Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Omelletes & Do you want to talk about it?

by Amy

Do you want to talk about it?

"The owner of the bistro brought their breakfasts of omelettes, fresh fruit and a croissant each."

I’m the kind of person who asks that question. A lot. Sometimes I ask with actual words. Most often, though, people seem to tell me how they feel or what they're going through and I don’t really remember having asked. Or, if I did, I barely noticed doing so. Maybe it’s the white lab coat? Or the certainty that my phone is on at any and all times of day? Or maybe (most likely) I’m also the kind of person who will probably answer “yes” any time the question is (sincerely) posed to me. I talk through my issues. I listen to those of others. I enjoy it. I think it's part of who I am. 

“Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Ruth Zardo stared at each other.
It felt like a cage match. Only one would emerge alive. Not for the first time in Ruth’s company, Beauvoir felt an unpleasant retraction below his belt.

“What do you want?” Ruth demanded.

“I want to talk,” snapped Beauvoir.

“Can’t it wait, asshole?”

“No, it can’t, you lunatic.” He paused. “Do you like me?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I think you’re anal, idiotic, cruel and perhaps slightly retarded.”

“And I think the same of you,” he said, relieved. It was as he thought, as he’d hoped.
“Well, glad we got that straight. Thank you for coming by, now, nighty night.” Ruth reached for the doorknob.
“Wait,” Beauvoir said, his hand out, almost touching her withered arm. “Wait,” he said again, almost in a whisper. And Ruth did.”
There’s more than one way to listen. There’s more than one way to empathize. There’s more than one kind of confessor. I probably wouldn’t make a good listener for Jean-Guy here. I don’t think I could be as ruthless as Ruth (Ruthless Ruth – haha! That might be a good nickname for her). Jean-Guy purposefully looked for someone who would listen, but wouldn’t care (although she does care). To him the idea of dealing with someone’s sympathy or pity was worse than being silent.

No one likes to be pitied.

“Ruth sat across from him, a pot of watery tea on the white pre-formed table, and one cup. Her thin arms were strapped across her chest, as though trying to keep her innards in. But not her heart, Beauvoir knew. That had escaped years before, like the duck. In time all things fled Ruth.He needed to talk to someone, but someone without a heart, without compassion. Someone who didn’t care.”
Empathy is not pity. But even the most empathetic listener is not the best listener for everyone. Even if the person does his or her best to not judge, what is said cannot be unsaid. It cannot be unknown.

Lila, I know I’ve said this any number of times. But people do talk to me. About all sorts of things. Sometimes it helps. At least that’s what they tell me.
She said, “Then for the rest of their life you’re gonna think about it. Every time you look at them. Hear their name even.”“True.”“Well, I spose it would have to be true, wouldn’t it. The worse it was, the more you’d remember. Maybe I don’t want you looking at me that way.”“Fine,” he said. “Whatever you say.”“I don’t know how those people go on living in the same town with you.”“A few of them do leave the church. Maybe because they’ve told me more than they meant to. I’ve suspected that was part of it. In some cases.” (Lila – Marilynne Robinson)

Relationships change when “confessions” are made. I think the closer you hold your secrets, the harder it is to reveal them. The more comfortable you are with yourself, the easier it is to share. I think. I might be wrong. Remember Constance in A TRICK OF THE LIGHT? Remember how close she’d kept her secret? To the point where even the merest hint seemed like an enormous revelation? But then, it isn’t when we feel comfortable with ourselves that we feel the need to unburden, is it?

Sometimes it's easier to share with a stranger. Or, according to Beauvoir's logic, with someone who doesn't care. Maybe that's part of why professional therapists, healthcare workers, religious leaders, and people who respond to crisis end up being on the listening end of so many conversations. If a person isn't personally involved, then their judgement, their forgiveness, and the remainder of their lives (after the conversation takes place) doesn't matter as much to you.

"There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. [...] If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace." (Home - M. Robinson)

Reverend Amos, in Robinson’s book LILA, says “people do talk to me. About all sorts of things. Sometimes it helps.” I can say the same. People talk to me. It sometimes changes the dynamics of our relationship. Sometimes it means, like Beauvoir feared - like Lila feared - that I know their vulnerabilities and, from then on, I tend to shield them. Spare them.

While sharing with a stranger, or a professional, or a neutral party can be cathartic, there is a special kind of redemption and pardon to be had when you feel like you are heard, seen, understood, and loved by someone who cares. Someone who has their own version of events, but is still willing to put themselves in your shoes and try to understand your side of the story. That is the magic of empathy. Empathy is willing to understand someone else's "truth", even when it doesn't match their own.

"I told him almost everything, and when I was done he said, 'You are a good man.' Imagine that."(Home - M. Robinson)

I recently had a conversation with someone who listened. I had been very sick (with dengue fever of all things) and the feeling of helplessness and exhaustion had left me emotionally drained. I mentioned that I was feeling empty, with little to offer and, because I felt so tired, I was made aware of how many people made emotional demands on my time. In a moment of utter exhaustion I complained about being so needed.

