a story of belonging

If we’re going to get to know each other from across the table, someone should start the conversation!
alison kent HOME KITCHEN myself in the kitchen finding story of belonging

Cooking involves some formulas – recipes – and some gut, intuition, know-how. Having taken years of classes, spent many long hours in the Kitchen, and tasted my share of delicious dishes, I feel like I’m just touching the surface of what’s culinarily possible. In the Chapters below, you’ll find some … Recipes. Well, mostly you’ll find recipe-free Recipes. I like to call it ‘Cooking with the Senses’ – often informed by what’s on hand, flavors I love, basic pairings learned over time. Check out my post here:

And with that in pocket, onto a story…

I’m sure if you looked at me – often fairly plainly dressed, never wearing quite enough makeup to break up my large, oval face, rapidly gaining years noted as accumulating lines under these tired green eyes – eyes always, however, at the ready to brighten with laughter no matter how dire the day – reading glasses recently stapled to my head or tucked into my bra, basic and unattractive to some while oddly intriguing to others, short in stature but largely unafraid of life – you might wonder how I could possibly have much of a story to tell. How could I be THAT interesting? Maybe I’m not. But maybe our stories, too often left our whole lives untold, are what makes us interesting?

Growing up moving around every 1-2 years, constantly the ‘new kid’, I was never able to create or claim any sense of belonging – to places or to persons. But I think I always knew I at least belonged to myself. I knew that when all else – when everyone else – failed, I still had some version of me. Too many times it was all I had. And when I failed my vastly imperfect self today, I would give myself a clean slate and the hope of bettering myself tomorrow.

It’s been 30 years since settling into my ‘last town’ here in Vancouver. Somehow, by the grace of God, between then and now I’ve come along this journey of finding a place of belonging in a home and in a family and in a work rhythm of my own. The Kitchen especially has become a center from which I’ve learned – am still learning – how to connect with family and friends and even with strangers-made-friends across the bigger world wide webs.

Nearing 50, I find myself for the most part standing solid (although who’s legs don’t shake now and again?). Fully embracing my past for everything it has been, and fully excited to breathe in the next 50 days or 50 years – whatever awaits. New evolutions of my life as I know it and the subsequent pages of new adventures to be had will still come. But for now, for better or worse, this is the story I’ve lived, the story that has brought me to this place and time . I sincerely hope it encourages YOU to find your place of belonging, of solid rock on which to stand, and to possibly use it to connect yourself to those around you needing the same.

Click on the Chapter below to reveal my story and an accompanying recipe. I’d love to hear which are your favorites! You can also click below to head to the MENU of Recipes that will be updated intermittently with ‘a story of belonging’ recipes.

Chapter ONE | Four Garlic Frog Legs

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.
Maya Angelou

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

Growing up wasn’t an easy task for me. I‘m quite fortunate to have had any years at all past my teens, actually. Someone was clearly sending UP good words on my behalf! To this day, while I’m not sure how it was possible to have survived this long, I’m definitely now grateful to have done so. 

It’s hard to put a life of almost 50 years now onto paper, when that life itself never felt like much more than meandering miles of disjointed moments in time, so many particular details long forgotten, or misplaced. Perhaps purposely. How does one write any sort of personal story when all they carry are disconnected bits and pieces that never seem to make any sense, or don’t appear to link together in any meaningful way? But even in that, the remaining precious and painful moments have mercifully woven themselves into some sort of wild, winding thread that’s carried me to here, to now. 

Somehow the wiry broken strands were carried forward by a Spirit of stronger, more capable, more colorful ones. Dare I see touches of gold appearing here and there in my personal tapestry? Or have I intentionally woven them in, re-imagining my own past, in order to create eventual beauty out of the pasts confusion? Whatever it is, it all belongs to me now. I’ve come to own it all – even the pains, the embarrassments, the mistakes – at this point in my life, and there is a power to that. And a resulting freedom to finally share it, from a place of love for where it’s all brought me.

When all the Mental Health days come around and all the people who have and who never have lived within them is chiming in, I never really know what to say. I’m not sure how to contribute. I mostly stay silent because if my life never really made sense to me, how could any thoughts I feebly try to string together add any value to the conversations? And if I can’t add value, I would rather just listen. But in working recently with a amazing Branding professional who liked to get down and deep and dirty, and in subsequently writing – and rewriting – and rewriting – this book, enough scraps have been patched together all gold-glued Kintsugi-style, that sometimes it almost seems to make some sort of sense in retrospect, and gives me the beginnings of a voice. 

I was born quite by accident in September of 1971 to teenage parents, parents who hadn’t themselves grown up yet, and who would too soon need to constantly move their young family to keep work as a non university-educated (at the time) aspiring professional and (within 5 short years) a 23-year old mother of three and homemaker, both of whom were most likely just focused on sheer survival. I know I would have been. I understood it so much more in my own fears by 16 of potentially becoming an accidental parent, having tried to make sense of my world in all the wrong places. In trying to find that place of belonging for myself, only to move yet again and start all over.

As a result of Dad, young and new to the corporate world, needing job security, us kids were forced to uproot from homes, friends and schools to a new town every 18-24 months – small places that don’t even merit the word “city” as they definitely hadn’t earned it. Great experiences for learning to be adaptable, bad experiences for learning to make connections to any one place or person. Bad for learning anything positive about carrying on personal, human relationships. Good, by the way, for learning to catch snakes by the tail or collect tadpoles in buckets from blackberry lined backyard creeks, watching them grow into frogs and disappear. Who knew that one day I’d pay good money to eat beautifully sautéed frog legs or snails in juicy garlic butters while sitting in cafes in Paris over a glass (ahem, bottle…) of deep, velvety red wine… On that note, be right back… 

I never desired a “big life” of any kind – I couldn’t have imagined one if I’d even tried to, and it certainly wasn’t a common topic of conversation. But I’m thankful in hindsight I didn’t end up in a small town forever, surrounded by doors that are rarely pried open to new things, and staring out windows whose views never seem to change. I doubt that I would ever have explored, ventured out of my comfort zones, or become the person I have, surrounded by so much love and diversity, with incredible memories of physical and personal journeys taken. Lord only knows that my path at any given moment could have been drastically different by any series of altered steps.

Moving around a lot is disorienting, to say the least. My brain eventually became a sea of swimming faces and names and towns that float around my head when I think back, and it’s so hard to make any proper, normal sense of it. Other than one single girlfriend that I keep in touch with from high school (although she was a few years older than me and we never actually went to school together at the same time), I’ve very rarely come into contact with anyone I might have known. When it has happened that someone recognizes me (because apparently I’ve barely changed since grade school, at least not in height), I have fractions of seconds to try to place the face with a city, school, then name. If I can’t quite connect it, I’m not even apologetic. Really, it would be a lot to ask of anyone who had moved that much, and at least now I can just blame it on old age. 

New kids who don’t have people skills are prime targets for bullies of all shapes and sizes. It’s funny to look back on where the bullies ended up in life, compared to where I find myself now. I wouldn’t trade my world for theirs any day of the week, that’s for damned sure. There are, as I would repeatedly learn throughout my life, people who simply see reflections of their own insecurities when they look at you and they can’t figure out how to cope with what they see. I was by no means beautiful or confident, but neither was I afraid. And, let’s face it, most of us spend too many of our years living out of our fears. Despite all the many bullies’ efforts to make me feel as low as they perhaps felt about themselves, I eventually turned out pretty good if I do say so myself. Grounded. Happy. And still unafraid – or unafraid of sometimes being afraid. But I do remember those angry faces, names, places. Every single one. I wonder if they still live in their personal fears…

The luckiest of the bullied kids with no friends have at the very least a place that feels safe – a home – to come to, with a Mom that tends to their emotional boo-boo’s and tells them everything will be ok. A solid support system. I never connected to anything called “home”. Home was a new place all the time, never a familiar beacon of comfort, and it was hard to feel anything but displaced, confused and sad. Not to say care and love wasn’t offered, I simply don’t recall it amongst the busyness of younger siblings, finding new schools/churches/friends, reconnecting all the broken strands for all of us – the heaviness of not belonging, even within my own home, was a far more powerful feeling than anything positive that likely also existed. I was that kid that was never ‘the same as everyone else’, never understood, never normal. Too strong-willed, too hurt, too wild with ideas and dreams while too shy sometimes to chase them. I would sit under chairs and just cry in hopeless bewilderment at my confusing little world. If there was to be any sense of connection or belonging in my life, I would eventually have to find it – or create it – for myself.

Chapter TWO | Lucious Liver Pates

“My definition of man is a cooking animal. The beasts have memory, judgement, and the faculties and passions of our minds in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook.”
James Boswell, The Journals, 1762-95

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

They say the heart of the home is the Kitchen, but OHMY that was not really our thing growing up! That place of ultimate connection to one another at the start and/or end of each day, to our bodies, to our senses is mostly for me a memory void. I recall packed lunch sandwiches I could barely swallow down while sometimes hiding in various school bathroom stalls to eat what I could with the dreadful apprehension of both facing people, and of having no one to face if I were to wander hallways freely. I recall being made to sit and eat boiled peas and carrots and drink milk at dinner until it was completely gone, all of which I hated then and still ‘strongly dislike’ now. That stomach-fortitude for mind-over-matter had yet to be built, and I would have to forcefully gag down every bite before being released from the table, sometimes to throw up. No wonder I was so slim – between thrown out lunches and dinners spewn into the toilet, my picky little body barely ate. Little did I realize my consistently slim frame was more from a gift of good metabolism which I would one day, sadly, outgrow. If I was fussy about food, I was even fussier when it came to the dishes. I HATED touching the dirty dishes for all the goop and grossness mixed in with peoples disgusting fork saliva, and eventually would just pay my younger sister and brother to do them for me when my turn for the chore came up. There were some benefits to being the eldest sibling!

Instead of touching dishes in the Kitchen, I would secretly hoard weird items from it’s cupboards such as (clean and PRE-used) sheets of tin foil, or paper muffin cups. Anything I found interesting or artful, I would skim some ‘off the top’ and hide in a box in my room under my bed just so I could have them and look at them, with their beautiful wavy edges or shiny crinkling surfaces comforting me. I think I eventually confessed and returned it all, but a lifelong propensity to collect pretty things had begun. My heart knew how to see beauty in everyday things.

Throughout our childhood Mom had learned at least 5 different dinners to make for our family in weekly rotation over the years that I can vividly recall, including Cabbage Rolls and Liver’n’Onions – both of which, fussy eater that I was, I actually enjoyed. I still crave Liver when my body is feeling especially low in iron. Lasagne was the big treat meal, it’s layers of softened noodle, creamy cottage cheese, spinach and fatty ground beef/sausage saved for when she wanted to impress on the rare occasion of company (since we almost never knew any other families to have over).  Dad loved his ice cream, and at least that was always aplenty – by the actual gallon bucket-loads, taking up an entire half of the massive deep freeze we hauled from house to house. I must have had a sweeter tooth then than now, as I also remember some crazy 80’s salad that included whipped cream, coconut, jello and canned mandarin oranges that I couldn’t eat enough of then, but would have to choke down now. I’ve hardly craved desserts since those days – that salad alone probably cured me of sugar cravings for life.

In one town quite North, from about K-Gr 2, I have at best just a few memories, but one of them ended up traumatizing me and the other set a certain tone, both for the rest of my life. Grade 2 was my first boyfriend, Steve, who would proudly walk with me around the school using one of his hands to hold mine, and the other to beat up any kid that teased us. I remember I took him to our house one day to introduce him to my Dad, who, for whatever reason, I see in my mind as gardening at that moment. I’ve never seen him near a garden in any other place or time in life, so obviously many of my memories have evolved into their own selves over time. But I can see back now that while trying to wade through new town after new town of established, cliquey girl-groups that had no space for me, I would quickly come to form a dependence on the simple-minded acceptance of boys. 

Winters would bring massive snowfalls, piling white fluff all the way up to our roof eaves that would last for months. An older neighbour boy would help us make ice tunnels we could run through just for fun. I vividly remember him playfully dumping me in a sleeping bag one day and holding it upside down, tightly closed, while I struggled inside, screaming in panic, convinced I was about to suffocate and not – yet, anyhow – wanting to die. I’m horribly claustrophobic to this day, with a desperate fear of drowning and suffocating, either from this incident or directly exasperated by it. I had taken swimming lessons back then, but my oversized backside would overpower my tiny frame and constantly pull me downward into the watery abyss. Drowning frightened me – I must have had a close call or two? Who knows what originally triggers these emotional traumas. Happily there are also memories of learning to ride friends’ horses, and leaving for home afterwards with a car-full of hunted deer meat for our giant deep freeze, helping to feed our growing family. Someone asked me recently what my earliest food memory is, and how old I was. While I don’t remember the eating of deer, I knew somehow that it was special and that we were lucky to have it. I was probably about 6 or 7 by then.

Dad had become a small commercial loan officer for a large bank shortly after I was born. Whenever they had an opening in some far off town, I guess he got the job as I’m sure no one else wanted it, and off we’d go. Many of his customers in those small towns were farmers, and he would take me on his site visits to massive chicken or cow (dairy, beef) farms. If there’s a farming-land gene in one of my hands and a carnivorous gene in the other, I come by them both pretty honestly from those father-daughter field trips. Although, much to his dismay, I definitely didn’t catch the banking gene by any hand at all. 

I was often sent off with my Dad back in those days while, I presume, Mom tended to the younger siblings, and have dozens of memories of driving not just to farms but also to original Mustang car shows and early Commodore or Atari computer fairs. We would zoom off in the family Pinto, our own ‘65 Mustang or later, on special occasions, in Nana’s sleek black Corvette. He loved driving cool and fast for long miles since his old yellow Datsun days – it’s no wonder I eventually loved to nomadically wander as well. Later, once I got my drivers license it was Dad that taught me on the highways with one hand holding an ice cream. We would take two separate cars so we could drag race each other to church on Sunday mornings. Speeding tickets must have been cheap back in the day, as I definitely racked up quite a few by my early 20’s.

In the meantime before my license, without always a proper bus system on our outback roads, I rode a bike to get around. At least, for a few years. I left on my bike one day and found, at the top of our hill running down towards the main road, it had no brakes. Without time to react, I rode across the main road and into a ditch on the other side, thankful in hindsight to have lived to tell the tale, as at any other moment a car most certainly could have been coming. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be moving with lost brakes. Within a short time frame of that, my Mom and Dad were out one evening riding their bikes but never returned home. Instead, I received a call from the Hospital that Mom had been hit on her bike by a car and would be staying a few days. I don’t think any of us touched a bicycle again for at least a decade.

My birthday is at the end of Summer, usually on or near Labour Day weekend, meaning that if we’d recently moved again (every other year), I had rarely made any friends yet. Possibly to make up for it, Mom would go all out on decorating my cakes. Dad’s fascination with these new ‘computers’ and Atari games were playing some influence on me – one year was a cake made into a PacMan screen, a game I had become pretty Pro at as a result of having nothing but free time alone in my room.

It’s weird to have so few memories over the first few decades of my life, and for so many of those precious few to actually include food. I never gave food or cooking or kitchens or any of that a second thought back then or for many years afterwards. It wasn’t really a part of any popular broader culture that we would have known about, and it definitely wasn’t part of our family life. To see food be so instrumental in my sense of belonging back into my ‘old’ family and even into my new one with my own children all these years later is, to me, a bit of a fascination.

alison kent home kitchen recipe story sharing stories a story of belonging liver pate chicken beef

Chapter THREE | Decadent Lamb Lasagna

I say that half your life is spent trying to get out of a small town,
and the other half trying to get back to one.
Kelly Cutrone

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

Small towns all look the same after a while, and most fortunately – in hindsight only – not being rich enough to stay “in town” meant we tended to me more of the Country Folk variety of said small towns. I’m sure I didn’t mind – I mean, I didn’t know anything else, and still didn’t know enough to dream of anywhere else. Half acre backyards filled with creeks and frogs, massive farms to wander through, and nearby beaches with wild blackberries to pick and clams to dig were fantastic places for young, imaginative kids. ‘Back in the day’ you could wander around the neighbourhoods, such as they were, until dark or until someone’s Mom yelled out the back door for dinner or bedtime, as long as you were all getting along and no one was gravely injured.

