Month: December 2009

2009: Not A List, a Remembrance.

Lists are, to my mind, a way of categorizing those things that generally defy categorization. They’re also just a cop-out for reminiscence. I tend to shy away from lists that show up this time of year, mainly because what I think is the best so-and-so of the past year (or decade) probably won’t match anyone else’s -nor should it. Memories are personal things, like opinions, and rather than arguing over veracity or validity, I tend to find a deeper meaning in simply reading the personal remembrances of others -for instance, someone’s most memorable meal or personal highlight for the year -as opposed to any top ten list that’s designed (usually solely) to ruffle feathers.

So here, in no particular order, are just a few of my favourite 2009 highlights:

Jessica Jensen
The Canadian designer best known for her exquisite leather goods ventured into the world of clothing at the start of this past autumn’s LG Fashion Week. The pieces were interestingly presented in artist Thrush Holmes‘ studio, located along Queen Street West in Toronto.

What made this marriage of fashion and art so fascinating were the various intersections between creativity and commerce; with the muted colours and billowing folds of Jensen’s pieces draped onto white, faceless, feature-less mannequins, Holmes’ studio resembled something of a retail space; it was less creation, and more consumption. But placed together with the work of Jensen’s photographer-husband (which definitely had hints of Sugimoto in its contemplative simplicity), the set-up encouraged lingering, contemplating, and connecting different ideas and pressentations. The links between the source of her inspiration (the moody climate of the American Eastern seaboard) and the end result (simply-constructed pieces in an array of pre and post-storm colours) was made clearer, with the space transformed into an intriguing mix of old and new definitions of art, artfulness, creation and commerce. Nicely done.

Goran Bregovic
The Eastern European singer, in Toronto this past June for the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity, proved to be wonderful, charming, curios conversationalist, and it remains one of my favourite interviews. His first appearance here -he played two shows, the first being a massive, open-air show in a main square in the city’s core -was met with a riotous response. Singing, clapping, dancing, climbing the scaffolding -and two of the city’s main roads closed -all for a man who doesn’t sing in English (okay, one song). His concert the following night -in a smaller club, the celebrate the release of his Best-Of album -was warm, ebullient, joyous, and raucous, and brought me closer to my own Eastern European background than I’d ever been before. It also re-awakened my love of dance. Easily one of the most musically fascinating -and personally important -concerts of my life.

The Nightingale
The Robert LePage-directed work received its world premiere at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts this past fall. I had my doubts about pairing Stravinsky and the Quebec-born artist, mainly because the former’s music is, to my ears, so incredibly difficult at points. Where -how -would LePage find his way into this? Find his way he did, though, with the use of creative puppetry, shadowplay, sumptuous costuming, and a pit-full of water. Using a fascinating visual palette that embraced the Russian flavour of the piece, as well as the piece’s Oriental leanings, The Nightingale was a feast for the eyes, ears -and the heart. Easily one of the most memorable opera productions, ever.

Food Writing
From walking around Antony John’s wonderous, beautiful farm, to attending the Brickworks Picnic, to tasting teas -and champagnes -at Hart House, this has been one heck of a great year, food-wise, for me. Not only have I expanded my professional (and photographic) repertoire by chasing these features, but I’ve received a great education in the process.

I’ve also become keenly aware of both my own purchasing power, and of the power of social media with regards to food. I was interviewed by AP reporter Michael Hill about my love of twecipes. And I’ve met and spoke with some truly wonderful people, some of whom I met via the wonders of the interwebs, including Food & Drink/Globe writer/author Lucy Waverman, Ruth Klahsen (the Queen of Monforte) and Maria Solokofski, the Guerilla Gourmet; there’s been more enlightening yacks with raw milk farmer (and good food crusader) Michael Schmidt and Earth To Table authors/chefs Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, who were so informative, affable, and down-to-earth (irony intended) in their approach to food. More than ever, 2009 was the year in which my kitchen became my haven.

Toot Toot
One more thing: I was profiled in Shameless Magazine. It’s not very often I feel completely proud or satisfied with my work -creative, professional or otherwise (my inner critic is also a relentless bully) -but really, having this piece out there and so widely circulated was a personal boon, and the response I’ve received has been tremendous, and inspiring. I’m going to try to keep myself open to more of these good moments in 2010, and the decade it heralds.