A couple of weeks later I felt better. I was back to wanting to know what made people tick and feeling rewarded when I knew I’d made a positive impact – no matter how small – on someone else’s life. Nevertheless, my previous words cannot be retracted. While being heard had been priceless, it had also made the listener aware of the fact that there are in fact more emotional demands in my life than perhaps he had previously realized. It made the listener aware, even as I was, that people call me, all the time, with their problems, their pain, their doubts, their expectations, their needs. It made the listener wish to shield me. Spare me.

A few days ago this same listener was sick and felt wary of calling me and asking for help. He didn’t want to add to the burden. Since the person in question was my dad, it was easy to be the one to call and to laugh when he said he didn’t want to be any trouble. I told him we’re past that. I appreciate him having been willing and able to listen when I was feeling drained. The fact that he cared and understood was part of the turning point in refilling my emotional reservoir. I was ready to give back again. He could get over being protective. He’s my dad, though. I don’t think it’s possible for a parent to stop feeling protective. I’m a parent myself. I know it’s impossible. We could share, though. I could help him carry his pain just as he’d helped me carry mine. I was back to being me.

[On a side note, can you tell I have incredible parents?]

“Gamache took a deep breath and looked down at the table, his lips tight.Émile paused. “Do you want to talk about it?”Armand Gamache looked up. “I can’t. Not yet. But thank you.”“When you’re ready.” Émile smiled, took a sip of strong, aromatic coffee, and picked up Renaud’s diary again.”

I love how Émile responded here. He was respectful of Gamache’s need for time. He was available. He didn’t push. As a true friend, he knew that it was more important to be there and to be willing to listen. Sometimes it is enough to know you are loved and cherished and that you have people who care enough to listen should you need or want to share. Just as important, it’s invaluable to know that you’ll be respected if you choose silence.

No one likes to be pitied.

We all want to be seen, though.

No one likes to be judged.

We all want to be understood.

No one likes to be exposed.

We all want to be loved.

Beauvoir chose someone he believed didn’t care – and wouldn’t tell. He felt could trust her with his vulnerability because she wouldn’t pity him. He didn’t believe she had a heart, so there was no heart to bleed when she listened to his pain. Also, he didn’t care enough about her for her judgement to matter. Or so he thought.

 “I never even thought of telling anybody what was on my mind all those years. Not Doll, not any of ‘em. I don’t even think I knew people did that.” (Lila – Marilynne Robinson)

I’m pretty sure most of us can empathize with Beauvoir at least a little bit. Baring your soul (while sober and aware) can be scary. So many people – like Beauvoir, like Olivier –are so afraid of being ridiculed, misunderstood, or judged for who they think others might see, that they choose not to let people see or hear or know.

“She hated to remember how swept up in it all she had been, how ridiculous she would have seemed to anyone who knew what she’d been thinking. That’s one good thing about the way life is, that no one can know you if you don’t let them.” (Lila – Marilynne Robinson)
But is it? A good thing?

While it can be scary to be exposed, I wonder how much scarier it is to hold it all inside. Those who don’t share tend to have an exaggerated view of the importance of their secrets and revelations. Like Olivier. Like Constance. Those who try to project an infallible, strong, tough exterior are frequently covering a sensitive, hurt core. Like Beauvoir.

 “Do you want to talk about it?”

Sometimes the answer will be no.

Sometimes I’ll be faced with people whose pain is so raw that they cannot bear to put it into words. Like Gamache. I can learn from Émile. I can be present. I can share meals and time and space. I can enable engagement with distractions – coping mechanisms – like the research of a long gone battle. I can be available to listen and even remind them, occasionally, that I am aware of their pain and willing to help. I can learn to not push.

Sometimes I’ll be faced with the Lilas and Beauvoirs of the world: those who are afraid to share because they are afraid to shift the balance of the relationship. They both (if you haven’t read Lila, maybe you should) learn that while trust should not be given lightly, when it is given to the right person it can be a deliverance.

“That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant. Now he could comfort her with a look. And what would she do without him. What would she do.” (Lila – Marilynne Robinson)
For those of us who easily find ourselves in the role of confidant, an important lesson to learn is to know when to retreat. Not every listener, therapist, counselor, advisor is for everyone. Being available is not the same as forcing someone to confide in you. If someone is not ready to talk or prefers not to share their secrets with you (even if you love them and feel like they should trust you), then back off.

In a way, Lila was right. When she tells Reverend Amos (her husband), “Maybe I don’t want you looking at me that way,” she has a point. When Beauvoir chose someone he believed wouldn’t care, he was protecting himself from a look he didn’t think he could bear. He was shielding himself from the pain of being judged, or pitied, or misunderstood by someone who mattered. He was also choosing someone he thought was heartless enough not to feel his pain. When I unburdened myself to my father, I forgot to take into account that he might then change his attitude towards me and adjust his behavior. When Gamache began his informal therapy sessions with Myrna, he didn’t expect her to chastise him (discretely, but still) real-time when he became overprotective of Beauvoir.

