Category Archives: Food Politics

Are restaurants meant to be missionaries?

Last night I went out to celebrate a friends birthday at the new extension to Nicli Antica Pizzaria, Vicino . The meal was fabulous, the space very cool, birthday celebrations always good. But I have to admit that I went home with a stomach ache. It was certainly not Vicino’s fault, at least not directly. It had to do with the rather uncomfortable one block walk from Columbia and E Cordova to the restaurant. You see the only parking to be had was right in front of the Anchor of Hope Salvation Army. And the crowd out front did not exactly seem hopefully, in fact I was more than a little worried for my safety.

I thought I was being a little sheltered until I reached my group, and my boyfriend commented that I should have called from my car and had him come get me and walk me down the block. I was more than a little stressed out over this.

Am I a snob? Maybe. Sheltered? Well yes, probably. But the whole thing was so weird. To practically sprint down the block to avoid crackheads and then come in to Peroni, and $10 per oz. beef jerky, and in house made prosciutto, and other (really delicious) modern hipster excess just seemed completely bourgeoise.

Is this what Gastown is now? I suppose it was coming. Once a few dive bars started getting a more influential following, it was just a hop skip and a jump to organic butchers, South African gastropubs, and charcuterie down alleys. Then there’s Save On Meets, a Gastown experiment so smug it even got its own show on OWN . Is it just because it’s cheaper, better for business? Or is it just that elusive hipness that’s so necessary to keep a restaurant humming along in Vancouver. I have a feeling though that its much more desperate; the deep soul satisfaction that the middle class get when they help out somehow with “the downtown eastside situation”.

Now lets be frank; it’s shitty down there. Deeply horrible. But that doesn’t mean that putting a new nice restaurant in the middle of it is somehow helping out. It’s just forcing the unappealing to the side, over one more block maybe. At worst these new new places become the neighborhood equivalent of new gold fillings in a meth addicts mouth. They’re out of place, and kind of pointless if the recipient is still on the goddamn meth.

The the downtown eastside isn’t a zoo and I for one don’t like going down there to garp at the detritus. So I’m not sure what the point of all these new places are. Are we somehow bringing money into the area? Not unless we get mugged on our way to Chill Winston. Are we just putting a happy modern face on a poverty problem that shows no signs of slowing down? Pasting over poverty with high end furniture shops and gelaterias?

What do you think? Should we keep up the gentrification of Gastown, or leave the homeless a neighborhood to be homeless in?

What will they think of next?

Fusion. What was at first such an exciting word in the world of food has earned a decidedly bad reputation. “Fusion” used to mean daring combination of Asian and classical elements. Now seeing it on a menu, or even worse, the name of the very restaurant, seems to signal to the diner overly elaborate hack versions of dishes that everyone was perfectly fine with in the first place. At its best, fusion can be a celebration of creativity and a well-traveled chef. At its very worst its a flashy pipe dream that disrespect the ingredients and the cultures it sprang from in the first place.
You can eat almost anything in Vancouver . In fact its very diversity makes it one of the best places on the planet to eat. However the restaurant business is a very fickle one. At one time making the menu “fusion” seemed to be insurance against culinary whims. How can your menu grow flat if at any given time you can just combine whatever trendy ingredient is to hand, stuff it into a gyoza wrapper and call it a day? Well of course it’s gone out of style, just like every other attempt at menu immortality. Think Retro Food, Nouvelle Cuisine, Salad Bars.
So how can a restaurant win this battle for hearts, minds and tastebuds? The answer at the moment seems to be focusing on one ingredient. Think the proliferation if Pho, taco trucks, and cheese specialists. Instead of seeing how fancy the chef can be with every possible ingredient under the sun, there seems to be more street cred in being wildly knowledgeable about waffles, for instance. The kitchen is becoming less of a general contractor, more of a specialist.
Perhaps this is an offshoot of the Asian influence whence all this diversification came from in the first place. Think Japanese soba noodle “sobarias”, or Eastern China’s soup dumplings. When you show fanatical devotion to getting one thing right, you get fanatical consumer loyalty to that one beautifully done item.
Will we see an end to chefs using us as guinea pigs? Hopefully soon. In the meantime, rest assured that if any of our newest and most popular places around town are any indication, “loyalty to craft” is our beautiful new buzzword for the year.

