantity if it curdles.
Beat in jam and treacle, fold in remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Mix in fruits with wooden spoon or spatula (or standing mixer, with a strong motor).
Turn cake mixture into greased and lined tin and smooth top.
Bake for 4 ½ hours – in the lower half of the oven.
Test cake by inserting skewer.
Remove cake from oven, cool in the tin. Leaving 24 hours.
To store: remove from tin, wrap in greaseproof paper and then foil. Keep in a round cake tin.
And enjoy with much glee as people make jokes about how criminal it is to propagate the one fruitcake in the world, yadda, yadda, yadda.

November 09, 2007

lives and forks

I was having lunch with two new, and increasingly good friends of mine today. We were all devouring exquisite butter chicken, salad and raita - and lubricating it all with mango juice.

And we were inevitably talking about food - because that's how we're becoming friends...our work lives descend (I think I mean ascend) into discussions on how to cook curry, where to find any good Mexican food, what's the best way to stop onions from incinerating...

And we were talking about Alice Waters - because I had read the article in Salon.com about her and was trying to quote some the things she said, which resonated with me - like the smell of onions and garlic - like home.

"When we're eating fast food, we're not just eating the food, we're eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it's telling us that food should be cheap. It's telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It's telling us that advertising confers value. That it's OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It's telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant -- in fact we don't even need to know. And all of those values are informing what's happening in the world around us."

Later on she said instead of thinking of a meal as something to get over as quickly as possible..."get out of that mind-set and tell yourself cooking is a meditation. I like to do it. It's relaxing for me to come home -- it truly is! -- and wash the salad. I love to see the salad in the sink. To spin the salad. I like to dry it. I like to pound to make a vinaigrette with my mortar and pestle. I enjoy grinding coffee and putting it in the filter and warming up the milk. It's part of a ritual that gives my life meaning and beauty."

So, of course, I ordered her new book.

So I was telling my friends this. Both these women are mothers.

And the mum who has three kids, said she met her neighbour at a party last night. Her neighbour also has three kids, her oldest just a year older than my friend's. So they share a lot of the same insights and overscheduledness, and concerns as their kids transition through their teen years, and sit on the cusp of adulthood. The Mums sit, and with crossed fingers, hope they've raised them as best as can be...

So the neighbour's eldest has gone off to university this year. And my friend said her neighbour misses him. She said there's a hole in the house where he isn't. And when does he pass through her the most? When is his presence missed? It's when she's cooking. When she's making something she knows he loves and he's not there to smell it, to savour it, not there to be enriched by it. And of course there's an echo at the table where he was. The eating without him - the meals are where the echoes of him are the loudest - that makes her realize life's progress...

I just thought that was beautiful - that she had found mindfulness in that.

Have a great weekend.

November 07, 2007

cocktail party for one

Nausea is not for the faint of heart.
And sometimes I really think my heart is faint, I mean quite wussie.

I am just about one week out from my first infusion of chemo cocktail (I'm taking to calling these cocktail parties - and there are six of them in total - the last of which is on St. Valentine's Day).

These last days have been a mixture of feeling sick, but not sick enough to, you know - feeling sprightly and able to vacuum (what evolutionary principle is at work there?) - and spending the entire day under a quilt, on the couch, waking up only long enough to see Barefoot Contessa bbq'ing pizza in the Hamptons, then suddenly Giada slivering up zucchini before her night at the symphony, while I shift the cats' bodies aside to see the screen.

Steve likes to call my tv viewing preferences the Stirrin' and Nailin' Channels - which is entirely true. But I don't care I keep saying, I'm sick. The ultimate argument topper. I get the remote whenever I want.

But something started happening yesterday - I started feeling almost normal again.

I roasted vegetables.

Steve said he'd pick up vegetables on his way home, to have with our leftover roast chicken. But I couldn't wait. I felt good enough after making it through five hours of a workday, so I dug through our baskets, our crispers, to see what lurked there - out came potatoes, carrots and some leeks.

They were tired, grasping for their last bit of glory, their balance of life tipping closer to the compost bin than the roasting pan. But for all their faded colour and limpness, they were headed for as much glory as I could impart.

I sharpened my knife, smiled a grin for me, and started carving. I felt so at home again.

By the time Steve came in to shelter himself from the dark and the wind and the threatening blowing snowflakes, the house was filled with the deliciousness, warmth, security.

Sure. Cook with love. You know I believe that. But it's sorely tested by nausea.

The nose knows and is linked by a superhighway of senses to the stomach. I can't stand the smell of frying bacon right now (and it's the one smell that vegetarians have told me could convert them into omnivores). On the other hand, I love the taste of smoked anything - cheese, sausage. I also lusted through two oranges the other day, and then devoured pasta that I smothered in fried garlic, olive oil and fresh parsley.

In this world of nausea that teases me, the way through it is lust for food. I eat. That is glorious.

October 29, 2007

tired of waiting for the publisher to call?

Who needs a stinkin' publisher anyway? For those of us in the mood to write a cookbook, here's our chance...easy peasy, lemon squeezy. I came across this on the weekend. Tastebook.com will pull together a personalized cookbook for you - you choose the graphics, you can choose from recipes on Epicurious (they have partnered up) or your own, you choose the sections, you choose the title...deadlines, schmedlines.

Huh.

What do you think? Anyone tried it yet? Or does it strike you as a tad anal?

October 28, 2007

freezer loading

I have a weekend at hand that some would find tiresome - but not a foodblogger - and not at this time of the year.

I'm cooking.

And piling up stuff in the freezer. Simple, flavorful, single portion meals.

It all started with two basics: a pot of chicken stock that has slowly perfumed the house with comfort and security - then with tomato sauce that added spark and garlic to the room.

And these recipes both start the right way.

I had to chop an onion. I love the ritual of chopping onions. It anchors me - to that moment - to something good - to health - to providing - to pleasure.

I love how onions look at the bottom of the pot as they sweat out their essence, right before they start browning. And the sound of a wooden spoon thudding against a metal pot. Heaven.

Then the celery. One of the most underrated vegetables - essential to stock, and well, to just crunching on. My Mum will cook celery and make a white pepper sauce for it. No, really, it's good.

And carrots. If you've got that, onions, celery, carrots...you've got the essence of stock.

I've discovered one secret for me about stock - not to let it boil. Mark Bittman writes about that in How to Cook Everything - to bring it just to the boil, and then let it simmer with a bubble or three breaking the surface.

So far...so good.

Today I bring together the soup, now that the chicken stock is sitting in the fridge, layered in a blanket of fat, ready to be skimmed. With fingers crossed, I'll dig in to see if we've achieved that jelly-type stock. I feel accomplished when it glops into a pot.

