Saturday, November 5, 2011

Comforting Food

When the weather turns cooler and the sweaters become less a fashionable choice and more a necessity for getting through a life lived in skirts, I find myself fantasizing about hearty soups, grainy breads, homemade preserves and thick, spreadable cheeses. I start buying more meat - tonight, I roasted a pork loin and threw thin slices into an Japanese-inspired noodle soup (it was delicious). A bite of ginger cookie or pumpkin hummus and I become completely undone.

Fall brings out my desire for heartiness in food. A slurpable noodle is a necessity, as is a gourmet sausage. I look forward to winter citrus and spiced Christmas cookies. Summer cooking is mostly an avoidance game - how many meals can I assemble without turning on the stove? - but in fall, I dive back into baking and cooking multi-part meals. I like turning to other cultures for inspiration; our recent trip to New York left me with a hankering for Tex-Mex and barrio-inspired dishes, up to and including fish tacos (yuk it up, you dirty minds).

Summer has a reputation as an eat-a-thon: grilled skewers and frosty brews, made roughly a thousand times better for the fact that we're eating it all outside. Canadian summers vary wildly, but Toronto runs absurdly hot in July and August, and the unrelenting heatwaves can usually only be assuaged by chilled melons, pilsners, avocado and brie sandwiches, and iced coffees. We get up early and go to bed late, and small snacks fuel the summer citizen's need for energy without greasy faces or heavy bellies.

But once that mercury drops, man, we love to just stuff ourselves silly. The kickoff is Thanksgiving - held in October, thanks, and just as full of tryptophan-laced foods like turkey and wine as its American counterpart. We do the seven-layer nacho dip, the pumpkin pie and the turkeys, but this year, we ate dinner outside on a deck overlooking Lake Huron. That's just not possible in November. This year I also attended a chosen-family dinner, with delicious green beans and carmelized root vegetables, and a bread pudding/caramel sauce combo that was so delicious that all the men in attendance, and some of the women, declared publicly that they wanted, and I'm paraphrasing here, to make respectful and tasteful love to their desserts. A few months later, we'll get Christmas, which usually incorporates multiple rounds of family visits and dinners, and the corresponding metric ton of food. Vegetarians, lock up your morals, because tonight, we eat ham.

Comfort food can be many things to many people: some folks get the warm-and-fuzzies from Kraft Dinner with tuna and tomatoes; others long for mom's trademark nachos. Depending on your background and where you grew up, you crave different things in your hour of emotional need. My dad claims to remember something called "milk soup" from his childhood, a dish of dubious authenticity. I love Japanese candies and cookies: long plane rides between Japan and Canada as a toddler left me with a strong association between Koala's March chocolate-stuffed cookies and airport adventures. If your parents are immigrants, you might have eaten goulash or tamales while your grade-school friends chowed down on broccoli or the aforementioned KD; you might have been a picky eater, so white toast and peanut butter were your self-imposed preferences.

I turn to comfort food like banana muffins or a great cookie recipe when I want to feel accomplished. I've made those recipes so many times I know them by heart. I try recreating my mom and dad's dishes when I want to feel close to them - we were a family that ate every dinner together, and often weekend breakfasts, so making up a hash of potatoes, peppers and onions in a pan brings me right back to sitting at the kitchen counter while my dad wore a yukata and a pair of moccasin slippers, unselfconsciously showcasing his globe-trotting as he made brunch for his kids and wife. There's a direct link between those moments and the weekend breakfasts I love making for me and my boyfriend. Pancakes, sausages, bacon, fresh fruit, cheese and yogurt, fried eggs and elaborate omelets all benefit from the two of us working together: he slices melons and flips omelets, I work the toaster and slice up veggies. Our harmony is something I associate with the very finest of love, since it comes from taking care of each other and ourselves. What's more comforting than that?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Day Of The Dead

Dia de los muertos is happening now. The marigolds are being strewn on the graves of dead friends and family, along with their favourite sweets and drinks, as people visit cemeteries to honor their dead. Although, never having been to Mexico, it's likely that I'm making this up from details gleaned from children's television programming, tattoo art, and generally not knowing what I'm talking about. In North America, this past weekend we celebrated Halloween - a time for candy, jack-o-lanterns, and college girls dressed up as sexy versions of blue-collar professions.

