A Very Vancouver Shop-Small Gift Guide.

Well, hello. Are you staring down a few quiet weeks of lockdown? Are you worried about how you are going to get your shopping done at a time when retail stores are closed or closing? Do you want to support people who are awesome and not Jeff Bezos who is not? Have you ever noticed that I have excellent taste? (Just agree, the evidence to support this claim is sketchy at best and I have many critics.)

Because I have several pressing deadlines that are giving me anxiety, I would much rather put together this list, which will certainly take a long time, and which will FEEL productive. Please, shop excellently this holiday season: buy nice stuff to send to nice people and let them know that you are thinking about them, even if we cannot see each other in person – no, ESPECIALLY if we cannot see each other in person. Now is the best time to let people know that you care, and honestly I would rather receive a bottle of hot sauce than a hug any day, pandemic or not.

(This post is not sponsored; I have a lot of opinions and they are all FREE! Ask Nick how great that must be.)

Deck Your Halls


Personally, I like my Christmas tree to reflect our lives, and so usually I look for ornaments on vacation, or that relate to our interests (there are a lot of food ornaments), or that sort of mark what mattered to each of us in the past year (some people’s interests are better represented – there are a lot of Fortnite loot llamas, some Star Wars villains, and every Marvel superhero). This year, I bought a bunch of timely ornaments from Abbotsford-based MementoCanada, at the recommendation of my sister-in-law, Sharon, who really does have good taste. I bought the dumpster fire (it can also say Merry Christmas if you want!) and the Plague Doctor, but I am going to pick up a few more to give as gifts (the toilet paper one speaks to me). Ornaments are $12.50 (CAD), shipped by mail.


Spice Up Your Life

Sriracha Revolver

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen bottles of Sriracha Revolver sauces here and there; they are flavourful and hot enough but not melt-your-face-off spicy, and I seriously eat this stuff every day. I bought my first bottle a few years ago at a Halloween/Christmas craft fair in New West, and I’ve been hooked ever since. My favourite is the chili-garlic sauce, which I put on almost everything; they offer five flavours, and for the holidays they’re selling a gift box with all of them ($40 CAD) that you should absolutely buy. The beet sriracha is incredible on pierogis, and I like mixing it with butter to coat fried chicken wings or popcorn tofu. The sauces are made locally by Jordan Hocking who is super nice in real life.


Mama Ngo XO Sauce

This may be a hyper-local option – I am not sure if they ship outside of Metro Vancouver, but it’s worth spending enough with them to get delivery; I love their chili oil in particular, but they make delicious XO sauce and wontons and gyoza out of their restaurant in Surrey. The chili oil will burn your face off; mix it with a bit of soy sauce and black vinegar and throw it over some freshly boiled wontons or some steamed broccoli or fry it up with some fresh noodles and it will make you feel like you’re in a restaurant, like it is the before-times and you could do anything.


Something Pretty

Mindan’s Designs

Mindan makes really pretty jewelry that is stylish but not expensive; she also is extremely generous with her time, and in the before-times would spend days with kids at the elementary school each spring to help them make their own custom jewelry to give to their moms or someone special in their lives around Mother’s Day. The kids are always very proud of these gifts, and I think it’s important to support people who give so much to their communities. Another cool thing? She’s come up with silver mask lanyards, so you can keep from constantly touching or dropping your mask: www.mindans.com/collections/mask-lanyards


AwesomeSauce Designs

My friend Corinne is the local artist behind AwesomeSauce Designs, and she makes a lot of cute and/or hilarious suncatchers to bring a little brightness to those windows you’ve been spending so much time staring out of. If you’re looking for something specific, she does do custom work if your request isn’t too unreasonable; see Lemongrab and Linda. She also runs classes, which is a fun option if you’re local.


Mask Up

Better With Joy

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Who needs a dose of pretty today? 🙋🏻‍♀️ And I love my serving of citrus fruits. I’d put lemon in everything and I can devour oranges 🍊 like it’s no one’s business. Their scent is an excellent mood booster, but I must say, even just the sight of them makes me happy. 😊🍋❤️ 🛍 I just added these to the shop: Citrus Florals in Mint and Teal. Click the link on my bio to get to these masks or visit maskwithjoy.com If you haven’t heard yet, Canada’s top health doctor is now recommending 3-layer masks that includes a filter layer. This is the standard that I have used from the very beginning after doing a lot of research on masks—I wanted to make them the right way, which is not exactly the easier and faster way. My structured and fitted masks are breathable even if they are 3 layers, and they are comfortable. 😷 All masks come with a double core nose wire, soft ear loops with cord locks for custom fit that stays. 🛒 Sign up for my newsletter to get 5% off your first purchase, or order 3 masks or more and automatically get 10% off. Heck, bundle your order with friends to get the discount! 😊 #citruslove #citrusflorals #triplelayer #madetobeworn #keepitfun #fabriclove #makersofinstagram #makersofig #sewistsofinstagram #madeinvancouver #handcraftedbyjoy #handmadetoorder #3layer #fittedmasks #funwithmasks #safeandfun #expressivenotoppressive #beautifulthings

