Cooking lessons

Polar bears fighting

At the age of eleven I spent a year living in the middle of nowhere: Prince Edward Island, Canada, a red coloured, bow-tie shaped dot on the icy edge of the northern Atlantic Ocean. To the "Islanders", as they are known, far less the fervent supporters of the British monarchy than their Anglophile forefathers, my newly adopted home was simply "PEI"; to the rest of the world, Prince Edward Island is not quite famous as the setting for Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, the birthplace of the Canadian Confederation, and home to red soil, red potatoes and yes, red lobsters as well. Every summer, "The Island" is visited by busloads of Japanese tourists, who, having read the former, wish to feed on all of the latter.

Upon my return to New Zealand, not only had I, courtesy of the asynchronous northern and southern hemisphere calendars, missed the end of primary school and the beginning of 'intermediate'—a unique to New Zealand two year junior high-school before actual high-school begins—I had acquired a strong, not quite as sweet as maple syrup flavouring: a Canadian accent to my speech.

To my ears, the Canadian version of English evokes pleasant associations. Even though I am through parentage half born of the land of tree-syrup and year-round snow, and therefore as likely to possess a blind patriotic fondness as to know the words to "O Canad-aaaa" (to both yes), with just a little objectivity I would describe the Canadian tongue pleasingly warm and mild, communicating clearly the softness and openness of heart that citizens of Canada are correctly known for the world wide.

But lest I lull you further into a red-leafed, snow-flaked idyllic world of children's literature and maple-frosted nostalgia, remember that for most 12 year old boys, the niceties of civilisation are to be shunned rather than learned. Forget reading—even politeness! Consideration and tolerance are for girls...

The New Zealand I returned to in the mid-1980s, although to some fame recently nuclear-free, was still sufficiently insulated from the rest of the world for anything non-homogeneous to stand out like the Rocky Mountains—which is precisely what this boy from "Canadia" [sic] did on his first day back at school. New Zealand would change profoundly in the next couple of years, but for now, integrating as a young "foreigner" back into the land of milk, milk and money was a blend stirred way past lumpy.

Of course a quiet return would be completely out of the question—it seems experiences seldom come my way by halves. By fate's mysterious providence my loaded vocabulary and I were seated beside a boy whom, following a less than enthusiastically returned introduction, revealed himself to be both class loud mouth and bully. Looking as though he had recently leapt a farmyard fence, "agricultural" was his personality as well as appearance. With squinted eyes and red nostrils flared, he charged a barrage of questions barbed and not at all veiled insults my way, in volume calculated to carry to the rest of the class beyond.

My masculinity was questioned because of my unusual accent—"Say where you're from again! Say it again, ha-ha-ha!" Vocalised doubts were reinforced further out loud by the peculiarity of— and even I am now embarrassed to admit this—"product" in my hair, and should a dubious first impression have needed further destroying, I was wearing clothes a full season ahead of these shores.

A mongoose

While I do like to portray myself as the long-suffering, sympathetically mild hero of the titular, when backed into a corner, and with pride at stake, something akin to a small yet ferocious, fast moving creature of the forest edges to the fore. Facing a torrent of insults with no end in sight, action in form drastic was required, lest a bad beginning establish the school yard tone until the ending of the year. To this day however I surprised by what I did next...

Sitting quietly, taking insult and joke after insult and joke, my pride was stung and my fury grew. I resolved that this time I wasn't going to turn the other cheek, strong upbringing in the mores of Christianity aside. At the dying moment of the first school day, I would quite literally turned the tables and upright my pride.

The leering tormentor, rocking precariously upon an overburdened classroom chair, possessed an assured sense of security brought by an advantage in both size and age, but his security breed a complacency which was also his weakness. Temporarily vulnerable with teacher absent and his chair half air-borne, I seized my opportunity and quite deliberately shoved him backwards, where he sprawled quite dramatically face first into aisle, the laughter and high amusement of the entire classroom additional insult to his humiliation.

The battle won but the war only beginning, he was silenced at the close of the day. Total victory would require advantage pressed home with fists in the carpark afterwards—the act of a rugby style "enforcer" which, bar a couple of notable exceptions, I have never been. Yet despite my avoidance of this most violent conclusion, aside from a couple of minor humiliations—the "accidental" breaking of my nose in a class game of softball included—strangely, over the three months that made up the completion of my seventh year of school, this 13 year old proto-megalomaniac kept a wary and I must say welcome distance.

That may have been because as I learned in time, my call it bravery or call it temporary insanity had made friends that day. Impressed by the overturning of both chair and tormentor were several older boys—brave of heart and even greater in physical size—who took it upon themselves to lend me their protection, albeit with something of an ulterior motive in mind:

"Don't worry about him—he'll be leaving you alone from now on. But could you make us some more of those paper throwing stars...?" A pact with the devil was entered into, one to my advantage if not to some poor teachers'...

In a sinister twist to the noble but not normally life-threatening art of origami, a paper 'shuriken' craze had violently captured the imagination of my former Canadian school—"dangerous" sixth graders stalked the hallways like ninjas when the teachers were absent; just plain dangerous eighth graders throwing them at the windows of our passing school bus, paper weighted by copper pennies for extra lethality.

To diverge to the topic of passing school-yard fashions for just a moment, paper throwing stars were the best of several that appeared that year, appealing as they did to the lover of fast moving projectiles in every young boy. Lasting all of approximately two days however, "sissy burns" were definitely the worst, a discovery that if a patch of skin—for example the forearm—is rubbed intensely for half an hour or more, the resulting friction painlessly gives one the appearance of having been burned. I vehemently avoided this particular fad, and with good cause—a day later all the participants were to their deep regret and quite real pain nursing scab-forming burns!

Back in New Zealand the school year ended, and so too I thought my involvement with this 'farmyard bully', and it did for quite a few years, until by some strange working of fate's hand our paths crossed again. It didn't seem like they would; I went on to a different high school from his—my mother, a teacher at the former, had sworn that her son would not be attending. Not because of the afore-mentioned topic of bullying, which in truth children of teachers can experience, but more because she actually didn't rate the school she taught at high enough to send her own offspring there.

It was in her role as "Home Technology" teacher (cooking, nutrition, clothing etc) that my mother introduced my "greatest fan" to cooking, where, following an initial period of disruptive behaviour he actually applied himself, turning with sheer hard work into a more than useful cook. Leaving school early to acquire a chef's qualification, he rose quickly to a position considered near the pinnacle of his trade—a professional chef with an American NFL football side.

Years later and "living the dream", he sought out my mother, thanking her profusely for turning him in this very profitable direction, and gave an inspiring talk to her students about fulfilling their potential. My mother told me of this completely unaware of his status as my former antagonist, and I must admit it was a little hard to swallow—a grudging admittance that maybe the tormentor of years past wasn't quite as all-black as I had self-righteously painted him. It was a good lesson, and one that I often need reminding of—one shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, not even a thin one...

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