Today will send my nose into ecstasy. Soup 1: Butternut squash, carrot and ginger....Soup 2: Onions, garlic, sweet potato, zucchini, red pepper, and whatever else I find in the fridge, magically pureed with a hand blender and then finished off with sprinklings of mile-long leeks I found at the grocer's yesterday.

How can life not be wonderful?

I upped the ante yesterday and spiked the nose after the stock was bubbling on its own, by cooking up some smoked sausage created by the good Mennonites of southwestern Ontario. And I teamed it with a homemade tomato sauce, that's slightly sweet and rich. They meet, compete, then settle into something more than their separate parts.

I'll try some other stuff too - I've found some recipes for single-serving frittatas (isn't that a great idea?), banana bread, vanilla cupcakes, lemon loaf - all of this meant to be freezable in single servings. Easy to grab and heat and eat.

I will not succumb to microwaveable, boxed food...nope.

If you have any suggestions for easy, freezer stuff, please let me know.

Here is the recipe for the chicken stock - the basics. Followed by the tomato sauce. If you have these in your repertoire, and your freezer - you can't be surprised by anyone for dins...you're ready.


- Chicken Stock -
adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything

"Is stock essential for every soup? No. Will it improve almost any soup? Yes," - the Bittman.

3-4 pounds chicken parts, rinsed and patted dry - I bought a bag of chicken legs and wings from my favourite organic meat seller
1 cup roughly chopped onion - I don't peel it, the skin adds colour to the stock
1 cup roughly chopped carrot
1/2 cup roughly chopped celery - um...I mean this...celery:essential...seriously
1 sprig of fresh thyme - or pinch of dried thyme
1/2 bay leaf
several sprigs of fresh parsley
1tsp salt - he says more if necessary, I added a little more - and bear in mind you're still better off than with those boxed or canned stocks, salt wise. Check out a soup can next time you're in the grocery store - look at the sodium content...it will knock you over.
About 4 quarts water - I used a little less, I top the water to just cover everything.

So here are the instructions -
Put all that in a pot.

Easy huh?

Okay here are the rules:

Bring just about to a boil, then partially cover and adjust the heat so the mixture sends up a few bubbles at a time. Cook until the meat falls from the bones. Start this early enough that you can leave it on the stove to do its thing at least 3-4 hours.

The recipe says 2 hours minimum, but I think the crucial part is the meat falling off the bones, and if you can, break the bones, because by then they will have softened enough to surrender their gelatinous features to the stock.

Strain the whole mess into a big bowl. Press on the vegetables and chicken to get as much of the juice as you can. Then refrigerate it (so make sure you have room for the bowl in the fridge - and make room before you pick up the bowl - learn from my mistakes...). When the fat has solidified on the top, spoon it off. You can strain it at this point through cheesecloth, or paper towel. Then put it into individual containers and freeze if you like. It freezes very well.


Tomato Sauce - by me, honed over the years

Olive oil - enough for the bottom of the pan to get the onions started
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped (I could use more, you can use one if you're garlic shy)
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/2 can tomato paste
1 28 oz can of tomatoes (I've found one company that doesn't add salt to their toms)
1 tsp or more dried basil (in this case dried is better than fresh, but you could add chopped fresh basil at the end before you serve it - it really kicks it up)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp sugar

In a pot, with some olive oil, add the chopped onion over medium heat. Stir and cover with a lid. Check on them, don't let the onions brown. Using the lid and building up steam in there will slow down any browning process, as long as you don't have the burner on meltdown. Let them cook until they get translucent and creamy looking.

Add the garlic.

As soon as the garlic looks like it's starting to cook, add the other vegetables. Let them cook for a few minutes.

Add the tomato paste. Stir it into the vegetables. (You can freeze the remaining paste, don't let it get furry in the can, in the fridge, like I've done countless times)

Add the tomatoes. Break them up with a knife or wooden spoon (but step back before the tomatoes get the ultimate revenge and blow seeds all over your nice, white shirt - again learn from my mistakes).

Add the basil, salt, pepper, and sugar.

Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and let it reduce for at least 20 minutes. Taste at this point and see if you need any more salt or sugar. Then you can simmer it for a while. This is one of those sauces that definitely works the next day.

I cooked some sausage while the sauce simmered and added it in small slices at the end just before I served it. Because it was smoked, the sausage just boosted a new flavour into the whole thing - but if you don't like the taste of smoked stuff, just use whatever sausage you like.

I've put the remainder into small containers to freeze.


If you try these recipes, let me know if these work for you. Suggestions are welcome for sure...

Off to make the soup now - and fill the house with love.

Best of the day. Peace.

Nic

October 16, 2007

What more can I say?


My intrepid cousin Joff.
His penny farthing.
And the north face of Everest - the Tibetan side.

Joff's website

That's Joff on my new blog banner at the top, enjoying his fish and chips on the seafront in Southend circa 1971, with our Nan.

October 02, 2007

Power


We raised $26.5 million.

Well, okay we weren't alone.



And we weren't all human.

But we all got what it was about...


Thanks to everyone who gave.

And you still can if you want to - just click on the run for the cure link in the sidebar.

September 24, 2007

pause...



My father Bob died last week. He had been fighting cancer for a couple of years. He was 77.

He was cremated wearing trousers, his bowling shirt from his winter life, and his golf shoes from his summer life - complete with tufts of grass in the cleats from his last round.

His memorial service will be at his golf club in eastern Quebec on Friday.

He and I had a complicated, fragile relationship, rusted by neglect, watered sporadically like a weed, blossoming occasionally.

I will be taking up my 3-wood - and blasting a ball off the tee for him - well, blasting as far as my arm movement right now will allow. Plus he never saw me hit a ball anyway - so if I shank it...it'll be okay.

Dad was one of the most optimistic people I've ever met.
And he loved a laugh more than anything.
And he had the most love for the worst, bawdiest, dirtiest jokes I've ever heard.
And every meal he ate at our table he loved, and seemed to mean it.

He loved music - swing, jazz, reggae and of course classical - and requested it during his last days of lucidity. He was probably Oscar Peterson's biggest fan - and loved to recount how he bought the great Canadian pianist a drink one night in Montreal.

My very first grown-up album - an LP, a record, a vinyl disc - was from Dad. The London Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven's 9th Symphony...alle menschen werden bruder...ode to joy. When Cindy told me he was requesting music, I wanted to send my now-CD version of the symphony...but it was too late.

I remember one night at our kitchen table Dad cried when I played Nessun dorma for him, sung by the one, Pavarotti, who raced him to the grave.

It was Pavarotti's signature.