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I met Sharlene Joy Jose one million years ago at a special Smitten Kitchen meet-and-greet at a restaurant on Granville Street that no longer exists, and we’ve been friends on social media ever since. She’s one of those very creative people who has all kinds of impressive skills, and since the pandemic hit she has been making gorgeous handmade face masks that adhere to current public health guidelines. These are nicer than anything you can buy at Old Navy, both in terms of quality and looks. Look at them, are they not so pretty? I suspect masks will make stocking stuffers this holiday season, and she’s offering 10% off when you buy three or more, so why not pick up a few?


Drink Up

Free the Tipple by Jennifer Croll

It’s been a very long year and if you’re trying to maintain a lifestyle in all of the chaos, I strongly recommend Jennifer Croll’s Free the Tipple. It has everything you need to create happy hour at home, from cocktail recipes to something to talk about while you’re catching up with friends (who also don’t have a lot going on right now) over Zoom.

The cocktails are simple to make, kitchen-tested, and incorporate easy-to find ingredients. Snappy, informative biographies, illustrated with newly-commissioned portraits, offer revealing insights into the women’s lives. This highly original guide to delicious beverages is a perfect gift for those in your life who encourage and inspire you. www.penguinrandomhouse.com

Cook A Book

Naz Deravian divides her time between Los Angeles and Vancouver, and I first learned about her from Erin Jeffery, a local writer and comedian who turned me on to this book. I find I crave Persian food in the winter – warm spices, rich stews – and this book will be the perfect gift for anyone who likes to cook, and who would enjoy the smell of herbs and saffron filling their home all afternoon. The recipes are straightforward, producing beautiful, colourful dishes that will remind you of things like travel and dinner parties, things we all look forward to enjoying post-vaccine. This book will soothe you and fill your existential voids. There’s a good number of vegetarian recipes as well.


Socks and Underwear

Blue Sky Clothing

It’s come to my attention that I talk maybe a bit too much about my enthusiasm for comfortable underwear, like really comfortable underwear that my butt doesn’t fall out of either from the top or bottom. I hate the feeling of being aware of my underwear, and so I need something that just covers everything without, you know, getting into everything. Blue Sky Clothing is a local clothing company that makes a lot of stuff, including the most comfortable underpants, out of bamboo. My friend Katherine buys their dresses and swears by them as well. My preference is for the most full-coverage underpants, flatteringly named La Gaunche, but they sell a few different styles. Socks too, and underwears for men as well. Free shipping on orders over $149 CAD.


Hide With Books

I read some excellent books by local authors this year, and they all came from Arsenal Pulp Press (who also published my books); this is not a direct shill for APP, but they do publish the sort of thing I like – smaller independent publishers have the space to give homes to people who want to try different things or write outside the mainstream. Support your local indies, and your local authors!

Buy from Arsenal Pulp Press.

andrea bennett writes from Powell River about their experience as a nonbinary parent and person, and this collection of essays was both moving and illuminating. I want to be andrea’s next-door neighbour very badly.

Buy from Arsenal Pulp Press.

I bought this book based on the enjoyment I got from following Alicia Tobin on Twitter. Though I read this even before the pandemic it is such a good fit for right now. It’s funny and it’s sad and it captures a mood, you know?

Buy from Arsenal Pulp Press.

Lindsay Wong was in my undergrad fiction classes and she was always better than me. This memoir won all kinds of awards, but it was also fascinating and funny and dark, perfect winter reading.

Send Your Regards

The Beautiful Project

Want cute, fun cards that aren’t embarrassingly sentimental or cloying? Jeannette Ordas’ cards and paper goods are perfect. She also makes a Dutch perpetual birthday calendar, which you can hang in your bathroom so you never forget anyone’s birthday! Forever! Buy multipacks of cards to send to everyone you like this year, since we will all have lots of time to write them and none of the usual excuses not to. Personally, I have my eye on this Bonnie Henry-inspired card.


Say It With Flowers

Botaniste Florals

I love Botaniste Florals, and while I have primarily bought her flowers for work events (my dumb cat eats every plant, even the ones that will kill her), I long for a bouquet to decorate my festive table. Sending flowers in Metro Vancouver this winter? Support this excellent local florist!


