Piratical Genius – A Map To Love And Happiness

“Mom, when you were five, did you find the sound of your voice?”  My son, Graham, asked me this a few days ago while we were picking up Lego. I thought he was wondering how old he would be when he would find his own singing voice but he quickly corrected me.  “No, I don’t want to be a musician when I grow up, Mom, I want to build ships and be a sailor and find sunken treasure and, you know, stuff like that.”

Graham is seven.  He is obsessed with ships and all things pirate.  Last year he wanted to go to the dentist so that he could get a gold tooth like a real pirate; we settled on purchasing some fake teeth and had an in-depth discussion on tooth decay as a major drawback of piracy.

Life is interesting with a budding pirate.  Conversation at the breakfast table leans towards ship building, sunken wrecks, and the construction of the Titantic’s hull.  My fridge is covered in pencil drawings of scowling peg-legged pirates with parrots on their shoulders and wildly imagined treasure maps that always lead to “X.”  I find them scribbled out on the last of the Post-It notes next to my coffee cup in the morning.  The best mealtime compliment is, “You’re a good cook, Mom.  You can be on my crew.”  His older brother is on the crew but has to swab the deck or, under darker circumstances, walk the plank.

We are thousands of miles from the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, we harbour no ambition to relocate to the Caribbean, and the pirates he imagines no longer exist, but this does nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.  These ideas of his, nestled in his brain, find their expression in the outpouring of pencil on paper and the stories he narrates as the Playmobil ship fires its cannons on the His Majesty’s Lego crew – and so become real.

A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing.  Immersed in play, children explore multiple lines of thought that continually unfold before them, pursuing their unique and innate interests.  It’s a creative process that never ends.  It’s genius.

The origins of the word “genius” are Latin and come from the late Middle English.  The New Oxford Dictionary of English describes the original meaning as an, “attendant spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination’, from the root of gignere ‘beget.’  The ancient Romans believed we had a spirit that attended us and provided tutelage throughout our life, a “genius,” if you will; contemporary author, Philip Pullman, used a similar concept his famous series, “His Dark Materials’ (which features “The Golden Compass”) where characters had advisory, protective “daemons.”  By the middle of the 17th century, it meant “a person’s natural ability” and now it has evolved to “exceptional intelligence or ability.”  I find the most significant meaning in the original sense: an innate ability or inclination that we have from birth.

Graham, with his inquiring mind, was really asking me when I discovered my own innate ability.  I have a drawing from grade three where I am singing like a diva, dressed in a ball gown with impressive diamond bling, but I didn’t start singing until I was fifteen.  Though I was fortunate to have some family support and an inner spark that refused to go out, I am by no means remarkable – there was just no way that I could not become a musician.

We are all born with that spark, genius.  What looks like the innocent play of a seven-year-old is really the path to greater knowledge.  It might not be possible to be the next Captain Hawkins but there is a treasure trove of riches ahead:  the exploration of the wrecks of the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror, the arctic travels of Sir John Rae, the life of the Inuit, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s extraordinary journey to Antarctica, the discovery of the North-West Passage, the music of Stan Rogers.  The possibilities are endless.  There are no limits.

Graham could become an ocean explorer seeking treasure or a conservation officer for the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority but, more importantly, with a bit of support and some inner spark, he could be happy doing what he loves. Will I have a forty-year old son turning up to family gatherings in an eye patch and ostrich-plumed hat, shouting, “Avast, landlubber, throw another steak on me plate!“  I hope so.  In the adult world, it’s all too easy to lose track of what we truly love.  Pursuing genius, no matter our age, is the path to a life of adventure and happiness.

It’s time to bring some culinary happiness to the month of February and add a bit of spice to beat the winter blahs.   I hope you enjoy making this recipe for Sicilian Rigatoni from mega collection, “The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook.”  You can find saffron threads for this recipe at Troyer’s Spices in downtown St. Marys, a treasure trove for home cooks and foodies alike.  They’re open until 6pm on weeknights, 5pm on Saturdays, closed Sunday.  You can purchase many spices by the tablespoon but the saffron threads come in a little box for about $7.50.  Enjoy!

Sicilian Rigatoni

Serves 4

Pasta served with cauliflower, saffron and raisins is a familiar dish in Sicily.

½ c. golden raisins

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

½ tsp crushed red-pepper flakes

7 anchovy fillets, minced

3 Tbsp capers, drained

2 pinches crushed saffron threads

1 c. homemade chicken stock, or low-sodium canned chicken broth, or dry white wine

1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed to 1-inch pieces

Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper

10 basil leaves, for garnish

½ c. pine nuts, lightly toasted

Cover raisins with warm water in a bowl; let sit for 10 minutes to plump; drain.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the garlic and cook until begins to brown.  Add the pepper flakes, anchovies, capers, saffron, and the stock.  Stir; cook until combined, about 3 minutes.  Stir in the cauliflower and raisins; season with salt and pepper.  Cook, covered, until the cauliflower is tender, about 10 minutes.  Uncover; let liquid reduce slightly over high heat, 1 to 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta to al-dente; drain, reserving a few tablespoons of cooking liquid. Toss the pasta into the warm cauliflower mixture.  Just before serving, tear the basil leaves and toss into the pasta along with the pine nuts.  Add some cooking liquid if pasta seems too dry.  Serve hot.

Note:  if you haven’t toasted pine nuts before you can do this on a cookie sheet in a 350 deg Fah oven;  MSL suggested toasting for 8-12 minutes, shaking the pan halfway through to rotate the pine nuts.  “The Beast,” ie: my old oven, destroyed the first batch in 10 minutes.  Shake the pan after 3 or 4 minutes and keep a sharp eye on them!  It doesn’t take long to brown them.

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