October 2015

Teri Vlassopoulos


A Book of Days

Feeding oneself is the kind of activity best not thought about too deeply. It's Sisyphean being hungry, eating to satisfy that hunger, and then a few hours later cycling through the same activities and same feelings, but with slightly different foods. I'm especially aware of the repetitiveness now that I'm feeding my nine-month-old solids. At the end of each meal when I'm on the floor wiping up whatever bits she's flung to the ground -- and there are always many bits -- I get a sense of déjà vu. I've done this before, I think. Oh right, four hours ago.

Nigel Slater, in addition to his numerous cookbooks and food memoirs, is maybe best known for his Kitchen Diaries series where he records his meals in yearlong chunks. It sounds at first like an easy concept: simply keep a yearly tally of what you eat. He's onto three volumes now, the most recent called A Year of Good Eating, and considering the books either individually or as a group is daunting, these fat volumes, each stuffed with unique recipes, thoughts, photographs. It makes you realize that keeping yourself alive with food is complicated.

Or, maybe it isn't? Slater's voice has always been easy and unpretentious, and it remains so in A Year of Good Eating. It's also not strictly a daily log. Some days are skipped; I think we can forgive him for not cooking something worthy of a recipe every single day of the year. And, despite the length of the book, his entries tend to be brief, the recipes easy to riff off of, adaptable the way home cooking should be.

Slater is quick to clarify in the introduction that while he does cook from scratch on an almost daily basis, "good food should be something we take in our stride, a life-enriching punctuation to our day, rather than something to be fetishized." He rallies against the fetishization of "good" food that often intimidates almost-cooks, people who think they would enjoy it but are turned off by the prevalent competitive element stemming from cooking reality programs and the glorification of authenticity down to the minutest ingredient. For instance, in this volume Slater visits Japan in March and the food diary doubles as a travel log. The accompanying recipes don't get caught in the trap of replicating the authentic experience, they're just enough to capture whiffs of what is experienced in the food you make in your own kitchen.

What makes the Kitchen Diaries work is how naturally Slater introduces twists, and almost tricks you into trying new things. Pasta with dill and bacon seems familiar until I remember that I've never actually tasted dill in pasta. A pizza dough incorporates hemp seeds. When he writes about using smoked garlic ("the smell is ancient, a mixture of log fires and potato dauphinoise"), I make a mental note to look for it before realizing that I'm not exactly sure where I could even find such a thing. The poetry in his descriptions is cozy too, like in his January 1st entry about a ritual bread-baking session: "I like the notion of yeast rising, of new life in the kitchen on the first day of the New Year." Instead of a regular loaf he perfects a crispbread recipe, aiming for "bread so fragile it shatters like sheets of ice."

I recently revisited James and Kay Salter's Life is Meals that has a similar daily log format. The Salters collaborated on this book, pulling together thoughts from their history of shared meals at home or while travelling. I like pulling it out occasionally, flipping to the day's date and seeing what they came up with. I do the same thing with Slater's books. In volume 3, he also includes a series of seasonal recipes in addition to the diary. It's helpful and recalls Edna Lewis's classic The Taste of Country Cooking, which is also divided by season and has clear directions on what to make during the fall harvest, the winter holidays, the summer bounty, and the freshness of spring. I've realized that it's cookbooks organized according to date or season that I refer to most frequently, that the imposition of time gives them a timeless quality.

Whenever I pick up a Kitchen Diary, regardless of the volume, I make a mental inventory of my recent cooking. A year is impossible to remember, but what about a week? Last week there was a roast chicken with potatoes, garlic and some carrots going droopy in the back of the crisper. The chicken was seasoned with salt, pepper and dried oregano that I brought back from Greece in a bouquet that I pinch off and rub between my fingers to break up. There was baked salmon with cherry tomatoes and dill, the cherry tomatoes remaining whole until prodded with a fork and suddenly bursting. There were scrambled eggs almost every morning, mostly for the baby and then the rest scooped up for me on Montreal bagels that I keep a stash of in the freezer. I made mushy red lentils, again for the baby, but which I also ate with a runny fried egg on top. There were obviously many other meals that I can't recall, but maybe you just need a handful of memorable ones. It's encouragement enough to keep returning to the kitchen. "Does the world need more recipes?" Slater asks. "I like to think so. Cooking doesn't stand still, at least not for anyone with spirit, an appetite and a continuing sense of wonder." A Year of Good Eating is a good way to nudge a few more meals into your memory, or at least make you want to keep track.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. Her novel, Escape Plans (Invisible Publishing), was recently released. More of her writing can be found at http://bibliographic.net.