Here’s to continuing the magic.

Jessica Jensen / Thrush Holmes’ studio photo by Kimberly Lyn.
Goran Bregovic photo by Imre Szekely.

Dance Dance Dance

Lastnight, I came home to enjoy an old documentary called That’s Entertainment on television. The piece covers the bygone era of Hollywood musicals. Having sat through previews detailing the latest super-action-charged, effects-laden films, as well as the action-y, effects-filled main feature, I was struck by the simple, lovely pleasures of watching the human form move and pivot through space, to music. Somehow, the cinema of fifty-odd years ago seems purer -and for me, oddly more satisfying than many of today’s flashy offerings.

That doesn’t I’m a Luddite, however. I sometimes deeply enjoy the digital artistry on offer in modern films (Lord of the Rings was beautiful, perfect, and very moving), so long as it is in the service of a strong story and interesting characters. But I have to admit that I find the combination of simple, if carefully-choreographed, song-and-dance numbers from yesteryear thrilling to behold. Even with the reams of stylists, camera people, and dance captains, there is some kind of simple pleasure at work in watching old musical numbers. The mere act of watching a staged dance number -a la Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, or Kelly and Fred Astaire in Ziegield Follies -has a kind of magical aura that simply can’t be duplicated, even with modern Hollywood musicals like the recently-released Nine or the Oscar-winning Chicago. Call it glamour from a long-gone era; call it raw artistry; call it, as Kelly does in the telly special, a urge toward what he terms “perfection” … whatever it is, it’s magical. It re-awakens my love of dance like few others things do.

I’ve done a variety of dance -ballet, jazz, tap, and later on, bellydance -so that might be why seeing Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Charisse, Miller, et al strut their stuff affects me so deeply. I’ve seen plenty of musical stage productions, but strangely, I never get the same feeling; it’s as if the musical on-film captures not just actual dance but a moment in time, when people actually went to the cinema to see other people move around and sing to music. Looking at it from our digital super-special effects era, there’s something thoroughly quaint about the whole thing -even if Astaire’s famous ceiling-dance is still jaw-dropping, decades later. This is what special effects looked liked in the early 50s. People made them special -and that human effort can be seen in all it glorious, frail, masterful glory in such classic movie gems. Cinematic magic doesn’t have to be complicated -at least not for me; so long as there’s heart, art, and commitment, I’m happy -dancing in the dark, or otherwise.

Visions of Sugar Plums

Yes, it’s Christmas Eve, and you probably won’t be slaving in your kitchen reading this. But think of this recipe as good reference for the future -or even Orthodox Christmas, coming up in early January.

Personally, I’ve always loved dried fruits: their pungent sweetness and gooey, ever-so dessicated texture I find intoxicating. And they’re healthy too. So once I came across a recipe that integrated them with other ingredients (nuts and booze, huzzah!), and transformed the lot into a bake-free, semi-healthy holiday option, my tastebuds started leaping.

The recipe below is based on Lucy Waverman’s entirely excellent recipe for sugar plums that appeared in an old issue of Food and Drink magazine. I experimented a little bit and found this combination, with dried cranberries and green cherries, gives just the right amount of sweetness; the colours also add a cheerful Christmas touch. The recipe makes enough for roughly 24 small sugar plums, or 18 medium-sized ones. I like to keep mine toytown-small (to borrow Nigella‘s adorable phrase) -it makes popping them into one’s mouth so entirely satisfying, and after a huge holiday meal, the last thing you want is a cumbersome, vulgar-sized treat. These are also insanely easy; they don’t require any baking, and are great for getting other, non-cooking types involved. The plums are also good for those who are wheat or sugar-sensitive. Oh, and they’re totally delicious. Enjoy.

You will need:

  • 1/4 (50 mL) halved pecans, toasted*
  • 8 dried figs
  • 8 dried dates
  • roughly 1/4 cup (50 mL) dried cranberries (you want about a handful)
  • roughly 1/4 cup (50 mL) dried green cherries
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) grated lemon rind
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) cherry brandy
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) runny honey
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • roughly 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

* To toast pecans, pre-heat oven to 400F; spread pecans on a baking sheet, making sure they aren’t overlapping. When the oven is hot, throw the sheet in the oven for about 5 minutes -they’ll be giving off a luscious deep scent by then, so you know they’ll be done. Keep an eye out so they don’t burn! Remove promptly and shake the sheet around; leave them until you’re ready to use them.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Roughly chop the dates; place in a food processor with the sharp blade already on.
Cut the tough little nubs off the figs (their tops, that is), roughly chop them, then throw them in the processor too, along with the cranberries, cherries, and toasted pecans.

