Life is what happens at the table
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
Its been said that “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, or “Life is what happens when you’re having kids” .... I say that life happens when you’re at the dinner table. It seems that the most important things in my life have transpired at the table. Certainly, all the fun times have been. And at the very least, any significant event was linked to a meal somehow, in that it was before, during or after dinner, and was definately discussed over dinner at some point. If not, then maybe that’s why I don’t remember it...
Even those people less food obsessed than I, conduct much of their business and social activity at the table. Most people mark an occasion with some kind of festive get-together involving food, be it brunch, a barbeque, dinner in or out. Like it or not, we all must nourish ourselves at regular intervals on a daily basis. So if we make the most of it, we’re bound to spend a large chunk of our waking hours at the dining table. Statistics say we spend a third of our time, or twenty-five odd years sleeping, ten years in our cars and another ten in front of the TV. We spend a much larger percentage of our quality time at the table, and even more preparing for or winding down from it.
Meals punctuate our days. For me, spit-roasted duck or a seasonal treat like corn on the cob would be definate exclamation marks. Cookies and milk together make a period, pea foam a question mark, and salad makes me think comma. Ok, so the pages of my life story are heavy on punctuation and littered with exclamation marks. But we need punctuation, run on sentences drive everyone nuts. Meals are valuable as punctuation, breaking up our days. I find the start and finish are especially important, with breakfast waking me up and slowly getting me into gear, and a late dinner or midnight snack washes away the day’s stress and eases me into bed. My day would be incomplete without my capitol “C” for coffee and my capitol “B” for banana, and “G” for grains in the form of an oatmeal muffin, buttery croissant, or bowl of cereal. Lunch and dinner are important checkpoints too, providing necessary sustenence, refocusing, relaxation, and social interplay.
However, meals are much more than markers, more crucial than brackets or hyphens in a day’s prose. Alone, they contribute much of the substance and script. The meal itself can be the main event, when the food is exceptionally tasty and satisfying, the company and ambiance exquisite. In such instances of blissful sensory overload, it can be difficult to think about much else, a moving chapter you don’t want to end.
At the same time, the actual meal can simply be the context or backdrop, filling in the gaps and embellishing real life moments. Either way, the meal is central to good living, either important as the main show or as the set to life’s theatre.
I could easily break down my life into a calender of meals with their associated moments and memories. At an early age, I discovered that I could take care of myself and immeasurably improve my life by cooking, first making triple-decker sandwiches, and once allowed at the stove, creating my first dish of sautéed mushrooms with soy sauce and vinegar. I quickly realized that life was going to be about making hard choices, when I would spend my entire weekly allowance on a small poutine at the local casse-croûte and be left with an empty piggy bank. I decided then that budgeting stunk.
I learnt the importance of making curfew as a teenager over dill pickles and cheddar cheese at Rachel’s. I learnt about sharing around a table of ten kids and a turkey with only one wishbone, and practiced sharing over and over again on Friday pizza nights. Over boiled beef and overcooked vegetables at the same dinner table, I learnt how to keep quiet when I had nothing nice to say, and to be thankful for food, shelter and family.
I observed countless other families around the dinner table, got a taste of other backgrounds and ways of thinking. I tasted Vietnamese stews, ratatouille, stragonoff, roast beef, crétons, souvlaki and fattouche salad, all so exotic at the time. I compared these families and their food to my own, and finally understood that all in all, no scenario was better, just different, all with their good points and bad.
I went out for my first fancy date at la Mère Michel, where I had dry Chicken Cordon Bleu and was treated poorly by the snobby waitron. When I moved out, I embraced life away from home and the multicultural energy of Montreal over shish taouk, smoked meat and 10¢ chicken wings. I pulled all-nighters studying, eating Felix and Norton cookies and sipping Van Houtte coffee. I learnt that there were better bargains out there if you looked, celebrating my frugality with curry (just the sauce) and nan bread at the Faubourg, or falafel and foccacia at Euro-deli. I found a favorite restaurant to splurge at in reward for spells of hard studying in a little BYOB where I alternated between Pasta Carbonara, Romanoff and Alfredo, always with an antipasto to start, and a salad to finish. I thought I was so sophisticated, being a dépanneur wine expert and all. In any case, I did learn that there is something to be said for keeping secrets because popularity soon took my little spot down.
