Monday, December 28, 2009

My Christmas 2009 Letter

I posted this Christmas letter to many wonderful friends - old and new - whose addresses I was able to procure. Alas, I wasn't able to send a hard copy to everyone I wanted. So here's the electronic version. I've been tempted to edit it as I didn't do so after writing the letter (it took 10 hours...5.5 of which were writer's block), but have fought the urge..so an unedited version!

CHRISTMAS 2009

I have to admit, when I sat down to write this Christmas letter (or is it a novel?), I found myself struggling with what to say. In fact, this is my sixth (and final) attempt. What could I write that I’d not said in previous Christmas letters? How could I avoid the ‘Year in Review’ format, while still giving you a glimpse of the transformative experiences I’ve be fortunate enough to have? And what if you expected me to be funny? How could I pull that off in the context of Christmas without resorting to self-depreciating tales of baking blunders or tree-hunting gone awry? What I really wished was that I could just give you a really, really big, long, warm hug and say ‘thank-you’ for being a part of the mosaic that is my life. In the absence of that, I wanted to give you words that could wrap themselves around you and give you reason to smile. But what kind of words could do that? I was at a loss and after much time spent thinking about what I could say, I decided I could not neglect lunch any longer. One cannot, after all, write on an empty stomach. And as I was making myself an omelet, it became clear that the only way forward with this letter was to invite you to dinner and offer you an ‘A La Carte’ menu of sorts. So please, have a seat, break the bread, pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy the meal.

A Teaser

This past year I’ve been consumed by all things food related, given that it’s the self-selected subject of my graduate research. Really, the love affair with food has been going on for many, many years but it’s only recently that I’ve gone from being smitten with food, to gaining a true appreciation for just how pervasive and important it is to every facet of our lives. At the beginning of the year I was under the rather na├»ve impression that my research of local food systems and sustainable agriculture would, at most, give me the knowledge and insight necessary to write a stellar thesis on the subject, or possibly, test my sanity. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be going on any life-changing adventures to foreign countries in the upcoming year. Instead I’d be interviewing food folks and trawling my way through academic literature. Sure, this educational pursuit seemed worthwhile on some levels, but I doubted it would offer anything especially valuable to the evolution of my perspective of the world, or insight into myself. I mean, come on, it’s graduate school. Enough said. Ah, but now, as the year comes to a close and I reflect on what the past twelve months has brought by way of unique experiences, lasting memories and gifts of insight, it is clear that my forays into ‘all things food’ have done much more than merely feed my hunger for knowledge.

Appertif #1 –Plant Seeds, So That You Can Grow

Until this summer, I’d never gardened, an admission I make with embarrassment given that I am such an advocate of eating locally. If pressed as to why I’d not taken it up in the past ten years I’d cite lack of permanency as the main reason – I mean, really, how easy is it grow a garden when you’re living smack in the middle of downtown Sydney or in an third story apartment in Edinburgh? But the truth is, I’m just not very patient. And as I learned from my mother, gardens take patience … and a lot of weeding. Neither of which really spoke to my strengths. And then this spring I learned that there was a community garden within one block of my house. How could I not garden? I thought, ignoring the fact that I was planning to traipse around the country for the all important planting and weeding months (i.e. May thru July). So I found a gardening partner who also had no vegetable gardening experience. We decided that, given our lack of gardening knowledge, the only thing that made sense was an experiment. And so the Great Tomato Experiment began in earnest. We planted about 24 commercial variety seedlings, as well as three varieties of heirloom cherry tomatoes. I got intermittent updates as to how well our ‘kids’ were doing while I was on the West and East coasts. By the time I came back to Kingston in mid-August, the tomato plants were burgeoning with red fruits. I picked and picked, ands still could not keep up with the supply of deliciousness streaming from our little garden plot. I started giving tomatoes to friends, and searched for recipes that called for ‘many tomatoes’. I had many people predict I would OD on tomatoes, but this was not the case. Instead, as winter falls upon us northerly folk, I find myself going through withdrawal. I cannot eat grocery store tomatoes any more. I’ve been spoiled by the taste of a real tomato. The only reprieve I can see in sight is the next growing season. I’ll be plowing and planting again, no doubt. As it turns out, the rewards of growing something from seed and tasting real food far outweigh any tests on my patience.

At the same time, I also started harvesting at another garden – a CSA to be precise. I’d signed up to do a ‘workshare’ at a Community Supported Agriculture farm on Wolfe Island. So in exchange for three hours of work per week, I would receive a small share of the farm’s harvest every week. On Thursdays I’d take the ferry to Wolfe Island, bike fifteen minutes to Vegetables Unplugged and start picking whatever vegetables were written on the chalkboard that day. It was not, as I’d expected, hard or boring work - quite the contrary in fact. I enjoyed searching out, picking, and bundling up the vast array of garden vegetables and conversing with the other harvesters. Mostly, though, I looked forward to the inevitable quiet that would descend on the day even as the bright sun ascended into the skies, and the chance to contemplate life or something less esoteric, like what to make for dinner that night, without the mighty distractions that I’ve invited into my daily life. It seemed to be an escape of sorts, although in retrospect, I think I’d call it a return to something innately familiar and comforting.


