what we talk about when we talk about restaurants

Dear Restaurant with a Cute and Unusual Name:

I was thinking of writing you a letter to say what I thought of my experience at lunch but I got side-tracked into wondering what your cute and unusual name might mean…

Perhaps it means… “An attractive establishment with plenty of staff and at least one server who does not know what beans are in the Sweet Italian Soup with Beans but who will check because it’s No Problem and returns with a proud declaration of ‘white’ and when I say ‘navy?’ he says yes even though when the soup comes they are not navy, they are possibly lima…. although, like the server, I am not a connoisseur of all and sundry beans.”

Or could it by chance mean “tepid soup that arrives many many minutes after ordering, with only an asthmatic whisper of cheese (pecorino) and too little Sweet Italian Sausage.” 

Or a reference to this, how when I ask the server if he’s found out about the pizza he forgets to find out and (many many minutes later) tells me he will do so now because until now the kitchen has been too busy but it’s No Problem and perhaps things have slowed down.” 

Maybe it means “a cook that cannot be asked about pizza while s/he is ladelling soup.”

It might  of course be meant to describe “how only after my not-even-close-to-being-warm, indeterminately bean’d soup is eaten, does my server deliver the glass of water I was offered when I  first sat down.”

Or does it mean this: “three water glasses mysteriously left on my table after the hostess cleared the excess cutlery and plates. Or a reference to the hostess herself , a young woman who, on my arrival, said I could sit anywhere I like, and when I said Oh how lovely, a window would be great! she led me to the end of the room and pointed to a tiny table tucked into a windowless corner and which almost touched the table of the only other people in the room and when I made a face she said You don’t like this table? and I said well another would be better and so I chose a table by a window where I would not be touching neighbouring diners and when I asked the hostess if she knew what the soup of the day was she said she did not and reminded me that she was a hostess.”

Then again, perhaps your cute name simply refers to “how when the bill comes, long long minutes (too many long minutes) after I ask for it, and a passing bartender asks if she can help and I say well I’d like to pay my bill and she says No Problem, she says she’ll take care of it and when ten minutes later I am now pacing in front of my table as I have a class starting in mere moments no one can find my server or the bartender and so I explain the situation to the hostess and when the server finally shows up he casually places the change from my twenty-dollar bill on the table and says sorry for the wait.”

On the other hand it wouldn’t surprise me if the name is meant to describe “the tone in which he says this, like he’s been ‘told’ I’m annoyed rather than any kind of sincere apology.”

Also, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that it refers to“the way that I, for the first time in a very very long time, possibly ever, scoop all of the change, bills and coins, into my pocket and leave the bill folder empty and wide open.”

Or “the look on the server’s face when I do it.”

If the restaurant’s cute and unusual name means any of the above, then it is a well suited name indeed. And things are going perfectly to plan.


The single at the window seat who will bring a sandwich next time she has a class in your vicinity.

Alphabet_soupPhoto by: wikicommons

story of a recipe


Once upon a time there was a folk dance group that required its female dancers to wear a dirdnl’ish costume with a corset over a cotton blouse and sometimes real, sometimes fake, carnations stuffed down the front of said corset. This effectively rendered the girls dancing flower pots. Boy dancers were encouraged to ‘smell’ the carnations while the girl dancers twirled coquettishly from one to the other. When they weren’t sniffing carnations, the boys danced ‘figure’ dances, pretending to chop wood or other acts of physical prowess meant to attract the hapless flower pots.

I was a member of such a folk dance group.

For the record, it wasn’t my idea to join. I was fourteen and shy and my parents thought it would be just the ticket to bring me out of my shell.

I suppose in a way it did. It was also where I learned to drink beer.

And it’s where I met Laura, from whom I received the recipe mentioned in the title. Laura wisely left both the dance group and town at the first opportunity, stuffing everything she owned into a small car and driving west until she got to Calgary.

A few years later I followed. Not to Calgary, but to Edmonton. Close enough. Only 300 km away, it made Alberta a place where I knew someone. We’d visit each other on occasional weekends, mostly me going to her place, the main floor of a big old ramshackle house with no yard but access to a back stoop, room enough for a Hibachi.

The kitchen smelled of meatloaf, coffee and Joy dishwashing liquid.