He sang it at his final performance last year. And the final words, of the final performance, of the final song that Pavarotti performed, say:
Vanish, O night! Set, stars! Set, stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!



Dad - March 20, 1930 - September 17, 2007

...and that's it.

So, I pause here. I'll be back next week - drenched by the saying, when it rains, it pours.


the top photo you have seen in a previous post about my Mum - is of my parents on the summer night they met, in 1949. They were married 3 months later. When she sees this photo she still gushes...about the dress...she loved that dress.

the bottom photo is the first photo I ever remember having of me with both my parents - it was four years ago - I cooked them dinner. The picture was the idea of, and taken by, Dad's wonderful wife, Cindy.

September 18, 2007

kick it in the butt


I just registered for the Run for the Cure on September 30th, so here's a shameless request for support...

Help transform me from a breast cancer patient into a breast cancer survivor.

It's perfect. I'll have recovered enough from the surgery to do it. And I won't have started chemo yet.

So for all my foodblogging friends out there - let's show them what we're made of.

You can click here above and follow the donate to a participant...in this case meeeeee: Nicola Pulling, for the Toronto run...

There's plenty of information on the website about where the money goes - it funds researchers, like my surgeon...

Come...let's kick this bastard in the ass.

September 13, 2007

my talisman

I've been home 7 days today.

I have flowers and emails and visits and care and love in abundance - and you never know where it's going to come from. Today it came in a tiny package in the mail.

The kindness of strangers overwhelms me.

A few weeks ago, my aunt and uncle picked up John and his wife Violet, and off they went to France for the weekend. Actually they went to Dieppe.

They went because August 19th was the 65th Anniversary of the Battle of Dieppe, also known as a catastrophe.

Of the 6,000 troops that landed at Dieppe, almost 5,000 of them were Canadian.

It was a ferocious battle that went wrong from the start. And by the time they made landfall, later than they expected, in full daylight at dawn, the Germans were waiting for them. It lasted ten hours.

The official death count was 1,380. 913 of them were Canadians. Two thousand more of them were taken prisoner. And only 60 Canadians made it back to England.

Two years later, the Canadians landed at Juno Beach on June 6th, 1944. And on September 1st, it was the Canadians who liberated Dieppe.

John, who was in 3 Commando of the British forces, was at Dieppe.

A few years ago I stopped over in Paris on my way home from my trip through Asia. I made my way up to Normandy because my Aunt and Uncle were there - and I met John then. My family was with him to commemorate D-Day - because, as you might have guessed, he was a survivor of those battles as well.

Well into his 80s now, he wanted to be in Dieppe this year to honor the 17 remaining Canadian commandos who had made it back to the site of that battle.

They stood as tall as they could in their 4-score years - at attention - some slightly bent - medals on their chests - hands at their brow in salute, still living the memory.



A few days later, after they were home, my Aunt took round some photos of their trip.

They were talking about Dieppe and Canada - and John asked about my Aunt's connection to Canada. She explained that my Mum and I have lived in Canada for a long time.

And she told him I was battling my own battle against breast cancer at the moment.

He asked her if I was English. She explained I was born in Kent and moved to Canada as a baby (not alone of course, my sense of independence kicked in long after the boat landed).

He nodded.

He got up and formally presented to my Aunt a small case. Inside was a pin in the form of a tiny stiletto.

He told her he was presenting it to me.

It is the Commando Badge of Courage.

It arrived safely on Canadian shores today.

And I am wearing it where my left breast used to be.

My first battle is over - a clean, straight, knife line - no pain meds - one night in hospital.

The thing about crossing to the other riverbank is that you miss the journey. September 5th I slept my way there. It's a journey my surgeon knows too well. She ferried four of us over that day.

So, this is the other side of the river, where my doctor promised me a whole lot more life. This side is still forested. I do see a path. I just can't see the end of it - although I suppose none of us can.

For sure, this was the easy part. This was no Dieppe - in fact I'd prefer to think of it as D-Day, but I don't know how the battle will fare now.

They say a talisman is something you hold to be a charm that will avert evil and bring good fortune - I've never really had one before.

I do now. I'm averting evil, embracing fortune with all my might.

A tiny stiletto - touched by a commando who survived those bloody beaches of Dieppe and D-Day - touched by a human who knows fear and has shared his courage with me...

A talisman of kindness.

The top photo is from the wiki page on Dieppe.
The Calgary tank is from here.

August 26, 2007

with even mind

I reached a new state last week - one I've never known, it's colourful, it's peaceful - it's aware of fear but is more aware of joy - mostly it's a place of certainty, although I'm not sure of what.

I've reached the state of equanimity.

Getting hit with a diagnosis of breast cancer was like being thrust through a portal to a place I didn't want to know, never wanted to visit, let alone live.

As those first few days passed, I found myself begging and pleading to know how to get through the fear and anxiety. If I could conquer it, control it, I would be helping myself, no, in fact I'd be leading myself beyond this frontier of diagnosis. I couldn't go back. Life wasn't that way anymore. There was no way back. I had to move forward - but I didn't know where.

So bearing the dent of the two-by-four that the diagnosis slammed into my forehead - like a passport - I felt my way forward. No path, no directions, no map.

Strangely, bits and pieces of the path dropped in front of me. Just when I thought I was stepping off into mid-air, there would be another piece.

This is my path.

First piece - my Steve.

Then there's my friends and family.

~

So in the beginning, I felt what I felt when I felt it.

People layered me in survival stories - the grandmother who had advanced breast cancer in her 40s and lived to 93, the mother of three who had stage III, lymph-node-positive cancer who is thriving now.

Of course others just told me stories of whole families felled by death. I learned to look at them dumb with wonder. And then found myself bursting with laughter when I re-told the stories later. There's a whole blog to come about the stupidest things people said to me.

One colleague told me her aunt had it and lost six years of her life. She didn't remember anything - not even her niece's wedding. And yet she has beaten it (she made it through the crucial five year mark). My jaw dropped.

I went home, grabbed Steve by the arms, looked into his eyes like my life depended on it and told him, "There is no way this is going to own me. This isn't all of me. It's a small part. I can't live with the feeling of being hunted for the next five years. I am not going to give up feeling what's going on right now. I am not going to lose the present. Don't let me lose sight of that."

"I promise," Steve said.

The next day I bought a charm bracelet in support of the Run for the Cure.

~

Over the years I've dabbled in meditation. I have never taken a course. I only ever taught myself about quietness of mind - and like everyone I'd sit, close my eyes and my mind would start up a full discussion about how great it was to be in a quiet mind...and how not quiet my mind was...and then I'd sigh, forgive myself, and start over.

I did it now.

I even bought books - Meditation for Beginners - and found Meditation for Dummies, I'm not kidding, at the library.

