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Kitchen Bliss

Musings on Food and Happiness (With Recipes)

About The Book

James Beard Foundation Award– and Taste Canada Award–winning author Laura Calder is back with Kitchen Bliss, a warm, funny, and pragmatic collection of stories and recipes that reveal how cooking, feeding, and home-keeping can magically restore balance and calm in our out-of-sync lives.

During the years of the global pandemic, Laura Calder, like many home cooks, found herself being drawn into the kitchen and becoming reacquainted with the power that the room can have to restore us when the going gets tough. In Kitchen Bliss, she reflects on how and why the kitchen and the dining table have held such an important place in her life and indeed taught her about happiness.

In her inimitably wise, warm, and quirky voice, she shares stories about everything from her shattered childhood fantasies about Sultana cake, to a gastronomically disastrous camel safari, the perilous vicissitudes of daily dishwashing by hand, and how she identifies (positively, if you can believe it) with ground meat. Stories and musings on Emily Post’s concept of a “Little Dinner” (for eight, a mere bagatelle!), unsatisfying adventures at cooking school, hopeless kitchens and how to cook in them anyway, and the English aversion to warm toast are all accompanied by recipes to soothe, inspire, and delight. Nothing too fancy here, just perfect recipes for dishes like Disgustingly Rich Potatoes, Salted Caramel Ice Cream, Hainanese Chicken Rice, and The Full Quebecois Breakfast. Come for the stories, stay for the food!

Laura has spent her life considering the life-enhancing pleasures of food: cooking, eating, and feeding. The pandemic gave her a new sense of urgency to share what she has learned. She says, “Life isn’t always a candy shop of delights, pandemic or no pandemic. Often we find ourselves in uncomfortable places and we must learn to create sweetness for ourselves out of whatever it is we’ve got—and that sometimes can seem like nothing but a whole lot of lemons. Well, at least that’s a start! We all know where to find the lemons: in the kitchen.”

This is a delightfully entertaining book full of memories, insights, good advice, and humor that will inspire readers to get in the kitchen, tie on an apron, and discover their own form of kitchen bliss.


Chapter 1: Hopeless Kitchens I Have Known 1 Hopeless Kitchens I Have Known

It’s a funny thing about me and kitchens. I’ve never really had a nice one, despite the important place that cooking has always held in my life. Instead, I have made do with whatever has been thrown my way and, though I do fantasize about my dream kitchen (ahem, with separate pantry and scullery), in retrospect I’m rather glad to have been made to understand over the years that the key component to a companionable kitchen is not perfection, but charm. The same, of course, is true of people.

I got a good start at this life lesson, because the rural New Brunswick kitchen I grew up in was about the craziest of the lot. Amongst its many other flaws, it had seven doors, which exited in all directions like a highway interchange. I recently read that the effect of a room is most critically determined by the arrangement of its openings. In other words, if doors and windows are not properly distributed, then no amount of tinkering with a room otherwise can ever make it right. This must explain why, despite the various attempts to improve it over the years, that kitchen has remained as dysfunctional as ever.

I gave it a good once-over the last time I visited my parents, noting not just the chaos of doors, of which now there are merely six, but all sorts of other idiosyncrasies as well. There’s still too little counter space, all of it piled high with things that don’t belong together, such as the spot over by a useful plug that contains a toaster, a large sugar crock for baking, an upright roll of paper towel, phone cords, a Kleenex box, tea bags, and a bottle of eyeglass cleaner. The cupboards are scattered at impressive distances from one another, so to assemble a plate, a cookie, a cup of coffee, and a spoon is like running all four bases. Food that you expect to find in the kitchen will often be located elsewhere. Bread, for instance, is on top of a pine dry sink in the dining room, right beside the pottery butter dish with the top from a plastic yoghurt container currently standing in for the lid that got broken. Obviously, the kitchen is too hot for provisions like that to be kept in it, what with the pot-bellied woodstove roaring away on its squat cast-iron legs in the same spot where, in days of yore, the old woodstove for cooking used to be. Above it, high up, hangs a drying beam, which you can lower on a pulley, drape with wet laundry, and squeak back up to the ceiling to dry. Sometimes you’ll see a bundle of summer savoury hanging up there, too, tied on upside down to dry not far from a pair of socks. It’s worth pointing out that the current incarnation of the kitchen is the result of not just one renovation, but three.

Not that it was without its charms of a less maddening sort, too, mind you. How many kitchens have hanging on their wall a collection of horse brass medallions, including one of the late queen’s head, or of lacy, black iron trivets that were once used to set scorching hot sadirons on? (The old models were indeed called sadirons, “sad” referring to how much the things weighed.) There are also two antique, painted, heavy metal models of a “Holstein-Friesian True Type” cow and bull (about eight inches high and a foot long), grazing on a shelf that was formerly a decorative mantlepiece, but that got salvaged by my mother and painted bright, buttercup yellow for the wall above the stove. There’s a duck-egg-blue cage the size of a softball that hangs like an ornament from a towel-drying rod and contains kitchen twine, which you access by pulling out the string dangling through the bottom. I could go on, but you get the picture: the whole room was, and remains, a never-ending conversation piece. And it was there, in that kitchen of my childhood—where clothespins were stored next to potato chips and where dinner rolls were shaped and left to rise on a giant breadboard set atop a wooden barrel that otherwise served as a storage space for recycled plastic bags—that I learned the rudimentary principles of how to cook, feed, and eat. These set me up for life. (Organizational skills, I’d like to think, were acquired elsewhere.)

