The tediousness of food blogs.

Image source: Flickr/Pierre Metivier

Every couple of days I notice someone on social media complaining about the tediousness of food blogs. The just get to the recipe, I don’t need 900 words about your kids and cat and that one summer you spent in Alsace, Brenda sentiment is pervasive, and it’s true that the form is not always conducive to getting people from recipe to dinner in a timely fashion. Some people really do just want the recipes.

I don’t know if those people have heard of cookbooks.

If you do not have an extensive cookbook collection, or if you can’t find what you are looking for in the books you do have, there are some really great sites that post reliable, well-tested recipes that you can either read about in detail or just go on to make. There are also community recipe sites where recipes are rated and ranked, and you can read user comments for a clear look at what you are getting into.

I understand the urgency of getting to the point, and I understand the urge to tell stories.

There are practical reasons for food bloggers to post long intros to recipes; from Google’s perspective, longer content is more likely to be useful content, and so whatever Google decides is the most useful answer to a search question or keyword is ranked highest in search results. Search engine optimization is no small thing, and for people who make a living off their food blogs it is important that people find their sites. A search for “chocolate cupcake recipe” turns up 163,000,000 results; a search for “chicken soup” turns up 411,000,000 results. In an increasingly crowded arena, it is hard to stand out.

There is also a whole spectrum of people who blog about food, from journalists and authors and recipe developers to home cooks and aspiring writers. The path to published food writing is a difficult one, and for someone with little to no experience in publishing, media or the restaurant industry, it’s not easy to know where to start. The internet made it so anyone could find an audience, and so for those who didn’t or couldn’t take the traditional route to a career in food or writing could establish a voice online.

There are barriers to building a career in writing, particularly financial ones. It certainly helps to start with money because for most people, words are not well compensated. The older you get, the more things like day jobs and kids and the endless heap of laundry get in the way. If you want to make a career in writing or blogging, it helps to have someone covering the bills (at least until you “make it,” whatever that means for you) or to be well-off in the first place. For people with literary or culinary ambitions, no wealthy benefactor, and no idea where to begin, a free little WordPress site with some nice pictures and some SEO-friendly text is not a bad place to start. It worked for me, right?

And while no one likes to read a blog by someone obviously shilling, a not-small percentage of people are writing food blogs because they have a point of view and no other place to share it, at least at first. People will say that memories of cooking with Grandma are done, perhaps done to death, and who needs 900 words on Nonna’s wrinkled hands ahead of a recipe for baked ziti, but I think murder mysteries and science fiction and David Foster Wallace are a little bit boring and overdone. Who cares? Nobody asked.

Nobody asked me, but also of course they didn’t. Food blogging is tedious, and food bloggers are worse. (A couple of them really are but you have to buy me two drinks and a plate of chicken tenders before I’ll dish.) And yet, people keep reading.

The late Josh Ozersky once wrote that MFK Fisher must die. “Everyone has to eat, but to write about food for money in America, you have to fit in a very narrow place, and that place is a chalk outline of MFK Fisher,” he wrote. I don’t believe that is entirely true, but for food bloggers it isn’t wrong either. Not everyone has the skills or resources to venture into a more journalistic approach to food writing, and memoir and personal essay are forms that are accessible to the home cook.

Home cooking is unglamorous. Before we had a network of food programming and one million YouTube cooking channels, home cooking was a chore, like picking up the dry cleaning or ferrying the children to activities – it was something you had to do, whether you found it personally fulfilling or not. You don’t hear a lot about rebellious, bad-girl home cooks. The most famous home cooks are soft, nurturing women with practical, nourishing advice and recipes that always work and mostly use what you have on hand. There is clearly a market for soothing food stories by women who seem nice.

Food blogging is like mom blogging in that it largely operates in the domestic sphere, and the voices are predominantly women’s. There are men who blog about food, of course, just as there are dads who blog about parenting. But if you type “food blogger” into a Google Image search bar, the results are overwhelmingly female. When we criticize the generic “food blogger,” who do we picture in our minds?

The most common critique of food blogs seems to be that these nattering women just can’t seem to get to the point.

