Something to Read: Eat, Memory


It’s been five days since I had my wisdom teeth out and my mouth still throbs with a dull, insistent ache. I haven’t eaten a satisfying meal in what feels like forever, and nobody is interested in indulging me as I whine about it. These are the worst of times. I am not exaggerating, I don’t care what Nick says. Also we have ants. And I’m almost out of pills.

I am having a hard time mustering a kind word or the slightest enthusiasm for anything, so I’m phoning it in tonight, and leaving you with a poem and a recipe for Sole Meunière, a wonderful thing and a meal I could probably eat if someone else would make it for me. The poem and the recipe both come from Eat, Memory, a book of culinary essays from the New York Times, assembled and edited by Amanda Hesser.


The Fish, by Billy Collins

As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.

I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.

And I feel sorry for you, too –
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh –
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.

And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.

Sole Meunière

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. oil, such as canola
  • 2 fillets of sole
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, diced
  • 2 tbsp. white wine
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tbsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Place the flour in a wide dish, such as a pie plate. In a large skillet, heat oil over high heat.

Season fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge through flour.

Cook in the oil for two minutes, the flip and cook the other side a minute more.

Pour off the oil in the skillet and wipe clean with a paper towel.

Place the pan back on the heat, and add the butter. Cook the butter until it has melted and turned golden. It should smell faintly nutty. Add the wine, and boil for 20 seconds. Add the lemon and parsley, and cook another 20 seconds. You’ve just made a beurre blanc. It is fabulous. Pour it over the sole and eat immediately. Serves two.

Something to Read: Food and Trembling


I have so many cookbooks and books on food that my collection has its own shelf. We don’t really have room for it, but I’m quite happy to have a shelf full of books I don’t really have room for and won’t hear complaints about my hoarding, so Nick copes. My dream is that someday I will have a kitchen with two small rooms attached – one large pantry, the other a tiny library with a lamp and a desk and a chair. What a wonderful hiding place that would be! It would lock from the inside and maybe there would be a snack cupboard and a small electric kettle.

I wanted to tell you about some of these books. Between work and Toddler and all the little projects that turn into great big things I have to do, I have fallen out of the habit of working on things I’m actually excited about. So for April, while I am trying to wrap up a couple of things, I figured I’d get back into the habit of putting words on web-pages and talk books with you.

Yesterday, Alice B. Toklas; today, a strange Canadian named Jonah Campbell. His blog, Still Crapulent After All These Years, is one of my favourites. His December 24, 2013 posts, a “drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion,” had me all riled up and inspired and searching my local bookstore for a good drinks book of some glamorous vintage. Now that we have reclaimed Christmas Eve from the urgent familial madness that strikes us each November/December, I might go exploring my own book next year.


Campbell’s book, Food & Trembling, was an impulse buy when I had a giftcard and my neighbourhood store had no other books of food writing I didn’t already own. The back cover asks “What mysteries lie beneath the subtle perfection of the BLT? What is the etymology of the ‘croissant’? Why did I drink all that scotch?” and describes Campbell as “metalhead, misanthrope, unrepentant good eater,” and I was sold right then. I may never meet him, for he is in Montreal and airfare is expensive, but he seemed like my kind of people.

The book is good. It’s filled with little snippets, like his blog, and his words are like fatty bites of meat, all chew and savour, always with a little left on your tongue afterward. There aren’t really recipes. He is over the top and chaotic at times, but he is amusing and clever and I always get swept up by that.

“For whatever structural reasons, I seem to end up, as I am currently, drunk and alone in my brother’s house more often than my own (correction – getting and staying drunk and alone), and as such, a notable amount of my writing has emerged flanked by his giant cats, toy robots, tastefully arranged clutter, and just the right number of decorative bottles that I have somehow never managed to capture in my own life. The first week, more or less, of my blog’s existence, my late-night discovery of Julia Child’s twenty second omelet recipe, probably a bunch of stuff about fennel and/or rapini, because cheap fennel and rapini season often coincides with my brother needing a cat-sitter; I cannot discount this house in the framing of my creative production.”

It’s the kind of writing I really enjoy, the kind of thing you might devour in one or two long goes. If you buy it, and you read it, make sure you have chips. This seems important. Chips. Lots of them.

