A Gentleman in Full

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This is Chris.

As you can tell from his impish smile, he was full of beans. And as you can tell from his bacon-wrapped Christmas turkey, he was no vegetarian. Still, Simon loved him, and so did I. IMG_0145

Even though he once told me my vegetarian pizzas looked like dog vomit.

Chris said exactly what he thought, exactly when he thought it.

And he seemed to own (at least) one of everything. When we were preparing the paddock for our Kune Kune pigs, he had a fence-wire-stretching-thingy. And a trailer to pick up the pig shelter kit from the shipping depot.IMG_0307

You see, Chris didn’t believe in delivery charges. So, every so often, Simon and Chris would head out of a Saturday to pick up some impossibly heavy and unwieldy thing or another and man-handle it up, or down, the stairs.

Chris believed in living life to the fullest. He rode a motorcycle to work in all kinds of Wellington weather. He drove his Porsche through New Zealand’s narrow, twisty turning roads, in clear defiance of the nation-wide 100 kph speed limit. When he found a Scotch Whiskey he liked, he bought a case. An excellent bubbly at an excellent price? Two cases! He owned more bottles of Limoncello than any other person I’ve ever known.

Were it not for Chris, I wouldn’t be here — as in, I wouldn’t be here in New Zealand. You see, it was Chris who made it possible for Simon to emigrate to New Zealand from the United Kingdom in 1998 to escape the ravages of a broken heart. They worked together, ate cheese toasties, did crossword puzzles, and played darts. And Simon’s heart healed.

Were it not for Chris, Simon wouldn’t have been on the Indian Pacific Railway from Sydney on July 5th, 2008.

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July 2008

Were Simon not on that train, we wouldn’t have met. Had we not met, I would have continued to go on ever more bizarre internet dates until I went totally mad and started collecting cats. Which would have made my dogs most unhappy.

I first met Chris a few days before Simon and I got married in Hawaii in 2009. He was Simon’s best man. They turned up together after a nine hour Air New Zealand flight during which, I’ve no doubt, they were the life of the party. By the time Simon made his way through immigration as a new migrant on a fiancé visa, Chris had charmed everyone in Customs.

Over the coming three days, we three went to Wal-Mart, where Simon bought his wedding clothes (which I am certain made my Dad smile, wherever he was) and Chris bought discount electronics. We went to the outlet mall, where Chris bought running shoes for his step son, Logan. CCI18042016The cardboard cutout of Logan’s left foot was a prominent feature throughout the festivities. And we went to the Saturday flea market at the University of Hawaii football stadium parking lot, where Simon sunburnt his feet to a crisp.

Oh, and we got a marriage license, which, for the record, looks just like President Obama’s birth certificate.

Chris hit it off immediately with my Goddaughter and bridesmaid, Alex, who sneezed all over him (and pretty much everyone else) during the ceremony. CCI18042016_3He was a dapper Best Man in his linen suit, Panama Hat, Hawaiian shirt, and dress shoes. The celebrant wore a turtle print sarong and a t-shirt with krishna on it. The groom wore shorts and bare feet — it was a beach wedding, after all.

When I came to New Zealand as a potential job candidate, in 2012, he picked me up at the airport and drove me to the top of Mt. Victoria, and showed me the beach where Ma’a Nonu sometimes worked out, which pretty much sealed the deal. And he woke up at 4 am to get me to the airport for my 6 am flight back to Sydney, and home. Service above and beyond the call.

It was Chris who introduced me to the Lower Hutt Saturday morning Riverbank Market, in all its vegetable glory. Chris was at the airport when Simon and I arrived in Wellington from the United States, stinky and travel weary, with our duffle bags full of what we thought we would need to survive until the shipping container with our worldly goods arrived. The next morning, he shepherded us, jet-lagged and bleary eyed, to the market. I thought I was hallucinating. It was the first week of August, the deepest Southern Hemisphere winter, yet the market was replete with freshness — leeks, silver beet, lots of lovely brassicas, and those New Zealand standbys, kumara and pumpkin. And these weren’t just leeks — they were leeks the size of baseball bats. And daikons the size of cricket bats. And handmade noodles, and food trucks. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was right about the heaven part.