Appertif #2 - Eat Together So That You May Sow the Seeds of Friendship

The Amish, as I discovered while visiting Pennsylvania, know how to entertain a crowd. Into their modest farmhouse, one Amish family found a way to squeeze 40 adults (academics and students who were attending a food conference) around a very, very long table (their walls are collapsible, so that they can hold church services in the home). I was lucky to count myself amongst their guests. We were served platter after platter of the most delectable dishes – the best mashed potatoes ever, a roast so tender it almost felt wrong to swallow, and apple pie that …but I digress. The best part of the meal came after dessert. That’s when the Amish father/husband passed around music sheets and told us that we’d be singing together - Amazing Grace. So we did. And then he told us that when they get together with new people over dinner, it is tradition for everyone to introduce himself/herself and share a little bit about their family and where they were from and what they did for a living. I was sure he must be kidding – he didn’t really expect all forty of us to share this information – surely that would take forever?? But then we started and it took awhile, but that didn’t matter in the end. What’s time matter when you’re sitting at a table full of strangers who are giving you a glimpse into their lives? I daresay we’d do well to take our lead from the Amish when it comes to eating dinner: eat well, eat with others, sing songs together and if you find yourself amidst strangers recognize that they are just friends waiting to be made.

My Amish meal was not the first or last memorable meal I’ve shared with friends, new or old, this year. The cold, dark winter months in Kingston were bearable only because there were endless potluck get-togethers staggered throughout January, February and March. I didn’t really need to be reminded that I am fortunate to have such a wonderful group of friends in my new, albeit probably temporary, home of Kingston, but the potlucks sealed the deal and, quite possibly, contributed to my decision coming into spring that I needed to train for a half-marathon. Spring and summer was a blur of eating experiences - from being taken to a fantastic Italian cooking class in Vancouver by my wonderful friend, Andrew, to celebrating Memorial Day with a classic BBQ in Pittsburgh with Emily and her family, to toasting my friend Schemida and her husband at their wedding in Halifax, to many welcome home and farewell dinners at various pubs and restaurants in PEI. A big table filled with plates of food and pints of beer is, without fail, the best venue at which to catch up with old friends, celebrate milestones, and shape new memories.

Entree - A Community

Unexpectedly, adventure showed up at my door this fall when I ventured south of the border to a wee state known as Vermont, where I was to spend a month doing data collection on the much-talked-about local food system developing in one of their many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sized towns called Hardwick. I was intent on completely immersing myself in the local food scene during my short stint in Vermont, so I decided upon arriving that I would not shop at any chain grocery stores, and would endeavor to eat only foods that had been grown/processed locally or, at the very least, organically. I also vowed to sample the local restaurant cuisines, indulge in some of the state’s brews and wines, and attend as many food-related events as possible. All of this, of course, in addition to carrying out interviews with all sorts of folks involved in local food development – from agro-entrepreneurs, to government workers, to retailers, to farmers (my favorite group of interviewees in the end).

The weeks flew by as I ate my way from one event to the next, making friends out of strangers across tables filled with lamb dishes of every conceivable kind, rolling out pie crusts in a commercial kitchen so that food pantries would be stocked with pumpkin pies come the holidays, shopping the aisles of Buffalo Mountain Co-op, taking part in the weekly community lunch held in Hardwick, rustling up dinners from local meats and root vegetables, chatting with farmers and foodies, and celebrating my first, but hopefully not last, American Thanksgiving. And somehow, by the end of my stay in Hardwick, I knew that this sliver of time had changed something inside me and would, very likely, shift everything in time.

It’s funny, we’re often led to believe that the pivotal moments in life are the ones Hallmark has cards for, or the ones we’ve been dreaming about for years and years. But the truth is, far more often, your perspective or your life’s direction shifts quietly, bit by bit, being gently pushed or pulled by small, seemingly innocuous encounters and experiences that, individually, amount to nothing more than an anecdote to share on one’s blog or a memory to be tapped when you’re craving some nostalgia down the road. Collectively, however, they might just have the power to shift your thoughts, your actions, even your life’s compass. But you probably won’t realize it’s happening as it is, and when you finally do get time to breathe, when you return to the familiarity of ‘home’, and discover you are not the same as when you left, you’ll have to make a choice to either nurture these delicate new feelings and thoughts that have found their way into your head and heart, or let them wither out before they’ve had a chance to grow lasting roots.

A Digestif
I know, I know. You are feeling STUFFED by now right? Hopefully not over-stuffed, but one more bite would send you over the top to be sure. So, I’m going to hold off on dessert, but would like to offer you a digestif - something to finish off this meal of rather epic wordiness and I do hope you’ll indulge.