Big yellow school buses took me down the road to the next new school building that I was destined to semi-reside in for one whole year before moving to a new middle school for about one more. I can’t remember if I often sat alone in the bus, probably because by then I was quite used to spending my time alone. Grade 6 was the first time I can recall trying to consciously ‘fit in’ and make friends – girl ones this time –  in some way. While one named Amanda would befriend me that year, I know I more desperately wanted the rainbow ¾ sleeve top that a cool girl had so that I could be part of “the group”, or maybe it was just so I could have something pretty to feel good in. But it wouldn’t have mattered. The cool girls overnights pajama parties, or staying up and doing anything past 7:30pm really, was all forbidden for me. There was no space for me to fit or belong other than with Amanda, who seemed to also have no one else. I was thankful for her, for someone, for just one girl to accept me. She was tall and quite overweight and while I didn’t understand her weight or the other girls reactions to it all, I did understand on another level that we needed each other.

I was becoming increasingly aware of my own size, or lack thereof, now that the other kids were growing up and out, and I most definitely wasn’t. I had always been the shortest, thinnest, tiniest but the margins between kids were less obvious in our younger days. Eventually I learned to feel too small, too unathletic, too quiet, too invisible in my skin. I would hide in the bathroom during gym classes – I couldn’t do the physical things other kids could do, like climb ropes to the ceiling or run fast sprints or hit flying balls with any sort of accuracy. I hadn’t really ever played sports, quitting basic figure skating because it was too cold in the north to play iced sports or being too uncoordinated to keep up with swimming lessons. I was left with no experience in being active and was too intimidated when the other kids could do all the things. Most of us carry strange relationships with our bodies, our health, our food, our weight throughout our lives – I would, from that point on, be no different.

We took a class trip halfway through the year to bike around some nearby even-smaller Island, likely before my previously mentioned race against brakes and cars. Being as athletically challenged as I was, of course I was at the back of the group and soon enough found myself alone and – I was sure – completely lost. Probably forever and ever, as kids minds tend to go. ‘Country Roads’ (funny enough recorded in my own birth year 1971) a classic from my Dad’s red and faux-wood panelled Pinto 8-track player came to mind and I started singing for them to take me home as I pedaled and cried, sure I was stranded for the rest of time on this fucking little Island. Even Amanda was nowhere to be seen. Was she way ahead? Far behind? Eventually I turned a corner and miraculously saw my group all waiting at the Ferry. Maybe cycling wasn’t going to be my thing either.

Art and walking seemed safe. While many things were forbidden for me like school dances or going to movies, working certainly wasn’t. I would sell Regal catalogue goods, walking alone up and down the long, mostly-empty streets in our sprawled out little micro-neighbourhoods surrounded by farmland, knocking on the doors of strangers. How on earth was shy little me ever THAT unafraid?! I took local community center calligraphy and art classes, and would practice for hours on end, writing, sketching and drawing alone in my room, soon making my own cards to sell. Eventually I added actual employment to this early bout of entrepreneurship to work at the little local farm at the end of our rural road with my younger sister. We would plant potatoes into the hard dirt, collect warm eggs out from under chickens, harvest the grown potatoes, feed the chickens… I can still picture it all. We also got to feed and care for the other animals, including a lamb we named Muffy, or something similarly cute and adorable. When Muffy later came of age and went to the butcher, we got to take home half for our deep freezer in exchange for having taken good care of her. Having grown up near small farms, it felt quite natural to eat something we had lovingly raised for that purpose. 

I’m pretty sure I’ve worked pretty steadily since, from at least 11 or 12 years old, teetering between employing myself and being employed by others for the two decades to follow until I settled solidly into the full time battle of Entrepreneurship. Oddly – and to my Banker Father’s great dismay – I’ve never had a penny to my name either way, and have no idea what I did with any of the small bits of money I did have. At 13 I did spend a few dollars on my first cassette album – Michael Jackson’s Thriller – to play in my bright yellow Walkman. It – and all other popular music – was also forbidden, so I had to hide it at my older neighbouring girlfriend’s house and could only listen to it when I hung out with her. Somehow by middle school catching snakes and tadpoles or picking berries was becoming less appealing than Michael Jackson, jelly bracelets, stirrup pants or, soon enough, more boys. Many more boys.

AH, boys… What had started in Gr 2 with Steve – understanding a males capacity to take care of me when I often felt so exposed and unprotected in seas of ‘mean girls’ – never left. While I wasn’t allowed to spend as much time with the school kids, I was allowed to spend all kinds of unsupervised time with the church kids. In most smaller towns the latter was a far worse influence alternative by far. By Grade 8 the majority of the church kids were quite heavily into all the sex, drugs + rock’n’roll scenes – far more so than any of the people I knew of at school. The school girls mostly just sat around listening to Madonna – whom I’d never heard of before then – crimping their hair and wearing bright neon oversize tops over fitted leggings. At a time when I soon also had to start wearing braces and ALL the embarrassing headgear that went along with it (and Dad – who had to pay for it all – would drop me off at school to make sure I was wearing it ALL DAY), and couldn’t obviously have many friends at school, I was willing to take any sense of want and inclusion I could get with the church kids, at any price. Even if not knowing how to – or that I even should – protect myself would one day put me in the Hospital.

Thankfully I wasn’t left with too many permanent kinds of consequence before, yet again, we left for a new town, a new school, new people, and a new home. And for new troubles all of their own.

alison kent HOME KITCHEN design gather elevate compose home cook decadent lamb lasagna

Chapter FOUR | Prawns Four Ways

What will be the death of me are bouillabaisses, food spiced with pimiento, shellfish,
and a load of exquisite rubbish which I eat in disproportionate quantities.
Emile Zola, French writer (1840-1902)

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

New places can be better or worse or they can be nothing at all, blurring every experience back into all the previous ones. Some of the places I’ve lived are so mushed together that as I’ve (rarely) revisited them over the years since, nothing connects me to them any longer as I can’t pinpoint any particular memory concretely. I quite recently drove around the last town I lived in on the Island before moving out on my own, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. I knew I had been to a house on that street, but I couldn’t remember why or with whom. Then I would question whether I had the right town, or the right street. Or I would think I had a memory of a person or place, only to realize it was definitely a different person from an entirely different place. Or, then again, was it? It’s as though half the connectors in my brain are snapped and just flailing about wildly, not sure where they’re supposed to be attached at the other end. Where’s the dammed color coding?! Maybe everyone’s memory works that way over time, with age, but it feels heightened with such a nomadic upbringing.

Family occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas were especially and horribly uncomfortable. I’d never learned to talk to people in general, let alone my own family. I never could think of anything to say and small talk quickly become the bane of my existence. Yes, school is fine. No, I don’t play any sports. I would often leave and just walk for hours, even in the middle of the night from my downstairs window. I still hate small talk – we can all see the weather, so what about it? I longed to talk deeply into everything I felt about life, but was never around any one person long enough to develop that sort of relationship until much later.

That last place I lived before Vancouver was luxuriously and painfully the longest to that point. I was there for exactly an entire four WHOLE years, which was an absolute record, finally graduating High School with a tally of 8 homes and 8 schools, that I can recall, in the span of 18 long, painful years.  I landed there in time for Grade 10, the last year of a local Middle School, followed by two years of the nearby High School where too many friendships had been established too long ago. I never knew where I belonged – I was good at Math and Art, hated English (reading!) and managed Science, but no one direction or passion or group of kids stood out. The few girlfriends I did make were cruel behind my back, but they were all I had. I mostly sat alone, hoping no one would really notice me, and desperately hoping someone – other than more boys – would at the same time. I felt like I was strangely living some kind of bizarre existence of a dozen unrelated dimensions.

I had never been a part of sports teams where relationships with other humans might have at least had a launching point from town to town of ‘Oh, you play soccer? So do I – join our team!’. I bravely – and perhaps naively – joined a field hockey team in Middle School, but having never played before was mostly a bench warmer who spent so little time on the field that when I was called on, I was disoriented to the game and wouldn’t know what to do. Instead, I clung to my art classes and semi-private lessons as my constant throughout my childhood, which were unfortunately also quite solitary. Labouring over detailed drawings would give me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, though, and I suppose I thought one day I would pursue art in some way. I spent hours in my basement bedroom drawing and sewing my own clothes, eventually taking Fashion Design in High School and wore my own creations as part of the runway show. I even designed and – with Nana, Mom and Aunty’s help – made both my Gr 10 and Gr 12 VERY COMPLICATED graduation dresses I had modified out of some idea or magazine or such. They were nothing like what any other girl was wearing, but I guess I no longer minded standing apart. It was clear I didn’t fit in anywhere in particular, and, so what. Besides, so little in the stores everyone else was shopping at would fit my tiny 90+lb frame on my heaviest days.

As my world had gradually become lonelier and lonelier, being so much harder to find friends and fit in as the years passed and the kids were older and were clear about not needing new people, I relied heavier on myself and lived largely within my own mind and space. I would drive for hours on end, singing for the Country Roads to take me … where? Where could I go? I tried once taking Dad’s ‘65 Mustang to one of my old towns, but a few miles out the old girl lost her brakes on the Malahat Highway. Someone was sure praying for me that day, as I coasted to a slow down JUST inside of the next town where I could safely pull the two-hand emergency brake. I had to spend a few days waiting for parts and, needless to say, my Dad was FURIOUS. I left the town and never went back. I hated feeling lost to any place, or with any person. I didn’t want to be anywhere after awhile. I just didn’t want to exist anymore. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to die, I simply didn’t want to live – or to ever have lived.

In carrying so many broken pieces that I couldn’t emotionally put together, I found myself increasingly not being able to connect with anything at all, and wanting to simply disconnect entirely from life itself. Not so much a sadness as a deep yearning to magically disappear from a world that perhaps was not actually meant for me to live in. While often envisioning myself careening fast cars off sharp cliffs into peaceful non-existence during the many hours I would spend alone driving along the coastline, I further detached myself from the world, from my own emotions, from situations I couldn’t understand or control. While I would sit for hours yearning for and imagining my death, I somehow knew deep down that I would never have the muster to actually follow through. Although years full of reckless behaviour would probably prove at least some small efforts to the contrary.

By 15 I started working at the McDonald’s down the street as a distraction, which one cannot necessarily say is “the exciting beginnings of a career in food”, but it turned out to be a great way to avoid the emptiness of free blocks and lunches at school. I would head down, skipping class as I liked, to work busy school-week daytime shifts. If Mom happened to stop by, I would claim I had a ‘spare’ from classes. One girl I knew from Church worked there, too, and had often been severely bullied by some of the same oddly unbecoming girls that had been bullying me. Eventually she tried to commit suicide, to all of our shock. Although I’d often thought about it, I hadn’t really considered it a serious option until then – I’m sure it was the first real contact any of us had had with suicide at that point. I remember the intense feelings of jealousy that she was brave enough to at least try to end her misery, whereas I would merely plod on while continuing to dream of trying to end mine. Especially pronounced after repeated assaults by the male co-workers and managers at my few jobs, again falling prey to the simple acceptance of boys in the midst of so few befriending girls.

The gangly Church bullies turned their focus on me after that, no longer having to split their time and efforts, mercilessly cruel. Between them, the catty school girls and too many terrible boys, it was relentless. I soon abandoned most of the kids my age to start hanging out with some a few years older than I was. If one came to the door, my younger sister would yell there was someone there for Dad, not imagining it was for me (or, more likely, to tease me). These older kids did much cooler things anyhow, like go-karting, beach fire pits, hiking and shrimping on the weekends, versus sitting around gossiping, hanging out at malls and painting each other’s nails. A few miles down the Coast, shrimps could be brought up at dark by the full basket-load to be steamed right there on the cliffs above. How did people just know how to do these things? Who imagined you could go to a single spot with simple gear and get BUCKETS of fresh prawns for the cost of a few hours with friendly faces? Could I find this place again if I tried? It’s by MILES my favorite memory of this town.

Later on I would skip my own Graduation events to go and hang out with these older friends, having finished High School themselves 2-3 years ahead of me. One of them happened to be the kind older brother of the worst tall, buck-toothed bully, but him and I were just friends. She probably feared otherwise, and would become even more vicious to me over time, if that were possible. I bumped into her a number of years later after I moved to the City, and greeted her with a genuine smile and a hug, having since found a great life on my own and knowing she had no hold on me any longer, but she hadn’t changed. I doubt she’s ever addressed the poisons in her own soul. In my mind, that was the day I won whatever imaginary battle we had been fighting. I’d largely forgotten that town, like all the others, prior to writing – I still just wish I could remember where that amazing shrimping spot had been…

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Chapter FIVE | Crispy Soft Sourdough Pizza

My weaknesses have always been food and men — in that order.
Dolly Parton

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Thankfully the good Lord often knew what would save me from whatever edges I would constantly find myself on, and somehow from this era onward I had at least one close friend who just happened to be in some sort of Psychology or Counselling program or career. There was always that ONE person I could trust and talk to about ANYTHING whenever I needed to, or just hang out with and feel sane being myself, warts, death-wishes, crippling fatigue, sporadic depression and all. By the time I made it to this final Island town, I had become such a tangle of all my previous moves and experiences – good and bad – that it was almost impossible for me to figure out life moving forward on my own. The experiences, unfortunately were mostly bad, my memory would often remind me. But I was also slowly becoming quite comfortable with the fact that I wasn’t the same as other people. I didn’t have feelings in the same ways others did, or process emotions the same, or see things the same, and for those special friends, it was a-ok. Mel, now a social worker, was my saving grace throughout the end of high school, and probably the decade that followed – we’re still friends today heading now into our 50th Birthdays. Somehow she still likes me, even though she knows more than anyone in the world what a strange creature I am!

As introverted as I thought I was, I definitely got out. A lot. I spent time mostly by myself, but I was still in a lot of ways, unafraid, even of being around others. At McDonald’s I always worked in the front of house as a Hostess greeting people, not back, hidden, in the Kitchen. I chatted with people – strangers – and managed children’s parties. Like – CHILDREN’S PARTIES! I guess I didn’t find kids to be horrid beastly things quite yet, or could working with kids have caused my later feelings on the subject… At any rate, maybe I wasn’t so recluse after all. I would later take a number of personality tests that would find me perfectly equal in every category – introverted AND extroverted, Type A and B, logical and creative… No wonder life was so confusing at times.

I dated three boys rather seriously back in my high school days between dozens of week-long flings or accepted assaults, and they could not have been more different from one another if they tried, even though they were both actually my own age. Darren was so sweet and naive and unsure, afraid for a long time even to hold my hand. But I had already seen and done too much by then to be suitable for such a boy, and while our dating ended thankfully our friendship survived for a long while after. By Gr 11 and 12 I was one of those chameleon-like kids that could be friends for at least 10 minutes with at least one kid in just about every clique, but didn’t really fully see myself in any one of them particularly. He was part of the ‘Nerdy Kids’ heading into Accounting. I didn’t belong with the Nerds or the nice boys, so I thought. ESPECIALLY not boring Accountants. In the end, it worked out for the better – one of the nice boys might have convinced me to stay in one of those small towns, and it just didn’t feel like ME.

I played flute and saxophone – terribly, after having also quit piano by Gr 2. Drove my Dad’s ‘65 Mustang to school (which again, the girls hated but the boys all loved), skipped half my classes and tried burning text books with a lighter in the other half. I took sewing and metalwork and drafting, things that didn’t go together, or so it seemed. And I dated Troy, a truly kind-hearted Gr 10 drop out that would come to school when called upon to fight any kid from another school that tried to come onto our turf. I would console him quickly after the fights, covered in someone’s blood and having to flee for fear of being caught by the school staff, running off to do whatever he did until the next brawl. I bumped into Troy a few years later, and he told me that if I had only stayed with him, he would have ‘cleaned up his act’ for me, whatever that might entail I had no idea. I would hear that often from strings of bad-boys over the next decade, but I could barely make sense of myself nevermind trying to be anyone else’s anchor. And I was not about to spend the rest of my life as some grown-ass boys life-long Mama.

My next job after McDonald’s, right after I graduated high school, was at Boston Pizza – coincidentally another restaurant? – where I worked the tables, flirted with the customers (one social skill I learned well) and dated yet another co-worker, Phil. This time he was the head Cook who was, in all honesty, as sweet as anything. My family absolutely adored him – he would even play with my younger siblings, which I never had. I was too busy trying to navigate my own confusing life to bother with either of theirs. But then, my family didn’t know ALL of him, like the kid he’d had with a previous girlfriend, or the tall piles of Hustler magazines at his apartment, or his mysterious tax-evading ways. 

On the plus side, he knew all the other Chefs at the ‘good’ restaurants in town and would take me out for the most amazing dinners. At 18 I’d never known food like that  in my entire life – for our family going out ‘nice’ WAS Boston Pizza, if we even did that. Growing up we lived in a world of every day being ‘just another day’, and therefore never a reason to really celebrate anything – why fuss? A birthday wasn’t the achievement of a year older, it was simply a day that happened to come after the day before. We rarely went out nevermind to eat, and when we did it was pretty low key. Special occasions weren’t special, they just … were. 

