Monday, September 26, 2011
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Well, I’m back from my summer hiatus. I travelled far, ate well, and made a few discoveries worth noting:
1. Swordfish can be good:
I can’t have eaten it in over a decade, having been scared by dry tasteless versions that seemed a poor man’s canned tuna on a rich man’s budget. But, during stint in the nation’s capital, I was convinced by two great friends and fabulous foodies to try their neighbourhood joint, Taylor’s Genuine, an unpretentious but ambitious little place. On a whim, I ordered the swordfish. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps I was intrigued by the waitress’s enthusiasm for something that I was convinced could not possibly be good. After ordering, I wondered to myself what I would say, when she inquired, after my inevitable disappointment. But at Taylor’s they did something surprising and delicious with the frequently mistreated dish, serving it browned and spiced, but luxuriously juicy. So swordfish can be good, and I heartily recommend Taylor’s to anyone who finds themselves in Ottawa.
See more reviews of Taylor’s by clicking the spoony thing below:
2. Eggplant can be good
More important, on the same trip to Ottawa I was introduced (by the aforementioned friends and foodies, who surpass all their other virtues in their generosity as hosts) to ridiculously tasty preserved eggplant. Again, I’m not a big fan, usually finding eggplant as soggy as a swordfish is dry. Excepting in Ottawa. Following my host’s lead, I loaded some oily eggplant slices onto the sandwiches we were preparing for our days at the office (his spent honing legal positions for our federal government; mine spent examining historical documents that detail the bureaucratization of Canadian racism). On a sunny park bench outside the Library and Archives of Canada, I took a bite and found myself surprised. This eggplant was firm but yielding to the teeth; assertive but complementary to its leading ingredients; spicy and oily but, well, delectably so. I'm hooked. Upon returning home, I purchased a jar of Valli Hot Eggplants in Oil for my own fridge, and have added these to my lunches for the past week. Yowzers! I think I’m going to have to drop my idea to write the feature: “where to buy food on the Uvic campus.” Let’s all just pack these delicious eggplant devils.
3. Dinner and Accommodation in Lunenberg NS
This one is a little less mind-blowing than discovering eggplant and swordfish in just four days in Ottawa. But it is close to my heart. On our now traditional vacation from our vacation, when Ilana and I leave the kids to surf with my folks (and sundry relatives) in Kingsburg NS and escape together for a night or two alone, we took advantage of a dinner and accommodation deal at Fleur De Sel, in Lunenberg. The restaurant was named one of the top ten in the country by Air Canada’s En Route magazine, which does great reviews. And it really is a delightful little gem, head and shoulders above anything else that I’ve tried on the South Shore, or indeed in Halifax. They have a new deal that includes a night’s stay in a charming room above the restaurant, a three-course dinner for two, and a private breakfast, all for $300. While not cheap, it’s a nice deal, and they’ve got a talented chef who deserves support. Brethren in the east: go to Fleur de Sel.
For more reviews of Fleur De Sel, click here.
Oh yes, in our annual summer stop in Brooklyn I had a plate of tripe that made me want to cry (tears of joy). But that is a topic for another day.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Could it be, after all these years, that lobster is best served cold? I'm just back from a conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where, at the banquet, we were served fairly scrawny, but delicious, lobsters, chilled on ice and accompanied by piping hot butter. Cold lobster was a revelation. I’d once heard tell of it served cold for New Years in Nova Scotia, but I’d never tried it myself. Unfortunately, I had a hard time focusing-in on the culinary delights, having failed to avoid a heated exchange with a distinguished colleague just prior to the meal. Is there a lesson (or two) in this?
I began eating lobster at the age of two, so, as you might imagine, it was one of the foods that established me as “an eater.” I was never squeamish about the live boiling bit—I started dispatching crustaceans about as early as I started cooking anything—and I love the labour involved in extracting the meat from the shell once a lobster hits the plate. The work of shelling makes for a social meal: people laugh and talk as they inadvertently squirt one another with water and lobster innards. In fact, at our family vacation home on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, we’ve made it the regular Shabbat fare. A violation of the letter, perhaps, but not the spirit of the night. But I’ve always set in to eat the beasts as soon as they were cool enough to touch. Chilled on ice? Never.
It was also at about the age of two that I established myself as “an arguer.” A strong-willed kid, I accepted little (or nothing) without question, demanding explanations and proofs that, in turn, I was inclined to scrutinize. This tendency was much encouraged within my family, which, like many Jewish families, entertained the questioning of authority and delighted at the prospect of a child’s future career as a lawyer, or, somewhat less ideally, an academic. While this trait was decidedly less appreciated by my teachers (and sometimes peers), it nonetheless became a defining aspect of my personality. So, I was an eater and an arguer. A terrific combination!
