“But I don’t wanna go.”
I’m whining. I know I am. I’m whining with a bit of snivel thrown in. I am lying on the sofa with a pillow on my belly and I am pouting like a petulant teenager.
“We’re going, Vickie,” responds my darling husband as he downs the last of his beer. “Stop acting like a petulant teenager.”
I hate when he does that. You know. Calls me on my shit.
It’s the day after Boxing Day. You know, the day after the day after Christmas. I am ready for bed. I'm exhausted to the brink of falling flat on my puffy, over-made-up, over-celebrated, over-drunken face. I am completely done with chestnuts-a-roasting, bells-a-jingling and balsam needles-a-vacuuming. The holiday season (which I dearly love) has had its way with me. Endless dinner parties, cocktail parties, office parties and family parties, many of which I have facilitated personally, have done me in but good.
I’ve just come home from working my day job. I say day job because for me it really is just a day job — I only work one day a week. Sounds like a joyride but trust me, my one day is a mental marathon (more on that later) and the hour-long winter commute hasn't helped. Especially so as it falls hard on the heels of all that joyous jubilation. December 27 can bite me. I need a nap!
“C’mon honey, get your coat and let’s just go.” He lovingly tousles my uncombed hair. “We promised.”
We promised. Sure we did. We promised three weeks before every damn hall got decked and then redecked and then decked again. All I want now is a silent night. Maybe a bit of leftover turkey, a long soak in the hot tub and my big old bed.
But only in my dreams. Because turns out no one shared this plan with our next- door neighbours. And they have invited us for dinner. Fab. Frigging fab. More merriment. More food, more fake smiles, more fa-la-la and more keeping my eyes open. I can hardly wait.
“Honey baby sweetie,” I snivel louder, “couldn’t we just feign illness, accident or maybe even death?” I know. Can you spell drama queen? “Pretty please can we cancel?”
Honey baby sweetie is unusually resolute. And just so you know, I call him honey baby sweetie because he calls me honey baby sweetie. Or HBS. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. We just couldn’t settle on one term of endearment so we amalgamated a bunch. Also, we think we’re pretty damn funny. One thing HBS and I have in common is sense of humour.
“No,” HBS commands gently. “We’re going. We promised. They’ve been here a dozen times and we’ve never ever dined at their house. They invited. You said yes. Now get off that couch and put your party face on.”
Yeah sure, blame it on me. But he is not wrong. Apart from today, I typically crave distraction.
“We won’t stay late. We will eat, drink and run. Two hours tops. I promise.”
I close my eyes and briefly mull this offer. I know I should redo my make-up, change into a flirty little number, put my hair up into a sexy ponytail and spritz on the Chanel. But I just can’t seem to locate my give-a-shit chip. So I drag my weary ass off the sofa, powder my nose, run a brush through my hair and that is the end of my toilette.
We bundle up because Ontario winter is raging and stumble down our country road, dragging our very reluctant nine-year-old son behind us. See, Jack really doesn't want to go either. He has new toys demanding his attention. New movies to watch. Old people are boring. The neighbours have no kids his age. But it doesn’t matter. My normally easy-going hubby has laid down the law and insisted. To both of us.
In hindsight, the irony here is staggering. Little does HBS know he is about to expedite the unravelling of his seemingly perfect family. The implosion has begun. On a sleepy night when the world should be at peace ours is about to be shattered. Forever. Perfect family be damned.
Perfect family. It’s what we are. Or at least what we appear to be. The living embodiment of a Pepsi commercial. Successful, attractive and loving with a vast circle of equally fabulous friends. Cottages, sailboats, swimming pools and world travel. Gold, diamonds, clothes and cars. HBS has a successful business, I have a successful one-day job. We have a darling boy who attends private school. We have a dog and a cat. We live on seventy-nine acres in a house we designed and had custom built (with clever hubby doing much of the work himself!). It has soaring ceilings, a three-sided fireplace and a hot tub, damnit! I am certainly lacking nothing. Nothing tangible, that is.
