Tuesday, December 11, 2007

james barber

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.

18 Comments:

Blogger Angela Rockett said...

I didn't realize James Barber had died! I loved him. "The Urban Peasant" was the first cooking show I really enjoyed and learned from, and unknowingly led to my Food Network addiction. I only have his "Urban Peasant" cookbook, and that was hard enough to find, so I am totally jealous of the books you have.

That first 6 months of school sounds idyllic. I had some stretches like that in college too, but college is such a breeding ground for drama, obsession and betrayal...

11/12/07 1:09 PM  
Blogger Ian Lidster said...

A nice and worthy tribute to a guy who was an original. Every year one of the local pubs stages a chili cook-off competition for charity at Christmas. One year Barber agreed to come and be one of the judges, along with local notables, both in the culinary trade and not.

11/12/07 2:11 PM  
Blogger nadine said...

Look at you with your wing-y bangs and don't bug me I'm studying expression! I wonder if those early cook books are still in print. I'm not much of a cook myself, but I the pictures would surely inspire some attempt :-)

11/12/07 2:39 PM  
Blogger Melody said...

I loved him too......still use his books to this day.

11/12/07 5:07 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Angela: You have no idea how thrilled I am to hear he made a dent south of the border, even if just a small one.

Ian: Fun!

Nadine: And did you catch me shaking my Bic fine point pen threateningly at the photographer?

Melody: I suddenly feel inspired to pull one out!

11/12/07 5:28 PM  
Blogger dinahmow said...

Ah-ha! I saw those "golden oldies" on flickR and wondered what was up.

I don't claim to be much of a cook, but I do have some dog-eared books. And a few anecdotes.Come over and I'll whip up one of my quiches and tell you about Vincent Price.

11/12/07 5:45 PM  
Blogger Brian the Mennonite said...

Ah yes...cookbooks. Ever since you mentioned your friend with the wall of cookbooks, I've been thinking about redecorating. What a great idea!
And there's nothing like good food inspiration to make happy people moments...even if they don't last forever. It's like you said, no one can take them away from you.

11/12/07 7:54 PM  
Blogger daisies said...

i love cookbooks, i like to read them for fun :) and i adore these photos, you are so cute!!

11/12/07 11:19 PM  
Blogger Toni said...

I'm sorry to say I have not heard of him. Wish I had. I'll have to look around this area for any books by him.
Love the vintage pictures and hearing about some good times back then.

12/12/07 5:06 AM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

I'm going to have to look for his cookbooks now! His style looks like something I could wrap my arms around.

I enjoyed "reading" the pictures too...:D

12/12/07 9:39 AM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

P.S. I'm assuming that's you in the bottom most photograph? Love the Farrah Fawcett hair!

12/12/07 9:40 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Dinah: You make it sound so inviting but the commute's a killer.

Brian: The marriage of good food and good company was the cornerstone of James Barber's philosophy.

Daisies: And good ones warrant multiple readings! (And thanks :)

Toni: He's done a lot more since these early books.

Cynthia: Farrah Fawcett! Now THAT'S a blast from the past!

12/12/07 11:41 AM  
Blogger Erlingur P├íll said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

13/12/07 3:53 PM  
Blogger Alda said...

Wow - I've never heard of him, but that is the coolest cookbook I've ever seen.

(ps that was me who deleted the previous comment - for some reason I was commenting as my husband. That'll teach me to let him sign into his gmail on my laptop!)

13/12/07 3:56 PM  
Blogger Cream said...

Never heard of him but inspiration comes from all corners.
When I was a student, I had to cook and learnt to make meals out of nothing.

13/12/07 4:00 PM  
Blogger Within Without said...

Boys will be pyromaniacs? C'mon!

I saw Barber had died. I also enjoyed watching him, he had such a zest for life and cooking.

And a great accent and smile.

Hope you don't take offence, but gawd you were hot back then. As if you're not now! (said with utmost respect and all)

15/12/07 5:42 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Alda: They are -- and I don't know if they're in print any more.

Cream: And look at you now!

WW: Thanks for the vote of confidence but I'm a dab hand at Photoshop now so I wish I still looked like I did at 19! How do I know? I had my passport photo taken on Thursday and still can't believe that old hag is me! But you are sweet. I'll try to remember that and not the *?!@#!? photo.

15/12/07 6:36 PM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

Guess what? For fun, and curiousity, I found the cookbook on Amazon and purchased it. It's not here yet, but I'm looking forward to reading the pictures.

16/12/07 1:51 PM  

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