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Digesting Japan, Pt. 1

Posted by lifestyle On October - 28 - 2008

A thrilling travel and food mini-series! Not a break-up story.

By Leo K. Moncel

Japan is crazy, right? Is there any other country that looms so large in the international imagination as a haven for the bizarre? Over the years, I became so used to hearing urban legends and ridiculous-sounding cultural generalizations about Japan that I started to disbelieve by default whatever I was told about it. I became certain that people were exaggerating the national character of Japan with each new conversation about it, like a fishing story. It seemed to have become a place known for extremes, used by people as a canvas on which to project their own outlandish visions. The truth about Japan, I assumed, was probably like most things in life: far more mundane than the fantasy.

I spent three weeks in Japan at the end of August. Upon my return, the first thing I was asked by a lot of people was, “What was the most surprising thing about Japan?” My response: surprise that it did actually conform to almost every outlandish-sounding generalization I’d rejected. It’s all there in smashing contradiction: neon lights, ancient temples, traditionalism, futurism, monoculturalism, fascination with the rest of the world, and crowds upon crowds. The surprise of Japan was that it was every bit as extreme as everyone had said it was.

Japan, a land where dreams come true!

If you think of tourism as a feast for the senses (and I have no problem with the undignified term “tourism” in my own context), then it was apparent from early on that Japan was going to be an incredibly varied banquet. Seen from my descending flight, the countryside abounded with bundles of bulbous forest that looked ripe enough to pluck. My Then Girlfriend (MTG from now on) helped me navigate the futuristic Narita Airport as we zipped by Leo Café and posed in front of the Leo Shop before renting a mobile phone at Leo Phone. I kicked myself for it, but I couldn’t help but think, “I’m big in Japan.”

Then we were outdoors — 32˚ in the mellow, late afternoon sun, and humid enough to swim. She drove me through the semi-rural Narita area, down empty single-lane roads; a huge orange sun was melting down into the deep green fields. “What are they growing?” I asked her. “Rice.” Of course. Thanks to National Geographic, my only mental image of rice paddies was that of tiered mountain plateaus. It hadn’t occurred to me rice that could be grown in flat fields. We took a shortcut to get back to MTG’s family home, a strikingly narrow little road that twisted insanely up a steep incline. Looming on either side were imposing Japanese houses, white with dark beams and iconic slanted roofs. More “Japanese” than I’d expected.

MTG’s house was an honest, suburban place. Still, a suburb of Tokyo is vastly different from a suburb of Toronto. There, even at the outermost reaches of suburbia, the planning is restrained and sensible, based on a grid. The burbs back out onto rice paddies, not North York-like stretches of showerhead emporium superstores. This is not a dig at Toronto, but a comment on our whole continent. The more of a thing possessed by humans, the more that thing is squandered, and North America is cursed with an abundance of space.

After a nap, MTG and I headed out for the subway system. Outside of the city, street lighting is little more than occasional, and patches of road and sidewalk can vanish right into blackness. Although it wasn’t yet 10:00 p.m., my discombobulated brain was certain it was 3:00 a.m. Our mission was to get to downtown Tokyo so we could board an overnight bus to Kyoto. On the train, I fought tooth and nail to stay awake and take in the bright, neon cityscape, but it was impossible. As I listed away into slumberland, the incomprehensible Japanese conversations around me slowed and slurred until the words recombined into English. My exhausted mind created something it could digest.

Taking the overnight bus to Kyoto, we arrived at daybreak. As the bus slowed and the other passengers were roused, I pulled the bus’ curtains back and peered single-eyed out at bright Kyoto. Somehow, in this half-dream time-flux, I’d been sent back to the 1970s. Beige buildings with round corners and square tiles — here it was, exactly like in my mother’s faded photographs.

Kyoto — a former capital of Japan — is deservedly famous for the history preserved in its monuments, but a more ordinary sense of history also lingers throughout its streets. The city bus carried us gently uphill towards the northwest edge of town where the city gradually receded to mountains. The city got older as we moved away from its centre, and I was delighted to see a little rust creep in, lending character to surgically clean Japan.

A roadway with a distinct sidewalk is something we take for granted in Canada. But even in orderly, prosperous Japan, a little bit of Asian street chaos bustles its way in. Many sidestreets, particularly in Kyoto, are like a hybrid street/alley, lined with little mom and pop shops, barbers and butchers; there’s a painted line where the cars aren’t recommended to drive, but they will if they decide to. It’s not unusual to be in a wide pedestrian plaza that’s crowded with people who suddenly start cramming to one side as a cab bullies its way through the herd. The uniquely Japanese part of the arrangement is that the cab doesn’t honk and the people don’t shout.

I could have walked those sidestreets all day, but MTG had grander plans and soon we were floating downriver on a boat tour, flanked on either side by mountains. Each tour boat had a crew of only three who rotated tasks, the hardest task by far being the actual rowing and banter. Our head rower was a bit of a show-off and virtually tailgated the boat ahead. I didn’t understand the Japanese tour but laughed anyways. I was just mesmerized to be so close to the mountains.

By the evening, things were already beginning to unravel between MTG and I, but after a civilized levelling of accusations, there was nothing to do but go out and eat. By nightfall, Kyoto’s northern downtown is virtually enchanted. Every little building glows, streets branch into sidestreets and down to tiny alleyways just wide enough for two to walk abreast. Following my guidebook, we found Musashi, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant that Frommer’s assured me was cheap. I was skeptical — it was late and the crowd was young.