Blitz the processor on and off, so that you get a fine, crumb-like texture. The cherries and cranberries will be big green and red flecks. Add the grated lemon rind, cherry brandy, honey and cinnamon. Turn the processor on. It’ll take a bit of time to mix everything down to a paste and properly integrate the honey throughout the mixture. You’ll know it’s ready, however, when the mixture starts to come away from the edges of the bowl.

When mixed, scoop out a lusciously sticky portion using a teaspoon (or other small measuring tool). With wet hands, roll into a tiny little ball and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Continue, wetting hands and teaspoon (or whatever you’re using -I have a small bowl of water handy), forming little balls.

When you have 24 (or so), get started on coating them with the coconut.

Wash your hands and then spread the coconut in a decent layer across a large plate or other flat, lipped surface. Carefully roll sugar plums, one by one, in the coconut, and place back on the parchment.

Leave them to sit on the baking sheet about 10 minutes, just to make sure the coconut sets. Mind putting them away -they’re delicious little morsels, but they are also very delicate. Then again, isn’t every good thing at Christmas in need of a little TLC? I think that squarely includes all the talented people cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow…

From my home to yours, much joy, peace, and deep gratitude. I wish all of you a wonderful, wonderfully delicious holiday season, full of love, laughter, wine and song.

Elementary

I’m currently in the process of compiling favourite moments from 2009; though not entirely finished, the list will include tidbits from the worlds of music, food, fashion, and art. They’ll be small, delicious morsels.

Typing of which, I’m also going to be posting my recipe for sugar plums shortly. Haven’t done much holiday baking? Want to impress the in-laws? Oven-allergic? These little balls of joy are for you.

First, however, Holmesian goodness:As a teen, I voraciously read Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the British detective, and eschewed Basil Rathbone‘s dry, humourless interpretation for the utterly-excellent Jeremy Brett, who will, to my mind, always remain the quintessential Sherlock. Not even Robert Downey Jr. can compete -though truth be told, I don’t think he’s trying to. It seems as it director Guy Ritchie is more interested in using the aesthetic of Victorian London and combining it with a modern action-film sensibility, all filtered through a steampunk perspective. The only connection the film would seem to have the Conan Doyle originals is the title -and truly, that’s fine by me. If it inspires younger people to return to the original source material, so much is the better. They might even discover the beautiful British series featuring Brett. There’s room for all kinds of interpretations here. Why be stodgy?

The yucky-faces surely being made by Holmes purists over the new film reminds me of reactions to new interpretations in opera and theatre; heaven forbid they be done in anything but “traditional” mode! How boring. What a good way of killing creativity. Ugh. I’d think a captivating reinvention would make people more apt to go back to the source material. If the original art is strong enough -whether written, musical, dramatic, or otherwise -it can easily withstand re-envisioning. Remember Bridget Jones? Jane Austen is grinning from the great beyond. I have a feeling Arthur Conan Doyle is doing the same with the new Sherlock Holmes. If the aughties have taught us anything, it’s that re-imagining and reinterpreting art from the past is every bit as vital (and hard) as creating the original stuff. At the end of the day, it’s all elementary.

I Can Weather The Storm

It’s been challenging to get in the Christmas spirit this year.

I’m marking one year since my father’s passing, which makes things sad, and I’m also marking ten years next year that I’ll have moved back from living abroad. Decades bring lists, reflections, and reminiscences on choices made and accomplishments won. Time, that old browbeater, keeps running by. It’s been especially tough for me and, I think, many others like me in the media industry; there have been layoffs, buy-outs, so-called “re-structurings” and considerable drops in income. I’m not actually able to buy presents this year, a fact that both mortifies and relieves. Karloff might intone, “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store… maybe Christmas means a little bit more” but of course the nature of Western society is such that the act of buying or not has been rendered not so much a choice as a duty. And yet I’m the sort who’s taken a keen delight in the act of giving, which is a kind of lovely gift infused with reciprocal energy.