Plant a Garden. Feed Old Friendships. Pour Pints. Try New Dishes. Sing Together. Share Food With Strangers. Watch Yourself Grow. Eat With Others. Celebrate at Dinner Tables. Experiment with the Recipe. And Be Open to Changing the Menu.

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And that, my friends, marks the close of this meal.

I do hope you find yourself giving and receiving food, warmth and, of course, love, in all the days that are still to come.

Oh, and please remember to thank those that make it possible for us to enjoy food every day including the cook(s), the bakers, the gardeners and, of course, the farmers.

May the spirit of Christmas rest in your heart throughout the year,
Shannon

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The EAT Coast - A Kitchen Party in Halifax, Nova Scotia

I'd convinced myself that the moment I left Vermont and crossed the border into Canada, I would be freed from the seemingly never-ending opportunities to indulge in tempting foods grown locally. Then I realized I'd be crossing the border into Quebec and spending a weekend in Montreal, where the French-Canadiens still 'souvien's that 'bonne nouriturre' is a key ingredient to a 'bonne vie'. Plus, heck let's face it, they're smart and they know that soveriegnty and food independence go hand in hand. So, with visions of cheeses wheels and maple sugar candies dancing in my head, I promised myself I'd reform my gluttonous ways after the weekend, all the while ignoring the fact that this would also mark the last turn of the calendar year.

Yes, that's right, somehow I thought December would be an opportune time to begin reparations to my body which, with the exception of my taste buds, had suffered noticeably from six weeks of life south of the border. ( To be fair, this wasn't a completely absurd thought given that I have *actually* lost weight over the holidays in years past.) I rationalized that there'd be few, if any, social occasions where I could be a 'locav-or-ganic' and that had been my only justification for all the eating I'd done in Vermont - really it was purely research-based eating.
Well, in any case, it turned out I was wrong. Very wrong. I had underestimated the burgeoning local food scene on the East Coast of Canada (now affectionally referred to as the 'Eat Coast'), where I would be spending the remaining days of 2009. And, as I discovered on a weekend trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I had also grossly underestimated my friend Tarek's affinity for all things edible and local. He might very well love food as much as me. And that is saying a lot.

Cook. Eat. Drink. Repeat. That basically sums up my weekend in Halifax with Tarek. We did throw in one random 'Jog' on Sunday afternoon, just to shake things up a bit. Even that, however, involved food, as Tarek pointed out restaurants worth visiting along our jogging route and we ended our run with a visit to Pete's Frootique, where organic and local foods were on offer. At the end of the weekend, we agreed we would have to co-author a blog post about Eating on the East Coast. And so, here is what we got up to and chowed down on in Nouvelle Ecosse, in a sort of 'She Said, He Said' manner:

At a Warehouse in Brooklyn

Shannon Said
I made the 3.5 hour drive from PEI to Halifax on a gusty Friday afternoon - the Confederation Bridge was shut to high-sided vehicles and the speed limit for cars was 40km. My Toyota Echo was like a tin can, being whipped around the road every time gust of wind blew up Why am I sharing these seemingly non-food related details of my trip? Because it meant that I couldn't eat. And so, by the time I'd arrived in Halifax I'd had only a blueberry-banana almond shake the entire day. And Tarek clearly had his priorities figured out by the time we arrived at his apartment - they were of the liquid variety. So my next nourishment of the day was also drinkable - this time it was Irish and stout (like a leprechaun!). Suffice to say, by the time we headed out for dinner at 9pm I was ravishing.....in appetite, not in appearance.

I have to give Tarek great credit - he did his research on restaurants before I even showed up and then sent me links to a few of the websites, including one that featured a picture of a rather angry looking chef holding a big carving knife. The menu was more appealing than the chef's photo, and so we found ourselves walking the blustery (i.e. bloody cold) streets of Halifax in search of the very unobviously named 'Brooklyn Warehouse' (the building bore no resemblance to a warehouse and there was no bridge to Manhattan in sight...not even the one to Dartmouth was visible). We'd timed our arrival so we could take advantage of the Prix Fixe menu - a 3 course meal with options for each appetizer and the main. After very little contemplation we also decided we needed to consume more alcohol, this time in the form of a red wine. By the end of our meal I was stuffed, slightly inebriated and wholly impressed with the food, service and ambience provided by the Brooklyn Warehouse. I had a delicious warm mushroom salad served on a generous portion of greens, a terrine platter with pita and a variety of yummy dips, and for the main course chose the pork chop, which was even tastier once I learned that it had been sourced locally. So in the end, we each had an amazing 3 course meal, great service, and a shared a decent bottle of Pinot Noir for less than a hundred dollars. I'm not sure you'd be able to find a comparable meal for such a steal in the 'other' Brooklyn. Maybe, but I doubt it. Plus, chances of being mugged after dinner are probably lower in Halifax...