When it comes to restaurants, I naturally try to find places that draw regulars. My trepidations were alleviated when a sour-faced old-timer arrived alone and hunched down on a corner seat with a mug of beer. This man didn’t give a shit if it was trendy. Every other concern I had was pushed away as we filled our mouths with some very exquisite sushi. One plate came by that was decidedly of flesh, not fish. I asked MTG if it was pork. “No,” she told me, “It’s horse.” Long-time readers can guess what happened next. Longish strips of streaky horsemeat were laid-out, sushi-style over a “thumb” of tightly packed sushi rice. I didn’t have to think twice before popping it in my mouth. It was, as I’d read about, somewhat tough. A bit of a let down. Japan, conversely, was shaping up to be every bit as intense as I’d heard it was, and I couldn’t have been more excited.

Red Food: Meat, I’m Yours

Posted by lifestyle On September - 5 - 2008

A spirited defense of why it is sometimes okay to MURDER a helpless animal and eat it.

By Leo K. Moncel

Meat, meat, meat, you femme fatale. You’re literally killing Canadians as I write this. You’re killing the planet faster than ever. I used to know better than to tango with you. But I’m done with this love/hate relationship. Wicked, corrupting as you are, I’m giving my heart to you. You’re my salty poison and my never-ending possibility. I love you more than I thought was possible in my youth.

I did away with you, once, for five whole years. Today, I consider myself a former vegetarian, though it’s now been almost a decade since I gave up a meatless diet. When I ended my vegetarian period, I swore to myself I’d return to vegetarianism in my 20’s. I will not keep that promise. This is why.

At age nine, I became a vegetarian for moral reasons. I ate well with the help of my vegetarian mother and my gifted-in-the-kitchen father. I defended my decision against other adults who told me things like, I was “too young to have convictions”, or made prophesies about my iron-depleted body shriveling away like a raisin. I was an excellent defender, if not proselytizer, of my beliefs. For all that time, my entire adolescence, I never lost the appetite for meat. When asked if I missed meat, I confessed that occasionally I got a “craving for bacon”, but truthfully, anytime I got quite hungry, I thought about eating meat.

It was for bad reasons that I abandoned vegetarianism — the push of school bullying and the pull of fast food did me in during grade nine. Meat eating, I told myself, would be the phase, vegetarianism, the course, and after this weakness passed I’d get back on the wagon. After my lapse into meat eating, my sister too succumbed. Now we were teenagers trying to figure out how to cook meat at home. Mainly we bought chicken breasts and baked them in the oven, usually with salt and pepper and sometimes with honey and garlic. I ate meat infrequently and cooked it simply.

About a year and a half ago, I was eating some delicious pork and cabbage dumplings at my soon-to-be-girlfriend’s house. I went out on a limb and decided to try some chili sauce with them. I detested chilies. Chili heat was not a taste, but simply an experience like scalding your tongue or biting your cheek. Well, a little bit of the slightly sweet Sriracha chili sauce with these delectable dumplings and I did a total 180 on chilies. My reversal on chilies was the start of a full-on food obsession. Within a week, I made a trip to the library and returned with a backpack full of cookbooks and the beginnings of a huge project.

In the last 18 months since the chili sauce, food has become my central preoccupation. My teen self had no idea that the self he was calling back to vegetarianism would be someone who read cookbooks, talked for hours about cooking, who photographed and wrote about what he ate — someone with a wholly different relationship to food, and more intensely in love with food than he imagined he’d ever become.

I still believe, as I did when I was younger, that eating meat is both wrong and avoidable. So, is it ever okay? Sort of. I’m of the school that says you must pick your poisons. You can’t do nothing but poison yourself and the world around you, because it will catch up to you.* Then again, a little bit of poison now and then is just the ticket. A life of harsh, ascetic deprivation wouldn’t be worth living for most of us. When I decide which wrongs to indulge in, I ask how big the benefit really is to me. In the case of eating meat, the benefit is enormous. When I cook now, I don’t just do it to sustain myself, but as a form of exploration and even self-expression. Driving your car is wrong, but how wrong it is depends, in my view, on why you’re driving and where you’re going. If you drive somewhere nearby because you don’t feel like walking, that is a worse use of your car than, say, exploring a waterfall with a friend. This is how I look at meat eating. If you eat meat everyday because you can’t think of any other way to fill yourself up, you are using meat wrong. If you’re judicious in your meat consumption, if you make the effort to turn each cut of meat into an exciting or enriching meal, you are using meat right.

If you don’t really care about food (a small minority, I admit, probably only 10% of people I meet — and probably not one of you who’s read this far — but still more than double the 4% of Canadians who are now vegetarian), perhaps meat is a poison you can live without. You should consider vegetarianism.

I realize that the argument being made here — basically, “I appreciate meat and therefore should have it, but if you don’t really appreciate it, go without” — may appear to echo old classicist justifications for keeping poor people malnourished. “Oh, the poor wouldn’t know what to do with beef if they got it, so it’s okay we rich hoard it all!” But, in the present-day Canadian context, where everyone but the extremely poor can afford meat, all I’m really saying is that with all these inexpensive poisons at hand, pick yours with care. Mine is meat. Maybe it’s yours, too, maybe not.

