Cooking

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Cooking

My Welsh grandmother, not my Irish one, taught me how to cook. At the time, I was the only grandchild. Whenever she cooked and I was in the house, she would take me into the kitchen, stand me on a stool by the gas stove, and encourage me to stir as the mixtures swirled and bubbled in pan or pot. I also helped her shell the peas, slice the carrots, whatever. When the preparation was ready, she would set aside a small portion that was mine. This might be a cake in the oven, a pair of biscuits shaped awkwardly by my own hand, or a small side pot of soup. “There’s nobody else,” she would whisper to me. “The old ways will die if I don’t teach you.” She was the one who taught me the exact moment when Welsh Cakes were ready to be molded, and there’s only one way to learn: place your hands in the mix. The right texture, as they say in the cookbooks, is ‘fine grain sand’ but you have to experience it to be certain what those words really mean.

I was a latch-key kid, as they now call them. Both my parents worked all day, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and not returning until 4 or 5 at night. Being able to cook meant that I never starved and I remember cooking soups, Cawl Mamgu among others, at a very early age. When I started traveling to France and Spain, I often ended up in various kitchens where I listened to the women as they prepared the food. Language and cooking went hand in hand and I learned how to roast coffee beans in a cast-iron frying pan, how to vary my range of soups, how to prepare casseroles, how to scramble eggs the continental way.

When I studied in Santander, Spain, my landlady left me, every night, one onion, one potato, and one egg. This was for the Spanish omelette that I ate most evenings. She cooked the first one for me, supervised me as I cooked the second one, and then abandoned me to my own devices. I often heard her snoring as I lit the gas, warmed the pan, and started to prepare my tortilla española. I still make Spanish omelettes, and they are delicious, but here in Canada they are never quite the same as they were in Spain. The ingredients look the same, olive oil, egg, salt and pepper, potatoes and onions … but the eggs are not Spanish free-range eggs from country hens and the oil, the potatoes, the onions, the salt … everything looks the same, but tastes vastly different.

Two days ago I bought a pound of fresh hake, merluza in Spanish. I cooked it in butter, half poached, half-sautéed. We ate half that night. Next day, I struggled with my thoughts: should I make fish cakes from the rest of the fish, or should I make a fish soup / sopa de pescado? Fish soup won. I put some truffle flavored olive oil into the frying pan, sliced small a tomato fresh from the garden, added a finely chopped onion, spiced it with sea salt, and added a small pinch of pimentón picante / hot Spanish paprika from La Vega in Spain. I let this simmer for a few minutes, then added some sherry. Into this mixture I put the rest of the hake together with the butter sauce that remained from the night before. The dish looked inviting, was very colorful, but appeared to be small and insufficient for the hungry eyes that followed the process. I added four large shrimp, sliced into four pieces each, a large scallop, thinly sliced, and sufficient water to thin the gathered liquids. Then I chopped up some sugar peas and added them as well. My sopa de pescado had undergone a sea change and become a sopa de mariscos / a sea food soup. The colors amazed: reds, yellows, oranges, and touches of green. On the spur of the moment, I named it New Brunswick Autumn Foliage. I tested it regularly as it simmered and it was ready when the sea food was done. Delicious.

I don’t know when my grandmother was born, or where, other than somewhere in Wales. I celebrate her birthday every time I cook something special, and my last two meals were very special. I don’t know where you are, Nana. You left us a long time ago. But wherever you are, thank you so much for the gifts you gave me. And Nana, I love you. You have traveled with me from Wales to Canada, and I celebrate you and your birthday every time I cook.

Seeds

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Seeds

As creative artists, we seek to leave seeds and plant seeds. Just one idea, seeding elsewhere authenticates us as artists and creators. Some seeds fall on stony ground, we know that. Others do not take immediately, but lie dormant for some time. Some, a few, a very few, a happy band of siblings. drop, root, and grow into the flowers we always wanted to create.

We must always have confidence in our seedlings. We must believe that they will survive, somehow, somewhere, in spite of the random nature of the universe. Write with that belief. Create with that belief. Be strong. believe. Even when others doubt you and, what is worse, you doubt yourself. Never doubt yourself.

My Hollyhock doesn’t doubt. It came from nowhere and gifted itself upon us. Now it has gifted us with pod after pod of wonderful seeds. Some will be lost. The squirrels, chipmunks, and mourning doves, not to mention the passerines, will get others. But some will survive, take root, and flourish, just like this one did.

Believe, my friends, believe. And never stop creating.

 

 

 

Light

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How these flowers change with the changing light. This is full daylight, with the sun to the south shining directly on the house.

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This is the evening light, with a low sun shining from the west straight along the footpath. I am always amazed by what Monet saw in his paintings of light as it fell at different times of the day on various objects. The cathedral face at Rouen is a prime example. Here, in my garden with the hollyhock, I see how its colours change, how texture alters, how different features become more salient at different times of day.

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Sometimes it is hard to believe it is the same flower. We were so surprised when we first saw it, that we nearly pulled it up, thinking it was a weed. Luckily, we didn’t, and it rewarded us with a summer long, now into fall, series of blossoms, not to mention a myriad seeds for next season. We have become quite good friends, this hollyhock and I and we talk together regularly. Sometimes the other plants get jealous, and you can see they have faded slightly, bewildered by  his glory.

