Taste Buds and Memory – the Power of the Two…

As a bit of a prologue I find myself examining local food and connections to what I consume through very different eyes this week as I find myself enjoying Glasgow as part of a business trip.  It`s been an odd week exploring a different version of local as well as very odd seeing products that I can buy at home that are just as available here.

The quest to find something local has been interesting – for example, a Scottish Ale with a very Celtic name turns out to be the product of a large US Brewery.  While being a decent beer, it is more American than the Czech Budweiser (that fascinating storyhere).  It has been very odd – of not concerning – to see bottles of wine, booze and coffee that I can buy the exact flavor so far back at home.  As someone who is a major fan of terroir and non-snobby exclusivity, the thought of many of these offerings have lost their previous allure.

Having said that, there is also room for exception.

Our posts are continuing to appear around the clock as Dana and I are writing from half a world apart from each other – I`m in an odd vortex of time zones (for example, I have a meeting at 9AM Glasgow time in the morning and then another 7 hours later at 11AM EASTERN STANDARD TIME).  I`m living in two places at once – going to sleep on Toronto time and waking up too late Scottish time.  I feel like I`m living in two different places at the same time.

My odd sense of time travel was further stymied this evening as I sat at a hotel bar after a lovely dinner with some business associates.  I sipped a beer with a newish colleague and we traded laughs as we got to know each other better.

My colleague is a fan of brandy.  He `twisted my arm` to have a second night-cap and I decided to join him and his desire to sip a tipple of Brandy.  If the idea of drinking Brandy (or Scotch) sounds less than appetizing or your are intrigued as to how in the world someone could enjoy the taste, you may be interested in learning the basics of learning how to drink either.  As you`ll learn in that link, I learned from my mentor many years ago.

Dr Michael Stanwick was many, many things.  He was a philosopher, teacher, inspiration and lover of food and drink.  As a man who dropped out of Grade nine 3 separate times he was one of few teachers to get their doctorate in Education.  I had the privilege of learning how to teach from him by shadowing him 4-nights a week for almost 2 years.  He remains as one of the largest influences in my life many years after his passing and many more since we worked together.

My development had a process.  Go to night school with the kind Doctor, lay my best efforts on the line and return to his house (2 doors down) where we would recap the evening over a few beer or, more than likely, a few brandy.  A typical night would easily see a 4-hour recap of a 3-hour teaching session and would easily break down to philosophy, spirituality, divining and other things.  Sometimes the conversation was calm, other times it would be a single tirade from him or I and on the rare occasion it would be a crazy intellectual argument.

One of the largest honours in my life remains being cited as an academic reference to his Doctoral Thesis.  My library of reference he quoted came, primarily, from these brandy-infused conversations.

So I sat at a bar this evening with a near stranger and sipped from a similar bottle of elixir that I used to share with my mentor.  It wasn`t the same nor was it unique or local to either place but it was just as powerful.  Like it or not, part of my local diet is what I have consumed in times and places that I was in – regardless of where the product was manufactured.  I`m not trying to make the case that Brandy was local – just that despite it`s origination, there`s very little that can bring back the memory of my fallen mentor than that taste and the conversation I had tonight.  I was a lovely moment.

As I approach the end of the evening I find myself in a wonderful glow – feeling as though I`ve somehow shared just one more glass with an old friend…or perhaps a new one.

A Dumpling by any Other Name

Take a moment and think about dumplings.

It is amazing how many different foods can either be grouped into or are described as a dumpling.

As a child I would have instantly said my favourite was apple.   Similar to a doughnut and sold through many coffee stores, an apple dumpling is the essence of a good desert to me (I am not a huge desert guy to begin with but any that involve apples are off to a good start for me).

As I became more and more exposed to other cultures and as the cuisine of Toronto became much more ethnically diverse in the mainstream,  I encountered Asian varieties of the same word.  These dumplings were very different – almost like meat perogies (also considered by some to be in the dumpling family) which you could slather in soya sauce and hot sauce.  An extremely different food hidden under the same name.

I would later discover a Caribbean food named dumplings.  This has no filling at all.  It`s essentially a length of dough which is tied into a knot and deep fried.  Also wonderful with hot sauce and has very little to do with the apple treat I grew up and knew so well.