Happy shopping!

Cast-iron fruit crisp for when it’s definitely them and not you.

Blackberries in a plastic grocery bag on a kitchen countertop.

If you are ever going to have a moment to think without someone bursting your thought bubble, probably to ask you a question or to make a noise you may not be able to stand for one more second, you are going to have to get outside. The easiest way to get outside is to put on your invisibility cloak and go for a walk.

My invisibility cloak allows me to move unnoticed in plain sight; a grey Costco sweatsuit with pants that might have been sewn backwards, baggy in the front and snug in the back but with deep pockets that will hold a phone, a debit card (and ID in case I get murdered), a cloth mask, a plastic bag, and a handful of Hi-Chews; a pair of runners that are navy, neon orange and lavender, a palette destined for the clearance rack I found them on; a trucker hat that came free with a case of beer ten years ago. It is important to be invisible, because this is no time to be seen, to be addressed. When I wear this outfit, men bump into me because they do not see me. I am a fast-moving blob with no discernible physical features. No one has ever interrupted me to ask a question when I am wearing my invisibility cloak.

And so I have traveled the city on foot, two hours at a time, almost every day since mid-March. Sometimes I listen to music, because it is the only time no one rolls their eyes or complains about my playlist of disappointed women from the 1990s. But most of the time, I plod along in delicious silence.

The thing about walking is that it does count as exercise and so you often arrive home hungry, especially if you flounced out in a huff before dinner was even finished for reasons that were based on facts and not emotions. This is where the plastic bag comes in handy; sometimes you will discover chips you haven’t tried before in a convenience store window, or a brewery that has adapted to the pandemic by selling cans of beer from a table on the sidewalk, or sometimes there will be ripe fruit on a bush that doesn’t belong to anybody. A cloth bag is bulky; a plastic bag is easily wadded up and shoved into the pocket of your invisibility cloak.

Sometimes you will find blackberries, and sometimes they will be sweet enough to eat along the way, but sometimes they will be too tart to enjoy and so you will have to bring them home.

Four or five cups of blackberries will fill a nine-inch cast iron pan. If you don’t have four or five cups of blackberries, make up the difference with fridge or freezer fruit; cherries and mangoes are nice, and blueberries work perfectly well. Peaches are wonderful but I rarely have any extra because peaches are best eaten immediately, before they’ve ever been allowed to get cold.

Heat your oven to 375°F.

Put your fruit into a big bowl, and toss with a tablespoon of cornstarch or flour, a pinch of salt, and two tablespoons of brown sugar. Sometimes I add a bit of vanilla, or a squish of lemon, but not always. Pour the contents of the bowl into your cast iron pan.

In the same bowl, mix a cup of flour, a cup of brown sugar, a little nutmeg, a little salt, and half a cup of butter, ideally at room temperature. I like to use whole wheat flour because it feels like the responsible choice; I do not like to use oats, because that is going too far. Oats are what you put into muffins to make them not cake; oats have no place in dessert.

Work the butter into the flour and the sugar with your fingers until it is sandy with pebbly bits; it should be evenly distributed, so that you have no layers of unfatted flour.

Pour the mixture over top of the fruit, smoothing it with your hands so that it falls into the cracks and crevices and sits evenly over the whole thing.

Bake for 45 minutes.

Notice how un-silent it is. How your child yells fake swear words like “mothertrucker” into a headset to his cousin as they play Fortnite in two different cities. How your partner sucks his teeth now, constantly, and did he do that before? You don’t think so. Notice how loud the dishwasher is, how the yahoos across the street shout their nonsense to no one, how the cyclists have stereos now that broadcast more Sublime than you would expect in 2020, how the sirens start and stop as the traffic lights turn red, how long the cat spends scratching in the litter box, how the bathroom fan seems to always be on. When the stove buzzer goes it will almost be too much.

This is not a fancy thing, and I am not trying to convince you that it is novel. More than anything, this is a reminder about a sweet, warm comfort food made of stuff you probably already have, that only takes about four minutes of active prep time and that is most enjoyable when eaten alone, with a scoop of ice cream if you have it, ideally on your bed with the door closed and everyone’s Instagram stories glowing up at you from your phone, which is on silent.

A cast iron pan of fruit crisp is easily returned to the oven in the morning for reheating; just 10 minutes at 375°F and it will be warm and fresh again, for breakfast and after another walk, and then for breakfast again. Our public health officials are saying it could be a year or more before this is over, and you may find yourself wearing out your walking shoes in the meantime. A new season of shoes – maybe teal and brown; maybe pink and harvest gold – will clear out before too long. Soon it will be plum and then apple season.

