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Pickle Me This

November 1, 2015

The Future is Dark

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The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think…” —Virginia Woolf

Something has turned, not just the calendar, making the world around us distinctly November. The leaves on our big tree have gone suddenly from green to yellow, and are starting to fall. The clock has gone back, and the evening comes sooner. And yet the temperature is mild tonight. We walked up to the ice rink to meet our friends and go skating, and our hats and mitts were overkill. The sky was curiously mottled, dark clouds, setting sun and blue.

IMG_20151029_084302We were looking forward to skating—our second time out this season. And our second time out skating as a foursome. Last weekend, we drove out to the west end and hooked Stuart up with his first pair of ice skates ever, and traded in Harriet’s last year pair for a bigger model. When Harriet and I first bought skates last Christmas, it seemed a dubious experiment—would we actually undermine our reputations as terrible Canadians and partake in a winter sport? But it turned out that we loved it, and Stuart looked on longingly. This year, Stuart is in on the fun, and Iris too on bob skates. Though we are particularly excited because we’ve been spent the last week tracking the postal progress of her brand new deluxe bob skates with straps that won’t fall off (we hope!) and they’re due to arrive any day now. And we’re even looking forward to skating proper on the outdoor rinks once they’re open because Stuart and I each bought a pair of snow pants, my first pair in many years. I actually think that they might change my life, and certainly will make walking the children to school at -40 degrees celsius much more bearable, not to mention outdoor play during playschool co-op shifts, and even the prospect of tobogganing. Last year we went tobogganing once, and my jeans got wet, and I was so cold, I could have cried.

IMG_20151030_185418But all that was a long way off as we walked up Brunswick Avenue tonight, enjoying the strange light and the post-Halloween quiet. Stepping over smashed pumpkins, and being in the perfect place between warmth and chill. Arriving at the ice rink to find our friends there, everyone a bit disappointed. The Sunday night public skate schedule was from the summer, apparently. In autumn, the public skate is on Saturday. And it took me far too long to process that it wasn’t actually Saturday. Okay then. But it seemed that the entire park beside the rink was ablaze for some kind of festival, pumpkins lining its perimeter. Children were climbing ladders into up into trees and swinging from ropes in a manner that suggested that nobody had thought about safety permits or wavers. Someone else had set up straw-bales and an old mattress, and the children were taking turns flinging themselves upon it. The adjoining playground, whose climbing structure is a pirate ship, was absolutely full of children, taking in the festival, perhaps, as well as the perfect autumn night. (All this is so lovely—it has rained for the last three Halloweens, I think.)

IMG_20141102_154120So we stood in the playground with our friends while our kids played, and it was perfect. And I was thinking about Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Woolf’s Darkness, which we’re reading tomorrow night in my blogging course. The line, which is also the epigraph to my novel, “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next…” I’ve been thinking about nighttime walks, and street haunting, and one thing leading to another. How exactly one year ago, when I was also about to be discussing Woolf’s Darkness with my blogging course (and yes, one might ask me the question: how have you managed to find a way to be paid for doing all the best things ever? To which I would reply: I have absolutely no idea…) and I wrote this post, one of my favourites ever: “On Uncertainty, Mistakes and Accidental Cake“, which might just be my philosophy of the world. Tonight another example: often, not ending up where you were intending to go turns out to be startlingly right.

IMG_20151031_113232We walked home again and it was dark outside. “I don’t like the dark,” said Harriet, who always claims that she can’t see at night, never mind the streetlights. I pointed out that what I liked best about walking in the dark was everybody’s lit windows, and how we could see the worlds inside. We decided to make a quick visit down to our own neighbourhood’s annual pumpkin festival before heading home for dinner: baked butternut squash risotto was waiting in a cast-iron pot on the stove. Although we were less excited about the pumpkin festival as we’d been in years previous, as our own pumpkin hadn’t been picked up to be part of it. We remain fuzzy on how which pumpkins get to be in the festival. I thought it was democratic, but ours keeps not getting picked up. Then we wondered if it was just that it sucked, but I don’t think that’s actually a barrier to entry. Anyway, just to demonstrate that we just didn’t care about any of this, okay, FINE!, we’d hacked our pumpkin to bits this afternoon with an intention to roasting it and making it into something to eat. As we walked home from the pumpkin festival, I was anticipating a rich pumpkin pudding—the perfect end to an excellent, albeit meandering evening.

