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James Barber finds a new groove

Famous as TV’s Urban Peasant, the cookbook author likes to keep mixing things up
by Kate Zimmerman for the Weekend Post

VANCOUVER — James Barber doesn’t like being boxed in.

Not by the table in the French bistro La Regalade where, for his interview with the Post, he prefers the chair that lets him look outside.

Not by his living arrangements, which, at 80, he decided to alter drastically by moving almost full-time from his downtown Vancouver apartment to a farm on Vancouver Island.

And not by that box also known as the TV set, which is where he became a recognizable face in 130 countries through 10 seasons of his show, The Urban Peasant.

Barber is hailed by people all over the world as a result of the TV series. It’s not unusual for a stranger to hop off a motorcycle on the Champs Elysees and shout, before embracing him, “Ah, James Barbare! Je t’adore!”

So why did he stop making The Urban Peasant? For the same reason that over the years he has stopped being a physicist, an engineer, a restaurateur and an actor (among numerous other jobs), despite enjoying each career at the time.

“I want to do something different,” he says in that familiar voice, more pebbled than a dirt road.

It certainly wasn’t a question of retirement. Barber just decides he wants to take yet another new path, and then he does. One morning, for example, he woke up and thought “‘I don’t see enough when I look around.’” So he started looking and took up painting. He paints the way he cooks – in all kinds of styles, from abstract to landscape, but in three colours at a time. Easily. Unpretentiously. That’s the Barber way.

A lot of people like the Barber way. The Urban Peasant stopped production in 2000, but Barber still receives 150-200 e-mails a day at his website, www.theurbanhub.com. He says some of the notes are from women who thank him for teaching their sons to cook because now they’ve finally left home— others are from women who wish he hadn’t taught their husbands to cook, for the same reason.

Show or no show, his 11 cookbooks are still in demand; if you can find a mint condition copy of the out-of-print Ginger Tea Makes Friends, it’ll cost you as much as $500.

Barber continues to write about food for various publications. But he’s far from just “the cooking guy” — that would be one of those god-awful boxes. At the moment he is making documentaries on a variety of subjects with his Urban Peasant producer, Shelley McGaw. Back on the farm, he’s not only eagerly watching the progress of his burgeoning crop of potatoes but will soon take delivery of four Tamworth pigs.

If merely reading about Barber’s schedule is exhausting, here’s a tonic. He is thinking of writing a self-help book that less zestful types (meaning just about everybody) might find elevating.

“It’s very hard to get bored if you’ve got a sort-of curious mind, and I suppose you can teach your mind to be curious,” he explains. “I like to nourish people, I like to nourish things, I like to nourish ideas. That’s what my self-help book is going to be about – the whole principle of ‘Yes, and.’ You have something, you say ‘yes, and…’ you add some more to it.

“It doesn’t do to get too analytical about the past or the future. What’s really important is now. As Dr. Johnson said, ‘Passion is more than four legs in a bed.’”

Barber thinks he may have got his gusto from his grandfather, an illiterate plumber who raised pigs himself. When the man died at the age of 97, Barber says, laughing, he was the only one who knew that for many years his grandfather had had a mistress 40 years younger.

As for Barber’s appreciation of food, it didn’t stem from his upbringing in Dorset. His mother was a “traditional” English cook whose idea of roasting a chicken was to leave it in the oven for five hours, and the school he attended served “colourless, dreary nastiness.”

It wasn’t until Barber went to France as a corporal during the Second World War that he was introduced to great country cooking; since then, it has been an enduring romance. Living in Germany, Poland and South America and travelling through other countries provided numerous seductive culinary traditions from which to pluck great ideas. The most important was that rural people throughout the world eat what is local, and what is in season. “You eat what is there,” he says. “You learn to appreciate it.”

Barber continues to be a proponent of that approach, particularly through his affiliation with the Slow Food Movement. He describes Slow Food as “the antithesis of fast food – it’s local food that is wonderful stuff.”

On the day we meet, Barber raves about the breakfast sandwich he had that morning of homemade bread, lettuce he had picked from his garden that still had dew clinging to its leaves, and mayonnaise he had made out of his neighbour’s duck eggs.

“Food is like religion. You are nourishing yourself,” he says.

There may be a danger, though, in approaching food with religious fervour. Barber doesn’t like the shows on Food Network Canada that suggest that regular people can imitate chefs. “We’ve still got a way to go,” he says of Canadian attitudes toward cooking and dining. “We need to learn to eat less formally, to eat for joy instead of being obsessed with social implications….”

Mind you, there are some social implications worth considering. Barber notes that there is an association at the University of Toronto called The Urban Peasant Society. Its members agree with him that it’s cheaper and quicker to cook in their dorms than to get take-out. They’re equally impressed with the fringe benefit of their newfound skill. “They say ‘We get laid!’” he confides in a stage whisper, grinning.

Barber’s own desires currently seem focused on his Cowichan Valley property. “I like the country. I like the quiet. I like tractors and I like digging ditches,” he says. “I like the idea of solitude. I like to be able to wake up in the middle of the night and hear the frogs….”

Before he jumps into his sports car to catch his ferry home, this lapsed urbanite has a word of advice.

“Stay out of the box. This is the important thing. It’s a great mistake to get stuck in one groove.”

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