It's working.

~

I have been seeing a psychotherapist for a few months, by chance, dealing with anxiety stuff, trying to understand where it comes from, trying to gain some balance between my heart and mind and soul about what I want in life and how I got here. Jan helped me look through childhood wounds (as first my Dad left, then my brother ran away, then died in a car accident) to see how I've coped since and how I haven't.

She asked one day what I saw inside - what the pain looked like. And I described a slit, ragged, stony, and through it I could see blindingly bright flowing lava. It moved so fast it took my breath away. I told her the lava wasn't the problem...that lava was the core of me, the essence of me, the truest part of me. But the slit...she asked...it's a wound I said.

And to the edge of the wound, on her knees looking in was a little girl. Me...of course, the girl of those years. When Jan asked me what I would say to that little girl if I could - I blurted out without hesitation, "Oh little one. You're fine. You're wonderful. And I love you so much. Unconditionally." And I cried.

Jan buys big, big tissue boxes.

That was a few months back.

I still, not exactly talk to the little girl, but am "present" with her - reassuring her, helping her feel safer. There is such love in that and forgiveness.

During that first week of coming to grips, I went to bed one night. I rolled on my side and said to her through the air, "Hey little one." She looked up at me. "You were so resilient through all that stuff. I need you now. I need your strength. I need you to help me."

She held out her hand - without hesitation. I grabbed it. She smiled and came to me. She just walked into my arms for a hug - and has been near me ever since. She plays, she dances, she reads, she sleeps, she sits in my lap and lets me hold my arms around her.

We, she and I, seem to have come full circle.

~

My Mum has been wondrous. She's been here. She survived colon cancer at 46. She's 80. So she gets my irritation at people's fear. My irritation at their bone-headed observations. She gets my need to laugh. As always her core of iron inspires me.

~

Two weeks after my diagnosis to the day - a friend went for her own biopsy. It came back positive. We're now cancer patients together. I was unnerved. I felt icky. Her cancer is larger and more aggressive. I couldn't put my finger on it - but I felt guilty for being luckier. It was hard to take. They have whipped her into the system. She will be through her surgery this week, while I'm about to go in and talk about my surgical plan.

I brought it up with Steve. He said, "You have been given the gift of perspective. And you have someone who truly understands what you're going through."

I felt a great weight lift.

~

The same day I heard about my friend I had results back from my MRI and ultrasound tests - my other breast is behaving itself. And the MRI didn't show up any surprises. The twinges of aches, the thought that with every passing minute the cancer is getting a tougher and tougher grip on the rest of my body - my doctor told me is totally normal to feel - but I'm fine. There is no sign of it outside the breast.

I felt another great weight lift.

~

Everywhere I turn, people tell me how lucky I am to have the surgeon I have. Even my co-diagnosed friend, who ironically works in the breast cancer field, told me during her diagnosis process she called her favourite contacts to find out who she should see here - and one name came back at her, my surgeon. Another colleague of mine had her. A nurse who didn't work for her, but respects her enormously, told me how lucky I was...and the surgeon's senior fellow told me how she's been through thousands of operations with her, and she's unbelievable.

I'm in good hands. Another weight...gone.

~

Now...the knowledge. I couldn't face the research. And yet, I'm a researcher/producer by trade. My day job is to find and research stories - and I've spent years digging passionately into science and medicine. But my body and brain went on strike when I went near the books my surgeon gave me. My stomach tightened. I turned the books over so I couldn't see them, then buried them under home decorating and food magazines.

Out of sight...out of mind...Not so much.

Steve was going to read up on it for me - a need-to-know basis only.

Then last week I dug into Wellspring's website - a cancer care support centre. Then I went to the Dragons Abreast team website. Then to the Canadian Cancer Society's website. Then the National Cancer Institute's website - both the patient's info and then the health professionals' info. Then onward to the primary research articles and by midnight I was perusing the journals on PubMed to see what they're finding out about various chemo treatments.

I was on the couch, laptopped and square eyed, and I laughed as I said to Steve, "I'm back."

He asked me what I meant. I told him I was researching. He smiled at me, with his whole face, eyes twinkling. "I'm glad. That's what I've been waiting to hear."

It was instinctive not to research until I was ready. And something just told me I was ready.

I tore through another book this weekend - The Breast Cancer Survivor Manual.

~

Then I found out last week - my friends are harnessing their energy and creating a team for the Run for the Cure on September 30th. How can I repay their love?

~

My place of joy has rooted itself. I have love, inside and out. I'm happy. By the end of the third week I gripped Steve's arm again and said, "Is it right that I feel normal again? Am I denying something? Do I have my head in the sand? I feel normal."

And he reassured me that all this emotional work is paying off in huge dividends, bigger than I knew possible.

Any news, good or bad will be what it is.

And I know I'm feeling normal, my black humour is in full swing.

~

These are the disparate pieces that led me here. As I said, I wanted to reach a state of equanimity. And after a few days I thought I'd better look it up to be sure it means what I think it means.

Main Entry: equa·nim·i·ty Pronunciation: "E-kw&-'ni-m&-tE, "e-kw&- Function: noun Inflected Form(s): plural -ties
Etymology: Latin
aequanimitas, from aequo animo with even mind
1
: evenness of mind especially under stress

Hahm Sah - I am That.

And I'm here.

Now if I could only trust that that's what this is.

August 22, 2007

happy 1st birthday foodnut


Thanks to everyone who has ever spent part of their day reading Foodnut. Here's to the future.

August 21, 2007

the spoon in my champagne

So...tomorrow my little blog, my little foodnut turns 1!

One year ago I wrote about life stuff in my kitchen - and in one year, I gotta tell you, life hasn't pulled any punches.

I've evolved the philosophy over the last 10 years that whenever you can create a ritual that marks life - you just do it.

You know what that means? Champagne.

I was thinking about champagne this morning on the subway, on my way to work. I wasn't meaning to, and I don't usually, but I'm reading What Einstein Told His Cook 2 and he brought it up.

Not Einstein actually, Robert L. Wolke - who is a professor emeritus of chemistry and a columnist emeritus with the Washington Post, where he wrote Food 101. He wrote What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained a few years ago, and then realized there were more questions from his readers and there was just more to say - and he got to say it with his wife, food writer and cook Marlene Parrish who contributed the recipes in the book.

I found the book in the remainder pile in our local independent book store and had to buy it when I read the dedication: I dedicate this book, as I have my life, to my wife, companion, motivator, and most loving critic, Marlene Parrish, who characterizes herself as Einstein's Cook.

I am such a suck. Now that kind of love calls for champagne.