Were it not for Chris, there would be no Kale Whisperer.

Over the coming months, Chris would pick me up every Saturday morning and we would go to the Market together, leaving himself to sleep in and get the kettle ready for our return. Chris introduced me to the Tofu and Chinese Noodle Man, and the Thai Herb Lady, and the best free range eggs in the market, and the French Bread and Stinky Cheese Man. Some weeks, we would visit the Mad Butcher or Pack ‘n Save — places I rarely have occasion to enter. Then back to chez nous for a cuppa.

Then, one Saturday, Chris seemed not his chipper, sassy self. He didn’t rise to the bait when I ribbed him about the half-dressed Barbie doll in his Land Rover. He’d been sleeping badly. He thought he had gastroenteritis. Then he thought he had become diabetic.

Then he had a scan.

There was a mass.

Then surgery and chemotherapy.

That was two years ago.

He faced the end of his life with his usual charm, humour, dignity, and generosity of spirit.   Even when we knew he was in pain, he could laugh. And make others laugh. He faced cancer head-on and fought it with everything he had. In short, he succeeded in doing what we all hope to do:  he remained Chris, in full, right to the end.

He adored his girls.

He wore a beaded bracelet that read: Fuck Cancer.

I agree.

Tomorrow, we will farewell Chris.

Today, I am unspeakably grateful to have known him.

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The Tenth Cookbook of Christmas: Delia’s Vegetarian Collection

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It is almost Christmas and I am remembering Christmases past. Christmas with my father was a winter wonderland. When I was very small, we had a very large spruce tree in our front yard. Every Christmas he would string those big, old-fashioned coloured lights on the tree so Santa could find our house from way up high in the sky. CCI22122015Every night, before bed, he would pack me into my red snow snuit and we would stand out in the cold and admire the lighties. Those are some of my earliest memories.

For several years after Dad died of Alzheimer’s disease, I couldn’t bear Christmas. My Mom made it through two more Christmases, and she couldn’t bear them either. The two of us would hunker down in her little apartment at the assisted living facility and watch endless versions of Jane Austen on her VCR. How many times did we watch Colin Firth dive into the pond at Pemberley? Oh, hundreds!Darcy I stopped laying down new Christmas memories when Dad died. For me, Christmas was about family, and our little family had dwindled to one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am blessed with a wonderful extended family on both sides, and I love my cousins like siblings. But, I have written before about the importance of chosen families, and I have such a lovely one that I want to celebrate them. There is Dorothy from Norwich, who was my roommate through a nearly three-week adventure in Palestine in 1993. My soul sister, Joani, in Virginia — check out her excellent blog, http://unorthodoxunhinged.com.  And my besties, Susan in Virginia and Elizabeth in Oxford. We three musketeers have shared so many adventures. Now we are joined by my beautiful fairy goddaughter, Alex.

I’ve traveled all over the world with my Elder Sis, Katy, and I’ve drowned many a sorrow with our bro, Tony.

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With Katy and Tony, after drowning a sorrow or two

And I cannot leave out my sourdough starter’s foster parents, Mary and Wade. In Athens, there are Carolyn and Kline, and Nash and France who all supported my parents, and then me, in their final years. Nash and France adopted my Dad’s beloved cockapoo, Maxwell, and gave him the loving retirement he so richly deserved. Nash still keeps me posted on the goings on at my old high school. Pete and Anita, our dogs’ uncle and auntie, are soon moving from Virginia to Minnesota — near my family in Northern Wisconsin.

My Southern Hemisphere chosen family is growing and multiplying, too. Thanks to Julian and Anna in Sydney, I have a new “niece,” Ayla. Peter is the crusty old uncle I never had. I did have an amazing Uncle, Billy, but he was too funny and loveable to qualify as crusty. Carl is the pesky little brother I never had. Chris has long been Simon’s chosen family in New Zealand, and now he’s part of mine.

I discovered the Kale Whisperer’s Tenth Cookbook of Christmas, Delia’s Vegetarian Collection (BBC Books, 2002) while visiting another branch of my chosen family in Sydney, the lovely Lise, her husband Cahn, and my “nephew” Jacob and his brand new baby sister, Eliana.