At some point our entire family took a trip to Hawaii – an incredible, unexpected treat for a family that had only even been to Disneyland once – a gift from my Nana and Grampa. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I do remember every day finding copies of the Waikiki tourist guide for Baskin Robbins coupons, getting us each a 3rd scoop for the price of two. Recently my Dad wondered aloud if we realized he was using the coupons as a way to penny pinch but provide at the same time. We didn’t, and I realize I often do the same when taking our 4 kids on holidays. That was as special as us 3 kids could possibly hope for.

Back at home, now that Phil had shown me how food do such fancy things, or have such complex flavors, I was changed. A door started to crack open for me that I never would have even noticed enough to knock on were it not for Phil. But I still didn’t belong there, in that town, or with him, or anywhere, really. I was hanging out with mostly ‘the wrong’ people, not yet aware of my own value or worth because I didn’t know I could have any. Relationships were still hard, not knowing how to keep them for more than a week, unsure of how to talk, connect, be. I was one of only two girls who had been taking Drafting in high school – in a class of all boys, of course – and with a near-perfect marking grade in that class I packed up and moved to the Big City of Vancouver to pursue Architecture. I was gone on my 19th Birthday.

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Chapter SIX | Frozen Fruit Fondues

Sometimes a little comfort food can go a long way.

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My extremely handy grandfather had built me an entire suite in their Vancouver home basement with my very own Kitchen before “Basement Suites” were even a thing (and certainly before they were otherwise legal). I felt so very grown up, even if it was just ‘my Grandparents house’ and rent was free while I was attending classes as a ‘starving student’ at the nearby college for my first two years of Architecture school. Vancouver was a much bigger city than the last few and having been born and living here until I was 2 yrs old didn’t equate to any pre-existing relationships. Once again I was starting all over – I didn’t know a soul – but this time it was on my own terms.

Again, as in high school Drafting, I was one of only a few girls in the program, but I didn’t mind not belonging this time, and I’d learned a certain kind of safety around the menfolk. Safety from hoards of mean girls – or at least girls I’d never learned to talk to – although sadly definitely not safety from their own selfish needs. At any rate, I was eager to get a life of my own started, fully responsible for all my own good or bad choices. And there would be many, of both. The poor Cook from the Island came to visit me once early on, knowing I was spending my school days in roomfuls of men, in hopes we were somehow still together, albeit long distance. But it was clear that brief weekend that I had moved on. At least, after having picked him up from the ferries via a downtown seedy strip club, to me it most definitely was. 

Every small town I had lived in was now in the past, and I was looking forward. I decided that I was allowed to have sad days, but that from now on I would be choosing to live and to do so fully. Depression, death and suicide were all firmly off the table although unfortunately the chronic fatigue of the past few years never left and migraines soon began. I was up for the adventure of life and whatever it would bring my way.

College was a dramatic food difference from having dated a Cook, somehow turning into a two-year span of cold KFC Buckets in the fridge, vending machine Creamsicles and whatever I ate at my new Boston Pizza waitressing location while working the Lounge drunks for pocket tuition and pocket money. What I put into my body was clearly NOT my #1 priority (or #2, or #3…), but thankfully my young metabolism and healthy thyroids were still compensating. I wouldn’t have known where to find the good food, anyhow, as no one that I knew in those days seemed to be eating any better than I was. Even if I’d had the time or inclination to cook something, just reheating the KFC chicken almost caused enough stove fires that my grandfather finally bought me a fire extinguisher for my basement Kitchen. I’m sure every time they left to snow-bird south, they would pray there would still be a house at all upon their return.

One guy from school – or was he?, details get so fuzzy – and I would hang out all hours, driving around the City we were both getting to know in his big, manly truck, eating wherever we happened to end up of interest on the passing roadside as we explored. He took me out for my very first Japanese Sushi dinner, which in hindsight, as a (totally ripped, FYI) Olympic level swimmer, had probably become a lean-protein staple for him. I was disgusted – who on earth would eat RAW fish?! WTF was THIS slimy blob on rice?! I refused to even try it, and never imagined changing my mind on the subject. After dropping me off, he would typically fall asleep flat out on my floor by about 7:30pm, and be gone by some god-forsaken hour in the morning, thankfully unbeknownst to a chronically sleepy me, for his first swims, in anticipation of another medal run.

While I had ‘dated’ a few of the guys at school (yes, I use that term loosely), it was one guy I had never dated that again changed the direction of my life. He’d taken me under his wing a bit – I was fairly noticeable as one of the 5 girls in the entire two-year program of all males (and one of only about 2 that spoke English) – and invited me to his church where I would meet Gertrude and Madge (our future old age names when we decided we will wear joggers and big-ass shiny bling and talk to all the hot, young boys we pass by just for fun). It had been utterly unheard of in my entire life for a tight friendship – A CLIQUE – of TWO GIRLS to tap you on the shoulder and say “HEY, come hang out with us!”, but that’s exactly what they did. Such a thing had NEVER happened in my life, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Whether they realized it or not, just by hanging out they were also subliminally doing everything they could over the next few years to teach me how to function with a few basic human relationship and general womanly skills. I mean, they tried. They were battling a long history of nonsense, so it’s been quite a treacherous road still not yet fully driven. We connect once a year or so now, but are less interested in maturing or in having any sense of decorum. Age has since emboldened us now to act in any fucking manner we please. It seems that having just one or two people ‘in your corner’ is empowering. Who knew?! It empowered me to go out further, expand, do, see, discover. The shy, socially anxious girl was definitely still present, but she was becoming more equally balanced with her fearless side.

We started hanging out as a bit of a crew all together – another first for me, having a TRIBE! – hiking, kayaking, camping, and I was starting to actually enjoy being physically active for the first time in my life. A few friends I had graduated college with started skiing together, including some body builder that happened to be my roommate. I was able to sort of learn by way of being thrown down the mountain in full gear, now finally hoping I WOULDN’T die. My 20’s became an era of exploring what my tiny body COULD do and how powerful it could be when I treated it well (didn’t drink much) and became active (got my lazy ass off the sofa). For some time I even trained and worked at a local gym. I wished I could do high school PE all over again with the knowledge of what was actually possible when you’re supported and not judged by some instructor with a clipboard and pencil, nodding away sadly at your weak attempts. I was sure showing him!

My younger sister, whom I barely knew, moved in with me only about 18 months after I left home. She was 17 about to turn 18 by the time I graduated college, and about an hour into the party the two of us just took off all Thelma+Louise-like to sunny Southern California. (Full confession – my middle name actually is Louise… Let’s not mention that again! I guess it’s better than Thelma…) We drove Nana’s big, old, grey Pontiac 6000 straight through to San Diego with our gas station paper maps and our $6 speakers plugged into my old yellow Walkman. (So, KIDS – a walkman is a vintage iPod — wait, an iPod is an old iPhone that used to only play music… Oh, forget it.) It was the first time I’d been on the long road on my own, always having had Dad to take the wheel. For 7 years we lived 10 hours north of the City and Dad would lay us in sleeping bags in the back of the red, faux-wood-panelled Pinto station wagon (complete with an 8-track player! SO, Kids – an 8-track player is a vintage cassette ma… — wait, a cassette is… Oh, forget it) while he drove through the night so we could wake up at Nana and Grampa’s, only once hitting a deer on the road. 

At only 17 and 20, I have no idea how my sister and I survived the 26+hr trip on our own, or how we paid for it all, or what we ate. But I remember the long, straight stretches of the I-5, and the windy waterways of the PCH. I remember freaking out every time we’d pass blown out tires on the roadside, thinking back to the ‘65 Mustang I almost died in a few years back. They were just semi-truck flats, it would turn out. I remember our first visit to beautiful Laguna Beach as the highway opens up to the Ocean right as you hit town. I remember all the chocolate covered bananas at Disneyland I ate. It was a lot. I remember taking a bus tour into Tijuana, Mexico to buy colorful blankets. I remember thinking Del Mar were the words for ‘Magical Place’ and I swore to myself I’d return. To all of it. 

Since that trip I’ve driven the coast all the way down probably 10 more times, the warm ocean air, parade of tomato trucks, passing olive groves and beautiful beaches, and the scent of authentic Mexican food pulling me mile by mile further south, mentally measuring distance by memorized maps of every small but somehow alluring coastal town. The nomad in me, forged over the first 20 years of my life, was alive and well. But now I had a home to go back to after my adventures. Road trips became the best of all worlds.

My sister and I tried to plan a trip together to Europe shortly after, but in the blissful moment of California I had let myself forget that I still didn’t really belong in my own family, with all my weird, misunderstood ways, and my sister and I drifted back apart to live our own lives. Determined not to let anyone or anything stop me from going, off I went on my own, on a big, sweaty Contiki bus, with 30 Australians, South Africans, Koreans and – oddly – a few Japanese girls that actually lived a block from me back in Vancouver. Away I went to explore seven countries in fourteen days.

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Chapter SEVEN | Blood Orange Gizzard Salad

Cooking is like love – it should be entered into with abandon, or not at all.
Harriet Van Horne

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I had flown to and landed in London by my very own 22-yr old self, somehow finding my way in the pouring, foreign, cold rain, into the Tubes and back out to the meeting hotel without getting lost once in that pre-cellular era. I’m pretty sure it was all the jet lag and culture shock that sent me to the familiar KFC across the street for my dinner, not wanting to venture too far and avoiding the booze fest beer crawl the others had gone on. I rarely – if ever – drank back then, and most definitely did not do beer crawls (OH, again, if I could have seen myself now…). 

I had never met so many people from so many different countries – or travelled to so many countries with so many different people – before. I wasn’t socially or emotionally prepared to absorb a world that was so much bigger than I had ever imagined, but I’ll be forever grateful I tried. I also wasn’t prepared to eat oranges that were a deep, ‘rotted’, red (blood oranges, which I now hunt at the markets for salads), or fried French gizzards on lettuce (which I now cook just as a snack) or German whatever-the-fuck-that-was (nope, still nope. HELL nope – can’t win them all I guess). I definitely wasn’t prepared for how much beer I would eventually try to drink that trip, either, brought to us by the stein-load by big, busty German women with biceps the size of my entire twig-like body. Which apparently was never a contest, as I was reminded by one girl on the trip who continually labelled my thin frame as ‘anorexic’ the entire two weeks even though I ate as much as the boys in those days.

But oh, how I remember the sparkly teal-blue Mediterranean Sea off the Riviera that would call me back like a siren over and over again, even still. And in what moments of future clarity did I decide I just HAD to bring back a half-round of Gouda from Amsterdam or what must have been quite pricey Wusthof Trident knives from a factory in Munich, I wondered? That Chef’s knife I bought back when I was 22 is still the best knife in my arsenal. I use it every single day. What little spark did I see in myself back then about who I might become? That door in my life continued to slowly creek open, now fancied in my mind with Parisian panelling and painted a pale green-teal.

I had started seriously dating one particular much older guy at church who, for whatever reason, adored little ‘ole me. He was 6’-4”, had a genuine laugh, and a love for food that I found really intriguing. Once in a while he would take me out to nice places – he loved to take care of me. I can still picture myself back in one particular restaurant back on the Island from those days – I can see the street-lamped views of cobblestoned street out front, feel the low-lit, softly decorated interiors, smell the salty ocean air every time the door opened to a new guest, hear the gentle acoustic music stream like a breeze over the speaker system. It was grown up dining, and I loved it. Likely I still remember because right after dinner while walking he bought me the album that was playing that night, and it still remains one of my favorite chill sets, always handy on my phone. Amazing how real memories can be when all your senses are engaged.

He had begged me not to go on the bus trip to Europe, in the off-chance I would love it and never return. But I knew enough even then not to let anyone take away my dreams, and nor did I want to take away anyone elses. He owned houses and rented them out long before it became a completely infeasible dream in the Vancouver real estate market a mere 10yrs later, aside from his full-time job, and could afford things but never was a big spender. The women ‘his age’ that I suppose thought he was a pretty eligible catch, all hated me for having ‘caught’ him. Nothing new here, I thought. I was never going to be welcomed by his people, but he was sure taken in by mine. My family loved him – far more than they loved me it seemed, or maybe they all just wanted me to settle down into a pattern or life they could recognize within themselves, or probably both. But I was never one to ‘just settle’.

It didn’t work out with that boy in the end, much to my family’s sheer disappointment once again at what they felt was my ‘poor decision making’. My sister in her own ultimate wisdom on the subject attempted to show me just how big a mistake I had made by inviting him to her wedding after we’d already broken it off. I would learn later that she had been telling people she was now the ‘older’ sister because she got married first. My friend Mel and I, both firstborns, would gut ourselves laughing at that. Firstborn is a stripe hard-earned, engraved into your flesh and burned forever on your soul.

I had broken up with him because I refused to give up a career I was relentlessly working towards to end up a housewife chained to a kitchen, spending my days and nights cooking for some man and a whack of kidlets. It seemed to sum up the underlying ‘real expectations’ of every man I would ever seriously date, even though they supposedly ‘love you because you are different/strong/career focused’. Like my own family, the men I had been dating seemed to want me to fit into some life-model they recognized rather than imagine anything different. I had never fit into any box of any kind and wasn’t about to start now, even if it meant feeling safe and secured.

I also didn’t even know if I wanted kids, forget about having to spend my life cooking for them all. What the fuck?! HELL, no. Was that the only pattern for life? The only option to pursue? I was not about to become some grown man’s Mother. It’s a good thing, in retrospect, I couldn’t see what lay ahead in my own future a few years away… I never regretted losing him, or any other relationship I would continue to pass up. 

Things became strange for me soon after that with my family. I would go back, once in awhile, but even family dinner would ultimately mean subjecting myself to the relentless ‘joking’ torment of my younger siblings as they would passive-aggressively shred me for how – obviously, in their minds – stupid I was any time I dared to speak out loud. We just didn’t know how to relate to each other on any level. I would excuse myself to the washroom to cry, clean up, and summon every ounce of courage to not leave right then and there. I knew that if I walked out, it would be absolute. It would be permanent. It would be irreparable. I would be done. I had finally found a great life for myself in Vancouver that I actually wanted to LIVE, but part of me would continue to wonder if there would ever be a moment without a bully somewhere batting around me like a crow buzzing around an eagle that was just out for a happy flight all on it’s own-some. There wouldn’t be. 

It took incredible strength – and an increasing amount of alcohol – to stay and smile at the constant, painful jabs and jokes that on some level they felt I deserved. And perhaps I did, I just didn’t always know why, so I would sit and take whatever was dished hoping they would eventually find some sense of solace at the end of their hostilities. I realized I had the strength to take the pain of their punishment better than any of them would be able to cope with the result of a completely and permanently severed family. I further separated my actions from my emotions and chose to visit and stay for dinner after dinner. Eventually it would be a good thing I had.

Chapter EIGHT | Mango Sabayon Tart

You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.
Paul Prudhomme

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My grandparents were long-retired snowbirds, and would leave cold and rainy Vancouver for the sunny, warm California desert for the maximum 6 months of the year permitted by healthcare, leaving their huge house all to me and Frank, my super fluffy black rescue cat. It also meant I was literally the only kid around my own age I knew from 19-29 that had ‘their own’ house, and soon hanging out with friends was evolving into a big stream of parties, small dinners, and frequent gatherings. One small crew would come over for some TV show we’ve all long forgotten, but for some reason every week I would try this Custard Pear Tart, and every week it would absolutely fail. The custard would simply refuse to set every.single.time. But, I’d try it again the following week until the TV season ended. I don’t think I ever got it right, but they would still gobble it down. It may have even been what kept them coming because I guarantee we’ve all forgotten the show but probably remember the ‘Great Weekly Tart Experiment’.

Beyond that, various friends and I had started to play tennis all together, or I would watch their baseball games. We would go for long bike rides or play Friday night beach volleyball. I was always on the ‘loser’ court, but it was so much fun I eventually bought my own beach volleyball to practice against the brick fireplace in my basement suite. It never mattered that I was uncoordinated at all the sports I was suddenly learning, just that I was part of the group and I was happy to try, enveloped in the security of my accepting new friends. I began to challenge myself by conquering hikes like the Grouse Grind (best time of 53 mins!), or training for 10k runs, or kayaking across the entire English Bay to North Vancouver. I had to work so much harder than my more athletic friends, but I didn’t mind. I was feeling strong – in body, mind and spirit – for the first time ever. The will to live was crushing any remaining will to die into oblivion. Who knew life could not just be liveable, but even fun?!