Which is why it always bewilders me when I find myself weeping on the kitchen floor during playtime for the boys just prior to dinner en famile. There is wine, there is music (usually something jazz-ish), there is candlelight and there are tears. Lots and lots of muffled tears as my boys, none the wiser, frolic on the lower level.
My husband knows nothing of my pain. I have tried to share with him on a few occasions, but he doesn’t much like confrontation and his veddy British upbringing advocates a more “sweep under the rug” approach. Truth be told I don’t really understand my pain either. I just know I am far too frequently empty. Too empty to be filled up by my marriage, my job, my friends or even motherhood. I am an expert at putting on a show (what with my drama degree and all). I just can’t figure out real and honest contentment.
It is unlikely tonight’s festivities will change any of that. But it is showtime!
The neighbour’s home is delightfully warm, inviting and filled with yummy cooking smells. Suddenly I am ravenous.
“Hey guys, you made it!” our host greets us enthusiastically. “Come on in and let’s get you a drink!”
No festive fatigue here. Yay him. He takes our coats and leads us into the newly-renovated kitchen where his wife is stirring something savory on the stove. It's all looking pretty good, think I. New appliances, new floor, new cupboards, all very chic. Even a brand new farmhouse table. At which sits a strange couple. Not strange in that they look weird or have green skin or anything, but strange in that we don’t know them.
Except we sort of do. I look at her smiling face and immediately blurt, “Oh my God, it’s you!”
She laughs with great gusto and replies, “Yes, we finally meet!”
We have spoken on the phone many times, she and I, ever since these same mutual neighbours (we live out in the country so “neighbour” is a relative term) recommended her younger daughter as a potential babysitter. We have joked around, compared parenting notes and even discussed a possible ski day together. She is very much like me, this new neighbour/friend. Outgoing, a little brassy, and I’m thinking possibly more fun than monkeys in a barrel. I like fun and I like fun friends and we’ve never actually met in person before and now here she is. How cool! I am starting to wake up.
Then I look at the man sitting next to her. He is grinning at me with a smile that starts in his belly, detours through his heart and then bursts out through his lips like an exploding firecracker. The faded burn-like scar on his cheek saves his adoringly boyish good looks from absurdity. He is so damn cute I can’t speak. And his obvious delight in making my acquaintance is palpable. He reaches across the table to shake my hand and the touch of his skin sends tiny rockets into my bloodstream.
“Hi Vickie,” he coos, the smile now almost swallowing his face. “I have heard so much about you, and it is so good to finally meet you.”
I forget my fatigue, my hunger, my neighbours, my child, my husband and most likely my own name. I am suddenly wide awake. Strangely speechless. And absolutely terrified to the tips of my toes. Because as I absorb his smile, his scar, his laughing eyes and his velvet fingers I realize with complete certainty that I have just met the love of my life.
The first thing you should know about me is I am a cheater. A very proud cheater too. I’ve been cheating for a long time. I don’t have a problem with it and neither do my friends. I know a lot of people who have never cheated and never will. They stand on their high and mighty pedestals spouting all kinds of platitudes about honour, integrity and truth.
For me, it’s all about the end result. And if cheating will get me there faster, easier and without guilt, why wouldn’t I?
Yes, my name is Vickie van Dyke and I am a cheater.
We're talking cooking here. Creating culinary delights. Enjoying time in the kitchen. I mean, I will admit to a few adventuresome missteps in other areas of my life — cheating missteps that were not and never will be a source of pride — and we’ll get to those soon enough. But for now, it's all about cooking!
Well, maybe not all. Just ask any of my former boyfriends. I am known to digress and I’m sure I will since I already am. But the point of this book, besides saving you from a wealth of my own personally tested errors both in and out of the kitchen, is quite simple: how do you learn to love to cook? The easy way. No intimidation, no vexation, no frustration — just good plain ole cookin’ cheatin’ fun!
Yep, I’m not one of those chi-chi chefs who prides herself on concocting every morsel from the ground up. Dahling, of course I made this lobster bisque this morning just after I emptied my traps, milked the cows for fresh cream and pulled organic chives from my garden.