As the days get shorter and colder, we're inexorably edging towards winter. The trees this fall have been outstandingly colourful, with brisk, sunny days. Sweaters have been put back into rotation, heavy tights have been pulled on, and our flip flops have been retired in favour of boots and sneakers. It's a time of cozying up, of final patio beers, of moving parties from the porch inside to the kitchen. Picnics turn into potlucks, beach days turn into game nights, and instead of spiking our ginger beer with buffalo-grass vodka (trust me), we're stirring creme de menth into our hot chocolates (again, trust me).

Spring has rebirth symbols like whoa. The birds come back, the buds on the trees burst into fresh green leaves, and the days get longer. It also holds the most important Christian holiday, Easter, which is literally about the resurrection of Christ. If you're into that sort of thing, it's a potent idea, resonating with images about life after death and the cycles of the natural world.

But I think we also need a way to talk about death, proper-styles. Not that if-you-are-of-me-you-shalt-be-reborn stuff Christianity offers; we are, culturally, not terrific at handling the idea of death, and the reality of death in our lives. Halloween is a perversion, but not in a Christian-right sort of way; I'm not offended that we use the day to transform ourselves into scary monsters, or elements of our personalities that usually remain hidden (ergo, "the day of id," and I'm looking at you, frat boys in drag). That's pretty harmless.

Samhain, a Gaelic predecessor to Halloween, originated as a way to mark the end of harvest season, and the costumes we associate now with Halloween were used to confuse the dead as they walked the earth with us. Over time, the holiday shifted from its agrarian roots into a children's festival centering on candy and UNICEF boxes. Parents deck out front lawns with spooky accessories: ghosts hung from trees, skeletal hands wrenching out of the ground, witches, goblins, cauldrons, headstones, giant spiders, giant rats, and gourds. All the hallmarks of a haunting are there, and the entertainment industry usually puts out a scary movie or two, or at least a Halloween episode of our favourite shows, to get in on the action. Halloween is small potatoes compared to a shopping mega-festival like Christmas, but the candy windfall is an enjoyable blood-sugar spike in a rapidly darkening fall afternoon.

That shift, though, towards making it a children's holiday, has meant that the dead the day originally honoured have been swept aside. We're a more medically advanced society than the medieval Celts, but I doubt that we know any more about what goes on On The Other Side than they did. Our fascination with the undead is longstanding, but we can never quite reconcile the idea that our dead - family members and friends who have passed on - are one of the spooky Halloween Dead, out to mischief-make while the door between this world and the next is ajar.

Which brings me back to Mexico. While it sucks that they set aside only one or two days out of the year to honour the dead, it beats the hell out of our zero. Fresh mourning means that folks go through phases of honouring and ignoring their recently-passed loved ones: sometimes, you want to hang their picture, light some candles, and talk to them, even if it gives you the craziest feeling of knowing you're that talking to someone who can't hear you and hoping against hope that they're hearing you anyway. Other times? Not so much. Much like the bible's commandment to honour your parents, honouring our dead doesn't mean that there isn't resentment, anger, sadness, relief or any other complicated feelings under the veneer of love. And those feelings sometimes mellow with age, but they never go away completely.

I've seen a lot of Day of the Dead-inspired Halloween costumes this year; maybe I'm just keyed in, because that was my costume, but there were a few of us floating around. I wish there was a way to incorporate that system into our lives up here, to honour and celebrate those we've lost throughout the ages. Let's take Halloween back from the kids and invite everyone, living and dead, to the party.