“Immaturity and hair dye keep me young.”
I’m repeating the title of this post for a few reasons: First, everything clever is worth repeating. It usually gets a good laugh – one of life’s giddiest pleasures, especially at my age. It’s true and unabashedly honest. It sums up what’s to follow – the announcement that I turn 70 in a few days. And last, it’s original.
I used to think I stole this funny line from my beloved heroine: the American journalist, author, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron. I steal a lot from that eminently quotable woman who died too young at 71 in 2012 from a rare form of leukemia. It’s hard not to steal from her because we seem to have parallel lives. I talk about her in the present because she lives on in my heart.
We both love food and cooking. We consider crushed pineapple mandatory in carrot cake, we like meatloaf – done right – and both have a recipe for cottage cheese pancakes. We both adore Julia Child and all that she’s about.
We both have struggled with love and loss, even betrayal. The latter was immortalized in Nora’s semi-autobiographical, brutally honest book and movie: Heartburn. We are obsessed with hair and other grooming rituals. And we both have plenty to say about aging. Or let’s call it what it is – getting old.
“…the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.” Nora Ephron, from I Feel Bad About My Neck.
I say this with the utmost humility because I could never compare my body of work with movies like Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, Julie and Julia and my two favourite books by this fearless woman: I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and I Remember Nothing (2010).
These two books address my current situation: turning 70, aging and the time-consuming, expensive maintenance of body, mind, hair and neck that goes with it. Oh yes, let’s not forget recalling nothing.
While I still recall most of it, let me tell you something about myself.
Me at age 4 (left, with my brother Eric)
I was born Marion Schachter to young parents in Montreal. If you do the math, it was August 1946.
My dad Mel Schachter was a brilliant Boy Wonder born to uneducated, poor immigrant parents and raised in Montreal’s working-class Jewish ghetto that included St. Urbain and surrounding streets.
My parents met at McGill when my father, who graduated in medicine, disposed of a dissected frog in a lab where my beautiful blonde and brainy mother was studying to be a biologist. He offered to carry her microscope and the rest is history.
I was their first child who, from the get-go, was sensitive and hyper-vigilant. That soon developed into a radar-like intuition about other human beings that today borders on ESP. As an adult, I consider this a blessing and a curse. A blessing when it comes to my creative work as a writer and broadcaster. A curse when it lets too much reality in.
We lived for a couple of years in my maternal grandparents’ classy Montreal home on Circle Road. My mother, at age 16, her younger sister and parents fled Latvia in 1939 at the beginning of the Holocaust and arrived in North America a year later. My granny was a doctor who could not practice in Canada. My grandfather was a tall, elegant former oil tycoon with bright blue eyes and a wicked smile. They were both traumatized, as was my mother I now realize, by the suicide of their eldest daughter Mira and the murder of their entire extended family by the Nazis at Rumbula.
They liked my dad but not his eating habits. His favourite food – salami – was relegated to the window sill on the second floor.
He got a job as a professor at Dalhousie so we moved to Halifax when I was two. Then Mel had a yen to work with another physiologist in his field in the U.K. so we moved to a suburb called Finchley in North London.
Mine was a chaotic household in which we, “the kids,” as dad referred to us, were collateral damage. The Holocaust’s devastation was unspoken and manifested as hungry ghosts whispering in the wings – a subliminal, terrifying elephant in the room. Likewise for my dad’s family – a rough lot on his father’s side from rural Russia whom I call “rural gangsters” – whom he virtually disowned.
It was the 1950s and ’60s.
We were ethnic, atheist Jews with a funny name who ate funny food – rye bread, schnitzel, tortes of various kinds and salad with vinaigrette – living in a white-bread, white-collar Anglo milieu. My parents had funny jobs – teachers of medicine and biology respectively. Hard to believe but we had these teaching aids in our dining room cupboard: a real skeleton and various stages of (human) fetuses preserved in formaldehyde in display containers. These were a ghoulish but star attraction when friends came over.
Meanwhile, I longed to be blonde, tall, go to Sunday school and have jam sandwiches for “tea.” In a nutshell, I wanted to fit in.
“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about you’re going to eat next at all times” – Nora Ephron.