Not long ago my friend Carol asked me to get an open bottle of champagne out of her fridge. And sticking out the top was a spoon. "Um, Carol? Middle age setting in? Or is this a new spiritual ritual?"

She has known me long enough to ignore me, for the most part - you know like sisters do, I hear.

"Isn't that neat?," she said. A friend had told her that putting a spoon, handle first into an open bottle of bubbly will keep it bubbly a lot longer. "Huh," I said - a little skeptically as I looked at the open space around the spoon. I'd lived 44 years without hearing that one. A sheltered life.

So I was delighted to squeeze myself into a seat on the train this morning, open my daily indulgence with Professor Wolke and dig into the "Something to Drink?" chapter.

I've been entertained and then fascinated by the answers to his readers' queries: how to clear up cloudy iced tea, when it's best to put the cream in your coffee, how hot the water should be for tea (something you know I have almost religious feelings about) - not perhaps as important as the questions of saving the people of Darfur, or the subprime mortgage financial disaster, or the disappearing icebergs - but hell, I'm fascinated.

And sure enough, I turned the page, and there was the wacky question of whether to stick a spoon in your champagne bottle.

The reader asked if a fork would work as well. Prof. Wolke wrote: "Yes, a fork would work just as well. So would a railroad spike. Or a magic wand, for that matter, because the spoon did absolutely nothing. The spoon dodge is pure bunk."

Now how can you not love a man like that?

It turns out champagne just doesn't go stale as fast as other bubbly drinks. The key, he wrote, is to make sure you put it back in the fridge. Carbon dioxide, dissolves and stays that way better in cold liquids.

So his recommendation is to throw the unfinished bottle (okay that's the first challenge in testing this: not finishing the bottle) in the fridge and then, he says, to put a stopper in it (not apparently cutlery).

The other reason I love him is because he's adamant that you don't buy one of those fancy-assed bottle stoppers that look like NASA was involved early on in the project, just use a regular stopper - the bottle has already released its pressure that required the fancy cork and metal wire cage.

Of course the shame of not finishing the bottle can be rectified with mimosas in the morning - because let's face it, as Wolke wrote, "you never know when you'll have even more to celebrate in the morning."

Morning can be a metaphor of course. It reminds me of a beautiful line from the great, but dark, Sarah McLachlan: Cast me gently into morning, for the night has been unkind...

I have two bottles of Moet & Chandon I picked up at Heathrow last month (on sale). I was going to open them through the summer - but as life hasn't pulled any punches this year - they're safely stored in the cupboard near the fridge until Steve and I get through the next six months - and maybe come spring, they'll be just right to celebrate with...by then I'll be just waiting to burst like a cork - with life, with victory, with new, deeper, even more valued rituals of love.

I love this blog - I love who this blog represents. And I love all the people who have taken it into their hearts. Here's to more of it - Happy Anniversary foodnut...

August 19, 2007

reaching the roof of the world


My cousin Joff built this penny farthing, got on it on May 1st of last year, and headed east. He hasn't stopped. And he's 18,000 kilometres along now.

This is his third try - his knees have betrayed him a couple of times before this. But not this time. He's on the roof of the world now.

We hadn't heard from him in a month - and his mother - my aunt who loves to indulge in mussels - was a bit frantic. I, in fact, was getting concerned and checked out the phone number for the UK consulate closest to Tibet - just in case.

I sent Joff one last email on Thursday, with an urgent mark, asking him to make contact if he's not lying at the bottom of a gorge. And by chance on Friday, he finally rolled into Lhasa.

I asked him for this shot...a dream of his, and a dream of mine to see for myself.

He's rolling for charity, if anyone cares to help, check out his website. He's posted some beautiful photos of the Litang Horse Festival...where he met some of the beautiful Tibetan kids...

August 18, 2007

in consideration of my assets

My boobs are bigger than I thought.

Actually, than anyone thought.

I'm tall, thin - well thinnish. I'm sure my bum isn't as big as my mind has perversely convinced me it is. I was a girl who kept waiting for those bumps of pre-puberty to come to fruition, who never needed a "training" bra. And I was the last girl in my grade 8 class to get one. When puberty launched me into womanhood, and it was all done, I said, "whatever."

My boobs never entered my psyche as one of my "features" - never made it to the mythical billboard advertising "Me".

Me did not equal Boobs.

I remember being off on a research trip in Cleveland a long time ago - I was forced to spend the weekend in the racing pit of Jacques Villeneuve's IndyCar team - it was pretty fucking cool. (That was when Paul Newman said hello to me...like, totally, that kind of cool). They had all these chicks delivering car parts along pit row - I say chicks because they wore short shorts, high heels, teeny tiny t-shirts that showed that these girls knew their billboards were real, not mythical, except for any lowly grease monkey who dreamed of finding out.

Anyway, after inhaling four days of ethanol fuel, testosterone and words like torque, shaft, and cockpit, with a few hours to kill before my flight, I needed a strong antidote - an extreme version of femininity - so I tracked down a Victoria's Secret.

Now being of the non busty-variety I tended to feel somewhat alien in there. Whenever I found myself in a lingerie dressing room, being handed something lacy, padded, underwired, and squished together - I bent over double laughing - which always worried the salesgirls. But really. I mean come on. Once I was strapped into it, I looked like I was trying too hard.

I've never, ever been able to pull off sexy if I was aware that I was trying to pull off sexy. Sexy, like goodness, is innate, and if you put it on, it goes rancid in its falseness.

So off I went to Victoria's Secret. Which is a treat because we don't have them here in Toronto.

We have Sophia, of Sophia's Lingerie on the Danforth. She's an institution. She carries all those little thingies that you hold like vapour that cost $350 - but they're from Europe. And Sophia, the institution herself, flies into your dressing room to feel you up and see how the whole thing is coming together. It's kind of like being sexed up and lingeried by your mother. That said, she knows of what she speaks. And I dis a cultural lingerie icon at my peril. But again, I didn't feel quite like I had enough to offer poor Sophia. And I didn't really care.

Back in Cleveland, the V.S. salesgirl offered to measure me. I'd heard the stat - 80 billion women in North America alone are suffering life in the wrong bra size. I chuckled and stepped into the change room. "I'm a 34B. Have always been a 34B. Will always be a 34B," I swaggered a little I think as I said it (probably some lingering gas fumes from race day).

She got the tape. She pulled it round. I looked off to the distance, kind of aware I was drawing my posture skyward, filling my lungs - kind of like those Soviet memorials to the brave women who harvest the wheat with a scythe, looking off to the future, confident that Stalin wouldn't let them starve. Kinda like that...

"Well I've got good news and bad news," I seem to remember her saying. "You're a 36, not a 34. But you're an A cup, not B cup."

