Most of my classes are mix-gendered; the ratio is about 70% female, 30% male. Many of the males in my classes complain of being “dragged” to the classes by their female counterparts. Or the emotionally-neutral euphemism is used: “it’s a date”. I have, however, held many sushi-making classes exclusively for women- from playful stagettes to the most serious causes around women’s issues (ie. comfort women). I enjoy these because they are always edifying and fun, with plenty of good-natured jokes coming at the expense of the males not in the room.
Like most activities they engage in, men and women behave differently when making sushi. So, at the risk of making sweeping generalizations (oh, why the heck not?) , here are 5 salient differences (proudly unscientific) I have noticed between women and men in my classes:
1. Women appear to enjoy making sushi more than the men. They are much more at ease around the rice and other ingredients. They are the first ones to break the ice with strangers, offer compliments, crack a joke- lowering the initial tension level at the table. I have many more photos of women smiling than men in my classes.
2. Women are process-driven. They recognize that every step in the sushi-making process is equal to every other. They are the ones to ask, “Am I doing this part right?” or “I should have folded it here and not there, huh?”. Men, on the other hand, are eager to just get the thing over with and show me the final product, “So, whaddya think?”.
3. Women take a lot more pictures. They spend a disproportionate amount of time finding the best angle to snap a photo. When the men are chomping down on the finished (and admittedly less photogenic) product, the women are sending Instagrams of their creations onto their Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook pages.
4. Women make it an event. They dress up (many of them don high heels), bring fancier wines with them, want the volume of the music turned up when the room gets going. It’s a night out; they are going to truly enjoy themselves. Men dress up too, but it is usually because they would look a bit foolish beside their partners if they didn’t. As for the only examples of sweatpants and tops I have seen worn at my classes: all three of them were men.
5. Women network effectively. At the end of every class, it is inevitable. The women are engaged in animated conversation in the middle of the room, exchanging business cards and cell numbers, while the men hover around the perimeter, waiting. The women are the ones who send me ‘thank you’ emails and request virtual connections with others who were in the same class.
Recently, I had a women-only class at the BCE Place in Toronto’s business district. It was a networking event, organized by the real estate giant, Cushman & Wakefield, and generously sponsored by Evian and Select Wines. Thirty of the most talented business people I had ever met gathered in an office space on the 15th floor, overlooking the city skyline. These women embodied all five of traits above to a tee. A fabulous night was had by all, followed by many thoughtful “thank you” emails.
I grew up in government-subsidized housing during my elementary to high school years. And while the Jane-Finch projects in Toronto is no Third World slum, it had its own set of severe limitations for its children. I witnessed many kids, some of them my friends, interminably running around the triangular track of despair, violence, ignorance. This was- at least from a child’s POV- a consequence of some complex reasons: heavy-handed budget cuts to schools and after-school programs; parents working all day and night and therefore incapable of having a hand in their children’s affairs; an indifferent upwardly-mobile society. So, with few apparent opportunities, and even fewer role models, the kids in my neighbourhood didn’t place much value on education. Neither did I at the beginning.
But fortune came to my side in the form of two teachers: Mr. Oakley and Miss Vienna. They saw something in me and also allowed me to see that I was more than the mere sum of my circumstances. These people embodied that most salient quality of all great teachers: the unshakable belief in a child’s innate potential. They were like animated signposts, directing me to my own promise, inspiring me to stretch myself out to the boundaries of what was possible. An unimagined life was, they taught me, one not worth living. And both breathed the original meaning of the Latin verb, educere: to lead out.
Recently, I was invited into two schools to teach kids how to make sushi. High Park Alternative School and Royal St. George’s College are both extraordinary institutions in their own ways. The former is one of those rare schools where the parent community and school staff work collaboratively and intensively for the common good of the students; the latter is a university preparatory with the highest standards of academic achievement. I was invited there by Shannon Bramer (High Park), a playwright and poet, and Mardi Michels (RSGC), a French teacher at the all-boy’s school, one of my favourite food writers, and co-founder of Food Bloggers of Canada. It must be said, dealing with them confirmed for me that the spirit of Mr. Oakley and Miss Vienna is very much alive today. They are the kind of mentor-teachers that all students deserve, but only a few are rewarded. You see it in their fierce passion for cultivating intellectual (and, in this case, culinary) curiosity. And with the kind of indomitable patience that only great mentor-teachers have, they hold open heavy windows with their arms, legs and necks, repeating the mantra breathlessly: “Look. Explore. Imagine.” In the years to come, many of these students will recall the efforts of these straining women of their past, recall them with a gratitude that can never be precise, for they will be able to acknowledge at last that the quality with which they conduct their lives was in no small part thanks to these Jean Brodies in their prime.
