There’s no denying it, I’m in love

I remember the first time I felt this way. It was far less intense and I wasn’t yet certain it meant anything at all. I was younger; it felt new and fresh, if not a bit ambiguous.

It was December and I was standing below the steel-grey sky that stretches endlessly across Manitoba. I was in Hamiota, a town of less than a thousand, plunked seemingly in the middle of nowhere. My throat burned with the cold as I strained my eyes across the prairies. These were the fields of my boyfriend’s childhood—fields that during the summer months anchor golden wisps of rapeseed, but now laid choked in a near-blinding blanket of prairie snow.

It was Christmastime and I was in for a series of firsts: first time on a plane, first time in Manitoba, first time meeting his family. I remember his mother’s horses, thick, splendid beasts outfitted in their woolly winter coats, pawing the snow with plumes of smoke snaking out from their velvety nostrils. I remember riding across the plains, revelling in the horse’s rhythmic gait despite frozen feet stuffed inside inadequate boots. I felt it then, a deep, dull ache, both surprising and confusing, but how quickly it was silenced when we returned to the roaring grey of our dull city lives.

It would be a few years later, and in much different circumstances, that I would feel that way again. On a whim, born out of frustration and a touch of desperation to escape the complacency of the everyday, I jumped a plane to Prince Edward Island, where strangers housed and nourished me in exchange for labour on their organic farm. En route from a desolate convenience store bus depot to their farm in Shamrock, my heart lurched with every breathtaking scene of rolling red and green. How I remember those brisk afternoons crawling on my hands and knees through the fields of red currants, wrapped in mosquito netting, tearing out weeds, and feeling so deeply rooted and heavily besotted. I never wanted to leave.

But I did leave, and like the overwhelming aftermath of an emotionally-charged dream, the unidentifiable feeling lingered with me long after my return, an aching pit in my stomach, twisting, almost agonizing. But then, just like the boyfriend, it eventually faded away, becoming almost imperceptible, as the rest of life muddied it up and got in the way.

For years I had been sidestepping the obvious, digging for the starting threads in this yarn ball of feelings, but always getting tangled up in dead ends. It took moving to a new place that required a twenty-five minute daily commute down a rural highway for the reality of it to strike. I had wondered, uneasily, how quickly the novelty of the commute would wear off when signing the lease on the apartment so far removed from my place of work. But to my surprise it didn’t.

Each day I found myself gripped in what felt like near-heart attack breathlessness; there were moments when I felt almost dizzy, held captive in the morning by the sun rising up from behind the barns, and then again in the evening by the sun setting behind the rolling hills.  There was just so much beauty, and there was just no denying it: I was in love.

It seems a bit cliché, but nothing else makes me feel this way. Nothing else grips me so fervently, so completely, than the picturesque rolling countryside, the cow-dotted pastureland, the old stone barns rising out of the green and reaching toward the acid wash sky. I’m in love with the land, with the country, with every over-romanticized and often flawed ideal.

But like a naive and lovesick teenager, I’m letting it wholly consume me, and it’s drawing me in ever deeper. The twenty-five minute commute is no longer enough. I want us to move in together. I want to wake up every morning to that vast expanse of lonely pasture, and to come home to it every night.

And now I’ve found myself drawn even more to the rustic country breads of the European paysage, to the sweet and musky smell of roughly milled wheat, the warmth of a sprinkling of bran, that ripe but earthy-sweet smell of mature sourdough. As an experiment, I made a commercially-yeasted Italian bread, and it felt like the deepest, darkest betrayal. But it also led me to the loaf that will, I’m certain, come to define me.

I’m not ready to share it yet. It’s too new and fresh and uncertain. But I can tell you it’s a take on a classic Italian country bread from Genzano. It uses a naturally yeasted biga left to ferment for 12 hours. The biga is added to the final dough, leavened by wild yeast and retarded for an additional 12 hours. It’s dusted in bran and baked until the crust is remarkably thick, crackling, and a deep rusty brown. The flavour is phenomenal. It’s everything I want. And it’s all mine.

Expect the unexpected

If you had told me when I was younger that later in life I would find myself living in a small town just north of where I grew up, that I would be exceptionally fond of baking bread and writing about food, I might have screwed up my face in a doubtful grimace and told you flat out that you were wrong.

When sixteen I would have told you that I would be living in a modern steel building that scraped the sky of New York City, hair cropped and coiffed, and drinking something that reeked of sophistication.

When twenty I would have told you that I would be living in L.A., working in a recording studio producing some of the best music to ever hit CD.