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Pizza by Jacob, I’m pretty sure those are slices of beetroot, not pepperonis!

Having essentially invited myself to visit en route to the United States earlier this year, I would not have been surprised (or disappointed) to dine on take away food. But Lise, despite juggling an active (and, as it happens, sick) three year old and an adorable six-month old, spoiled me with delicious and beautifully prepared vegetarian fare from Delia’s Vegetarian Collection. Even before I left Sydney, I ordered myself a copy from fishpond.com. It has already become a favourite in my kitchen, too.

There haven’t been any celebrity chefs or cookbooks with lots of gorgeous, full colour illustrations among the The Kale Whisperer’s Twelve Cookbooks of Christmas.  It’s not that I have anything against celebrity chefs or beautiful photographs of food. It’s just that I find those sorts of cookbooks, for the most part, disappointing. It’s as though they are written for people who don’t cook and don’t really intend to start, but who want to have some attractive cookery books as accent pieces in their designer kitchens. And I’ve had some real disasters. Take the celebrity chef cookbook I bought most recently, which shall remain nameless. So far, not a single recipes I’ve tried has worked as advertised. I ended up serving my beloved a zucchini pie with raw rice. Do these people even cook the food they put into their cookbooks? A word of advice: if the directions don’t make sense to you (trust me, the liquid from the zucchini will cook the raw rice), they probably don’t make sense. I’ve had good experiences with the few Jamie Oliver recipes I’ve downloaded, but I haven’t bought his books either because, frankly, I find him a bit preachy and annoying.

But Delia is different. How can you not trust and respect a woman who is willing to make a public spectacle of herself in support of her beloved Norwich Canaries?

Would I make a spectacle of myself in support of my beloved All Blacks? You betcha. In fact, to hear Katy tell it, I did that already while watching the 2012 Rugby World Cup Final with a group of Aussies in Bali.

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Offering up a word of thanks in Ubud, Bali

Which brings me to a digression. I had a long argument with myself (I do that — it’s an introvert thing) about whether or not to include Julia Child’s original Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961). I really think every cook should read it, often, but I don’t actually cook from it very much. Julia is pretty meat-centric. That said, I just got out my copy — which was previously my mother’s copy — and it fell right open to the recipe for Soufflé au Fromage. My Mom made heavenly soufflés. I don’t. But seeing as the book is out, and I accidentally bought 32 eggs at the farmer’s market last week, I think I’ll give it another shot, with Julia on my shoulder.IMG_0275

But back to Delia. This is a gorgeous book. If you are looking for a gift for your favourite vegetarian, and want to split the difference between useful and pretty, this is your book. The illustrations are stunning. There are a few I’d like to tear out of the book and hang on the wall. And the recipes work. I have a massive rosemary bush in my herb garden, so I can make the Tuscan Bean and Pasta Soup, all year round. Simon grew up in the UK, and this book has vegetarian versions of his childhood comfort foods, including Shepard’s Pie, Spinach Pasties, and Not-Pork Pies (which will please our Kune Kune pigs). Everything Lise prepared from Delia’s collection was wonderful, and only tasted better for being made with love and eaten in the best of company.

I’m not folding down the corners of this book, but it is full of multicoloured post-it flags. I gave up on the cheese chapter. I’ll just cook, and eat, my way through the whole thing. There are two oven-baked risottos, for those nights when your feet are tired or you have blisters on your thumbs and don’t want to stand at the stove and stir. I rarely cook sweets — neither of us eat them much — but as soon as I send this off, I’m headed out to the garden to see if I have enough rhubarb for the Rhubarb, Almond, and Ginger Crumble.

Wait. I just re-read the recipe for Crumpet Pizzas, with blue cheese, walnuts, olive oil and sage. I’m off to the grocery, now, to buy some crumpets. The rhubarb will have to wait.