In a world of rarely having had a real friend for my first 20 years, I had somehow, slowly, become the primary gatherer of the people. By some social miracle, I was finding myself near the top of a chain I didn’t know I could ever even be a link on, and when it was party time, it became my mission not to leave anyone out, even if I barely knew them. No one should have to feel unwelcome in my home. The parties weren’t ragers or anything, I wasn’t crazy, but our young gatherings could get up to 40 people. Even New Years Eve would be hosted by me – a night I’d never even celebrated before in a family household bent on non-celebration – complete with group dance performances of the ever-popular Makarena and the Village People’s YMCA songs. Where the food came from for these big group events, I have zero recollection of. Clearly I didn’t actually cook much of it, or if I did, it wasn’t terribly impressive.

A half-dozen or so friends from my Church crew and myself all signed up to do a Missions trip to Nicaragua shortly after their Contra-Sandonista civil wars had ended. I still wasn’t ‘world-wise’ enough to be as cautious as I perhaps should have been, and I signed up without hesitation. The appeals of both helping people and having an adventure were irresistible. The post-war Central American jungle was vastly different from any trip to a rigidly civilized European jaunt, basking in the manageable Mediterranean sunshine. The very second the airplane door opened, 48d summer heat pregnant with humidity wafted in like a Dementor and began sucking the water from the insides of our bodies to the outside. We were completely drenched in sweat within moments. My main concern, though, was what my fussy little tummy was going to have to eat in these foreign lands. Little did I know food would be the least of my concerns. Men standing around seemingly randomly with machine guns – or worse yet solo jungle farmers wielding razor-sharp machetes – bugs the size of small dogs, and sleeping with rats and pigs on the dirt floors of refugee camps are what SHOULD have been what would cause me caution, if anything.  Yet every moment was inspiringly amazing and precious.

There was a boy on our trip (there was always a boy!) who was from Texas, and I remember being bewildered as his darker Mexican/American body would quickly climb up wild Mango trees and pull oddly elliptical, shiny green and orange fruits, peel them with his teeth and eat them. I’d never seen a Mango in my entire life, and naturally with my food upbringing I had no interest in trying something NEW that could potentially taste like carrots or melons. What a strange foreign thing! Of course now we eat them all the time, they’re such a normal grocery import, and sweetly delicious, but I always flicker back to that moment when I eat one. Were they in grocery stores back then, and I just never knew? Was it only me they were foreign to? Probably.

Turns out the food overall wasn’t terrible – our guide was on top of it the whole way through, making sure everything we ate from boiled beef to stewed vegetables and cauldrons of rice was safe for us to eat even in the jungles after long, hard days of hiking in and carrying loads of freshly cut lumber up and down the hills, or laying bricks in the boiling hot sun. When we returned to Managua it became a plate of crispy street-side taquitos smothered in a runny sour cream, that I absolutely adored and still dream of digging into. We finished our trip in a 5-star resort on the coast of Nicaragua with swaying palms over knotted hammocks to ‘decompress’ after seeing so much worldliness that our innocent eyes had previously been ignorant to. I’ve never met such poor, lovely, happy, simple, blessed humans in my life. Despite their poverty? Because of their poverty? Those were bigger questions than I could answer, but I’ve never met a rich person as content. Why do we think we need so much to keep us happy? There is, perhaps, equal value in a well-rehearsed Michelin meal as in a perfectly dressed street-side taquito and a Mexican cola on a hot day. In the evenings at the resort there was a gorgeous, highly rated restaurant up on a cliff we could walk to, but I don’t remember what I ate. It was far more fascinating to stay near the beach for 6’ diameter trays of Paella that had been nursed all afternoon long. Maybe strange food isn’t ALWAYS a bad thing.

I’d always thought I would go back, but maybe some memories are best left pure. By this point I had also been to Hawaii twice, Eastern Canada and Southern California a few times, and Europe on a bus and I was feeling rather adventurous and brave. The wanderlust bug was constantly biting now, and it wouldn’t be long before I was off again, ready to explore. But always happy to have my own little home base to return to. There was still much to explore in Vancouver, too.

alison kent home kitchen recipe story sharing stories a story of belonging grilled mango passionfruit sabayon galette dough tart

Chapter NINE | Cauliflower w Cheese Sauce

I hate it when I go to the Kitchen for food, and all I find are ingredients.

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

A few years after my younger sister had moved out and left Vancouver, my younger brother, whom I really didn’t know at all, moved in with me. Although I can’t recall why – whether for work or school or neither – I took it as an opportunity to try to connect. He’s 5 years younger, and somehow in the time between my leaving home when he was only 13 and his moving in 5 or 6 years later he had learned his way around the Kitchen and I most definitely still had not. He had also learned to make and save money, and I ABSOLUTELY had not. 

My brother had this unique and natural ability to take whatever totally random groceries were hiding, long forgotten, in the back corners of my fridge and make a single, cohesive meal for two out of them. He was experimenting with things like Food Combining and exclusive food diets. Looking back, it was my first exposure to a style of ‘recipe-free cooking’ that would take me another 30 years to full comprehend and to fall in love with. I would be in awe with his mastery of ingredients, especially since otherwise my only regular true meal of the week was still Sunday lunch upstairs with Nana and Grandpa when they were in town. British-style roast beef seared in bacon fat (which was kept in a tub in the fridge at all times) covered in a rich, dark gravy; puffy, golden Yorkshire puddings; smoothly mashed potatoes; corn (from frozen); and a whole, steamed cauliflower drowning in homemade cheese sauce. I can taste it even as I write, and I still make the meal in its entirety to this day, on occasion.

Either by his prompting or mine, my brother and I ended up taking classes together at the local “posh” cooking school, Dubrulle. French styled tips and menus with foods I’d never heard of like Jicama in salads and Mushroom Duxelles sauces. The year we spent together creaked that mysterious door with big, bold brass hinges, open a bit wider, into a world that, to this point, I thought wasn’t achievable by anyone other than real Chefs.

We eventually took our own road trip to California (hilariously journaled with both real and fictional events), one of our destinations being the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco so he could check it out and decide if his future laid in cooking or in computer programming. I remember getting to our hotel and – what made us think of it, I don’t know – asking the Motel 6 ‘Concierge’ if there were any places we, as tourists, should potentially avoid. He got out his giant Sharpie and boldly circled two giant sections of SF that collectively covered about ¾ of the entire downtown core, slashed determined “X”s across them, circled the X’s for full effect, and handed us our map back. Good to know.

Of course, CCA was right smack in the middle of one of the dark circles of doom, so we gulped and forged ahead in the car with our trusty paper hotel map. There was no GPS back then, so as we got out near our destination we needed to walk with our paper with the big “X”s to help us find this building we’d never seen before displaying no real signage, when a big, burly street-cred kind of guy with his hoodie pulled down over his eyes passed us. He didn’t pause, just brushed past, and without skipping a beat his deep, whispered voice informed us that we ‘do not belong here’ and he kept walking, not even missing a beat. I guess nothing screams “I’M A LOST TOURIST – MUG ME” like a paper hotel map.

We never entered the CCA, finally seeing it down the block protected with massive, foreboding black iron gating. We finished our trip with the Grand Canyon (for him) and the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum (for me) and drove all the way back home. My brother became a computer programmer and, with his later wife just a few years later, moved nowhere near the school but still coincidentally to downtown SF to work for Adobe and other miscellaneous tech-y sorts of companies. I have no idea if he still cooked back in those days. But his own food story was far from over… 

I wasn’t yet working steadily, but whatever money I did make went to fun. There weren’t a lot of jobs in Architecture when I graduated, so for four long years I did odd jobs to build a resume, had no jobs between them, looked around, got agitated, shopped, felt a bit better, ate. Retail therapy wasn’t a hashtag like it is now, but somehow I still inherently knew that spending money would make me feel in control of my world in some small way. I remember at one point being down to my last $50 in my bank account and thinking Fuck It. I went and bought pale blue silk pyjamas. I still have them. Today I would still say Fuck It, but would take one or all of my kids out for an expensive meal, instead. I guess as I get older, I’ve found I’d rather be naked and well fed than dressed well with an empty belly. For now… 

Spending was an outright rebellion against the damned workforce and it’s attempt at keeping me out of the ‘club’, and I was enjoying it and hating it, depending on the day. While I mostly kept working at drafting ‘side gigs’ in Architecture, for those few years after graduation, most others went to work for City Halls or Construction companies instead. The uncertainty of clinging to increasingly thread-bare dreams of working in my field of choice were often frightening, but then I would spend a little something and feel much better. Gifts are clearly one of my Love Languages! Fortunately – or not – my Bestie at the time was somewhat well-off (like a helicopter pads on yachts kind), and that made her the kind of friend that could keep up with my crazy habits, even though technically I was actually pretty broke. 

My cautious and well-meaning parents used to say that I was spending too much money to keep up with her, a sort of ‘the Joneses’ scenario, but honestly it was the other way around. She was actually quite low-key, mostly focusing on her Psychology studies (of course…). Other than using her helicopter to take a few of us paragliding off a mountain at one point, she definitely wasn’t the spendy person I was (again, SORRY, Dad!).

But her kind and beautiful family KNEW interesting things, like which restaurants had the best combination of food and service, which spas were the most pampering, where to shop for adorable $100 t-shirts – or how to cook and eat a simple Artichoke. I’d never even heard of an Artichoke before, forget about knowing how to cook or eat one. 20 years later I still cook and eat them regularly for my own family.

She and I decided to take a trip to France – another life experience that would change me forever. Her gorgeous Mom gave us airmiles to cover our flights (or so she said), and while I was now wiling away my life at 3 miscellaneous jobs (2 were full time) still waiting for my ‘big break’ into Architecture, she planned the entire trip. I had no idea what I was in for, having only spent a few hours in Paris previously, and fewer still (outside that air-conditioned Contiki bus) physically walking along France’s coastal Rivieras.

We flew straight through a pouring Paris Charles de Gualle down into a sunny and welcoming Bordeaux, taxiing into town by a tiny, older, well-heeled and brightly lipsticked French lady with an even tinier dog on her lap (but of course!) as she drove, beautifully lilted English at the ready, and dropped off our bags. Our hotel was VERY French, complete with a ‘fit for one’ elevator wrapped tightly by a red-velvet carpeted spiral stone stairway. Right across it’s plaza was a restaurant where we sat for our first French meal with a glass of local wine, another beverage I was hereto fairly unfamiliar with. People mingled in their native French, walking by with baguettes in their arms, a band playing over by a watering fountain in the middle of the hot flagstoned plaza. We ate whatever we could order in our own, extremely limited, foreign language skills, watching life vibrantly at play all around us, and it was heavenly.

The next morning we met with our group to go on a cycling / camping trip that luxuriously followed along the serpentining south-western Dordogne River. That single week hit every fibre of my being with the most unforgettable moments I could never have imagined, and it carried on a life-long love affair not just with Paris, but with all of France that still has never left me. I’m certain I’ll carry a torch for Southern France with me until the day I die. When I’m too old and frail to travel, I hope and pray these memories – and others since – will remain. They would certainly serve me well throughout 2020 later on.

In my ‘new active lifestyle mode’ I had bought myself a shiny new bike and had been cycling back and forth to the Island to visit my family on occasion, but my naturally padded butt was vastly unprepared for the full days of hard, contoured seat saddles in the searing Bordeaux heat. The first day was the hardest, and we quit halfway through to sit in a roadside cafe while the tour van took our bikes – and later us – the rest of the way to our destination that day. But it was all so worth it. The slow movement of cycling along the quiet countryside roads was absolute perfection.

So many details from that trip are vivid in my mind as if it were just yesterday. Winding, narrow country roads (that I had no desire to be taken home by, thanks anyways John Denver) dusted with random but somehow perfectly French moments like abandoned rusty bicycles leaning on crooked, wooden farm fences… The hot sun on stone-clad terraces with waiting cold citron presses in clear Ricard bottles at every stop… Swans swimming a few feet away past our tents down the river, backdropped by a solid line of perfectly placed green coat of lucious nature dotted along it’s length with cobbled stone, centuries-old bridges… Old men in berets playing boules in the town squares and chatting the hot midday away from their shady seats… Colorful markets full of flavors and smells from which to buy a baguette to rip open and stuff with fresh made cheeses and hand-plucked tomatoes… That gizzard salad with the most amazing oil dressing on that patio perched above the vastly treed Périgord valley below… Ivy clinging to ancient buildings teeming with a dusty past and a fresh, bright present… The local wines and charcuteries that awaited us at the end of every ride while we took turns with the showers and then watched the sunset over red-rocked cliffs and caves full of neolithic wonders… The huge-spread picnics in the flowered gardens of old castles or churches… The fields passed by, full of lavender or poppies or gigantic golden cylinder hay bales… New buildings being purposely constructed with old stones, hiding much more modern interiors than we had back home… 

We made our way from a week of countryside bliss to the holiday town of the ultra-rich, Biarritz (for seafood!), and then to Paris (for ‘real’ restaurant food, or so we thought – nothing ever ended up comparing to the simple peasant countryside meals) on our own, but it was the small farm towns along the Dorgogne that stole my heart. I felt connected to them, somehow. And did the food taste better in the country because of the warm sun on our skin and willow trees lilting in waves of windy breezes as we rode by, or did it simply taste better because it was grown out of that very sun and wind, just down the road? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been back to France since then, but I always miss it and can’t go long without something booked on the horizon just so I can get the tiniest of those sights, smells and feels again.

alison kent home kitchen a story of belonging sharing stories recipes quotes food quote cauliflower with cheese sauce

Chapter TEN | Caramelized Alliums

The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have
a ‘what the hell’ attitude.
Julia Child

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

Eventually I found my first ‘real grown up job’ with a Developer in their tiny Design Department. My new boss said later that I was so confident in the Interview, he had to give me the job. I told him I wasn’t confident at all – just unafraid of not getting it. It was my entire approach to life, maturing as it went, increasingly bold at staring failures straight in the eye. It was myself, the new kid, another guy who had been there a short while longer, and our boss whom I would often have to call in the mornings to remind him to come into work at all. He always claimed he did his best work at home while high or drunk or both with the latest grunge band on volume 10, which obviously wasn’t going to happen in the office. And, it was true – he did.

But what he also did well was eat. Once a week the three, or later four, of us would head to whatever fancy places he would choose that we could reasonably drive to/from within a 90 minute extended lunch time to honour the ritual of eating well together. It was a great experience – not just for the food, but for the time we spent together as our little crew. We were absolutely confident that we were the coolest in the office, and would poke fun at all the Accountants next to us, who, as far as I know, never once ate out together and were all, simply by fact of being an Accountant, totally too boring to be invited along. The Accountants were clearly undeserving of menus with Caesar salads made the proper way – Nana’s way – with a proper oil and anchovy and not gloopy, thick white ‘sauce’; salted cod with lemony gravies; delicate pastas… Not food suited for a yucky, boring Accountants’ bland taste buds, surely! My future Accountant Hubby would NOT disprove my biases, I’m afraid. I must have had a decent knack for ordering because I rarely ended up with a meal that wasn’t amazing. I was absolutely hooked on eating ‘the good stuff’ from here on.

On days we weren’t eating, a few of us would head to the local driving range to hit a few. I would keep a couple of clubs in the (Nana’s) car. Most mornings I would run 10k before work, preparing for my first half marathon. Long weekends I would continue to ride my bike to and from the Island to visit my family as occasion called for it. I was feeling strong in myself, and bravely trying all kinds of new things, but also living very much alone, between the odd date out. 

Eventually I broke off-and-on serial-dating to let myself be tied down to a steady boyfriend for a short while. We would ride on his motorcycle and drink beer and – of all things – he would cook for me. He used all these strange ingredients that, again, I had never heard of like Vidalia Onions, and would make impressive-sounding things like velvety Red Wine Reduction sauces. For all I know he’d only found out about them the day before while reading the recipe, as I so often have done for others since, but at 25 years old I was still duly impressed.

His friends were less impressed with me, and early on one even asked what I would do if she pulled my hair out. I had only just met them, and really wondered What-The-Fuck?!, but I tried to be kind for the sake of his friendships. They were all married and had started having kids, which I suppose was normal, but I struggled to be near other peoples kids. I still cringe and completely tense up when someone else’s kid comes too close to me over 20 years later. It’s just never been my thing. Children have a spider-like unpredictability in their movements, and I’ve always been arachnophobic. But otherwise, his crew was very active and tried teaching me things they had been doing since they themselves were babies like waterskiing. Even though I was more physically pro-active than ever, they were so far out of my league with their pro-like skills. To my credit, I did try. It took two long, embarrassing, painful days to get me up on skis, but I eventually got it even if just for a minute. I preferred their fondness for go-karting, where I could hold my own. Driving as though I had no fear of death was one thing I was quite good at. And, of course, I’d also dated a race car driver for about a day who taught me to accelerate the corners.