So I eschewed buying gfits -out of basic pocket-book necessity -in favour of hosting friends for a meal this past weekend. Combining a Christmas-y get-together with my own recent birthday made for a festive, fun atmosphere; we ate, we drank, we laughed. New friendships and connections were formed, experiences and observations shared, beautiful food and drink passed around. It felt like the perfect gift. And no, I didn’t post a bit of it online; no Facebook updates, Flickr photos or in-the-moment tweets. Somehow, choosing to keep the gathering out of the online public eye made it all the more intimate and special. I’d like to think one of the things I can give myself, my friends, and the world is a firm sense of borders, and an understanding of privacy. Narcissism be damned; the evening wasn’t about me, or any one person, but about us, as a unit, sitting around a food-filled table, drinking, talking, laughing. I was reminded of the innate value of friendship that evening, and how it is perhaps the greatest gift of all.

Still, there is, of course, of dealing with family this time of year. Are we friends with our family? Working towards it? Given up? I hate to admit it, but the first couple of years back from my time overseas, I’d purposely vanish in a haze of rummy nog and mulled wine to avoid the stress. This is not a wise course of action. I’m happy to say my own relationship with my family has improved to a point I could’ve never imagined a year ago, let alone ten. The old agage that “peace begins at home” has never felt more true. And this year, I have decided that music might be the best medicine -or perhaps complement. I’m still dealing with swallowing the bitter pills of guilt for the present, and nostalgia for the past, but knowing I’ve formed such strong, positive relationships with good, sincere people is a great reminder that those pills are … well, useless. I should spit them out so I can smile at the lovely sounds of Frank, Dean, Ella, Vinceet al. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Right?

The Sweet Smell of The Season

There are very few truly delicious, filling dishes to be had, at least in theatrical terms, amidst the saccharine offerings through the Christmas season. Everything is so sweet and frothy, it’s enough to make one’s teeth rot from the cutesy-overload. So it was with more than a little curiosity that I attended the opening of Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie at the Young Centre last week. What did this have to do with the season?, I wondered. Why choose an old, rarely-performed work to fill out the last gasp of the admittedly-varied 2009 Soulpepper season? Where’s my Scrooge?

As it turns out, my fears were calmed and entirely unfounded –and I didn’t miss the old Dickens chestnut one bit. Parfumerie is a truly perfect choice for the silly season, and a beautifully romantic, thought-full way of ending the year. Laszlo’s endearing, romantic work centers on the activities of a Budapest beauty shop in the 1930s. As Associate Artist Paula Wing notes in the show programs, Laszlo nicely integrates all the people he knew and observed in his home city, from the “well-heeled denizens” of posh Buda, to the working-class shop clerks and service employees of bustling Pest. The tension between them, while extant, also highlights the struggles and heartaches of each, and ultimately the work celebrates humanity in a grandly messy, heady mix of zany comedy and serious drama. No wonder the work has been adapted so frequently; one musical (She Loves Me) and three films (The Shop Around The Corner, The Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail) have all taken as their basis the Laszlo original, of unknown love amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.

The plot is more of a premise, but it’s rich with character exploration and theatrical possibility. The employees of Hammerschmidt and Company, a beauty shop, race around to prepare for the holidays, while revealing their inner lives in small but telling ways. Two of the shop’s employees, the scatty Rosana Balaz (Patricia Fagan) and the uptight George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis) are constantly sparring, spitting insults at one another and rolling their eyes in frustration. As it turns out, each has been unknowingly exchanging love letters with the other. This undercurrent of unspoken and unknown affection is the premise that fuels the action around the other subplots, involving the cheating wife of the owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), who suspects George as the seducer. Dennis is keen at widening his big eyes and using his considerable experience in physical comedy to convey the confusion of a man who pipes up in his work but shuts down in his emotions. It’s refreshing to see Dennis finally play a romantic lead, too, particularly since he’s almost always cast as the amusing sideman.

Equally, Ziegler, who usually plays Scrooge for Soulpepper this time of year, brings a load of heart to the huffy boss. He employs stiff body language and keen, knowing silence to punctuate the new adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins. This smart approach brings a kind of Chekhovian gloom to the proceedings (not entirely unsuitable, considering the infamous “Suicide Song” originated in Hungary) and a deep thoughtful quality to his performance, making Hammerschmidt less officious and more human, fallible, and ultimately, vulnerable.