IMG_20151101_173338Oh, but reader, my pumpkin pudding was vile. Demonstrating that not all winding roads eventually lead to cake or such deliciousness. Sometimes one’s culinary accidents are scraped into the bin, and the problem isn’t solely that you forgot to add sugar (I know! What was I thinking?). But also that carving pumpkins are just fundamentally not meant to be eaten by creatures more discerning than raccoons. Which would be the point at which wiser women might give up, but oh no, that would be too easy. The grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, remember? So I’ve roasted the pumpkin, and now I’m going to turn it into soup. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll chuck the whole thing into the garbage and officially go to bed.

October 26, 2014

Would-Be Pickler Tries Nathan’s Famous

IMG_0896In my blogging course last Monday, we were talking about blog titles, and I conceded that there was probably an expert out there who—for SEO purposes and issues of general confusion—would advise you not to call your book blog Pickle Me This. But the problem with expert advice (and why expert advice so often doesn’t work for blogs, which are characterized by their refusal to conform to expectations) is that such advice cannot take into account the forces of serendipity.

For example: You christen your blog “Pickle Me This” for no good reason in 2004, thereby enabling a delivery of actual pickles to land on your doorstep a decade later.

IMG_0897Except that there was a reason I named my blog Pickle Me This. Not a good one, but still.

In 2004, I lived in Japan teaching English conversation to students with whom I usually had very little in common. This lack of commonality made our English conversation challenging. “What is your hobby?” became a conversation touchstone when all else had failed, mostly because the Japanese school system mandated that every student have a hobby. (Those students who were bad at everything usually ended up on sports teams charged with carrying equipment.) Bored housewives were also hobby connoisseurs, with interests including tea ceremonies, ikebana, and calligraphy, though more often than not, their answer to the hobbies question was “learning English,” which brought us full (albeit very small) circle, and made the minutes on our classroom clock tick by oh-so slowly.

IMG_0901Living in Japan does something to the brain. To this day, all my favourite music is basically assembled from karaoke playlists, I was photographing my lunch before it was cool, and I’m still inclined to squeal, “Kawaii!” when the situation warrants it. Part of becoming “Japanified” was responding the experience of living abroad and discovering how wide the world was, all the while we were cut off from the culture around us by being foreigners. We forgot how to form proper sentences, how to behave, and partook in strange pursuits to the fill the gaps that had appeared in our lives now that they were being conducted so far from home.

IMG_0903In 2004, I decided that I would learn how to pickle. This would be the beginning of something huge, I imagined. In Japan, anything was possible. I was picturing a sizeable cottage industry, adorable labels. They would say, “Pickle Me This,” the name of my company. One of my students—an avid pickler—wanted to support my ambitions and went as far as to give me a gift of pickling spice she’d made herself. “I want you to be a pickle success!” she told me.

IMG_0904Except that I was a pickling disaster. Granted, a lot was working against me. My entire kitchen was a hot plate, and I didn’t own a measuring cup. I was illiterate, so could not read food labels to know what kind of vinegar I was employing for my pickling task (if it was vinegar at all). I had no culinary skills then, and struggled with following simple recipes, whose advice, I decided, was usually just a helpful suggestion, as I slung a fistful of something or other into my pot. In Japan, we ate spaghetti sauce that came out of pouches, and I thought that was just fine. So the precision involved in pickling was well beyond my ken.