Another highly influential and inadequate kitchen of my life was in the Paris apartment I shared in my thirties with a roommate named Camille. It had no more than two feet of counter space, interrupted by a sink and a tiny gas stove with a defunct temperature gage pressed up cheek-to-cheek with a fridge the size of a suitcase. How we two young women ever fit in there at the same time was nothing short of a miracle, but we did, and not only did we produce feasts for ourselves and our friends in there—coddled eggs with truffle paste, steak au poivre, pasta with bottarga—we could even pull off apéritif (or cocktail) dinatoire for forty. Parties in the latter style could roll on until long past two in the morning, causing the neighbour living beneath us to storm up, bang on our door, and threaten to come back with a gun. We were unfazed, because we’d already decided he was a fool on the grounds that he stank up the stairwell every noon hour with the smell of burnt cheese.

What that kitchen lacked in terms of practicality it made up for in charisma. There was a long shelf above the kitchen sink which housed an army of spice tins sent from a friend living in Kathmandu. We had hooks on the walls for Camille’s vintage colanders and my copper pots. Just inside the door was an open cupboard of flea-market dishes—café au lait bowls; bistro plates; tiny, hand-painted juice glasses—and in the corner was a window with a transparent curtain drawn at an angle to one side, like a lock of hair coyly pulled across a youthful brow and tucked behind an ear. Along the ledge, Camille displayed her colourful collection of miniature wooden birds, hoarded from a shop in New York City’s Chinatown, and also grew a few herbs. Not an efficient kitchen, perhaps, but certainly one with a lot of personality, which is what counted, along with having a fun, talented, and gung-ho cooking cohort, which Camille was.

But, the dodgiest kitchen I have ever cooked in has to be the one in my friend Nona’s garden cottage which my husband, Peter, and I moved into not long before the unforeseen outbreak of the COVID pandemic. It was intended as a temporary measure, but for various reasons, including the pandemic, we ended up staying far longer than expected. The cottage itself was right out of a fairy tale, with a large and handsome main room boasting twelve-foot ceilings, walls covered in fine wood paneling, and forest-green floors. (Once when Peter was on a Zoom call for work, a colleague dryly observed, “I see you’ve retreated to your Scottish hunting lodge.”) From this room, French doors arched by two glorious magnolias led out to an oasis of a garden, bursting with peonies, jasmine, hydrangeas, lilies, and allium. A dream, you say! Yes, but the kitchen in that place, at least when we first moved in, was a nightmare. Its walls were painted a dull, almost dirty beige, and the floors were paved in cold, grey stone. The avocado-hued fridge and electric stove were so old they could have come off the set of The Brady Bunch, and the few cheap cupboards, clearly leftovers from another project, had been haphazardly banged into place so that there were gaps here and there that I’d have to find clever ways to fill. Most depressing of all, the kitchen didn’t have a window, though there was a skylight high out of reach that let in some light and alerted us whenever it was pouring rain. In retrospect, it was almost symbolic. “This will be a time for looking inwards,” the kitchen seemed to portend, unwittingly making the understatement of the century.

Well, I have come to believe that what’s outside of us is always a reflection of what’s inside, and not liking what I saw, I had to act. I slicked a fresh coat of paint on the walls and hung a chequered curtain over the gap below a counter that stuck out like a missing tooth. A friend put up a thick, wooden shelf along two walls for glasses and dishes, and drilled hooks into another wall for hanging pots and pans. We bought two rattan rugs to warm the floor and installed a knife rack. The large appliances from the Middle Ages were mercifully laid to rest, replaced by spanking new ones. Things were beginning to look up. Then came the final layer: a spice collection, oil bottles, a crock of cooking utensils, a bowl of onions and garlic, another of citrus fruits, colourful hand-woven tea towels, and, of course, our continued, active presence, which turned out to be the biggest energy-changer of all. Over time, we cooked life into that kitchen—Penne alla Vodka, Strawberry Swirl Meringues, Lemon Roasted Chicken—and before we knew it, it had gone from feeling like a prison cell to an artist’s atelier. A rescue kitchen, if you will, which, it turns out, when you treat it right, can end up being as lovable, loyal, and life-enhancing as any purebred.

About The Author

Photograph by Peter Scowen

Laura Calder is an advocate of l’art de vivre, the French art of getting the most out of everyday life by putting care into everything we do, particularly when it comes to matters of the table. Perhaps best known for her James Beard Foundation Award–winning television series, French Food at Home, Laura is also the bestselling author of four cookbooks, including French Food at Home and French Taste: Elegant Everyday Eating. Her most recent work is a lifestyle guide, The Inviting Life: An Inspirational Guide to Hosting, Homemaking, and Opening the Door to Happiness.

Laura holds undergraduate degrees in liberal arts and linguistics, and an MSc. in social and organizational psychology from the London School of Economics. She studied and worked in gastronomy in Canada, the US, and France, and in 2011 was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the French government in service of promoting French cuisine abroad. She currently lives in Toronto with her journalist husband, Peter Scowen. Connect with her on her website or on Twitter @LauraCalder.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 28, 2023)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982194703

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Raves and Reviews

“Laura Calder invites readers into her wonderful world of sizzling and sautéing, sharing delightful new recipes in her highly personal culinary memoir that reminds us of how blissful it is to spend a few hours in the kitchen, how cooking can get us through the best of times, and how healing it is during others.”
DAVID LEBOVITZ, bestselling author of My Paris Kitchen and Drinking French

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