Chef vs. Cook

My paternal grandmother had a giant kitchen. She was an excellent cook by necessity. She could do things like have an entire roast lunch ready on demand for a crowd of people after church, every Sunday. She understood the importance of getting good food onto the table.

One day, when I was maybe in my teens, I was helping her out and having a good time of it and she said something to the effect of “You’re a good cook, you should be a chef!”. At the time I bristled. How un-feminist! How old fashioned! I mean really, grandma, tsk. Little did I know what a modern career suggestion she was actually making.

Statistics show that there are almost double the men, 1.9 to 1, working in Vancouver’s restaurants compared to women (in 2006, 13360 men to 6985 women). Nationwide, 1.4 men to every woman are categorized as in food services or cook, and specifically for chefs the discrepancy is much more pronounced at 3.5 men to every woman (Source 2006 Census of Canada).

It can’t be that women have stopped cooking overall. Women are still the ones doing the majority of unpaid housework including cooking. But when it comes to going into a career in food, lots of women are still stopped short by a male dominated environment and long inflexible hours. The tide is slowly changing as a more even distribution of women are being shown in the media on shows like Top Chef and Chopped. However the majority of women are still shown baking cupcakes (Cupcake Wars, The Cupcake Girls, DC Cupcakes, etc) or as color commentators and eye Candy a la Padma Lakshmi.

So is this still social stereotypes ( take a look at the amount of pink in the cupcakes links) or just the options available? Women can arguably do any job that they want to. So certainly we should be enthusiastically starting work at 5am, burning our inner wrists, coming home smelling of garlic and smoke…?

It’s still the women cooking for love and pleasure. We are still the ones making cookies with the kids, bringing birthday cakes for the office, making consolation casseroles for a friend in need. We cook for those we love to show love. It’s so pleasurable, why muck it up by chasing after a paycheck.

There is no reason why women can’t dominate the professional kitchen, the question is; Do we want to?

Bacon – It’s what’s for Dinner (and breakfast and lunch and dessert)

A meme (pronounced /miːm/, rhyming with “cream”[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.

What meme has come to mean to us of the internet age; LOLcats, Rick Astley, Boxxy, or my personal favourite Dramatic Prairie Dog. These are instances where we as internet users spontaneously and in unison decide that something is awesome. Re-living 80’s sketchiness, a funny video, something that humiliates a stranger we will never meet, this makes a full blown internet meme.

But what happens when meme phenomena leaps off the internet and into the psyche of the people? You get our modern obsession with Bacon.

Bacon used to be a fairly innocuous breakfast food item, consumed regularly in small servings on your average breakfast table.  Bacon was so important to the average diet that during WW1 and WW2 bacon was on the ration as an “energy” food. But with the dieting trends of the 70’s, 80’s and beyond, bacon gain a bad reputation. Fatty, salty, not particularly good for you (although check out the surprising nutritional info here ), it was left off of more and more shopping lists. Many contentious dieters never saw another slice of bacon until Atkins arrived on the scene and announced that bacon was fine as long as carbs were off the menu. However, it’s still thought of as a little bit indulgent, naughty, but unnecessary.

What is so fascinating is that this innocent pork product has become an inside joke of sorts. It has become a metaphor for over-consumption; if you put bacon on it, it has officially gone over-the-top. Think of the Wendy’s Triple Baconator; 3 beef patties, 3 slices of cheese, 9 slices of bacon and the entire daily recommended caloric consumption for an adult female at 1350 calories and 90 grams of fat.  Dougie Dogs Crif Dog; a deep fried bacon wrapped hot dog on a bun with pineapple and green onion. And for dessert, Original Cupcakes Bacon Cupcake; a maple cake with maple icing topped with crumbled bacon.