I read a study years ago that illustrated this relationship shift. I’m glad this isn’t an academic paper because I cannot remember where I read it and thankfully won’t have to look it up. It was a paper on children with chronic pain and terminal disease. The authors talked about how children, noticing the worry and angst in parents, caregivers, and health professionals, would report less pain than they truly felt. In order to spare those around them, most children would pretend they didn’t know they had a terminal illness (although they did know, but they perceived it wasn’t something their caregivers wanted to dwell on). Most children would answer, “Better”, when asked how they were feeling. Why? Because they realized those around them were happier when they pretended to feel less sick. They, too, understood Lila and "maybe I don't want you looking at me that way."

There is a burden there. The burden of pretense. The burden of strength. The burden of keeping your afflictions to yourself. The children couldn’t bear to see those they loved in pain. They learned to mask their own pain in order to spare those they loved and cared for. They created a fiction of improvement in order to shield their family and doctors from the despair of impotence. They carried their pain within them to avoid being pitied.

In love there is room for vulnerability. There should be. When Annie tells her father her fears, she knows she is no less lion because she is scared. As my son has learned (and repeats every chance he gets), courage is not the absence of fear. It is the willingness to face fear. When Peter bares his soul to Clara he is closer to her than at any time before. When Olivier peels off all his layers he rediscovers himself. When people feel like they are accepted and understood despite their fears and their pain, they feel safe and loved. 

It is important to note that those who fear vulnerability aren’t wrong to do so. In the wrong hands, a soul’s secrets can become a weapon. Francoeur knew that well. He simulated empathy. He had a gift for listening. He used it with cruelty. He understood. He judged. He twisted truths and reinterpreted and gave new meaning. He manipulated fears and feelings and expectations. He used nightmares against those who had first dreamt them. He made a travesty out of intimacy.

When the video of the raid was leaked, the agents involved were exposed to the world, to strangers, to judgement. Too much was shown to too many people. It was like those nightmares where you show up to school in your underwear.

There is safety – or should be - in the sanctity of a confessional, the ethical privacy of a therapeutic relationship, the trustworthiness of friendship and love.

I hope you have people you can trust. People who are willing to listen, even if (or maybe because) they are unconventional like Ruth. People who respect your timing as did Émile. I hope you have a chance to show your vulnerabilities. I also hope that the "mirror" of the listener reflects you as stronger than you thought. I hope we can all learn to be the kind of confidant others need. I hope I can learn to be the confidant those around me need.

Jean-Guy and Ruth sat and talked over weak tea. I couldn’t bring myself to make weak Ruth-like tea to accompany this post. Gamache and Émile, on the other hand, had a breakfast meal that included an omelette.

I made my son an omelette for breakfast the other day. This is his favorite egg recipe. It’s not gourmet. It’s not fancy. It’s not even really a recipe. It does please the 8-year-old with a knack for talking through his thoughts… and who’s learning to listen to those of others. We spent most of breakfast talking about his issues. Most of them involve Minecraft and/or Pokemon.

M-style omelettes:
I beat the eggs and add a pinch of salt. A little bit of butter goes on the skillet, then I pour the eggs in. Wait a few minutes until the egg forms a bit of a crust. Add a bit of grated parmesan. Fold. Done! Sometimes basil or marjoram is added. Parmesan omelette is his favorite, though. It doesn't look very appetizing, does it? (It's the picture below)

What do you like on your omelettes? Do you like to add milk to the beaten egg? I did for mine. I'm not a huge egg fan, so the milk means I can use just one egg and have a decent sized omelet. Do you like to add ham or cheese? My husband likes his omelettes with quite a bit of ham and cheese in them. I tend to add veggies and usually some cheese (I added feta to the one pictured in the beginning of the post). They still don’t disguise the egg taste. Although I suppose omelettes are supposed to taste egg-like, right? Still, the green and red in mine make it look more appetizing, don't you think? Or is it just me?

All quotes, unless stated otherwise, are from Louise Penny's BURY YOUR DEAD.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Strawberry Shortcake... And Souls

by Amy

“Peter handed Gamache a shortcake, which he cut in half, and Peter piled sliced ripe strawberries in their own brilliant red juice on top of it.

Gamache noticed Clara getting up and Myrna going with her. Olivier came over and put the coffee on to perk.

“Can I help?” asked Gabri.

“Here, put cream on. The cake, Gabri,” said Peter as Gabri approached Olivier with a spoonful of whipped cream. Soon a small conga line of men assembling strawberry shortcakes was formed. When they’d finished they turned around to take the desserts to the table but stopped dead.”

I’ve always loved this image of a conga line of men assembling strawberry shortcakes. It makes me smile every time.

“There, lit only by candles, was Clara’s art. Or at least three large canvases, propped on easels. Gamache felt suddenly light-headed, as though he’d traveled back to the time of Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian. Where art was viewed either by daylight or candlelight. Was this how the Mona Lisa was first seen? The Sistine Chapel? By firelight? Like cave drawings.”

I’m jealous.

I know I’m confessing to an ugly sentiment, but I really am jealous of Clara and her art.

“He looked at it closely. Clara painted people’s souls, and he wanted to know what this soul held.”

That is an amazing concept. Can you imagine having the ability to paint, sculpt, dance, sing, play, or write a person’s soul? To be able to express that which cannot be said? To see beyond the surface, explore the depths, and to turn it into art?