So I was wider in the back and smaller in the boobs than I thought. Huh.

I could get a job harvesting wheat.

I bought a pullover bra and panty set from the girl anyway - for lighting my life with humility. I became a convert to matching underwear - that, I thought, was sexy.

So, I stopped thinking about my boobs - only went to Sophia's with my girlfriends who had assets Sophia could appreciate.

Now, I think my boobs are beautiful, and a lovely part of me. Now that I have to consider losing one, and maybe two - they have asserted their place in my mind, heart and soul. Breasts are fraught with meaning - they're sexual, they feed and nourish, they make halter tops look good.

I have to, as in, I must, consider them existentially. I'm in this unusual, totally unexpected place of trying to place what my breasts mean to me, so I can handle their potential loss and the grief that will come with that.

They are not my identity, any more than the breast cancer has turned me into only a cancer patient. I am more.

My doctor wasn't kidding when she said this challenge will make me stronger - it's like vinegar on grease - you can see so much better, the measure of things.

And Steve has to figure out what life will be like to have bigger boobs and better cleavage, than I.

We laugh about it now. I'll keep you posted for how long.

*The photo is from my wedding - Auntie Joan is my second Mum.

August 15, 2007

fries don't have calories if you eat them with mussels and family in Paris

July in Paris.
It meant rain and sun, moules et frites, baguettes et croissants, cafe creme et wine in small jugs.










I was with my aunt, uncle and my Mum. And you know the expression - an army travels on its stomach? I come by it honestly. Here my aunt muscles a mussel.

This was moments before the clouds rolled in and trapped us under the awnings in Place du Tetre, near Sacre Coeur






And this is how much my Mum hates thunderstorms, especially outside, under a tent, on the highest point in Paris.










Look at how they display their local produce - they're just so French. This was at a supermarket in Normandy, on our way back to England.
































August 14, 2007

look out for thwacks

I have felt mortal twice in my life.
And both times I've had to be convinced.

Once was a couple of weeks ago as you may be tired of reading - but it did put me in mind of the other. Five years and a bus ride ago.

I know that for those who freeclimb (without ropes), BASE jump, skydive, eat organ meat, or raw milk cheese, to feel mortality only twice in four decades is frankly disappointing.

But I am risk averse. Yes I've dived on shipwrecks, yes I've been near a Zairean soldier as he fired his automatic rifle, yes I've flown with an aerobatic team, yes I've eaten canned potato chips - but no, I've never been on a grown-up roller coaster, no I have never seen a horror film (okay Alien, but it took two weeks of convincing), and no I have never made a souffle.

I think what risk junkies crave is the thwack of mortality. They like that knife edge that feeds their senses. It doesn't envelope you like a philosophical blanket with a snifter of warmed brandy, easing you into mortal epiphany - no. Both times for me it's just been a thwack to the head with a big stick - after which the heart and soul argue about who will have to pick up the pieces.

I was in Pokhara, Nepal. And I wanted to be in India. Not fond of flying, I bought a bus ticket - one way to the Indian border. This was a tourist bus - meant for touring - hence the name. This was not a local bus, many of which littered the bottom of gorges, many of which you got to see as you careened around switchbacks.

Which probably accounts for the typo in the billboard I came across for local whisky - it probably wasn't a typo.

I had been in Nepal for over a month and it was time to move. That morning I was happy to throw my pack on the roof, climb aboard, and settle in by the door. It was cramped and the driver and conductor kept trying to get people to sit more to the back. The bus was over two hours late, the dawn bus had never showed, so we climbed on this one.

Off we went heading out into the valleys, twisting our way to India. I made friends on the bus, one guy on his way home to England pulled out his collection of gurkha knives to show us, John, a Kiwi, and I were heading in the same direction and made plans to meet up in Rajasthan, and I had just organized a group of us to hire a jeep taxi to take us to the birthplace of Buddha.

The bus driver pulled out to pass a car.

And the world went into slow motion. He couldn't pull the bus back into our lane and suddenly there was no road in front of us, just a palm tree through the front windshield. I said out loud, but very quietly, "oh no".

We were falling. We were rolling. My eyes closed (which my mind later confused with being nighttime). My fingers were pinched above my head in something (it was the conductor's folding seat in front of me as we rolled). My eyes opened only briefly enough to see shattered glass fly past me on the left. And then there was a splash. The world stopped turning. And all I could hear was the bus engine, still in gear, grinding away.

By this point I had been tossed to the other side of the bus. The bus was on its side and it was half full of water. I was on my back looking up at the sky through the open side door. I bent my arms. Yup working. My legs. Ditto. And then my head screamed at me on the inside, "Get out!" And I started scrambling, clawing toward the sky above me.

Tony, the Spaniard who is the first man I have ever come across who oozed sexuality from every pore, yelled, "DO NOT PANIC. Everyone calm down."

And we did.

We got a human chain going - those who weren't hurt helped those who were. Others climbed down into the river and pulled all the backpacks off the now vertical roof. Another guy dove under the water to pull the keys out of the ignition so the back wheel would stop spinning as we guided people along the now top, formerly side, of the bus. I pulled my first aid kit out of my day pack and started cleaning bloody, river-soaked wounds. Locals came to help pull us all up the steep embankment to the road. And the ambulances started arriving.

Nine people went to hospital. A few with broken bones, the most serious with a ruptured spleen. We got everyone bundled into the ambulances including Tony and John who both had bruised ribs, and yet had stood on the riverbank as I handed them more passengers. I stayed behind - I had an unreasonable, unfathomable sense of responsibility for making sure everyone was okay. I couldn't stomach the thought that any of those people who were now in the hands of the Australian medical team at the clinic in Pokhara would die. I couldn't take it.

My head had a couple of goose eggs, a couple of scrapes, but that was it. I was hugging people, almost euphorically, telling them we had just survived the stereotypical Asian story - a bus accident. We were alive.

Someone said it was incredible - his life had actually flashed before his eyes. He said, "I thought we were dead."

I was appalled at him. How could he let that thought in? I couldn't die that way. I just couldn't. My brother was killed in a car accident 30 years before. There was NO WAY my Mum was going to lose both her children in a road accident. NO WAY.

And then I felt mortal.

I grabbed a ride with a couple who stopped to see what the commotion was about. They were headed for Kathmandu. I had lost my taste for buses and had regained some courage for flying to India instead - so I bargained that if he drove carefully and slowly I would take the ride back to the capital. On the way they shared their packed lunch with me on the side of the road, near a waterfall. I'd love to say I remember what it was - but I was still a bit stunned.