There are many other varieties of foods that some consider to be part of the dumpling family:

  • Matzo Balls
  • Wontons
  • Ravioli (may sound like a stretch but compare it to the chinese version and there are many similarities)
  • The Czech version is called Knedliky and has a huge variety of ingredients, techniques and sizes (from tiny though loaf-sized)
  • Russian cuisine features a meat stuffed shell that is served with potatoes and stews.

Many cultures have a variety of dumpling as part of their cuisine – cold climates generally mixed these with meats and stews to be served through the winter.

We`ll be sharing my other favourite dumpling here shortly – the Acadian dumpling which is a salty gooey ewwwy flour ball cooked within a stew before serving.  More on that in the coming days…

Memory, Comfort and Food

It had been a tough week – lot`s accomplished, lots to do and little time in between.

I came home with a bag of `groceries` (and a bag of wine).  Hot Dogs, White Buns (joking that they were 100-mile since the manufacturing plant that makes them is less than 2 kilometers from here) and potato chips.  Ruffled potato chips.

I wistfully BBQ`d them though I secretly desired a pot of boiling water (it was too hot to cook inside).

The first `weiner`hit the bun was bathed in ketchup, mustard, S hot sauce and potato chips.  Only 4 condiments but the quantity of each was intended to bury any trace of flavor from the grill.  The same way I ate them at 5 (minus potato chip and Siracha).

I haven`t bought a package of hot dogs (you know the ones – encased in plastic wrap, promising to be 100% pure something until you read the ingredients) in years.  I`ve had the odd one and am not above them – it`s just that last night these were exactly what was prescribed.  I wondered how something I so rarely eat or desire have such a connection to comfort.  After all, I do like to be comfortable and I do eat certain comfort foods way more than I should (poutine as an example) but there are others that may appear once every number of years.

I believe the reason is tied to the condiments – that there is some form of connection to this tubed meat that brings me back to a time and place that has great security and comfort.  Is it possible to find new comfort foods later in life? Does flavor play a role at all or is it simply some form of neural connection to emotion and the food we are eating at the time?

And why can`t salad by my comfort food?

More questions than answers today. I`m pretty fascinated by them – and the last pack of hot dogs I`ll likely buy for years has to be consumed.

A Spot of Tea

Different cultures fascinate me – especially when it comes to their traditions and outlook on food.  It`s not that the traditions of others are simply different (although that plays a small part for me initially); there`s a inward fascination which makes me examine my biases and approaches to food and biases toward things I like and things I don`t.

Coffee is a morning tradition for me in many ways.  We live about a coffee shop that roasts beans daily, I love the flavor of it and I can consume a great deal of it.  Many work days start with 2 large coffee.  I`m an odd coffee drinker in that I often skip it on the weekends and if we go on vacation I`m just as likely not to drink it for an entire week as I am to have any at all.

I am certain that my behaviour, as it relates to coffee, was greatly influenced by my Father when I was young.  He would drink 8+ cups at home before getting on with the day.  He later cut back considerably but I have many clear memories of him drinking cup after cup (he made it by pouring hot water over ground beans resting on a paper towel in a rice strainer).

I`ve been working with colleagues from the UK for the last 2 weeks.  Tea is their thing – far more than coffee.  I`ve been joining their habit of drinking a mid-afternoon tea for the last few weeks and have found the experience to be most enjoyable.  I`ve drunk plenty of tea in my life – the ritual of a mid-day tea is very different context than simply drinking tea on an ad hoc schedule (just as drinking coffee in the morning places a context different to the beverage than others you may consume through the day).

It took 8  or 9 days before the rhythm of the pattern of afternoon tea transitioned to something else.  Perhaps it was doing it often enough that I began to look forward to it or perhaps it was just a fluke.  But it did become something different than just a tea when I started planning for this tradition.  I`m going to continue it for a few weeks to see if that spirit maintains.

The experience has my questioning many of my own default behaviours as well as the role of repetition and pattern play in my own food culture and experiencing others.

Penny (or a pence)  for your thoughts?

World Cup Food…

Tomorrow morning is the start of the world cup.  An entire month of the world`s best football (soccer) players duelling it out for a trophy that only appears once every four years.

It`s time to start planning what, where, when and who to eat and drink with during the games.