We will get through if we have something to look forward to. If that thing is two quiet hours and then some warm, jammy fruit topped with sugary crumbs, all the better.

Blackberry crisp with tea.

Like, vaguely European.

We make nasi goreng fairly often because it is an easy dish to make out of the bits and pieces of a lot of meals leftover in the fridge. A zipper-lock bag of the weekend’s rice, some chopped bits of meat or tofu, and a heap of vegetables grated so that they sort of disappear and I don’t have to hear about it. I top mine with a fried egg and chilli paste; other, less civilized members of this household top theirs with ketchup.

If I am feeling very lazy, or if I have had too much day, I fry my rice with a package of Conimex nasi goreng seasoning that we buy at the Dutch store, or from Superstore when I remember to look for it there. Nasi goreng is one of our staples, a weeknight comfort food that Nick grew up eating. On his birthday, his grandmother would treat him to a pan of Conimex nasi goreng with fried eggs and bananas. His grandmother is Frisian, from one of the northern provinces in the Netherlands. Nasi goreng is a dish from Indonesia.

One of my friends in high school was a kid who described himself as “half Chinese and half regular,” and we laughed but didn’t think much of it. Whiteness was regular, a sort of bland base and we saw it everywhere and were bored by it. When Alison Roman said “I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European,” it read very much like the kind of thing a bored teenage girl would say in 1996, because as a formerly bored teenage girl, I am sure I said something similar then and probably repeated it as if it were interesting all the way through 1999 which was the year boys acknowledged me somewhat so I had something new to talk about. I didn’t know what “whiteness” was.

And I recall being very bored by the endless Canadian history lessons that filled our curriculum, the ones that skipped over Indigenous history and left me annoyed that we’d have to learn about the Fathers of Confederation again (except for a brief overview of the life and death of Louis Riel). Whiteness is not learning until university that John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, was a genocidal alcoholic. You don’t think to Google what you don’t have cause to suspect.

We talk a lot about culture in our home in part because I want our son to find a sense of identity in a world he might otherwise trample through, oblivious. We talk about Scotland, where they invented deep-fried Mars bars and the men wear kilts, sometimes without underpants, and how the Romans thought the people who lived there were so wild they just gave up and walled them off. We talk about the Netherlands, where you can buy pudding in cartons and they grow tulips and have safe bike lanes and the children are the happiest children in the world.

We talk about Canada, and our city on the coast and how wonderful it is that there are so many different people here. We talk about how while our families came from places like Scotland and England and the Netherlands and the US, what we are is Canadian, and to be Canadian is to be a lot of things all at once. We talk about culture because I do not want him thinking of himself as “like, vaguely European,” because in the absence of a sense of culture, he will fail to recognize the ways he benefits from his.

We talk about our culture because we are white and it is important to talk about whiteness, and what it means in the world: it means that we are safer, and we are heard, and that we always have the benefit of the doubt.

Because my lens on the world is smeared with food, I often use what we eat as a way to bridge other topics. We eat nasi goreng because it is an easy weeknight meal, but we talk about where it came from, and how a dish that’s been served in Indonesia for hundreds of years came to be the kind of thing we’d throw together in our kitchen on the other side of the world. We eat nasi goreng because the Dutch East India Company barged in on Indonesia in 1603 and discovered they loved the food, then occupied the country for 350 years; once Indonesia won its independence in 1945, many Indonesians immigrated to the Netherlands where they established restaurants. Indonesia has flavoured Dutch cuisine for centuries.

We cook nasi goreng in our Canadian kitchen, and we are Canadian because our families came to Canada as a result of the Canadian Homestead Act, which was an open invitation to European and American immigrants and Eastern Canadians to settle in the prairies, displacing the land’s First Nations inhabitants, and later because the Canadian and Dutch governments made an agreement to make it easier for Dutch migrants settle in Canada after World War II. The road to where we are now was paved pretty smoothly, and at the expense of people who didn’t look like us. I don’t know how much an eight-year-old understands about any of this or what he absorbs, but we are going to keep talking.

We talk about whiteness and Black lives and how our “no finking” rule doesn’t apply when people could get hurt, and how we always tell on racists (even if they are our friends) because racism hurts. We get stuff wrong, but we have to be willing to say that we don’t know some things, and then follow up with a Google. We have to be open to being wrong about stuff, and then do better.

The kids came home from school on Friday having spent part of their afternoon making Black Lives Matter images for their art assignment. As I understand it, the teacher talked about the protests that are happening all over the world, and gave them age-appropriate information that I hope they carry with them. But, of course, an art project and a lesson to a class of seven kids on a Friday afternoon during a pandemic is not enough.