IMG_0898You can actually track the trajectory of my very short pickling career, which began with a blog post called “Are Pickles Supposed to Float?” and proceeded on to a post called “Dubious Pickles” the very next day, reporting that the pickles were shrivelling up in their jar. I don’t remember what happened to the pickles after that, but it is quite possible that I insisted on eating them even though they were vile and probably laced with botulism. I have a hard time admitting when my plans have gone wrong. I am a specialist in Stubborn as You Like. But I never made pickles again.

IMG_0902I’ve called myself a “would-be pickler” in the years since, usually in the bio on the blog that was christened Pickle Me This not long after my failed venture. This blog as been much more successful than the pickles, proving that you can’t win ’em all, but also that just because you lose some doesn’t mean it’s all lost. I was always going to be a better blogger than a pickler anyway. Accepting being so far from perfect is probably one reason I’ve been able to do so well as a blogger too, the pickles were certainly a fundamental lesson in that respect.

IMG_0882One consolation of failed pickledom is that it doesn’t keep one from eating pickles. Another consolation of failed pickledom is actual pickles on the doorstep from Nathan’s Famous, which are launching in Canada and are available in the refrigerated meat cooler sections at No Frills, Loblaws, and other grocery stores. Because a blog called Pickle Me This comes out on top when PR firms are searching for Canadian blogs about pickles. Perhaps this was part of my plan all along?

IMG_0880So we’ve been eating pickles all weekend, revelling in the bounty. I’m a bit crazy about the sweet horseradish pickles, though it’s possible I never met a sweet pickle I didn’t like. The sour and half sour are huge and full of crunch and flavour. Iris insists on eating them too, even though she makes the most ridiculous faces while doing so, but she keeps coming back for another bite, and so do I, because they’re good pickles.

And maybe you have to have been responsible for bad pickles to do know how precious a good pickle really is.

(Thanks to the people at Foodfest America for making my pickle dreams come true.) 

April 28, 2011

Royal Wedding Tea Caddy

My mom is nice because even though I refuse to lend her my books (and actually, I refuse to lend my books to anybody), she’d give me anything of hers that I wanted. On this weekend, the anything of hers I wanted was the Royal Wedding tea caddy that her friend had brought her back from England. I am not sure why I didn’t bring Royal Wedding tat back from England myself– I don’t think we ventured into shops that much except for bookshops, and if I’m not mistaken, the tat wasn’t out in full force two months ago anyway. But it did get to be a problem as the big day got closer and closer, and I found myself without a Royal Wedding commemorative anything. And all the Royal Wedding tea towels are are sold out. India Knight has reported bunting shortages all over London. This is terrible! I hardly need this, in addition to the stress of needing to learn to bake battenberg cake by Saturday afternoon, which is when my Royal Wedding Tea party begins (a bit after the fact, I know, but the wedding was never the point anyway. The cake was). So thank goodness for my mom, and for my Royal Wedding tea caddy. Which of course I will cherish now for all the rest of my days.

June 21, 2010

Harriet gardening

You probably shouldn’t let your baby dig in soil with a spoon. Because while spoons are good digging implements, they’re also good for delivering items to the mouth, and though Harriet’s spoon/mouth coordination is not always right on track, it certainly was the time she ate a giant spoonful of soil… So it was kind of a milestone, times two if eating dirt is also a milestone. Is it?

April 13, 2008

Metaphoric Cake

Yesterday we held a small engagement celebration for our friends Jennie and Deep, and I baked a cake for the occasion. But because I didn’t want to brag, or give the wrong impression of my domestic prowess, even before I baked the cake, I had an idea about how I wanted to approach this blog post.

I wanted to explain that though I do have a reputation for baking a lot, I am not very good at it (and you will soon see why). I wanted to explain that although I have improved since the infamous butterfly cake I baked at Kate Wilczak’s Midsummer Party in 2000, I am still very much an imperfect baker. That not being good at baking hasn’t stopped me from doing a lot of it, but that a lot of this comes down to how much I really like eating. I would have added to this proviso also that I am not especially good at decorating cakes, but I wasn’t actually aware of this fact until yesterday.