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Chosen Families, Chosen Homes

As on most Saturdays, I have a batch of vegetable stock simmering away on the stove. Today, the pot includes the trimmings from a couple of enormous leeks I bought at the market this morning, a couple of slightly overripe hothouse tomatoes, a bulb of fennel that failed to make it into last week’s dinners, the other half of a celery root (the first half went into a roasted vegetable pizza), a huge carrot, a few less-than-perfect green IMG_0249beans, an onion, three small potatoes, a couple of orphan courgettes (zucchini), a handful of garlic cloves that were too tiny to bother peeling, some odds and ends of dried mushrooms, sprigs of parsley, coriander, and mint, some sea salt, a bay leaf, and a few peppercorns. This is a pretty typical spring stock. By summer, the celery root and carrots will go, to be replaced with corn cobs, basil, and bright summer tomatoes.

Before 2013 — the year I emigrated to New Zealand — this would be the weekend I would be making hearty, autumn stock with caramelised onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery, and mushrooms. That bold, dark, flavourful stock would then get reduced to become the foundation of Thanksgiving dinner. It would flavour the cheese and nut loaf that filled in for turkey at our vegetarian celebration, as well as provide the base for mushroom or sage and onion gravy. Some would go into a hearty vegetable soup for the night before. During Thanksgiving week, it seemed there was stock simmering on the stove all the time. It smelled like comfort. And home.

All the time I was growing up, my parents and I lived far from our extended family in Wisconsin. So, traveling there for Thanksgiving was impractical. We were just three — Dad, Mom, and I — and Dad hated turkey, so a big Thanksgiving bird presented something of a challenge as well. But, wait. This (mostly) isn’t a sad story of Thanksgiving deprivation. Rather, it is a story about chosen families.

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An early Thanksgiving. My first, perhaps?

My first chosen family consisted of my mother’s best friend in Washington, Aunt Suzie, her daughter, Kamie, and Suzie’s mother, Grandma Ambler. [One year, when I was living at their house during an internship, I made the mistake of mentioning to Grandma Ambler that I liked popcorn. I was, subsequently, nearly loved to death by popcorn. I still can’t eat popcorn without thinking of her.] Kamie was , and remains, the pesky little sister I never had. In latter years, Suzie became my Mom-away-from-Mom. And when I was little, every year, we rode “over the river and through the woods” to Suzie’s house for Thanksgiving. And Christmas. And Easter. July 4th was at our house — fireworks and all.

In 1967, my Dad got a job teaching German History at the University of Georgia and we moved south. WAY south. So far south that they still had dry counties. Mom threatened to call and having the moving van turned around. Eventually, Dad became a sort of bootlegger, driving to Fulton County — the closest county where one could purchase hard liquor — once a month to lay in a supply for all the boozers in our neighbourhood. arcadeBeer, fortunately, was a bit closer. For that, we drove to Arcade, Georgia:  a town in nearby Jackson County with a population of 229, according to the 1970 census, no liquor tax, and one package store that sold whatever beer had fallen off the back of the truck for deeply discounted prices. Apart from cheap beer, Arcade’s other claim to fame was as one of Georgia’s notorious speed traps. Athens is much bigger, now. So, I gather, is Arcade.

It took a while, but we gradually built a new chosen family in Athens: Dad’s best bud, Jim, his wife Betsye, and their daughter, Lexi (the second pesky little sister I never had) and Ben and Neva and their various grown daughters. The holidays rotated. Ben and Neva did Christmas. Jim and Betsye did New Year’s Eve. And we did Thanksgiving. The bird, gallons and gallons of mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pie. Always pumpkin pie: the one on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can, which is the last pumpkin pie recipe you’ll ever need. Trust me.

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The Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe. Now you know everything you need to know about making pumpkin pie.

My contribution was the stuffing. Next to mashed potatoes and gravy, for me, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner was the stuffing. Which, in my lexicon, is stuffing, even if it never sees the inside of a bird (or anything else). You may choose to call it dressing. I’ll forgive you. My Dad had a fabulously productive chestnut tree in the front yard. And yes, it was spreading (but not spreading enough for a village smithy). So, starting in the early 1980s, when the tree started producing fruit, I started making chestnut stuffing, and never looked back. At least, not until Dad, growing old and tired of picking up the prickly outer shells, cut down the tree. Turns out, when run over by a lawn mower, they become potentially lethal projectiles.

