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Elegy for James Barber

He broke rules, and lived life deliciously.

Charles Campbell 6 Dec

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Barber: Brilliant writer on food and life.

When James Barber died at 84 at the end of November, while reading a cookbook at his Cowichan Valley kitchen table, most people lost a celebrity chef. I lost a trenchant, reckless, stubborn, impish, insightful, profane, and deeply curious friend who knew how to live. His signature TV program, The Urban Peasant, only hinted at all that. In fact, I was never a huge fan of the dressed-up and watered-down cooking-show James Barber.

I preferred the fellow who came to British Columbia from England in 1952 because of a story he read about a man visiting his friends as he rowed down Shawnigan Lake. I liked the guy who once persuaded an annoyingly persistent Jaguar salesman to give him a car for a long weekend and then drove it to San Francisco and back. I remember the man who described nouvelle cuisine as "children's portions by an interior decorator," who refused to cash his government pension cheques, who kept cooking at a Maillardville public appearance after he sliced the end of his finger off into a pile of chicken cubes, who raised donkeys on his Cowichan Valley farm so he could use the word 'obdurate' and tell visitors about the enormous size of the erect male donkey penis.

I won't forget the James Barber who never, until very recently at least, acted his age. At 75, when he was really young, James had a birthday party at an unfashionable Italian joint off East Hastings. They served basic spaghetti and meatballs, and there were clay bocce courts in the basement, where we knocked off a few games before dinner. Afterward, there was dancing.

He understood that Al Ritrovo would transport us, that it was like a child's secret fort, a place hidden from us in plain view, and that when we walked through the door we'd enter another world.

I remember James not in some fake TV kitchen but as a food writer who would take me to these other places. He was the best I've read. He understood that eating out could be like an exotic vacation, and he wrote about restaurants as a cultural experience. He didn't tell you that the spaghetti noodles were crispy at the tips, or that the asparagus was cruelly boiled, although he might have put it that way. He'd tell you a story about a trip to Mexico, where the restaurant walls are all a peculiar shade of green. Or he'd take you on a journey to a place before the wars, where you could sit by a fireplace and eat goulash served with Hungarian elegance and grace.

The consultant-designed restaurants with the PR teams and the splashy openings, those weren't for him, but when they got it just right he'd tell you about that too.

Champagne and stenography

I first met him 30 years ago, when I was about 16, and the alternative school I'd attended, the Ideal School, was at risk of disappearing. A bunch of students held a protest outside the Vancouver School Board offices, and James showed up, stout and hairy in a black leather jacket, to ask questions as a writer for the Province newspaper. James was the only person who noticed us, and he was famous!

He was the guy who wrote 1971's Ginger Tea Makes Friends, a cookbook credited with helping to establish Douglas & McIntyre as a publishing house. It was the first cookbook I owned, a gift from my sister, a book a teenager could cook from, and a blessed relief from the prosaic housewifeisms of the Vancouver Sun's Edith Adams Cottage productions. In the pantheon of Canadian cookbooks, which back then would have filled about a foot on any bookshelf, Ginger Tea and its flippant, cartoon recipes was one that really mattered.

It broke the rules, as James did. He came to food writing late in life, from a career as a civil engineer. In his late 40s, he had a skiing accident, there were complications, and he was in a body cast for most of a year. He couldn't do much, but he could hold a clipboard over his head and write with a pencil. He discovered he liked this writing thing, and eventually he went down to the old Pacific Press building on Granville, the one with the statue of the denatured semi-naked family out front, and offered his services to the Sun or the Province (I can't remember which). He told me he explained that he knew a bit about opera and music, and spoke a few languages with some degree of fluency, and said that he'd be interested in writing about the arts. The editor leaned forward. "Do you know how many books I own?" he said sternly. "I own five books. I think that's as many books as a man ought to own."

