Opinion » Maxed Out

Bloodlines have little to do with learning a new skill



Among the various reasons I considered Whistler U to be a bad idea was one I heard a number of local parents put forward. "Oh, wouldn't it be nice if my child(ren) could attend university right here in Tiny Town."

The short answer, to my mind is, "Hell no!" I can hardly imagine a worse fate for any child growing up in this bubble than to remain here for their post-secondary education, unless it's to remain here after high school and wander through the forest of dead-end jobs.

Like the sparrows growing up a few metres off my deck, when it's time to leave the nest it's time to leave the nest. A kid growing up in Whistler needs to get out, see the wider world, be exposed to a broader menu of ideas and maybe, just maybe, come to realize what a lucky cuss he or she is for having had the chance to grow up here... and then experience the real world.

The second most valuable lesson I learned during my first few years of university was how cloistered living at home with my nuclear family was. Going away to school was then, and is now, the first opportunity most anyone has to remake themselves, assuming they lead an examined-enough life to figure out who and what they are to begin with, and the courage to embrace what they want to become.

Of course, there are pitfalls and challenges in leaving home. My first was figuring out laundry. I knew doing laundry had something to do with detergent and a washing machine. Other than that, squat. But then, how hard could it be? Dirty clothes in, clean clothes out, right? As it turned out, laundry was a bit more nuanced than that. Fortunately, I didn't really mind wearing pink tee-shirts and sleeping on pink sheets. But I drew the line at pink sweat socks.

It took a kind girl friend to explain the finer points of sorting to me. Cooking, on the other hand, was a much higher mountain to climb.

When I moved out of residence — as soon as I possibly could — it meant freedom, parties, roommates, plunging grades and an opportunity to lead a generally debauched lifestyle. It also meant I could no longer eat at the dining hall. This didn't seem like much of a loss when I was considering a move off campus, although I had grown fond of the unusually tough steaks that seemed to be served on Tuesdays after the Sunday bullfights just across the border in Juarez, Mexico. After all, my old friend and future roommate, Bill, had been a latchkey kid long before that term had been coined and surely knew how to cook a few things.

Turned out he only knew how to make one thing, some bland, baked rice dish he modify by either adding, or omitting, ground beef. Other than that, the most satisfying thing either of us knew how to cook was spaghetti, over which we'd ladle tinned chili. Not surprisingly, that dish grew wearisome after about the third night in a row.

"One of us needs to learn how to cook," I said, in a voice suggesting he was that one.

"Screw that," he replied, "One of us needs to get a girlfriend who knows how to cook."

We both knew it was more likely one of us was going to learn how to cook. I knew it was going to be me since he'd grown up eating his rice dish four or five nights a week and showed no signs of caring one way or another.

Fortunately, I stumbled across The Joy of Cooking. Reading its pages I began to realize cooking was part paint-by-numbers, part chemistry and part creative talent. I slowly understood there were more options to cooking meat than grilling and burning to a crisp. Braising and stewing quickly became mainstays and got us through the first winter and into grilling/burning season.

When the next fall rolled around, an older and wiser friend told us we should go down to the state welfare office and apply for commodities. The USDA commodity program was the precursor to foodstamps, a new twist to which New Mexico had not signed on. Instead of chits you could take to the store and buy anything with, we were given 9-kilogram blocks of "surplus" cheddar cheese, 22-kilogram pound sacks of rice and pinto beans, powdered milk, powdered eggs and things even less appealing. This mountain of potential food posed a new challenge.

Fortunately, we were 32 kilometres from the Hatch valley, famous for its robust crop of green chile. We could, and did, pick it ourselves for about eight cents a pound. Let's see, rice, beans, chile. We realized it sounded like Mexican food but we didn't have a clue where to start. Fortunately, it was the year Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz published The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking, which a new roommate promptly went out and shoplifted.

I worked my way through the corn kitchen, learned how to make tortillas, stuff chiles, make a wicked poblano sauce, menudo, adobado, posole and eventually most of the items available at the Mexican restaurant down the street. There were failures, and notable successes, but we didn't go hungry and sometimes we ate like kings.

I didn't stop there. Emboldened, I tackled Italian, Chinese, Thai, Spanish and other cuisines. My culinary tools included curiosity, a library card and a willingness to experiment. They didn't include a drop of Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Thai or Spanish blood.

So, frankly, I get kind of pissed off when I hear Pepe Barajas complain he might have to delay opening La Cantina if he can't bring in chefs from Mexico because of the crackdown on the Temporary Foreign Worker program. And I don't want to be pissed off at him because I love the food he serves and thank him for bringing it to town.

But I don't understand when businesses decided it's no longer their responsibility to train people for their job-specific skills. Oh, yes I do. It was when they figured out they could pay less than the market demands for those jobs if they could bring in people from third-world countries.

If a klutz like me can teach himself to prepare sophisticated Mexican dishes by reading books I have trouble imagining a chef as good as the one Pepe has can't teach Canadians who know their way around a commercial kitchen how to cook the handful of dishes offered on the menu.

The TFW program is an invitation to abuse, and a race to the bottom. Its problems more than offset its benefits in all but a very few applications. Cooking ain't rocket science and if bloodlines and heritage were prerequisites to preparing "authentic" foreign cuisine we'd be living a much sadder culinary existence than we are.