The boyfriend cooked for myself and his parents one evening, but I was still pretty uncontainable back then and I think we mutually agreed without really saying it out loud that I was about as welcome by his parents as I was by his people. My experiences with relationships before him were far from solid or healthy in any way, so it was near impossible to suddenly have one that was either, and especially not combined with being HIS first girlfriend of any kind – ever. He knew he wanted kids and knew I couldn’t stand them. While that never meant I might not want some in the future – at that point I could take them or leave them – he never asked specifically about kids, and I certainly never willingly brought it up, and we were done. After decades of transience, I still didn’t know how to communicate with people in the ways that they needed me to. But now at least I could move forward in life knowing there was more than one kind of onion in the world and that red wine reductions could be made outside of fancy restaurants. He would be the last boy that would explore food FOR me. I was thereafter free to wander the vast field of taste, texture, colour, and composition in my own ways, in my own Kitchen.

In our inevitable breakup, I inherited his roommate, Doug. We would spend weekend afternoons playing tennis, or hiking every week up an arduous local challenge, the Grouse Grind (although I was really only going for the ice cold beer and stacked nachos at the top). He would later play hockey on my Husbands team, and is now officially my ‘Beer Crawl Buddy’ even though we have VERY different preferences in ales – mine for the far superior lagers and pilsners, his for nasty little IPA’s. Vancouver is blessed with a wide variety of local breweries, and we would meet up and share a flight at a few of them, walking more crookedly between each one as the night went on. Finding our limit to be 4 Breweries, we would end our jaunts at a restaurant for solid sustenance and Hubby comes to meet up / fetch me. I guess beer really was my thing, after all. There you have it, 22yr old me!

Then, life froze in time. My Grandpa – Nana’s husband – both of whom I still lived with, was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. One of the bad ones, apparently. It was my first close-up experience with deathly illness – or any illness, as I was rarely ever sick – and I had no idea how to handle it, living there with just the 3 of us. One sunny afternoon late into his illness while I was gardening in the big plot he’d carved out for me in the backyard that I half-assedly tended to when I felt like it, we chatted for a long while, him giving all his gardening tips, me not knowing really what to say, as usual. We hung out that way, in the warm sunshine, digging in the hard, poorly cared for (by me) dirt for quite some time, him resting on a chair next to me. It’s my last real memory of him, and as awkward as it probably was in the moment, I love thinking of him there with me in my shabby, little garden. Lord only knows I could use his tips 20+ years later as my own gardening ambitions have grown. Oddly, I never remember cooking anything from that plot of dirt, or what I might have possibly planted that was actually edible, but I remember it. And I remember him there, always.

My Grandpa had been a tile setter, and their house – the house I would spend 10 good years in – was COVERED in tile. Ripply, grout-filled floors and counters that filled the kitchens and bathrooms that needed boards on top to make the surfaces usable. He would go around the City tapping his key on tile installations to ‘hear’ if they had been installed correctly or had lasted the years, many of which he had tiled himself back in the day and liked to check the aging of. While I’d never seen him cook, he was a great dishwasher, and he actually could tile a great kitchen countertop.

My suite downstairs also had a tiled kitchen counter, which you wouldn’t know for all the weeks-long piles of dirty dishes covering it. I hated doing the dishes so much that I would actually throw the really gross ones away and just buy new ones. Or I would stock them up for WAY too long, carry them upstairs to Grama and Grampa’s dishwasher when they were away by the laundry basket-load, and put them in double-cycles. After a while I learned to just use disposable dishes whenever possible. Clearly environmental sustainability wasn’t really a thing yet. Not touching filthy dishes also wasn’t MY thing – ever.

After Grandpa passed, Nana would still snowbird it down south for about 6 months of the year, and I was left to live on my own (with Frank the cat, and my newly salvaged-off-the-street dwarf bunny, Leo), continuing to host all the big parties whenever they occurred, for the same familiar crews, until she sold the house and we both moved out a few years later.

Chapter ELEVEN | Rustic Rabbit Rillettes

Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.
Alan D. Wolfelt

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

Even though I was actively pushing myself and pursuing promotions and raises, and learning things the value of plots of dirt, I eventually left Developer life for a real, live Architecture Firm – one of their own Clients. I would FINALLY be legitimately working in the career I had trained for 7 long years earlier. Fearless once again I was forging forward, approaching a firm our Development company was working with and they took me on. They made me a Project Manager of a list of my very own small projects and I was quickly in well over my head. Thankfully I was resourceful and could figure out the job as I went. Working in a Firm allowed me to also finish my Architecture degree in a nation-wide part time work-study program. I was continuing to befriend and spend time with an ever widening variety of people. Between attending a new church, continued side drafting gigs, Architecture school, my actual job and general socializing, there had been no shortage of lovely and increasingly interesting humans in my life. My teenage self would NOT have imagined or recognized the person I was blossoming into.

More and more I would host dinner parties of around 8 or so people, mixed all in from different walks of my life, but there’s no memory of what I possibly cooked. I still didn’t cook, in a real sense of the word, other than a few easy Donna Hay recipes from books or magazines, and the few recipes I’d learned at Dubrulle. I would often try new recipes for guests, not worrying too much if they worked out or not. Surprisingly, however, my friends new and old still showed up. Free food, I guess?! I still didn’t quite know how to ‘do’ small talk with other humans (my final ‘fear frontier’?), so I would cook instead as a way to communicate my friendship and appreciation for them. Various people reciprocated and it all felt so very grown up with lots of little ‘friend pods’ starting to form. Later in life we would call them our ‘Tribes’. Our people. Those we spend time with, support, love, create space for. It’s interesting to look back at the ebbs and flows of certain friendships, some eventually breaking away forever, some gone for a season and then returning. All of them centered around the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine.

Working the new job took me into a neighbourhood in downtown Vancouver called Gastown, where – for better or worse – restaurants were aplenty. I was barely paying rent in exchange for house-watching while Nana was down south and I really REALLY should have been saving for a future place of my own. But, of course, I didn’t… (Again, sorry Dad!)  And who could have possibly predicted the real estate explosion of what would eventually result in a grossly inaccessible Vancouver market?!

Instead, I ate. And quite well. With a Starbucks (which, coincidentally was ALSO born in 1971, exactly 6 months before me) a few doors down by the historic and tourist-ridden Steam Clock, breakfast and afternoon coffee every day was covered. Sushi, which I now LOVED (especially the raw stuff!), cafe food, tons of takeout options were all abundant. I frequented a food court a few sketchy blocks away, through the ‘poorest postal code in Canada’, to fill my Butter Chicken cravings. And, once a week, I would grab some Architecture and Design magazines nearby and take myself for lunch at a local high-end restaurant. That singular moment of fine wine and good food, pages of inspiration at hand, and a moment of quiet time to myself was my absolute favorite point of those hectic work-school weeks. Dinners out to the many reputable dining establishments downtown with friends were also becoming the norm, and at some point I was eating out 3 meals a day, 5 days a week – MINIMUM. I was freely exploring every taste bud I had at my disposal, in a City that held endless ethnic and creative options, without nary a thought to my 98lb, 5’-1” frame. My size never meant I was necessarily healthy by being thin – I was gluttonous with a body that was yet to succumb to my abuse.

On top of the epic trip to France pre-big job, I was also continuing to travel to Montreal, Quebec City, and California with friends. Montreal and old town Quebec City have always hypnotized me with their love of all things ducks, bunnies, and poutine… And poutine topped with ducks and bunnies. YUM. So French, yet so Canadian. The quaint old town areas would dedicate entire restaurants to a singular animal, like le Cochon or le Lapin. The decadent and delicious flavors have never left me. I’ve been back about a half-dozen times, the sides of my mouth drooling at the prospect every time, yearning for pates and rillettes and cassoulets. Mix in a few old and dingy jazz bars, and I’m one happy gal.

There was one restaurant in Montreal set in a deserted space between other stone or brick buildings in various stages of construction or deconstruction, ivy growing up the adjacent walls all lit up with long-spanning strings of bistro lights (long before they were available at Costco and EVERYONE had them – including me), a small stage set in a corner for live music that would beautifully echo about… Maybe it’s still there. Little did I know my mind was collecting all these food memories and tucking them so deeply, beautifully into my soul, ready to be re-lived any time I chose or was wondrously  triggered to.

Yet my slim body was becoming more and more often tired, plagued with migraines, sometimes too fatigued to move. I had been tired off and on, with epic highs and drastic lows, for as long as I could remember (and still), and it kept my short-term memory, well, short. It makes remembering or processing verbal/word-based information extremely difficult when not accompanied by animation or diagrams, which is why I suppose I was so good at Math and Physics. When I read a book, I will already have forgotten the last paragraph I’ve read before I move onto the next one. It meant that language had to be very visual for me to retain it. It also meant that although I could vividly remember loving a dish of food and where I had it, any minute details of preparation or specifics of flavor would struggle to be catalogued into my exhausted brain. Thankfully I at least could draw.

To continue to keep my mind and body as healthy and active as possible, I was still playing weekly tennis and golf and running some mornings. But it was getting a bit lonely as, by 28, many of my friends were getting married and even starting their own families. I told one listening ear, while in an extended dating drought, that I’d love to go out to just one dinner sometime with a male human. It was golfing, by invitation of that friend,, one sunny weekend where I met Warren. He was tall, cute, and had a great disposition, putting little white balls away while donning a Mickey Mouse embroidered baseball cap, not really caring if he duffed a shot. And, more importantly, not judging if I duffed a LOT of shots.

We bumped into each other after that, coincidentally, and started to get together with mutual friends, but it was a few weeks before I found why he’d been wearing a Mickey Mouse cap. Turned out he had kids that he’d recently taken to Disneyland at the beginning of their summer break from school. Two daughters, 5 and 7, whom I had ZERO interest in meeting. Which, of course, I told him point blank. But over the duration of that first summer, the weeks where he had his girls and I’d declined to hang out with him seemed like forever and I broke.

Thinking back it was INSANE to meet the kids of someone you’d just met and were dating after only a few weeks. His family and some of his friends definitely agreed, especially considering his heartbreaking divorce a few years earlier, but one or two of them were thankfully more focused on getting to know me and make sure I wasn’t some kind of psycho before rushing to judgement. We simply didn’t know what we were doing and are so lucky it all worked out. A few of the other single Dads he knew weren’t necessarily so fortunate.

For our first meeting, he took myself and the girls to a movie called Chicken Run and I sat as far away from these strange, poisonous children as my theatre seat could possibly allow, like I was the head of the Monsters to their toxic human child Boo’s. Fortunately in movies you don’t have to talk much as I leaned away and dared not even make eye contact. Warren treated us all to a burger joint below the theatre afterwards where you could draw on the placemats with giant crayons, which I can never help myself around. It took less than 5 minutes for these two skinny little pony-tailed girls to be climbing all over me, all 3 of us drawing on my placemat together. And I didn’t even die from the touch of their poisonous, tentacly limbs. I guess these smaller humans aren’t quite as life-threatening as I’d imagined. Besides, they thought I looked like Britney Spears, so, although clearly delusional, at least they had good taste. Apparently I was going to have kids in my life whether I liked it or not.

Chapter TWELVE | Vietnamese Chicken or Tofu

The most indispensable ingredient of all good home cooking:
Love for those you are cooking for.
Sophia Loren

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

Warren and I started dating more seriously, and meeting and getting to know ‘each others’ people’ who were mainly couples either newlywed or just dating (or recently divorced and re-dating). He also has a massive family, and various cousins who all seemed to have kids the girls ages. We had actually been going to the same church before meeting each other, alongside the guy who had inadvertently introduced us, and Warren’s own brother whom I’d met years earlier playing beach volleyball (even though he was NOT on the ‘loser court’ like I was LOL). We enjoyed bringing a variety of our friends together, combining our circles, including the precious few from his enormous family that were actually willing to get to know me. There weren’t many, in those early days.

In contrast, my family welcomed this 12-yrs older, recently divorced guy towing along two scraggly little girls with wide open arms. My sister has just given birth to her first daughter, and their potential grandkids were suddenly tripled! Thankfully Warren was ‘broken in’ to babies, and I could deflect picking up my new niece to him every chance I got. I was, however, loving my time with ‘my’ new girls! Thankfully they were desperately wanting their beloved Daddy to find someone new, and I was fitting the bill. We would spend hours riding bikes, crafting, setting pretty tables and playing tennis, and we were all 3 having a blast.

For whatever reason, I had chosen to date an Accountant. While my Banker Dad was excited (and in truth Warren is closer to my parents age than mine), it meant money was being watched now and eating out every meal was no longer a feasible lifestyle. Well, it never was, but anyhow… Cooking meals at home was becoming the norm, and naturally suffering (I was still NOT much of a cook!) begs company. We were starting to form more varied little dinner groups with a few similar friends in each one representing a wide variety of humans – yet nothing compared to how varied the groups would become years later after almost 20 years of marriage. One gal in particular group of rotating dinner parties had a harrowing personal story of coming from Vietnam on a boat, losing half her family in the process to gun-wielding pirates and wild, uncontainable seas. It was a truly memorable and heartbreaking story, and it came with an equally unforgettable, and so I was told – authentic – dish, Vietnamese Lemongrass Chicken. 

Thankfully before we eventually lost touch, the recipe was written down by a mutual friend, because it remains one of our family favorites. My now-daughters still ask for it for dinner often, although now one for chicken, the other for tofu, and I freeze it in batches sometimes for their own pantries. I’ve heard my long-lost friend is now in Paris with her adorable daughter, living life to the nines on some billionaires dime. I often wonder which Parisian restaurants she eats at…

Early on when Warren and I first started dating, he lost some random bet and owed me lunch, so I just figured we would go to my local spot, Water St Cafe, and enjoy a nice lunch with wine together. Being an Accountant – of all things – he was in Finance in his family-owned clothing manufacturing company a few minutes away from the Firm when we met. Unfortunately between being an Accountant and inheriting the Asian ‘thrifty’ gene, the $60 lunch for two had put him into complete shock. Fortunately he doesn’t drink wine, so that saved him a few bucks on his side of the table. It’s really about what you SAVED and not what you spent, right?! Honestly, he should have foreseen at that point how high our food bills would eventually get!  And I should have foreseen decades of his monthly ‘Bills PMS’ arguments over food (and other) budgets. Love sure is blind.

The poor guy was used to going out for quick $5 lunches with his cousin and best friend. In the mornings he would make the girls an overcooked hard boiled egg and bulk packaged Ichiban noodles to share. It’s no wonder the girls were so skinny! And so tastefully unprepared for what I would eventually try to cook for them. 

Somewhere along the line, a big house became a burden for Nana and she decided to sell, and I was homeless. For the first time in my life, I had to actually live all on my own, and it was exciting. With the help of friends, I found a small basement suite in the popular Kitsilano area and was set. Blocks away from dozens of restaurants, Warren and I would walk in the evenings to eat at a variety of casual – inexpensive, of course – spots. 

Regrettably, Warren had lost his Mom also to Cancer around the same time I’d lost my Grampa (he is SO much older, as I like to remind him every now and then, especially on rare occasions when I actually manage to whip one single tennis ball past him), just a few years before we met. I think not only would our dating have gone so much smoother with his Mom’s support, but I would have had the opportunity to learn at least a few authentic Chinese home cooked dishes. Apparently although cooking wasn’t her strongest suit, she was a real gatherer of people, adopting all sorts of strays into the family. Warren says I’m just like her, with a spot in my heart for every human I meet, without prejudice. Unfortunately, according to the post super-messy divorce journal his family counselor had recommended he keep, some of his family was very much prejudiced against me before they’d even met me for the first time. Dating while he lived in his old family home was especially trying at times. But even amongst relentless unkindness, I quickly realized there was no changing their minds and truthfully it all wasn’t even about me most of the time (unless it was about me NOT helping with the dishes). I had developed a pretty thick skin by this point in my life, and, sadly it wouldn’t be the last bully I would meet. I took peace in knowing other people weren’t my problem to fix.

While home-cooked Chinese food was an unfortunate missing element, as it was I had come to love EVERY style of food Vancouver had to offer – and it was pretty global. I especially loved most of the Asian offerings – Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian, Thai, and some Korean, but for whatever reason Chinese food was the one ethnic food I just wasn’t fond of. Who puts messy, sticky sauces on the OUTSIDE of a crab shell?! Why did everything have to have SO much sauce anyhow, and why were many of them so gelatinous and gloopy? Bewildering for someone who would eventually focus on refined, smooth, French sauces. As fate would have it, both my younger sister and I ended up marrying ‘Chinese’ husbands.