Julia Child’s 20-second omelette


Something to Read: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book


I can be a bit of a pain to travel with, because I don’t care so much about seeing sights or sites and just want to get to the bookstore. In San Francisco, the first time, City Lights Bookstore was my first and most important To Do, and I went there just about first thing on the very first day. I nearly blew my budget that morning, and bought so many books that it was barely noon by the time the plastic bag I had to lug them around in was stretched and torn. We were a long way from our motel room, so I dragged that bag all over the city, my hands sweating against the plastic and the bag slipping constantly out of my grip.

There must be a lesson in that experience, but I haven’t learned it.

In Paris, Grace and I had different interests – her, art; me, books and ice cream – so we would go our separate ways in the morning and then meet again later on, around mealtime. One day, I spent almost an entire afternoon in Shakespeare & Co., sitting in a tattered red armchair upstairs, reading tattered old books and imagining just staying in France forever. That morning, I had gone to Père Lachaise Cemetery to see Gertrude Stein’s and Oscar Wilde’s graves, and was sort of sad to find that Alice B. Toklas’ headstone didn’t seem to bear her name. I made a mental note – if I ever become a Very Important Writer – to let Nick have his own headstone (beside my monument) with his own name on it. It is the least my estate could do.


Anyway, when I made it to Shakespeare & Co., the first book that caught my eye was Murder in the Kitchen, an excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cook BookI bought it, and then when I got back to Vancouver bought the full cookbook at the bookstore close to home.

Alice was and still is wonderful, and you cannot read her without feeling at the end that you have come to know her personally. She writes about France during the first world war in studied detail, and many of her recipes are simple and restrained, the sort of unfussy stuff we live for now. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is a cookbook only in a loose sense; it’s much more literary, a piece of memoir so compelling that the recipes almost play the role of photographs, giving you a sensual impression of having been where Alice has gone. You really do tour France with Alice, driving away from Paris and through the country in Aunt Pauline, Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein’s Ford, named for Stein’s Aunt Pauline, who “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was flattered.”

This is French cookery that pre-dates Julia Child, and the recipes range from the delicate and fancy – read Murder in the Kitchen for her struggle to prepare stuffed carp for Picasso – to the rustic and comforting, like the one for “Soup of Shallots and Cheese,” which calls for shallots cooked in butter with broth and a dribble of cream, topped with toast and melted cheese. I want to eat that every day of my life. Don’t you?

There are gems throughout the book, and one of these is for “a friend’s” hash fudge, which I read with the kind of excitement you might feel upon learning that your grandparents were way cooler than your parents gave them credit for. Hash fudge! In a book written in the 1950s! I mean, I know intellectually that was a thing that existed then, but still.

“It is the food of Paradise – of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the FAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter, ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Teresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement révaillé’.” (Page 259.)

Don’t you want to join that Bridge Club? I have no idea where one might obtain the secret ingredient (I am an old lady before my time, I suppose, and tragically, perpetually un-hip), but I’m sharing the recipe with you anyway. Maybe you have some adult grand-kids you need to shock and awe? Alice writes that this is something “anyone could whip up on a rainy day,” so there you go.

Alice B. Toklas’ Haschich Fudge

  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 whole nutmeg
  • 4 “average” sticks of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. coriander seeds
  • Handful pitted dates
  • Handful dried figs
  • Handful shelled almonds
  • A bunch of canibus sativa (in North America, Alice advises that you might find canibus indica instead and that it will work fine for these purposes)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 to 2 tbsp. butter (“a big pat of butter”)

Using a mortar and pestle (or a coffee or spice grinder if you’re lazy or you remember it’s the future), grind up your peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander seeds. It might be nice to toast these in a pan over medium heat first? Use your judgment.

Finely chop your dates, figs and almonds, and mix them together (this would go faster with a food processor).

Dissolve the sugar in the butter. The instructions here aren’t clear, but what you’d be going for is a bit of a caramel; you want the sugar to turn liquid, which is best done in a heavy-bottomed pot, such as enameled cast iron, over medium-high heat. Let the sugar melt before stirring. For optimal flavour, allow the sugar to cook until bubbling and golden.

Pulverize your canibus sativa (or indica), and knead it and the spices into your dried fruit/nut mixture (again, the food processor is probably best for this). Add your sugar/butter caramel mixture, and mix until combined.

Press the mixture into a pan, and cut into pieces (or roll into balls) about the size of a walnut.

To serve, Alice advises that you eat this with care, and that two pieces should be quite sufficient.

If you make this, let me know. It sounds like a high-fibre good time, though it might just make one sleepy and hungry for nachos.

And read Alice’s book. It’s a good one.