When twenty-five I would have told you that I’d be living in Oxford, writing textbooks and teaching first-years contemporary political theory in a way that made them enjoy it.

A year and a half ago I wouldn’t have known what to tell you. I felt pulled in so many directions and void of inspiration.

I’m hardwired to be a life architect. I find stability and comfort in planning for my future, despite knowing now that nothing ever goes according to plan; our life paths are often chosen by others by the way in which they influence our lives and inspire our minds, both directly and indirectly. Knowing someone doing something amazing can give you the confidence to want to do something amazing too.

A year and a half ago I was looking for such inspiration and confidence. I was looking for people doing amazing things.

I remember one day in particular. It was a frigid, cheerless February day. It was dark as I shuffled downtown, feeling aimless and ordinary. The local bookstore window gave off a kind warm glow, inviting me to linger and scan the books on display. My eyes fixed on a magazine I’d never seen before, a magazine that held so much promise that I went in and bought it, choking down the price tag that seemed lodged in my throat.

But the pages were full of people doing things they loved–things they thought were amazing. And that’s why I remember that day.

If you had told me then that a year and a half into the future a small piece of my story and my very own curried carrot tart would be featured in that magazine, I might have screwed up my face in a doubtful grimace and told you flat out that you were wrong.

But it happened.

And that’s pretty inspiring.

Who knows what will happen next?

Taking the time

Idleness is a state I cannot suffer. I thrive on being in a condition of perpetual near-exhaustion; dodging it is part of the thrill. I like to fill each moment with outcome-producing activity. I get a lot done.

Eventually I burn out.

It takes me awhile to notice at first, and then the telltale signs begin to reveal themselves. I’ll realize I’ve only eaten bowls of spinach and scraps of stale bread for the last few days, and that most evenings end with me mindlessly browsing real estate listings–from around the world.

Yeah, I do that.

On Saturday I prepared lunch for a visiting friend instead of eating out, like we usually do, to remind myself to take the time.

I have words, jumbled and tumbling in my head, waiting to become phrases, then sentences, then stories. I simply need to take the time. I have tastes and textures on my tongue, waiting to become nostalgia-inducing, comfort-creating, heart-warming treats. I simply need to take the time.

Hopefully, I’ll be the bigger man and take my own advice.

What do you need to take the time for?

Time flies with pie

It’s true what they say: time passes by far more quickly as you get older. Summers no longer last forever; before you know it you’re begrudgingly digging out forgotten sweaters and planning Thanksgiving dinner, only to realize that Thanksgiving was last weekend and that it was great, remember?

As you get older you acquire milestones against which it becomes possible to gauge the passing of time. When you’re young and in school each year follows the same pattern—a pattern you take for granted and expect to continue indefinitely. But once you leave the comfort and security of the education system, you discover that life can change drastically from year to year, even month to month.

Kingston, ON

Sometimes it’s the tumultuous change you’ve experienced, and other times it’s the feeling that you haven’t changed at all, that accentuates the passing of time. For me, it’s a little bit of both.

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Copping out of playing favourites: Gastropost Mission #17

This post has been cross-posted to Gastropost – a project spearheaded by the National Post that sends food lovers on various food-related missions and gets them to share their experiences.  Mission #17 asked Gastroposters to share their favourite food.

It is difficult for me to even begin to consider a question that requires me to assign hierarchical value to foods that I love. For my tastes can be fleeting and there are simply too many favourites to have. So my response to this week’s Gastropost is somewhat of a cop out, but it isn’t without logic or fairness.

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A roasted and baked au revoir to summer

I thought it might be appropriate to note that I am writing this while enjoying a chilled slice of peach crumble pie, a salute, if you will, to the last days of summer.

Idle chatter has shifted from drawling exclamations about the overbearing heat to crisp chirps alerting us to the onset of fall, sometimes even punctuated by an almost imperceptible shiver.  With the sun high in the sky, the days are still warm, but now we find ourselves sleepily navigating dark mornings, searching blindly for light switches in rooms that once radiated with sunshine. Our breath, previously invisible, lingers around our lips like we’re all chain smokers, and we reach for the sweaters we so eagerly put away last May. We sense summer will soon utter its yearly last gasp.