And that's how I met the General and his wife, Sita. On the way they invited me to their country house to stay for a few days. They knew I held a British passport and they had lived in England while he studied at Sandhurst - she argued in favour of tea, he argued in favour of brandy...so I got both. I don't like brandy - I drank it.

And the sense of mortality passed. I stayed with these kind, generous people for a couple of days and then headed back into Kathmandu. And there on my first evening I ran into Tony in a bookstore. We hugged like old friends and he caught me up with all the injured - they were all going to be fine. He was having dinner with John that night, so I joined them. And John and I confirmed our plan to meet in Jaipur, Rajasthan a few weeks later.

Thwack. I headed on with my journey, feeling blessed - because as I think Carrie Fisher wrote (and I've said before) - bad reality...great anecdote. I'll hang on to that idea over the next few months.

August 09, 2007

I.D. Please

My brain came back online late last week.

I felt various pieces of software click back on. I noticed the weather. I noticed problems in the house. I noticed the unmade bed, the dust, the cat hair.

I can cope. And then I can't. And then I can. And when I can't, Steve is there. And my Mum. And my beautiful, beautiful friends.

I noticed I can float.

I'm starting to believe that books come into your life at certain times. I finished reading Eat, Pray, Love about a week before my diagnosis of breast cancer.

I got to the end. I started over again. I salivated over Gilbert's description of pizza in Naples, yoga in her Indian ashram, and fulfillment of her search in Indonesia. The hair rose on my arms as she talked about the voice deep inside her that protects her. I cried (on the subway) when I read what the voice said to her. I jumped at her description of yoga. And my soul rested when I read what a friend told her about our soulmates...

I spent last week thinking a lot. And talking with Steve. And letting him hold me, and holding him. I thought about how I grieve the sudden loss of the part of my life where nothing more was wrong than traffic, rain, and what to have for dinner - life without a sense of mortality. Without the sad lesson that I must love this minute now, this day.

I ate a peach. A locally grown peach at its height of beauty and taste rested in my palm. My first bite dripped, the peach melted in my mouth. It grabbed my senses. I was completely present in the moment. I'm me.

And yet...

I went to the hospital for another ultrasound. I was laying on the bed, arm above my head, as they spread the goo and the wand and magically looked through the tissues on my healthy breast...I was thinking there are more pictures of my breasts floating around the medical world in the last few weeks than of Paris Hilton from her whole adventurous, young adult life.

A young resident did the test. He complained about the discomfort in his shoulder. I said, "yeah, I can't imagine. Care to trade places?" Oh he said...oh your shoulder hurts too? Oh, yeah...oblivious.

Later, when we were chatting he called me a cancer patient.

I jolted inside.

He's the first person to put the cancer first in my identity. Yeah, I guess I am. But NO I am not. I most certainly am not a cancer patient first . He couldn't see me. I'm me.

Through the last week - my brain, stomach and heart found their equlibrium again - no, more than that, they found their truth in me. It became clear that my love, inside and out, is the engine. That's me.

I finished Eat, Pray, Love again. And I stared at the cover and couldn't help but smile. For the last week that's all I've been directing myself to do: eat, pray, love.

And as Gilbert said of the favourite mantra she discovered on her journey, Hahm Sah....
I am That.

July 31, 2007

the riverbank

Where am I?
What state is this?
How did I get here without going anywhere?
My appetite is being put to the supreme test – the ultimate test.
That’s as close as I’ll get to food in this post.
Yesterday I got the word – I have breast cancer.
I just shook my hands off the keyboard as I wrote that.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
They assure me it’s treatable – they assure me I’ll be fine – they assure me I have lots of life ahead of me. And what choice do I have but to believe them?
A deep voice, deep inside me is roaring that this is just not right – the voice is indignant, outraged, and powerful.
It hurts more to tell people I love than to absorb the news myself – I think…but it’s more likely I just haven’t absorbed it myself.
I kept waking up last night as if trying to emerge above water, out of a nightmare – only to realize the feeling didn’t go away when my brain came online – it’s here…all around me.
So here we go…a new adventure, not by choice, more an invasion.
I had decided earlier this year to rededicate myself to growing my hair out (after chopping it off in February) – but ha…I will head back to my fabulous hair cutter Sunil, and have him chop it – a pre-emptive strike, back to my Buddhist monk look. My graces and I are debating now on the wild colour – what the hell?
Speaking of hell, bring it on…my new and not-so-brave world of words: oncologists, surgeons, chemo, radiation, risks, benefits, survivor rates…guess I’d better go get a pink ribbon for my bumper -
I’m 44. I’m three years into a beautiful, breathtaking marriage. I’m surrounded in love and beauty by good people.
So how did I get here?
I went for a baseline mammogram after my physical this year…I went because I hadn’t been for one before.
Then I went back for another one, and an ultrasound…and then another mammogram, and another ultrasound combined with a needle biopsy (not as bad as it sounds, actually quite fascinating if it’s anyone else), then a week later: the word.
I told my surgeon that the image that runs through me is of slipping into a hole. She said a hole is only one way. I’m actually on a riverbank she said, “and we’re going to get you through to the other side of the river, and there’s a whole lot of life there.”
That’s how I got here. On the riverbank.
At the top is a photo taken from my incredible hotel room in Varanasi, India - it is a boat crossing the Ganges at sunrise.

April 14, 2007

The lemons in my belly - revised recipe

Lemonade is in my belly.

On its way there it speeded down my throat, through my heart and soul and soothed my fretful mind.

I try to banish winter. Spring creeps slowly and tentatively. My mood sours.

The crocuses are up and bracing themselves against the wind that has been gusting and tearing at them from the north. They are holding their own. The magnolia trees thought about budding, but have halted their progress. The cats know the sun has passed the equator - and should be doing a better job on the back deck. So they take it out on each other, fighting over space at the window, and then shed on the sofa.

And, Steve and I, sit despondently, and wait for the word windchill to disappear from the cheerful lingo on the perky weather channel.

The whole city filled with people, cats, dogs, raccoons, skunks and squirrels, trees, flowers and weeds braced...sitting...waiting...life ready to burst at the seams.

The tonic for our pains - is in the fridge. A blue pitcher dosed with 100% homemade lemonade. For all that ails you. Steve snapped one snowy day and looked up a bunch of lemonade recipes.

It was so easy we were a tad annoyed with ourselves for not trying this sooner. Enjoy.

Spring Tonic Lemonade - with future possibilities as lemon freezies, when such things matter.

2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (depending on the size of the lemons get 10 -12)
1 cup of sugar

2 cups of water

1 1/2 tbsp. lemon zest


Combine the water, sugar and lemon zest in a pan and heat to boiling. Stir and allow heat to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Allow to cool (we put ours in the fridge). The zest turns the water a beautiful hopeful shade of yellow.