Tarek Said

When Shannon arrived we wasted no time getting right into one of our favourite pastimes - eating. We knew where we wanted to go - the Brooklyn Warehouse - and we knew what we wanted - the Prix Fixe menu. We had been planning this well before her arriva. So we braved the cold and windy night and walked over to the Brooklyn Warehouse. I went for the Mixed Greens, Red Curry Steamers and the Pork Chop and to go along with it all, we had a very nice Pinot Noir. I'm not going to give you a blow by blow of each course but I will say everything was fantastic. The mixed greens were delicious, the red curry mussels were amazing but the piece de resistance was the pork chop and risotto. I've made risotto many times, so needless to say I've had some really good risotto and occasionally some not-so-good risotto. I wasn't sure to expect, sure bacon in risotto makes sense, bacon does make everything taste better, but I would never have though of combining bacon and vanilla together but it worked! The pork chop was juicy and delicious! I didn't think Shannon and I were going to eat that good again all weekend long but thankfully I thought wrong!




Local pork chops, bacon-vanilla risotto
and seasonal vegetables.








Bacon Makes Everything Better

Tarek Said

The next day I tried and tried to convince Shannon to get up early with me to go to the Farmer's Market. The reason I wanted to go early was because I had to work, sadly some banks are opened on Saturdays, and the only way for me to do both, the market and work is to get to the market before anyone else. Personally, I love going to the market before the rush but if you know Shannon, you know she's not a morning person. She said she would go later and pick up whatever we were going to need. I felt safe letting Shannon pick the ingredients and she did not disappoint. She came back with 11 scallops in the shell @ $0.45 each (but he only charged her for 10 because he thought she was cute), a pound of nitrate free bacon, some locally made cheese (smoked Gouda I think) and some cauliflower. After work I picked up some traditional (raw) kibbie and mint from my father's restaurant. When my father makes kibbie he uses the nicest cut of beef from a local butcher. I picked up 2 pieces of cooked kibbie too. Our main course was going to be a piece of local grass fed beef but we quickly realized we had too much food so we left the steaks for another night. The guy at the market told Shannon how we should cook the scallops, steam them in a pan with some wine and garlic. Simple but delicious and with a small piece of bacon on top..... didn't I say bacon makes everything taste better! I always enjoy traditional kibbie, as it's not something my father makes very often. Kibbie and mint make an excellent combination and I was happy to see that Shannon was not turned off by eating raw beef. We polished off the scallops, cheese and kibbie with a bottle of wine, but sadly I can't think of what kind, or even if it was red or white. How much did we drink??

Shannon Said

OK, let's clarify something right now. I am neither a morning person, nor am I a non-morning person. I can get up early when need be, function at almost 100% and don't even growl at people (most of the time). But when Tarek suggested that we should get up at the ungodly early hour of 7.00 am just so we could get to the Farmer's Market before he went off to his bank job, I put up some resistance. Maybe a lot of resistance. I mean, really, I chose to become a studetn again expressly so I am not a slave to the alarm clock. I told him I'd go to the market on my own and get anything he wanted. He asked for bacon and scallops - I was also meant to pick up vegetables for him and his brother to eat throughout the week.

The Halifax Farmer's Market is AMAZING. I'd been once before, but had basically been dragged through it at high-speed in search of Belgian waffles. This time, I was on my own and had no schedule. The market is housed in a huge, old brick building on the waterfront. Inside, it's a labyrinth of hallways, stairwells and rooms filled with food and craft artisans selling their wares. There were two young guys at the entrance - one was playing a fiddle, the other a stand-up bass - yes, I was indeed back in the Maritimes. Just beyond them, I found chocolate and cheese purveyors. Clearly, this was going to be a fruitful market venture! I wandered around the market, ogling all sorts of goodies and plotting how I could make my purchases and still have a hand free to hold a crepe (I'd not had breakfast). I ended up with two bags full of groceries - bay scallops in the shellfrom a sustainable aquaculture outfit (loved that the guy was able to tell me how to cook them), nitrie-free bacon and sausages from Sweet Williams, apple cider, gouda cheese, and a tonne of vegetables including leeks, kale and organic potatoes. I am still curious as to what the guys did with the leeks and kale!

In the afternoon we stopped by Tarek's Cafe (Tarek's father is also named Tarek and has a restaurant in the North End of Halifax, where Tarek picked up some raw and cooked beef kibbie - this would be my second time eating raw meat. My mother, who works for the CFIA, might be cringing, but I trusted the source. We had been planning to cook up two local, grass fed steaks that Tarek already had in the fridge, but after looking at what we had planned for 'appetizers' I think we both realised we were being overly ambitious. So we saved the beef, and had a delicious sampling of cheeses, pita, raw/cooked meat, and scallops topped with bacon, all of which went well with the Pinot Grigio I'd picked up at the liquor store. I can't stop raving about the scallops and bacon - what an amazing combination. Maybe it's true, maybe bacon DOES make everything taste better, but I did have a few non-bacon adorned scallops and they held their own.












Bay scallops topped with bacon.

