Cooking for One
Every day that I’m down in the Don Valley, I see winter giving way to spring as the soft greens and yellows of new growth transform what has been a predominantly brown and grey brittle landscape for months.
I watch Tilda, the Lab mix that M and I adopted in August, maturing slowly but surely from the hyperactive, untrained puppy we brought home into a still exuberant and playful yet focused, loyal, and loving companion.
But perhaps the biggest change of all around here these days is that after twelve years of cooking for two, I’ll now be cooking only for one. M and I have come to a point in our lives where our shared path branches off in two directions. As hard as I’ve resisted, it is time to accept what is laid out at our feet: We each must follow a different route.
M has figured into so many of the stories I tell here at Nostrovia! that I felt strongly I wanted to write about why he will no longer, rather than having his presence simply disappear from my writing life with no explanation. And what a strange thing even to have to contemplate, but such is this way we live our lives now, with a public window on at least some of our day-to-day existence.
But how do you write about the ending of a twelve-year life partnership, one you assumed would last, as was originally intended, forever? The details must remain private, but why mention it at all unless to follow the writer’s impulse to capture the exactness of a moment? And how even to attempt to pin down the exactness of one of these moments here at the end, when each is such a chaotic and confusing tumult of emotions — such deep sadness, fear, relief, anger, tenderness, profound disappointment, and yet hope for a new future.
I found the solution right here in front of me, in the philosophy on which I built Nostrovia!, a celebration of food, of family and friends, of life.
Let’s be honest. No matter the depth of love, two people do not find themselves at the end of a twelve-year run without there having been some grim discussions, raised voices, and more tears than you’d imagine your eyes had capacity to cry. In these last weeks that we’ll live together under the same roof, we’ve accepted that some of this conflict will spill over into the final days. But we’re trying to keep those days to a minimum. Instead, we’ve decided to try to focus our remaining time on living amicably and companionably, remembering what brought us together in the first place and the things we really love about each other. As difficult it can be to keep negative emotions completely absent from the end days, it just feels more constructive and worthy of a person you’ve loved for so long to try to move into the future with good will rather than with bitterness.
And suddenly it seemed obvious what I needed to do here. Celebrate with fond remembrance. Now is the time to imprint on my heart the most memorable meals that M and I have shared, the moments of contentment, peace, and true happiness that have unfolded over a plate of this and a bite of that.
Like our first dinner date at Kalendar on College Street. I actually can’t remember what I ate that night, too focused as I was on M’s shy smile that illuminated our dimly lit table every time it flashed across his face. What I do remember from that night is accidentally picking up my purse from the bottom rather than the top corner and dumping its contents all over the floor of a tiny, bustling space on my way to the ladies’ room. Three servers sprung into action, tackling the bits and bobs that were scattering in all directions and dumping them back into the bag I sheepishly held open as I thought “If I’m acting this klutzy, it must be love.”
Also in those heady early days there was our Toronto Island picnic. We loaded a backpack full of containers of olives, marinated artichokes, pickled stuffed peppers, cured meat, cheese, and bread from Scheffler’s Deli at the St. Lawrence Market and took the ferry across the harbour. (Picnicking would become a tradition of sorts for us; we regularly took a blanket and sustenance to Parc Lafontaine when we lived in Montreal, and there’s a spot here in the Beach and one in Riverdale Park East, under a silver maple, that have hosted many al fresco lunches and dinners.) We walked Ward’s Island, fingers entwined, from end to end that day; it was the first time I had ever seen its residences up close. As late afternoon set in there was a wedding being celebrated at the island community centre, and it didn’t feel too soon to be thinking that it might be our turn one day. There is a photograph of me M took that day on the ferry-crossing. I’m leaning on the rail, a black-and-white polka-dotted chiffon scarf I used to always wear fluttering past my shoulder; my face, in profile, is looking out over the water, fixed in a state of dreamy contentment.
If I wasn’t in love with him already at that point, how could I not be after M made me dinner the first time? Handmade spinach gnocchi, steamed artichokes halved and filled with aioli, and a spinach salad scattered with oranges and asparagus tips. He went no-holds-barred for a girl he knew loved to cook.
Suffice it to say that while living in Montreal for five years, and a block south from Avenue Mont-Royale no less, we were surrounded by unparalleled dining and the finest and freshest ingredients to be had. But nothing will be as memorable as our first morning in La Belle Province. Having spent a hellish overnight on the road and moving all our possessions into our new apartment between the hours of 3am and 6am (it’s a long story), we sat on our front stoop, knees touching, as a yellow-gold August sun climbed the morning sky. It was the first space we ever called our collective home, and there we ate aged triple-creme cheese smeared onto fresh baguette, both procured from specialty shops that would become part of my daily food-gathering routine as we grew roots in our Plateau neighbourhood. I have never been so tired as I was on that morning. And so happy.
On camping trips we ate the impressive likes of red Thai curry and wild mushroom risotto made on our little camp stove and our sandwiches for day hikes were works of art, slathered with exotic mustards and layered with interesting cheeses, pickles, and whole leaves of fresh herbs. On nights when it was just too hot to bear in our second- and third-storey Toronto apartment we’d take containers of panzenella we’d just mixed ourselves to one of the local parks that flanks the inner-city railroad and watch the GO and VIA trains whiz by as we ate under the shade of a tree, waiting with fervid hope that we’d see the grass bend in a breeze that would break the pressing humidity.
It’s impossible to think of our twelve years together and not remember family meals. How proud I was to share my maternal family’s traditional Christmas dishes with my partner for the first time, urging M to taste the duck with sauerkraut, the creamed pidpenky mushrooms, and perogies made with pressed cottage cheese and sour cherries. We’d have those creamed wild mushrooms again, this time with the pidpenky we picked ourselves under the tutelage of my Aunt Janice and Uncle Gary, who who passed down to us their knowledge of foraging learned from my grandparents and great-grandparents. We ate those mushrooms alongside house-smoked turkey, which M and my uncle presided over in the smoker while my aunt and I cleaned and canned our day’s mushroom haul.
And just last summer there was a traditional New England clam and lobster boil at M’s family cottage, an event that will last long in my memory now. Generations of family and family friends stood should-to-shoulder, preparing all the foods that descended into the cavernous pot — collards and potatoes and corn and sausages, all nestled together with the shellfish. Standing between his mother and grandmother M sliced chourico, while his older brother stirred garlic and red pepper paste into the sizzling oil. M’s late father John would have been proud to see it. After cooking, the pot’s contents filled an entire picnic table set out with serving bowls, and a hoard of close to thirty people barely spoke a word as they ate, satisfied solely by the delicacies on their plates and the company they kept.
I lift the proverbial glass to these highlights from twelve years of eating well together. My heart breaks to think of them now as memories rather than part of my reality, but I’m trying hard to consider it this way: The impulse to reach deep and chronicle the good feels healing. Or at least it will, in time.
So, “Cheers,” I say. Here’s to M, and here’s to me. Here’s to times we shared that were delectable.