It’s not enough to post in solidarity on Instagram or Facebook or your food blog; we have to have conversations in our homes even if they are uncomfortable, even if those conversations make us realize things about ourselves that we don’t like. We have to talk about whiteness, especially with our kids.

We can all point to the obvious racists and declare “THAT IS BAD DO NOT DO THAT,” but we also have to teach our people how we got to a place where the loud racists feel like they can be open about their garbage opinions, and how a society that allows those idiots to be like that also benefits us. And then we have to fix it.

Start at the dinner table, and work your way out into the world.

A diary of the mundane and (some of) what we ate.

It has been so long now that we have been at home, and there’s just a month left of spring and we’ve spent most of it indoors. And because I’ve been dealing with a profound bout of brain fog and re-purposing your content for different audiences is Communications 101, here is the pandemic diary I recorded on Facebook of all our time up until yesterday, which has included more My Chemical Romance than I’d have otherwise anticipated, and about the amount of despair anyone could have predicted. How are you doing? I hope you are well, and that you have all of the toilet paper and hand sanitizer that you need. I hope that your Zoom calls are short and that you remember to mute your microphone and turn off your camera when you need to yell at someone or pick at your teeth.

March 14

“I’ve had six juice boxes, two Nutter Butters, a Choco Pie, and all those chocolate Twinkie cupcakes and if that’s the reason I can’t stop farting… anyway, does anyone want to hang out with me in my room?” Day 1.

March 16

Day 3. I never realized how loud Nick is and am remembering that time in 2007 when I yelled at him for not talking enough because I felt like he was keeping things from me. However, I recognize that gratitude is important in times like these and I am grateful that I have ignored everyone’s advice as to my drastic need for a hearing test. I cannot be annoyed by what I cannot hear. What I can hear is plenty.

March 18

Though I haven’t worn make-up for days and really do think I’m washing my face enough, every morning I wake up with new under-eye mascara circles. Have I ever been clean? I have never been better moisturized. Today the Zoom meetings begin and I’m going to try to make sunglasses indoors a thing. We are running out of chips and another box of granola bars has been depleted. The child is now one of those rioting Thai monkeys. Day 5.

March 19

Day 6. Molly Waffles has never been happier. Hours upon hours of deep eye contact. While feral child has now watched every single thing on YouTube, we are attachment-parenting the cat. She loves the piles of warm laundry no one ever folds. She sneaks licks from every bowl of chips she passes. She waits to poop until we are all nearby. There is cat hair in my tea.

March 20

Is this the seventh day? Time has no meaning. There are buds on the tree outside my window. There is honey everywhere from when I spilled it trying to do an Instagram story yesterday. Soon it will be the season for ants. Honey everywhere. I can’t tell if this back pain is just from couch work, no longer wearing real bras (just some “bras” I bought from an infomercial four years ago), or kidney failure because I only drink coffee now. Everything is sticky. Soon, the ants. We are doing just enough but not more.

March 23

Is it day 10? I have been online shopping so that more of my days can be like Christmas. This week Santa will leave me a spice grinder and vanilla bean paste. I have a Himalayan salt lamp in one of my shopping carts, it promises me health for zero effort aside from the $39 I have to spend on it, and I have a coupon. I have been sneezing, and I worry that if I fall ill I will still have to work remotely. I have four meetings over various videoconferencing platforms today, and a Google doc so we can all work together efficiently and not miss our deadline. I will remove the salt lamp from my cart, and beg the universe for the sweet release of death.

March 25

Day 12. I have more meetings now than ever. Productivity is nodding along on a video call with your microphone on mute. In between meetings I make sandwiches. I wonder at the limits of Zoom’s skin-fix feature, and worry that my hair was overdue for some attention months before all of this and everyone can tell. Maybe I will model myself after Imperator Furiosa and shave it all off; the mascara problem persists so the look could work. Is it Wednesday? I measure time in jars of peanut butter. Buy stock in Kraft.

March 26

Today I used my threatening Batman voice to coerce a child to eat oatmeal. I misunderstood a deal in a Hot Topic email and bought him a My Chemical Romance shirt that cost me fifty Canadian dollars. In the kitchen, Nick is quietly singing the chorus to I’m Not Okay. We’re all a little emo now. Me mostly for spending $50 to purchase and ship a T-shirt, Nick because I have made every surface sticky, and the child because he is FORCED to eat DISGUSTING things ALL THE TIME. Emo is a lifestyle you come to in different ways. Apparently all of the dish towels were hidden beneath the pile of half-empty chip bags I’ve been throwing on top of the fridge. Oh. If I had known that I might have wiped the counters. Check on Nick. He is not okay. Day 13.