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The two days played out like this: first, a grade three class at High Park Alternative School. It was a diverse and sophisticated group. Every one of the 24 students had consumed sushi at some point in the past year. We went through all the ingredients that make up sushi; discussed its shapes, textures, flavours. Then they were asked to write and recite poems utilizing the ingredients before engaging in the making of sushi itself. As a writer, I envied their facility with language. When I was in grade three, I could barely string together a simple sentence- not to speak of writing one. Two of the students wanted to be chefs when they grew up. As a chef, I was flabbergasted with their dexterity of hands, their intuitive sense of form and flavour. When I was in grade three, I thought Kraft Dinner was the apotheosis of haute cuisine. At High Park Alternative School, these students taught me that the alternative to their astonishing talents is, and always will be, mediocrity.
* * *
It was in a science lab that the latest culinary revolution was taking place in Toronto. But Les Petits Chefs of Mardi Michels’ weekly class at Royal St. George’s College were not paying homage to Ferran Adria by experimenting with molecular gastronomy, turning turkey and mashed potatoes into foamy essences. No, this was not A Day at elBulli, but about “the power of kinesthetic learning”, as Mardi so eloquently terms it. These 8 to 12 year-olds knew more about the touch-and-feel of food, the language around it, the tactile intelligence of making it that pleases both the eyes and palate than most chefs I have worked with in my 27 years. And not once in my adult sushi-making classes have I had to field questions at this level of deep understanding about food. One of the students- he may have been 11 years-old- replicated the dishes for Sunday family dinner after each of these cooking labs. This was duly noted in my personal multi-volume journal, the one that takes up an entire wall in my bedroom, called: 1001 Reasons For Not Feeling Good About My Life Achievements.
* * *
Some bitter truths: I have neither the patience to be a mentor-teacher, nor the strenuous courage to hold open windows for children with my weak knees, arms and neck. However, I have learned much over the years, perhaps picked up two or three nuggets of wisdom along my path. And what I have learned is that there is one bit of wisdom that is the mother of all the others, and it is this: that the windows which mentor-teachers like Mr. Oakley, Miss Vienna, Shannon Bramer and Mardi Michels holds open for students like us does not give us a vista into the world so much as a meaningful glimpse into the panorama of our own possibilities.
And, being smarter than I was at their age (and even possibly now), the students at High Park Alternative School and Royal St. George’s College get it.
HSBC recently underwent some muscular and life-transforming team-building exercises. Okay, perhaps “life-transforming” is the not most appropriate term; nor is “muscular” for that matter. Just a bit of sushi-making fun.
It began at the headquarters in downtown Toronto. Managers and executives took off their gloves (and washed their hands with soap) before engaging in one of the more competitive forms of sushi-making I have ever witnessed.
Wonderful to see employees of the world’s largest bank chain, some of whom passed each other daily in the hallways without so much as waving a fin at each other, bond over rice and seaweed. There were groups from a variety of branches across the GTA, as well. Once class in Mississauga was so big, we had to move it to the Coptic Centre to make room.
In all my years doing this, I had never witnessed a group so talented at rolling sushi. Pitch perfect shapes, great touch with the rice, no mess. Perhaps some night jobs at local Japanese restaurants are in order? (I promise not to tell your bosses…)
The groups in Markham were a blast. Classes over a two week period, they were less focused on creating the best roll and more happy to be chumming around and bonding with their colleagues. Just good ole fashion fun.
It was a great experience had by all, especially by me. Having done so many team-building sushi classes for so many corporations over the years, this one was very special. The people of the world’s local bank proved again that if all organizations are ecosystems, HSBC is one of the healthiest and fun-loving ones around.
I get requests to talk about writing or to make sushi before an audience, but never has the two come together in one event. Earlier this month, the forces in the universe aligned and I found myself before a group equally in love with food and books.