That is probably where the magic is. The ability to convey feeling and emotion beyond words. Even when the medium involves words – as is the case in literature, poetry, even dramatic arts – the words go beyond their quotidian use.

“Clara Morrow had painted Ruth as the elderly, forgotten Virgin Mary. Angry, demented, the Ruth in the portrait was full of despair, of bitterness. Of a life left behind, of opportunities squandered, of loss and betrayals real and imagined and created and caused. She clutched at a rough blue shawl with emaciated hands. The shawl had slipped off one bony shoulder and the skin was sagging, like something nailed up and empty.
“And yet the portrait was radiant, filling the room from one tiny point of light. In her eyes. Embittered, mad Ruth stared into the distance, at something very far off, approaching. More imagined than real.”
“Clara had captured the moment despair turned to hope. The moment life began. She’d somehow captured Grace.”

And there you go. Since I’m confessing, I suppose I should be completely honest.

I said before that I’m jealous of Clara’s art. I’m probably more realistically jealous of Louise Penny’s talent. She, after all, is the one who wrote the character – and described the image – that captured Grace and Hope. Her books see the soul and her words evoke an entire world that we fell in love with.

I can understand Peter’s feelings. They aren’t really nice feelings. In fact, they are nothing to be proud of. What they are is understandable. And, like Peter, it isn’t only the end product that I am jealous of. It is the fearlessness and dedication that Clara – and Penny – are willing to invest in their work.

“It took Gamache’s breath away and he could feel a burning in his eyes. He blinked and turned from it, as though from something so brilliant it blinded. He saw everyone else in the room also staring, their faces soft in the candlelight.”

We are attracted to raw honesty. Penny has not shied away from tough issues. Her characters aren’t picture perfect, nor are they typical models of success. Clara paints the elderly, the flawed, and even the ugly. The beauty in their art lies not in the perfection of its subjects, but in the cracks that let the light in, in the promise of redemption, in the hope found even in the darkest places, and in grace.

Both the author and her character are willing to explore their own souls, explore the souls of their subjects, and, through their art, encourage us to hold up our own souls to scrutiny.

“They’re brilliant, you know. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
“If that was true I’d have no art.”

I used the word fearless before, but I was wrong. There is fear. If there weren’t, the art probably wouldn’t be half as good. They carry on regardless.

I know for a fact that there is fear. Not only has Louise Penny mentioned it more than once in social media and in her newsletters, but when I first thought of writing this blog, I wrote to her and asked for permission. If there ever was a gracious writer, it is she. Her answer, among other things, was “Noli timere.”

Noli timere. Do not fear.

Just the fact that she recognizes that fear is a factor when you bare your soul is proof (at least it is to me) that she is not immune to such fear, but has chosen to face it. I often think of the process or production art and of an artist’s courage when I read the Gamache books.

The Brutal Telling is a book about secrets and lies. It is also the book where Clara’s art is revealed as brilliant. Unquestionably brilliant. We knew before. Now everyone knows. Everyone who matters to Clara, that is. Soon the whole world will know.

Clara’s art is the opposite of Olivier’s lies. The light to his darkness. Clara has spent a lifetime digging deep within and exposing her soul. She isn’t always understood. In fact, she usually isn’t comprehended by those who likely matter most to her. She is open, though. She is willing to look and explore and to try to understand…

“Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.” (Walden, Thoreau)

As I read, I am challenged to explore these depths within myself. Not infrequently do I wonder where I stand, what I think, who I am. It’s easy to get so caught up in the hectic rhythm of daily life that we forget to ask ourselves questions that pertain to our individuality, our identity, our core beliefs.

What makes me me? What are the things only I can say? When I leave this world, what will I have left behind of myself? Have I made a difference in someone’s life? What motivates me to get up in the morning? What makes me feel like I’ve had a good day? When people think of me, how do they see my soul?

Olivier hid under so many layers and so many lies that he no longer felt like he could be himself and be loved. In a way, the character he created was larger than the scared soul that lived inside. Clara, on the other hand, had very little polish and was apparently a wreck. But that is only because she let the whole world see the FINE (Ruth’s FINE: Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical) soul she was. Clara had no veneer. No pretense. She was who she was.

I’m still jealous of her art. I will never be able to paint a person’s soul. I highly doubt that I could ever develop any art to the point that it spoke more than words. I’ll have to stick to words. And maybe hugs.

"Language is a finer medium. 'Yes, for those who can't paint.'" (Middlemarch - George Eliot)
I do not need to be jealous of Clara’s fearlessness, though. While the results of my own forays will not lead to world-class art, I can learn to look into the soul. I can try to understand myself more elementally, and to try to look at others and see beyond the surface. I can recognize the shortcomings and failures that make me fallible and learn to love myself (and allow others to love me) in spite of them. I can see the cracks in the veneer of those around me and learn to offer grace and unconditional love.