Enter food. And, in particular, cooking.
The one constant in our emotionally inconstant home was mealtime – at 6 pm daily at which all would attend. That included my brother Eric (one year younger than me) and later another brother Jonny (10 years my junior.)
My mother had taught herself to cook as a newlywed from a 1940s edition of the Joy of Cooking. I still have it, bereft of its cover, tattered and stained. Mum’s repertoire, apart from her famous Linzertorte and assorted pastries gleaned from other sources, included Sweet and Sour Spareribs, my dad’s beloved Swiss Steak, Cottage Cheese Pancakes, Sauerbraten and dishes harking back to her Eastern European roots – in particular a mean Beef Stroganoff and little meat pies called Pirozhki.
I was adventurous and sometimes quirky in my culinary preferences even as a young ‘un and used to ask for the Prune Souffle from Joy for my birthday treat. Also popular with me was the cheesecake from that iconic tome. So popular that, at age 14, I decided to make it – with great entrepreneurial success. Cooking has long been a way to bond with my intellectual, culture-vulture mother. My dad, who put himself through McGill medical school by slinging eggs, was also a good cook.
It is hardly a surprise, given all this, that I have found a career in food. It finally came to me full force in my 30s after pursuing languages with a degree in Russian and French followed by a B.Ed and a stint at teaching adults English.
In the early 1970s, I moved to Toronto via Edmonton and North Bay (don’t ask) with my then-husband John Kane and my two-year-old daughter Esther.
Work as a contributing editor for Toronto Life came my way writing, assigning and editing the magazine’s restaurant reviews. I soon realized this happily combined my skill at communicating with words and my love of cooking.
Next, a friend called to say that the Toronto Sun – a paper I didn’t read because of its right-wing politics and Sunshine Girls, was looking for a food writer.
I was interviewed in the summer of 1983. They offered me the job as the paper’s first food editor. I was a single mother who still used a typewriter and had no formal training in journalism. I accepted – mainly because of the dental plan.
I was thrown in the deep end and quickly learned to use the giant computer called a word processor. My editor, a sardonic, brilliant, dyed-in-the-wool journalist from Cleveland who looked a little like Peter O’Toole, trained me in his own way. He used to say “I’ll make this sing” as he put his finishing touches on my copy.
When I wrote my first piece about some Jewish ladies making latkes for a fundraiser, he skimmed it and asked: “Where’s the photo?” “There isn’t one,” I innocently replied. I still remember his immortal words: “People don’t read the paper – they just look at the pictures.” Please note that there are pictures with this blog post. Thank you for that early advice Pat – you were probably right.
The Toronto Sun turned out to be a great place to start my career as a food journalist. Right off the bat, I learned the importance of accuracy in recipes. There was an error in a recipe by one of my freelancers early on and all hell broke loose first thing in the morning. Yes, people do bake cookies at 8 am – and they get mad when they’re a mushy mess. I learned to be clear in my writing and to write succinctly.
And I had fun. Once, for Valentine’s Day, I had three attractive friends dress up as ladies of the night lounging on sofas wrapped in feather boas for a feature on aphrodisiacs. When I had my second daughter Ruth in 1987, I wrote a feature called “Cooking with a Babe in Arms.”
That approach was perhaps what incited an editor from the Toronto Star to woo me as food editor for that paper. I’d heard untoward stories about that newsroom so initially declined. Also, because of my insecurities growing up, I have always had difficulty with change. Then a colleague told me, in no uncertain terms, to accept the offer. I did. It was the summer of 1989.
L to R: Me at the Toronto Sun, 1983 and at the Toronto Star, 1997
I was the food editor/columnist at the Toronto Star until I resigned in 2007. They were a heady, exciting, often stressful 18 years during which my work had about 1 million readers.
Again, I had fun. There was a feature about mousse (the food) illustrated by a moose holding a bowl of same and called “Mousse Season.” I interviewed taxi drivers in their cabs about where and what they eat. The title: “Taxi Fare.” I chatted with Joe “Dogs” Iannuzzi when he phoned at appointed times from parts unknown while under the witness protection plan. A cook for the New York Mafia’s infamous Gambino family and author of The Mafia Cookbook, he turned in several members and was a wanted man. He died from cancer in Texas last year.