A GOURMET AFFAIR AT TAREK'S CAFE

Shannon Said

Tarek told me his father was charming (a trait which, according to Tarek, has not been inherited by him...I've yet to make my own conclusion.), and he was spot on with this descriptor. Late Sunday afternoon we made our way to Tarek's Cafe with beef steaks in hand, hopeful Tarek's father could BBQ them up on his grill. Evidently we looked like we were starving because his father insisted we have a seat while he cooked us up a feast. And he wasn't exagerrating in the least. Plate after plate arrived before us. Well, actually we were first presented with a bowl of spicy peanut shrimp soup - apparently the spice Tarek's father put in the soup was supposed to have special effects, which I'll refrain from elaborating on. Next up was grilled calamari wrapped around asparagus sticks, then just in case we were still hungry after all that lovely seafood, a plate of dips and pita arrived at the table. Despite already being close to full I couldn't pass up the baba ganoush and hummus that were tempting me. Mmmmmm...so delicious and so garlicky!

By the time our main meal was placed in front of us, served with a generous portion of linguine accented by garlic, of course, and steamed vegetables, I was *almost* convinced that one could, indeed, overdose on deliciousness. Still, there was steak to be eaten and I didn't want to appear ungrateful to our wonderful host/chef so I tentatively ate the steak, certain w that my stomach was plotting its vengence with every passing bite. And then they, the two Tareks, poured the last of the SECOND bottle of red wine and it was suggested that we might like to try Arak, a Syrian liquor with a 51.5% proof. Shot glasses were procurred and I drew on the last of my reserves to down two shots of the good stuff. It tasted a lot like zambuca (sp?) or licorice.

Tarek's father, who has been living in Halifax for over thirty years, was a great conversationalist ( a trait his son definitely inherited) and over the course of dinner I learned lots about the restaurant scene in the city (evidently it's changed a lot over the years) and about Tarek's Cafe. The restaurant has been in operation for 12 years, and has expanded in size over time. It is an order-at-the-counter and take a seat or take away type of place (i.e. there's no table service). The menu is mostly Middle Eastern fare, with many pitas, platters and kebab options on the menu. Notably, there's also a juice bar. I asked Tarek (the chef) why he advertised 'gluten free' options and he told me that he had customers who started telling him they couldn't eat wheat because they had celiac disease. So he decided to read up about the disease and now offfers a menu that is about 90% (this may not be correct percentage) gluten free. He also offers many vegetarian menu items.

We also had a bit a conversation about garlic - I noted that while he was catering to celiacs, he seemed to be opposed to having any vampires come withing a 50 foot radius of his restaurant. To say that Tarek appreciates what garlic can do for a dish would be an understatement. Apparently the restaurant goes through 20 to 25 lbs of the stuff a week!!! Tarek (the younger one) told me when he worked at Tarek's 2 (a sister restauarnt owned by his Uncle....so more of a brother restaurant reall) that he would bring bulbs of garlic home and mince/shave them while watching tv. Hehe. The walls at Tarek's Cafe were adorned with bouquets of garlic bulbs just in case any diner was unclear on the love affair the restauranteur had with this plant. Oh my. We talked about many other things, I am sure, but by then the Arak had hit me and I was distracted by worries about whether I'd be able to walk at all given the amount of food and alcohol in me.

Somehow we made it back to Tarek's apartment and managed to find room for some amazing maple ice wine and fudge, which we enjoyed while talking to our friend who lives in Alberta via Skype (the one whose wedding Tarek and I met at this past summer). Monday we went back to Tarek's Cafe for lunch - from the menu this time. I had the Chicken Souvlaki pita with tabouli salad and it was, unsurprisingly, extremely tasty. As I was trying to finish my pita, it occurred to me that I was very lucky neither of my parents had decided to go into the restaurant business. I can only imagine what impact such a decision would have had on me over the years, given my affinity for eating. I am quite certain my waistline would be in even dire straits than it is currently.

I left Halifax fully satiated and with intetions of returning sometime in the new year to enjoy the farmer's market, more of Tarek's hospitality (but shhh...he doesn't know I'm going to drop in on him again!) and some of the restaurants I didn't get around to eating at this time.

Tarek said

For Sunday night's meal we were going to have the grass fed beef. My brother and I had bought an 1/8th (or some fraction) of a cow and even before we received the meat, Shannon and I had agreed we were going to have a steak when she came to visit! We weren't sure what to cook with it, not that we were tired of cooking or out of ideas, I think we were tired from our 10k run that afternoon. We brought over the steak, and a bottle of Don David Malbec (red wine) to my father's restaurant for him to cook on the BBQ. Of course, he made us a few delicious appetizers. I rarely eat that well when I go there alone! Our first appetizer was a molokia soup with shrimp and roasted pine nuts. At some point, the 3 of us, Shannon, my father and myself, finished the bottle of wine we brought over so opened up another bottle of Don David my father just happened to have in the back kitchen. Finally, we had the steak with some asparagus on the side. The steak was perfectly cooked, nice and tender and delicious. Shannon and my father got along, she picked his brain about food and the restaurant business. Afterward, we went back to my apartment and had some fudge we bought that afternoon from Pete's Frootique and a bottle of Jost Maple Ice Wine that had been sitting around the apartment waiting for just the right occasion, and when two 'foodies' get together, they will make the right occasion happen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An EPICurean Ending

I must preface this blog post with a warning to readers that it *may* contain some controversial/sensitive subject matter. Do not proceed if you are staunchly opposed to strange food combinations, Americans teaching Canadians how to play hockey, or the BBQing of poultry on a special occasion.