I’d never eaten Strawberry Shortcake. Unlike Clara’s paintings and Louise Penny’s books, mine was not a masterpiece. Two attempts at making perfect homemade whipped cream failed. The first failed miserably (it was a very hot day and I probably should have let the cream freeze a bit instead of just refrigerating it). The second was better. The cake itself wasn’t anything special. They’re a good base for the strawberry and sugar mixture. I’m a chocolate kind of girl, so I think it would be perfect with brownies instead of shortcake. Is that sacrilegious?

I did like the lemon added to the whipped cream. That was perfect. I have a friend who gave me a few tips on the perfect whipped cream so I kept trying. I tried refrigerated cream. I tried it slightly frozen. I tried adding the sugar way after or soon after. I tried... Of course, the third time - when I DIDN'T have any strawberries - it worked. But then I don't know exactly what it as that I did differently. So what's your secret? If it is that you make awesome whipped cream, that is...

Here’s the recipe I used (with some few modifications):

Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from The Brutal Telling. The shortcake dessert scene.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Quinoa & Pomegranate Salad and Mentors

by Amy

“And how’s Isabelle doing?” asked Gamache.
“Acting Chief Inspector Lacoste?” asked Beauvoir with a smile. His protégée had taken over as head of homicide for the Sûreté, a job everyone had once assumed would be his on the Chief’s retirement. Though Jean-Guy knew it wasn’t accurate to describe what had happened as a retirement. That made it sound predictable. No one could have predicted the events that had caused the head of homicide to quit the Sûreté and buy a home in a village so small and obscure it didn’t appear on any map.
“Isabelle’s doing fine.”
“You mean Ruth Zardo ‘fine’?” asked Gamache.
“Pretty much. With a little work she’ll get there. She had you as a role model, sir.”

And what a role model.

I read a book in my teens that has stayed with me. Don’t ask me the name or the author. I don’t remember. I was abroad, spending some months with friends, and found a book in English in their (very small and limited) library. The book was about the importance of relationships to keep you motivated and on track in life. It compared life to the Boston Marathon and mentioned the importance of motivation once you reach Heartbreak Hill. Relationships matter. The book goes on to describe five types of people in our lives.

It is a testament to the impact the book had in my life that over than two decades have passed and I still remember what they are (although I don’t remember the precise wording). The positive ones are the mentors, the friends, and the disciples or protégées. There are neutral people who neither applaud nor bring you down. Then there are the ones that drain you. They have a negative impact in your life.

The author distributes these people on a spectrum and turns their presence and influence in your life into a mathematical representation where mentors contribute with +++, friends ++, protégées +, neutrals 0, and drainers with -, --, ---...

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Gamache is a wonderful role model. He not only sets a good example, but he makes sure to be available. That’s important. Some things can be learned by watching or reading, but it’s important to find the time to learn through interaction with people who know more than we do. The younger and the more inexperienced you are, the easier it is to find people to fulfill this role. As you yourself grow into a mentor, there are fewer and fewer people available to play that role in your own life. They should be cherished.

Sometimes books can act as mentors. We can converse with great thinkers long gone and we can strive to learn from their ideas. We can argue with their logic, and we can learn from their mistakes.
Friends – and even protégées - can sometimes play the role of counselors and supporters and listeners. 

But there is a certain comfort in talking to someone more experienced who knows what you’re going through, who you respect and whose opinion and validation matter. It’s like being able to crawl into a parent’s lap and be held. It makes you feel safe.
“Isabelle Lacoste called Gamache at least once a week, and they met for lunch in Montréal a couple times a month. Always away from Sûreté headquarters. He insisted on that, so he wouldn’t undermine the new Chief Inspector’s authority.” 
Lacoste had questions only the former Chief could answer. Sometimes procedural issues, but often questions that were more complex and human. About uncertainties, about insecurities. About her fears. 
Gamache listened and sometimes talked about his own experiences. Reassuring her that what she felt was natural, and normal, and healthy. He’d felt all those things almost every day of his career. Not that he was a fraud, but that he was afraid.”
Lacoste has Gamache, just as Gamache himself had Émile. When he was Chief he did the same. He visited his own mentor and, in his time of need, his mentor’s home was the safe haven he went to while he regrouped and recovered.

"Gamache stirred his coffee and watched his mentor.
He considered him a great man, one of the few he'd met. Great not in his singularity of purpose, but in his multiplicity. He'd taught his young protégé how to be a homicide investigator, but he'd taught him more besides.
Gamache remembered being shown into Chief Inspector Comeau's office his first week on the job, certain he was about to be fired for some mysterious transgression. Instead the wiry, self-contained man had stared at him for a few seconds then invited him to sit and told him the four sentences that lead to wisdom. He'd said them only once, never repeating them. But once had been enough for Gamache."
One of the things I admire is both these dynamics is that not only are the mentors willing to listen, but their protégés are respectful. It is not unusual for youth (and they say young is 10 years younger than you, right? So I'm not talking about an age group, I'm speaking of relative youth) to ignore, reject, belittle, or ridicule the past and those who lived it. I think both Gamache and Lacoste are wise in that they not only respect, but use their mentors as a foundation on which they build their own practice.
“Agent Cohen started this morning,” said Lacoste, taking a forkful of quinoa, feta, and pomegranate salad. “I called him into the office and told him that there were four statements that lead to wisdom. I said I was only going to recite them once, and he could do with them as he wished.”
Armand Gamache lowered his fork to his plate and listened.
“I don’t know. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” Lacoste recited them slowly, lifting a finger to count them off.
“I need help,” the Chief said, completing the statements. The ones he’d taught young Agent Lacoste many years ago. The ones he’d recited to all his new agents.”