By now I think we know what happens when a woman offers an opinion on the internet. When a woman speaks (especially online) many of us don’t listen to what she is saying; we hear how she says it, and it is sometimes shrill or annoying or dull or not as funny or interesting or likable as it would be coming from a man (even if he is saying the same thing). When a male chef writes about taking inspiration from his grandmother’s cooking, it is endearing; when a woman does, we ask her to skip to the part we care about. “No one visits your food blog to hear your dumb voice, Karen.”

Your internets are yours to enjoy how you see fit, and if you find an 800-word screed on getting a kid to try to like tomatoes is off-putting, you are not obligated to read it. But I invite you to think about your biases. Why are you reading food blogs if not for the stories? Google Reader is long dead, so if you’re landing on a chatty food blog it’s because you’re searching for something, and if you don’t care to read 1200 words on how someone felt homesick over a peach, why not skip over to Serious Eats or Allrecipes or the Food Network website to find a recipe that’s just a recipe and move on?

This is not to say that food blogs, like any form of media, are immune to critique; a bad opinion deserves a call-out, whether you’re writing for Bon Appetit or for mostly your mom’s friends. If you’re a high profile blogger doing this as your career, this is extra true. But a bad opinion and a story you find boring are two very different things.

I have a food blog, and with a few exceptions I don’t make a lot of recipes from food blogs. In the old days, food blogs and their lengthy posts were a way to get to know a person, to decide if you liked the same kind of things and if their recipes would be to your taste. There are so many food blogs now, and some of them pop up instantly polished and professional, and so it’s hard to know via a quick Google if they’re written by good cooks or just good photographers.

Maybe the genre is dying, or evolving, or maybe I’ve never really understood it and am very wrong about everything. But we haven’t reached peak food blog yet, and this machine isn’t slowing down anytime soon. So, yes. Some blogs are tedious and some bloggers are tedious and I am tedious and so are a lot of things. But the internet is big and there are so many cookbooks and there is no excuse to shit on Alice because she’s read Laurie Colwin or MFK Fisher or Jackie Kai Ellis and thought she had a story inside her too. As someone who writes both professionally and as a hobby, I can tell you it is a frequently joyless exercise steeped in self-loathing and general malaise. If someone’s taking pleasure in it, let them have that.

I’m bored with the idea that we’ve all got to optimize and shrink and like the same things and get straight to the point. Sometimes the internet is a toilet and I like to pause sometimes and have a moment to read about how you’ve started growing shiitake mushrooms or how you bought a new house and miss your dingy old apartment kitchen or how learning to cook helped you gain control over your anxiety. What is tedious is this expectation that we all have to be influencers now and brand ourselves correctly and be universally appealing all of the time.

Why can’t we just let people have the things they like?

What I meant to complain about was the cheese.

Pictured: my teen nephew and non-teen child at our most frequented A&W.

It is New Year’s Eve, and in theory tomorrow represents fresh starts and opportunity and the endless possibility of an unsullied calendar. Tomorrow. Tomorrow is for hope. Today is for eating too much cheese and drinking too much wine and one last, little complaint that possibly falls into the “unexamined personal issue” territory I clearly spend a lot of time in.

A&W Canada changed the cheese on its breakfast sandwiches and I am upset.

A&W Canada and A&W in the US are different. They share a history, but they split into distinct entities in 1972 and since then the menus have deviated to appeal to their respective markets. And while A&W in the US is limping, the Canadian arm of the Burger Family stayed together and things have never been better for the brand. In Canada, nostalgia plays a significant factor in A&W’s ongoing success; A&W is a family place, and families have been going to A&Ws in Canada since 1956, when the first one opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In 2012, I was unemployed for a stretch, having been laid off on maternity leave. My severance ran out, and I started temping in the membership office of a local union, a place that could easily have been a figment of David Lynch’s imagination. I was not well-suited to the role, because I am impatient and take work very personally and there was not enough to do. I used to think I was a laid-back, fun person but it turns out I am neither of those things. Nick realized this before I did, but for him it was already too late.

