Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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When the New York Times thumped onto the doorstep this past Sunday, setting the visiting dog off on a paroxysm of woofs, the cook was up to her elbows in turkey. Both hands were wrestling with 32 pounds of plump, headless, uncooked fowl and the stuffing that had to get from bowl into bird.

This year I had the sense to take off the wedding rings and tennis bracelet, having last year “lost” the bracelet inside the stuffing, necessitating a bizarre search through bread, onions, celery, pine nuts, parsley, sage and, of course, rosemary and thyme. While I am sure the bracelet would have survived five hours in a 325-degree oven, I’m equally sure no guest wants his or her dinner to contain the hostess’s jewelry.

What the Sunday Times delivered along with still-more depressing news about the strange and convoluted discussions of American responses to health care reform — responses based on ignorance, ambiguity, greed and anger — was a magazine devoted to food. Appropriate for the day, although the United States is largely unaware there is an earlier Thanksgiving weekend taking place geographically above their heads. The concatenation was purely coincidental.

(As a matter of interest, Martin Frobisher held the very first feast of giving thanks in North America in gratitude for his surviving a search for the Northwest Passage. The celebration in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1578 predates by 43 years the first Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. But thanks to the American penchant for believing nothing happens until the United States is involved — see any movie about the Second World War — the Pilgrims get all the glory. )

What Canadians get, thankfully, is a holiday closer to our more-northern harvest season and equally thankfully, farther from Christmas than the fourth Thursday in November.

But none of that was on my mind Sunday as I wrestled with a giant bird that had to be ready — with all the trimmings and accompaniments — for 19 hungry people by 6:30 p.m.

I thought of all the exercises suggested in the Calgary Herald At-Home health challenge that were designed to build up muscles and decided there should be a separate category for cooking. In the words of Charles Dickens from A Christmas Carol: “It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ‘em short off in a minutes, like sticks of sealing-wax.” Manhandling (should that be woman-handling?) 32 pounds of dead weight from sink to counter to oven to counter to platter to table may not be traditional weight-lifting, but it should suffice for one day’s worth of exercise. And all the bending and stretching must be worth something, too.

The weekend’s festivities of food and wine, of laughter and games, of family and friends and cousins and assorted relatives did not pass without consequences — two pounds on the scale this morning, likely better than I had imagined it would be.

One of the features of the Sunday Times magazine was Rules To Eat By, in which Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto asked readers to submit their personal dietary do’s and don’ts. The magazine included 20 of them. My favourites? “If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry,” submitted by Emma Fogt. “Avoid snack foods with the ‘oh’ sound in their names (like) Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Hostess Ho-Hos, etc,” from Donna David. Carrie Czauskas offered: “Don’t eat anything that took more energy to ship than to grow.” Of course living in Calgary that latter suggestion would eliminate from our house most fruits and green vegetables for the bulk of the year.

Why were readers asked for suggestions? Culture, writes Pollan, “the accumulated wisdom of the tribe.” After all, he writes, how did we eat before the experts and the scientists, the nutritionists and governments got into the act? We relied on our mothers, mostly, who relied on their mothers. Which might explain why I feel a meal without potatoes (my mother was Irish) is a meal somehow lacking in an essential ingredient.

As a child, if I told my mother I was hungry, she offered bread and butter, no child’s idea of a decent snack because it contained no hint of peanut butter, cookies, sugar or candy. Curiously enough, the humble combination of bread and butter when mixed with raisins, milk and sugar and baked, resulted in bread pudding, a childhood favourite. Why was such a thrifty dish so favoured? Because Mother made it so rarely, as our father detested it. It would only appear when Dad wasn’t around which accounted for its rarity.

Dad had two favourite desserts, a boiled raisin cake with chocolate icing and a screechingly sweet concoction that nobody but him could stomach which may explain why I have completely forgotten the ingredients for the cake.

But at least the desserts he occasionally craved featured real ingredients. How does one shop when science has given us the dubious pleasures of faux food: chocolate-flavoured syrup, no-fat sour cream, artificial sweeteners? What, for example, is “cheese food?” Combine all of this with fast food ads for super-double-giant burgers with bacon and cheese and restaurant portions big enough to feed an entire family and you have a recipe for obesity or, at least, a triumph of quantity over quality.

When whatever association is in control of such things increased the standard restaurant dinner plate size from 10 inches to 12 in order to accommodate the amount of food people wanted to see as a full meal, of course the result would be a nation of fatties.

But eating out, like eating in, doesn’t mean gorging oneself on the equivalent of two days worth of calories in one meal. “Embrace hunger,” says my svelte friend from Toronto, where the female population clearly wants to pretend they are New Yorker-lite. In the Sunday Times, Nancy Ni offers a Chinese saying: “Eat until you are seven-tenths full and save the other three-tenths for hunger. That way, food always tastes good and you don’t eat too much.”

Personally, I’m siding with Laura Usher, who offers: “I try to eat healthfully, but if there’s a choice between eating ice cream and spending all day obsessing about eating ice cream, I’m going to eat the ice cream!”

Which is why I savoured the Thanksgiving dinner I cooked with love for my family — the turkey and stuffing with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts with chestnuts, sweet potato casserole, and the full red wine with which to toast each other, those who are no longer with us, and the spirit of the day.

As the Allan Sherman doggerel goes:
“Oh I diet all day and I diet all night
It’s enough to drive me bats.
Got no gravy or potatoes
‘Cause the whole refrigerator’s
Full of polyunsaturated fats.
Fare thee well, Metrecal,
And the others of that ilk.
Let the diet start tomorrow,
‘Cause today I’ll drown my sorrow
In a double malted milk.”

NEXT: Eating out and the dreaded buffet


Written by Catherine Ford

October 13, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Dear Dr. C: Re Giving Thanks for the Bird

    Well, you made me reach for my two volume edition of the OED (Shorter Version) when I saw my Mensa bright friend use the word “concatenation.” My high school Latin got the con part easily but now I see how clever your use of the word was (saves a lot of space instead of saying “union by linking together.” For myself, I wondered as I read, and noticed immediately above, “concaration,” that perhaps you could have pulled off a pun, since you were working on a fowl. Hugs, Huge

    Hugh Landerkin

    October 22, 2009 at 10:16 pm

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