And Lacoste is not only a respectful student, a good colleague, and a protégée who continues to honor and include her own mentor, but she is willing to do the (hard) work of mentoring others.

I was writing the first draft on a Sunday when a patient’s mom called asking me to talk to her little sister because she wasn’t feeling well. They’d just lost their mother to very aggressive leukemia. She died within three days of being first hospitalized. Her youngest daughter, at 11 year of age, was experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. 

My patients frequently come to my home when there’s an emergency during the weekend or a holiday. So when she asked, I said sure. I’ll be waiting. And I was. My husband and son played a videogame inside and I sat in my living room with this child and listened to her pain.

This beautiful and articulate child asked me the questions everyone asks when faced with insurmountable challenges and pain. If it hurts this much now, will it get worse? Will I ever be happy again? How will I survive the pain? What if I feel so breathless that I can’t stand up? What if I faint?People say she can see me, but how do I know that for sure? She used to say change can be a good thing, but she was the one who helped me handle changes in my life – how will I manage this change without her? What if I can’t do my homework? Who will remind me and tell me to do it even when I don’t feel like it? What if I fail? She used to say she’d be sad if I didn’t do well at school – what if I’m so sad I can’t pay attention? Who will help me choose my wedding dress? What if I wake up in the middle of the night and forget she’s gone and try to find her? Who’s going to tell me jokes to make me laugh when I’m upset? Who’s going to tuck me in and say ‘I love you’? How will I tell my children about her?

We cried together. She told me stories about her mother and she made me laugh. She managed to smile and surprised herself when she realized she still knew how. At one point I asked if she wanted to curl up in my lap. It wasn’t the same, but it was available. She nodded and sobbed while I held her. I couldn’t stop my own tears. I didn't try. I'm used to getting emotional with patients and have learned that it's no use trying to stop myself from shedding a few tears (or a bucket-full) and people usually don't mind.

At one point she said her mother still sometimes cried when she thought of her own mother. I hugged her tighter and said, “So now you know what you’ll sometimes do when you talk about her for the rest of your life, right?” She nodded.

Her chest pains and shortness of breath were gone by the time she left for her mother’s funeral. I cried a little bit more for the little girl who lost her mentor. I cried at the thought of losing my own mother – who’s also one of my best friends. And I cried at the idea of leaving my own son behind when I know he still needs me. Needless to say, I cried while writing this post.

I have said, time and again, that this blog is a form of therapy. This time it was also preparation. I’d been writing right before she came. I’d been thinking of how wonderful it is to have mentors and to have people we look up to. I’d been thinking of how sometimes (and more frequently as we grow older or more experienced in our fields) there are less and less people to fulfill the role of mentor. I was thinking of how important it is to find the time to listen and help those who come to us for advice and help.

When I hugged this little girl and we cried together, we talked about how special her mom was and how she’d already taught her so much. The girl told me what her mother would have said and done if she were there. I repeated back to her what her mother would have said. I did what her mother would have done. It wasn’t her voice. My hug wasn’t the same hug. But, in the end, I told her she was stronger than she thought. And her mother was so real and present and important in her life that she knew exactly how to help me help her. I told her sometimes the people we need to hear are not with us. When that happens, we rely on memories, on stories, and on new sources of wisdom.

I realize not everyone is blessed with wonderful parents. Most of us will never have a professional mentor like Gamache. Maybe, at this point, we should remind ourselves to honor those we still have with us and gratefully remember those who are gone. But, more important still, we should strive to be good, empathetic mentors and to listen and share with those who are willing to learn from our experiences – and our mistakes.

My son and I both love pomegranates. They take very (very, very, very) long to ripen. It takes months to go from a flower to a ripe fruit. The tree is right outside my office window and we’ll both watch them bud and blossom and ripen. We both love to eat it plain.

I confess to feeling a little guilty for not sharing this one with him as he didn’t enjoy the salad. I cooked some quinoa and let it cool off. I then added pomegranate seeds, chopped parsley, a squeeze of lemon juice, a teaspoon of olive oil, a pinch (half a pinch) of salt, and a few nuts pulled out of the homemade granola jar that was on the counter. It was refreshing and delicious. I didn’t have any feta, but I didn’t miss it in the salad.

But then, you know that thing with mentors? When it comes to gardening and cooking, Libby is waaaaaay beyond my skills. A whole other category (probably many categories). When we first thought of making this blog she had ripe pomegranates in her garden (what are the odds? we live around the world from each other and both have pomegranates in their backyards!). She went ahead and made this salad - I think it was one of the first meals she made and photographed. It was one of the meals that's been circling in my head ever since.