Nevertheless, in those heady early 1970s days of official bilingualism, even such editors as that deemed a French-language play touring from Quebec worthy of review, and so some days or weeks later he got an assignment. James wrote the review out longhand, and handed it to a man sitting at a newsroom typewriter. He was a sports reporter. The next time he worked for the paper, James had to live down his mistake. He arrived from the show he was reviewing in a tuxedo, with his date in a cocktail dress, opened a bottle of champagne, poured a couple of glasses, put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigar, and dictated his review to her.

When he finally got a regular job in the newsroom, he didn't start behaving. One evening he removed the mouthpieces from the old telephones in the section belonging to the staff of the "women's pages." He put a little bit of cream in each one, and then watched the next day as the staff recoiled from the disgusting smell.

Wrote about war and 'flaccid ecstasy'

I got to know him beginning in 1986, as a 26-year-old Vancouver Sun refugee hired by the Georgia Straight as its managing editor. My predecessor, Bob Mercer, had enjoined James to become its restaurant reviewer a few weeks before my arrival. James worked for $150 a pop, which occasionally didn't even pay for the three meals he insisted on eating in a restaurant before he wrote about it. But he liked the idea of helping to revive the Straight as a Vancouver institution, and he put his heart into every piece. I can't remember anyone beating him to a restaurant that really mattered, even though he didn't like to review places that had just opened, when they were still "in rehearsal."

He also wrote brilliantly about things that had nothing to do with food. He brought his perspective as a Second World War British soldier to a moving essay on Remembrance Day. He wrote scathingly funny screeds about politics. When the Social Credit party was in its death throes in 1991, he went on behalf of the Straight to the leadership convention where Rita Johnson and Grace McCarthy sparred with evangelical fervor for the dubious privilege of becoming the last Socred premier. "Nobody said 'Hallelujah, not out loud," he wrote, "but the teeth came out of the faces just the way they used to for Jimmy Swaggart, and the hands came together in the same flaccid ecstasy."

The week before he died, he wrote "A Poem for Mulroney." He called me -- his voice even raspier than usual because of a condition he said was generally peculiar to cocker spaniels -- to see if it might be suitable for The Tyee. His partner of 25 years, Christina Burridge, told me he was thrilled by the prospect of doing more for the website.

A nose for the real Vancouver

Mostly, though, James opened our eyes to how lucky we have been in Vancouver -- how we have so much great, fresh food in southwestern B.C., and so many cultures to filter it through. He was the only food writer in town with a real nose for all the ethnic joints, and he was especially fond of Cantonese food. His passion dated back to his early days in Vancouver, when he gave English lessons to the owners of the legendary On On Tea Garden, and they gave him lunch. I still remember the piece he wrote for the Straight when the On On closed for good in 1994, to make way for a new bank building.

"In the back corner of a little restaurant on Keefer Street, just east of Main," James began, "four men are sitting around a table, concentrating like poker players and, like men regretting their stock market losses, talking intermittently. They're business partners, doing business but not talking business. They're folding wontons -- a dab of pork filling, a quick one-handed flip of the wrapper (like John Wayne rolling a cigarette), and in an hour the big bowl will be full enough for the hundred or so orders of wonton soup that the evening will bring. They've done it every afternoon for the past 30 years or so, same guys, same table, just as soon as the lunchtime trade has wiped its lips and gone back to work."

James wrote about what the On On taught white folks about Chinese food, how the little people who quietly persist change things for the better without even trying, and how the place with the Arborite tables and finger-paint orange tile floor came to embody the essence of the city. "Bill Yip will miss his restaurant, and his customers," he wrote. "When they ask him what he'll do, he shrugs his shoulders and grins. Not many people know about his other passion, really big classical music -- Mahler, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky ('I like his cello stuff, the A-major rococo variations...')." James Barber reminded us about things that we know to be true about ourselves and our corner of the world, and then, because he was so observant, he surprised us with unexpected details.

Much has been written this week about how James Barber made cooking simple, stripped it of pretension, invited people to take chances, connected eating with other pleasures of the flesh, and showed us how food can bring us together. He did these good things. For me, though, he did two things that matter even more than all that. He embodied the essence of our time and place. And he showed us that we never have to get old.

Wakes will be held for James Barber in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island in late January.

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