radical enthusiasm, plus bran muffins

bran muffins

The kitchen counter at the Dougall Avenue house was long and narrow, a speckled beige Formica. The kitchen itself was typical of a late-eighties reno: the cream-and-brown up-and-down refrigerator (before they fell out of—then came back into—fashion) and glossy orange-cocoa tiles arranged in hopscotch pattern, which we would follow daily as we skipped the kitchen’s length, the tile left glossier by our socks.

I spent many years with a bum planted to that Formica. Mom was hands on with us girls. In the kitchen as her sous chefs. In the garden as her bean-snappers, one bean for the wicker basket, one bean for each hungry maw. In the bathtub, rendering soap crayons to nubs, two addicts with a pack-a-week habit who drew in technicolor on the tub’s porcelain surface (and each-other) the imaginings of childhood. In the basement, mom’s gallery installed with our art; caterpillars of egg cartons and origami swans and many a tempera paint masterpiece lining the walls. In the playroom, whose costume cupboard spilled with her distinctively patterned seventies wardrobe and highest heels; we’d become gypsies and fairies and mermaids as she ironed dad’s shirts.

Eleni and I were insulated within the castle walls of idyllic childhood because of mom; we didn’t see the bills to pay and the mouths to feed and the ‘round-the-clock terror of owning a small business, where so many livelihoods rested at the end of each tiny and momentous decision that came with being your own boss.

Mom’s quiet shelter. We were safe and we were loved and we made so many messes, messes that we cleaned up, because messes are for cleaning up. Mom instilled responsibility, even within her cocoon: a roster of rules and roles that we didn’t shirk. We made our beds. We wrote thank-you cards. We kissed dad goodbye every morning at 11 am, before bundling up for the walk to kindergarten, three abreast, hand-in-hand-in-hand. We ate dinner, whatever was put on the table, voraciously, as a family (no “kids’ meals” from this kitchen). We washed the dishes and toweled dry our messes.

I tend toward radical enthusiasm when it comes to the things and the people I love. “Everything is your favourite!” I’ve been chided, and it’s true. I have five dozen favourite dishes that I cooked with mom as a kid, each of them the best thing I ever ate, depending on the day and week and month and year. For a long time, this bothered me, that my best-ofs weren’t fewer, that those simple grade-school get-to-know-your-classmate surveys—favourite food, vacation, colour—would leave me white knuckled and in a heaving sweat. How could anyone possibly land on tacos, Disneyland, yellow? Maybe today, but ask me again tomorrow. I had a lot of not-sures and paragraph-long replies alike on those one-word answer questionnaires. Teachers urging me to pick a lane, already.

No matter. Being a radical enthusiast is a great way to be; everything is heightened and better for it. It’s fun to conjure delight and deep memory from tiny favourites that bring outsize joy. Favourite season? All of them. Favourite colour? The rainbow (plus black and white and grey and camel and ochre and the lift of the sky just after heavy, sudden rainfall, aglow as an opal). Favourite man in my life? My husband, and my dad, and my grandpa, and my other grandpa, and my best friend, and my nephew. Radically enthused about each and every and all.

I do have a favourite, where the humble muffin is concerned. Categorically and always, muffins are the best—personal-sized cakes, am I right?—and bran muffins are the best of all the muffins. From the time I was grasshopper-high seated on that speckled Formica, to the adult-onset Wednesday afternoons that sometimes bring with them an I-need-a-treat disposition. I trudge to the tuck shop for a Tim Horton’s bran muffin, always a smidgen dry and cardboard-like, housed in a rigid paper wrapper, delicious in spite of itself.

Mom loved making bran muffins with us girls; she still does with her grandson. A close third after lemon loaf and banana bread, bran muffins were the bronze medalist of baked goods in mom’s kitchen. She made hers from memory, so forgiving and tender like the lady who gently instructed. Into a bowl went bran, flour, eggs, oil, brown sugar, vanilla, buttermilk, golden raisins. Don’t over-mix. Fill the paper wrappers just level. Sit before the oven door like a puppy, face bathed in yellow light and with a watchful eye for those peaked, just burnished tops. Muffin tins with a patina painted by years of love, never quite clean enough despite a hot, soapy wash. Bran muffins, favourite to find in my paper sack lunch, tender and nutty and gently sweet, enhanced by pops of toothache-giving raisins.