And yet, there I was in Fredericton, with a heated argument distracting me from chilly lobster. The argument was probably about a few things. It was part academic turf battle, part my failure to meet an expectation of deference to seniority, and part a difference of academic philosophy. The last part is probably the most interesting. I think historians have a responsibility to be in conversation with one another. Each of our publications is necessarily imperfect, but hopefully our dialogue leads us somewhere interesting and useful. My interlocutor seemed to think that we should strive, when we publish, to offer a final word on a topic. He worries about “half baked” scholarship, whereas I see a shame in manuscripts wallowing in desk drawers while authors fret over possible blemishes. This all led to fairly raised voices.
Where does lobster fit in? I don’t know, maybe the point is that our personal patterns always run the risk being ruts. A defensible position doesn’t always need to be defended, especially if doing so runs the risk of putting a person off of his dinner. And maybe after a third of a century, I need to totally rethink the way that I am eating lobster.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Saturday, May 14, 2011
What gives us our sense of connection with other people or feelings of rootedness in place?
These questions, which I write about as an historian, have been playing on my mind as I visit my family and the city of Toronto. Leaving Ilana behind to tend to the birth of a new generation of Victorians, the girls and I have spent the last week in Toronto, home to my siblings, parents, and a host of relations. Toronto is not where I grew-up, but while I finished my dissertation Ilana and I lived for two years on St. Clair West, in the heart of a predominantly Portuguese and Italian residential and commercial district. Eva was born here, coming into the world in the cramped back bedroom of a small apartment on Northcliffe Boulevard.
A modest stretch of immigrant Toronto, St Clair Avenue West is not sightly. It lacks the arching tree canvases and the early-century brick homes of the city’s more venerable neighbourhoods. It certainly has no mountain view. But the place has some magic in it.
Some of that magic is in the food. When we lived here, I used to buy my meat at Macelleria S. Gabriele, a bustling emporium of farm and game meats, prime cuts of beef as well as the inexpensive organs that are cooked mostly by relocated peasants. One of the butchers, smiling over a blood soaked smock, once showed me the enormous cow hearts that he puts on display for the biology students at a neighbouring high school. Half a block west of the Macelleria is Khmer Thai, where Ilana and I went for dinner on an October evening when she hoped that spicy food might send her into labour. Several hours later she felt her first contractions, so what better review could I offer? The St. Clair Fish Market stands a block further along. It was there, with the encouragement and advice of the lively Greek couple who run the place, that I first began to buy and cook octopus. I returned there this week for the same purpose, and cooked my favorite recipe, the grilled octopus from Molto Italiano, for my family. The couple, still there and excited to remember me, insisted on choosing my octopus and on giving Tillie a handful of Greek biscuits. Carry on and you reach Palermo, an originally Italian bakery/café now in its second generation of Portuguese ownership, where you can get a Cappuccino that glides gently and smoothly across the tongue and leaves you bolt upright. We were regulars there during our stay in Toronto. The owners bought Eva a dress when she was born and warned us off of Victoria. “It rains there 200 days a year” warned Ishmael, who is currently visiting his village in Portugal. “Maybe not for the whole days, though,” Adelia, his wife, suggested, injecting some cheer into a saddening good-bye.
Some people are deeply rooted in a place. Identities are formed and communities sustained on strips like St. Clair Ave West. Others seem to pass through, seeking advantage and pleasure in their choices of location but not a source of self. I think I probably belong to the latter set. I’m not sure that there is a place where I belong. I love living in Victoria, but I wouldn’t describe it as my particular spot in the world. And, although I marvel at St. Clair, I don’t think that’s my place either. I’m sure that many who live there, like Ishmael, off tending to his house “back home,” feel the same. But even for birds of passage there is something special in a place that becomes bound up with the people we love and the events we cherish. Particularly if that place can also furnish a fine piece of ham and a plateful of sardines.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
I come to you from Kelowna, wine country British Columbia, where I'm attending an academic conference. Sometimes conferences are the bane of scholarly life, "culminating" in a terrible buffet of re-warmed food served in a dark windowless hallway of a mid-level hotel, with graduate students and faculty members shuffling around a faded carpet and trying to advance their careers or at least pass the time without falling into the extreme awkwardness that can sometimes beset academic conversation. But they can also be a delight: think of a foie gras stuffed bugger in an off-the-beaten-track Chicago find, consumed over a spirited conversation among smart people with like interests that can, at its best, come to feel like a collective project of intellectual inquiry and dignified lipsmackification.