Toronto is an amazing city when it comes to this event.  With Little Italy, Little Portugal, Little Korea, Little India, 2 Chinatown`s, Greektown and so many more amazing sections of town and culture, we have great places to see the passionate fans of almost any country converge and cheer.  We found ourselves in the heart of Little Italy 4 years ago when they beat the French and the ensuing party was something I`ll hold on to for a long time.

I really encourage you to get to a part of your town which throws it`s heart behind a team when that team is playing.  The excitement of the people is infectious.

I`m also considering battling food courses at home.  Italy is scheduled to face the Italians this weekend.  I`m thinking that could be a day to start with Bangers and Mash and end the day with Pizza.  One of the great privileges of not having a dedicated interest in any specific team does allow me to play all angles.

The football food culture is also fascinating.  Our local football team (the TFC) features stadium food from the World`s soccer culture: chip butties, scotch eggs, souvlaki, meat pies, artisanal sausages and even poutine for a little Canadian content.

There is of course lots of beverage choices as well.  Since the Tournament runs from June 11 to July 11 my only recommendation here is to pace yourself.  World Cup Food...

Keep your eyes peeled for local bars and restaurants joining in on the fun as well.  Signs of the Tournament have been starting to appear over the last month but a quick drive through downtown on the weekend made it clear that many were just getting started with their promotions and ideas.

I`m going to use the chance to check out food from cultures and countries I am less familiar with.  I`ll check who`s playing on a specific day and see what I can learn about their different food cultures.  A different way to brainstorm and one I`m excited about.

And, less we forget, the tourney is being hosted in South Africa.  Certainly a lot of food culture to be learned for me (and I really am excited about trying Harissa (North African hot sauce) and this may just be the push to make or buy some.

In a world where so many of our current events are bad news, I invite you to escape with me and challenge your food palate for the next month in the global tastes of culture, community and celebration.

Brunch Club – A Food Tradition Worth Sharing

Having finished 8 days of berry posts (almost all without pictures as our berries haven`t popped yet – pictures will return very shortly and we`ll need a few photo essays to make up our karma), it`s time for something different.

Dana and I are joining 3 other friends for brunch this morning and I`m super excited.  This is a date that`s well overdue.

It was several years back when 4 friends decided to meet for brunch once-per-month.  It was to be an all-girls brunch club but they extended an invite to me within 1 or 2 brunches as I would be visiting Dana for the weekend and they welcomed me – as long as I didn`t `play`the boyfriend role at brunch.  This was easy for me as my resume includes stints as a competitive jazz dancer (step-ball-change, step-ball-change, step-ball-change-kick), a brief go at figure skating (stroke, stroke) that quickly turned to power skating and a college program that included 500 women and 6 men (Travel and Tourism).  I`ve long been comfortable being `one of the girls.`

Se we all committed to brunch and we`ve been meeting ever since.  2010 has been a rough year in that we`ve missed most of our dates (something rare until this year) but there`s been good excuses – individuals have travelled to Africa, England, Bermuda and New York.  Some have left old jobs and some are beginning new adventures.  There`s a lot to catch up on.

The monthly event is a highlight and a tradition that`s so worthwhile.  It generally takes no planning, we all know what weekend of the month it is so it`s little planning and we rotate picks so each gets a turn in choosing our food-fate.

I`m generally not a breakfast food person and brunch often has good compromise.  My favourite meals in these year are both shameful – there was battered chicken deep-fried with waffles one morning and another that I shared a giant portion of poutine (french fries, cheese curds and gravy) and a bucket of macaroni and cheese.  I could eat both of those meals again right now.  Brunch Club   A Food Tradition Worth Sharing

Conversation is always better than the food – even when it`s very good.

If life is busy and it`s tough to slow down with those you love, book a regular date like this and let the memories begin.  It`s a tradition that I treasure like few others and one of my all-time faves; even as one of the girls.  Brunch Club   A Food Tradition Worth Sharing

Learning about food from decaying Language

I was awful at French.  I grew up struggling with reading in English and being forced to study a second language seemed like a challenge that was beyond my grasp.  This was tough for my parents to accept – especially given that my Mother was raised French-Canadian (Acadian to be exact).

