The dishwasher is humming, the rain is coming down, my red nails leftover from last week’s festivities are chipped but still glam, and Billie Holiday is filling the kitchen. The vibe is jazzy/domestic, and I couldn’t be happier.
On the counter there’s an egg, warming to room temperature, and beside it is Thalia Ho’s beautiful baking book, Wild Sweetness. Like the Violet Bakery Cookbook, the recipes are inspired by nature and follow the seasons. “We begin early, in spring, with Evergreen,” writes Ho, “a herald of new life against the dark.” Here in Nova Scotia I am in the opposite flow; outside the hydrangeas are shifting from creamy white to a rich burgundy, so I’ll begin with something I’m familiar with at every season – buckwheat chocolate chunk cookies with a sprinkling of sea salt.
Billie Holiday’s April in Paris slinks around the room as I whip butter with brown sugar, like I’ve done so many times before. I’ve read that Holiday’s two octave vocal range is much smaller than most singers (Axl Rose can stretch six octaves, Mariah Carey can hit five.) But critics say Holiday had one of the greatest voices of all time. She took what she was given and made it beautiful.
Thalia Ho takes ingredients that reside in earth tones and makes them beautiful: lacquered melted chocolate, coffee parfait, scorched cheesecake, beetroot mud cake. As the seasons change she adds plum and boysenberry pinks to the canvas. This palate is my comfort zone, my safe place. But somehow Ho’s creations feel modern. Comfortable, but modern.
I gleaned this phrase from Amy Smilovic, creative director of Tibi clothing, during one of her Instagram stories. She was explaining how style isn’t an item of clothing, instead, it’s an adjective: curious, effortless, comfortable, modern. Find your words, she says, and stay within that range.
I thought about my adjectives last week as I folded soft clothes with stretchy waistbands and packed them into my suitcase. I was flying to Toronto to surprise a friend on her 51st birthday. The pandemic had erased her 50th, so we were trying again. But what to pack? I’ve fretted about this before – remember that episode of Dispatch to a Friend where I share my angst around packing, a feeling born when I was eighteen and our family home caught on fire, but more importantly, when I had to travel to meet my boyfriend’s parents with a suitcase filled with smoke-kissed, shrunken clothes, laundered improperly by the insurance company? I called the look ‘Tom Sawyer: frumpy by the river’s edge.’ The lens is myopic at that age. I’ve grown since then, but the desire to be myself hasn’t changed. So into the suitcase went earth tones, comfort, stretch, a touch of structure and buttercream-coloured boots, to make it modern.
I pull the cookies out of the oven and cover them with dried rose petals, a gift from my friend’s garden. Ho does this with one of her cookie recipes, along with a touch of rosewater. I’ve always pink with shades of brown – low octaves, reaching upwards, just enough.