Laura was the first person I knew (my age) who not only liked to cook but talked about food, grew herbs on windowsills, owned actual cookbooks and shopped for food with all kinds of serious enthusiasm. Even more amazingly to me, almost ten out ten times she preferred inviting people to her place for a meal over meeting at a restaurant. She was interesting in different ways (she once moved into an apartment with a bright red fridge and spaghetti on the ceiling; beyond enviable when the rest of us were still living in bungalows) but this cooking thing struck me as a little over-the-top… remember, this was eons ago, when food as a ‘thing’ hadn’t been invented yet. When only five people in the whole world read Gourmet.

In that ramshackle Calgary kitchen Laura served me my first Caesar salad, and I remember thinking it was pretty groovy that she made the dressing by throwing ingredients into a jar and shaking it like maracas.

I came across the recipe recently—the original paper version I wrote out while she dictated precise instructuions all those decades ago. More than slightly splattered and used (though not for some time now as I’ve since discovered other recipes. Julia Child’s and Ina Garten’s, for two).

But they don’t come with a story.

(Actually, the Julia Child one does… it can be found in the book From Julia Child’s Kitchen — a tradition in this house is to have someone read the passage while someone else makes the salad…)

But that’s another story entirely.


(All recipes with stories welcome. In fact that would be exceedingly groovy…)


a frivolous five minutes over pizza with ‘k’ — age 58


I met K in the 70’s. We used to work together for what now seems like a fraction of a second. Then I moved away and for a brief time we stayed in touch. Then I moved even further away, and further still, and eventually she moved too and married and remarried. Along the way there have been an assortment of cats and dogs, long ago mutual friends and at least one hamster, as well as a gap of years and years and years when all we did was send birthday and xmas cards. We rarely spoke and we never saw each other. Yet we remained connected in that peculiar way of old friends… where when the phone rings one day and you hear their voice for the first time in a decade and you start talking like no time at all has passed.

Recently, we’ve been meeting for lunch once or twice a year at a place about an hour’s drive for each of us. We rarely do phone calls and emails are few, yet when we see each other it’s like someone spliced out all the gaps and this lovely film just continues on from the last scene…

K always begins every lunch by explaining to the server that we’ll be there a while.

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen her place an order. And exactly what size are the peppers when they come out?”

She still has the most contagious laugh I know.

How long could you go without talking?  However long I’m asleep.

Do you prefer silence or noise?  Noise, as in background… a fan at night, TV on while reading…

How many pairs of shoes do you own?  Fewer than 10.

If you won $25 million?  I’d fix the garage and the driveway, give some to family and Humane Society.

One law you’d make?  Install a device in cars that prevents driving drunk.

Unusual talent?  Am a ‘Name that Tune’ master.

What do you like to cook? One pot meals.

Have you or would you ever bungee jump?  No.

What’s the most daredevilish thing you’ve done?  Roller coaster at CNE. Hated it.

Do you like surprise parties, practical jokes?  Yes.

Favourite time of day?  Early morning.

What tree would you be?  Birch.

Best present ever received?  An opal ring I’d had my eye on. My dad gave it to me to me the year my mum died just before xmas.

What do you like on your toast?  Peanut butter.

The last thing you drew a picture of?  A map with directions.

Last thing written in ink.  Birthday card.

Favourite childhood meal?  My dad’s meatloaf.

Best invention?  Car.

Describe your childhood bedroom.  Pink with rosy wallpaper. Maybe. We rented and moved around a lot.

Afraid of spiders?  Not spiders, snakes.

Phobias?  Heights. [see bungee jumping and devilish thing; also declined hot air balloon idea]

Least favourite teacher?  Mr. Something—made me put gum on my nose for chewing in class.

Favourite children’s story?  Anything Winnie the Pooh.

Ideal picnic ingredients?  Potato salad, devilled eggs, fresh buns and butter, pickles, cold cuts, strawberries, ice tea, no bugs.

Is Barbie a negative role model?  No.

No?  No.

Best thing about Canada?  Landscape.

Best thing about people in general?  Their differences.

What flavour would you be? Chocolate.

What colour? Pink.

What would you come back as? Medium sized border collie.

Favourite saying: “She offered her honour; he honoured her offer; and all night long he was honour and offer.”

—the frivolous five, a series of frivolity

the annual grape post

Not that this is in any way important or even interesting to anyone other than me, I still feel the need to say it once a year: I don’t eat a lot of fruit out of season.

And being from the heart of all things grapey that is Niagara I’m not even allowed to eat grapes outside of late summer/early Fall.