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Sadly, my sojourn south of the border has come to close, at least for the time being. My final two and a half weeks in Vermont left me wanting for nothing, except, perhaps, a second stomach and a higher tolerance level for fine red wine. In any case, data collection continued to fill my days, and was especially interesting coming on the end, as I finally tracked down some farmers to talk to. They were, by and large, the most interesting interviewees and if I were living in Vermont, I'd be begging one of them for an internship position so I can learn how to use a ho.

Outside of official research activities, I continued to take in as much of the local food scene as possible through direct observations (i.e. copious amounts of food consumption). Luckily, by this time I'd managed to meet some people who were willing to cook, eat, and drink with me, which meant I no longer relegated myself to Friday nights sitting in Kate's kitchen alone, drinking Boyden Valley apple wine and eating local Holstein balls. To be fair, this particular scenario only occurred twice, but that was 2 times too many for this social Canadian (not to be mistaken with a socialist Canadia because, as I was informed more than once by left-winged Vermonters, 'socialist' is a dirty word in most parts of the US, which I kind of already knew, but found amusing/concerning anyways). So, in the interests of trying to finish this blog post before another turkey dinner comes my way, here are the top 3 food stories from my final weeks in Vermont. Organized, quite judiciously, in chronological order from most matured to freshest.


PIES FOR PEOPLE

On a wet Tuesday evening (Nov 17th), after a full day of interviewing that had left me with no time to eat lunch or dinner, I found myself heading to Sterling College, which is located about half an hour from Hardwick in the small town of Craftsbury. Sterling College is the smallest college in the US, with about 100 students enrolled (that's a total #, over four years!), and on this particular evening, the college's kitchen was to serve as the functional venue for pie and soup making on a rather grand scale.

The task at hand: to make approximately 120 to 150 pumpkin pies for food pantries in the local area, and to make as much soup as possible from the squash puree that had been donated courtesy of High Mowing Seeds. The people who would make it happen: volunteers from Sterling College (mostly students, but also at least one staff member) and UVM (again, a mix of students & staff) and, um, one random Canadian grad student who found herself feeling ancient amongst a group of 20 year-olds that were remarkably mature and knew their way around a kitchen. Our fearless, brillian leader: Elena, who works at the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick (the non-profit organization that spearheaded the Pies for People project this year) ) and wielded her cooking and organizing skills to great effect. Within the span of 2 and half hours we managed to prepare, from scratch, 110 pie crusts, and defreeze (thaw?) the pie filling and squash soup puree. Oh, and clean! It was a fun night, captured on camera! Not to mention: This was really the 'final piece of the pie' in an inspiring collaboration between local farms, agriculture processors and schools, that committed to bringing Pies to the People, from planting, to harvesting, to pureeing, to preparing the final product.

I think this may be the first time I’ve prepared dessert without so much as a sample tasting! Notably, it was also one of the most enjoyable baking experiences I’ve had. I was salivating (figuratively, not literally b/c that would be gross) over the wonderful expansiveness of a commercial kitchen, all decked out with professional kitchen gadgets, pots galore, sharp knives and a sound system to boot... oh yeah, we were groovin’ to all sorts of tunes. My favorite eavesdropping moment of the evening was when the Dean of Students (probably not actually his official title, but it was something like that) for Sterling College who I’d guess was in his late forties, asked the young male student whose playlist was blaring out of the speakers what the name of the band playing was. When the student replied 'Death Cab for Cutie', the Dean asked him to repeat the name and then responded with 'uh huuuhhh'. I have to admit I felt a hint of jubilation that I recognized the name of the band - maybe I'm not so old after all.

APPLE & BACON A LA CRISP


My friend, Phil, had invited me along to a birthday celebration he was going to and suggested we make a locav-or-ganic dish to take with us. I told him I had a tonne of apples to use up and some local bacon from Bonnieview Farm that I'd been assured was delicious and nitrite free, assuming he'd suggest an apple dish and we would eat the bacon ourselves. Well, it turns out I underestimated the creative cook lurking in Phil, who promptly sent me a recipe for Apple-Bacon Pie. No really, Google it - there are a number of recipes out there for this strange savory-sweet combination of vitamins and fat.

Well, I'm not going to lie, I balked at the suggestion of bringing an Apple-Bacon pie to a birthday party where I knew no one. I could just imagine what they'd think/say. 'And then this Canadian girl showed up with an apple pie that had BACON in it'. It's a well known fact that Americans have a claim on apple pie, hence the phrase 'As American as apple pie', and Canadian Bacon is held in high esteem around the world, heck there's even a movie by the name! Did I really want to be the one to suggest an assimilation of these foods, a merger of deeply rooted culinary heritages? I think not. I am not that brave.