For the first time in my life I am craving a cool autumnal day. After a summer of drought, we’ve had few opportunities to experience the pleasure of darting inside to hide from roaring storm clouds and cool summer rain.  The sun has been merciless, and I have caught myself shamefully cursing yet another glorious afternoon, a canvas of clear blue sky, wishing more than anything for a melancholy day of relentless rain, the kind that cuts through the sky sideways. Then I could ease the guilt I feel when wanting to tuck down into the couch with a cup of black tea and a good book, boisterous rays of sun chastise me for not being outside and active. And while I don’t suspect I’ll ever covet a snowy winter’s day, I welcome more than ever the shady days of fall.

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On mothers, marriage and pancakes

I laughed about it for weeks leading up to the momentous event. I was going to get obnoxiously intoxicated, I joked, and draw increasingly more embarrassed attention to myself as the night progressed by way of incessant speech-making. The speeches would be drawling and only partially intelligible. In a tone of strained self-congratulation, I would fixate on my personal achievements, and, should I be so generous as to spare a word for the happy new couple, I would say things that even the most ignorant and ill-mannered of party goers would think inappropriate, and I would also make sure to refer to the groom by the wrong name (e.g. Barrie instead of Gary). We laughed.  Even Bar… I mean, Gary, thought it was funny, mostly because we all knew that never in my life have I been obnoxiously drunk; also, I’m not much of a speech maker.  The risk of realization was low, and therefore we all laughed easily.

Needless to say, on the day of my mother’s wedding, I neither drank copious amounts of alcohol, nor did I make any embarrassing speeches. In fact, I didn’t make any speeches at all. But if I had, I might have said:

 Leading up to this day, I had joked that I would attempt to make my mother’s special day as much about me as possible—that any speech I gave would be crafted in such a way as to divert attention away from her so that I could revel in vain self-celebration. In other words, to play the role of the obnoxious extended family member or friend-of-a-friend who so often lurks at our dinner or wedding parties, awaiting the most inopportune moment to steal the show, leaving everyone feeling mildly uncomfortable and awkward.

The truth is, it is very hard for me to speak of my mother without talking about myself. I have been so very lucky—so utterly blessed—to have such a person in my life. Rarely a day goes by when I do not stop, for a brief moment, to consider and respect that who I am today is largely because of her.  So if I were to deliver a speech dripping with self-admiration, I would, in a roundabout way, be showering my mother with admiration as well.

My mother has shown me a kind of unconditional love and support that you might think only exists in fairy tales or movies. Because of this, she is the first person I turn to when happy or sad, excited or devastated. She is the first person I want to share good news with, and the first person from whom I seek comfort.  She is more than just my mother, she is my best friend and confidante. She knows when to listen and when to give advice, and she’s never tried to deter me from pursuing any one of my many dreams. No matter how poorly considered or naive they may have been, she has remained supportive and allowed me to chart my own path—always the first to cheer me on and share in my successes, and ever ready to pick me up and offer positive words should I fall. She is, in large part, responsible for many of my achievements, and my quick recoveries from failure. I have never met another person who could say the same about their relationship with their mother.

As someone who has given so graciously and selflessly and loved so unconditionally, my mother deserves only the utmost happiness, love and security. And so my heart absolutely swells, overwhelmed with joy, that she has found all of these things in this man with whom she wants to spend her life, and I could not be more happy or more grateful for today, for her, and for him.

Or something like that.

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Seven days in a secluded cabin, I return ambivalent about cheese

It was a cheerful sunny afternoon when the unbearable heaviness of being caused me to flee from my evening responsibilities and retreat to my favourite place hoping it would bring me a moment of clarity. It had been one of those days.  The world felt so deafeningly loud, like everyone was talking at once and the biosphere was a highly reverberant chamber. The echoes were heavy and vertiginous, barricading my thoughts and causing me to lose sight of my priorities. Trying to make sense of it all felt like trying to interpret a fortune cookie written in an unknown and indecipherable language. You shrug it off, but you can’t ignore the swell of urgency and frustration as you grapple with an unknown destiny.

Standing on this bridge, you shrink away into the world.  The Grand River stretches out lazily below, and nature’s white noise—the rustling of leaves and the rippling water—cocoons you in a blanket of comfort and naive wonderment. I thought of nothing but the hawk that soared above the vibrant trees and the rabbit that dashed across the gravel path. I could see fish nosing the surface of the water looking to snatch a meal from the world of eternal air and sky. Henry David Thoreau’s words tumbled through my head, “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.” It occurred to me then that’s exactly what I needed: to sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods.