March 27

As I listen to my strange son cackling to himself while adding weird nonsense to his group chat, I am concerned that he is spending too much time with his father. Children call at odd hours. Gen Z are phone people? Have we taught you nothing? The video calls keep coming. Bro. Bro. Hey bro. BRO. BRO WHERE ARE YOU. Our 30 day supply of gin ran out yesterday. Day 14.

March 29

Facebook suggests that it might be time to meet someone new, but dating right now would be complicated for several reasons. I can’t even make myself presentable to go down to the lobby and check the mail. And what if I met someone who has kids, and the next time there’s a global pandemic I’d be locked indoors with additional children? I’ve been trying to figure out if boarding schools have ceased operations during these complicated times, because why not plan for the future when we have so much time to dream. I’m not sure this is the right time, Facebook, but I’ll talk to Nick about it anyway. Day 16.

March 30

Day 17. Back to school, virtually. So far we’ve had several recesses plus a lunch break. After some art, it is time for a Fortnite break. I bought the child’s math workbook so he could keep up, but “we don’t do math EVERY day at school, that would be ridiculous.” Sounds legit. After a Fortnite break, I am told there will be cookies and possibly a nap. School is better than I remember, but I don’t think any of us are passing. “Can you teach me to play poker?” Yes.

April 2

Birthday offers from my old life appear in my inbox daily. A deal on pants, 50% off gigantic underwire bras, shoes with form and structure. I am starting to wonder if the brands really understand me at all. My birthday is ten days away. In a low moment, I clicked through an Instagram ad and ordered natural deodorant that promises to make me smell like lavender and roses, but also probably hot dogs, because now is the time to try something that may fail. Like toxin-free pit stick, or home-schooling. Day 20.

April 5

Day 23? We went to the forest because when some people don’t burn off all their abundant energy it’s converted into STRONG FEELINGS and OPEN WEEPING. So we threw boulders into the river and climbed across the fallen trees and some people peed in the woods and there weren’t other people around and everyone felt better.

April 7

Have you ever successfully copy-edited an annual report for physicists while a child hollers every two minutes for you to come see his Minecrafts? Me neither. A lot of people in this home like to talk through their thoughts to what I imagine is, to them, some sort of logical conclusion. No one here does “quiet contemplation.” No one here will look in the fridge to see what food we have before asking what food we have. It takes 30 days to establish a new habit and it looks like my family has mastered several new and slightly irritating habits ahead of schedule. I’m hiding outside. Day 25.

April 11

Last night I drank a lot of gin and baked chocolate chip cookies and presented an accidental TED Talk on the topic of Don Johnson and his career. “DON JOHNSON IS HAVING A RENAISSANCE.” I have seen two things Don Johnson was in recently. A RENAISSANCE. Maybe I will spend a part of this weekend thinking about why Don Johnson occupies this part of my brain. I watched the movie Born Yesterday with Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith on VHS every night for three months after I got a TV with a built-in VCR in my room as a teen. It was not a brilliant movie. Maybe you can accidentally train your brain to care about things subconsciously and I trained mine to pay special attention to Don Johnson. If I’d known this was possible I would have used my powers differently. How much gin is too much. Is my mind getting sharper or am I beginning to unravel? The cookies were good. Day 30.

April 13

Yesterday was my birthday and while I thought a pandemic birthday would be boring and sad, it was neither. It turns out the thing that makes me happiest is when everyone does what I want and everything goes my way. This is not surprising, especially to Nick. I turned 37. We ate almost constantly and walked in our neighbourhood and played Super Nintendo and I made ramen and cake with fresh mangoes and cream. Today everyone is being annoying and there was no breakfast platter waiting for me, so it turns out today is the day for bored sadness. Day 32.

April 18

Day 37. I feel reasonably confident that I showered on Tuesday. The bathroom, our only bathroom, is not a refuge as Loud Son never thinks to go until it is an emergency, and every locked door is an emergency. Emergency: I need to tell you something important: <20 MINUTE FORTNITE MONOLOGUE>. Emergency: MOM. I NEED YOU TO SHOW ME AGAIN HOW TO DO GIFS. Emergency: I DRANK THREE LITRES OF GATORADE (IT’S FINE DAD BOUGHT IT FOR ME) AND MY BLADDER IS GOING TO EXPLODE RIGHT NOW, OH MY GOD MOM IT’S HAPPENING. I’m not sure if I’m not showering because subconsciously I’ve realized that eventually I’ll have my own perimeter of personal space by default. The cat follows me constantly and when I stop, she licks at my wrists and ankles in a manner I can only describe as gluttonous. Emergency: MOM SMELLS LIKE FRISKIES CHUNKS CHICKEN DINNER IN GRAVY.