But it turns out that none of this explaining is necessary, the cake being yet another chapter in Cakes Gone Wrong, the epic tale I’ve been writing for years now. It did not go terribly wrong, as everybody finished their slice, and when I came downstairs this morning Stuart was eating another for breakfast; people don’t tend to go for seconds of outright disasters. But the cake was, I will say, a bit dense, solid. I was terribly disappointed, as there is nothing more embarrassing than serving up a cake with the consistency of cheese. And worst of all– it was all my fault.

You see, I recently inherited a Sunbeam Electric Mixer. And not just any Electric Mixer, but one that had previously belonged to Rona Maynard. It had even been a wedding present from her mother, so really I could have sold it on eBay, but of course I wouldn’t dream of it, owning too few Canadian writers’ small appliances as it is (I expect you have the same problem). I also love the mixer aesthetically– it looks terribly cool up on the shelf here in our new kitchen. And I do dream of being Nigella, so I wanted it for mixing reasons too, of course.

But I’ve never used an electric mixer before. Have you? Did you realize that when you did used one, that you don’t actually have to do anything? That the bowl just spins and spins and the batter mixes just like magic, and the effect is hypnotic, and fabulous is a 1950s housewife styly, and I was thrilled and taking photos, and the batter mixed and it mixed and it mixed?

(Did you realize that a cake batter doesn’t really have to be so mixed at all? That a quick swirl with a wooden spoon would have sufficed? I sort of did know that, but oh, it would not have been so much fun. But maybe then, my cake would have turned out something like fluffy. It seems one can love their electric mixer too much.)

I mixed my batter for ten minutes.


My dear mother-in-law once told me that anything that gets eaten cannot be deemed a failure. Under such a standard then, my cake gets a passing grade. It was most definitely not a success, though, except in terms of lessons learned: in baking logic and mixer restraint. To make me feel better, everybody at the table decided to pretend that the texture was intentional: strength and density as a metaphor for Deep and Jennie’s love.

December 10, 2007

Charred bottoms

We’ve had a perfectly marvelous weekend, though there was drama and disaster. But before that we had our friend Kim’s birthday part at the Danforth Bowl, which was fun beyond wildest bowling dreams. I didn’t even know I had wild bowling dreams. Another birthday party for our friend Andrea Saturday night, and though they hadn’t bowling, they had Guitar Hero, and it was pretty spectac. And tonight Erin came over to help supervise our tree decorating and have dinner with us. The house is terribly Christmassy now, and we’re happy to have had fabulous company all weekend. I’m on page 175 of Guns Germs and Steel and still going strong. And even the drama and disaster wasn’t that bad: I did my Christmas baking yesterday but was too lazy to actually start doing it until 5:30. I made gingerbread, which was vv good so that was fine, except we realized just as the dough finished that we didn’t actually have a gingerbread man cut-out, and so they’re all stars and trees, which is less fun. We’ll remember for next year. But I didn’t cry, or at least not until the sugar cookie dough failed to actually become dough and was just meal instead. The first batch was a double batch and I threw it all into the garbage. Second batch was just a batch but still didn’t work and I don’t know why, as I’ve used the same recipe the last two years. I was able to pat the cookies into shape and so they’re cookie shaped rather than Christmas-fun shaped, though they were delicious, though the sprinkles from the first batch (which I didn’t wash off the cookie sheet) had caught on fire by the last batch and the smoke alarm went off for a good twenty minutes straight, and the bottoms are charred but we’ll eat them anyway. Merry Christmas!

September 30, 2007

Resurrection

On Wednesday I found out that my next-door neighbour died– the man who’d helped us with our garden. I’d heard one of the kids who lived there talking about a hospital, and so I asked one of them what was wrong. “My grandfather is sick,” he told me. I asked him if he was all right, and the kid reported that he’d died this morning. And so I went in my house and cried, and Stuart was also sad, in his mannish-less-emotional way. All I could think of was my neighbour’s beautiful garden going untended, and that I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen him. That I would never see him again, and I kept looking out the window expecting to.