I applied to a job I didn’t know anything about on a headhunter’s website, and she invited me to her office and I performed a series of tests before she revealed that the role I had applied to was a social media manager position at the head office of a local fast food company. I was to present to the Lonsdale Quay-adjacent corporate headquarters of A&W Canada for a screening interview with their HR manager. We talked about restaurants, food blogs, and when I left she handed me her card which had a coupon for a free burger attached.

I made it through to the next round of interviews, which guaranteed me at least another free burger.

In the first interview, the strap on my La Senza bra broke. It was an ugly padded thing, shiny leopard print and black lace, but it was the only bra I had at the time that wasn’t a nursing bra or a sports bra, and I am a professional? The first interview was with a kind, polished woman who looked like the type of adult to whom this kind of thing would never happen. The left cup slid down one side of my torso like a turtle on a mudslide as I answered questions about my core competencies with one arm crossed awkwardly across my chest.

Another two interviews would follow, for a total of five hours with 50 per cent of a critical undergarment in peril.

In the early 90s, we moved to a new neighbourhood with an A&W that was decorated in a way that acknowledged the chain’s history – photos of women in pin curls and hot pants on roller skates holding trays filled with mugs of cold root beer, photos of old cars and the Root Bear mascot, retro A&W ads for whole families of hamburgers printed as if on newsprint and displayed in metal frames – while also suggesting a future that was so bright it sparkled. The ceiling was painted with white glitter and hung with neon Lucite airplanes. It wasn’t the eighties anymore, it seemed to say. Not like that clown’s place down the road, where everything was still brown and beige.

We were an A&W family, but usually just for breakfast. I am sure we went there for dinner; I remember onion rings, at times, and the odd Mozza Burger, and watching Bryan Adams videos over my parents’ shoulders on grainy screens that alternated between Much Music and the news. When I was thirteen, my friends and I would hang out on the patio after school, watching the older boys smoking and jamming gum into the coin slot of the payphone while our skinniest friend drank the Styrofoam cups of gravy that she ordered with her fries.

In the morning at A&W, you can get a plate of bacon and eggs and toast just like any greasy diner anywhere, but the price is better, and so my parents go there almost weekly.

I tried to convey this in my second interview with a man about my dad’s age, who had been with the company for more decades than I had been alive. I wanted him to know I would embody the brand and take it very personally like I do just about everything and that together we would be unstoppable. I told him I know all about Twitter. I told him about my parents, who he would perhaps have things in common with.

“They started going to the one in Coquitlam because it was the best A&W,” I told him, “and now, ten years later, they still go because of the community they’ve found in the people who work there and the people who get breakfast together every weekend.”

“Isn’t that something,” he said. I don’t know if he believed me, because it sounds a little bit like a story even now.

The whole process took most of a day, and though the receptionist – a warm woman with a soft face in a green dress – handed me several handfuls of root beer-flavoured hard candies I was spent, physically and emotionally. The trauma of the bra issue and the pressure of being “on” for five hours and three very successful grown-ups who I assumed I’d never be like and who couldn’t possibly have understood the depth of my despair or lack of credit left to pay for parking left me both hopeful and sad. When I went home to Nick and the baby that night, I told them I didn’t want to talk about my day.

Before the interview, the headhunter told me I was one of two candidates selected for the interview endurance run.

I was getting lunch at a food truck with my friend James on a day I called in sick to my temp job when I got a call that said they decided not to go with either candidate. I didn’t have a job, but I did have four more free burger vouchers, which I redeemed in the food court at the mall near the Lynchian temp job I began to feel doomed to.

In recent years, A&W Canada has been working on changing its brand to reflect a popular preference for Canadian beef and wholesome ingredients. This is fine. Those things are good. Its food is notably different from other local fast food burger places; in his most recent special, Silent but Deadly, Kevin Smith even sings A&W Canada’s praises, describing buying Buddy Burgers and Teen Burgers for the cast of Super Girl. A&W is good. It’s Canadian. It’s an important part of my family’s lives and history.