Ironically, the average vegetarian cares far more about what he or she eats (including taste and texture) than the average meat eater.** But, after much consideration, it is my opinion that a lifelong strict vegetarian can never be a true lover of food. Breadth of palette is, to me, essential to the exploration and appreciation of food. The biggest difference between my attitude towards meat at 14 and my attitude now, is that back then I wanted meat for its familiarity and now I want it for its undiscovered joys. I can’t preemptively give meat a flat “no” because I’ve never tried kibbi stuffed with pine nuts, or sliced ox tongue, or steamed meatballs coated with sticky rice. In refusing meat altogether, vegetarians close the door to an enormous world of tastes and textures. If a person told me they wouldn’t ever eat any kinds of tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, or leafy vegetables, I would likewise say that I could not consider that person a true lover of food. They would have closed the door too tightly.

In defence of the vegetarian, they close the door for excellent reasons. I admire vegetarians. I could not have spent five years as a vegetarian if I didn’t, in a large way, believe in vegetarianism. Don’t believe for a minute that it makes no difference to the world if you choose to eat meat or not. Vegetarians are surely making the world a lessbad place. I simply can’t banish from the kitchen my vicious darling, meat, while I have so much left to explore.

* I wrote this passage pre-listeriosis. I meant poison more in the sense of the wrongdoings we indulge in, but if people want to be more literal here, for the record, I don’t think meat is generally a healthy option.

** Road test this one, ask a vegetarian what they ate for dinner last night.

Red Food: The Horse Slaughterhouse Problem

Posted by lifestyle On July - 15 - 2008

Excessive scale, not horse consumption, the real problem in Saskatchewan disgrace.

By Leo K. Moncel

Last month, Canadians were shocked by a CBC exposé of a Saskatchewan slaughterhouse. Hidden cameras revealed animals being crammed in oversized pens, being brought to slaughter in a panicked state, then slipping around the killing floor while an operator failed to stun them unconscious before they were killed. It was a scene of factory farming at its worst taking place within our borders at Natural Valley Farms in Neudorf, Saskatchewan. But the conditions of the slaughterhouse were especially appalling to many of the Canadian public because of the type of animal on the killing floor — the horse.

According to an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted on behalf of The Responsible Animal Care Society, 64% of Canadians “do not believe in the slaughter of Canadian horses for human consumption.” Despite the shameful situation in Saskatchewan, I do believe horse slaughter should continue in this country. But slaughter itself needs a reform.

In 2006, the U.S. Congress set about banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption after similarly mismanaged horse slaughterhouses were discovered in their borders. Congress, with strong popular support, passed a bill that made it impossible for horse slaughterhouses to hire their inspectors, making the practice illegal in a roundabout way. 

Inspired by the American example and catalyzed by the exposé of inhumane conditions in the Saskatchewan slaughterhouse, activist group The Canadian Horse Defence Coalition has partnered with iconic lawyer Clayton Ruby to push for the outright banning of horse slaughter for meat in this country. The CHDC and Ruby argue that the conditions at Natural Valley Farms are typical of horse slaughterhouses across the country and that the conditions are, in the CBC’s paraphrasing, “impossible to regulate.”

It’s obvious that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been negligent in the case of Natural Valley Farms. However, the claim that the horse slaughter industry is impossible — or even uniquely difficult — to regulate, is not further substantiated by the CHDC. The fact that in the Natural Valley case, the regulations have failed, provides no evidence to my mind that regulation is impossible or that it should be abandoned in favour of a wholesale ban.

The CHDC wants to convince the public that regulation is impossible because their organization believes that it is unequivocally wrong to slaughter horses for their meat, whether done correctly or incorrectly. The CHDC makes it explicitly clear that in their view, the horse simply does not exist for that role. Putting aside arguments about the superior senses and intelligence of the horse — consensus still insists the pig is the smartest — the CHDC finds horse slaughter particularly unacceptable because of their own collective affinity to the animal.

I must confess, I do not share that affinity. I have grown up and lived in the city, I have never taken riding lessons, and a horse is as distant to me as a cow. Therefore, I find nothing especially unacceptable about the slaughter of horses. But, what if the animal in question was an animal I have been raised with and have a greater affinity for — say, the cat?

Putting aside the cat’s famed cleverness, which cannot be significantly greater than a pig’s (if it is at all), I would quickly have to admit that I find the eating of cats personally unacceptable but no more immoral than slaughter of cows, pigs, or horses. I wouldn’t accept a cat on my plate, the sight of their meat might make me uncomfortable and it would be especially hard for me see one slaughtered, but I couldn’t pass moral judgment against others for eating cats while I had slices of lamb or pork on my plate. Animal slaughter is animal slaughter.

I go out of my way to argue this not because I think we should open cat slaughterhouses in Canada nor because I have some particular vendetta against the CHDC — a group who, as far as I can discern, are very well-meaning and sincere. I argue against an outright ban on horse slaughter because I believe it misreads the lessons of Natural Valley Farms and distracts from the real issue at hand. What is at stake here is not just how we treat horses, but how we treat animals.

What we need is not a ban, unless we’re willing to take the moral highroad and ban the slaughter of all large mammals. (Ready, Canada? Ready Canadian farmers? Not yet? No, me neither.) What is needed is increased regulation. The drive of this regulation should be to reduce the scale of farming and slaughter until both are small enough to be properly monitored and regulated. Natural Valley showed us that scale alone creates problems. If there’s one place I can say I feel quite comfortable with the government being heavy-handed in enforcing their regulations, it’s the slaughter and production of meat. Our moral obligation if we are meat eaters is not to spare animals for which we have the greatest personal or cultural affinity, it is to take every step in our power to ensure that any animal we do slaughter is treated as humanely as possible.

