James Barber, who died last month at the age of 84, taught me to cook. Not literally -- I never met the guy, and I never watched his popular Canadian TV series The Urban Peasant. That was quite awhile after I'd become a Barberian. The James Barber who taught me to cook was the anti-celebrity chef ~ something of a latter-day hippie who wrote quirky cookbooks full of funny anecdotes and food that was as unpretentious as it was delicious.
When I was 19, having just completed a 'gap year' of working and backpacking around Europe, I moved to Victoria with two friends into a shabby apartment on The Gorge and started attending UVic. I could barely boil water. Shelley, however, had been raised by parents who encouraged her to learn to cook and she introduced me to Ginger Tea Makes Friends and Fear of Frying. I was hooked. Using these cookbooks to get me started was tons-o-fun and God knows I do love to read the pictures.
I remember that time as one of the happiest in my life. I didn't know it at the time but upon reflection I realize that it was the unfamiliar feeling of living in a close-knit family that made it so great. We always prepared meals together and there was endless laughter. Unfortunately, after almost a year, drama, obsession and betrayal (sounds juicy, doesn't it?) ended our happy experience playing house (though I remained friends with them), and Dale and Shelley eventually drifted back to Vancouver (separately) while I stayed three more years to complete my degree ... but no one can take those first eight months away.
I still consult my well-used James Barber books from time to time, and since boys will be pyromaniacs and are irresistably drawn to anything that involves fire and alcohol, Greg's favourite dish (to prepare) is still Chicken and Scotch. There's a wonderful elegy to James Barber's life here.