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.