Red Food: Chinese Beef Lamb House Reviewed

Posted by lifestyle On June - 20 - 2008

Foodstuffs’ hippest young hypocrite with another hit!

By Leo K. Moncel

Attentive internauts may notice that in the previous column, I expressed my opinion that we all need to eat less meat and implied I was working on it myself. So why have I turned around and run out to eat at an establishment called the Chinese Beef Lamb House?

Even more attentive readers may recall that the first paragraph of last week’s column was about how I’m really big on traditional cuisines. Basically, when I heard there was a good Chinese-Muslim restaurant in the GTA, I had no choice but to put my eat-less-meat reform on pause and get on the hated purple subway line to Scarborough to gorge myself with some good friends.

Plopped in the middle of a dismal strip mall, the ridiculously bright signage of the Chinese Beef Lamb House advertises the restaurant’s Halal status. Inside, the décor is a style I’d call pastoral-cartoony and fairly tacky in that endearing Chinese restaurant way. The huge dining room is clearly meant to accommodate large social functions. It’d be ill-fitting for an early date, but it’s perfectly good for eating with a number of friends.

The menu is, of course, heavy on beef and lamb. If you are seeking chicken or seafood, they are on the menu and I imagine they are good, but between the six of us, we felt there was enough to explore without even getting into it and still have a greatly varied meal – and we weren’t even adventurous enough to go in for the offal.

We began with the requisite Jasmine tea and watery draft beer. At eight dollars a pitcher, I was not complaining.

The first dish to arrive, our lonely vegetable, was cucumbers with garlic. In this recipe, one of the few raw vegetable dishes that is often seen on the Chinese table, the cucumber is smashed with the side of a cleaver, soaked in a salty garlic dressing with a bit of vinegar and sesame oil, then topped with fresh coriander. This light dish was an instant favourite and became more popular as we received the heavier dishes to come.

Next arrived two lamb “pancakes”, little sandwich-like foodstuffs where chunks of slightly fatty lamb meat rest between two pitas about the size of a compact disc cut in quarters. It was simple and scrumptious and the only dilemma was how to split eight pieces between our five meat-eaters.

Next, we received two orders of lamb with cumin. I was skeptical, but a friend who had dined here before insisted that two orders would be an absolute necessity. This seems to be a hallmark Muslim-Chinese dish: a Chinese cooking style is applied to ingredients typical of a Middle Eastern-Islamic tradition. The beautiful smelling stir-fry consisted of a goodly pile of thin-sliced lamb fried with onions, green onions, and, I do not exaggerate, at least four tablespoons of whole cumin seeds. A light, salty brown sauce with a hint of chili held the swarm of cumin seeds to the lamb. Two dishes just barely covered us; this intensely flavoured dish was agreed to be the highlight of the meal.

Our vegetarian friend, who was warned what he was getting into by the restaurant’s very name, ordered tofu with chili pepper, a dish of thin tofu skins covered luxuriously with a garlicky sauce and fresh green chilies sliced lengthwise. We didn’t steal too much from him, but it was tempting.

For our starch, we skipped rice and got a large flatbread that was erroneously identified as “sesame pancake”. It was sweet and chewy and covered in sesame seeds like a giant, disc-shaped Montreal bagel.

Another delicious starch dish is the stir-fried homemade noodles. Large ribbons about the width of a thumb with a slightly sweet sauce topped with thin slices of onion, carrot and lamb.

We also got four beef-filled buns, each almost the size of a hockey puck and filled with oily, well-salted minced beef. I found them just a little too oily for my liking, but tasty nonetheless.

The hot and sour soup was fairly ordinary, and though it was chock-full of strands of egg and soft tofu, the thickened soup suffered in comparison with extraordinary flavours of the other dishes.

After our meal concluded, we paused a moment. Yes, we were full, but we weren’t completely stuffed, and the joy of eating was just too strong to be halted yet. We picked up the menu once more and settled on a plate of sesame beef. This dish — slivers of sesame seed-topped beef stacked on pale cabbage confetti — was a beauty to behold. The sauce was a typical red sweet and sour affair, but not so gloopy, and tasty to be sure. The most marvelous part was the texture. I suspect the meat was deep-fried on a low heat without batter until it was fall-apart-in-your-mouth tender with just a bit of external crispness, like well-done ribs.

All-in-all I must say that eating at the Chinese Beef Lamb House was one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had in this city. The service was dependable and the cost was really reasonable – main dishes start at $7.99 and max out at $12.99. The portions are not huge, but this place definitely doesn’t skimp where it counts. Side dishes like the cucumber, the buns and pancakes are around $4.99 – $7.99. The whole meal was only $16 each after tax and tip. The biggest problem, of course, is that it’s in Scarborough. Well, really, I’m glad it’s in Scarborough, or else I’d probably quadruple my meat consumption and never be able to unpause my little eat-less-meat reform. If you have an interest in Chinese food or even Middle-Eastern food, I cannot recommend this place highly enough.

The Chinese Beef Lamb House is presently located at 668 Silver Star Blvd, Scarborough, M1V 5N1.