In 1992, I began being concerned about food waste, the dangers of plastic for the environment and the importance of recycling leftovers. The result was a photo of me dressed in cabbage leaves to illustrate that feature (see below). I also care about those who don’t have food. Hence my articles and columns about Sistering, the Scott Mission, St. John’s Bakery and other places in my city doing good work for the hungry and homeless.
In 2000, I spotted two rising stars: a baby-faced Jamie Oliver whom I interviewed by phone and later in person. That same year, Anthony Bourdain answered the phone at his New York apartment after a tour to promote his ground-breaking book Kitchen Confidential. Movie legend Sophia Loren stopped in Toronto to promote her cookbook Recipes & Memories in 1999. It was a pinch-me two hours when we had a lunch of dishes inspired by that collection at Trattoria Giancarlo in Little Italy.
I first contacted her in late 1990. That cheery phone chat led to her visit to Toronto in April, 1991, as a guest of the Toronto Star. She became my friend and mentor whom I would host at dinners on her book tours to our city in subsequent years. My last communication was a few weeks before her death on August 13, 2004. I’d asked her by mail if she had a great recipe for Tarte Tatin. She sent me two, one of them hers.
Me and Julia Child in my kitchen, 1991; Me, Jenny Barato of Trattoria Giancarlo, Sophia Loren, 1999; Me as the Green Cuisine Queen, 1992
Now we get to the serious stuff, albeit with a happy ending.
In 2005, my younger daughter Ruth left home to attend university leaving me with an empty nest. My solution: To leave home too. I sold my house of 25 years in my adopted home Kensington Market and moved to what I imagined would be the bucolic countryside: the city of Stratford. This turned out to be what is called in addiction circles “a geographical cure” that, not surprisingly, didn’t work.
My childhood demons had caught up with me and the sleeping pills I’d been taking episodically for 30 years stopped working. Though I had good friends there who tried to help, I slid down the slippery slope. In late 2008, a young doctor at CAMH told me the lethal combo of benzos (any sedative ending in “pam”) I was washing down with alcohol would kill me.
The good news is that this has turned to be a healing path of discovery – and a gift disguised as a disaster. On my 70th birthday, I will have almost eight years of recovery.
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” – Nora Ephron
The fellowship of others in my position – and we are many – has helped me through. So has cooking and sharing the results with family and friends. My two daughters are in healing professions. Esther, 45, is a talented psychotherapist living in B.C. Ruth, 28, is a natural-born nurse. I’m back in Kensington Market living with my partner Ross who laughs at my jokes and appreciates the food I serve.
I have not escaped certain things that go with aging: Late-onset allergies, a curable problem with my eyes and difficulty recalling the names of movie stars. I don’t have chronic insomnia but do have what Ariana Huffington calls “segmented sleep” in which I’m awake for about an hour most nights for no apparent reason. Of course, I don’t take sleep medication of any kind.
Yes, immaturity and hair dye do keep me young. But, on a deeper level, so do an undying curiosity, a search for connection every day and the belief that adversity is often a gift sent to teach me something.
Sittin’ in the Kitchen, a series of audio podcasts, is my current passion and my newest creative outlet.
Life is good. And what better way to celebrate than with the best chocolate dessert I’ve found. As Julia would say: Bon Appetit!
Double Dark Chocolate Excess
2 oz/50g unsweetened chocolate
1 stick (4 oz/125g) unsalted butter
3 tbsp strong espresso coffee
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 tbsp vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
Generous pinch salt
1/2 cup toasted blanched whole almonds, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream, whipped (optional)
Preheat oven to 375F. Line bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper.
Melt chocolates and butter in small stainless-steel bowl set in small saucepan of simmering water. Stir in coffee, vanilla and almond extracts. Cool to room temperature.
With plastic spatula, beat together eggs, sugar, cocoa and salt until creamy. Stir in almonds, flour and chocolate until smooth. Pour into prepared pan and bake 35 minutes or until tester inserted in centre comes out with a few streaks.
Cool on wire rack, then release sides of pan. Transfer to cake plate. Cut into small slivers and serve with a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.