Here's her fabulous recipe:

Quinoa, Pomegranate & Feta Salad
by Libby

This late summer/autumn salad, when pomegranates are in season, is all about balancing taste contrasts and interesting textures. Quinoa is a high protein cereal and a good substitute for rice. You can cook it similarly to rice. I cook it in chicken stock for added richness and flavour.

The nutty taste of quinoa works well with the sweet/tart explosion of pomegranate seeds and the rich salty creaminess of the feta. The crunch of fragrant pistachios is an added contrast.   Caramelising some red onion and garlic as a flavour base ensures that the salad won't be bland. This is a dish to taste as you put it together, to check that the balance of flavours is right for you.

1 cup of quinoa
2 cups of chicken stock (or water)
1 red onion, halved and sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
seeds of 1 pomegranate
300g/10oz of feta cheese, broken into small bite-sized pieces
2/3 cup unsalted pistachios, toasted
3 spring onions, finely sliced
2/3 cup of flat leaf parsley, sliced
extra-virgin olive oil
one lemon, halved
sea salt and cracked black pepper

1.  Bring the chicken stock (or water) to the boil in a medium saucepan. Pour in the quinoa and simmer for about 15 minutes until the germ of the quinoa pops out. Strain and set aside.

2.  Fry the red onion, garlic and a pinch of salt in extra-virgin olive oil in a large heavy-based frypan on a low to medium heat. Add a squeeze of lemon juice.Allow the onion to soften and slowly caramelise. This will give a lovely savoury base note to the salad.

3.  Reduce the heat to low and add the cooked quinoa. Mix thoroughly with the onion and garlic.

4.  Toss through the pistachios, spring onions, parsley and feta cheese.

5.  Generously drizzle with good extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Season with cracked black pepper.

6. Toss through the pomegranate seeds.

Taste and adjust the balance of ingredients to maximise the flavour contrasts. You might, for example, prefer more or less feta cheese, or more lemon for added sharpness.
Serve warm.

I couldn't resist making a 'zingy' drink of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, grapefruit juice and sparkling mineral water to accompany the salad. 

So there you have it! Two salads!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

French Onion Soup ... And Looking Back

by Libby

Just ahead, the Château promised warmth, a glass of wine, a crusty bowl of French onion soup. Émile. But the Chief Inspector stopped just short of the shelter, and stared. Not at the Château ... but to another monument off to the left ... It was of a man looking out over the city he’d founded four hundred years earlier. Samuel de Champlain. ... But still he stared at the father of Québec and wondered. Where are you? Where did they bury you? And why don’t we know? (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.106)

I love the sense of place and time that Louise Penny has created, and the history connections she has made, in Bury Your Dead, which allows us to immerse ourselves a little in a fascinating historical narrative. Gamache has come to Quebec City to do just that, pass the time, 'Avec le temps', puzzling over and researching a mystery related to the Battle of Quebec, as he tries to rest and recover. 

Of course he then finds himself at the intersection of two other mysteries, the death of Augustin Renaud and the whereabouts of the burial place of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec.

Gamache elicits the help of his friend Emile, and two of his associates, about the Renaud/Champlain mystery. Where better to meet than in Bar Laurent, in the Chateau Frontenac and in sight of the statue of Champlain (supposedly marking the spot where he died).

The St-Laurent Bar was at the far end of the Château, down the gracious, wide, endless corridor, through the double doors and into another world. ... For curving along the far wall of the bar were windows. Tall, framed in mahogany, wide and mullioned. Out of them opened the most splendid vista Gamache had ever seen. True, as a Québécois, no other view could ever match up. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.106-7)

While the site of Champlain's burial will continue to remain a mystery, Gamache is left wondering, on a bitterly freezing winter's day, about Champlain's incredible achievements 400 years earlier, his legacy and the character of the man.

And even Gamache, who was no great fan of nationalism, felt wonder, awe, at the unshakable vision and courage of this man to do what many had tried and failed. To not just come to these shores to harvest furs and fish and timber, but live here. Create a colony, a community. A New World. A home. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.106)

Most people’s achievements and legacy are not quite so extraordinary but it made me think about the importance of looking back, and seeing where we've come from and what has shaped our human condition, our life story, how a society and families have been shaped, influenced and changed against a backdrop of social, political and cultural influences and events.

And as I make French onion soup I reflect on how we understand more of ourselves, our identity, our humanity, through our own and others' stories. Isn't that why narrative is so important, helping us to understand our own story, and empathise with others? Perhaps more than ever today it is important to explore our connections to other people, places and times, to understand a family's or a people's circumstances and their desire or need to change them, to migrate, to start over, elsewhere. And the risks taken and the opportunities afforded.

Some people work very hard to find out about their forebears, to understand and appreciate their legacy. We like to know where we come from, the decisions and actions, even gambles taken by those before us, that are pieces in the puzzle of our own lives, and for some also the result of being ‘collateral damage’ of history's events. I imagine very few people don't have stories of migration in their family histories. If for no other reason, finding out about them reminds us that we've all come from somewhere, or needed to leave somewhere, looking for opportunity, or to be free or safe, for the promise of a better life, or even maybe in search of adventure.