For more information, check the listing at QQEat.ca (link: http://qqeat.ca/search/show.php?id=291)

Red Food: The Food Crisis

Posted by lifestyle On June - 3 - 2008

Gangs, Grains, and Grimness!

By Leo K. Moncel

Before we get going, I’d just like to point out that this is in fact a continuation of the column that began as, “Taste Test: A New Beginning”. There was some confusion between myself and our devoted, young section editor over the name of my column. So, let me explain what’s going on with “Red Food.” It is a reference to Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park, a novel that I have not yet read, but have heard discussed on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy synopsized a section of the book in which two different kinds of foodies are arbitrarily designated gang titles. The first group, “Crips” are people who are interested in innovation. “Bloods” are those who are attracted to tradition. Though I think it’s impossible to be a pure innovator or a pure traditionalist, I do tend to favour the “red” end of the spectrum when I do serious cooking or plan to eat out. Hence, red food. I could easily go on, as food traditions and street gangs are two topics of great interest to me, but there is something more urgent on my mind: The Food Crisis.

If you still don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on, I can’t say that I blame you. Even from legitimate news sources, coverage seems to break down to about 80 percent hysteria and 20 percent explanation. For a clean, brief synopsis, ignore the idiotic title and read Paul Krugman’s article.

Krugman points out that grain prices are increasing substantially, and that meat and the appetite for it are part of the problem; his final sentence ominously speculates that, “Cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a thing of the past.” And yet, if you were in any city in Ontario or Quebec (combined, about 60 percent of the country) last Sunday, you could have walked into any Harvey’s location and picked up a free hamburger. A product primarily of wheat and beef was being given away by the thousands at each location! So, is it any wonder that we in Canada at some level can’t understand this food crisis? If there was a food crisis, it stands to reason that people wouldn’t be giving away burgers. Cheap food is evidently not a thing of the past yet. Not in Canada at least. I have heard one explanation: that Canada has a very strong dollar at the moment and since we import a great deal of our food, our prices are going to be fine for now. This is sounds like good news, but it may be cause for concern in the longer run.

In A Short History of Progress, the transcribed Massey Lectures of Ronald Wright, Wright tackles the problem of civilization. In line with Thomas Malthus, Wright argues that in any civilization, “the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply.” When the population vastly outstrips what the earth can supply, ruin is imminent. Unfettered use of agricultural technology is a danger because as we produce more food, we immediately produce more humans to eat the food. Once the overworked earth offers no more, the surplus humans die. Based on playing through this pattern, in each case of a civilization’s fall, as the society’s elite see collapse looming, they are never wise about solving it. Wright describes the ancient Mayan rulers, whose civilization’s downfall was brought on by agricultural mishandling: “As the crisis gathered, the response of the rulers was not to seek a new course, to cut back… No, they dug in their heels and carried on doing what they had always done, only more so.”

Back to our free burgers: is this then one last hurrah before an age of darkness? Will we give away our meat, exacerbating its scarcity and eventually precipitating a scenario where meat is so expensive that the average Canadian cannot afford to eat it? This appears to be the course we’re on. So, let me ask another question — would you turn down a free Harvey’s burger? If you are the sort of person who never eats at Harvey’s (perhaps you find it too unhealthy, you dislike chains, or you genuinely don’t like the taste) then you won’t pick the burger up, and it’s not the price that is stopping you. But if, like me, you would ever buy one, it makes no sense not to take a free one. And so it is in the rest of Canada, with our comparatively low food prices. We resemble the Mayan rulers, digging our heels in, sating our worry with excess, and stuffing our stomachs while the city burns. There’s a sale on in the meat aisle, ending any minute now.

But, just so I can’t be taken as apathetic and completely defeatist, let me point out that I do think we can stop our race to food collapse. It just means painful adjustment – and the greater part of us becoming the sort of people who would never eat a Harvey’s burger. The only consolation, I guess, is that adjustments made now will help us avoid the even harsher adjustments necessary if we ignore what’s on the horizon.

The Organized Thinker: Weathering the Poorhouse

Posted by lifestyle On May - 16 - 2008

By Steph Perkins

Steph Perkins is an organized thinker. In the time it takes you to read this column, she did her taxes for the next four years in advance. Trust her advice.

Q. I did something really stupid and blew my entire month’s pay on a trip to Vegas and now I am so broke I can’t imagine how I’ll possibly endure the next few weeks. I hear you’re a bit of a skid — can you pass on some expertise on how to survive on a bare minimum till I’m back on my feet?

You heard right, super skid to the rescue! Oh I’ve been there, hell I’m pretty much permanently there, and you’ll be fine. Honestly, probably the hardest thing you’ll have to do between now and your next paycheque will be swallowing your pride. [You will not die! It's not poison! -Guest Ed. Robert Zimmerman]

# 1 Accept offers for dinner.

Probably if you’re broke, you’re feeling semi-depressed and therefore anti-social, but if someone invites you over for dinner, say yes. You need the nutrients, and you need to get over yourself and out of the house. And you don’t have to bring the customary bottle of wine — offer to bring an “after dinner treat” and pick up a three-dollar box of cookies, or grab a bouquet of daisies for under five bucks. And if it’s someone you’re really close to, be honest, arrive empty-handed, and just watch how big of a pity serving they dole out.