The Bacon & Egger is/was arguably the greatest fast food breakfast (“arguably” because I will argue with you about it until you give up and move on). And my complaint is so petty I should feel embarrassed, but the new cheese on the Bacon & Egger is so wrong that I almost don’t know if the problem is, as mentioned, from my “unexamined personal issue” cache or if I really, truly am this upset. The taste is all wrong. A fast-food breakfast is good because the slice of processed cheese unites the disparate textures of bun, fried egg, and bacon like a condiment, adding a unifying component that makes the whole thing make sense. If I wanted real cheese on my breakfast sandwich, I’d make that breakfast sandwich at home.

As we close the door on another year and step into 2019, I am ready to accept that there are things I cannot change, even as I hope for something better for us all. Maybe the cheese represents something bigger, or maybe I am just coming into my orneriness.

In 2019, may we all have more productive, more satisfying things to complain about, and the ability to move on from whatever we cannot sustain.

In 2019, I wish you good cheese.

Everything has to be perfect.

It is 6:15, and it is still dark outside, and it will be cold in our apartment for another twenty minutes, until the fireplace has warmed the living room and the heat I just turned on begins to warm the bedrooms. I am baking cookies this early in the morning for the third time this week.

It isn’t just cookies – there were the seven pounds of onions to be caramelized, with a dollop of homemade creme fraiche to be folded into them so that later the whole mess could be spread onto puff pastry for an effortless snack on Christmas day. There is salt cod to soak, sushi rice to make and fold into flaked sockeye salmon which was roasted with a glaze of ponzu and a layer of orange slices, and each fish must be rolled into its own type of croquette. There are fruits and cheeses to buy and slice and serve, there are dips and sauces to make and store for later, there are eggs to boil and peel and bread to knead and bake, there are all of the lunches and dinners we still have to eat around everything else.

Everything has to be perfect.

“Why are you doing this?” my friend Katherine asked over iMessage, when I complained that my feet hurt and there was still so much to do.

“Why are you doing this?” Nick asked as I sighed and sighed and sighed so that he’d notice the effort as he got ready for work around me.

And the truth is, I don’t really know. I think a lot of us have felt the weight of 2018, and like maybe it’s too soon for the holidays, or we’re not quite in the mood. I think a lot of us maybe feel this way every year, at least a little bit. And I think if it was just me, I’d let myself be a little maudlin, maybe drink a few too many rum and caffeine-free Diet Cokes and let myself have popcorn for dinner and watch all the Bob’s Burgers holiday specials in one go. I would never listen to Dominick The Donkey, which some children think is the greatest holiday song in the world.

At 8:15, I will hear a child’s heavy steps in the hallway, and in the entrance to the kitchen, a rumpled boy with puffy, squinting eyes will appear. This place will smell like chocolate, vanilla, and peanut butter if he’s lucky. There will be flour on the floor and the dishwasher will be running and the lights on the Christmas tree will be on, and the living room will be warm and the cat will be there purring, waiting for him. He will eat a bowl of Cheerios and we will argue a little about screen time and he will win because the cookies have to come out of the oven.

It has to be perfect for him.

And it doesn’t, really, and I know that, because everything is new to him and whatever we say is tradition is tradition as far as he’s concerned, because this whole thing is fantastic and wonderful and every day there are treats and special outings and movies about magic and a few new presents under the tree. Even when we don’t much feel like carrying a torch, the light we hold makes the world brighter for other people.

Later, we will bake the cookies to leave for Santa and drink hot chocolate and read Christmas books and draw pictures of Santa’s bum catching fire as he falls down a chimney and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol and eat KFC for dinner because one year we learned that a bucket of chicken is a holiday tradition in Japan and there’s a KFC three blocks away so why can’t it be our tradition too?

It’s Christmas Eve, and you get to be in charge of your own magic. To those who celebrate, Merry Christmas – I hope the day unfolds exactly how you want it to, and that there are cookies. To those who don’t, I hope there are still cookies and you enjoy the warmth and coziness of the season exactly how you like to.

I have to head out to the store one last time, because we’re running low on butter and the reindeer prefer different carrots than the ones we have. “Why are you doing this?” I think to myself, and then I look over at the little goon on my couch in Spider-Man pajamas and I grab my coat, tell him he doesn’t have to change into real clothes because it’s Christmas, and off we go.

