Someone once said, "Restaurants are to the 80's what theatre was to the 60's." Actually, it was a character in the Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner movie When Harry Met Sally, and judging by all the restaurant scenes in the film, his comment must have been true. The 80's were also a great decade for film, so my kids tell me, and, strange, imaginative child that I was, I think I spent half my time back then trying to emulate the scenes, characters and clothing from Hannah and her Sisters, Out of Africa, or select John Hughes movies.
When I was a teenager, a few of my friends and I would save up our spending money and go out for a fancy French meal at Justine's, an establishment no longer open in my hometown. Justine's was an airy, peach and white downtown restaurant with glass block dividers and live jazz. We would dress up in our finest 80's fashions and, I'm sure, impress and/or amuse the adult regulars with our yuppies-in-training ways. Until I found out it was raw meat, I always ordered steak tartare as my appetizer, and generally an entree with chicken or scallops. Eating out at Justine's was the epitome of elegance to we small-town kids looking for a bigger life, and the atmosphere caused us to sit up straight and use our best table manners and hushed voices.
And then there were the dinner parties. My childhood friend Molly's mother, Panny was, and I'm sure still is a phenomenal cook and she and Molly's dad had newly purchased the former Anglican manse which had a large dining room. With Panny's help Molly hosted a few dinner parties, with each of us guests supplying a dish. I remember making Greek salad. How exotic it seemed back then. Molly's mother cooked from books with names like The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and later, opened a great little restaurant, The Wild Onion, with her sister Vicky. My own family was into good eating as well, though generally of a slightly humbler variety - one of our commonly consulted cookbooks was called More-with-Less.
When I was a child I did a fair amount of baking, but I didn't start cooking until I'd pretty much left home. When in university I lived with my sister, Clare who taught me how to make soup from scratch and other budget-friendly meals. My last year I lived with a pack of roomates and we were each responsible for our own meals. I lived on veggie burgers and stirfry. And vietnamese salad rolls from the canteen in the UBC arts lounge. When I got married a year later, I could throw together a meal of sorts, but I was far from being an artist in the kitchen. For a wedding gift, Clare bought us a subscription to Canadian Living magazine, which was perfect as a teaching tool for me. My husband had become a decent 'cook for one' from his ten years as a bachelor, but when it came to cooking for a family I was more the natural in the kitchen. Plus, I was keen. I love food, and I love good food more, so I was eager to learn all I could. Still, there were never what I would call gourmet meals issuing forth from my kitchen. We had children straight away and so it was healthy family cooking, trial by fire. Over the years, I became a fairly good children's cook. To this day, other people's children tell their parents what a good cook I am, and how they like eating at our house. While I appreciate their praise very much, I am humbled by it. I know Michelin, the organization that grants restaurants the highly valued 'Michelin Stars' would never grant me so much as a a twinkle. But I don't mind that. To me, that's what restaurants like Justine's are, and were, for - to give we family cooks a break from spaghetti and home-made pizza - and give us a taste of something fresh and exciting, which in turn will enhance our own home cooking and dare us to try something new.
In this town of few restaurants of any real quality there exist a surpising number of skilled culinary artists, and many of the best meals to be had here are cooked and eaten in the home. Our friend Marilee's husband Stefan is a fine chef who happens to run the kitchen in one of the area's major prisons (one of the largest employers here), and last weekend, they gathered twelve of their friends together for a New Year's Eve meal to remember. A week beforehand an email was sent to all the guests with the information that Stefan would be making Saltimbocca with local pork scallopini (to prevent the usual outcry against veal) with prosciutto and sage, and parsnip gratin with wilted pea sprouts. Each couple was asked to choose a side dish or dessert to prepare. At the fashionable hour of 8:30 pm the guests began to arrive and gather in the beautifully transformed dining/ living room of Marilee and Stefan's home. The menu consisted of small and beautifully plated servings of the following courses:
mini crab cakes with dill mayonnaise
mixed greens with walnuts, goat cheese and orange sections
carrot ginger soup (my contribution)
Saltimbocca and parsnip gratin
meyer lemon granitee served in frozen blood orange halves and garnished with pomegranate seeds and candied lemon zest
triple chocolate dessert: white chocolate mousse, chocolate cassis pate and a hazelnut ice cream macaroon garnished with a champagne sauce and sugared rose petals.
And of course there were endless bottles of wine passed around during the meal.
At precisely 11:58 pm pink champagne was served and we toasted the new year in high spirits, to say the least. The platter of 'Lady Jane', 'Castle Blue' and 'Cranberry Caerphilly' cheeses was then brought in with a bottle of port and most of us found a bit more room for them. It was during the dessert course when I looked up from my incredibly delectable chocolate pate and said to its creator, the local cheesemaker seated opposite, "I'm wondering how I got here!" And she said,
"Well, you must have done something good this year!"
The conversation flowed as quickly and as richly as the incredible meal deserved and soon it was time to organize rides home with sober drivers. I am not much of a drinker, so I had enjoyed my usual small amount of wine and could drive my husband and I safely home to our house across town. In fact, when we were toasting the new year, Marilee asked us to proclaim our resolutions. I don't tend to make resolutions, so I made a joke instead: "I'm not going to drink anymore!" to which there were resounding 'boos'. "I'm not going to drink any less either!" which brought forth cheers and laughter from the crowd before I admitted the joke was a favourite line from a movie.
Meryl Streep's character in Postcards from the Edge says another favourite movie line of mine: "I don't want life to imitate art, I want life to be art!" Every once in a while I will reflect on an event in my life and think it has come pretty close to being art, or at least come close to being a scene in a good film.
If my dreaming, sixteen year old self could have looked forward into New Year's Eve, 2011 she would have thought the future looked promising indeed.