And seemingly every other animal wants in on the joke as well. You can now get beef bacon, wild boar bacon (check out Market Meats on W 4th Ave). There is baconaise (bacon mayo, it’s available at London Drugs or all places) and bacon salt. Along with the old diet standby and insult to the very word, turkey bacon, you can baconify everything you eat.

What does all this bacon consumption mean? Perhaps we as consumers and dieters exposed to the media in general, we have become exhausted by all the rules and reports and “guidelines” as to what and where and how much to eat. Our bacon obsession is a cultural “f-u” to Health Canada. In this childish way, we are all doing the behavioural and digital equivalent of protesting. Give pork a chance. It is social backlash through bacon.

So when does this make the leap to meme?

 

Right here

Or how about when it’s used to propose?

With the ability to laugh at itself, bacon truly is the Candy of Meat. Have you seen it used in any hilarious, disturbing or grossly unnecessary ways lately? Tell me about it.

Going Down

When I was in my early 20’s, I dated a friend’s brother. He was in the midst of a nasty divorce, had two kids, and probably a sex addiction. He was gregarious, charming, and he could cook. He also had an appendage that could only be described as “donkey sized”. He was absolutely not a good relationship. In fact you really couldn’t have called it that at all. I don’t remember much of it, besides one particular incident with a tape recorder and silly string.

At the time, I weighed nothing. I was a recently converted vegetarian, which was more of an excuse to just not eat anything. I was going to the gym almost daily. I was utterly unhappy and desperate for love and was just shoving it all down in a pursuit to look as good as I possibly could. So here’s how this lothario managed to woo me.

We were at a party with our mutual friends. We had been catching up and he said something to the effect that he had always had a bit of a crush on me while he was married. This was like cutting cocaine in front of an addict, as I have an unfortunate compulsion towards taken men. Things got flirty. We started ignoring the party. He grabbed something casually from the buffet and asked if I wanted to see his apartment.

On the way down in the elevator, he wrapped one arm around my malnourished little waist, slowly walked his feet between mine, pressed against me…and popped a hunk of cheese into my mouth.

Dopamine must have flooded my half starved brain and any remaining self discipline was set aside and I was absolutely, without a doubt, going to sleep with this person that in better judgment I should have just shaken hands and parted ways with. Being around him was wild, it was very bad, and I came out the other end feeling like I had been thrown out of a moving vehicle. After a few encounters, I tearfully came to the crushing realization that not only was I just a rebound girl, but one of many rebound girls. I had been duped. With cheese.

In hindsight, I do recall that he couldn’t read a novel without a ruler, and he didn’t exactly understand big words. But fuck me, could he cook.

There are lots of typical “aphrodisiacs”, but could it be argued that all food, in the right context is an aphrodisiac? I’m sure that some people have an absurd erotic reaction to some foods not popularly thought of as sexy. With Valentines Day coming up, I want to know; what foods to you really find sexy? Tell me you stories.

What is Canadian Food? A Top Ten List

I had the pleasure of having one of my husbands British relatives staying with us this week. We had a great time, but I have a weird habit to confess. I always find myself becoming a rather over-enthusiastic ambassador of all things Canadian when someone from the UK comes to visit. It may be because you actually do the things you normally think are kinda touristy with visitors, and then end up falling in love with where you live all over again. But maybe, in my case anyway, it’s because I have Small Man Syndrome when it comes to my own country. when you have lived in a country where the building where our flat was located down a small urban street contained more history than the entire country of my own birth, you worry about what the visiting dignitaries will think.

I will find myself going on and on. “Have you ever tried this before?” “OMG this is such a CANADIAN thing” “This restaurant is, like, world famous” “Did you know that Insert Actor/Comedian/Movie was filmed/Food/Amazing Thing is Canadian?!”. I become such a dork, I kinda can’t stand it. And I fear that a lot of it is compensation for the complete hilarity that is many Canadian things. Example: our Soccer, Canadian produced television programming, and complete lack of political scene. It makes me cringe just thinking about how other countries must think we are so adorably quaint we are.

But in the case of food, I think we are doing just fine. With the exception of just how many American food chains are present in our country, and that Tim Horton’s is American owned (mortifying), I think we are doing alright, folks. It is also my opinion that on a few culinary items we not only hold the fort, but completely rock out. Below is my list of Entirely Canadian Foods That Prove We Are Awesome.

