The Test of Life

We have lost the test of life, he informs me, handing my drycleaning over the counter.  I am, in quick succession, startled, panicked and then indignant: who knew a test of life had even been scheduled?  Some hand waving clarifies his meaning: we have lost, not the test, but the taste of life.  A casual conversation a few years ago about my drycleaner’s Ramadan celebration and my Christmas readiness (Ramadan and Christmas roughly coinciding that year) had morphed unexpectedly into this primal wail about how there are no special days in our lives anymore: all our days seem the same.

Nodding and smiling, I edge out as he is still talking, trying to prevent my intended drive-by drycleaning pick-up from turning into a philosophical pit-stop.  The next line on my task list beckons: groceries.     

Drycleaning clutched under my arm, I survey the produce aisle.  Brussels sprouts and apples jostle asparagus and blueberries for space, and no one under 40 would remember when that wasn’t so, or wonder why it jars.  As I check out the organic offerings in ironically plastic containers, I reflect that the concept of seasonal fruits and vegetables is officially obsolete: I can now indulge in fresh raspberries year-round.  With that realization, something clicks in the back of my brain and I travel back five years, to my first day of immersion Spanish classes.

My Guatemalan teacher is casting about for conversational gambits that suit my limited language capacity.  He lands confidently on food: who doesn’t eat, after all?  What special foods, he enquires innocently, do Canadians eat on festive occasions?

Thinking furiously, I quickly discard any conceit of speaking for my compatriots as a whole: with our multicultural make-up, Canadians’ eating habits are as varied as our notions of which days are festive.  My teacher’s face falls into puzzled lines, wondering at my delay.  I reach for something, anything, and remember a fruit salad that was my grandmother’s signature contribution to Christmas dinner, and a Danish dish whose preparation stained my mother’s hands purple and scattered grated bits of red cabbage from hell to breakfast.  In my family, we have two special foods at Christmas, I announce perfectly accurately and almost correctly.

Just two? His mock sympathy is only half in fun: his underlying startlement is clearly as full in earnest as it is genuine.  Two special foods!  In his world, that seems pathetic.

I understand better after breaking corn tortillas in some Guatemalan homes.  Noted for its food, my billet certainly serves enough, but one week’s menu is much like the rest.  Monotony reigns until a student goes home.  Then our house mother goes all out to produce a special meal, drawing from an array of allegedly typical Guatemalan dishes that have, nonetheless, never appeared on our table before.  Invited for Sunday lunch by a friend of a friend, I encounter a new suite of typical foods.  This time it is the combination that is special, a fat-free meal usually reserved for feast days.

In this nuanced environment of typical national dishes reserved for special occasions, and food combinations targeted for feast days, having just two special foods seems worse than pathetic: it seems impoverished.  Yet my food world is much richer than theirs by many measures.  At home I use better quality ingredients, from produce to meat.  I eat protein every day, almost every meal, never seriously counting the cost.  And above all, day after day, I enjoy more variety.  Within a block of my downtown townhouse are one Greek and two Thai restaurants; a three-block radius offers pizza, sushi, shawarma, Cajun, Asian and tropical fusion, Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian, Indian, and nominally Irish pub fare.  And the corner grocery store offers that season-free array of fruits and vegetables.  It is, after all, always spring somewhere.

With everyday access to the best the world has to offer, we risk losing our ability to appreciate it.  Eating special foods whenever we want, we may find we have no special foods left.  Along with the fresh berries, I can buy red cabbage any time of the year, if I want to.  Yet somehow, I don’t want to, and not just because the grated bits stain my kitchen ceiling purple.  Indulging every day is self-defeating, destroying the very rarity that makes something a treat.  Maybe I heard my drycleaner right the first time – maybe self-restraint is, indeed, the test of life.

I put the raspberries down, for today at least.  I’ll be back when they taste like a treat again.

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10 Comments

  1. Jim Taylor

    “It is always spring somewhere….” You probably wrote that as a throwaway aside, but I wish I could embroider that sentiment somewhere across the back of my mind so that I’m always aware of it.
    I’m well into the fall of life, but I need to remember that “it is always spring somewhere.”
    Thank you.

    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      I was sort of thinking of Jimmy Buffet’s line – it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. But to your point – We have cardinals that grace our backyard from time to time – they don’t live here, but close by obviously. Coming from cardinal-free Alberta, I find them amazing birds – they delight me every time. When I do happen to see one, I often wonder how many times they alight on our serviceberry treeor fly through our airspace without me being out there, or looking out the window, at just the right time to take note. It gives me a mental image of bits of beauty swirling around us all the time. Sometimes, the timing is right and we notice – we see the cardinals en route – but whether we notice or not, there are always cardinals out there.

