I’ve been in love with food for a very long time. And, for almost as long, I’ve been an incurable romantic. It seems fitting, then, that my personal passion for food was very early on united with my heart’s passionate desire to express love. The two came together in my early 20s when I discovered the impact that food prepared with love could have on others in my life.
In my 20s, I couldn’t cook like I can today. I didn’t have the knowledge, experience or, quite frankly, the means. Nevertheless, I had the will which is something expressed no more perfectly than when I wooed a fellow university student. My 22nd birthday had just come and gone and, as part of my birthday, my father had given me two tickets to the Calgary Philharmonic to see and hear Jean-Pierre Rampal perform Mozart’s flute concertos. As I stared at the two tickets, he provided the instructions: “Find a date.” Very much single, I was mortified at the prospect of having to ask a young woman out and expose myself to the enormous fear of rejection. Balanced on precipice spanning a rock and hard place, I girded up my courage and prepared to meet my fate. There was one woman who had captivated my imagination as I sat behind her in two of my classes: Milton and Victorian Lit. With the date on the tickets fast approaching, I had no time to lose, so after our Milton class one afternoon, with my beating heart sounding like African drums in my ears, I took a deep breath and asked her out. To my amazement, even as I fumbled the question, her eyes flashed a smile and she said yes.
I have no idea why I asked what followed – I have no idea what I was thinking. All I can imagine was that I was stuck in the pause between her words and my eyes falling into hers ….
“Would you like to come for dinner before the concert,” I blurted out, as we stood along the pathways of the university.
It was an improbable proposal because I was then renting the main floor of an old wartime house built along the same banks of the Elbow River in Calgary that last year felt the flood of a century … which would have flooded that home if it weren’t already gone and replaced by upper-class residents. While the house had character, I didn’t even have a table at which to eat. Hell, I didn’t have anything with which to entertain this woman who’d accepted my invitation for dinner. Though I continued to debate with myself what I had been thinking, I nevertheless set about the task of a creating an evening that would arrive in a few short weeks. I began by scouring cheap furniture stores for an appropriate table. After an exhaustive search, I found a small glass and brass-plated octagonal table that I’d later ask my roommate to help me bring home. With that, I then proceeded to max out my student credit card as I bought plates, silverware, wine glasses, place mats and cloth napkins … and even a glass vase in which I placed a red rose. I even went out and bought a sports coat and tie to complete the ensemble. Yes, I wanted to make a wow impression and I dove in with both feet.
What was for dinner, you ask? All I remember is that I made some version of a “peanut chicken” served in a cream sauce over top of fettuccine. But really, it’s not a surprise I don’t remember the food – because what remember still, vividly, is the effect the food had on that woman. The meal blew her away; we talked and stared into each others’ eyes throughout all of it; and that, along with the entire ambiance replete with a phenomenal concert, left an indelible impression on her … and, after the concert, we returned to my place where we talked until the sun came up. This was the first date in what became marriage and a ten year relationship. And over that 10 years, I would hear the story of our first date told over and over again: “He cooked for me!”
It wasn’t by design or a conscious desire to “manipulate” affections that I continued to grow in my love of food and proffer it at doorsteps like a cat with a new mouse. Rather, I just learned that cooking was something I could do, and do well, and that I was able to “gift” it to others and make them happy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration in the least to say that I’ve made hundreds and likely thousands of culinary gestures to people through my life. There have been platonic gestures of friendship, cultural exchanges, gifts to colleagues, too many dinner parties to count, holiday and family celebrations, and more romantic gestures through food than almost any other romantic gesture I’ve performed.
You can certainly say that I’ve loved … and lost, including that opening marriage. I’ve loved hard and I’ve lost big and through all of it, food has been an omnipresent expression of what I am feeling. I’ve come a long way in my heart’s journey – and I’m certainly not the blushing wallflower I was in the back of that Milton class trying to find the courage to ask a pretty woman to dinner. But in that space of time, my culinary abilities have also grown making that peanut chicken look like the clumsy fingers of a 16-year old in the back of his parents’ car. In recent years, I’ve found my culinary voice along with my writing voice and an overall sense of “myself” … because of the unquestionable love and support of Anne, ma lapine. She inspires me in so many ways, not the least of which has been the inspiration for this blog itself. She inspires me to take chances, to be me, to follow my dreams, to let my culinary imagination spread its wings.
It’s that love and support that allowed me most recently to create a new dish founded on love and based on the seasonal pomegranate: Pomegranate and Vodka Glazed Chicken Breast (the pictures that adorn this post), a dish uniquely Canadian if only because I think nothing of grilling chicken breasts on my barbecue in January or February when it is -20°C outside. The inspiration for the dish and this post was much as much steeped in mythology as it is in love for the woman for whom I made it … and it will forever be a symbol of the power of love to transform.
And, fundamentally, when I cook, I am transforming a feeling into an act … I am in all senses of the expression making love. I am creating. Cooking and food have become my currency for giving, for saying thanks, and for love itself. The more elaborate the meal, the bigger the gesture but in all that I prepare, there is certainly my heart. And when I reflect on the food I’ve prepared in my life I know that my life has truly been blessed with a cornucopia of love.
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Experience Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.