I know these treats by heart and hand, but I’ve done my best to replicate them here in a recipe to follow. If you’re looking to radically enthuse about a muffin (or just take one quietly with your morning coffee), try these. They’re my favourite. I swear.

Lori’s Bran Muffins

As with any recipe, mom probably picked these up a long time ago in a church cookbook or from an aunt or some other happy kitchen, making them so often they eventually became muscle memory. Worry not, as the muffins are exceptionally forgiving if you need to substitute an ingredient—the sweetener or milk, for example. Use a sweet fruit (i.e., avoid sour fruit such as raw cranberries or rhubarb or plums) as the batter is barely sweet and benefits from pockets of sugar.

Makes 12 medium muffins; the recipe easily doubles or triples for batch baking

Ingredients

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 ⅓ cups buttermilk (or regular milk spiked with 1 tsp of vinegar and set aside to thicken)
  • ⅓ cup neutral oil (I use canola)
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (or other aromatic, e.g., almond extract, lemon zest)
  • 1 ½ cups wheat bran
  • 1 cup flour (either all-purpose or whole wheat)
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp fine salt

Mix ins:

  • ½ cup chopped nuts (we like almonds or walnuts)
  • 1 cup fresh fruit, chopped OR ½ cup dried fruit (we like raspberries, blueberries, apple, dried apricot, golden raisins, peach; whatever is ripe and available given the season!)
  • coarse sugar, for sprinkling (if using fresh fruit)

Method

Prepare your 12-muffin tin by greasing it or adding parchment liners. Heat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a small bowl, whisk: egg, buttermilk, oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract.

In a large bowl, whisk: wheat bran, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

Add wet ingredients to dry, folding gently and just barely to incorporate. The batter will seem really wet, but it sets up within a couple minutes as the bran absorbs the liquid. If using dried fruit and nuts, fold in now.

Into the prepared muffin tin, spoon a heaping tablespoon of batter in each hole. Top with a pile of chopped fruit (about 1 Tbsp) and sprinkle of coarse sugar (about 1/2 teaspoon). Cap with a bit more batter.

Bake on centre oven rack for about 15 minutes, testing for done-ness by inserting a toothpick in a non-fruit part of the muffin. If the toothpick comes out wet, bake in further two-minute increments until fully set but not dry.

Cool on a rack. These are great immediately, but also are well suited to tightly wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge or freezer for later.

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a big tapsi

20598957370_af65ae7d89_bOn the island, during the summers, YiaYia (my paternal grandmother) would always have a big tapsi (pan) of something stewing, braising or simmering over the low flame of her gas stove. Maybe it was gemista (stuffed vegetables) or faki (braised lentils) or gigantes (tomato-ey broad beans). Dozens of dishes from that stove live in my memory and heart and hands.

Hers is the epitome of peasant cooking, the kind that cross-cuts the villages that dot the southern European continent, and especially my Greek island home. Cook something, eat a little today, pack it away, then eat a bit more tomorrow. Stretch that dinner with some good bread and feta, and serve the next day’s over rice pilaf, then eat the dregs cold from the fridge with horta (braised dandelion greens) doused in as much lemon juice and olive oil and flaky salt as you can muster.

These endless dishes, when I was a girl, were an oddity. Here: the midday meal, a procession of half-full pans parading from the fridge, accompanied by whatever new addition graced the stove that day. Always, the bits and bobs matched with a big horiatiki (village salad — never lettuce!) and bowls of olives and a slab of feta and a jug of hyper-peppery olive oil that my Uncle Kleanthe pressed at his grove on the mainland. Hunks of bread dotted the flowered vinyl tablecloth wherever they landed. We’d tuck in — a dozen different plates for as many people — a choose-your-own-adventure sort of lunch.

This summer, my dad has sent a few snippets of these everlasting meals. He’s a boy back on the island at his family table — the yiouvetsi (beef and orzo, scented with cinnamon and clove) and spanakopitas (spinach pies) and bamiyes (stewed okra) of his childhood coming forth from the kitchen, by his mother’s loving hands. It’s my long-distance taste of faraway summer afternoons and a reminder of how I want to feed myself; to feed my family.

