A funny thing happened yesterday. I pulled a grass-fed beef chuck steak out of the freezer for dinner and thought of James Barber.
I remembered that he had a recipe for chuck steak in an old cookbook of his that I have owned since 1983, the second cookbook I ever owned, called 'Flash In the Pan'.
In the recipe you brown a huge chuck steak and then simmer it in a rich sauce you develop with onions, garlic, tomato, oregano, vinegar, cayenne and cocoa. Yes, cocoa. He called it Tijuana Barbecue, and it was an adaptation from a recipe he learned from a woman while visiting that infamous Mexican border town. I don't think there was anywhere in the world he visited that didn't result in him bringing back an adaptation of a traditional recipe.
Anyway, the steak and its sauce were delicious, and after dinner my wife asked me, 'When was it that James died?' I thought for a second, then realized it was about two years ago this time of year. A quick consultation for his obit and I had the exact answer. Two years ago today, November 29th, 2007.
Was it his spirit reaching out to guide me to that recipe one day before the anniversary ? Nah. I just like to think his influence continues to affect me, and affect everyone else who loved James and his no-nonsense, unpretentious recipes and food philosophy.
This is that cookbook, well-stained and abused. I used it a lot in the years after I picked it up at a garage sale in Terrace, BC. This morning Ramona and I were paging through it, noting all the recipes I had tried, as I had circled them by page number in the index, and I thought we should make another James recipe tonight in his honour. I had a couple of chicken leg and thigh combos in the freezer, so out they came while I considered the chicken dishes in Flash In The Pan.
I settled on an old favourite, Chicken Tovarich. How could I resist after re-reading his introduction?
"Wolves, beautiful women in horsedrawn sleighs, ice and snow everywhere, and potatoes and vodka. You know what Russia is like. A primitive version of North Dakota. It was quite a shock to find that there are light, joyous, sunny dishes in Russia, food made with sun-warmed fruits, and exciting at an Italian ever imagined – all of them easy to make and most of them digestible, even without vodka."
And so tonight it's Chicken Tovarich, chicken, red wine, walnuts, onion, garlic and tomatoes, with lemon juice and peas to liven it up. Another Barber bonanza. Thanks, James.