I baked a batch of muffins that night (actually two, as the first didn’t turn out) and took them over to their house, gave them to another grandson. In the morning I saw one of the man’s sons out in the backyard, aimlessly fidding with the garden, and I was thinking that this poor guy had just lost his dad, and I felt terrible. I went to work feeling just as bad, and as I got to feeling better as the day progressed, I felt guilty for my good humour. That life goes on, as it did.

It was strange then, this morning, to see the dead man from next door out working in that garden. Needless to say, we are considerably confused, and I keep dissolving into hysterical laughter. And I am also really quite embarrassed about the fact that I took them over a batch of muffins, and I wonder what they thought that was all about. Or what it truly was all about? I’m also worried that this may warp my conception of life and death, and that every time someone dies from now on I am going to expect this to happen.

Life is weird, particularly in my neighbourhood.

September 5, 2006

Lazy Sundays

The laziest long weekend on record, and Stu and I were quite lucky because people fed us throughout most of it, so there was no wasting away. Friday, Curtis bought us dinner at Vivoli; Saturday BBQ at Curtis’, though we did make the salads; we went to Jennie and Deep’s Sunday night for a splendid dinner, except that I had a glass of wine and all hell broke loose. Otherwise, we reclined around the house disparaging the rain, and we visited the Italian Festival on College Street and went to Chinatown to buy a tea strainer so we could drink the tea this brilliant someone brought us back from India.

There were also baking disasters. We baked a peach pie for dinner on Sunday and it turned out excellently actually. I might just stick with pies, because my cake baking is really crap. I baked a chocolate cake yesterday for Curtis’s half-birthday (as you do), and I guess recipes are written for a reason, because if you ignore them your cake comes to resemble a bog, and must be cut into squares and the uncooked bits thrown away, and heaped onto a plate like the brownies like in my Nigella cookbook, but not quite as sexually. I persevered though. Several times throughout the process, Stuart came in and advised me to toss the lot into the bin but I kept on, I iced the bog, and though a bit unsightly, the cake squares were good and Curtis’s half-birthday was a success.

And after a lazy weekend, we kicked into high gear, and plenty of things are now doing. We weeded the garden last night, me in me wellies, and though I think we lack the ability to ever grow anything in the garden, pulling the weeds was sort of fun. I started knitting a scarf this weekend too, to get back in the habit before I start my big winter project. And Stu and I got a lot of work done on our latest Pickle Me This Press publication, the book of poetry I Wish My Enemies Were Russians. Which will be available to you in just a week or two!

March 3, 2006

The story of a batch of brownies

(or how to go terribly terribly wrong…)

It is always hard to tell where I go wrong when I am cooking or baking, mostly because there are so many opportunities for disaster to step in. First, I buy a UK edition of a cookbook because it’s the cheapest available online. I don’t think about what that means about measurements and temperatures. I don’t let that dissuade me from my project either. And then, on top of having to convert all my ingredients based on a probably very wrong estimation that 100 grams equals half a cup, I decide to break the recipe in half because a) it makes 48 brownies and b) my only cake tin is nowhere close to the size and proportions the recipe suggests. Another problem I just noticed is that I seem to think recipes “suggest” things rather than “demand” them. Anyway, after all the numbers madness, I decided to use the kind of sugar I have rather than caster sugar, to use chocolate chips rather than chocolate squares because they’re cheaper and poured in a tablespoon of salt rather than a teaspoon and had to scoop it out again. And picked up my flour cannister by its top and it nearly fell off, pouring flour behind my fridge. But I didn’t. And none of this is my attempt to become the Anti-Nigella, this crazed Bridget Jonesian wacky housewife (who is far too obsessed with archetypes from British popular culture). I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I just wanted to be a domestic goddess. Anyway, the brownies are in the oven. This should be interesting. Anyone want to do my washing up?

Mitzi Bytes

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