# 2 Eat a casserole for a week.

And it doesn’t have to be a fancy casserole with meat and vegetables or whatever normally goes in casseroles, don’t ask me. Below is my world famous mac & cheese bake recipe, and if you don’t invite anyone over to share it with you it’ll feed you for five days.

3 boxes Kraft Dinner
1 cup of macaroni noodles
1 brick of cheddar cheese
margarine
milk
= $10

So — cook mac noodles for 5 minutes, then pour in 2 boxes of KD, chuck the 3rd box but save the cheese. Grate cheddar. Mix up noodles, 3 KD cheese bags, milk, margarine, salt & pepper. Pour half into large greased baking dish, add layer of grated cheese, rest of noods, top with more grated cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, then broil until cheese gets brown and crunchy. Enjoy for lunch & dinner. And then lunch & dinner. And then lunch & dinner.

# 3 Look in the back of the pantry.

You never know what you might find back there. Cup-a-Soups are a guarantee; poor excuse for a lunch but we’re not being choosy right now. That Lipton Sidekick would make a (pretty gross) meal. Cans of beans can be fun, you can pretend you’re camping. Old noodles and rice are most likely still good; if you can whip up a butter & herb sauce or fry up a vegetable to go with you actually have yourself a decent dinner there.

# 4 Choose your plans wisely.

You can still afford to see your friends; you just can’t afford to be the party animal right now. So say yes to what you can do on a budget (night in at a friends place, coffee, afternoon stroll) and turn down what you can’t. Meals out are big money eaters — say no to those but meet up with your buds later, treat yourself to a rye & coke, make that baby strettttttch, and watch everyone else say stupid shit for a change.

# 5 Wait for the bus.

Ya, it sucks. That blue-line bus blows: standing for maybe an hour on the corner of College & Bathurst with a bunch of drunk skids (meet your people, my friend) waiting to get on the fullest, stinkiest, loudest, longest bus ride of your life. The worst part being you’re probably not drunk enough to be oblivious to it due to your current Saturday night budget. Just hold your breath and imagine yourself building character. Or walk.

A few more simple things you can do to dig up a little coin (all of which I have resorted to at one time or another): skip the laundry and go commando; roll your pennies and return your empties; hold your head up high and go in to the teller and withdraw that $7.50. Hang tight. Accept pity. And when you finally do get some cash in your pocket go and get yourself a steak, pronto.

Taste Test: A New Beginning

Posted by lifestyle On May - 16 - 2008

Leo K. Moncel outlines a new food column. Your first stop to reading yourself into a big fat gut!

By Leo K. Moncel

I usually don’t find the first three movie, album, or restaurant reviews by a given critic to be very helpful. By about the fourth review, I’ve gotten a good sense of the reviewer’s criteria and sensibilities. I’ve learned what this person values in a story or an experience and I know what to take from their opinions. Before I begin my own fortnightly discussion of food and society, I’d like to skip this warm-up period and give you, the reader, a picture of my sensibilities as clearly as I can, by telling you what I like.

Food is always a contentious issue and everyone’s got an opinion on it, because, unlike books or movies, everyone interacts with it daily (we hope). I am very opinionated, but I am also willing to admit that I am just an enthusiastic novice, and not chained to my opinions. So please, take advantage of our format and join the discussion every other week, for I know I am quite wrong on many things (keep reading to find one of them!). That being said, let’s get on to what I like.

What I Like:

Red Meat. Pork, beef, and lamb. Pork gets such a black eye in this country. It’s thought of as inferior-tasting and completely unhealthy. As to taste, I cannot really argue, since appreciation of taste and texture is totally subjective; but when people tell me they don’t like the taste of pork, I have to ask, “Really?” I happen to think that many people don’t like the idea of eating pork, but enjoy it when they get it, often in a processed and renamed form. More about food renaming and euphemisms in the future.

As to health, I am no expert, but I would be inclined to think that if fat is what you’re shaking your finger at, it varies greatly from cut to cut. I have occasionally cooked pork bellies and will own up immediately —that is some seriously fatty meat! A lean pork chop, however, doesn’t look any scarier to me than a well-marbled steak.

Poultry. Chicken. A time-tested winner. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on chicken.

Tofu and soy products. Yes. Great, versatile. I was a vegetarian for five years. Sometimes ignorant meat eaters like to condemn soy products as bland. I enjoy shutting them down now, as a meat-eater, more than I ever did as a vegetarian. I tell them that if they find tofu bland, they aren’t cooking it right. As I question these people, I often discover they’ve only had tofu once or twice, and I find that they’re more attracted to the idea they hate tofu than hating the actual food (like some pork shunners!). People attack tofu because they think it’s the manly — though it’s not just men — thing to do.

Meat-eaters (I HATE it when meat-eaters call themselves carnivores. It’s not accurate and it certainly hasn’t been funny for fifteen years) and vegetarians need to stop arguing. Truthfully, meat eaters know, deep down, that vegetarians are right from every moral standpoint. In terms of animal treatment, eco-sustainability, and personal health, there just is no argument for the superiority of meat-eating.

But this, “tofu as the polar opposite of meat” idea is sort of a deliberate contrivance. I happen to know a few traditional Chinese recipes that combine meat and tofu to beautiful effect, but more on that in the future.

Vegetables. Of course! There’s an incredible diversity to vegetables. Most of what I eat is vegetables. Right now I’m big on learning new raw vegetable side dishes to outshine ordinary salads.