I put ‘Chinese’ in quotes because Warren is 4th generation Canadian and is probably the least-Asian Asian person I’ve ever met. His family came to Canada when the railroads were being built, before any of my own European grandparents had emigrated here. His great-grandfather would walk up and down the railroads and sell t-shirts to the workers, who in working with fire and iron would go through them like crazy, I expect. Warren’s idea of hosting a party, which with 30 immediate cousins who all now had families of their own happened often and in massive numbers – and sometime after our wedding I would actually finally be begrudgingly invited to – was picking out frozen puck food in boxes and bags from Costco to reheat at home. Nope – not really an authentic Asian bone in his body. He’s joked for years that I’m more Asian than he is, eventually learning to play Mahjong with the Ladies and having taken over all the big gathering hosting since. And NOT with Costco frozen appies.

Whether Warren believed me to be just like his Mom or not, it didn’t stop his family from constantly pressuring him to break things off with me, and eventually he did. Twice. Little did they know, I was – still – unafraid. Unafraid of someone not liking me, unafraid of adopting two scraggly girls as my own, unafraid of suddenly having an instant family, unafraid of the choice to become the full-time cook in charge of sustaining others, unafraid of potentially leaving the Firm life I had worked so long to be a part of to work from home, unafraid of the future and whatever it held. Little did I know, some of their ammunition against me had been manufactured from within my very own family. Eventually for Warren all the pressure made him more determined than ever to leave his family home and live a life of his own, and it made me more determined than ever to create and navigate my own definition of family, one that wouldn’t end up looking like anyone else’s that I’ve ever known.

Warren proposed to me on a trip to visit Nana in Palm Springs where we were watching tennis matches and playing golf, by leaving a ring in the last hole of one of our rounds. When we eventually told the girls we were engaged, they excitedly jumped up and down, happily chanting ‘WE HAVE A NEW MOM!’, and on our wedding day they also received rings – from both of us. 20 years later I would personally update them with stones left to me from Nana’s side, honouring both our inherent and chosen families. We didn’t know back then, but the big battles to stay a family hadn’t even begun.

Chapter THIRTEEN | Pink Lemonade Granita

Food tastes better when you eat it with your Family.

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As we continued to date, I continued to learn my way around the Kitchen for this little ‘instant family’. I had expanded my easy-to-read Donna Hay food-magazine collection, adding in some lovely Ina Garten / Barefoot Contessa books focused on ‘simple’ and ‘fast’ recipes, but the girls were still VERY difficult to please in their younger years. Having grown up on Ichiban for breakfast and frozen Costco appetizers, my steamed coconut rice in banana leaf was too foreign, even if they were used to Asian food – in the most broad sense. If it wasn’t plain chicken, the younger one – who was only 6 – would throw a huge tantrum and just crawl into a ball. Never mind trying to take her out to experience dishes from my favorite Mexican or French restaurants (she would laugh at that now!). 

Once I thought I’d nail it by making an all-time kids fave of chocolate fondue for dessert. Growing up my Nana worked for a candy FACTORY and brought home far too much chocolate at Easter, so we’d melt them bunnies down as fast as we could for Easter Fondue. I’d never seen my girls more confused or disgusted. They ate the fruit and left behind the beautiful, melty chocolate. Mission failed. Needless to say, they eventually embraced that, too, in later years. I mean, FRUIT and CHOCOLATE?! Yum. I knew the girls would love it, eventually.

Food was slowly becoming something I could contribute to our new group dynamic, everyone else already having long secured a role and a place of being within our pack. It was a pleasure offering doorways to flavor and taste to this new little family that had welcomed me in. It was a way to share love and appreciation for them through food, especially in the moments when I didn’t quite know where I fit, and even if the flavors did take time.

Warren and the girls were members at a local tennis club that, at least, had chicken strips for our fussy little eaters. I fell for the Cobb Salad HARD, and once he left the Club after we were married so that we could pay down our new Mortgage, I dreamt of it for at least 10 years until we re-joined. Fortunately the recipe hadn’t changed one iota – even now – and it always pairs well with the $6 wine special of the week. But, mostly I cooked for our little foursome at home, finding new family favorites along the way. And ALWAYS setting a table to make us all feel especially at home.

When we weren’t eating, we loved getting out into nature with the girls, riding bikes, rollerblading, skiing, hiking. I even taught them how to waterski, relying on my own painfully weak waterski experiences years before to guide them. Naturally they both got up on the skis first try, being far more athletic and exposed to sport than I had been. My own health and body image was at an all time high. And then I found a lump in my left breast. Fuck. All those years I’d wanted to die were coming for their pound of flesh, I was sure. I went in, alone, and came out – thank God – alive. It was, they said, nothing to be concerned about. I’d escaped death once again, but wondered how many chances I would get…

One of our aforementioned, Warren’s-family-mandated breakups was almost permanent, and it was unbearably crushing a year+ in to break up with not just one, but three people that I had become fairly attached to, as much as I was able to be attached to anyone. They were my pod, and I genuinely loved all 3 of them. Fortunately I’d kept up with all my old friends, and had shoulders to lean on, including the friend Doug I got in the ‘divorce’ w James. Many of them, however, were moving on from playful singlehood, getting engaged, married, and having kids of their own. Including the engagement of my dear France friend, which she announced to me over dinner with our small crew of gals. It was going to be a wedding for the magazine covers, long before Instagram.

Unfortunately, I fled wedding planning during our dessert course as Warren had called out of the blue after a month of broken-up silence. He’d realized that he’d given up all his dreams to try to fill those of his family, and that just wasn’t going to work for him – or for his girls – any longer. We got back together that evening, and he ended up as my handsomely tuxedoed date for the big centrefold wedding, at which I was a Bridesmaid. And it was indeed an event for the ages! A beautiful ceremony on the immaculate golf-course-grade green lawn of her Father’s estate, with a fairy lit reception on the fully trussed out, chandelier-laden tennis courts. But what I remember more than almost anything was the mid-meal amuse bouche. Plated in front of me was this hollowed out, sugared half lemon, filled to finish the original shape with a melt-in-your-mouth palate cleansing lemon granita topped with a single mint leaf. I do keep the most random, vivid memories! I had never experienced such a thing – it was the magical frosted topping on the most amazing wedding cake evening.

A few months later Warren and I took a trip to Palm Springs to visit Nana and her American sister, watch tennis at Indian Wells, and play some golf. It would be the first of many trips, although it took me awhile to let go of my own beloved Laguna Beach in exchange for the ocean-free tennis community of Palm Springs. I’ve always been a fair weather person, and would much prefer to just sit at the beach watching the waves and collecting shells and pebbles than run about. I feel as though in a previous life I was one of those chicks that sat on the beach watching her man surf all day, waiting for Jack Johnson, cases of beers and raging bonfires at the end of the evening. Warren and I had, however, actually brought our golf clubs so off to walk a course in the heat of mid-day we went. Being the lazy golfer that I am, I couldn’t make the last putt and started to walk away before Warren stopped me and forced me back onto the green. And good thing I listened – there was an engagement ring waiting at the bottom of the hole.

About four months after that, at 30yrs old, it was my own wedding and I officially went from single with a cat (and the rescued rabbit) to a family of four. Although his family had hoped for a more traditional Chinese wedding at a church and then a typical Chinese restaurant reception (like my sister had done a few years prior, the whole tea ceremony and shebang included), I figured they all had that celebration with Warren’s first wedding and I happily gave myself a clear slate with a clear mind. 

We chose the rotunda at the Vancouver Art Gallery for our 20 minute ceremony (the boring part of the wedding LOL), along with their own caterers for the Reception. We rented faux topiaires and high wing-back leather chairs and low antique velvet sofas from Movie prop houses to fill the spaces. We had a live jazz band and guests could wander the entire Frida Kahlo exhibit at their leisure (thanks to the $1m insurance policy we were required to have in place). It was perfect. I never ate the meticulously chosen food, but I heard it was good. The girls sang and played a special song for us during the ceremony, other kids (and ours) ran around a craft area and courtyard outside, live music filled the air and it was an incredibly happy occasion. 

The girls were growing up fast, and finally I was starting to break through to their culinary taste buds! Although I was working full time, I would leave early on Wednesdays and Fridays to pick them up from school and we would head straight to Starbucks to have a snack and chat about the day, week, whatever. On weekends they would eat whatever I cooked out of my still-growing collection of cookbooks, our favorite being a pork chop on a bed of sliced apples, at a table set down to the perfectly selected cotton napkins, specially for four. We would craft and they loved to bake and watch Gossip Girl and sing to Spice Girls. I started looking up artsy projects an hour before they would be home and finding items through my hoarding of craft supplies to keep us all creative. Between beads and paints and pens and such, I’m sure owning Michaels store would have been cheaper. 

Our first ‘married’ New Years Eve was spent in a moment that could have once again changed the direction of my life, in hindsight. I had been working on one of my own side gigs with one of Vancouver’s preeminent OG Chefs at the time, at one of his biggest, most expensive restaurants. As my holiday ‘bonus’, I was given a $100 gift card, so we decided to use it on NYE. While I don’t particularly remember the meal itself – other than we ate like Kings – I do recall Warren feeling once again duped into spending good money on ‘silly food’ by the fact that we still had a $100 bill at the end. He should have been counting his blessings – I wasn’t even the big wine drinker back then that I, unfortunately for my waning half-thyroid metabolism and increasing age, am now. What I didn’t realize was that designing Restaurants or Kitchens could have been a thing. I didn’t even think of it back then, as food hadn’t quite yet infiltrated my entire soul, but in the years since I’ve once or twice pondered where I might be now if I had designed Restaurants as a specialty.

Chapter FOURTEEN | Apples, Pancetta + Pork

Be so busy living your life that you have no time for hate, regret or fear (or for bad food)

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We finally bought our first home together, after a few that fell through in Vancouver’s rapidly rising markets. It was so tiny and nondescript from the street that our Realtor didn’t even have a photo for us. Warren did a drive through the small neighbourhood we weren’t at all familiar with, and deemed it pretty ‘meh’. But options were NOT aplenty, so we booked a viewing. With every house we went through, I would grab the Realtor floor plans and consider what the renovated future could hold on the floor plan and use of space, not so much what was in front of us. Which is good, because what WAS in front of us was 50-60 yrs old, every wall papered and every floor (even the bathroom) carpeted, with pink ceilings. But as I walked through, I saw walls coming down, spaces opening up, and much desired southern exposure for my heart and for my garden. We put in a bid with 4 other interested parties, and by the grace of God won the home even as the lowest bidder.

We did a drive around with the girls that night trying to get a sense of our new area, and right there, in front of our new home, a lady was walking her horse home. We weren’t sure what it meant, but the girls thought it was a magical sign of good things to come. The hour after we took possession of our tiny mansion on the West Side, the girls started ripping out carpets from weird places like the bathrooms and outside decks and rode them like Aladdin down the (also carpeted) stairs. The house hadn’t been updated in quite some time, with a dozen tiny rooms where one big room would better suit a growing, modern life. So we had a few walls taken down immediately, including one of the Kitchen walls, cabinets and all, without knowing what our next step on it might be, or how long it might take. With our stove sitting awkwardly in the middle of this newly expanded room, flooring torn away and wire shelves holding up our dishes, we started life as a family of four. And, it’s how we continued to entertain friends and family for almost a year.

And it’s in this mess I solidified the process of becoming a mother who cooks and provides for her family. The horrors. I mean, it was either cook or do dishes, and I was NOT going to do family-sized amounts of dishes – EVER. Life was settling into our own little happy chaos. Did we dare mess it up further – or risk losing our merry vibes – by having any more kids? It was a toss-up, so we decided we would try for a bit and see if another kid was in the cards.

Apparently, after a short pregnancy and devastating first miscarriage, it was. And pregnancy SUCKED. The entire first trimester I was sick morning TIL night (why do they even call it MORNING sickness?!), making food a source of nauseating necessity only and consisting almost solely of months of saltine crackers. To live without delicious food was VERY trying and those weeks seem to last forever.  I didn’t know that trimester would be the best out of the three. The second came with 3-4 day migraines and I would awaken with yesterday’s pounding head, which only subsided once I realized I was fat anyhow and may as well drink my favorite but fattening Eggnog lattes at Starbucks everyday. I learned quickly as a result that coffee could keep migraines at bay, and I was sold. I bought a coffee machine at Starbucks and continued to drink homemade lattes every single morning. 

I had left the job at the Firm to work from home on my own shortly after we got married, which I had been doing throughout anyhow with my own side gigs. I calculated that any sort of Maternity leave wasn’t going to be permanent enough for me to attend all my new daughters soccer, baseball, or volleyball games (sometimes practicing with my old volleyball), or to juggle their schedules with a potential new baby that I simply wasn’t willing to hand over to strangers at the ripe old age of one. What I didn’t realize is that I was about to trade my own relatively new, active lifestyle for two decades of cheering others from the sidelines.  I optimistically set up an office desk at home and was busier and making more money that first year than I ever had. But I was no longer moving, other than to rush kids about.

Thankfully I had been working from home while pregnant, because by the third trimester, I was simply too fat to move anyhow, having gained almost 50% of my original body weight in 9 long months. When you’re only 5’-1” the belly has nowhere to go but OUTWARD. Which made it really awkward to be on my knees tiling the floors in preparation for the new Kitchen. The girls lovingly called my swollen feet ‘Hobbit feet’, as we’d been marathoning Lord of the Rings movies throughout my ‘wide as I was tall’ third trimester. By 40 weeks I just wanted the whole thing over with. Already chronically fatigued on a normal day, I could barely get off the sofa by what I felt should be the end. But, that first babe was a sleepy boy. Over 10 days late, I went to the Hospital alone while Warren cared for the waiting big sisters, to endure 2 attempts to induce labour, and 1 breaking of my water until, Hubby bedside, Tt was finally airlifted out by C-section. I had hired a P/T Nanny a few weeks earlier just in case this whole baby thing wasn’t really for me after all, but right away I was in love. 

Maybe because he was so quiet… He was the perfect baby to convince a non-baby lady like myself to have kids. My girlfriends with kids ‘hated’ me – Tt slept through the night by about 2 months old and mostly potty-trained before the first year was over. I took a total of 1 week off work when I had him, and back to life in general fairly fast, thanks to some quick C-section healing and a swing-crib, and to girls that needed lots of long car rides to volleyball.

Once in awhile I would reflect on what my life had become. Where just months before I was single with my cat and rabbit, eating and going and doing entirely as I pleased, I had bound myself to a family, a mortgage, a new career direction (as I would soon quit Architecture school), a kitchen, and a way of life I had until now – for any other man – resisted. But reflecting isn’t the same as looking back, and I never once looked back. I was firmly on my path, one it would seem I was always destined for, and it required some fierce forward moving momentum.

Mostly I didn’t have a choice to be up and running. I had meetings and trips to City Hall – often with a baby in tow. I had two girls, now 10 and 13, to get around and Tt was constantly wrapped up and brought along. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said for schedules and consistency for newborns, but there just wasn’t that option. We were all lucky that he was an easy-going baby, and not one to scream and cry in the volleyball stands amidst the shrill, echoing whistles, or standing by chilly baseball diamonds and rainy soccer fields while we all loudly cheered on. In between I was cooking the meals and making the baby food, working to help with bills and pay for holidays, and hands-on finishing ongoing Renovations. I was working to find easy family dinner favorites that could be prepared quickly in a Kitchen that was only half built. It was probably a lot to juggle, I don’t really know. It was what it was, and I just had to rally and get it all done – including dealing with Warren’s increasingly contentious ex – no matter how exhausted I was. Needless to say, that first year flew by.

alison kent HOME KITCHEN design gather elevate compose home cook pork pancetta apple fig turnip

Chapter FIFTEEN | Sugar Lemon Crepes

First we eat, then we do everything else.
M.F.K. Fisher

alison kent HOME KITCHEN charcoal painted thyme leaves

About 18 months into our happy home life, and while I was still pregnant with Tt, we were FINALLY able to build out our very own, brand new Kitchen after the space had sat in utter upheaval for so long. Walls that no longer served purpose and ancient (probably asbestos) vinyl-tiled flooring had been ripped out as soon as we’d taken possession. For over a year, ugly wire racking held an already growing collection of dishes, an old gas stove still sat in the middle of the room, plaster pock-marked with years of discolor and recent damage – and yet we survived. I had remembered seeing a photo once of cabinets that were white on top, and dark black/brown on the bottom that had caught my attention because it was so unusual to have two tones in one Kitchen, however once it came time to order them the photo was nowhere to be found. Nothing similar was showing up on those early days of Pinterest or the world wide web, and in the end, I had to just trust my instincts. It worked. I loved it. 