Chestnut stuffing — chestnut anything — is a labor of love. First you have to cut an X in the shell (not even as close to as easy as it sounds), then either roast or steam the chestnuts, then peel off the still really, really tough shells. But it is worth it. The meat of the chestnut is rich, musky, and a bit chewy. It makes gorgeous turkey stuffing, but it is an even more rewarding vegetarian stuffing, cooked in a dish instead of a bird.

Apart from the chestnuts, there was nothing tricky about my stuffing. It had all the usual suspects: a package of Pepperidge Farm dry stuffing mix (I’ve tried making my own croutons for stuffing out of home baked bread. It isn’t worth it. I don’t sew my own shoes, either), a couple of chopped celery stalks, an apple or two, some poultry seasoning, a lightly sautéed chopped largish yellow onion, and enough vegetable stock. How much is enough? Enough. It depends on how wet (or dry) you like your baked stuffing. I like mine pretty mushy; more like bread pudding than pilaf, if that makes sense. With lots and lots on gravy on.

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Preparing chestnuts for chestnut stuffing. Judging from the hair and the vintage 1970s decor, this was early 1980s. As 70s wallpaper goes, though, this wasn’t bad.

When I moved back to Washington to pursue my brilliant career, I found that the trip between DC and Georgia was a bit too long to make twice in a month’s time. My priority was to go home for Christmas, so I was a Thanksgiving orphan. Most years, I returned to the folds of my original chosen family — Suzie and Kamie.  I spent Thanksgiving 2000 glued to CNN, following the unfolding drama of the “hanging chads” (in case you missed it, Bush won in a TKO) unfold in Florida, with a great bottle of wine, and a turkey TV dinner. A couple of years, I flew out to spend Thanksgiving with my friends Karen and John in Corvallis, Oregon. A long weekend of eating beautiful Oregon produce and tasting Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Heaven. The year my father died, Mom and I spent Thanksgiving (and Christmas) at home, watching Jane Austen DVDs, trying not to cry and pretending the holidays weren’t happening. I don’t remember what we ate. If we ate. Grief made everything taste like sand.

In 2009, I married the love of my life, and we built our own little chosen family with our neighbours (and dog sharers) Pete and Anita, some years, with their son Mike and his lovely bride, Mary Beth. As Mike and Mary Beth are almost vegetarians, we established a new Thanksgiving tradition. I made the cheese and nut loaf and gravy, they provided sides, and Anita made the pumpkin pie. Most years, I also made some roasted brussels sprouts. In addition to kale, I fancy myself an evangelist for all misunderstood brassicas. We proved that it is possible to eat yourself into a coma without a single turkey being harmed.

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Our last Thanksgiving in Virginia, with Pete and Anita. And that is not a dog at the table.

This will be the first Thanksgiving since we moved to New Zealand that I won’t be out of the country on travel on the fourth Thursday in November. It won’t be Thanksgiving here. It will just be the fourth Thursday in November. I have an accordion lesson scheduled. It’s just another day. Moreover, it will be just another spring day. There are no environmental triggers here that say : Hey! You! It’s almost Thanksgiving! The farmers’ market was full of fresh asparagus, favas, spinach, and strawberries — none of which rode here on airplanes or cargo ships. There are no specials on turkeys, or cans of Libby’s pumpkin stacked in the aisles at the grocery store. In fact, cans of pumpkin are hard to come by, here. You have to find a store with a special “American food” section, and then, you may or may not find a can of Libby’s pumpkin.

I think I will try, though. Maybe a Libby’s pumpkin pie is just the right thing to bring a little Thanksgiving to my new chosen home in New Zealand. In her touching new memoir/cookbook, My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl mentions that she roasts her Libby’s pumpkin a bit to caramelise it and intensify the flavour. While, in general, my position is “don’t mess with the Libby’s pumpkin pie,” maybe I’ll try that. A new pumpkin pie for a new chosen home in a land without Thanksgiving. And, in time, we will build a new chosen family. We are making a good start. They know who they are. And perhaps, in another, year, our new chosen family will come together for a chosen Thanksgiving, not to honour the autumn’s bounty, but to celebrate the promise of spring.

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