My argument was that she spoke half-French and half-English.  If you haven`t heard Acadian Patois, it is difficult to imagine.  I once heard my Uncle say something very close to:

Jài allais a la beer store avec mon car et fait un crash
(jhay alay a la beer store avec mon car a fay un crash)

To fully simulate the statement, say it as fast as you possibly can and then imagine saying it 4 times faster than you are capable.

I have teased my mother and Family for a long time about their bastardization of French.  The teasing dropped after two college summers in Quebec where I finally learned to speak my own version of French – it`s not the strongest but I lived for 12 weeks in the language and survived with no English (even dreaming in French).

But the teasing continued.  It even continued this summer when my dear Grandmother mentioned something about `des sneakers.`  I had to tease her about this and I did.

Her reaction was kind and measured.  It started with a look that said I was about to learn something (I imagine her as starting by saying `Dear boy…` but know that she didn`t).  `Joel, I grew up French.  When sneakers first arrived in our town they were brought from the English.  There was no word for sneakers – we had not seen them before and had to use the  word since we didn`t have one of our own.`

My heart sunk with comprehension.  Think of my Uncle`s statement: beer store, car, crash.  All things that came to their culture faster than words could take root.

So many conversations flooded my mind and I learned so much about my past.  I don`t tease about the language any more and pay greater attention to the English words that creep in – and note that many of them are products or things that are less than 60 years old.  The language is being swallowed by more and more English (most of my cousins who grew up in the same village as my Mother don`t speak French at all).

What happens to our food, traditions and recipes as we begin to swallow and be swallowed by other languages?

There are two French food words which I adore and wish we could replace our names with theirs:

Seafood is Fruits de Mer (Fruit of the Ocean).
Potato is Pomme de terre (Apple of the Earth).

There are, of course, many benefits to merging cultures and wonderful new discoveries and combinations borne of integrating our approaches and knowledge around food.  Let us ensure we are both preserving our past as well as sharing forward.  After all, the Internet is much faster than the coal burning train which brought sneakers, beer stores and cars to Cape Breton.

Coulda been the 6-pack,coulda been the Russians

(The obscure reference from the title ties to the Irish Rovers – if you don’t know it, or would like a reminder – click here).

We have more readers from the US than from Canada and I thought this may be an interesting piece of perspective on our nation and the city in which I live.  I should explain that we live on one of the busier streets in the city on the edge of a very social strip of town.  A 3 minute walk would bring you past 8-12 restaurants and bars as well as a concert venue.

I have managed to find myself on the streets of Toronto around 7PM for the last 2 evenings.  There has been an unusual amount of people walking, by themselves, with cases of beer.  It’s usually a 6 or a 12-pack but they are out there and they are generally walking hurried through the cold winter night.

I have also noticed that by 8PM they are not around.

Last night I counted 10 people walking on the streets as described above between 6.30-7.15.  I sat at a College Street bar for a few hours after this and while I wasn’t facing the street, frequent glances outside revealed no additional beer.

Perhaps I’m hallucinating but I draw an easy conclusion – Olympic Hockey drives behaviours across our city (and I suspect, our Country).  The television support my claim – 20 million Canadians (2 out of 3) watched at least part of the game on Tuesday night.  I suspect last night’s game (vs the Russians) was even higher.

I walked across College and noticed the crowds in many bars who were huddled around televisions.  The bars were diverse – typical pubs, restaurants, watering holes and holes in the wall contained their tribes – all part of a bigger tribe of the Canadian Cult.  It seems that hockey – and beer – are a right of passage for many Canadians these days.

A mention of beer may seem to be a very loose tie to a food post – if you could see the frequency that this pattern occurs it would be instantly clear why it’s not a loose tie at all.  I’d love to know the statistics on beer sales in Canada this week.

The apple of my eye – sentimental food..

When Dana placed a 5-pound bag of apples in our shopping cart I barely blinked.  I paid more attention than I would have a year ago – knowing that they are one of the few locally farmed foods that we can buy in the middle of winter.

The apple of my eye   sentimental food.. January

A few hours later I found myself mindlessly reaching for an apple from the counter. It wasn’t a great apple.  Most of them have marks, are fairly dry and wear the look of something stored marginally.  But it was an apple after all.

