Hard to think it was a year ago — Jan. 10, 2016, to be exact — that David Bowie passed to the great starship in the sky, leaving us Blackstar as his farewell album. Who'da thunk it would be such a fitting prelude for the notorious year to come, one variously dubbed as a hideous monstrosity, an annus horribulus.
So which 2016 cloud left you standing in its shadow? Bowie's death? Leonard Cohen's? (No, we didn't want it darker, thank you.) The cumulative eclipse of so many good guiding lights extinguished — Elie Wiesel, Gordie Howe, Gwen Ifill, Muhammad Ali and more?
The horror of Aleppo and millions of Syrians displaced? The truck terrors and nightclub slaughters in Europe? The avalanche of untruths? The twinned failure of Bernie and Hillary? The twin stench of rising nationalism and white supremacy?
As a year-end antidote, The New York Review of Books ran an essay by novelist Zadie Smith. "On Optimism and Despair" was actually the speech she gave in Berlin on accepting the 2016 Welt Literature Prize. The last paragraph goes something like this: Smith likens the internal complexity of we humans to musical scores. What melodies get teased out depends on who's conducting. Lately, all over the world, she writes, are conductors standing in front of this human orchestra with "only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind" — the martial songs of fascism and war.
"Those of us who remember... a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along."
The beauty of a writer like Smith is that we each can lean into her metaphors in our own internally complex ways. For the here and now of this column, I take her playing of finer music to be whatever finer moments we can locate in food and drink.
Over the years, I've been asked why I write a food column, disavowed "foodie" that I am (oh, how I hate that misused term!). The answer is simple. Food is an excellent Trojan horse for approaching nearly every facet of our shared humanity. From science and art to politics and politesse, you can always find a way in using something everyone relates to — food.
Think about it. Food is literary. Food is historic. Food is culture. Food is funny. Food is a distraction, a delight, a dynamic, a disaster. Ergo the bleached-bone, picked-clean cliché, "Food for Thought," as the name of countless food columns over the years, this fine newsmagazine included.
And so it is as the New Year stretches before us that I think of what finer music can be added to our dining without undue whining. Finer music others might be willing to sing along to.
First, let's get one thing out of the way. "Fine" doesn't necessarily mean high class or poncy. Sure, there's that old Victorian connotation, but the many meanings of "fine" actually run over nine columns in the Oxford English Dictionary.
There's "fine" as in becoming clear. Or to make beautiful or handsome. Or to make smaller or whittle down, which I take to mean simplifying or reducing to essentials, like the spare joy of a Yoko Ono poem. So there goes another bad cliché — fine dining. Or at least we can add fineness to any aspect of eating, white linen tablecloths or not.
Using a well-made kitchen tool meant for the job can delight and appeal to our better selves. Even something as basic as a good soup spoon rather than a plastic paddle for eating soup or a real-glass glass for drinking speaks to our finer selves.
You don't have to make something posh or complicated to enjoy a fine meal. Simple, fresh things — a ripe avocado; a homemade cookie; a small but delicious piece of chicken properly cooked with love — can deliver the finest eating experiences.
And think about presentation when you eat, even for yourself. Sure, it's fun enjoying sink food — food that must be eaten over the kitchen sink because it's so messy — just not all the time. Take time for eating, including a nanosecond before you serve.
Commercial food establishments spend millions on presentation and you can do it for free with thoughtful regard for shape, colour, texture. Use your kitchen cloth to wipe the drip of soup off the rim of the bowl before serving. Garnish a dollop of beans with curls of bright orange carrot. Stand the corn chips up in the guacamole to make a playful array of sails. If you think about food and food prep in your own kitchen more as pleasure or art than chore, you're on your way to regarding it in a — dare I say? — finer way.
I sometimes fear that too many mean, banal elements like Smith references are being sucked into the "whatever" fabric of our new world order. Sure, plurality and difference must be embraced in our post-colonial reality. But do we also have to let go of the small kindnesses and courtesies that, ironically, also rose with empire?
Please don't reach across me to get what you want. Please serve others before you serve yourself. Please share what you have with those who have not, and remember to give them the choicest cut. The list goes on but you get the point.
The last item may be the most important of all. The sharing of food, good food, spontaneously and free-form or planned and fully orchestrated, gives voice to some of the best but sometimes hardest to express parts of being human. It speaks to kindness and love and thoughtfulness and generosity — and what finer music is there?
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who wishes you peace this year.