Around the age of twenty, I got my first taste of real life pressures, and learnt how to cope with failure, finding temporary solace in steaming bowls of Tonkinese soup. Since then, I’ve drowned my sorrows and soothed my soul with Tonkinese soup many times over at Vietnamese restaurants around town.
Spending a summer working at a restaurant and wine-bar in London, England, I discovered scones and clotted cream, spotted the first signs of “fusion cuisine” and was alerted to the finer things in life like good wine, and the notion that the world could be my oyster. I remember feeling grown up and at peace for the first time, dining alone eating raw milk cheese with a glass of Jura wine in a Covent Garden wine bar.
I rediscovered Montreal and life here, learning not to take things for granted, to hold on to what I had over cheese fondue, Miki’s favorite. I had bavette/frites at La Cabane with several guys, and finally walked out on the latest guy and La Cabane for good, despite the fries, marking the dawning of my realization that I had commitment issues. I fell in love with Bob over Italian food at Enios. I fell in love with Italian food at Il Cortile where I tasted Reggiano for the first time (an epiphany!), and fell in love with Bob again and again over Italian food at DaVinci’s and Il Sole on St-Laurent. I fell out of love with Bob over fish tacos in Hawaii. I flirted with the idea of leaving him over mussels and fries with Joe Blow, I don’t remember his name now. I remember breaking down and discussing it with a friend over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon at Benedicts. Over sushi at Koji Kaisen with an eager suitor, I decided to work on saving my relationship. I contemplated moving to Vancouver over the best pot of steaming mussels (lemon and black pepper) on a dreary, rainy day at some bistro on False Creek. But I decided that Montreal was absolutely my home over bagels and lox for breakfast while people watching on the Plateau a few days later.
It was confirmed that I had expensive taste when I fell in love with caviar at first bite at Troika with Benôit. Also at Troika, I tasted the best steak tartare made tableside, and was exposed for the first time to catty women who were mean to me. I learnt the importance of table manners, and how it pays to be one’s self in the end, however intimidated and out of place I may feel. I’ve had many heartfelt conversations indulging in pure comfort food at the Rôtisserie Italienne eating fettucine gigi, suppli and the simplest, most satisfying salad, my Saturday night ritual for years in the 90’s. I finally left Bob after a painful night of sobbing into a bowl of noodles. I think it was Pad Thai, he was watching Jeopardy; I don’t really remember the noodles.
I first really met Barb over Susi Q shrimp at the Tavern. I first really met Ange over firecracker shrimp at La Louisiane. I’ve had numerous giddy nights with friends over fire-cracker shrimp at La Louisiane, while they ate their favorites: Shrimp Magnolia, blackened ribsteak, or the Fedellini Santa Fe..... I remember celebrating summer, having found the wonderful circle of friends I still have, one night at Mediterraneo when seared tuna Asian-style was the rage. That summer, I explored my raw side, eating sushi all over town, at all times of day. I did a lot of living, celebrating all there was to celebrate in my single 20-something youth, finishing many a night with the best late night snack of all – poutine – from Ashton’s, Angela’s, Moe’s or Picasso’s. I grew as a cook, and settled into life as an adult with a career, testing out the classics and my creations on my boyfriend and friends, over many less than perfect, but great meals that were rarely served before 10pm. Thank God for the wine.
I turned 30 to multiple courses cooked by friends, featuring oysters, duck soup, spinach and bacon salad, and roast pork, what a treat.....that was a party to remember on so many levels. My girlfriend Barb turned 30 the night I discovered the Ouzerie, and enjoyed great mussels, sausage and saganaki. More Greek food made another girlfriend Heidi Ho’s 30th memorable at Mythos, where the Taverna spirit reigned, and the tsaziki was solid. My youngest girlfriend, Ange, turned 30 this year, and we celebrated at Globe by sharing a baby leg of lamb for two (Kyle and I) smothered in morels and asparagus, after some pickled herring, octopus salad, fresh scampi and delicious proscuitto-melon bites.