April 19

Son petulantly blasting My Chemical Romance and sulking while I try to watch my cooking YouTubes is both irritating and also just like me. No one understands us. Adults are so uncool. Misery and eyeliner. Day 38.

April 22

Day 41. Everyone is annoying but it’s hard to know who the worst offender is. Since I’m the only one committing my story to the public record, assume I’m this family’s protagonist. I always do. An argument as to who’s being a little bitch and who is just married to the little bitch and therefore suffers THE MOST has ended in a stalemate. The cat literally requires all hands on deck. None of the leisure wear I ordered two weeks ago has shipped. The teacher is supposed to call at 2:00 today and I’m sure the younger antagonist will be honest, unfortunately. Should I have offered him more than Cheezies for lunch? Too late now. The cat is fussing. I broke our eye contact for a moment. I have to go.

April 28

Day 47. My coworker is aggressive and omnipresent. HOLY SHIT A MEETIN WITH FINANCE?! GUESS WHAT? BUTTHOLE TIME! BIG STRETCH! I HAVE BATH FOR YOU! I am covered in scratches. I am never alone. Finance would like us to get back to the real reason for the meeting which, it turns out, is not to witness me unravel as a five-pound cat shreds my professional veneer. BUTTHOLE TIME AGAIN! Help.

May 1

It has been fifty days and we haven’t all spent this much time together since Loud Boy was a reasonably quiet infant, only then we could go out for early brunches where they’d serve mimosas and decent coffee. There is roughly the same amount of crying now that the child is capable of refusing to do chores, only now I refuse his constant requests to nap. He is not exerting himself. I continue to wait for leisurewear that has and/or has not been “out for delivery” for several days. I checked the tracking number and it will arrive in 0 to 11 days. It is Schrödinger’s leisurewear at this point. I am not exerting myself. Fifty days. I have aged eight years.

May 9

Day 58. Child has developed several levels in Super Mario Maker that strangers online have “liked.” “I HAVE EIGHT LIKES!” I told him other things he can do for likes are clean the bathroom and put a shirt on, but he’s a skeptic. Everyone knows the approval of strangers online is more satisfying than a sigh of resignation from your mother when you half-ass but still technically complete a chore. “OH MY GOD MOM I GOT ANOTHER ONE!” Should I just set him up with an Instagram account so he can bask in the blue-light glow of attention and validation? Or should I scare him off the internet with tales of sinister perverts and identity theft so that he never has more followers than I do? Murder perverts it is.

May 12

My favourite emails from the school come from the PE teacher, who appears to be thriving. Each weekly email begins with a humblebrag about how he has managed to stay active, and proceeds with a list of things your kids can do to stay active and rather than explain the steps, if you do not know what he is asking your inactive children to do he invites you to Google it. Every week the activities are the same. I think I could have been a really good PE teacher since I too do not care if anyone is meeting their daily physical activity requirements. Remember in Grade 8 when instead of sports they had us do Tae Bo videos in the weight room? I think I could have been a really good PE teacher. For his fitness activity today, I am sending the child out with his father to find me a latte and bring it home to me without spilling, just like our PE teacher in high school who they made teach French for some reason. He did not speak French. If you were lucky, you could be the one to leave French class and grab him a vending machine Coke. I still do not speak French. Is it too late to become a PE teacher. Day 61.

May 18
Day 67. We were supposed to fly to Paris today. I’d imagined we’d eat a travel-weary dinner outside, fresh baguettes and terrine and oozy cheeses and maybe, if we were lucky, fraises de bois and a cold rosé on a bench in a park. We would wander around the city for a week before going to see Erin in Germany, then Tracy in Sweden. Instead we will trim the cat’s nails and put on the summer duvet cover and bicker about who has and hasn’t done enough around here lately. I will check our “travel bank” to see if our travel credits are there, because WestJet doesn’t give you your money back, just the airline equivalent of store credit and the hope that it will be safe to travel before they expire in 2022. There won’t be any wild strawberries or rosé, though you may find me drinking on a park bench by dinner time. It was appropriate and responsible to cancel the trip, but I will still spend much of today bothering everyone with my malaise.
May 20
That kid is despondent because McDonald’s doesn’t serve fries with its pancake meal before 11:00 am. “HOW am I supposed to ENJOY my LIFE?!” I don’t know, but I am not trying to help. “Make yourself a sandwich, you can’t bug me while I’m working.” An email from the school asks if he will be returning June 1. I don’t know. Are his friends going back? Do I want to add an early morning rush AND 3:00 pm pickup to my remote-work day? Now he is eating chocolate chips out of the bag and complaining that we have no food in this house. We have food. If I don’t send him to school is there somewhere else I can send him? How old do you have to be to go tree-planting? “You don’t care that I’m starving!” Correct. Day 69.