Grown and responsible for my own cooking, I’ve come to appreciate YiaYia’s sourdough starter approach to the daily meal, the style of cooking my ancestral islanders embrace as quotidien. Austin and I love to cook for now and for our future selves, dreaming up what dinners will become leftovers, what we will make tomorrow into something new. I’m sometimes weary of people who unequivocally dislike leftovers, especially as I consider all the foods so much tastier tomorrow — tomato-based dishes and long braises and stews and soups… food that rests and evolves into something greater.

Beyond lunch and dinner, this is how we may choose to live: piecing together the already-good bits to make something changed and more delicious. It’s the principle that underlines resoling old shoes and bringing together disparate friends for a communal dinner and reshaping a tradition. Life is tastier when you take the best bits from today and carry them re-imagined into tomorrow. We too are better as we evolve, come together and apart, and are reinvented… like at the island table.

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thirty for thirty

birthday balloonsLast week, I celebrated my 30th birthday, drinking Champagne with my husband as he whisked me around northern France, Belgium and The Netherlands. It was quite magical to be surrounded by love, beauty and a healthy, happy place in life, as I said hello! to a milestone year.

As I enter my 30s, I feel no sense of dread or crisis of adulthood. When I turned 29, I talked about contravening the narratives we are told to live; I advocated for forging my own story and path; I maintained that I am the decider of how I fill my finite hours and days. I keep this position, wholeheartedly.

To that end, and in these glinting first moments of a new decade, I offer for your taking, with humility and a healthy pinch of salt, 30 things these 30 earthly years have taught me. Some are literal, some symbolic and some but tiny mantras for how I want to live.