For this conference, a graduate student and I arrived a day early to assure well rested alertness in our presentation (we'll give a talk entitled "Who Bought Vancouver's 'Japantown'"--an exploration of the Canadian government's resale of the Vancouver area properties that it confiscated from Japanese owners during WWII). With a day to spare in one of the province's most picturesque and renowned regions, I rented a car and we toured the lakes, desert landscapes, and wineries of Penticton and Naramata, just south of Kelowna. It is a stunning area. The landscape slopes steep, brown, and rugged into immense wind-swept lakes, virtually empty of any activity, at least at this time of year. Signs marking hiking trails alert travelers that the rattlesnake season has begun, surprising and frightening the two of us, who are more comfortable in the convivial company of bears and cougars on our perambulations. And then there are hundreds of wineries, too many to visit, most of them beautiful.
We drank at two of them, the Hillside Estate where we ate lunch, and Volcanic Hills, where we bought wine. At the Hillside Estate Bistro, they serve food and wine pairings in a rustic but elegant dining room or out on a sun-bathed deck with beautiful views of the valley. The offerings (I had a merlot paired with a duck confit ragu on tagliatelle), while by no means superb, did nothing to take away from the setting and the scene, which were both precisely what I had in mind setting out as a wine tourist for a day. Volcanic Hills will celebrate its first year in business this summer and it may be a comer on the BC wine scene. They already claim a number of international awards (don’t there seem to be an awful lot of international awards around for wines to win?) and to my mind they make a fine, light Gamay Noir, which they sell for under $10 at the winery. It can be had for just a little more than that in Victoria, and I think it is a good sipping wine (I used it for the four cups at my Passover Seder). The trip, the food, the wine, the scene—it all made for good conversation, as often on scholarly topics as not.
In all, it was a great start to the conference. We’ll hope it doesn’t end in a hotel hallway.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Generally speaking, of course, perfection is an exceedingly rare experience. I've been trying to explain this to a student of mine. She finds that the more she learns about a topic that she's been closely studying for months, the less she knows. Her rooting through archives reveals, as much as anything, her inability to find the answers to her questions. Ultimately, the inquiry leads down an infinite number of paths, whereas her capacities are tragically finite, constrained by the hours set by the seniors who volunteer at a local archive, the deadline looming at the end of the semester, the energy that she has in a day.
I'm reminded, by her recognition of the impossibility of perfect knowledge, of Soren Kierkegaard. I read Kierkegaard, who disdained cafe intellectuals for their inability to focus their minds, in a small and smoky Second Cup on St. Denis in Montreal. More than anyone I'd ever read, Kierkegaard laboured under the burden of imperfection. Kierkegaard strove for a kind of position, or disposition, that recognized the impossibility of achieving perfection while simultaneously striving. But poor Kierkegaard abandoned the love of his life because he could not love her perfectly. He could not overcome his finitude.
Maybe he just didn't eat well. Because food can, somehow, sometimes, be perfect. It's not easy to explain and perhaps it's not replicable. Perhaps it can only happen when a tongue meets a morsel under peculiar and particular circumstances. A splash of wine that is balanced but assertive, the right sauce, distinctive but not domineering, and a seared, juicy, tender bite of flesh. Or perhaps an old tradition, perfected over generations and served without pretension.
I first tasted perfection in a white chocolate bar. It was summer, and my family was traveling through Europe, a formative trip for the three kids squished in the back of a red compact rental car. In Switzerland we stopped in historic and picturesque Grindelwald, and there my father and I descended the lowest portion of the Jungfrau, the "maiden" mountain of Bernese Alps. When we got to the bottom we were walking bow legged, our prevent-your-body-from-hurtling-down-the-mountain muscles having received an unprecedented (and never again replicated) workout. Somewhere along the way, in a small wooden shack, we purchased a white chocolate bar. Descending that mountain with my dad, surrounded by a majesty that I can scarcely even attempt to describe, on a day that was crisp, and cool, and sunny, that chocolate bar was just perfect.
I spent years purchasing white chocolate bars attempting to recapture the feeling before giving up. For the most part, white chocolate is just awful. But on that day, on that mountain, it was perfect.
Perhaps the lesson of the Jungfrau shares much with Kierkegaard's striving. White chocolate can be perfect in its time and place. Perfection happens when limits are not so much transcended as matched. Capacity is never boundless, but sometimes harmony is achieved.
I'm tired now, and Ilana is waiting for me to finish blogging about my youth, but I'll point to two restaurants that I think are coming pretty darned close to perfection. The chefs at each are somehow harmonizing limits with ambition, finitude with the infinite. They may not play a perfect tune on your palate, but they pretty much do so on mine. I've recently found moments of perfection at:
Chen's Shanghai in Richmond, which takes the dumpling to a higher plane.