Tasty bites.

We know more than ever about the family meal and why it matters; according to the Web of Science, the average number of journal publications on family meals increased from up to maybe 8 per year between 1970 and 1995 to, on average, 45 publications per year between 2010 and 2015. A 2018 review on these studies in the journal Obesity Review found that that frequent family meals are associated with better diet quality, higher consumption of healthy foods and lower consumption of unhealthy foods; it also speculated that regular family meals might be a manifestation of a positive family environment, and therefore a predictor of better health in children.

Like, we know. But. It is hard feeding people every day, even when you like to cook, even when you like the people. By Friday, I am often more a shell of a human being than an actual functioning adult; last week, without thinking about it, I had unzipped my pants before I even unlocked our apartment door.

The family dinner is serious and important and I should be trying harder. But also the rules for family dinner were established fairly recently; only since the mid 19th century has it been an imperative.

For most of the years between the earliest sit-down nuclear family dining room meals and today, the person preparing the meal wasn’t also the person commuting, enduring a lot of meetings that could have been emails, or parenting willful children according to 21st century guidelines which are, I think we can all agree, a bit much.

Having it all is tough. Some days, I think you could have some of it back (I get to choose what, though, and I will not accept more housework or child-rearing).

But, I mean. We should be planning a little better and we should be getting more sleep and we should be prioritizing differently so that the burnout doesn’t always seem insurmountable by Friday morning.

We definitely shouldn’t spread a picnic blanket on our bed or our living room floor and eat miscellaneous fridge scraps in front of an endless selection of Netflix nature shows.

At first, Tasty Bites was the result of my general laziness. We had a lot of stuff in the fridge – a few last grapes, one apple, a couple of half bell peppers, a cucumber, a little hummus, cheese in various stages of decay, a package of smoked turkey from the deli, a can of herring, some pickled onions, and some saltines. I didn’t have to cook.

Then it was boredom, and then it was fatigue, and then it was just that the little dude asked for it, then asked for it again, and then again until it was Friday and I had no reason to refuse his request. For me, Tasty Bites is kind of a personal low, literally the least I can do to get these people fed at the end of a long day. But for him, this six-year-old, Tasty Bites is the very best dinner there is.

I like to think we are sharing something cultural with him when we eat like this. In England, you’d call it a Ploughman’s Lunch – some bread and butter, some cold meat and cheese, and some kind of pickle or chutney, and maybe a boiled egg. In Lebanon, you’d have Meze and pile a table with little dishes of hummus, olives, nuts, kafta, and fried cheese. In Germany, you’d have Abendbrot, with bread, butter, sausage, vegetables, some cheese and mustard, and a bit of beer or tea.

When we eat like this, I mention these things or tapas or dim sum or borrels or the many ways that people all over the world eat tasty bites, as much as a meal or snack as a fuel for conversation, or an excuse to get together. And despite my lack of effort, these meals do seem to fuel us; it’s on Tasty Bites evenings that we come together most easily. We don’t use forks, and half the time we don’t bother with plates either; just a couple of napkins to aid our grazing. We take turns choosing the music, and we talk. If it’s been a very long day, we put on a movie. There’s still conversation. The six-year-old never stops talking.

“I love when we eat like this,” he says. And then he says all kinds of things, and he is funny and bright and a whole person, and we get to peek in at who he is becoming because for the moment we are not worried about his table manners or making sure he eats enough. Without the pressure of sitting still and a square meal on a plate in front of him he eats freely, trying everything.

I don’t know exactly what we’re impressing on him when we eat like this, but if nothing else he’s learning that there’s more than one right way to be in the world, and that the rules are only rules if you insist on them.

When things begin to feel like obligation (even little things, like dinner) it’s worth re-evaluating their value. When we become prescriptive about things, the fun sort of evaporates and then all we’re left with is another to-do on a list that never seems to get any shorter. The example we’re setting is “this is how it’s always done, so we should always do it this way;” that doesn’t feel right, and is not a lesson I would ever endorse. “Because this is the way we’ve always done it” is just an excuse for not thinking of something better.