1. The Nanaimo Bar. Named after Nanaimo, BC, this confection of walnuts, graham cracker crumbs, icing, and chocolate is just so crazy that it works. This is a mandatory staple of any Christmas cookie tray, church ladies bible study group, and birthday party. I can’t imagine Christmas without them. Whether you do them with vanilla or mint icing is, I think, a regional thing. (P.S. I heart them with mint icing)

2. Maple Syrup. It is an amazing thing that a watery tree sap when boiled down becomes a symbol for airport duty free across a whole country. It doesn’t even matter what sweet stuff you are actually putting on your pancakes, you just refer to it as maple syrup. Thank You Quebec.

3. Poutine. Another one of Quebec’s great contributions. While all countries in the world who eat potatoes have a manner of serving them up fried in some way, only Canada would think to put them in a bowl and cover them with cheese curds and beef gravy. So popular that if you can’t find them within 15 minutes of realizing that you are too drunk to drive home, you may have accidentally stumbled into Michigan. Again.

4. Butter Tarts. Basically a small version of the very Southern American pecan pie, bastardized. It can contain walnuts, pecans, raisin, chocolate, or a combination of all. But it must be small enough to eat in 3 bites and be gooey enough that when you bite into it the pastry dismantles and the filling dribbles down your chin.

5. KD. A packaged macaroni and cheese side dish in a box. Staple food for picky children and has kept college students on the brink of scurvy since 1937. Loving it is on the signed portion of the application for permanent residence to Canada. The box laughingly contains 4 recommended servings. Canadians know that it serves 2 people when mixed with a can of tuna, tomatoes, or cut up hot dogs, or one very tired, hungry individual with perhaps a few left over macaroni in the bowl that you just can’t finish no matter how hard you try to jam them in.

6. Illegal Salmon. You are not really a Canadian unless you know someone who buys cheap illegally fished salmon from a native guy he knows. This native guy may also be his dealer and/or his connection for cheap smokes. The salmon will be of a very poor quality. But if there is anything Canadians like it is the devilish satisfaction of not paying taxes on something very small and insignificant.

7. Vancouver Sushi. The bastard child of casual sushi take-out and the conceptual works of Lewis Carroll. Think sushi rolls containing wasabi mayo, fruit, peanut butter and jam, curry, and always a tempura something or other (note: probably not all together though). I should also make mention here of the phenomenon that is the Starbucks and Sushification of the entire greater Vancouver region. Soon you will only be able to get California rolls and lattes within the downtown core, and nothing else.

8. Bannock. Actually a staple food product for the first nations people. It is a flattened dough that is pan fried until densely chewy and crispy. If you are a Canadian, you have been forced at some point during your childhood to make it in Scouts/Brownies, or eat it a a museum or at a cultural event. It is actually very, very good. It is a shame that it not a widely sold and eaten foodstuff. I think that the first nations people are keeping it to themselves as punishment for small pox. Fair enough maybe.

9. Screech. A peculiar east coast obsession, Screech is also known as Swish. It was originally a rum manufacturing by-product. When the rum kegs were emptied, boiling water was poured in and swished about to extract the last of the alcohol and flavor that had soaked into the barrel. This was then sold off as cheap drink for the working class. It is a little more refined now, but is still a very high proof rum. The tradition if being “Screeched” is to take a shot of Screech and then kiss a cold cod fish on the lips. The amount of tongue involved varies with how much Screech was consumed previously. Like other food products of the east coast like fish & brewis (dried bread and salt cod reconstituted and fried in onions and lard), self loathing seems to be a sociological factor in perpetuating their popularity.