  1. There are many, many valid narratives: I can accept and reject as many versions of what’s expected of me as I wish, and so can everyone else. There’s no one correct way to construct my days and a life. There’s no playbook to consult. Choosing my narrative is central to my well being.
  2. It begins and ends with my sisters: My sisters are my first people, my best friends and my seasons of life. For some reason, the universe greeted me with three younger, slightly-rearranged versions of myself who became, by choice, my three very best people. Every day I am grateful that I begin and end with these women.
  3. Use every last vacation day: In my early twenties and my first jobs, I took some strange satisfaction in hoarding vacation days, not using them and working full-stop with no breaks. Through the years, as I’ve observed the most successful people around me, I realize that they work their tails off AND use their vacation days. They make time to pause and reset. They come back to their jobs even better. Now, I relish and plan for every vacation day I am fortunate to earn.
  4. Fill the house with flowers: I learned this one from my mom, who taught her daughters by example to tend to their gardens, both literal and metaphorical. Mom fills her house with flowers and all their beauty, and so do I.
  5. Ruthlessly prioritize: I stole this concept from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and it relates to my commitment to building a life that’s full instead of busy. Each day, I have dozens of competing priorities thrown my way. I will not get to them all. And so — professionally and personally — I play triage nurse. I decide what gets my finite attention at this moment. And I move on.
  6. Some people will not like me and I will be kind, anyway: This one has been a hard concept for me. I am, whether I like it or not, a pleaser. I like to be liked. But I don’t like every person I meet, and it would be ridiculous to think everyone should enjoy me in turn. Life will continue without their approval, and it doesn’t preclude me from being kind, anyway.
  7. Be unfailingly generous: I first learned this from my dad, the most generous man I know. Dad just does for others — he takes care of his people. He feeds them, he treats them, he lives abundantly. I had this lesson doubly reinforced by my mother-in-law, who is a generous woman in every way. These two role models have made me more giving with my time, resources and affection.
  8. Right brain/left brain is a false dichotomy: As a kid, I was fortunate I never had to choose between hard sciences and the arts. Despite attending a rigorous math-and-science high school, my parents equally encouraged creative pursuit — I took a full roster of painting and drawing alongside my six math and science mandatories each term. Because of this — and also through the many fellow creatives I’ve met through the years — I’ve never entertained a right brain/left brain dichotomy. I firmly believe we humans are much more nuanced — often the most creative and aesthetic people are equally analytical and systematic.
  9. Keep Champagne in the fridge: To be ready for any and all impromptu celebrations that come my way!
  10. The magnolias will bloom each spring: Every spring, without fail, there are the magnolias — resplendent and velveteen and fleeting. Like so many markers of the seasons and years — apple cider, Christmas trees, beach days, garden tomatoes, spring showers — the fleetingness is the magic.
  11. Always revisit my fixed position: We each have an inborn sense of who we think we are and are not. A numbers person, a creative, not a runner, an extrovert, a non-fiction reader, a dancer, a teacher, an analyst. Some of these identities are fixed, but mostly we renegotiate who we are as we grow and evolve. Static isn’t healthy. You may end up loving things you hated, being someone you once were not, and shedding identities that once consumed you. I have, many times.
  12. Offer others abundant clarity: In my mid-twenties, I lost a best friend in part to muddled intentions and signals. It’s something that’s led me to be abundantly clear with others about where I stand so they don’t draw false conclusions, even when it’s difficult. We owe our fellow humans abundant clarity.
  13. Make the first offer: This one, from my husband, who is unfailingly and even unconsciously, willing to help. He comes from a gentle and lovely default place of yes and doing his part. He reminds me to make the offer of assistance, without first being asked.
  14. Have friends who are different from me: It’s easy to get stuck in a mirror chamber of others who are like us — we naturally are attracted to people who remind us of ourselves, with whom we share invisible constructs. But my life is richer because of the abundant variety of people — ages, religions, backgrounds, birthplaces, genders and so on — that fill it.
  15. Scarcity is a construct: There is enough in this abundant place I am fortunate to live — love, talent, wealth, kindness, joy, experience — to go around and share amongst us. Thankfully, any scarcity I feel is of my own making.
  16. You learn a lot in a thrift store: I love thrift stores and visit them often. I learn so much from seeing what others discard and keep, sorting through the trash and treasures, and re-appropriating these objects to become a part of my own story.
  17. My body is a powerful and generous tool: My body is my vessel and it carries me to so many wonderful places — up subway stairs and across airport terminals and along forest trails and through city streets. This vessel is mine to love and enjoy and use as long as I can. Through my twenties I figured out that I’m capable of a very powerful love of my physical person. I stopped demonizing my shell for its shortcomings.
  18. Bring a wad of cash to the farmers’ market and spend it all: Buy all the heirloom tomatoes and lavender honey and drippy peaches and kale bunches and sourdough bread and farm eggs I can. Farmers are amazing people who do backbreaking work to feed me every single week in a way my urban backyard garden can’t.
  19. Take and offer honest, constructive criticism: One of the most appreciated things I’ve been told was by my long-time boss. She commended the way I take criticism — not stewing in it or taking umbrage to it, but figuring out how to apply it to be better. Learning to take criticism with grace has come through many years of listening and adjusting. But honest feedback is one of the most priceless things we can give and take from others, so it’s worth cultivating the conditions to both welcome and deliver it.
  20. Make friends with a cobbler: Or, buy fewer things and buy them to keep. Reject this pervasive, growing culture of disposable goods. Buy secondhand and handmade. Fill my home with beautiful, pragmatic and meaningful objects. Fix what’s broken. Replace worn soles.
  21. A sick parent is the cruelest teacher: My beautiful mom has been sick most of my adult life. I’d revise anything to give her full health. But seeing what my mom can do through all she can’t — without complaint or commentary — has taught me so much about both loving with all my might and curbing my stupid complaints.
  22. Know your key message: When I started my career, I didn’t know what a key message was. A decade on in communications has taught me to always walk into a room and situation with an overarching purpose and perspective. I have my key message in my back pocket, ready to go.
  23. Carry a book: Life brings waiting and intermission and found time — in line, on a subway, at a doctor’s office. The temptation is to pull out a phone, but it always shocks me how much I am able to read in these sweet, found moments.
  24. Listen to others’ stories: There is a Whitman passage I have loved for years: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless / And filter and fibre your blood.” I will never know the full scope of someone’s joy or suffering or the winding backstory behind their present condition, but I can listen and do my best to go a bit deeper in my empathy and understanding.
  25. “Curation” is dangerous: Not the museum kind — I like curators! — but the curating that’s become shorthand for good taste. Curated closets and curated Pinterest boards and “10 best” blog posts have overtaken thoughtful and slow content and commentary. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a steady spike online in this term, and I’m confident it has nothing to do with actual curatorial work. Slow content and long thinking have been replaced by an endless rise of collecting stuff and click-bait — ideas, pictures, lists. I’d rather create.
  26. Plan but leave space for the unplanned: I am at my core, a planner and a system builder. Over time, I’ve uncovered the real beauty of a plan is to provide room for the unexpected and accept the twists and turns that come my way.
  27. A kitchen needs sharp knives: A few very sharp knives are the tools that will transform any kitchen.
  28. Find the light: Leonard Cohen has a beautiful lyric — “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Light is everywhere, even in the imperfect. We need to search for it, to turn toward it, to find it in the darkness.
  29. Send thank you cards: And to that end, say thank you. To my husband who picks up the dry cleaning, to my employee who is a pleasure to work with, to the friends who host us for dinner, to the service counter worker who renews my health card with a smile and friendly conversation. No one will ever begrudge my sincere thanks.
  30. This is water: The one phrase I always return to — in order to remember this water all around me and not take for granted the gorgeous reality I inhabit. Through the mundane and the extraordinary moments. This is water. This is it.