Hell no! I willingly — almost gleefully — open cans of soup, even no-name brands! I buy ready-made sauces, use muffin mixes and boxed potatoes, and I promise I will never, never, ever make a pizza crust from scratch. I truly mean that! Never, ever. The only thing that’s ever going to get rolled on my kitchen counter is me, thank you very much. I would rather hit myself over the head with a rolling pin than flatten out pizza dough.
I feel the same way about traditional pie crusts. Wait till you try my easy-as-pie (pun intended) shortbread crust — no rolling required! Honestly, the only time I ever had any fun with a crust of any kind was right after my husband and I split up and I didn’t have a rolling pin. I was determined to master pizza from scratch because his new girlfriend makes dandies and I am only just a tiny little bit maybe hugely competitive. So, in the absence of the proper rolling device, I used a wine bottle. It was full when I started and empty when I finished. There was flour and gooey bits of dough and splashes of wine all over the kitchen. I mean, really, have you ever tried rolling dough with an open bottle of wine? However, I was happy (and tipsy) because I surrendered.
Some things in life you simply must accept and surrender to. Wrinkles and gray hair? Middle-aged spread? The end of a bad marriage? An innate inability to make crust (or even care about said crappy homemade crust)? Surrender.
Several glasses of a nice Sauvignon Blanc will help with this.
As I removed dough from my hair, ceiling and wine glass, I decided I was done forever with homemade pizza crusts. And pie crusts be damned as well! Why bother when there are so many wonderful and tasty ready-to-top flatbreads available at your friendly neighbourhood store? I would much rather save my creativity for what goes on the pizza, not what goes (at least in my world) into the garbage.
My favourite cooking expression is not and never shall be “from scratch.” I used to have a girlfriend — and I say used to because she is that very same uber-cook now living with my ex-husband — who prides herself on making everything “from scratch.” Baking, cooking, it matters not. All built from the ground up. She is damn good at it. Highly organic. I mean, I don’t think they’ve invested in cows or a wheat field but she plants her own garden and everything. She fertilizes with manure. Real cow poop. She even hangs old loaves of bread to dry out and then somehow they magically become breadcrumbs. I am not kidding.
Not this girl. My favourite cooking expressions are “easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy” (borrowed from my son) and “homemade.” Because there is a big difference between “from scratch” and “homemade.” That difference is way less work! And there is absolutely no reason why homemade can’t be “easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.”
See, here’s the thing: if you make it at home then it is “homemade.” Period. End of discussion. Just because you use canned cream of mushroom soup, pasta from a bag and garlic from a jar doesn’t in any way diminish the fact that it is homemade. Be proud!
And yes, the whole garlic thing opens another can of worms (preferably gummy). I know you’re supposed to buy fresh garlic in those long Gothic strips and store it in a dark place or hang it around your neck to ward off vampires or smarmy ex-boyfriends and then peel, crush, chop, dice or squish it or whatever. I’ve done all those things. For some reason, garlic is the one thing that this chopaholic (more on that coming up) does not like chopping. Period. So, when I discovered crushed garlic in a jar I just about peed my pants. No muss, no fuss. I also discovered pre-peeled whole garlic cloves, which at least eliminates that first icky peeling step.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t or can’t use fresh herbs. Of course they are the best. I’m even going to go on record here to say I have been known to have pots of basil and rosemary growing in my kitchen (before they perish because I inevitably forget to water them). I’m just saying don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel like doing it the hard way. Frozen or dried stuff can also do the trick.
My friend, Shayann, tells just about everybody we meet that my house is the best restaurant in town. I love that. I love that she loves the food that I prepare, but I also love that she likes to be here. She loves to sit at my kitchen counter, candles always flickering, and watch me create while we sip wine, listen to music and chat. She calls it the “bitchin’ kitchen!” We don’t always bitch. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we sneak in a few yoga poses (we try to do this before wine) and sometimes we fantasize about our perfect futures.