It was a well-heeled affair, an old-school book club, led by the bona fide Grand Dame of Toronto’s literary salon scene, Jane Griesdorf, a woman with a 20th century artistic sensibility mingling with a 19th century indomitable character. My kind of woman.
You know you are dealing with a genuine lover of literature when her dog is called Gatsby- who, it must be said, also has his own blog and email account.
The night began with an engaging talk given by University of Toronto English professor, Andrea Most, who teaches a course called “Cook the Books”, which may attract those with a propensity toward creative accounting but is actually about Food Lit that incorporates a lab/cooking class component. She is also deeply involved in Toronto’s sustainable/local food movement. Her talk that night was about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year Of Food Life, about the author’s year long experience of planting, pulling weeds, expanding kitchen skills, harvesting animals, and joining the effort to save heritage crops from extinction. The book made a passionate case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life, and diversified farms at the center of the American diet. It was a controversial choice and Professor Most did what all good profs do: stir strong responses one way or the other from her audience.
I was also there to discuss how food and writing came together in my life (going days without food in the Jane & Finch projects; finding a book by Maya Angelou on the way home from work at Pizza Hut as a fourteen year-old dishwasher; watching the local drug lord read massive tomes on his roof while sunbathing etc.). Then I prepared some of my signature sushi for the guests, some of whom told me later that, like an epiphany, it struck them that Literature and Sushi felt like a match made in heaven.
I think they were just hungry…
It’s here that the Divas come to strut their stuff: the gown, the hair, the make-up, the paparazzi. All this without the attitude- unless, of course, like me, you consider an unwavering commitment to serve others an attitude. So, yes, there was enough attitude to make even the Marlboro Man in a saloon lose his swagger.
In what is one of the most creative and moving forms of service to the many of us who face the formidable challenges of having a family member afflicted by mental illness, Simply Divas is a day full of astonishing acts of grace; a day when the generosity of spirit hovers over a poised but frenetic human activity. So, on that glorious last Sunday in April at The Great Hall and over the valley of looming sorrow, everyone spread their wings.
And the Divas soared. Recruited from the Etobicoke School of the Arts- that machine designed to churn out authentic talent- they performed songs by the Masters in front of an audience bursting at the seams of the hall. Lead by co-hosts, Danica Brown, and Rockstar-turned-Chef-turned-Rockstar, Carmine Accogli, and having lost three of their own this year (Etta, April, Whitney), they did what all Divas do – turn adversity into song. These young talents gave a resounding answer to the perennial question asked by Maya Angelou: Why does the caged bird sing?
There was the army of unsung heroes, whose efforts over the months, under the direction of Kristina Chau and Barbara Fraser, lifted an event from what was do-able to what could not be out-done. “Giving back to the community”, that prosaic euphemism too often used by those who contribute less, metamorphosed into song. What a marvel it was to be surrounded by those who will, with a dose of their own determination and a pinch of everyone else’s hope, become the leaders of the next generation, perpetually giving because they know that it flows from an overabundant source called Love.
Oh, and those chefs whom I admire most in the city, including the Rockstar himself, Carmine Accogli (The Big Ragu), Jose Arato (Pimenton), Pepe Hadad (Frida), Vanessa Yeung (Aprodite Cooks), Luis Valenzuela (Torito), Matt Basile (Fidel Gastro’s), Pedro Quintanilla (Bloom), Rossy Earle (SupiCucu) and Monja Chiaravalloti & Barb Accogli (CakeStar)- all lead by that great acapella duet of Mario Stajonac and Mary Luz Mejia (Sizzling Communications). That I was asked to share the stage with them left this Karaoke Cowboy feeling something he was unaccustomed to feeling: speechless. To be honest, when trying to harmonize, it was difficult to stay in tune with this great chorus of chefs.
None of this, of course, could have been possible without The Diva herself, Christine Cooper, affectionately known to all who love her (and everybody does), Mama Coops, the Executive Director of F.A.M.E (Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere). With her team, including the indomitably elegant Heather Turnbull, Mama Coops has been integral to assisting all of those- and they number in the hundreds of thousands- who are affected, directly or indirectly, by mental illness across this country. I know that I am in good hands as one of them.
I was moved and humbled by this experience, allowing me to put a genuinely proud feather on what until now was a near naked-cap. Thank you, Divas, for an inspiring day resonating with song. It has brought me one step closer to making a peacock out of my head.