[Photo credit]

marriage, two years

austin and maria weddingToday is Thanksgiving and fittingly — Austin and my second wedding anniversary.

Our marriage is my favourite thanksgiving, as I wrote last year reflecting on one year of marriage. Those concepts are still very central to caring for our marriage. And while I again don’t purport to be an expert at being married (give us another couple decades!) we’re pretty great at making our own marriage something awesome, light-filled, supportive and gratifying.

Two years in, I give thanks for my husband and offer a few additional thoughts about what makes our marriage work so darn well.

Always give back rubs — Literally and metaphorically. This has a lot to do with “saying yes” (something I talked about last year) but also about making the offer. Austin and I offer to care for one-another — to make breakfast and give back rubs and steep our nightly tea as we read on the couch. To offer is to show we care.

Don’t buy into the trope that “marriage is hard” — How many times, over and again, do we hear this line? It’s up there with “the first year of marriage is your most difficult” as one of those cliche fallacies that might be true for some, but shouldn’t be the rule. Our marriage isn’t hard. We run into circumstances and events and are sidelined by moments in our marriage that are hard, but we shoulder those blows together. Austin and I put hard work into our marriage to ensure it makes all the other stuff easy, or at least, easier.

Prioritize — Year two of marriage has been packed. We rang in 2015 in Costa Rica, snuck away in the dead of winter to Morocco, celebrated friends’ weddings in Dallas and New York, enjoyed a food filled birthday jaunt to Chicago, spent long weekends in both the Twenty Valley and Prince Edward County, bought a house, took a month to travel through Spain, Italy and Greece… and somewhere in there, I launched three massive projects at work while Austin wrapped up his dissertation proposal, developed a course and taught undergrad and master courses. Just reading this makes my head spin.

I credit our ability to stay sane through our schedules to an unspoken mantra in our marriage: ruthlessly prioritize what matters most. Even with so much on the go, we make the time to cook dinner together, spend time wandering the city, enjoy quiet nights in and use our time intelligently so we have more of it, together. We don’t waste endless hours watching TV, working inefficiently or wasting our time to pursuits that aren’t meaningful to us.

Start the day with love — This one is essential. I set two alarms each morning — one goes off well before I need to get out of bed. We turn toward one-another to say good-morning and snuggle in, a good 15-minutes of connection before we even step from our bed. When the second alarm sounds, I bound to the shower and Austin to make our morning coffee. I can’t imagine our mornings without this tone-setting moment of pause.

Constantly remember — The first year that Austin and I were dating, I made him this perpetual memory calendar from a tutorial on Design.Sponge for his birthday present. At worst, I figured we’d use it for a month and cast it aside. At best, I figured we’d keep it up and have a (literal, physical, complete) history of our relationship. Lo, we’ve kept up the calendar and as a result have a daily chronicle of our relationship, from the minutiae (a good recipe we cooked) to the momentous (we got married). “Doing our cards” has been our way to remember, and remember fondly, the myriad places we’ve been together. I doubt many couples can say they have every single day of their relationship — since first encounter — documented. This makes me happy!

I love our marriage and co-creating a life with the smartest, kindest, most exhilarating man I know. At Austin’s side, I am still the best version of myself: someone who wants to stretch further, do more and be better in all pursuits.

To Austin: the love of my days and light of my heart — today and every day, I’m remembering our vows exchanged in the middle of a vineyard on a perfect fall day:

We make our promises gently.

This extraordinary day we have made.

Listen – the birds in their ordinary heaven.

Tonight the sky will blaze with stars.

