IN SUZANNE’S KITCHEN
FROM MAY 2019 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Today’s special: raspberry clafoutis
While baking a fruit tart her grandmother used to make, Muay Thai athlete Suzanne Carte unpacks the roots of her pugilism and explains how fighting can lead to something sweet
Suzanne Carte grew up on the soap opera of the WWF in its prime. She watched the tanned and oiled Hulk Hogan and bulging, kilted Rowdy Roddy Piper stalk across her TV screen, while the men in her family brought stories and evidence of real-life fights in through the front door. “My father would come home with black eyes from hockey, and my uncles would talk about beating people up – stories about guys getting knocked out at the factory.”
Raised in Hamilton, Suzanne grew up to be a fighter herself, first picking fights with guys twice her size at bars around SoCA – the School of Creative Arts – at the University of Windsor. Later she started a women’s fight club/performance art troupe (full disclosure: I was in it) that performed at Toronto’s Power Plant and in Montreal and Brooklyn. If her dad and uncles inspired her love of fighting, it was her mother, a painter, who instilled a deep passion for art. She went on to grad school in NYC and came back to Toronto to work as the assistant curator at the Art Gallery of York University – and that’s when she started fighting for real. Not drunk outside a bar, or hiding behind a performance persona, but in an actual ring.
We meet in her 10th-floor apartment not far from the soon-to-bereopened Paradise Theatre. The walls are full of art, pieces by Dean Baldwin, Mateo Rivano and Jenny Laiwint, a drawing by Erin Finley, a black heart by Jade Rude in the hall. A massive plant, which she grew from a sprouted pineapple top, sits on a desk by the window, throwing shade on two bearded garden gnomes on the floor below. Hanging from the ceiling above is a stylized campfire and marshmallow on a stick by the Quebec art collective BGL.
“Leading up to a fight, for at least three months, I’m in the gym twice a day, six days a week.”
She doesn’t punch heavy bags or sides of beef à la Rocky – let’s get that straight. Training means contact. “In Muay Thai you have to hit someone and someone’s gotta hit you.”
For a middle-aged woman with no plans of going pro, her fitness regime may seem extreme. But for Suzanne this is about more than losing a muffin top or even getting ripped. “Fighting has been a way for me to feel safe in the world,” Suzanne explains. “As a woman I’ve experienced violence, and the threat of violence. Being confident in my body is one way of shielding myself and stepping up to be armour for others.”
But her drive to fight doesn’t come from only a “dark place,” as she explains it: “At times it comes from a place of joy and release – pushing your body to its limits is euphoric. I have a deep desire to constantly learn. This curiosity about my physical and emotional limits is tested in the ring. As a team we are all in it together – sweating, bleeding, crying and laughing. We hit each other to grow. We hit each other to play. We differentiate anger from aggression. As my teammate Anatoliy says when things get heated, ‘Hit me. Don’t hate me.’ ”
Maintaining the kind of discipline required for her sport has shaped her in more ways than just the physical. That, coupled with her work in the arts and natural eye for fashion, makes for a Tank Girl meets Grace Jones aesthetic. She can be intimidating, until she starts talking and her enthusiasm for life comes pouring out. She gets hyper about anything she’s keen on: fashion, art, Macho Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory, candy, and, of course, kicking the shit out of people in front of a crowd. “I love fighting in front of an audience,” she says with a smile.
She’s cooking for me today and, as she’s from the Hammer, I expected meat and potatoes. Instead, she has ingredients for her grandmother’s clafoutis laid out. This recipe is close to her heart – just don’t put on airs and call it clafoutis around Grandma Irene. “She just called it a raspberry tart or a custard. There’s no way she would have even had the language to call it a clafoutis.”
Irene made this dessert in the summer at the family cottage on Lake Huron. “She’d get raspberries from the farm down the road,” she says. The cottage, in Frenchman’s Bay, was built by her grandfather Del in the ’50s. It is, she says, her “favourite place in the world.”
Suzanne reminisces about Irene’s culinary repertoire. “She made the same few things over and over – tuna fish sandwiches that she salted to hell, a baked ham and a roast beef, both of which would have been cooked to very, very well done – extremely dry. Scalloped potatoes and creamy coleslaw, and always with a shit ton of salt.” Maybe that’s why Suzanne has a sweet tooth, in rebellion against her grandmother’s heavy-handed seasoning. She remembers Irene’s desserts more fondly: “a lot of box cake and angel food cake with crushed candy bars on top. And Cool Whip!”
Talk of Cool Whip turns to her regime. She goes into serious training mode for three months prior to a fight. Six days a week she runs every morning and trains for two to three hours each night. Her diet gets reduced to a few strict fuel sources: fish, greens, fruit, oatmeal, nuts and black coffee. Suzanne is five foot six, and her regular civilian weight is 120. When she’s training she often goes down to 108. She doesn’t ever cheat. “There’s zero allowance [at the weigh-ins],” she notes. “Two ounces over and you’re out.”