I have a friend who is on a determined pathway to research her family roots. In the most scholarly way (in a research and literary sense) she has told the story of her maternal great, great grandparents’ migration to, and settlement in, Australia. She has re-created their lives in detail, and told their story against the socio-economic and cultural background of the 19th and early 20th centuries. She writes extremely well and the social, cultural and economic history of those times in her book is rich and fascinating in its detail. You can imagine how interesting it is to have such a family narrative with its vision, dreams, life-changing decisions, opportunities, expectations, disappointments, sense of character and time and place, and with the generational impact of it all to be reflected on.

Sometimes the pathway to finding out about family is not quite so determined. It might simply be a puzzle that presents itself, asking to be solved.

Just the other day I heard the English writer Patrick Gale speak about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. It's his first work of historical fiction, and is loosely based on the circumstances of his great grandfather's life. By chance, Gale happened to see two photos of a man at his aunt's house, one showing a young well-to-do Edwardian Englishman, and the other of an impoverished, toothless elderly man. What he discovered was that they were the same man, his great grandfather, who had never been spoken about, and who he knew nothing about. As a young man his great grandfather had been forced to leave his wife and child, his fortune and his London home, under an ignominious cloud. He settled and lived a mostly isolated life in the prairie wilderness of Canada and tried to eke out a living on the land, about which he knew nothing. Gale set out on a voyage of discovery, uncovering the struggle, despair, fortitude and emotional truth of someone who was one of the 'disappeared', unwanted by his family or society. And he poignantly tells that story, and it is an elegy to others like him.

I was left thinking of what it is like to uproot your life and venture to the other side of the world, to what could be a hostile environment, to battle adversity because of the hope or promise of a better life, greater freedom, improved economic circumstances. For many it is about being forced to give up what they know in the hope of a safer life, free from persecution, of peace and better opportunities for their children.

Had their hopes and expectations been fulfilled? Did they feel isolated, having to endure the hardship of being treated suspiciously or not easily accepted, perhaps even alienated by some of those who have come before them, who have forgotten (with their moral sense somehow in absentia), that they too were once new arrivals. Or had they been welcomed and accepted and respected for the social, cultural and economic contribution they could potentially make. Woven threads adding colour and texture and form to the fabric of society.

We all have a story.

So quite a bit was cruising through my head as I stirred the onions...

French Onion Soup

To me this is the simplest of soups and yet deliciously complex. I love it! It's wonderful flavours and textures rely on good ingredients and a little love and attention to the cooking. I don't make this when I'm in a rush to get tea on the table. It just won't taste as good or feel as good in your mouth.

There are lots of variations of this soup, depending on choice of stock/broth, type of onions and cheese, red or white wine, use of herbs and various other condiments. Sometimes I think too much stuff can be added to a dish where there isn't the need for it. 

I've pared this soup back to the basic, essential ingredients, with just a minor flourish at the end with a dash of brandy. And it certainly doesn't need flour to thicken it. Good unsalted butter is essential. Don't be tempted to substitute oil.

The cooking technique is the key to bringing out the rich, complex flavours. The time given to the cooking and the slow caramelising of the onions is critical. It needs to be a slow, closely monitored process. A cold day with time on your hands, and maybe an audiobook to listen to, would be ideal. 

This recipe serves two as a meal or four as a starter.

4 brown onions
4 cups of chicken stock
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup of white wine (Pinot Gris)
1 tbsp brandy
sea salt and cracked black pepper
1 cup of grated Gruyere cheese
4 thick slices of crusty bread

1.  Peel and halve the onions from stem to root. Remove and discard the hard root ends. Slice the onion halves thinly, crosswise.

2.  Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. I used a French oven (enamelled cast iron) which is perfect for cooking this soup.

3.  Add the onion and a generous pinch of salt. Let them slowly sweat and cook, stirring occasionally. Reduce the temperature to ensure that the onions do not start browning too early. Cover partly with a lid as the onions slowly soften without browning.

4.  Slow cook them, up to an hour or more, to bring out the  amazing sweetness in the onions. There is no need for sugar. Add a pinch or two of salt along the way to enhance the flavour.

5.  As the onions gradually take on some colour, increase the heat slightly and stir, allowing them to caramelise until they are a deep golden brown. Adjust the temperature so that they don't burn and become bitter.

6.  Pour in half the white wine to deglaze the pan, stirring constantly.

7.  Add the chicken stock and the rest of the wine. Bring to a very gentle simmer and allow to cook for another 40-60 minutes until the liquid has reduced by a third. The flavour will be more intense and the soup will have thickened.

8.  Taste along the way and season with more salt and a little pepper if necessary.

9.  Add the tablespoon of brandy at the end of cooking and stir. Both the wine and brandy at once contrast with and complement the sweetness of the onions.

10.  Toast the slices of bread. Pile one side of each toast with a generous mound of Gruyere cheese (emmentaler cheese can be substituted). Gruyere has a wonderful nutty flavour and elastic texture. Melt under a grill until bubbling and starting to colour.

11.  Ladle soup into bowls. Float a toast on top of each bowl and drizzle another small spoonful of soup on top. Serve immediately.

Bon appetit!