I loved it enough to be down on my hands and knees, mid-pregnancy, tiling the entire kitchen floor by myself while Warren was at work, in order to save a few dollars. And, I think tiling the floors myself made me feel connected to Grampa. Almost 20 years later only one floor tile ever came loose. I think Grampa would have been proud – most of it would even have passed the key-tap test! I know I was insanely proud to have done it.

I designed a few things in our new Kitchen that I cannot recall specific inspiration for. I mean, I’m sure I saw something on the Internet or in a magazine, but again, the decisions were not popular or wide-spread then and I still today can’t find inspiration or photos of some of  the ideas I installed back then. But most of them were perfect enough to repeat when I did the next one, such as 30” deep counters, and returning the countertop up the wall about 1.5” to give backsplash tiles a landing spot, or lowering the Island height slightly (I’m only 5’-1”!) so I could stand over it while rolling a pin or spending hours over a chopping block. I recently had a friend remind me that I had designed the 30” deep counters in her kitchen almost 15 years ago, and they’ve loved it ever since, too.

The finished Kitchen was life-changing. I hadn’t realized how rough feeding a family had been without a proper Kitchen until I felt the grand relief of the new one. It was now officially the heart – the very center – of our home. Everything had a place, even our wedding-gift Kitchenaid, which had it’s own small pull-up shelf cabinet. And thankfully so – the girls were wildly into the creativity of baking and that machine was definitely the most well-used mini appliance we owned. The sheer number of cakes, cookies and cupcakes that would be baked over the next 5 years were immeasurable. The number we actually ate, on the other hand, could easily be counted. None of us other than Warren really had a sweet enough tooth to eat more than one.

We settled in fairly quickly to a family of 5 once Tt was born, with our own little chaotic way of life intact, protecting each other from the ongoing barbs of Warren’s Ex. That relationship was deteriorating downward at about the same exponential speed as which our little pack were happily bonding positively upward with one other. While smiling in my heart, it was still very much taking its toll. At the time, my sister/family and parents all still lived on the Island, while my brother and his wife were south to work in the tech boom in San Jose, just south of San Francisco. There wasn’t a lot of family on my side nearby in Vancouver other than Nana to help navigate the new family life I’d entered into, and many of Warren’s side had yet to accept my existence. Eventually our oldest and I were each, individually and for our own reasons, in and out of Doctors and the Hospital – her with stress ulcers, and myself for what I was convinced were heart attacks. Every test taken, but it was truly just the stress causing heart attack-like symptoms. I had somehow gone from single with a cat and rabbit, to a family of 5 with an abusive someone-else’s-ex situation in the wings, less than supportive extended family, a new house to be made a home (the third in our first 5 years), leaving my ‘dreams Architecture job, starting my own one-person company, being hit with reputation-breaking lies from within my own family, a complete loss of physical activity, a complete gain of post-baby weight, and had thought I could handle it ALL on my own, smile intact, without missing a beat. And I did handle it to be sure, but my body was sending me warning signals. Instead of listening, I washed them away with a glass of wine and kept the table spinning.

I needed to get away. It wasn’t long after delivering Tt before the old travel bug caught back up with me, and when he was a mere 4 months old, we packed him and our daughters up and headed to Paris for all of their first time to Europe – ever! We took turns pushing this quiet but alert little milk-sleepy pudge around the streets and sights in a tiny stroller, from the Latin Quarter to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We would start every day with a baguette from the Patisserie around the corner, each pulling off big chunks and munching away as we walked to next find a street crepe, or to stuff ourselves with macarons while sitting on benches in impeccably well-manicured gardens. Between snacks we would sit and draw in cafes or galleries with our sketchbooks. Tt was – thankfully – happy as a clam, and slept all through except the first night. We even made it to Paris Disneyland for a day! It was amazing to share a City I already loved so much with my new humans.

I had pre-booked a treat – a fancy dinner on a boat along the Seine. Unfortunately they decided at the last moment to charge us for Tt’s ‘seat’ (he never even left the stroller – he was FOUR MONTHS?! Such is Paris… ), but I graciously let it slide so as not to ruin the evening. It was, at the time, the fanciest meal the girls had ever eaten. They loved that we all dressed up for the occasion, passing by glowing lit bridges and a sparkling Eiffel Tower! And – yes – I’m pretty sure they ate all the fancy food, too. It was an absolutely wonderful trip that would start us on more than a decade of family holidays that have all been absolutely treasured. And always delicious.

But when we returned, it was time for me to lose those baby – and Paris – pounds. I tried a food-combining diet introduced to me long ago from my then-foodie Bro, cut back the alcohol (temporarily), and reduced my portion sizes from gluttonous pig out to reasonable for my light frame. The weight lifted off like a dream and I was back down to about 105lbs, an acceptable increase on my original frame. My reliably fitting Banana Republic size 0 (petite!) clothes could be worn again, and I was happy. How easy was that?! Whoever said dieting was hard! Well, to wish it had eventually lasted through C-section #2… I would eventually eat my words.

My own family hadn’t changed much since growing up, and was still much less food inclined than I. We would pack ourselves up and go to visit my family on the Island now and again, mostly to celebrate a birthday. With birthdays so close together between my sisters husband and Warren, they took the opportunity to start a new food tradition – find the absolute cheesiest, Chinese-cheapest, cringiest restaurants they could find to celebrate just to watch the rest of us squirm, which we all did. I think we finally banned the tradition when we were sitting at one point at a dingy little hadn’t-been-cleaned-in-decades sing-along steak house complete with paper menus holding lyrics so we could all join in.  

I figured since we had ‘cheaped out’ and hit a double with the Hubby’s joint birthdays, my own birthday a few weeks later should be permitted to be a lovely carte blanche, higher end counterbalance. My picks, though, were always met with hesitation and dissuading under-breath comments in hopes I would back down from something that might make anyone else unnecessarily uncomfortable. Personally I felt that if we didn’t completely ‘fit in’ to the high end dress code or behavioural expectations completely, who cared? My money bought the same meal as everyone else. I was already used to such places and didn’t feel the need to fit in to eat – and it was my turn to pick! Or was it… I continued to learn that my tastes and views and general existence was too different from everyone in either of our families. My thoughts, desires, suggestions – for restaurants, or holiday destinations, or celebrations – were deemed irrelevant in constant comparison to better-liked siblings or sibling-in-laws. I remained, to extended family anyhow, invisible.

While food appreciation was for the most part still clearly lost on everyone except me, the one person I did have nearby who was game was my Nana. While she didn’t care one lick at all for food or cooking, she immediately and proudly took every single opportunity to stand beside me for entire days at a time in the Kitchen as my self-proclaimed Sous Chef. All she truly cared about was supporting me in whatever I wanted to do, and I appreciated her acceptance of me so whole-heartedly. Once we had baby Tt, going out for special evenings such as NYE was no longer much of an affordable option. So I decided to take it upon myself to cook the fanciest meal possible in our own home, with Nana happily by my side, generously taking whatever instruction was required for the next dish. 

While Mom and Dad were invited year after year, they would decline every time, preferring to sit quietly at home to ‘avoid the fuss’ of celebrations and wonder out loud why anyone would make anything so laborious when frozen Costco was readily available. So Nana and I would cook that day and many others on our own, chatting the time away in the Kitchen, a ritual that lasted almost a decade. Once we finished one course at a time, we’d call Warren from chores or kids and pause to eat, before heading back to the Kitchen to cook the next course. In between, Warren and I would write a list of all the major things that had happened over the previous year, reviewing the good and the bad, or rather the great and the traumatic. Nothing was half-way around us, from birthing babies to renewed court cases for custody of our girls with the Ex, to new homes, major renovations, job changes, big travels – you name it. It was always a long list of both painful and happy stresses. And it was always such a great evening to spend together recollecting it all.

Chapter SIXTEEN | Fabulous Fish Tacos

If it’s true that stress brings on weight loss, why the heck am I not invisible right now?
Tamara Thomas

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In 2007 two major things happened, and I’m still not sure which I was more excited about at the time. A movie all about a love of Food set in Paris came out (Ratatouille), and I delivered our last kid. Pregnancy being as NOT fun as it was for me once again, I got every tube sewn up during the C-section surgery so THAT would never happen again. Safe to say, at least during a last miscarriage and subsequent final pregnancy, I was probably more excited about Ratatouille some of those days.

Unlike the rat in the movie, the newest babe Boo was NOT a foodie from DAY ONE. He never really latched, and I found myself with four kids, full time working for myself juggling various toddlers and babies to City Hall for permits, cooking all the meals and trying to pump as much milk as the little Linebacker would chug out of his bottle at all hours, while also driving the two now-teenage girls to all the volleyball practices and far-off games that one could imagine. Thank goodness I’d had the sense to leave Architecture school the year before, taking at least one thing off my plate. To add insult to injury, Warren’s ex decided she didn’t like us being a family and started us on a year+ long court battle for full custody of the girls while I was pregnant.

Warren has an amazing Lawyer, and has been blessed over the years to have Judges that see through all the crazy back and forth of court to know what’s best for the girls. Our Lawyer had told us early on that – us being a pretty happy, growing, healthy unit unto ourselves – there was no chance a Judge would break apart our family. But I’m not one to leave my fate up to others, and I would spend my days re-writing affidavits and my nights praying for hours on end on the sofa. I finally had people – my own kids and Husband – that I adored and whom all adored me. We all loved our chaotic little family that, with ‘5 Firstborns + Boo’, age gaps, ethnic blurs, and other stories still to be told, somehow worked. It was beyond explanation – we were so much unlike any other family we knew, and for the most part we all thought that was kind of cool. We were unique! We had been constantly surviving peripheral peoples trying to tear us all apart since Warren and I started dating, and we were going to survive this, too. By the time court days would arrive, Warren and I were calm. We had done everything we could to prepare. Warren and I called them our ‘date days’ and would actually have a lovely time, smiling and joking around and heading for lovely lunches with our Lawyer during breaks. Almost two years later, tens of thousands of dollars we didn’t actually have spent, and everything stayed just as it was meant to be all along. We never interacted directly with his Ex again after that.

I had decided that for our next family trip that year to celebrate our sheer survival, I would drive all 4 kids to the Southern California beaches and back on my own, while Warren – with few holiday days available at his newest job – would fly down to meet us. Clearly stress had stopped my brain from functioning at some point, because just saying that even now sounds like pure insanity. All the friends & family we told also declared us – meaning me – as exceptionally NOT sane, so at least there was unanimous consensus. Throughout the 16+hr drive to San Francisco, I would stop at every second Target to pump milk for the breast-refusing little Linebacker in the parking lot while the other 3 kids would head in for a pee/Lego-and-treat-shopping (bribe) break. The girls would then take turns feeding him in the backseat of the car while I continued on the I-5 drive to San Francisco where we’d meet up w Hubby. We eventually picked up Warren and made it the rest of the way to my favorite spot, Laguna Beach, with a stop at Disneyland along the way. If there were foodie moments at all on this trip, I did not have the consciousness to be aware of them. Needless to say, by the time I started the 26+ hr drive all the way back with all 4 kids and no Hubby to help (he flew out from LAX), Boo was officially on formula at 5 months and breastfeeding was officially done. 

And in good time, for a whole other reason. Late in pregnancy I found a lump in my neck, and took myself in to the Dr to have it checked. I was hypo or hyper thyroid – who remembers – with a large growth on my neck that needed an immediate professional opinion. Off to the Specialist I went, once again alone mid-day while Hubby was working. They tried a scope down my throat that, being claustrophobic and asthmatic I couldn’t handle so they switched to something down my nose that hurt like a motherfucker. It might be Cancer, they couldn’t be sure, must do tests… I started to fade out… I would have to wait until after I was finished breast-feeding to have it removed, they had said… But not to worry… It might be Cancer, it might not be… It didn’t really matter what they said – as soon as the ‘C-word’ was mentioned I had gone blank. In hindsight, no one should ever do those visits alone, but I felt like I could focus better without worrying about another person reacting beside me. I was wrong. The weeks that followed I spiraled painfully – and privately – into ebbs and flows of wondering if I would be ready to die, should that become my fate. Would I muster the courage to face it? Would I be content with what I had, where I had come to in life, or would the thought of missing the futures of my kids lives, spouses, grandkids and the things I still wanted to do and see and say gnaw away at any time I would have left. My past death wishes kept taunting me – apparently I wasn’t now actually invincible simply because I had merely chosen at some point to live. 

In a complete daze after the Specialist appointment, I numbly drove and wandered for some healing retail therapy around my favorite shops on South Granville and happened to bump into – of all people and of all times – my France friend. I broke down the second we saw each other, not able any longer to stand on my own two feet, and she held me up until we could sit somewhere together. Even though I wasn’t brilliant at it, I realized friendship matters, as she kept me from crumbling into a million little ‘what-if’ pieces, even if just for a moment. A while later I went in for surgery where they removed half of my Thyroid, again alone as Warren watched over the kids. We didn’t realize that it would be a quick surgery and that they would want me gone by the end of their shifts rather than taking up precious overnight space, but he wasn’t picking up his phone and I was left in the dark on a bed, staff gone, waiting with my heavily bandaged neck looking and feeling as though I’d been decapitated and my head flopped back onto my torso with naught but a cloth to keep me together, dizzy with drugs until he checked his messages hours later. Thankfully subsequent biopsies in the weeks that followed proved me C-word free. I had been given yet another reprieve. 
What I didn’t realize is that it would be the end of my wonderfully functional metabolism, and with more stresses to come I would be drinking more while becoming more sedentary and less active than ever. While it was the end of Cancer – again – for now – it was the beginning of a sickness of another kind. It was the beginning of a civil war between my own mind and body in coping with the accumulating stresses of biting off so much more than I should chew.

Chapter SEVENTEEN | Canned Peaches

Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy.
Craig Claiborne

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With 2003’s ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ movie, there was officially (at least in my mind) a growing trend of incorporating food, restaurants and beautiful kitchens with cinema. Images of Diane Keaton serving that huge bowl of freshly cooked (albeit store bought AHEM) Pasta in her beautiful Hampton’s dining room, having shopped for the groceries IN FLUENT FRENCH was a moment of pure beauty. The foodie bits were, to me, the best parts in these new films, with any image of Paris coming a close second. There should be an entire newly minted genre called ‘foodie-com’, kind of like a rom-com, but focused deliciously on food and beautiful Kitchens, with the romance bits a mere extra in the background. The dinner near the end of the movie at le Grand Colbert with an incredible roasted chicken she had raved about? The lineup of dishes being brought to their awkward table? HELLO! YUM – these scenes definitely left a lasting – and tasty – impression. Unfortunately in all my subsequent trips to Paris, the closest I’ve been to le Grand Colbert is a (fantastic) pizza joint a few doors down.

Peter Mayle’s book-turned-movie ‘A Good Year’ in 2006 wasn’t greatly admired by critics but was absolutely loved by me, having already read every one of his books. Twice. Which is saying a lot for a gal who doesn’t like to read! Nancy Meyers nailed it again in 2009 with ‘It’s Complicated’, built around Meryl Streep as the owner of THE most amazing (of course!) French Pastry shop, with a private home kitchen and garden also to die for. Coincidentally Meryl was also in ‘Julie and Julia’ of the same year, by Nora Ephron. All of these movies, along with Ratatouille, and later Chef, Burnt, and The One Hundred Foot Journey are in heavy rotation on my Kitchen TV. While cooking – especially day-long cooks – I like to turn on any one of these, but most often the sunny Provencal wine vibes of A Good Year. I’ve seen them all so many times (like every late afternoon as I prep dinner), I can watch them safely ‘in my mind’ while doing prep with sharp knives so as to avoid chopping off any more fingertips than I already have. While Hubby and now also the boys bemoan the repetition, I like to remind him it’s a safety issue. This Kitchen has seen enough blood and/or tears from lack of attention to fire and steel.

Although my own garden has never been anywhere near as gorgeous as Meryl’s in It’s Complicated, it was still going strong as I continually added bits and pieces here and there each year. We bought a 4-variety Apple Tree for the front yard, planted a row of Raspberries still growing happily year after year in the back, added a line of blueberry bushes by the fence, and had other herbs and strawberries in buckets around the year. Over the almost 18 years since we moved here, perennial fruit shrubs, plants and trees have been added annually. Safe to say our modestly sized yard could barely hold more if I tried, yet every year, even now, I try. I’ve even now begun to add some flowers to the previously edible-only gardens solely for impromptu tablescapes! Including, of course, edible flowers for food plating garnish.