Once the clafoutis is baking, we sit on Suzanne’s couch and she looks into the distance. “Sometimes the smell of the gym makes you want to vomit. Your thoughts run along the lines of, ‘I hate this. I can’t believe I’m here again.’” She turns to me and says, “I get punched in the face every day now.”
But there is always a point in the training when she feels her body change. “There’s a confidence in it. I’m totally ripped. But my face is really gaunt and I have zero ass, no softness at all. The lines in my face get really severe. Like Donatella Versace without the tan.”
Training hard and taking in less food is the only way to make weight. Then the moment the fight is over she gorges on everything she’s been deprived of. “You’ve missed carbs and sugar, beer and wine – all that. The weight comes back quickly and you don’t want to be at the gym anymore. Then your body changes in the other direction, and it can be really depressing when you start thinking things that you understand to be on the spectrum of body dysmorphia or eating disorders. I wasn’t attractive at 108, but that’s when I felt the most strong.”
As someone who has only ever sculpted her body with knock-off Spanx, I am totally out of my realm.
“The culture in the club is calculated by my ajarn [master]. He doesn’t allow emotions to enter the ring. If he sees it flaring up he’ll pull people out. He treats everyone the same. He would never have the girls do one thing and the guys another.” Suzanne has experienced this in other gyms, where the women are trained in boxercise moves while the men are sparring.
“When I walked in to Ayothaya” – on Queen’s Quay West, where she trains – “I saw women in the ring. I saw women’s pictures on the wall. The lead fighter is a woman and a multiple belt holder. I hadn’t seen that anywhere else,” she says. When she talks about her Muay Thai club, she looks happy. “I have a new family with these people. They are very important in my life.”
Things weren’t always this sunny. In her search for the right club she often came up against obstacles in the male-dominated world of boxing gyms. Most don’t have a proper change room for females. “I’ve been made to change in broom closets. I was at a gym once where they asked me to change in my car, and I was on my period. I refused. I walked into the men’s bathroom.”
Even when there are locker rooms for women, there are still issues. “As a queer woman I haven’t been welcome in women’s change rooms either. They won’t share a room with me, or will wait outside until I’m done. Or, if they are in the same room, they will watch me to make sure I’m not looking at them.”
Suzanne was married to a man for 13 years – she gets it – but that doesn’t mean she accepts it.
“Women in general are just more respectful of boundaries, whereas a lot of men just really don’t understand that. Women have been on the receiving end of predatory behaviour for so long, and often that’s their only experience of sex. I’m not in there getting off on looking at women changing. I’m there to do a job.”
And that’s a whole other issue: that she is a woman in a fighting gym who has come in to train. “Men don’t think what you’re doing is just as serious as what they’re doing in that space. They treat me one of two ways. They’re either extremely aggressive or they don’t want to touch me at all.”
The timer on the oven beeps and Suzanne puts on her massive red silicone gloves to pull out the clafoutis. She looks like the patriarchy’s nightmare of the future. A beautiful woman, not soft and pliable but ripped and confident, presenting a home-baked creation with no male partner or offspring in sight. Ditching the oven mitts she grabs the powdered sugar and delivers a light dusting over the raspberry-studded confection. Once served, she talks about the why of it all. Like many, I’ve been indoctrinated to think that the only reason to do physical activity is to lose weight. My friend is more highly engaged: “The rush of the win is undeniable,” she says. “When the ref raises my hand it is the most exhilarating feeling.” She had her first KO this past winter. “That feeling of pride lasts for a long time.” Cutting calories seems lame by comparison.
“The main thing Muay Thai has given me is incredible self-determination. There’s a great sense of accomplishment in it, win or lose.”
She’s been fighting for seven years, and three years ago started teaching at Ayothaya, during downtime from her new role as the senior curator at the Art Gallery of Burlington. “It’s allowed me to be a better fighter, because you have to be very mindful about technique when passing it on to another generation of fighters. I realize how much I enjoy the technical side rather than just being a brawler.”
Grandma Irene’s clafoutis
makes one 9-inch tart for sharing
1⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup flour
3 tbsp butter
zest of 1 lemon
1⁄4 cup milk
1 cup raspberries
squeeze of lemon juice
dusting of icing sugar
Mix sugar, salt and flour in a bowl.
Melt butter and let it cool slightly. In a separate bowl, whisk lemon zest into eggs. Pour the cooled butter into the egg mixture. (If the butter’s too hot, you’ll wind up with a scrambly mess.)
Add butter-egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix.
Whisk in the milk until the mixture is the consistency of pancake batter.
Pour into a 9-inch buttered pie pan.
Place lots of berries on the top of the tart. It can handle more than you think – 1 cup at least.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown around the edges.
Let cool, then squeeze a little lemon juice on top, and with a sieve dust the top generously with icing sugar.