10. Pirogies. Now I understand that this is actually a Ukrainian thing, or on a grander scale an eastern European thing, but no other country in the world has taken Pirogi to their heart in the same way that Canada has. They are potato dumplings with a doughy shell, served with fried onions, bacon, and sour cream. They are such an unconscious staple food, such a matter of the ordinary, that Canadians don’t even think about them anymore. They are just something you keep in the freezer, like pizza and ice cubes. They are not popular at all in England, which is strange considering the huge (and much bemoaned) Polish population. I knew I was really homesick when I found myself making pirogies one night from a recipe I found off the internet. As I have no Ukrainian heritage they were almost impossible to make. But man did they taste amazing. If you are really Canadian, you have a Babba or have a connection to a Babba who makes them for you and sends them to you in perfect little frozen care packages packed in a cooler, on a regular basis.

Do you have a much loved Canadian food that you just can’t live without?

How Much is Conscientiousness and How Much is Snobbery?

The economic divide and is very much alive and well. Would you call yourself racist? Elitist? A Yuppie? Well, how do you feel about other people’s food choices?
While it is completely unacceptable to show contempt based on race or religion, we in the enlightened Western world have developed a rather nasty new way of pigeonholing people. We now feel completely justified in making huge value judgments about people based on what they eat. Do they buy organic, do they eat meat, do they eat fast food and how often? We just keep adding new ways to look down our noses at people, keeping our selves puritanically moral.

Take for instance the 100 Mile Diet. This is an ideal of eating wherein you eat nothing grown, processed, produced or otherwise traveled more than 100 miles from where you live. While the idea is lovely, and who doesn’t like the idea of fresh healthy produce eaten at its peak, the logistics can be a nightmare. While it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to eat apples grown in Mexico when perfectly good apples can be bought from the Okanagan, should this also apply to everything? Cutting out entire dietary staples like grains because they are not grown locally is absurd, and not everything that we will want to eat can be grown “locally”. In addition, the actual carbon imprint savings on some items are debatable as, yes they do travel less distance, but in order to be grown close to home they often require more artificial heat and water. While a tomato grown in a greenhouse in Westlock doesn’t have to travel much distance to be eaten in Edmonton, it requires a lot of energy to heat said greenhouse to levels naturally occurring in California. So what does all the fuss and debate and effort of eating like this really boil down to?

Do you think that most single parents on welfare or the working poor or the homeless have a lot of money or available energy to even consider what the carbon imprint of their next meal will be? Can we agree that they are working very close to the borders of keeping body and soul together? When was the last time you worried about finding something, anything at all, to eat? Maybe never?

The typical North American can pretty much always find something to eat. Our basic needs are covered. In the absence of any real anxiety over what to eat (and the quite literally WHAT, if anything, to eat) our attentions have shifted to what of ALL the food we have available, should we eat. What a bizarre concept in the context of the history of food production. We have spent roughly 10,000 years cultivating food, most of them physically difficult, with very little of the much toiled after product left over. We now, though mechanization, genetic engineering and globalization, have so much, that we have the luxury of deciding which, of all our excess, is ideal and popular and moral enough to eat.

How incredibly egotistical we are as a society to decide that one person is morally better than another because one can afford to spend a larger fraction of their relatively giant disposable income than the other. We hide behind a facade of saving the planet and extending our health when the real reason for all this is the fact that we can financially afford to pick and choose between one excess or another. Aren’t we pleased with ourselves. We are doing a good deed by buying organic bananas at $.60 per pound more. The bottom line; is this doing a good deed, or smug self-satisfaction?

It’s ridiculous to even stake out a moral high ground in times of such food luxuries. If you don’t have any money you have a perfectly good reason for purchasing the food that you do. And if you earn a good amount than of course you can afford to buy, exclude, import, limit, and order the associated book. The point I’m trying to make is this; let’s quit the whole “let them eat cake” mentality of dictating eating habits. If you are a dieter, chill out on the chicken breast and raw veg spiel to your chubby friends. If you’re a vegetarian, maybe talk of animal murder is not the best way to pull the average Joe over to your side of the argument. Everyone has their thing that they just don’t like or don’t agree with or just read about in Men’s Health that they now think is the dietary end of the world. We get it.

For manners sake if nothing else maybe try to limit food warnings to only those cases where someone is going to put something that has obviously gone bad in their mouth. Tolerance needs to extend to all aspects of peoples legal and available choices, not just to the ones that are currently fashionable.