Today, my love, rooms bloom with flowers.

Say yes.

The sky is ours.

We have answered

and so have a million before us

and each of their names is a vow.

So now I can tell you, quite simply

you are the house I will live in:

there is no good reason to move.

Good earth, you are home, stone, sun, all my countries.

Vital to me as the light.

You are it.

(Photo credit: Every Little Wonder Photography)

august, currently

the beaches torontoSomething about dipping my toes into the final days of August makes me wish life would slow down, just a little. August brings Toronto’s most beautiful weather — resplendently sunny and warm and begging you to spend every spare minute outdoors. I find myself holding my breath, asking summer to last just a little longer before we’re consumed with back to school and fall clothes and an annual apple deluge and pumpkin-flavoured everything.

Through the years, I’ve become better at living right now, versus contemplating what’s up next. And when the days are so full, it makes me wish for another lazy summer Saturday with my husband, one more sweet long night on the back deck, a little more time for sky-on-fire walks in the Beaches.

This summer has, by any measure, been frenetic. We bought a house (!), spent a month in Europe, closed on said house, moved in a week later, traveled stateside for a wedding and are finally back in the city. In between, work has offered both of us a whirlwind of projects — the kind of late nights that make me happy (and thankful) that Austin and I both love what we do. We have cooked — abundantly — relishing every last vegetable in our overflowing CSA basket: corn a dozen ways, summer pastas, salads (and salads and salads and more salads), all the plums and blistery grilled everything.

Yet it’s crazy to think that we have barely enjoyed Toronto — in all her summer splendor — this year. So, August, hear me out. Please slow down. For your fleshy tomatoes and blazing days and cold rosé and beachy afternoons and island picnics and worn-in leather sandals and drippy waffle cones and lingering weekends and messy hair and barbecued corn and hazy nights, I need a little time.

just mexico

For a long time, I was a snob toward Mexico.

Mexico was the place other people went on Spring Break to get drunk at Señor Frogs, to stay at an all inclusive in Cabo to eat safe food and take cheap drugs, to crisp their skin lying by a pool reading People slathered in Hawaiian Tropic, to get hit on by slimy frat boys. Mexico wasn’t mine. I was too cultured, too educated, too adult for such a banal vacation spot.

A few years ago, Austin and I found ourselves with a last-minute week’s vacation to escape the Canadian winter. He suggested Mexico and I regarded him with a long side eye. He reassured me that it would be fun: no all-inclusive, accommodations right on the town, with day trips and beaches and good food. So I said yes to a week in Puerto Vallarta.

When anyone would ask about my vacation plans, I’d shrug: “Just Mexico,” I’d say, “nothing big, a week to escape the cold and eat some tasty food.” I’d cringe inwardly; surely they were picturing the unsightly scene of me dancing on a bar in my bikini wielding some fluorescent frozen drink with a twirly straw. (The only stock image, it seemed, I could conjure up for “vacation in Mexico.”) When else had I been so lacklustre — shamed, even — about an adventure to a new place?

And there’s the rub. I was embarrassed of Mexico. I also was close-minded and ignorant to judge its soil without first stepping foot on it.

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It’s not just me. We North Americans have a curious and hypocritical relationship with Mexico. Anthony Bourdain last year wrote a stunning piece about the country that we love and shame. He captures our hypocrisy:

We love Mexican drugs. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films. So, why don’t we love Mexico?

I won’t rehash Bourdain’s spot-on thesis, but I will echo his sentiment.

Mexico is an incredible country — with a food culture, architectural history and natural beauty to rival most any other place in the world. The people are hospitable and kind to foreigners, the vistas breathtaking, the cooking impossibly simple but impossibly complex and delicious. Austin and I revelled in our week exploring a sliver of this vast land. We couldn’t wait to return: to eat more, to learn more of its rich history and to see more of its beauty.

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Curiously, we hold Mexico to a standard that we don’t other places. We openly acknowledge (celebrate, even) the seedy underbelly, poverty and drunkenness of New Orleans. We accept these as part of the city’s charm even as we rebuke it. But the sordidness never overshadows the lore and lure of New Orleans — its culture and history, food, architecture… that it enjoys a unique standing. Surely it is like no place else on earth. We can adapt this story to Las Vegas or Amsterdam or many other places. Why then do we turn away from Mexico’s otherness?