Home grown fruit and vegetables, even in our urban state, has been a constant throughout the years. When both boys came barely of walking age, we started to head to the local berry farms as each variety ripened over the warming summer months. To get there, we drive through an absolutely ADORABLE suburb of Vancouver, maybe 45 minute drive from downtown, with tiny historic-looking homes on bits of farm land that pull my heart strings every time I drive past. I often dream of a simple return to a smaller life there, surrounded by an infinite number of edible goodies, a growing collection of animals, long table dinners in the gardens, evenings of a sun stretched miles out over the flat surrounding land… And, of course, a requisite beach volleyball court in the front lawn for the kids. 

When we arrive, we’re given cute white buckets (since I always forget mine) and a finger pointing in the direction of the U-pick of the day. The boys like to pick fast, knowing there are freshly made berry milkshakes waiting in the farm hut when they finish. From Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries and other fresh treats, we would U-Pick for snacks, and bring flats home for our small, square Costco deep-freezer – nothing like the massive ones I’d grown up with. With these, along with hand-picked local wild blackberries (I refuse to pay good money for free food that grows all along the boulevards nearby as weeds), our spoils have kept the ‘berry freezer’ more than full enough for a year of smoothies and desserts between picking seasons.

The girls loved to raid the mini deep freeze to make Fruit Crisp – easily done from frozen berries – whenever we were craving a dessert after dinner. Perfectly paired with vanilla ice cream, dessert and an evening movie together on the sofa became a favorite habit. If we were lucky, we would get to include freshly canned peaches in with the berries, all snuggled up under the crispy brown sugar and oat topping. In those pre-iTunes days we had an impressively MASSIVE collection of DVD’s to choose from, which since have joined 8-tracks, VHS and cassette tapes in antiquation.

In late August Freestone Peaches are in perfect condition in the Okanagan for canning. I’ll gladly do the 3.5hr drive each way, or if I know someone coming back I’ll ask for the favor if we’re not already going to be in the area, in order to get the freshest ones possible. Nana had been teaching me how to prepare and preserve these sweet, golden gems back when we lived in her house together, starting with a single 20lb flat. Last summer I was up to 4 flats totaling 80 beautifully fragrant pounds, peeling away, juices running down to my elbows from my pruning fingertips. Turns out they’re a great Hostess gift (or not – no one has told me otherwise), or at home on waffles, or with ice cream, or … We all love them. Nana and I worked side by side on them every single year for well over a decade, using an old black, enamel canning pot she – and my Mom/Aunt – had used for years before. Although the jar-holding apparatus has rusted a bit, it’s still one of my favorite things and will always bring back the memories of standing with my Nana, a whole day in the kitchen peeling, slicing and stuffing jars with fruit and syrup. With Nana recently passed, Mom this year took her reins, thankfully attending to the work of preservation.

The other day Mom mentioned having to buy a new canning pot since the one she had used had been somehow absconded by ‘who knows who!’. I made no effort to offer it back, even in the day she sat with me, mounds of peaches in hand, filling the jars away. For a while I’ve been inheriting just about every unused family Kitchen apparatus that no one else could be bothered to use anymore. Extensive processes like canning or dehydrating were no longer the norm, and I’ve gladly taken it all in, along with collections of silver cutlery or crystal glassware, for myself.

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Chapter EIGHTEEN | Simple Bouillabaisse

Food is the common denominator that brings people together.
James Beard

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By the time we had a baby in tow, it was no longer financially feasible to pay a sitter AND head out on big occasions like New Years Eve. Quiet celebrations IN, cooking for 3 with Nana by my side, remained one of our favorite end-of-the-year traditions for quite some time. Warren would run about with the boys in the background (the girls being old enough to be out at parties) until they slept. Nana loved being my self-proclaimed ‘sous chef’ as I tackled increasingly challenging recipes that would take all day – if not two on my end. It was the biggest cook of the year as I chose to learn more complex recipes, try new techniques and utilize more eclectic ingredients. Bouillabaisse became – and still is – one of our annual favorites almost right from the beginning. With all the trimmings from scratch – with the roasting of freshly cracked Crab shells to a beautifully emulsified Rouille – OF COURSE. I had once thought that ‘my’ Bouillabaisse was one of the most flavorful dishes I had ever tried. It was made diligently from a French cookbook I curiously plucked off a local bookstores discount table as much for it’s photos as the meals it promised, a book quickly favored, becoming dog-eared and stained with drips of delicious soups and sauces made time and time again. And it was the most delicious thing, until we later tried an ‘authentic version’ in Cannes, France about 12 years later. Now I can hardly bear to make it myself, thinking every time of how it OUGHT to taste. But for a long time, it was these quiet evenings with ‘just us’ and Nana that I would master cheese-puffed souffles by Julia Child or fruit terrines from Le Cordon Bleu; Venison with Blackberry Sauce or Duck Breast with Cassis from my tattering books.

The rest of the year we gradually started hosting a mix of family and close friends at Easter and Thanksgiving in the tiny spaces of our dear, old home. Opening our doors to about 30 people would absolutely max us out, with the teenagers having to head to their room and the smaller kids downstairs just so the adults could all sit. I didn’t know we would be starting a tradition that would go on for well over a decade, and would more than double in size. Thankfully, a few years in, we made the decision to shuffle all the Bedrooms around once more and replace one of them with space for a proper Dining Room, adjacent to the Kitchen. It was a simple renovation, with some wall and floor patching to be done once the walls were removed. We’ve taken many walls down since we bought this house, and I’ve never regretted a single one. It was a great decision, and we felt like we could finally stretch our legs as our family had grown to 6 and a proper eating space was desperately needed. It also meant we could fit more – and more, and more – guests.

Being equally Type A and Type B-Z, I started our growing celebrations by cooking the entire dinner from start to finish. Every dish would be perfectly ‘on theme’ for the absolutely chaotic occasions from Turkey to Yams. But eventually I had to loosen my control and let our guests bring dishes as offered, even if they didn’t ‘match’. I still cringe – albeit thankfully – when a sushi take-out platter arrives at Easter dinner rather than a ham or anything ‘Eastery’, but as time went on, EVERYONE would bring bring a dish AND a bottle of wine, which did help immensely as the group would grow, while I stayed responsible for a few appy’s and the main protein with a few vegetables, alongside my Girls for the afternoon.  It wasn’t easy letting go at first, but since cooking everything myself from scratch for then-30 people was clearly just out of the question on every level. Thank goodness, because true to form, after a few years I was inviting anyone that didn’t have family in town for the ‘4 big occasions’ and our numbers eventually swelled to about 65 and well beyond any single home Cooks ability to cater.

In the day to day, my dinner recipe repertoire was continuing to grow. While reading in general for me, with chronic fatigue and a gross inability to focus on too many words at a time, recipes were easy in their descriptive, bite-sized paragraphs, especially when they came with numerous accompanying photos. I officially became one of those Mothers who, while also working from home, was ‘the Cook’ for a family of 6 beautiful humans that I had chosen. I found myself strapped to a Kitchen providing for ‘some man and his kids’ – as well as for the rest of the City, apparently – and, with all it’s inevitability, I loved it. It was a slowly forming love language, a way to communicate my connectedness with my people when words would so often fail me. And, since I do the cooking, I’ve barely had to touch a dirty dish my entire marriage, so win-win.

Kids birthdays were ANOTHER four annually recurring excuses for hosting bigger gatherings, with 24 of our immediate families and friends-who-are-like-family all getting together to celebrate. We would rearrange entire rooms of furniture to make it work, once even switching the entire Dining + Living areas to suit the number of guests. Fortunately since taking down yet another wall we had bought the biggest Dining Room table Pottery Barn ever built for ourselves for Christmas one year. Unfortunately, that had moved Warren and my Bedroom to a tiny space with no real walls or door, and quite literally a mattress on the floor for a bed. We sacrificed, but figured it was temporary as the girls were almost grown, took a deep breath, and continued to entertain the masses.

To celebrate for the girls through their teen birthdays, I would let them pick any country in the world, and I would make the entire dinner for 24 people from that country. It was a fun way to celebrate at home, and honestly I wasn’t out to impress a soul besides myself. We all chipped in and got into the theme at hand, planning menus and creating desserts, making sure we had just the right dishes and decorations.  The challenge of NYE Dinner had really grown on me, so it became another way to challenge myself in the Kitchen. One summer our younger daughter chose Japan, and, to decorate, our older daughter made about 50 paper cranes to hang from the ceiling. Another year we bought an entire Asian dishware set from the local $2 store. We really got into it! I also now own entire spice collections from about 12 different countries… Every dinner at least one dish would absolutely fail since it would be my first time cooking ALL of the dishes en masse, but no one seemed either to notice or to care, so onward we went. The girls even jokingly had a mini competition over who would be stuck with ‘home-town’ China by the time they had both graduated. I think we ended with Lebanese or Israeli food (Ottolenghi style), much to their relief.

We created many big and small traditions over the years in our little home, mostly focused around celebratory meals, but not all traditions are built to last, and that’s a-ok with me. The girls had these special ‘round-the-world’ birthday dinners until they turned 18, after which it would just the 6 of us, either out at a favorite restaurant or home with their favorite meals. For now that’s our new tradition, our more private dinners becoming a night out to celebrate US, our family, growth, age, accomplishment, life, love. With permanent-seeming boyfriends, we’re now up to 8 and counting in our little dinner pod. I know that once all 4 kids marry and possibly have kids of their own we could eventually end back up as a crew of 20 all over again, so I treasure these now-quieter celebrations. Each stage of life has it’s own moments and ways to celebrate or to remember them. Moments that, for a time, connected us all.

Our lives were centering themselves around food, around coming alongside one another at a table to connect, to share, to laugh. It wasn’t often hard to get our family to gather – I now enjoyed cooking, and wasn’t about to eat boring food myself, so it was more often than not delicious enough to bring us all in. I didn’t yet recognize that I might find focus for my own work and life in food, in drawing people together, in expressing love for others through fire and steel and a well-chosen ingredient.

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Chapter NINETEEN | Easy Pasta Puttanesca

Not all treasure is silver and gold, Mate.
Captain Jack Sparrow

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By the time our older boy Tt was a solid 5 years old, we – meaning me – had officially decided the boys would explore learning about the world through homeschooling. A move that ended up being ahead of ‘the times’ by about 12 years, but hey, we’re just cool that way. I was working too much to really put actual thought processes into that decision, but it sounded footloose and fancy free, and it would give me full control over my schedule between teenage girls, young boys, my own work, cooking full time and a working Hubby. Although for the next 7 years Warren would continually ask, ‘So when are they going to go to school again? This year?’. I repeatedly explained the concept of HOMEschooling to him about once a month.

Throughout those years the boys and I took field trips into bogs, attended symphonies, plays, and orchestras, visited organic herb farms, watched seasons of salmon run, spent hours at parks and beaches, found ourselves mushroom hunting, marveled at Boeing airplanes being made – anything they could get outside to touch and feel seemed perfect for wiggly little males. Often our days out would be followed by lunches out on the road, Tt’s favorites being a local lobster risotto or anything with truffles. Once a week we’d take our Nana out for lunch, or we would drive across the border to the States for Target runs and meals out with my Mom and Dad who had moved back to the City a few years prior. On days I had meetings, a grandparent was usually available, and if not, there would be Nannies on Call or I would just have to pack up the car-seat and take them to meetings. And on weekends when the girls had volleyball games, we’d all be there from morning to night, cheering them on en masse. We had a happy kind of flow in life, and it worked for us for a really long time.

Our flexibility made planning ‘off-season’ family trips an almost annual reality. And our next one was a true feat in scheduling and preparation, if I do say so myself. I seriously Type-A’d the full prep on that one! We decided to grab 4 backpacks and 2 umbrella strollers, plane tickets, hotel confirmations and train passes in hand, and head to Italy, with a quick stopover in London. An excitedly anticipated return to both for me, another whole new world for the rest of my family. I meticulously planned every move, and researched all the options we might want to be more ‘spontaneous’ about, like local museum hours and dates closed. When you have small boys who only want pizza and toy stores, teen girls who mostly just want to go shopping, and grown men who love wandering museums and taking afternoon naps back in the hotel, all with a Mother who just wants to sit at restaurant patios with a glass of wine and enjoy the ‘good life’, you really have to be REALLY organized. I created an entire printed BOOKLET of directions, mini-maps, photos of the fronts of hotels, confirmation codes, copies of passports – you name it. If I anticipated we might ever need it, it was there in the ‘POUCH’ in a massive attempt to avoid missed museums, lost moments, or bad food. Such was traveling in those daring wanderlust days before iPhone GPS or Google.

It took no time to have our movements on/off trains, up/down stairs and along ever-narrowing split concrete sidewalks or ancient cobbled streets down to perfect form. Each of us ‘big 4’, with giant backpacks on, would grab one side of each stroller and quickly navigate our way through the elevator-free towns as we wandered throughout Florence, Venice, Rome and later London. It was an amazing feat of efficiency – I was quite proud of our ability to move so smoothly for such a large, potentially cumbersome group largely unexposed to the place or language. Our youngest ate spaghetti with meat sauce non-stop, which thankfully was aplenty in Italy. Italians being as family oriented as they are, loved the little guy, but he would bow his head low into his sauce every time they approached to pinch his chubby 18-month old cheeks out of sheer embarrassment. Our oldest, then 16,  found a love for things like tomatoes she’d forever hated at home, but somehow finally TASTED like they were somehow always meant to have been. I personally still dream of that hot Medici night of perfectly seared medium-rare Florentine Steak, freshly baked bread with just the right crust-crackle hiding a soft, warm fluff of white, and beautifully grilled, lemony baby Artichokes… 

Italy was the start of our new ‘family trip protocol’ – to incorporate a city, a beach, and a small town/countryside stop into every vacation to get all the various vibes in. We had Rome/London for the ‘big city’ feel; in Venice we stayed on a special little umbrella dotted beach island named Lido; and Florence felt ‘country’ enough with it’s pedestrian-only shopping streets, long, winding street markets and size compared to Rome. Lido was the ONE place I hadn’t found a working map for prior to the trip, and we wandered lost for over an hour, pushing two strollers now laden with shopping bags from Florence and Rome, our backpacks heavy with everything else, trying to find our mysteriously located hotel (which ended up being in the opposite direction of our wandering, naturally). Fortunately it was a STUNNING Island to walk about, but tired on our feet we were thankful to eventually stop at some little street-side burger place to stuff our hungry faces and ask for directions. The hotel was indeed worth finding – and their breakfast buffet was the most incredible thing we’d seen so far. Our suite – the one hotel where we could all share a room – opened up on the top floor to look out over the beach a few steps away, sitting picturesquely with perfectly aligned little blue and white cabanas just waiting for overheated European tourists to take their spots.

We still love to travel as a family, all these years later, and I love that everyone gets along so well when we do and has a genuinely good time with each other. While the girls are grown now and have traveled quite extensively on their own, Hubby and I take a small trip every year without the kids, and I still do my ‘girls trips’ when I can, it’s our travels with each other – all together – that I absolutely treasure the most. Everyday conversations around the table inevitably will often lead into some memory or another, from a vacation we all went on, where the funniest thing happened that one evening in that one place where we all were together.

Back home, we continually travel through memories of far off lands, and locally made food. We’re lucky that in addition to wide open access to cooking spices and ingredients from all over the world, Vancouver is home to a vast array of cultures, and therefore also restaurants, to choose from. You could throw a dart at a globe, hit any country, and find food from that country here in Vancouver on some level. While Canada itself remains a Michelin blind spot, notable food abounds at every price point and there is never a shortage of choices for celebrating or for simply trying something new – or for when you’re wanting to reminisce another place, another time from travels once taken. While I don’t think most families ate out when we were younger, and especially not in the smaller towns where I had grown up, food culture has become the norm here in Vancouver during our own kids’ childhoods, expanded by our own travel experiences. As our kids were growing older and more discerning, where to eat, what to try, the prettiest patios, and eventually the tastiest cocktails are all fairly regular topics of conversation. Through life and travel, despite all of our wonderfully celebrated differences, we were developing a language we could all have in common, a passion we could all share.

We were a pack of renegades in every area of life (albeit fairly civilized ones in our tennis whites LOL). I can’t count how many times we were told we were crazy, how many times people tried to take us down and pressure us to conform to their comfort zones, how many times our families decisions or actions ‘didn’t fall in line’. Convention was not our thing – worn ages-old paths taken of expectation were for others to follow.

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