But then I came around to the idea, mostly b/c Phil was so enthusiastic about it and I'm not keen on extinguishing creativity in the kitchen. I gave him the simple task of peeling and slicing the apples and set about making the pie crust. The recipe called for a pre-made crust, but I was intent on making a crust that was from local or organic ingredients so started from scratch with organic flour, local Amish butter, and organic sugar. It seems, however, that I'd become a little too confident in my baking abilities and assumed that I could 'wing it' on the pastry recipe since I'd helped prepare 120 pie crusts earlier in the week (I somehow ignored the fact that Elena had given us very specific ingredient amounts to work with when we made the pie crust mix). Well, in any case, the Amish hadn't packaged their butter in the conventional 'stick', so I had to eyeball the amount. It should be noted that as I patted the dough into the pie pan, I commented to Phil that I *may* have put a bit more butter in than necessary. It turns out I was right on the money in this respect, as I discovered when I checked to see that the pie crust was baking up properly. It was not. Rather, the pastry dough had turned into a soggy, oily, unsalvageable mess.

I attempted to cover my embarrassment at the disastrous results of my pastry-making attempt, by using the oldest trick in the Cook's book - improvisation.

'Sooo...I don't think we're going to be bringing an apple-bacon pie to the party after all. Umm....how about an apple-bacon crisp?' I suggested, while taking a sizeable gulp of red wine in an effort to forget about my baking debacle. It didn't work. So I took another swig and then admitted to being embarrassed by my baking blunder. Phil didn't bat an eye, although he *may* have chuckled a little bit.

I do believe the apple-bacon crisp was thoroughly enjoyed by those that tried it. We ended up with a crisp to suit the vegetarian/traditional eaters and the more adventuresome/carnivorous eaters at the party by sprinkling the bacon on half of the crisp. In the end, I'm kind of glad I messed up the pie crust, because there's no saying that goes 'As American as apple crisp', so I didn't have to worry about justifying the intermingling of culinary heritages, only about the absurdity of pairing bacon with apples. And for the record, the Bonnieview Farm bacon is the best bacon I've ever had.




SMOKEY THE TURKEY AND AMERICAN-STYLE STICK GAMES


While it's true that we have Thanksgiving in Canada, I have come to discover that our celebration of the harvest is markedly different than that of our American counterparts in many ways. First, there's the obvious - Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in mid-October, Americans in late November. When I was quizzed as to why Canadians had their turkey day so early, I had to postulate, on the spot, that our harvest is likely to end earlier given our northerly climate. This seemed to placate the American inquisitors, but then they (and by they, I mean Joe S.) came back with 'well, what are you celebrating exactly? I mean, did you have pilgrims?' Sigh, no we didn't have pilgrims and I have no idea why we celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada when it's not a British tradition, I suppose it must have been one of the few times we've been inspired by the American way.

As an aside to any Canadians visiting the States - you will be expected to know the rationale for everything that Canada and its inhabitants do or purport to be. You may, for example, be required to explain the Parliamentary system (just tell them it's like the British system with an air of assumption that everyone whose anyone understands the British system of government and they'll back off), or give them a list of Canadian foods (poutine is the obvious fallback here, but you could throw in some other French words for fun like 'tourtiere de lappin' or 'fromage souper' or 'le Horton's de Tim), or, if you're really lucky, someone will ask you what you think of single-payer (i.e. 'socialist) health care. At this point I suggest announcing that a Canadian invented basketball (they'll fight this to the tooth & nail, but just send them here to Canadian Heritage Minutes), that Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and that the Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key upon seeing Fort McHenry heavily bombarded by the Brits during the War of 1812, which was a war the US basically lost. For extra umph, make mention that the tune of their anthem is actually that of a very popular British drinking song of the time. This should be enough to encourage a change of subject, at which point you can stop worrying about not knowing why Canadians do what they do.

So in the lead up to American Thanksgiving (Nov. 26th) I was presented with two equally tempting invitations. Kate, whom I'd been staying with in Hardwick, invited me to the afternoon dinner she was attending- her daughter and her daughter's friend would be preparing the meal and both of them were professionally trained chefs. If I stayed in Hardwick I could also take part in the community lunch, which would feature turkey and all the trimmings. Two turkey dinners in one day - very, very tempting! On the other hand, Joe had invited me to join him and his wife, Maura, at their friends' (Charles & Holly) house for a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (i.e. for those that had nowhere else to go). Charles and Holly own the Penny Cluse Cafe in Burlington, where both Maura and Charles cook up divine dishes. So, again, dinner would be prepared by two chefs. Really, I couldn't go wrong with either invitation, but in the end I opted for the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving with Joe & Maura for various reasons that may or may not have included mention of street hockey and special drink concoctions by Joe.