Healthy food. 85% of what I make and eat is healthy. I was raised to be cautious with salt and fat. I don’t eat out often. When I do eat out though, I usually throw caution to the wind. Unless you’re eating specifically at a health-food restaurant, the options that look healthy are probably saltier than you realize.

When doing serious cooking, I’ll also indulge. If I’m following a recipe, I try to follow it as closely as I possibly can, even if I’m screaming inside about using that much butter or about deep-frying something twice.

Traditional, regional foods. Some people argue that the ultimate divide in foodies (screw it, I have no problem with the term “foody”) is whether you’re a traditionalist or an innovator. Perhaps because I am still rather new at this, I have a strong desire to acquaint myself with food traditions. Not coming from a family with a strong food heritage, I am in the process of finding books whose goal it is to recreate traditional dishes with a minimum of tampering and simplification.

I am aware this is a distinctly new-world thing to do. People in countries with long food heritages generally don’t bother trying to adopt traditional recipes from half a world away. Maybe it’s naïve to think you’ll ever touch anything like another culture’s traditional foods, and maybe it’s tokenistic to go about trying, but for better or worse I seem to keep trying.

What I’m Currently Having Trouble With:

Seafood. I like most kinds of seafood, but I don’t truly love any sort of it. Maybe I’m being greedy for wanting to love seafood instead of merely liking it. It just aggravates me that most foodies view seafood as the very height of dining and I know that I’m wrong for disagreeing.

Wine. Again, I like wine, but I’m not in love with it. Wine obsession is a Western thing, though, unlike the prizing of seafood, which is nearly universal.

What I Hate:

Polenta. Oddly, polenta is the only food I can think of off the top of my head that I really despise.

So, if you hate pork and only like polenta, please, just read all of my articles in reverse. It will be just as useful for you as long as you remember your own tastes are exactly the opposite of mine. If we do have some common ground, then good, let’s begin the discussion. I am only one man and I can only eat so much.

Dear Loblaws, I Hate You

Posted by lifestyle On May - 9 - 2008

MONDO takes on the corporate giants

By Jenny Bundock
Illustrations by Dara Gold

Today, I woke up and was craving coconut. I am a coconut fanatic. I like it in and on everything. I could (and do) eat coconut oil with a spoon. Coconut is amazing. Sadly the only place that I can get a real coconut that is still in its shell is at Loblaws. I don’t shop at Loblaws if I can avoid it but sometimes you just really want something only they have (Fruit Loops, coconuts, something in a box) and you decide “what the hell, I’ll brave that sprawling food warehouse and get what I need.” Today was that day for me.

Big mistake.

Not only did I have to pay almost two dollars for a coconut that was shrink-wrapped with plastic. It’s a fucking coconut! You have to break it open with a hammer! Its existing package could not be more durable or designed better to protect the product inside. Did someone say “Hmm, you know, this coconut isn’t producing enough landfill waste… couldn’t we wrap it in plastic or something?” We are a sick, sick species.

Anyways, not only did I have to pay two dollars for a coconut that was wrapped in plastic, but the coconut itself WAS MOULDY! And I couldn’t tell, because a big ass logo was covering the crack in the shell, and the plastic masked the overwhelming mouldy smell. As near as I can tell, Loblaws has invested in plastic-covered coconuts exclusively to deceive me.

To make matters worse, now I have to go back to Loblaws for the second time today to return my mouldy coconut and demand a new, non-mould infested one, which means I also have fight my way into a second coconut today. Oh joy, oh bliss.

Yet another reason to hate Loblaws!

I’m adding “mouldy coconuts” to my ongoing list of things I hate about Loblaws.

It is as follows:

1) The fake “European market” design.

You’ve noticed this, I am sure, but next time you are at a Loblaws, really look around. Notice the murals at the top of the stores, painted with stalls like it’s a farmers market. Notice the carts that they have all the fruit piled up on, or, like my Loblaws, the fake wooden shutters that open into the other half of the store up by the roof. They truly must think we are all idiots. Like a twig in a jar that you’ve trapped a bug inside, this almost resembles a natural habitat.

2) Horny teenagers who work there, who make you feel like YOU are the meat attendant rather than the other way around.

“Can I have some feta please?”

“You can have whatever you want.” *wink*

“Really!? Then I’ll have your shoes, an elephant steak, and a monkey with red hair who picks up my dry-cleaning and answers to Jed.”

3) The fact that their person in the produce section doesn’t know anything but where the piles of produce are.

“Excuse me, are the papayas GMO free?”

“Papayas are over near the tomatoes.”

“Uh… thanks”

These people make me crazy. They are paid to stack fruit and point. Lame.

4) The excess of choice, that in actuality, eats up most of your day…

Do I really want this deodorant? Or this one? What is the different between sweet peach and fuzzy peach scent? What if I don’t feel like a goddess? What razor do I buy? Thank you, capitalism.

5) The fact that you can’t buy five things without walking through the whole store, which almost requires a Sherpa guide and survival supplies.

Let’s see, I want an avocado, bread, spinach, cheese, and a bar of soap… 20 minutes later…

6) That all the bread they bake that day is crusty white bread.

Which is fine if you aren’t particularly attached to your colon, or are attached to your poop. Neither of which I happen to be.

7) The magazines by the cash.