We need to stop being embarrassed. We need to stop pretending that Mexico doesn’t count. We need to stop essentializing this country (as I did so recently) as a place to booze and behave as our worst selves in a built up paradise. Because Mexico is so much more than this if we get past first impressions.

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Mexico is palm trees that line dusty highways and the colourful doors and homes and papel picado that wave against blue sky. It’s pervasive bougainvillea that remind me of my Greek island upbringing. It’s markets with young coconuts waiting to be whacked open and perfumey guavas tumbling over stalls and old men scraping cactus paddles smooth of their spines. It’s walking through the village as the sun rises and the chorus of “buenos días!” that greets me and then tucking into drippy chilaquiles for breakfast. It’s the way the sky meets the ocean to offer the most brilliant azure gradient. It’s stopping at the gas station to buy cervezas with my husband and then to the beach where the sun dips into the ocean. Where we crack open the bottles and clink salud! into the deepest, saltiest air. It’s tacos el pastor with shaved radishes and bits of pineapple over tortilla shaped by the woman next door. It’s a country that wants to welcome me back. A country that wants me to understand.

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(Mexico is also crushing poverty and corruption and drug cartels and violence and neglect that we are shielded from, as tourists, and not merely some romanticized purple prose. That’s a more difficult essay, a book, in fact, and required reading.)

Austin and I returned to Mexico for two weeks last winter to celebrate our honeymoon, this time to the country’s opposite coast, as we explored the Riviera Maya. Mexico beat out Marrakesh and Istanbul and other locales for the coveted honeymoon title, and I was no longer bashful about our choice. We had so much still to see, there was so much still to discover… we had so much still to learn.

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We have so much still to learn.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this country is, or even is just to me. I do know that inevitably, we will take a week or two each year to return to this beautiful place and dig a bit deeper. To get outside the “safe” Mexico and further into her cities, to feel at ease ordering from menus in our broken Spanish, to hop on the collectivos that connect her towns and see where the highway takes us. We will return to Nayarit and Jalisco and the Yucatan and Quintana Roo, and still discover Oaxaca and Monterrey and the Puebla.

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Mexico has taught me more than I care to admit about the shows we put on for others and the collective narratives we construct. I didn’t want this country to be part of my story because it was cheap, it was seedy, it was common — all beliefs I had built of folklore — some real and some imagined. Yes, I can go to Mexico to dance on a tabletop with a frat boy who feeds me a bar rail of tequila. But that’s just one story, of a myriad other, more complete ones, that are based in my experience.

Mexico, like many unfamiliar things, taught me that it repays in spades to get under the surface of the obvious, to experience a reputation before internalizing it, and to hand down something’s worth only after the hard work is done to (try to) understand.

[Photos, my own, on Flickr]

remembering lois

sharon lois bramWhen Leni and I were girls, my mom was very strict about TV consumption. I sometimes joke with Austin that the reason I’m such a good cook (besides growing up in a restaurant kitchen) is because as a little girl, I watched The Urban Peasant, every single morning on the CBC, before we walked to kindergarten. I never missed an episode. James Barber was mom-approved TV that taught 4-year-old Maria how to properly roast a duck.

Apart from cooking shows, mom had a couple other programs that passed her test: The Elephant Show (a.k.a., Sharon, Lois and Bram) and Under the Umbrella Tree, which she deemed sufficiently educational Canadian children’s programming for our consumption.

Sharon, Lois and Bram were a deep part of our childhood consciousness. Leni and I sang and signed skinnymarink e-do with my mom in the bath, we harmonized in our dress-up room, we whisper-sang it after bedtime stories and we belted it out at my Aunt Angela’s wedding to elicit a kiss from the new couple:

I love you in the morning,

And in the afternoon;

I love you in the evening,

And underneath the moon.

These lyrics were a natural part of childhood and our vernacular, passed from my mom to her daughters to my nephew and one day my own children. There was no childhood without love, underneath the moon.

Lois Lilienstein died yesterday at 78. I’m still too young to have had many pieces of my childhood depart this earth (something I am grateful for, and something that I know changes all too suddenly). It felt strange, to know this jubilant, dancing woman who made up so much of my early years, was no longer here.

Tonight, I’m singing loudly the songs of my childhood and saying thank you to a woman whose voice filled so many of my mornings (and afternoons, and evenings) with love.