Certainly not grapes from ‘away’.

Except for once a year.

Beginning sometime in February and through March, I hire teams to continuously peel individual Chilean grapes for me as I sit on a tuffet and remember our trip to Chile and Argentina during the earthquake.

Remember also the street dogs of Santiago, the view from our window, Pablo Neruda’s shabby chic home, melons in a truck,  the outdoor market, Los Elefantes in moonlight, the Andes, the bread sellers at highway toll boths, the betterthanpesto-like dip [whose ingredients I’ve forgotten], bottles of Carmenere on warm evenings and vineyards… and one stunningly beautiful train station where a man named Mauricio talked of Puerto Montt and the Lake District in such a way that we decided we would have to make the journey back to Chile one day, just to take that train.

That’s it.

That’s everything I wanted to say.

Happy [Chilean] ‘table grape’ season to one and all.
IMG_083263610_173956235970382_8363150_nBTW, when fruit falls in a table grape forest and there’s no one there to hear…
does it make a sound?


a day

It begins with the discovery that I have no onions. It ends with a swim.

The part in-between goes like this:

I say bad words about the sudden and surprising lack of onions because I had intended to make bread and butter pickles at the crack of dawn before the heat set in. I’d already picked and salted and soaked the sliced cukes in ice water and chilled them in the fridge overnight. Seeing as how there are no onion mongers open at the crack of dawn in these parts—and I, like a wally, didn’t grow any onions—I have no option but to consider bread and butter pickles made without onions, which, really, is just sheer folly so I scrap the idea immediately. Instead, I pull out a bag of green beans I got from the farmers’ market the other day. Still fresh and snappy enough to pickle. My niece recently flattered my beans. I did them last year with jalapeno peppers and chili flakes. They had a nice zing. I said I’d do her a few jars.

I’m tremendously impressed with my resourceful flexibility—being able to move effortlessy from pickles to beans like this. Then it occurs to me that I have no jalapenos. The ones we’re growing aren’t yet ripe and the peppers that are ripe, aren’t zingy. My beans need zing. I wonder if I could just double or triple the amount of chili flakes but even as I think it I know it won’t be the same.

More bad words.

After that I go outside and sweep the front, pull out weeds and say good morning to Riley next door, a puppy of uncertain parentage.

Breakfast is scrambled eggs, homemade pesto and tahini slathered toast.

The tea is sage with lemon balm.

I take the tea to my desk and spend a couple hours moving a semi colon around the page then go to the dentist but not before stopping at the barbeque pork place that also does duck and a few other things, but I only ever get the pork. Today I point at a strange hanging bit of flesh and am told it’s cuttlefish—do I want some the woman asks. I say not today thanks. Cuttlefish, it seems, is a cross between squid and octopus and looks like a miniature orange bagpipe with an attitude. I ask her how to eat it and when she says you just eat it, that’s when I say oh, okay, maybe next time. She smiles and nods like she believes me.

On the way home I stop at a place that sells concord grape juice, made in Canada with Canadian grapes. You’d be surprised how few juices are made with our own fruit. Most of the orchards disappeared and packaging places in Niagara closed years ago because the brilliant minds behind giant manufacturers of fruit products decided that because it was cheaper to out-source fruit and packaging it must be better  to out-source fruit and packaging.

But I digress.

Last stop, the onion and jalapeno monger who also has some stunning apricots and a stunning apricot is a thing not to be overlooked. I have a fondness for apricots, having grown up with a tree in the yard until my dad one day mistook the gas pedal for the brake and knocked it down with his Toyota.

I buy the apricots.

Lunch is barbeque pork with a zucchini, carrot and beet salad. Similar to this.

After that I make the gd pickles.

After that I do some work.

After that I have a swim.

After that it’s night; the phone rings, there’s more food involved and a few other things go on.

But this isn’t about the night.

flavour vs taste

“The typical consumer believes that naturally flavoured processed food is somehow healthier than artificially flavoured processed food. The distinction is laughable… Flavours are value-neutral from a health standpoint. They are chemicals. The only difference between a natural and synthetic flavour is the source material and derivation process. Take cherry for example. What gives cherries their ‘cherriness’ is a molecule called benzaldehyde. To make natural cherry flavour, you start with cassia, a tree bark related to cinnamon and, using chemical-free processes like pressure and steam, extract from it cinnamic aldehyde. This can then be converted into benzaldehyde, the base of natural cherry flavour. To make an artificial cherry flavour, you extract the benzaldehyde from coal tar on petroleum using chemical processes. The molecules resulting from both processes are identical, although the natural flavour costs ten to fifty times more to produce.

