Food and drink 

The power of one

James Barber: Still making our food world better

Students at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue are given a pretty interesting assignment each semester. To help them understand the power of the individual, they’re given, amongst other things, the mandate to do something over the next four months that will make the world a better place. By semester’s end, they’ve achieved their mission.

One man has been in the news this past week who has definitely made the world a better place in terms of food, its procurement and how we regard same. But rather than just a few months, he made the world a better place over the course of decades.

James Barber died at his home near Duncan on Saturday while reading a cookbook and preparing a pot of soup. He was 84.

“He definitely left this world in a way that he would have wanted to," his widow, Christina Burridge, said in a CBC News report. "But I think he would have been pretty upset about the timing."

Bon vivant, former engineer, writer of cookbooks, restaurant critic, host of CBC TV’s long-running and far-syndicated Urban Peasant show — you could fill up a whole page with Barber’s accomplishments in the world of good cooking and better living.

He came to claim his rightful position in life after complications from a severe leg infection left him in a full body cast and unable to continue in his first incarnation as an engineer. Soon thereafter he was divorced from his then-wife, and found himself living in a bachelor apartment along with a frying pan.

Of all of Barber’s achievements, one really stands out for me — wait, make that two things. One was his ability to get British Columbians to appreciate food that comes from our own backyards and rivers and farms decades before anyone even dreamt of the term “locavore”.

The other was to take good food back from the food snobs: the name “Urban Peasant” wasn’t an idle bit of wit. Barber was sophisticated but down-to-earth enough to deconstruct a simple but elegant dinner into one or two pots (or frying pans) or have you using mascarpone with ease.

He seemed most at home with what I call sincere food well — and even quickly — done. I used to love watching him chop things up and throw them together on his show; he made cooking feel messy and fun, like you were four years old again, mucking about in the sandbox.

So what if some of that handful of chopped parsley falls all over the counter and a bit gets on your shoes? That kind of exuberance and ease gets you out from under the withering yoke of measuring cups and tedious recipes.

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