It’s all about the vibe. When I make food there is no stress. I’ve seen cooks tackle eggs on toast with the same anxiety I would reserve for a root canal or tax audit. Not this gal. I’m not trying to prove anything and I’m not trying to outdo anyone, so I really do love every moment in the kitchen. Please don’t hate me but I don’t even mind cleaning up. (Word of advice: always do it as you go.) What happens is that love then permeates every action I take. Seriously. I know I’m sounding all new-age philosophical, but it’s true. Love permeates every action I take because I have learned to love to cook. Being in love can fuel this process too. One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Melody Gardot, once tweeted “A woman in love is capable of making the most incredible cuisine. She pours into the dish her most passionate senses where others use salt.” Beautiful.
However, as you are about to learn, I’m not always in love and then there are those times that I am in love but not loved back and then there are those times when I’m not in love but I am in lust and that conjures up a whole new set of spices. The point is, I am always in love with eating and therefore always in love with cooking.
It wasn’t always this way. The eating part, yes. I enjoy being in the kitchen puttering away. But I didn't truly learn to cook until my husband and I split up many years ago. At that time, I discovered the freedom to cook whatever I wanted in any way I wanted. I discovered new tastes, combinations, spices — and new joy — in the kitchen. There were even a few joyful romps on the counter.
I also discovered that cooking is therapy. And much cheaper than a psychiatrist.
So, if you dare to read on, you will learn exactly why I was in such desperate need of therapy. My life wasn’t exactly Betty Crocker aprons and pearls. It wasn’t even dime-store cookie cutter romance. It was one big fat constant churning source of frustration, guilt and angst. Much like those damn crusts I will never make.
While we’re on the subject of never — even though my favourite expression is “never say never and never say forever” — I will never ever own an electric vegetable chopper. Heck, I don’t even have an electric can opener and you already know how fond I am of cans. I will also never own a food processor or a bread machine. For crumb’s sake — literally — just go to the bakery! That said, I wouldn’t mind one of those stand-up-by-themselves mixers. Might be fun to walk away while my no-name cake mix is churning. But I don’t even mind my archaic hand-held beater. I mean, it’s not that archaic. I remember my mother beating the batter while cranking by hand. I actually feel quite contemporary. For me, the best part of food prep is all the chopping, peeling, mixing, stirring, tasting — whatever it takes to get me where I want to go. Sometimes I don’t even have a clue where I want to go until I get there. But I love the journey. The therapeutic journey.
I love the journey so much it even gets a little, um, personal. Because, of course, the cooking journey starts at the grocery store and I’m gonna tell you right here, right now, that supermarkets turn me on. Yes. That kind of turn-on. I love shopping for food. I love manhandling fruit, smelling veggies, squeezing fresh bread and discovering new cans of soup. I love standing in the frozen food aisle freezing my boobies and I even love standing in the check-out line reading tabloid trash. Although I will admit I’ve recently become a fan of those self-checkouts. Why? Because I get to manhandle, smell and squeeze one more time. It is all big fat sexy fun. Even more fun if I'm doing it with my man.
Anyway, my point is that cooking is fun! It’s not stress, it’s not pressure and it’s not a competition. It’s FUN! It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Because at the end of the day, you want to relax and create something that your friends and family will enjoy and SO WILL YOU. After all, you’re not just the chef. You get to eat what you make. What better payoff is there?
As for the cheating end of things, let’s just say it was cheating that ended my marriage. And yes, let’s also admit that I was the one who cheated. Like I said, not exactly my shiniest hour. Yet still an experience from which I learned more life lessons than I ever could have imagined. The cheating led to a whole new life for me. My husband found a whole new love. It inspired a different whole new life for my lover and fellow cheater. And yes, his wife too discovered a whole new life and love.
Okay, it’s complicated. But cooking doesn’t have to be. So let’s get to it. Because my hope is that once you get through this book you won’t need it anymore. You’ll pay it forward to some other hapless chef and get to creating your own masterpieces, your own fiascos (trust me, I’ve had many) and your own fun. Then I’ll buy your cookbook!