So I packed my battered yet reliable ’98 Corolla with provisions and drove five hours north-east to a tiny cabin in the equally tiny hamlet of Gunter, Ontario.  Situated in the lush wood surrounding a 96-acre hobby farm, I lived—or, I might say, thrived—for seven days without running water or electricity. From sunrise to sunset, I lay stretched out in the warm sun that filtered in through the enclosed porch with the likes of M. F. K. Fisher, A. J. Liebling, Adam Gopnik, Ruth Reichl, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. I learned almost as much about food writing as I did about myself. It would be days before I realized I hadn’t spoken a single word or seen another human being.

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One thing hasn’t changed – I still love bread: Gastropost Mission #12

This post has been cross-posted to Gastropost – a project spearheaded by the National Post that sends food lovers on various food-related missions and gets them to share their experiences.  Mission #12 asked Gastroposters to “share [their] portable treats with the Gastropost community.”

Despite what seems an insatiable hunger for the prose of past and current gourmands, not to mention a reputation for being particularly choosy and indecisive when it comes to eating out,  I eat (and enjoy eating) very simple meals in my day-to-day.  And while I thoroughly dislike taking my food on-the-go, there are times when it it is either unavoidable (I abhor even more a growling belly!) or deliberately enjoyable (as with a picnic).  In either case, I am quite content to nibble mindlessly or even share generously a freshly baked baguette, tucked inconspicuously in a brown paper bag under my arm à la française or sliced into beautiful rounds for all to admire. If I have purchased one rather than baked my own (which is surprisingly common for a person who spends their time baking for others), it is likely it won’t make it home intact. I can never seem to resist wrapping my talon-like fingers around the crusty, pointed end and tearing into it lest it lose any of its crackling crispiness, which I consider to be the most gratifying part. My mouth is no doubt filled with battle scars caused by the sharper shards of crust, not to mention the rare time when stubborn eagerness compels me to engage with a baguette that is, quite literally, fresh out of the oven. But that first crunch leaves me far too deliriously satisfied to worry about such minor infractions.

While I have yet to find the perfect baguette (I’m not entirely sure it even exists but it’s a quest I’m unwilling to abandon), we at the Elora Bread Trading Co. make what I consider to be a delightful (albeit non-traditional) sourdough mini-baguette or ficelle which boasts an optimal crust to crumb ratio for maximum crunchiness. Inspired by Daniel Leader’s La flȗte gana, we add a hint of cornflour to lend a sweet creaminess to the crumb. Small enough to nourish one generously, but large enough for two, it’s my ideal on-the-go snack or shareable treat. As an added bonus it fits perfectly into a purse or picnic basket!

I thought you should know

I’ve changed.

It happened long before I realized it, but in hindsight the signs were clearly visible.  I stopped browsing Tastespotting endlessly.  The number of unread posts in my RSS feed began to pile up until Google would no longer spare the effort to calculate just how many there were other than telling me that there were over a thousand. I stopped scrolling mindlessly through blog posts, my eyes searching greedily for the recipe as if next week’s winning lottery numbers were to be found between the ingredient list and the instructions.

I began to fixate on particular blogs and to hunt for the author’s About page in order to gather a sense of who they were so that I could appreciate the way their personalities shined through their words.  I stopped cooking from recipes and I almost altogether stopped reading them. I no longer hungered for the latest cookbook, and I found myself unsatisfied by those containing only recipes and photographs. I yearned to dematerialize into the worlds that I could build out of food memoirs, simply dreading the moment I would reach that final page when the lives of those who had become so familiar to me would be lost.

The best mutz in town. A group of friends and I shared these sandwiches crafted by a man purported to make the best mozzarella in New York.

Slowly, I was beginning to understand. It was no longer about the food, but rather the stories—both those being shared deliberately, as well as all of the little tales and insights waiting to be plucked out from between the lines if you were patient and paid close enough attention.  But what I didn’t quite yet realize was that I was struggling with my own writing here on piecurious. I was trying hard to be a good food blogger—to follow the rules that those who’ve been successful tell you to follow: keep your blog posts short (no more than 500 words), they say, and post frequently, preferably with a recipe. I didn’t stop to consider the type of success those rules were aimed at achieving and whether it was what I was personally aiming for.

Those who know also encourage you to attend blogger conferences. So when I heard TECHmunch was coming to Toronto and that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to sell one of my organs on the black market in order to cover the costs of attendance, I signed up.  And I’m grateful that I did.  Sitting there, eyes and ears straining expectantly in the darkened silence of the auditorium, I heard six words that not only changed my perspective, but also revealed the source of my own struggles: “long-form narrative is not dead.”

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