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Maxed Out: The suspense is killing me

'I’m at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, floating along the Colorado River...'
Ah, cooking. One of life's great pleasures.

I’m at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, floating along the Colorado River. I have no idea how the election turned out. It’s driving me crazy. Congratulations to whomever won. 

Since I can’t say anything about the outcome, I’ll write about something I know about. Unusual, you say?

One of life’s great pleasures is food. Eating some alone or with friends or simply flinging it around a crowded cafeteria, food has a special place in all our lives; if it didn’t, we’d do something else three times a day and restaurants would probably all be T-shirt stores.

Personally, I’m down with food. Not being an organized religion kind of guy, my relationship to it may well be spiritual… How would I know? Without food, I’d probably need another job or a few new hobbies. Not that I have what you’d call a live-to-eat relationship; more an eat-to-live one, but monogamous and all-consuming, if you know what I mean. 

It was not always thus. 

My first insight into this relationship came, as so many did, in university. Having moved off campus, ostensibly to embrace a greater degree of both freedom and responsibility—but really just to party our heads off—one of the first responsibilities I embraced was feeding myself. It turned out to be a responsibility I was sorely unprepared for, something that came as a shock to me considering I’d been eating for something like 19 years. This utter lack of preparation was driven home when I and my longtime friend and housemate turned to each other and simultaneously said, “So, whaddya know how to cook?”

The answer was a joint and pathetic, “Not much.” Dinner that night was canned chili over spaghetti. Filling, but somehow lacking in culinary nuance, its shortcomings were no impediment to it becoming our signature dish. We both considered it a culinary watershed when one of us thought to shake Kraft parmesan-like sawdust over it. “Wow! Now if we only knew how to make salad,” I exclaimed between enthusiastic mouthfuls.

That’s when I decided I’d better learn how to cook. My friend had shown no inclination to do so and from all outward appearances seemed to be capable of actually living off cheap beer and Screaming Yellow Zonkers. “How hard can it be?” I said, drawing strength from the sum total of my cooking experience, which pretty much amounted to having spent years not paying attention while my mother made countless meals.

The third time the fire department showed up—at the frantic urging of a concerned neighbour who thought I’d set the kitchen aflame—they invited me down to the firehall for a cooking lesson. Or so they said. I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that for all their seeming benevolence, firemen can be really sadistic, sloppy cooks when they have someone not from their ranks they plan to stick with doing the dishes. Ironically, in an adding-insult-to-injury way, they taught me how to cook, you guessed it, chili. They also offered to have me back when they were cooking stew, but I wasn’t that gullible.

While fireman chili didn’t exactly round out my repertoire, it did provide two watershed life lessons. It proved I could start with ingredients, as opposed to warming something out of a can or incinerating a TV dinner, and prepare something edible. It also provided a powerful lesson in economics. Using raw onions, ground beef, tomatoes, dry beans and way, way too much chili powder, I could make a week’s worth of chili for about the same price as one large can of the stuff that smelled vaguely like dog food when you opened it. Eating for a week at approximately the cost of eating for a night left more scarce funds for… books… and other par…, er, school supplies.

Both lessons have served me well over the years. They’ve kept me fed, converted me from a picky eater—sorry for what I put you through, mom—to a not-so-picky eater, and saved me enough money to fund a ski-bum lifestyle. More importantly, they’ve insulated me from the high-fructose corn syrup that’s apparently in all prepared food available in North America. 

I’m both appalled and intrigued at what I find in the inner aisles of supermarkets. Since I don’t do much shopping there, cruising the guts of a modern food store takes on the feeling of an anthropological expedition. The most amazing thing I ever unearthed was at a store in the U.S. in a section called “bread and bread products.” In what looked like a squat, round ice cream carton, there was half a dozen pre-made blueberry pancakes. Just pop ‘em in the toaster and dribble artificially-flavoured corn syrup on ‘em and… enjoy? They still pop up occasionally in nightmares.

I can’t imagine being reduced to buying pre-made pancakes. What do those people consider a splurge? Freeze-dried camping food? To what level of atrophy have their tastebuds descended?

Autumn is one of the best times of the year to treat our tastebuds, assuming they haven’t succumbed to corporate fast food. The only times of the year that even begin to touch autumn for this hedonistic pleasure are winter, spring and summer. With longer darkness to keep us off the bike trails and drive us inside, there’s more time to spend time with friends over burnt offerings and a couple of bottles of fine B.C. wines.

While I hope I’ve been enjoying great meals cooked by the guides on this trip, I’m planning a big splurge when I get back. It is probably no coincidence I’ll return to Whistler just as Cornucopia starts getting people ready for the excesses of the holiday season.

It kicks off on Nov. 4 with a murder mystery dinner. I attended the inaugural murder mystery dinner last year. It was a disco-themed (ugh) riot of crazed people trying to solve the mystery and indulge in outstanding courses along the way. The only drawback was I kept getting interrupted while I was trying to savour the courses and drink my wine because I was one of the suspects. 

Worse, I hadn’t entirely finished dessert when I discovered I’d actually committed the murder. Talk about suppressed memories! 

If you eat and drink, or even do just one of those things, there is something that’ll tickle both your fancy and tastebuds during the run of Cornucopia from the 4th to 20th of next month. The conference centre will smell better than it usually does and you’ll likely discover something new and wonderful if you attend any of the events.

Or you can stay home, watch hockey and eat nachos from the microwave.