Hollyhocks

Hollyhocks

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We have never managed to grow a hollyhock before this summer, yet this one appeared from nowhere and quickly grew to more than eight feet tall. We didn’t plant it and we don’t know where it came from. Some little bird, maybe, on a migration journey from one garden to another. Who knows? What I do know is that these flowers are magnificent. This one has endured the summer’s heat, the occasional thunder storm, strong winds, and heavy rain. We had early frost in September, but it seemed to give the hollyhock strength and it blossomed on and on.

Right now, pine siskins and the occasional American goldfinch settle on our hollyhock and peck at the precious seed pods. Precious, because we have gathered some of the seeds, given others to a good friend, and offered some to the passerines who all too soon will be flying south. Those seeds we have kept we will plant. Hopefully, next year, we will have several of these beautiful plants growing in the garden.

The plant, incidentally, is more than ten feet in length. The vertical height is eight feet. Here, in this photo, it bends to touch its toes, hence the downward slant that it has taken.

GBH

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GBH

Grievous Bodily Harm to some, but to others, Great Blue Heron. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. How about Grand Beautiful Harmony? Awesome is an overused word, especially when it comes out as almost an expletive: awesome. Awesome haircut. Awesome meal. Awesome tie. Awesome photo. Awesome heron. Or just plain, old awesome! With an exclamation mark of course, and the air punched up from diaphragm and out through tight lips.

That said, certain moments do fill us with awe: an awe of the wild, of nature’s bounty and beauty, awe of the elements, the stillness of the fall pond, the subdued rifle crack when the great wings first open, or the echoing slap of the beaver tail striking flat on open waters. Poetry in motion: that sudden catch of the breath as the launch into the air makes our hearts, just for a moment, first stop, then beat more quickly.

Falling into Fall

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Falling into Fall

Not just Beaver at the Beaver Pond. Wonderful, this transition from end of summer to start of fall and look, there’s  a little pot of gold at rainbow’s end. By tomorrow, some tiny mouse will have gnawed the edges in search of sustenance. Meanwhile, this moment of perfection caught forever in the transient eye of the passing camera. Tread carefully when you walk these woods. Look everywhere, not just at the path ahead. But watch out for those tree roots. Their little hands will reach out and pull you down and you’ll roll in the already fallen leaves, an old man turned into a child once more. But oh, it’s so much harder to leap to your feet and run, run, run from shadows and the nightmare hands that haunt your dreams and reach out to grasp you.

 

Life-Long Learning

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Life-Long Learning
KIRA & Kingsbrae Gardens

It’s hard to believe I could be back with my friends at KIRA & Kingsbrae by the end of next month. What an honor and a pleasure to be invited to help facilitate the first KIRA Boutique Retreat on Creative Writing. Geoff, Jeremy, and me … we will make a truly creative dream team. We are working out the details as I type this.

My task will be to work with poets and short-story writers. I have just successfully completed two online courses from the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, my  Canadian Alma Mater (MA, PhD). Kerry-Lee Powell offered the first course: Writing Short Fiction II, while the second course, Poetry II, found me studying with Sachiko Murakami.

Life-long learning is so important. Over my life, I am not that old at seventy-four, I have learned that it is the ability to change, to adapt, to learn new things, that marks us out as creative people. Since my escape from imprisonment in the Ivory Tower of Academia (aka retirement), I have ventured into several new worlds, including that of online learning. My two most recent online courses from U of T now stand alongside an online course from Humber College on novel writing. Alas, this course did more to confirm that I wasn’t really a novelist at heart. As we live, we learn. I have now laid aside my three embryo novels to concentrate on my stronger areas: poetry and short stories.

Along with these online courses, I have been through the give (offering) and take (participating) of multiple creative writing workshops. So much knowledge gained. I have also enjoyed several positions as academic editor, associate editor, editorial board member, of multiple national and international publications, in English, French, and Spanish. In each of these new adventures, there was so much to learn.

Now I have the chance to return some of that acquired and accumulated knowledge to others who, like me wish to practice their life-long-learning skills. The unique KIRA combination of conversations, selected workshops, one-on-one talks, round-the-table discussions, evening talks, and readings will open many horizons to writers old and new, and not least to myself. As I live, I learn.

Round-the-table discussions: The Spanish have a wonderful term for this, de sobremesa. This refers to the discussions that take place, around the dining table, when the meal is done and everyone is comfortable in each other’s company and multiple conversations flow.

As for KIRA itself, I look forward to returning to my conversations with the land, the sea, the flowers, the birds, the statues, the alpacas … I love talking to them in Spanish … and the rowdy, old peacock who squawks his joy at evening, when the sun goes down. And don’t forget those Indian Runner Ducks: Beatrix Potter talked to them … and so did I … in fact, in Beatrix Potter’s case, one of her own Runner Ducks, possibly a distant cousin to those at Kingsbrae Gardens, became better known as Jemima Puddleduck. Who knows? Between poetry and painting, you too may find your own version of Jemima PuddleduckPaco the Alpaca, perhaps?

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KIRA: The three standing stones, though I think of them as talking statues. I stood in the middle between them, closed my eyes, opened my mind, and listened to the magic as the breeze blew through them and sang secret songs to the music of their stone flutes. They filled me  with the sound of their ancient voices, their poems and stories, the magical mysteries of their myths. Come and visit and I’ll show you how to stand still and listen to what the stones have to say. When you allow that poetry to flow through you, you’ll never suffer from writer’s block again!