My mother is now deep into extreme old age, but at the height of her career back in the 1970s in Montreal she wrote a weekly column for the paper, reviewed movies for CBC radio and, had a gig as a commentator on a local Sunday Morning TV show. Looking at this tiny bird of a woman who’s lost most of her words it’s hard for me to remember what a powerhouse she was. Of late, she’s taken to reading through decades worth of her diaries. No doubt, it is an attempt to recapture some essence of her former self. And, every once in a while she’ll send along an entry that she thinks might interest me. This is an annotated version of what she wrote in December 1975 just before the launch of her TV show.
I think I was marvelous on the pilot. Had to give G—- decent questions to ask the guests. His were atrocious, worse boring. Producers seem pleased. Must get a better haircut and remember to suck in my stomach.
Bex freaks out and says she wants to kill Sophie and me. Dear old doctor Mitch comes over and discusses foods that are poisons in her systems. I wonder though, is Bex a visionary? Later I hear her in the kitchen making a liverwurst and pickle sandwich — toasted, natch.
Before I begin to unravel what struck me about this diary entry, let me back up a bit, and fill you in on my teenage years. My brain went haywire about the same time my body started sprouting. All connected, I know. Stir to the mix the fact that my parents had just divorced, my sincere and unshakable conviction that school was a waste of time, drugs (lots) boys (not enough) and you had a kid with a penchant for panic attacks. My mother took me to a couple of shrinks. That ended when one said, “Think of your fear as a monster under your bed. He’s not there, is he? Well, then.”
Being an early adherent to revolutionary nutritionist, Adele Davis and wise in her own way, my mother then took me to see this strange little man, the afore-mentioned Dr. Mitch, who must have been some sort of holistic nutritionist. Or a quack. Doesn’t matter, my mother and I chose, maybe needed to believe. He grilled us on what I ate. Within minutes he decided that cows were poisoning me. Beef, milk, cheese all had enzymes that my body couldn’t cope with. What the hell is an enzyme, anyway? All I can think of is Oxi Clean. Whatever they are, they were apparently creating havoc in my body.
We went home, and in a frenzy, mother threw out all things connected to a cow. Except butter. We decided we’d rather have me harrying around mad as a hatter then give up buttered toast.
Which brings us back to my mother’s diary.
A couple of things caught my eye when I read it. First: Gee, what do I need to do to be the lead story in my mother’s life? Second: Only my mother when faced with a daughter quaking in front of her afraid she might kill her and my kid sister would choose to believe I was a visionary. I love her for that. And lastly, and most importantly, that I had to have a liverwurst and pickle sandwich.
I’ve thought long and hard about that sandwich, what eating it that night meant. The liverwurst was salty, full of fat, the pickle offered an acidic punch, the bread, which was toasted wheat and soya, was dense and hardy enough to adsorb the lashings of butter I spread on. These flavors together were vivid.
At fifteen I knew very little of the world, but my brain, it wanted, demanded action! But with no great external experiences, I think, it had begun to feed on itself. Add in the natural self-absorption of a teenager, and no wonder I was “freaking out” and seized by a momentary urge to kill my mother. But I truly believe that I was just going “mad” with boredom, or perhaps it was impatience, the desire to get up, get on, get out and food was the one thing that got me out of my brain. I was always hunting for flavor. No plain old cereal for me in the morning. I’d have sharp sheep’s feta with Branston Pickle, or better still, homemade pea soup with toothsome bits of ham hock accented with Tabasco sauce. For my after-school snack (the days I actually made it to school) I would sauté down peppery watercress in butter and soy sauce and toss it with rice and onions.
I left home at eighteen and moved to New York. I met the world. I started to travel. I met more of the world. My brain and I became friends and together we began a quest for even more flavor.
I remember the first time I ate Szechwan food I burst into tears. It was everything I had been searching for: heat, salt, fat. I went to this little restaurant by the Manhattan Bridge (gone now) so much that my blood ran red with chili oil.
In my own cooking, I’m always dry brining, tucking in sources of heat, dashing in wine, or spirits, salting, salting, salting with flakey rich sea salt. I season meat with a shower of pink, white, black and, red pepper. I marry jerk sauce with miso. Goose already incendiary Indian chili pickle with Szechwan peppercorns. Sometimes my concoctions are a bit weird, I’ll admit. But often the alchemy is just right, and I create a masterpiece, a mind-blowing, tongue numbing, eye-watering elixir. My food (to some people’s horror) is never subtle. It explodes on your palate.
Dr. Mitch was right; we are what we eat. And all the flavours to be found in this big wide world saved me. I did eventually slowly add beef back into my diet. After all, who can live without aged cheddar or a burger smothered in stewed jalapeños for that matter? Although, I do tell my husband that it’s probably best to hide the knives after we’ve eaten a steak. Just to be safe.
Flavor bomb roasted chicken bites tossed with pepper
This is a riff on the classic Chinese dish Chicken with Salt and Pepper.
One whole head of Garlic
10 Chilies, red chili or Jalapeño or Serrano
One bunch Scallions
2 tsp Dried Chilli Flakes
4 tsp Coriander Seeds
2 tsp Szechuan Pepper
1 tsp White Pepper
Salt to taste
One cup Olive oil, not Virgin.
Six Organic Chicken Thighs, or Ten Chicken Wings, separated.
Cut the thighs into bite-size pieces making sure each piece has a bit of skin attached. Salt.
Roast skin down in a 425-degree oven 20 minutes or until crispy.
Slice the garlic into relatively thick slices.
Pour oil into a small saucepan. Heat on medium heat and fry the garlic slices. You will have to watch them. From time to time lightly shake pan but don’t stir. You don’t want the pieces breaking up. It usually takes about ten minutes; you want them golden brown. Remove from oil and drain on paper towel. You now have beautifully fragrant garlic oil. What you don’t use in the recipe, let completely cool and store. I refrigerate it, but I’m not sure that’s the proper way but I’ve found it does last longer.
Chop the scallions, green and white parts. Slice the peppers.
Remove Chicken from the oven.
While the chicken rests, put four or five tablespoons of the garlic oil in a pan, heat, add scallions, peppers, dried pepper flakes, coriander seeds, Szechuan peppers, white pepper, and salt. Cook until everything is fragrant. About two or three minutes.
Toss in chicken, coating well. Sprinkle with garlic chips. Add more salt if needed.