“Aside from flavour, the other ingredients in ‘all natural’ foods—starches, proteins, fats, etc.—are often dramatically modified from their naturally occurring states in order to produce products that better withstand the intense processing required to manufacture safe packaged food.  ‘All-natural processed food’ is an oxymoron and a myth… But the idea that it’s better for you is deeply ingrained in society. It’s become a key to success from a consumer-acceptance standpoint.”

—excerpted from ‘Frontiers of Flavour’ by Nelson Handel (The Walrus, June 2005)

how to spend a day in peterborough

If the day is Saturday…

…start with the market.

Buy potaotes from the Potato Guy who has a dozen different varieties at least and can tell you the history and origins of every single one. He will also tell you which ones make the best potato salad, the best for mashed, scalloped, boiled, baked, fried, potato-pancaked, you name it, he will tell you. He is the Potato Guy.

Buy mushrooms from the [you know what’s coming…] Mushroom Guy. Only in this case it’s the Mushroom Gal. But she’s not there in person in winter [though her ‘shrooms are]; in winter she’s in her lab figuring out how to cultivate morels.   I think she’s doing a PhD in mushroomology. Seriously. The Shiitake are always spectacular. And the Portobello are fresh and don’t need their insides scraped out before you eat/grill/sautee them the way they do when you get the ones from Outer Mongolia at the grocery store.

Buy chocolate from two lads who call themselves ChocoSol and whose [better than fair trade] endeavours are worth supporting. Not to mention the chocolate. Which is worth eating. Expensive, but that’s because it’s ethical and real. And that is the price of ethical and real food. The recipe is simple: buy smarter, eat less.

Buy clean, fresh greenhouse greens from the guy right near the entrance at a tiny table where you never know what he’ll have from week to week, but you know it will be excellent.

Buy apples from the St. Catharines guy, also apple cider; and for god’s sake, don’t forget the pulled pork pastry from The Pastry Peddler or a jar of freshly jarred honey—or cheese, or perogies, farm fresh eggs, homemade pies and cookies, sausages and a few samosas.

Buy flowers to feed the soul.

Remember to thank the buskers for their delightful ambience.

And be absolutley stunned that you spent all your money but applaud yourself for spending it so wisely and in a way that will directly help others, rather than helping already-doing-just-fine-thanks grocery store gazillionaires who bully farmers.

Make a mental note to get cat food on the way home.

Visit a 94 year-old uncle who has a fractured femur but that doesn’t stop him lighting up at the bag of mudpie chocolate cookies you bring him from the market. [p.s. bring him reading material also; Harlan Coban is a good choice.]

Have lunch at Elements. Have the wild boar pate. Have the mussel and fish stew. Have the vino verde. Smile. Sit back. Breathe. Be thankful.

Pop into Titles Bookstore. Buy a copy of something local.

Decide against visiting the many second hand bookshops on George Street [you can’t do it all] and walk west, along the river instead. If you see litter, pick it up. If you fancy a sit down, well then, for pete’s sake, sit down. [Make a note to try the patio at the Holiday Inn once the weather heats up; lovely view.]

Walk all the way to the art gallery, one of the best you’ll see anywhere, where you might find an exhibit by the students at PCVS, a local, downtown high school under threat of closure—and then wonder at the madness of the powers that be.

Choose as your favourite, an installation comprised of one large pink velveteen sofa with dark and ornately carved trim, above which are four standard paint-by-number style formal landscape paintings in gilt frames, each of which has been over-painted in Norville Morriseau style interpretations of ‘landscape’.

Second favourite installation: a text written on the wall, denouncing art. Heart-breaking in one way, given that the artist feels there’s no point in art because no one really gets it and it changes nothing. Oh dear. I want to find this person and say: it doesn’t matter. Do it anyway.

Admire the light.

Walk back along the river to your car and make a mental note to wear better shoes next time.

Stop to take pictures of a dilapidated building that was once a place to eat and drink and be merry.

Go home. Eat, drink and be merry.

[But not before picking up some cat food, otherwise there will be hell to pay.]


More Travel:

Prince Edward Island
Niagara Region