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Malcolm Jolley: Chaos, order, and finding bliss in the kitchen

Commentary

Review of: Kitchen Bliss: Musings on Food and Happiness (With Recipes)
Author: Laura Calder
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2023)

The story might be apocryphal. I don’t remember where I first heard it, nor can I find any reliable source for its veracity. I have repeated it as many times as I have heard it and it has become conventional wisdom in the wine trade of this province, though I suspect there is a version of it in every consumer wine market.

The story goes that there is a Liquor Control Board of Ontario memo somewhere on file in the monopoly’s opaque bureaucracy that states that the large majority (80 percent? 90 percent?) of the wine sold from their stores is consumed within two hours of being purchased. Documented or not, the idea tracks.

Firstly, 80 or 90 percent of the wine sold anywhere in the world would be just as well drunk within two hours of purchase. That’s what it was made to do and has no less business being put down than a bottle of Coca-Cola. Secondly, it jibes with modern life, that most of us might pick up a bottle of wine on our home from work, or on an errand if we work from home, and open it with dinner that night.

The point being that the natural habitat for a bottle of wine is in the kitchen and then the table. And these are the principal subjects of Laura Calder’s new book, Kitchen Bliss: Musings on Food and Happiness (With Recipes). Calder does not write about wine per se, but it’s there lurking on the table, whether mentioned explicitly or in the reader’s (my) imagination.

Full disclosure: I have known Laura Calder for some time and consider her a friend. I have followed her career as both a James Beard Award-winning author (for her first book, French Food at Home (2003)) and a TV personality, and more lately as a social media presence and Substacker. Kitchen Bliss, her sixth book, fits into the overarching civilizing mission of her career, which is to help her readers use cooking and the pleasures of the table to find more happiness in our lives.

I caught up with Calder recently, and we filmed a ‘fireside chat’ video about her book for her website project, A Place At My Table. Tables were, in fact a topic of our conversation. She said, “It’s right there waiting for us, in the middle of the room and a lot of people ignore it… but if you go there, your back is to the chaos of the world outside, you’re focussed in on good things, on people, and if you do that as a practice, it’s restorative.”

Kitchen bliss wasn’t originally meant as a “food narrative”, Calder explains. She had originally given her editor a pitch for a conventional cookbook, but was asked instead to write something like the book she delivered: stories about cooking with recipes. At first, Calder found the idea of being given this kind of carte blanche “terrifying”, but in the enforced solitude of the COVID lockdowns she became ever interested in why she (and we) cook, and what time in the kitchen has meant for her over her life to date.

Though it’s a kind of memoir, it jumps from different periods in Calder’s life over 37 short chapters, which address the challenges and rewards of keeping up a happy and functional kitchen and what it means to be a good host—and a good guest. 

Calder lived for many years in France, in Paris and Burgundy, and is something of an ambassador of Gallic ways to her English-speaking audience. Kitchen Bliss draws on that tradition, but more in terms of the tricks and sensibilities that the French employ to enjoy themselves with good food and company. She draws too on her childhood in the Maritimes, and her contemporary life in Toronto, with episodes in Vancouver, Munich, and other stops along the way.

Every chapter comes with two concise but detailed recipes. They are her recipes, in that they are tried and true and part of her repertoire. But they are also very often attributed to a friend or family member who has passed them on. Calder sees recipes as a kind of shared heritage: “I think recipes should be passed along, that’s what they’re for.”

Following the pause in hospitality that came with the pandemic lockdowns, Calder’s Kitchen Bliss re-introduces food and the act of serving and receiving it as a remedy for the malaise of modern isolation:

“I’m trying to take care of myself and other people. It’s important for mental health and it’s important for morale and, boy, did I ever realize that during the pandemic… We are nourished by food in more ways than physically.”

Calder says she wrote for “anyone who wants to think about how to use the simple things in daily life to live a better life.” She sees the table as a “tool for wellness”, explaining that, “if you approach it the right way it can really work wonders on how you feel about who you are and about your life.”

It bears mentioning that beyond Calder’s invitation to wellness, and health through mindful hedonism, Kitchen Bliss is a funny book and a fun book to read. The author is not above placing herself as the foil in an amusing anecdote and does not take herself overly seriously. Calder’s chapter on dishwashing is particularly wry as it makes the case for this underappreciated art of “making order out of chaos”.