Once cooled, mix in the lemon juice.


Add more water until the lemonade is as thin or thick as you would like...bear in mind the more water you add the more you dilute the sweetness...so do this carefully and depend on trial and error the first couple of times.

It hasn't lasted long here. It is a classic...if two tries qualifies...I keep thinking it might be lovely with vodka or gin...Enjoy...let me know if it works for you.

Come on sun...come on...

Drawing above by these kids.

April 01, 2007

Sybil the Survivor

My mother just turned 80.

And I’m incensed.

Mums are frozen in time – they’re just Mums – they’re born as Mums…well not really born, they just appear. Because as their children we have no concept of them inside their skins – no idea who the child was, the teenager, the woman they were…before us.

Time swirls around them without us noticing, because they’re just there, doing Mum things…a tree rooted to the ground while we careen around them, being girls, being boys, banging into things, needing hugs, turning into teens, getting into trouble, playing with risk, becoming women and men, breaking hearts, being broken, growing up.

I am dumbfounded and slightly irritated to think how she got to 80 without me really, really noticing.

Plans are more about now than later. My chest tightens, my breath shortens. I choke on the idea.

My picture of my Mum in my heart is a feeling of love and nurturing. It’s a collage of her - at the counter making sure, deft handiwork of pastry, the smells of Sunday roast dinners, apple crumble, homemade warm custard, buttered bread, jam tarts and cups of tea. The warmth of an oven filling the kitchen, warming my heart.

My picture in my head is of her laughter – her crunched up face, hunched up shoulders, tear stained cheeks, bright wide smile, and absolute silence as she twigs on to the ridiculous…

She bursts out with laughter and then it tumbles inside…her eyes squeeze shut, her head rolls back, then her shoulders hunch up and she curls into a ball and jiggles with laughter on the inside…the lack of volume being made up for in tears squeaking out the sides of her eyes. She loves to laugh.

My Mum is a great connoisseur of the ridiculous…the more ridiculous the better the jiggle.

My Mum is through and through a Mum. There is no other role that fits her skin, her spirit so well. She loves loving. She loves being needed. She’ll martyr herself to a fault.

Even my friends recognize it. She’s a surrogate shoulder and a bearer of adolescent angst.

You wouldn't know she’s a bulwark against loss…She lost her own Mum at seven. She was ferried back and forth between relatives while her father tried to figure out what to do. He remarried two years later, and when they had a newborn, Mum’s life turned south into the unstable world of emotional abuse and neglect as her stepmother wished her away. Mum forgave later.

But she left home then.

I have pictures of her before she was a Mum. Even then, she was functioning as a Mum…She was a nurse, trained at the end of WWII in England. She cared for babies orphaned or abandoned in the war. She spoke of living at the hospitals (converted mansions), her love of the regimented routine, her ability to work nightshifts and calm the uncalmable, traumatized youngsters, comforting little ones who had lost everything, who knew what it felt like more than what it really meant. She loved teaching the babies and toddlers about play and joy, although she couldn’t give them much security as they went into the orphanage system at five – which broke her heart.

She escaped to the dancehall every Friday. She danced every weekend – was even scouted for a potential professional career. She loved dancing. She loved dating.

She met my father one night at a dance hall. She was, of course, laughing…Dad caught sight of her in the kaleidoscopic vision through the bottom of his beer glass. It was summer 1949. They were married October 1949…three months later. This picture on the right is of the night they actually met.

Her marriage careened through good times and hellish crises and back again. They travelled half way round the world, on the backs of the Royal Navy, and back again. They produced two children. It succumbed in the late 60s to a final and fatal infidelity.

Mum survived. She survived the loss of her husband, the runaway son who escaped into the 1960s communes and drugs…she found a job packing boxes in a warehouse and was promoted to purchasing officer. She strained the edge of reason when her son was killed in a car accident (just as he’d beaten his way through drug addiction)…and she survived her 40s when the doctor said it was, in fact, cancer – but that she would survive.

Sybil the Survivor.

She and I moved to Toronto in the late 70s, as the separatists took hold of Quebec in the election and the banks and mainstream institutions fled like refugees down highway 401 to the enclave of whitebread and prim propriety that was Toronto of the time.

And she survived raising a teenage daughter, to boot.

I became the first member of my family to graduate from university – so I did it twice. And she supported me the whole way, didn’t flag, didn’t despair.

And for all that tragedy and survival, my distilled memory, my image of record is of her laughter - her absolute passion for a great joke. My husband, Steve, can make her laugh so hard she crumples up.

So, how can she be anything but a survivor, and a hero to me? A quiet, self-deprecating, self-flagellating, iron-willed survivor. Who loves the ridiculous.

For her 80th…she didn’t want too much. We booked a night at Quince, a local restaurant, our go to for special occasions. She begged us not to spend the money. She said she really would prefer fish and chips.

We smirked.

We went to pick her up to take her to the restaurant. And we had a cup of tea at her place because we were early.

At 7pm a man named Jay knocked at the door. Behind him idled a 17-foot long Cadillac limousine. Courtesy of Lauren, a friend Mum considers a surrogate daughter. Lauren is now in LA, but she wanted to be part of the day.

‘Oh god’, Mum said when she came to the door. And immediately had to pee.

When we climbed into the car, I crawled to the front to see how long it was. Steve climbed in after me, and way in the rear, Mum got into the back seat, embedded in leather seat cushions – and she started.

“Imagine if we were going for fish and chips,” she said and lost herself in mirth. The thought of showing up in this monstrosity of a land yacht – complete with red LED lighting and mirrored ceiling and a bar of crystal decanters and champagne flutes. She burst, she crumpled, she jiggled, tears came down her cheeks.

It was the moment I was waiting for. Because when she starts, I can’t help but laugh at her laughing until I’m crying too. The two pictures above of her laughing are from her 70th and 75th birthday dinners.

We pulled up outside of Quince and headed in. Jennifer and Michael, I’ve written about before because they created our wedding dinner at their previous kitchen haunt, Stork on the Roof.

This night Mum perused the menu while sipping on her martini. Steve and I downed glasses of champagne and we slid into perfectly seared scallops in a cauliflower puree and tomato coulis on arugula, ravioli of butternut squash and mascarpone with truffles shaved atop…Steve and I had the day’s special: ribeye steak with mushrooms, shallots and garlic with frites…Mum ordered the whole sea bass done in the wood oven, stuffed with fennel, lemon and watercress. And on the side? A big friendly bowl of frites…

It was simple, delightful and just right. Jay drew up in the land yacht to take us home at 9:45pm as he promised. And, I realized…Mum had had fish and chips after all.