This vulnerability especially extends to the way in which director Morris Panych has staged the scenes between the male employees. Mr. Sipos (Michael Simpson) sits on the shop’s round settee and shares a guilty secret with George at one point, their faces both portraits of pain and genuine confusion. It’s not difficult to recall a similar scene of understanding staged earlier between Mr. Hammerschmidt and his eager-beaver delivery boy, Arpad (Jeff Lillico), who acts as a kind of default son to the childless boss. Arpad runs to bring his crusty boss breakfast the night after an attempted suicide which the delivery boy helped to prevent. Ziegler balances a mix of gruff dismissal and shame-faced grief, while Lillico is wonderfully pure in channeling his character’s fierce protectiveness for his boss. There is a real hum of affection and a moving frankness between the male characters that is entirely in keeping with Laszlo’s loving look at human relationships.

In watching these scenes, I was reminded of Soulpepper’s production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple two seasons ago, where a similar tone of male understanding rang through many scenes. It’s this tender vulnerability that immediately gets shut away the minute any women appear, in both Simon’s or Laszlo’s worlds, as if a man betraying what could be perceived as weakness is unforgivable and entirely unfathomable. The Hungarian playwright uses the letters between George and Rosie to create a bridge, however –between genders, life experience, perspectives, and ideas, allowing a greater intimacy to creep in as a result of both characters allowing themselves to be vulnerable not only on paper, but face-to-face. You’re torn between wanting to stand up and cheer, or softly sigh, when George finally tells Rosie he’s actually the man behind the Abelard-and-Heloise poetics within the letters.

This beautiful bridging could’ve only happened with the care and class of director of Morris Panych, really. The award-winning director and playwright guides his gifted cast with a keen, knowing hand, playing up the comedy of the piece at one moment, turning down the volume to allow the drama to come through at others. We barely notice the shifting tenor of moments as he expertly navigates the emotional landscape Pettle and Robbins have laid out, and it’s a relief, because a work like Parfumerie could so easily veer into the trite and ineffectual, becoming another puffy comedy piece set in a pink-heart world. But, just as he did with The Trespassers at the Stratford Festival this past summer, Panych carefully reveals the layers of tender humanity contained within Laszlo’s world -with humour, patience, understanding, and affection. With Parfumerie, we have a marvelous, moving night of truly delightful theatre, with just the right touch of holiday spirit. Tooth-rotting, cutesy sugar plum shows be damned –this is exactly the sort of Christmas meal I wanted. Thanks again, Soulpepper. Yum yum.

All Parfumerie photographs by Cylla von Tiedmann.

Give Us This Day

Since my little outage incident last week, I’ve resolved to step away from the screen more often -and make room for the things that are important to me. Many friends know that as well as being an arts maven, I’m also a foodie, and indeed, I have devoted several blogs to recipes and the joys of cooking -and eating. In all the years I’ve worked from home, I’ve come to regard proximity to my kitchen as something necessary to my regular work-a-day routine. Whenever I can’t seem to find the words or have a mental block around approaching or shaping a feature, I go down to my kitchen and make something. It helps to clarify, to calm, to soothe and to inspire.

I took a cooking day last week, purposely walking away from email checking and online activity for the sake of spending quality time around culinary texture, shape, temperature and taste. I made bread, I roasted a chicken; all felt right with the world. Making my own bread is one of the true, deep pleasures in life; the process of mixing, of kneading, of proofing, re-kneading, of seeing how the dough responds, a living thing, to pokes and prods and gentle massage, and then witnessing its eventual evolution from dusty, dissolute ingredients to pure, cohesive … thing… is miraculous. No wonder bread figures so prominently in some of the most important cultural stories -whether they be biblical, historical, or otherwise. The process, including the eating, is simply magical. My personal favourite of late is an oatmeal molasses bread, taken from the beautiful book From Earth To Table, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann. I interviewed them both recently for a feature, and found the same abiding love of food -but more than that, a respect for journey, process, discovery.

Going forwards in my freelance journalism journey has yielded so many discoveries, and continues to. I suppose the best I can do is be patient and allow those lessons to present themselves. Walking away from the computer to bake -and then coming back to share the fruits of my labours (and then going back again) -feels like a good process, and a kind of balance I can live with.

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