There’s a lot of information out there about how best to eat, how best to feed your children, and how best to cultivate an enriching atmosphere in which everyone feels nourished. And a lot of it is fine and good. And a lot of it you can ignore. The important thing is coming together, and we’d all be better off if a relaxing evening was our goal at least often enough that it’s something you genuinely look forward to.

Water & Wood and Easy Apple Cake.

You know that feeling where you just want to run away from it all to someplace pretty but that also has a well-stocked liquor store and decent restaurants? It can’t just be me who fantasizes about living somewhere almost-remote but almost not, somewhere you can reach into the sand and pull out a fistful of clams in the morning for that night’s dinner, and then head into town for tandoori sockeye salmon and a nice cup of chai for lunch. Such a place exists, five hours away from where I live, and I think about it all the time.

The drawback to these almost-remote places is that the kind of work that I do (the work that pays my bills, anyway) doesn’t exactly exist outside of urban centres or university towns, or when it does, there is one position that never becomes vacant. This is why we are not there now, wandering shorelines up the coast with Base Camp Coffee in a travel mug, and are staring out apartment windows at the traffic on Broadway instead.

But when you can’t be somewhere, it’s a comforting thing to be able to cook the food of a place instead. Whenever I get an itch to be somewhere, I turn to cookbooks.

I have picked up a few regional cookbooks lately – Christine Hanlon’s Out of Old Manitoba Kitchens has been a delight to flip through – but one in particular, Water & Wood: Recipes from a Coastal Community, a project of the Powell River Public Library, has been making my feet itchy once again.  

The thing I like about Water & Wood is that it has that spiral-bound community cookbook feel, but it’s also very beautiful in its design and photography, so that while it feels very “of the place,” offering local history and divided into sections by categories of Ocean, Lakes & Rivers, Farms & Gardens, and Forest & Mountains, it is also the kind of book you could leave out on your coffee table and thumb through with a cup of tea in the evening. And while the recipes are from the community and have a very strong west-coast feel, they’re also a bit more modern than you might expect.

Water & Wood offers a good mix of vegan and gluten-free recipes – there’s a recipe for raw, vegan, gluten-free Nanaimo bars, which honestly could not be more British Columbian unless you were to make them and walk them over to your neighbourhood bike repair shop while wearing Gore-Tex and rain boots. A nod to the multiculturalism of the area, the book also features international flavours using local ingredients, like the asparagus goma-ae and the beef tongue bitterballen (there are a couple of Dutch recipes, from the Van Es family farm archives). More regional recipes like Foraged Salmon Berry Shoots & Fiddleheads, Bladderwrack Egg Drop Soup, or the Pan Roasted White Sturgeon with Fir Tip Butter may not be the kind of thing you have the ingredients to make in your own kitchen, but that’s okay – what you can’t make at home may have you making travel plans.

And best of all, sales of the book support the Powell River Public Library (PRPL). The PRPL serves the residents of the City of Powell River and the Tla’amin Nation and Regional District.

I’ve asked for permission to share a recipe from the book, a very simple apple cake that served me well for several days – this thing does not seem to go stale, and so I was able to make it breakfast for nearly an entire workweek! Maybe the only thing better than running away to Powell River is eating cake for breakfast every day.

Easy Apple Cake

(Makes one 8″ cake.)

  • 2 cups peeled and finely diced apple (about two medium apples)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil*
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped**
  • 1/2 cup raisins**

*I used grapeseed oil – any neutral oil will do.

**Raisins are bad and we keep running out of walnuts as I keep eating handfuls of them, so I subbed one cup of currants.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and line the bottom of an 8″ baking pan (square or round will do) with parchment and set aside.

Place apples in a large mixing bowl and add the sugar. Stir, then set aside for half an hour, or until the sugar becomes liquid.

Add beaten egg, oil and vanilla, and stir to combine.

In another bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients.

Add raisins and walnuts (or currants), and stir to combine.

Pour batter into your prepared baking pan, and bake 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a plate to serve.

To purchase a copy of Water & Wood, visit the PRPL website. (This is not a sponsored post, though they did send me a copy of the book.)