  2. Alison Uhrbach

    As you know… I’ve grown to LOVE your mom’s (grandma’s?) red cabbage! and it will always be special to ME.. because it brings back memories of eating with your family!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Well, Gram must have learned to make it from the community – she wasn’t Danish – but somehow she picked it up and passed it along. Now if only she’d learned to make those amazing little Danish cookies with almond paste, we might all be able to make those too! In our clan, I think red cabbage may not survive the next generation – i don’t think we have any takers, despite early exposure.

  3. Morris B

    Interesting topic that I haven’t thought about for a long time. It is certainly true that those foods that three or four decades ago were considered rare, unusual, extravagant, or a treat, such as sushi, tom-yum soup, congee, shashlick, or even Caesar salad have become the “norm” for eating out and as such have lost much of their allure, though I still enjoy them. And I’m not even thinking here about the produce that is now available year-round as opposed to being seasonal.
    We have a number of special dishes at our special and culturally-oriented family dinners. Fact is, we could make them and have them all year if we wished to. But we all have recognized that to keep them “special”, we must keep them only for special occasions. In fact, we mark these occasions partially with the preparation and eating of these foods. This practice has been handed down from our European grandparents to our parents to us and we are now doing the same with our children. In doing so I think we are carrying on the “Test” of Life. It takes effort, but is worth the results – these meals are truly special, for the company, for the food, and for the discussion about the food.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Morris – I remember the first Christmas Eve that I didn’t have the traditional turkey dinner. We were booked for Christmas dinner with friends the next day and didn’t want to eat turkey two days in a row. So we had fondue – a nice enough meal, but not Christmas dinner, darn it! The next day was the turkey feast – and for me it was the right meal (at last!) but a day late. Interesting how the details matter.

  4. MC

    I love any musings about food, and particularly food related to the Canadian experience. I constantly search to find the words to describe what we eat in Canada on a day-to-day basis, as well as for special occasions, and am fascinated by how much that varies from household to household, and even from year-to-year at times.
    I often ask friends to identify their “staples” – the food they always have in the house; it’s fascinating to me that none of us have the same basic items, even those of us who come from seemingly similar backgrounds (i.e. white, Ontarian, English-speaking, etc). I always have avocadoes, lemons and limes in my house; I almost never have bread. Similiarly, our standard household meals from week-to-week don’t match our ancestry (butter chicken, thai curry, stir fry, etc).
    My thoughts about special occasions are that many of us are constantly evolving our family traditions as our families evolve. I, from a southern Ontario English-speaking family (but with French-Canadian ancestry), always had sprimp cocktail, tortiere and yule log at Christmas (along with turkey, mashed potatoes, etc.) But as I’ve joined my husband’s Italian family, we have homemade ravioli as a first course (followed by “Canadian” turkey and mashed potatoes); and last year my Italian mother-in-law served spring rolls and asian dumplings as appetizers (from Price Club). Always evolving indeed.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      MC – I grew up thinking that the sweet/sour red cabbage we had at Christmas and the dinner being on Christmas Eve were Scottish traditions – reflecting my father’s position in my understanding of the family hierarchy, I guess. Turns out both of these were my mother’s contribution, but from her father’s side (American born but Danish background), likely reinforced by her growing up in a Danish farming community east of Calgary. I’m always interested by how some immigrants to this country hung onto their language/food/culture while others pretty much ditched them. As for the tendency to grab onto new foods and incorporate them into our traditions, that sort of resonates with one comment on my Canada Day blog, no? Canada – open to interpretation.

  5. Marianne

    Years ago at the ABC (Anglican Book Centre) I bought a recipe book called “Food for All Seasons” by Anne Hay & Keith Whittingham – it classifies the recipes according to the Christian calendar and so offers up the traditional meals served at these times and using the appropriate ingredients. I love this book as it reminds me of how my grandmothers used to cook, only certain foods at the various times of the year, making them all the more special for the limited-ness of it.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Marianne – Growing up in the United Church, the whole ‘Christian year’ didn’t impinge on me much. I was startled as a middle-aged adult to talk to an Anglican friend of a friend and find out how much it was part of his consciousness. There’s a richness and pattern to the construct that’s quite delightful, but I had never associated it with food.

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