I sat on the couch and had a bite and, to my surprise, I found myself reminiscing about apples.  The first memory was a strong one – I went to college with a woman named Chow.  We weren’t close; she was shy, academic and quiet while I was loud, angry and smelling my own teen spirit.  We were always pleasant with each other and frequently traded niceties – but weren’t close.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget the one significant conversation we shared.

Chow was from Viet Nam.  She fled the country with the help of her family at a young age.  She escaped as a preteen with a younger brother.  Her parents left the country separately and Chow had to navigate harsh jungle-like conditions for 10 days to guide her brother to safety.  Hunger, cold and fear were all very real.

When the two youngsters made it to freedom they were near starved.  Chow was handed an apple – she described it as her first taste of freedom.  She claimed (and I believed her) that she ate an apple every day since.  I don’t eat apples often but when I do, I almost always think of her.  She continues to inspire me with that memory.

More memories flooded in as well:

  • Apple pie made by my now-late mentor was his specialty
  • Apple crumble is an all-time favourite – and one that I remember discussing with my Grandmother in grand detail
  • Vivid memories of stuffing apples with brown sugar, wrapping in tin foil and throwing in a fire as a boy scout.
  • Eating apples in the back country of a Provincial Park as I worked on the trails with a small team.  One insisted that an apple could make your mouth feel like you just brushed your teeth.  Not sure why that memory stuck, but it did.
  • Memories of throwing crab apples into the neighbors pool as a child – and the trouble that came with it.

As I ate the apple I found myself surprised at how strong the memories were – as much as facts and mental images flooded my mind’s eye, I found myself processing strong emotions at the same time.  Some were sweet, some a little more bitter – all were very vivid.

Are there any tastes that marinate your memory?

What a Wonderful start to the year

I used to really struggle on New Years Eve.  I found it difficult to surround myself with parties of people excited to bring in the New Year – at the time it felt like people were wishing the time away; a difficult concept for someone who adores (adored?) living in the moment.

At any rate, my teen angst is now behind me and we’ve settled into a New Years Eve tradition that brings me great joy over the last 4 or 5 years.  A quiet evening surrounded by food and friends and great beverages.  We had the opportunity to host a group of 6 dear friends last night and feasted like kings and queens.  Dinner was a 5-hour progressive tasting marathon and was a lot of fun.  Great conversation, friendship and revelry were had.

I took the opportunity to try to cook things I’ve never done before – a risky proposition to learn with an audience so I balanced it with some tested favorites.  A dear friend who also helped in the kitchen suggested surf and turf so we played on that theme through the evening.

Menu of the night:

  • Cheese tray to die for – XMas leftovers and more than 12 cheeses from around the world.  Included preserves, 3 types of homemade bread, our own slow roasted tomatoes, charcuterie and preserves to match.  We opened one of the 4 jars of amaretto pears we made this year (my first sampling of them) – pleased to say they turned out awesome!
  • Oysters Rockefeller (panko, pancetta, oregano, parsley, parmesean, beemster) and mussels steamed in white wine and our ’09 tomato sauce.
  • Naked Ravioli poached in butter and a farmers field full of sage leaves.  Matched with homemade focaccia (a no-knead variety which uses a small amount of potato water and yukon gold potatoes).
  • Butterfish sashimi on endive with green onion and citrus.  Our friend P brought this to the table – wonderful amuse bouche.
  • Lobster bisque with whipped cream with Canadian Sherry and Vanilla (we bought when in the Dominican 2 years ago).  I had never made – or eaten lobster bisque and think this may have been the hit of the night.  We stole a trick from Alinea and served the bisque in a bowl – the bowl was served on a plate covered in fresh mint and boiling water to pair the smell of mint with the taste of the bisque.  It’s amazing what flavor you can bring from the shells – the part so many throw out.  It is also a heck of a way to extend your lobster budget.
  • Beef wellington with Lobster Newberg (lobster cream sauce on egg noodles).  This was my first attempt at wellington and though I would change my approach slightly I am thrilled with the results.
  • Homemade local apple sour cream pie.

The best thing served on the table last night?  Great conversation and laughter shared amongst friends.  Leftovers have been stunning so far – including a lobster newberg sandwich.

The night officially ended around 3AM – we skipped a final cheese course due to caloric overload.