 

Roasted pumpkin soup.

By Friday, I was coasting on fumes. There’s a phenomenon called “the let-down effect,” wherein after a period of stress, your body just sort of gives up and gives in. I find myself most productive under a certain amount of stress – I can go and go and go and make and think and do, but I have a hard time prioritizing, like, basic human needs and so by the end of this past particularly demanding season, I was dehydrated and overtired and on antibiotics and just sort of crashed. (I know that this is problematic, and that claiming stress is integral to my success or whatever is akin to perpetuating this un-ideal, but that’s a topic for another time.)

When I was finally feeling better, “carrot soup” was just the thing.

A better parent might be more upfront about things, but I am the tired wrangler of a very opinionated six-year-old. He thinks the soup is made of carrots, but it’s made of vegetables and he eats it, so I don’t correct him. He thinks he hates squash, and I’d rather he eat the soup he likes than take a stand against it, which he would, because he is as stubborn as a mule and his mother.

This is his favourite soup, and my go-to feel-better soup. It tastes a little bit Vietnamese, and it’s made with kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, which you can buy pretty cheaply almost anywhere in the fall and winter. I buy a few at a time and keep them on the porch; they’re fine for a couple of months if kept cool and dry. Kabocha squash tastes a bit sweeter than butternut squash, and is a great source of nutrients and fibre – roasting it brings out the sweetness, and is important to the flavour of this soup. You can roast it ahead of time if you like; it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days once cooked.

Tips

Coconut cream can be on the pricey side as it’s often stocked in the supermarket aisle where cocktail mixes are sold, but you can buy it fairly inexpensively at Trader Joe’s; I get mine for around two dollars a can at Fruiticana in Vancouver, but any Southeast Asian or Indian market will have cans of coconut cream at a reasonable price.

Serve with a wedge of fresh lime, your favourite hot sauce, a handful of chopped scallions, and a few dots of sesame oil, if you like. Bread with too much butter is also a nice accompaniment, but I feel like that, from me, may be a bit redundant by now.

Roasted pumpkin soup

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 kabocha squash
  • 2 tbsp. olive or coconut oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, white and light yellow inner parts only, thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. fish sauce*
  • 13.5 oz/400mL can coconut cream
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil

*If you want to keep this vegetarian or vegan-friendly, substitute the fish sauce for a tablespoon of soy sauce.

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Adjust oven racks so that there’s one in the middle, and one one directly below. Place a sheet pan or baking dish on the lower rack. (This is an important step, especially if you’re the one who usually gets stuck cleaning the oven.)

Stab the squash around the top in four places, then turn it upside down and stab it four more times, until the knife cuts through the skin and just pierces the flesh.

Place the squash in the oven, and leave, undisturbed, for 45 minutes to an hour. A sticky, sap-like liquid should bubble from the cut marks, and it should smell a bit like roasted chestnuts. Set aside to cool. You can do this step up to three days in advance; wrap the cooled squash in a bit of foil or put it into a large zip-lock bag until you’re ready to use it.

Halve the cooled squash, and scoop out the seeds. Scrape the flesh from the skin, and set aside. Discard the skin, stem, and seeds.

In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sauté onion, lemongrass, garlic and ginger until shimmering and fragrant, about three minutes. Add carrots, garam masala, turmeric, and pepper, and stir so that every chunky bit in the pot is coated in the spices.

Add chicken or vegetable stock and simmer until carrots are tender, ten to fifteen minutes.

Add squash, and remove the pot from the heat. Purée using a blender or immersion blender. If using a standard blender, blend in batches.

Return the pot to the heat. Add brown sugar, fish sauce, and coconut cream, stirring to melt coconut cream. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed – sometimes kabocha squash can benefit from a bit more salt, but the amount you need will depend on the saltiness of your broth.

When the soup returns to a simmer, stir in sesame oil and serve.

Writing the book is the easy part.

For a period during the 90s, my parents embraced the power of positive thinking (see above), and they received much of that messaging via audiobooks on cassette tape that they’d play in the car while we drove around town on their weekend errands.