I had my first dinner with Jon at L’ Eau à la Bouche, I had salad and trout and caviar, and he had foie gras and lamb. Dave was there, we had loads of laughs, the food was great, the service too, I loved the Québec goat cheese and sherry, I fell in love. Our friendship grew over tasting menus at the Union Square and Picholine in NYC, and at Toqué, La Biche au Bois, and Globe. I taught him how to make red wine sauce, he showed me how to make chicken soup with matzo balls. We made ratatouille and braised veal together, tested out sorbet recipes. I sampled other restaurants, and other dates, learning about life and myself while nibbling on soba noodles at Ginger, anchovy laced tartare at Paris Buerre, pappadam topped anything at Java U. I had foie gras and lentil soup at les Caprices de Nicolas and went back to Jon. I knew I had to break away again after dinner at L’Initiale, where I had guinea hen with too many garnishes and he had duck three ways, his suit smelled, we were the only ones in the restaurant. I had my “last dinner” with Jon at Cube, I had duck, he had veal, all so elegant, nothing was hot, it was fun anyway. I realized I really loved Jon over Med Spagetti at the Tavern. We got back together again over Comte cheese, smoked duck breast, the ripest honeydew, roasted almonds and arugula salad.
Heidi got married. We had croque-monsieurs and Champagne at Opus beforehand when too nervous to eat anything else, and then five courses of wedding food that night, featuring surprisingly decent banquet chicken. On our honeymoon (the bridesmaids’), we had a beautiful ten-course meal at Lumière, where we were seduced by the Périgord truffle, and Barb refused to let me call our squab pigeon.
I’ve often let my stress dissipate after crazy nights in the kitchen with comforting, stimulating, classic French fare at L’Express: rémoulade, Steak tartare, duck confit, ravioli.... yum. I bonded with new work friends and nature up north many nights over the best take-out pizza, a late night campfire and fabulous wine, sometimes until sunrise. I caught a glipse of Dominique’s soft side (my chef de cuisine) because of buckwheat crêpes, jambonneau and apple cider. I spied into the souls of Luc, Maddalena and Manu with their favorite staff meals. Over many staff meals, I’ve swapped stories and learnt a little more about cooking and people in general, from worlds different than my own, be they off in the Québec countryside, in France or in Italy.
I hashed out my thirty something female stress, bonded with girlfriends, as we shared our biggest fears, deepest secrets and darkest moments over buckets of tears and BBQ chicken, corn and grilled mushroom salad, sausage and piperade.
I’ve learnt the value of the gift of giving while cooking many meals for family and friends, sharing weddings and birthdays, or just another Friday night. I’ve learnt the importance of community in my life through food. Learning and accepting my place in society settled me. Knowing that by being a cook, I could give back and participate in being a part of people’s everyday meals, I was making their lives slightly better. Like my dry cleaner or cordonnier, or my mother does for me. I saw the importance of a meal to people, no matter how mundane, that I played a part, and I valued that.
I could go on and on and on. So many meals, so many moments. My photo albums may as well consist of menus. Looking back, I’m thankful for the rich life I’ve had. It just happens to be so intrinsically linked to food and wine, and time at the table. Maybe the meals give me a framework within which to store life’s memories, earmarking them for easy retrieval. Perhaps my hyperactive, well-conditioned taste memory helps me to hold on to other details. The beauties of the meals add layers of depth to my experiences, anchoring the memories.
Whether food is as major a player in other people’s lives or not, it certainly has some relevance, conscious or not. In any case, time at the table is inarguably good for the spirit. Realizing that brings us full circle, reminding us of our roots, what’s really important. Regardless of how far up the food chain we are or how technologically advanced we are, no matter how big our brain gets, we aren’t so different from the four-legged animals in that life is really all about meal time. We just have the luxury to choose it, and are better for it. So pull up a chair, raise your glass with me.... and cherish time at the table, this is life at its best... Cheers!