By Timothy Taylor
Fork, meet viscera. In this nose-to-tail culinary confessional, acclaimed novelist and reluctant gourmet Timothy Taylor makes a three-course meal out of our food-obsessed culture.
“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a foodie,” writes the man who has made agar-agar basil gel and vacuum-packed sweet caraway pickles. When and how did we all get so hyped up about food? Why did Pittsburgh food critic Mike Kalina commit suicide? And is it possible to make an edible meal cribbed entirely from mid-seventies cookbooks?
From chicken liver and foie gras parfait to the pleasures of a head of stuffed cabbage, Taylor ranges widely, eats adventurously, and pierces the sautéed heart of our foodie fixations.
Read an excerpt below.
Print length: 53 pages
Print editions available in better bookstores.
I FELL FOR a girl over a meal in the Top of the Horizon once, the restaurant on the 31st floor of the Blue Horizon Hotel in downtown Vancouver. I was five years old, maybe six. Some Danish friends of my father’s were in town and they had a daughter around my age. Her name may have been Bridget, or Heidi, I don’t remember. She was this perfect doll: straw blonde, green eyes. I remember she wore a white dress with a red ribbon around her waist. The adults put us across from one another at the end of the table, so it was like we had our own little dinner date going on by the window, sipping Shirley Temples and eating those 1970s shish kebabs of skewered cubes of meat and green peppers.
The food probably wasn’t great. But the dining experience was seminal, because I think even at that age I sensed what magical things were possible with the right person and the right meal. The right view. The right rays of orange sunlight sloping off the shoulder of Stanley Park. When that little girl caught me gazing at her, she smiled back sweetly as if she’d been thinking exactly the same thing. And at the end of the evening, she gave me a blue-lacquered wooden horse that she’d brought all the way from Copenhagen.
Fast forward 20-odd years. I was newly married, and had just taken a job with the Toronto Dominion Bank in Vancouver. My wife and I had moved from Toronto, but in the weeks before we finalized our apartment, the bank put us up at… the Blue Horizon Hotel. We didn’t eat at the restaurant. These were our La Bodega years, and I’m not even sure Top of the Horizon was open at that time. But while unpacking, we came across an old scrapbook my wife had kept as a girl. And tucked into its pages was a photo of her when she was five. I hadn’t seen the picture before or any other one of her at that age. Which allowed me to discover—in a strange temporal rush, that feeling of a vortex opening and connecting you to a very particular moment and set of feelings from the past—just how firmly that long-ago meal had stayed in my subconscious. How seamlessly woven into memory it had been. Because looking at that picture of my wife, I realized that at five years of age, and right at the same time, she and Bridget/Heidi had looked exactly alike.
Seminal meals, formative meals.
The plates and flavors we never forget. I’ve been poring over old menus and recipe cards from the mid-1970s, trying to push myself back in time. It’s one thing to understand how our long-ago evangelists changed the food world in unexpected, even unpredictable ways. But can we the diners and review readers push ourselves back? Can we ever really understand what came before, what food was like before the revolution hit, before we surrendered it to the tossing of fashion’s seas?
I’m suppose I’m the kind of food lover who would try. I have an obvious fondness for the old school. My heroes Barber and Pepin are guys who both published recipes for a stuffed whole head of cabbage. (You don’t see that on many menus, these days.) I always appreciated how settled they both seemed to be in their own culinary practices. Not much would change about either of them from the beginning to the end of their public cooking careers.
In Pépin’s case, that single-mindedness made for some early television comedy. Here’s a guy who’d been working in the near-military environs of European kitchens since the age of 12, trying to be all casual and easygoing and ready for prime time (Pepin aired on PBS, but food television more broadly has now evolved to the point that he would be terminally out of place, but more on that later). For a while there Pepin did try – or PBS tried – and so we had him cooking with his daughter Claudine, visibly resisting the impulse to snatch the kitchen tools away from her every time she cut up an onion or peeled a carrot the wrong way.