The day's festivities got off to a roaring start with Joe explaining to those of us standing in his driveway packing the car for the trip to Shelburne, his ingenious idea for transforming a tennis ball into a less bouncy, heavier, puck-like ball for the street hockey games that would take place later on.

'I stuffed some caulk in the balls', he stated rather proudly

And so, unsurprisingly, there was excessive use of the words 'caulk' and 'balls' throughout the day and well into the evening. By the end of the day, Joe was squeezing the caulk out of his balls - a messy job, but somebody's gotta do it.

We made a stop at the Penny Cluse to pick up Maura and a load of food that would be served up at dinner that evening, then headed for the countryside. The festivities began promptly upon arrival at Charles and Holly's with Joe mixing up some sort of cranberry-whisky (?) concoction that he dubbed 'Dirty Turkey' (I think, although I could be corrected on this). He offered me a sample. I tried to decline and failed. OK, here's the thing, I had accidentally consumed far more than my share of two bottles of fine red wine the evening before and was in no shape to be drinking anything besides water. So after one sample I bowed out of the alchol consumption (until I found myself gravitating towards a nice bottle of Riesling later on in the afternoon).

The afternoon was a blur of guests arriving and food being prepared while other food was simultaneously being thoroughly enjoyed. There was a cheese plate, a lamb sausage plate (courtesy of Bonnieview Farms - again, delicious fare!), scallop casserole , cauliflower soup, melon wrapped in prosciutto and that was just the appetizers. I kid you not.

At some point Joe, Charles, and some of the kids made their way outside for some street hockey action (it should be noted it was actually driveway hockey and that Charles had constructed end-boards so not every ball that missed the net had to be chased across the road...). I decided it was time to come into my own as a Canadian and so, for the first time in my life, I picked up stick and played hockey. Yes, yes, I am far too aware of how un-Canadian it is for me to have NEVER played hockey - street or ice - in the 29 years I've claimed citizenship of the great hockey nation. What can I say? I blame my parents. They gave me books to read and a bike to ride, but no hockey stick. Furthermore, I am well aware that Alanis would say 'isn't it ironic?' upon learning that my first hockey game was played south of the 49th parallel.

Well, in any event, I had a blast playing street hockey despite not being properly attired and completely perplexed as to why Charles was repeatedly calling me by my full name. And then, of course, there was Joe, who started calling out 'skrit' and 'ditch pig' as if I should know what the heck he was saying. Evidently I don't speak Canadian slang. I was feeling less and less like a true Canadian as the game wore on, but then, through some miracle of miracles, I scored on the net with a fantastic assist from a teammate! Woooh - there might be hope for me after all.

Meanwhile, while us humans were eating appetizers and playing in the driveway, Tom was spending his afternoon in the BBQ. At six o'clock we (approximately 12 of us) gathered around the dinner table where platters and dishes of food awaited us. I cannot even begin to recall the entire dinner - clearly Tom was the star of the show, a divine tasting turkey that had been grilled and thus had a hint of smokiness that was delightful. In addition there was stuffing which had been baked in a hollowed out pumpkin, mashed potatoes, endive casserole, some delicious roast vegetables with brussel sprouts and bacon making the dish particularly unique, scrumptious dinner rolls that Charles literally tossed to the guests (a little taste of football at the table!), cranberry relish, and other delights I am sure I am missing.

So we proceeded to stuff ourselves with deliciousness courtesy of Maura and Charles. It was, quite simply, a wonderful meal and I was so grateful to be a part of this special gathering of a closely knit group of friends, each one equally interesting, engaging, warm and welcoming. I've always maintained that friends are the family you choose, and I could see this sentiment rang very true in Charles and Holly's house that evening.

After dinner, many of us found our way back to the driveway for more street hockey. Joe had eased up on the 'skrit' name-calling, but dubbed me a 'cherry-picker'. It was neither here nor there to me, since I had no idea what the term meant. So I scored another goal and tried to avoid getting injured on my last day in a country that doesn't have universal health care. At one point, Harold, a friend of Joe's, took a time-out from playing hockey to tune up his fiddle. He sat on the sidelines playing jigs, reels and the such while we chased after Joe's caulky balls in the darkness of a late November evening.

And then we came inside for dessert and more mingling - after dinner arrivals had come in full force from their own festivities to say hello and catch up with friends and neighbors. At some point Joe and I discussed pop psychology and he pegged my Myers-Briggs personality type, which impressed me. That's when I advised him that the Star Spangled Banner was a defeatist war song, which did not impress him.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to our gracious hosts, Charles and Holly. I think I may have made a promise to come back to Burlington solely to enjoy the next Penny Cluse dinner series meal. If it means eating delicious food and enjoying the company of some of the delightful people I met at my first American Thanksgiving, then I may very well find myself back in Vermont sooner then I'd planned. And that would be perfectly fine by me.


Stuffing in Pumpkin - YUM!


Tom is grilled. Joe makes a friend.