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Sheet pan chicken with chickpeas and peppers.

Sheet pan chicken with chickpeas and red peppers.

Sheet pan chicken with chickpeas and red peppers.

The night before, search the freezer for the family pack of bone-in, skin-on chicken breast you bought when they were on sale a few weeks ago. My family pack is just three pieces, a rare thing when so many family things are designed for more. It is hard to imagine feeding a bigger family right now. Feeding, educating, emotionally supporting, trying to keep other people alive; these are all tricky things at any time, but especially now. On his poetry assignment today, the child described “the smells of home” as “cat litter and meat.” It’s fine. I’m fine.

Defrost the chicken in the fridge overnight. This recipe will accommodate four bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts.

In the morning, possibly dreadfully early, open up a large freezer bag. If it is so early that you haven’t had your coffee and are clumsy, open the bag into mixing bowl so that it doesn’t topple over and spill raw chicken mess onto your counter later. Open a can of chickpeas, ideally one that is around 540mL or 19 ounces. Drain them into a colander, then rinse them. Dump them into the freezer bag.

Finely chop a Roma or plum tomato, and toss it into the bag too. Chop a red bell pepper into bite-size pieces; we are not looking for elegant slivers of pepper, or even a uniform dice; you need pieces that will hold up in the oven. Are you serving more than three people, and do you have more peppers? That’s fine, use more. You can use another colour of pepper if you want to, or if that’s all you have; I think red looks nicest so that’s what we always have.

Boil some water. Crumble a few strands of saffron into a small dish. Now is the time to use the spices in your cupboard, especially if they are from other places and absolutely not here. If you’re like me, pretending you’re someplace else is an essential coping strategy. Steep the saffron in one to two tablespoons of boiling water for a few minutes, until the water has turned a vibrant yellow and cooled.

In a bowl, add 1/4-cup of olive oil, the zest and juice of one lemon, three minced garlic cloves, one tablespoon of smoked paprika, two teaspoons of salt, one teaspoon of ground black pepper, half a teaspoon of ground cumin, half a teaspoon of ground coriander, and all of the saffron extract you just made. Whisk it all together and give it a quick taste. Does it need more of anything? Add that.

Pour the contents of the bowl into your freezer bag and squish everything around so that everything gets coated and takes on a rusty hue. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can, and then seal the bag. Flatten it out as much as you can, put it onto a baking sheet, and shove it in the fridge so that you can spend many hours on Zoom meetings while a child hollers in the background about how hard math is. Like you don’t know. Remember to mute your microphone or your coworkers will hear the open weeping of a child who is not allowed to play Minecraft until after he finishes his Earth Day assignment which was due on Earth Day.

Wonder what everyone else on the Zoom call is trying to hide. Trust that everyone is doing their best to pretend this isn’t chaos. We have items to action, and deliverables to deliver. Anyone working from home is a marketer now, and many of us are keeping our professional brands in tact while our cats barf on the living room floor out of frame.

The chicken can be in the fridge all day, and it will be. But when it is time start thinking about dinner, take everything out of the fridge. Squish the bag again, so that the seasonings move around a bit. The bag should sit on the counter for 30 minutes, but if it ends up being an hour that’s okay. Dinner will cook better if it starts closer to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Spray or otherwise lightly grease your sheet pan. Open the bag and dump everything out on the sheet pan. Using your hands or tongs, position the chicken bone-side down, and so that the bottom is touching the metal of the pan. Push the chickpeas and peppers around the chicken, and try to keep everything in a single layer.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes. I like to rotate my pan once in the middle of cooking for even browning.

Serve with whatever you have. I have a lot of cucumbers at all times, and there was another tomato leftover. We had herbs wilting. We always have green onions. I made tahdig, because I have rice and time.

If this all seems very daunting, don’t do it. I post a lot of pictures on Instagram of what we’re eating because meals are milestones in my days, and thinking about what I am going to eat next gives my life a necessary structure. I like to cook, and our apartment is small and the kitchen is a place where I can be close to alone for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. We are living through unusual circumstances, and you are not obligated to do anything extra right now. But if a complete dinner on a single pan appeals, this one is pretty easy, and easy to adapt.

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.)