Also, if you're ever in New York, Al di La in Brooklyn makes a tripe dish that soars above the limits of the everyday.
Disparate references, I know, but perfection is rare.
What about you, ever had a perfect bite?
Monday, April 4, 2011
This afternoon I was hungry. An 11:30 meeting, meant to be over in an hour, bled close to 1:00, which marked the start of a far from vigorous but still very enjoyable tennis match against a colleague. As that ended I was off to retrieve my daughter and a friend from their respective schools and home for a play date. In all, it was well past 3:00 when I finally wandered into my kitchen for a late lunch. I was a hungry historian.
When I’m very hungry, I feel it in my teeth. On very busy days like today, I’ll sometimes miss lunch at school. On days that are still rarer, I will also have skipped breakfast that morning, having begun work at 5:30 AM with a coffee and then failed to find time before the demands and routines of the morning for my own feeding. I usually first realize—as I’m scrambling to complete the budget justification on a grant proposal or reading aloud to myself in my office, for what feels like the dozenth time, an article manuscript that I’m hoping, finally, to send off by the close of the day (they don’t come often, but these are the days when a lunch will be forgotten)—that I’m loosing focus, that my mind is starting to spin. And then as I feel a pain emerging in behind my eyebrows, it dawns on me: I’m desperately hungry. Wait, did I skip lunch?!? And when my teeth start to ache I know my work is over.
This is a blog about enjoying great food in a place where it abounds. And in my life, hunger is a kind of a tamely masochistic game that I play on hectic days. But I’ve also begun to think lately about hunger, and I realize that I’m not even sure what it means. Recent estimates suggest that just under a billion people are chronically undernourished. About 1 in 7 people in the world are actually hungry, as a state of being. I don’t comprehend that kind of hunger, as a human and bodily experience. When a person lives in hunger, does the body cease to signal pain? Or does chronic hunger mean constant discomfort, a throbbing head, aching teeth?
Historians are accustomed to thinking of the world as profoundly and complexly stratified. We have intricate ways of conceiving and measuring the ways that societies have been and remain unequal. Some people have grasped more than others. Some of us have been granted a larger share while others have been denied. And yet, I’m not sure that we appreciate this fundamental division among people: luck, privilege, and the exercise of power open a chasm between those for whom hunger is a game and those for whom it is fundamental concern and life characteristic.
Friday, April 1, 2011
Click here to find Stage.
Fol Epi is located at:
398 Harbour Road
Victoria, BC V9A 0B7
Phone: (250) 477-8882
Click here to find out more about Ulla.
The property is both a farm and a restaurant, and proprietor/chef Brock Windsor uses his own produce and livestock as well as other local ingredients to create a new six course tasting menu every night. The food is impeccably executed, merging inventiveness with restraint and delivering dish after dish of tightly controlled, ingredient-driven, deliciousness.
The dining room is beautiful; we sat in front of the fireplace, which was delightful. The menu changes daily, but our meal began with a beet and blue cheese salad accompanied by show-stopping tomatoes, which I believe were grown on the farm. The next dish was a flawlessly seared "idiot fish" accompanied by white beans and house-raised bacon. The lightly seared porcini on the side of this dish perfectly represented the chef's commitment to letting his outstanding ingredients speak for themselves. Next, roasted pork on a flavourful bed of sautéed local corn and cauliflower mushrooms, a mellow but flavourful combination that vied for the high-point of the meal. This was followed by braised venison, seared polenta, and eggplant that had somehow absorbed the ideal quantity of soy sauce. After the fresh precision of the previous dishes, this heavier, meatier plate brought the meal to a perfect finale. With the real eating finished, Brock brought out duck egg crème brûlée, sending us happily and sweetly off to bed.
We chose to stay at the Inn with our kids, who had eaten earlier and slept in a room just up the stairs from the dining area while we ate. This was a great arrangement. Both Brock and Eric, who runs the dining room and waits tables, have young children and they were terrific with ours. The Inn is, in essence, a small house, so our kids could easily pop down when they needed us. The rooms themselves are clean, spacious, and very tastefully decorated.
The breakfast the next morning was just what you might imagine-more show stopping tomatoes, more home-grown bacon, and wonderful home-grown poached eggs. With great advice from Eric about other lesser known attractions of the valley, we set out for a wonderful day. The Stone Soup Inn is in the hands of generous and tremendously talented people. It is destination dining.
Click here to find out more about the Stone Soup Inn