I am not exactly the world’s most positive thinker – I am a worrier, and always imagining worst-case scenarios, most of which never occur (but YOU NEVER KNOW so there’s no reason to ever stop this pattern of behaviour). There’s a perverse satisfaction in imagining you’re on the verge of some spectacular failure and then having everything work out fine – you always sort of feel like you’ve avoided catastrophe, or like maybe your luck is changing.

Positive thinking may not be as powerful as some motivational speaker – or my parents in 1994 – would have you believe, but somewhere deep in the dusty back corners of my hippocampus, I know that I can manifest strange scenarios based on my particular worry of the day. Positive thinking is fine, but the true power is in the brain’s ability to retain and mutate an idea over decades.

If you can believe it, you can achieve it! Kind of.

I work at the University of British Columbia, and I have been there, more or less, since 2004 when I started taking classes in the Creative Writing department. I started working at the university in 2008, and have been a regular customer of the campus bookstore for much of that time. They feature a lot of local authors, and there is often a shelf for books by staff and faculty.

When Well Fed, Flat Broke: Recipes for Modest Budgets and Messy Kitchens came out in 2015, my very first thought was “I wonder if UBC Bookstore has it, and more importantly where they have put it.” I don’t know what I was imagining, because I wrote a cookbook and not, say, a book of short stories or a history of Canada, but I thought it might be on display somewhere people might see it. So I went to the bookstore on my lunch break. I worried that maybe no one would buy the book, but I wasn’t worried about anyone recognizing me because who knows what any author looks like unless they are famous and I’m not.

In an unusual turn of events, my worries were misplaced.

And so I puttered around the store, assessing the shelves full of new releases and the tables full of featured nonfiction, and the book wasn’t there. “That’s fine,” I’m sure I thought. “Maybe they’ve filed me beside Vikram Vij in the cookbook section, which would be flattering and good.”

I wandered to the back of the store where the cookbooks were shelved. It wasn’t there either, but it was a new book and maybe they didn’t have it yet. I accepted this, because though I am a worrier I am also mostly rational once I think about things for a minute. Everything would be fine. I would check back in a week. Maybe they’d devote a small area of the front to displaying it. You know. Maybe.

I cut through the nonfiction section on my way back to the front of the store where the new releases were – I don’t generally leave bookstores empty-handed. I walked past two women with a cart full of books to be shelved, and they were chatting and I had no plan to interrupt, except that at the exact moment that I walked past, I caught a glimpse of my dumb face leering up with a terrifying watermelon grin from the cart, and then I died.

They saw me, and they saw me pause for the millisecond it took for my death to occur.

“Is this YOU?!” one of them ask-exclaimed.

“HAHA OH MY GOD,” I remember saying.

I began backing away.

“Would you like to sign a few copies? We don’t mind!”

“I AM NOT LURKING IN THIS BOOKSTORE HOPING TO BE NOTICED!” I think I yelled. I think they said something reassuring, like “no one thinks that” or “wow you are turning so red” but I can’t be sure because I, an adult woman in her thirties, dressed in drab business-casual clothing as if to suggest a level of professionalism and maturity, turned and ran away.

For clarity, I did not walk briskly, it was a full run which is unusual because I don’t like to run and I know I don’t look graceful doing it. I stumbled out of there and ran back to the building where I work and pretended that I was a normal, functional human being for the rest of the day, even though every 30 minutes I had to pause for a nervous shuffle to the washroom to relive and/or purge my shame.

I wish I could tell you I learned something tangible from that experience, but here we are in 2017 and I’m still lurking in bookstores.

Dutch Feast is now out there in the world, and I’ll be visiting Winnipeg and Toronto to launch it into the Canadian market (we launched in Vancouver on November 7), and I don’t know how it’s going to go but I’m trying not to imagine scenarios that involve me sprinting away from the scene.

With that in mind, I’d love if you’d come say hello! I’ll be in Winnipeg on the evening of November 27, reading a bit and hopefully sharing some Dutch sweets at McNally Robinson Books. And if you’ve ever wondered about writing a book, just know that getting the words down is the easy part.