It seems that there has been much chaos in the year and months since the end of the pandemic restrictions in Canada and across the globe. Many of us are still trying to figure out how exactly our lives are going to work in a world that is not quite like it was at the beginning of 2020. Kitchen Bliss offers a reminder that the pleasures of the table offer a constant and grounding respite from that chaos. To be enjoyed with a glass of wine or not.

Trevor Tombe: The lasting consequences of interest rate hikes

Commentary

Next week the Bank of Canada will announce its third rate decision of the year. After signaling a pause in further tightening, it is unlikely to move off its current 4.5 percent policy rate.

But inflation is currently at 5.2 percent, far above the Bank’s target range of 1 to 3.

So why would our central bank pause further increases while inflation remains so high?

Two reasons: first, inflation pressures have likely already ended, despite the high headline rate most coverage focuses on; and second, it takes time for interest rate hikes to have their full effect—and today, thanks to the large number of variable rate mortgages out there, it might take longer than usual.

On the first point, the data is crystal clear.

Excluding volatile components like food and energy, and excluding the policy-driven increase in mortgage interest costs, inflation is consistently within or below the target range for most of the past seven months.

Excluding these items doesn’t mean they don’t matter, to be clear. Increases in the price of any item can strain household budgets. But excluding volatile components provides a better indication of where inflation may be headed. Excluding mortgage interest costs also narrows our focus to prices determined by supply and demand rather than policy. 

But even including food and energy, prices have increased at an average annualized rate of less than 0.3 percent over the past three months and only 2.5 percent over the past six months.

The reason reported inflation remains so high isn’t because prices are rapidly rising. Instead, it’s because the calculation reflects all of the monthly price changes for the past year.

So despite the sharp recent decline in the pace of price increases, we have to wait until the large increases in the first half of 2022 fall out of the calculation. If recent trends continue, though, we could see close to normal rates of inflation by this summer—so there may be no more need for the Bank to tighten further.

The second point—that rising rates take time to fully affect the economy—is even more important. Especially today.

Higher interest rates affect our spending in several ways. Borrowing is more expensive, so we spend less on items that we typically use debt to purchase (such as vehicles, renovations, new homes, and so on). Higher rates also make many of us poorer (look at home prices recently), which leads to lower spending. 

Recent estimates suggest that each one percentage point increase in the Bank’s policy rate tends to decrease consumption spending by 1.7 percent—but this effect can take well in excess of two years to fully materialize. 

Today, another channel may complicate this picture and lead to even longer lags than usual.

When rates rise, people pay more to service their debt and so have less to spend on other things. Those with variable rate mortgages are particularly exposed, but not right away.

Many households with variable rate mortgages—which account for roughly one-third of all mortgages, and most of which have fixed payments—now have monthly payments that are less than what they owe in interest. Depending on the Bank, somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of all outstanding residential mortgages are in this situation.

The result: instead of the total amount owing going down as payments are made, their mortgages are actually growing each month. This “negative amortization”, as it is called, will continue until rates decline. And when these mortgages come up for renewal, monthly payments may have to rise significantly to make up for it. 

In effect, variable rate mortgages shift some of the burden of recent rate increases well into the future. And there were a lot of such mortgages issued right before the tightening cycle began. In fact, a majority of new mortgages had variable rates.

Much depends on the path of future rates, of course, but consider someone on a variable rate fixed payment mortgage that started at one percent on a five-year initial term. If they renew at three percent at the end of their term, monthly payments could rise by roughly one-third or more. On a $400,000 original mortgage, I estimate that could mean an extra $500 to $600 per month more than what they paid during the first five years. 

It will take several more years for recent rate increases to fully affect these borrowers.

Of course, one option to avoid a sharp increase in payments may include extending the mortgage amortization at the time of renewal.Be sure to talk with a professional advisor or mortgage broker; I’m not providing any advice here, just illustrating some general issues. But even this comes with significant, though somewhat hidden, additional interest costs over the life of the now-longer mortgage.

Either way, thanks to the larger number of variable rate mortgages out there, pressure on many households to lower spending may continue even long after rates fall back to normal levels. 

The Bank of Canada’s job is never easy; it is especially difficult today.

A pause in any further rate increases is entirely warranted, and we may even see cuts in the not-too-distant future. But since rate hikes over the past year may have unusually long-lasting consequences for Canada’s economy, our central bank’s job of managing recent disruptions is far from over.