I feel fairly certain that we invented funerals not just to honour the dead, but to keep us busy in the initial aftermath. I spent a busy, whirlwind week in Ottawa after my dad died, waiting for the realization to hit (it never does, you are shocked anew every time you remember). There were errands to run, photos to scan, people to call, and visitors to welcome amid other general planning and organisation. Of course, my mum bore the brunt of this, but I kept busy that week as well. When it came time to pack our bags and return to real life, a life in Toronto where my dad hadn’t been a daily presence, I was reluctant.
In the past ten years, I have become accustomed to coming and going from my parents’ home. Usually, I have been assured that my dad would be right where I left him when next I returned. This time, that would not be the case. My life in Toronto would be more or less the same, but I would never be coming home to my dad again. This time, leaving home (I will always have two homes, the one where my parents are, and the one I’ve built for myself), I had to make do with the few pieces of my dad that I could take with me.
We all know that a person’s life is not defined by their things, but by their experiences and their relationships. This does not mean, however, that they don’t leave behind artifacts, pieces of evidence that document a part of who someone was. And so I’d like to talk about the things I took with me the first time I left my parents’ house knowing that I’d never go back to see my dad. They are, of course, all food related. (This is, after all, a food blog of sorts).
Without fail, my dad would never let us leave to head back to Toronto without some sort of food item. Maybe leftovers from the weekend, very often a container of cretons, homemade or purchased from the Costco in Gatineau, because he knew we both loved it and it was harder to find in Toronto. This time, it was my mom who packed up an insulated bag picking out items from the freezer that undoubtedly were put there by my dad: a freezer bag of maple sage deer sausages, homemade weeks ago. The first batch made with his brand new sausage maker. About three vacuum-sealed packs of salt pork, purchased for all future sausage making, but also good for baked beans, pea soup, and various other French Canadian recipes. And a pack of Montreal smoked meat, possibly purchased for the next smoked meat day at his office, the sort of thing that he liked to organize.
Now, these items are all consumables. They will not last forever, and one day they will be gone. (Most definitely because I will eat and enjoy them). They are not a lasting piece of my dad’s legacy. Regardless, I can say that right now there are numerous hunks of meat in my freezer that made leaving Ottawa four weeks ago feel a little more ok. I know. It`s weird.
There is one other thing that I brought home with me that day. And I knew very early on after my dad’s death that it was the one thing of his that I needed to take with me. My brother went home with my dad’s last cigar, and inherited his fishing boat. I came home with a cookbook.
Madame Jehane BenoÎt’s Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking has sat on a shelf in our house for as long as I can remember, and is what can only be described as a cooking bible. The version I have is the English one, though I believe my aunt is in possession of the French copy, once used and annotated by her mother, my grandmother. Jehane BenoÎt, if you don’t already know, is a giant of Canadian cuisine, and our earliest celebrity chef. Something like a Canadian version of Julia Child. You can read more about her here, and also watch her here.
Now, my dad wasn’t much of a cookbook guy. Or even a recipe guy for that matter. For him, cooking was an art and not a science. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, until it seems right. I take after him and can’t follow a recipe to save my life. I own some beautiful cookbooks that I will peruse for the pictures, or ideas, or a rough ingredient list, but there is a joy in knowing how to create a meal simply by taste, look and feel. Mme Benoît’s cookbook, on the other hand, offers you a recipe or an instruction for anything you could ever possibly think to encounter in the kitchen. From how to boil an egg or create a party menu, to making homemade wine and cooking for 50 people. Though the book and recipes often show their age (far too many recipes for aspics and headcheese) there is always something of value to be found in Madame Benoît’s cookbook.
For the funeral we chose to put my dad’s ashes in his cigar humidor, next to a sleeve of scotch and cigar box. These items were chosen to honour a man with an undeniable joy de vivre and a knack for enjoying the finer things. An accurate portrait of man ready to retire; to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour. For me though, he always was and will be Madame Benoît’s cookbook. Which sat atop a shelf in our kitchen, a sort of patron saint, standing in as a symbol of the cooking skills and knowledge held by my grandmother, passed on to my father, and with any hope, also to me. From this book come inklings of the recipes we’d eventually use for our family’s ragout de pattes et de boulettes, for cretons and baked beans, for numerous cookies, cakes and sweets. Her peanut butter cookie recipe is still my go-to recipe to this day.
It now sits in my kitchen. An artifact of meals cooked for and by loved ones, and a symbol of meals and cooking lessons to come. A little piece of my dad in my kitchen, always.