I go out of my way to not know who is on “bump watch” or who lost a zillion pounds this month, or who found them or what Tom Cruise is doing that is particularly nutty this week, and then, BAM — right by the cash, summarized for me into six neat and tidy headlines, everything I didn’t want to know.

8) The featured wasteful shitty products.

Today, I walked in and there was a special on paper towels and bottled water (two brands!) all stacked up when you walk in the front doors. Fucking awesome! I could use that bottled water to wet my Swiffer mop, and then use those towels to wipe up afterwards so that the floor is dry faster, then I’ll wash up my dishes with those cloth-ish pads that have the soap infused into them, and after I’ve worked my appetite up I’ll drink two to three juice-boxes, have a snack-pack, and then when I’m done I’ll have half a trash-bag full of shit to go out to the shed. But I only buy the GREEN brand trash-bags, because conservation is so in right now.

9) The canning and bagging of cultural foods.

I love Indian food, but just as I wouldn’t buy pre-cheesed bagels or food from my own heritage in a bag (like croissants or mashed potatoes in a box as a mix), I sure as hell know better than to buy Indian food in some kind of “heat in the bag” pouch. I don’t even feed my cat food out of a pouch. Thanks for the gross out, Galen Weston.

10) The size of everything.

Ever notice how you can’t easily buy small quantities of anything there? Or if you want a small quantity you have to pay out the ass for it? Like if you want a small jar of BBQ sauce it’s $2.65… but a litre of BBQ sauce is only $2.89, so you’d be a sucker to not get three times as much for only 20 cents more! Except now you have to find shit to put a litre of BBQ sauce on, which likely means buying even more stuff from Loblaws, and no doubt eating your way into intensive care.

11) And finally, Mouldy Coconuts.

Now, you’ve fought your way through the store, you’ve got your little basket of eight items or less, you’ve waited for the sweet (yet advantageous) little old lady with 45 items who is in the eight items line to finish paying with all her pennies from the bottom of her purse, you’ve bagged your stuff up, declined buying one of those black bags that has a big President’s Choice logo on it, you’ve resisted all the SALES and DEALS you don’t need, made it home safe and sound, peeled the cellophane off your coconut, cracked it open, and discovered that it is mouldy. And you have to go back.

Dear Loblaws, I hate you.

Love,

Jenny

Chip Review: Doritos Collisions: Hot Wings and Blue Cheese

Posted by admin On April - 25 - 2008

Delicious, but costlyDare we dream of a two-chip future?

By Owen Craig

Now, I’m not normally the type to deem a new flavour of chip a “must try,” but come on, two flavours in one bag! No longer shall I have the arduous task of pouring chips from two seperate bags into a bowl and mixing them with my hands or some sort of salad fork. Any fan of eating chicken wings (like me) will surely be drawn in by the promise of the two flavours being “Hot Wings” and “Blue Cheese.” In theory, when I eat these chips together it will taste like I’m eating hot wings with a delicious blue cheese sauce. But how do the chips fare in a taste test?

Pretty well, as it turns out. The hot wing chips have a bit of generic spiciness remeniscent of Doritos’ own “Spicy” flavour, but as far as generic spicy flavours go, it’s a tasty one. The blue cheese chips, however, are pretty darn close to the real thing. The taste is a little toned down — presumably for a more universal appeal — but still enjoyable. Together, however, the chips really thrive, and the whole experience reminds me of the scene in Ratatouille where the rat eats the strawberry and the cheese together and bright colours flash while cool jazz music plays. This is a satisfying taste which makes for fun snacking.

There is one problem that needs to be addressed, however: the price. For a 250 gram bag of chips, the price was over $4.00, as opposed to the $2.00-$2.50 that most flavours run you. The single-serving bags are 99 cents each. Now I can’t imagine that the labour is so much more intensive that the price needs to be jacked up that heavily.

When it comes down to it, the chips are good but I can’t imagine buying them again until they’re a little cheaper.

Denny’s Dishes: Pan-seared Salmon with Corn Salsa

Posted by lifestyle On September - 18 - 2007

By Elisha Denburg

Ingredients

2 salmon fillets
2 cobs of corn, husked, niblets cut off
½ onion, diced
1 tsp each, minced — ginger, garlic
1 tbsp each — olive oil, butter
1 tsp each, ground — cumin, coriander, fennel, smoked paprika
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp hot chili sauce
zest and juice of 3-4 limes
a large handful of fresh chopped coriander leaves
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Heat oil and butter in a medium non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Rub cumin, coriander, fennel, paprika, salt, and pepper all over salmon fillets. Sear salmon, flipping only once, until cooked through on the inside and crispy-brown on the outside.

Remove fish to rest on a plate. Drain excess oil from pan, reserving a little; this oil has tons of flavour from the fish and spices.

For salsa, lower the heat a touch and add the chopped onions to the reserved oil. Saute with some salt and pepper until soft and translucent. Add ginger and garlic and saute just for a minute, until fragrant.

Mix in corn niblets, lime zest and juice, chili sauce, and maple syrup. Bring to a bubble and cook until sauce has reduced and thickened.

Remove from heat, and mix in the coriander. Place salmon on top of corn salsa with a green veggie on the side if you want (asparagus or broccoli are very good in this case). Garnish with some more fresh coriander and serve.

Denny’s Dishes: Pizza

Posted by lifestyle On August - 7 - 2007

The “I don’t want to be an asshole, but this is the best pizza I’ve ever made” pizza: with Italian sausage, caramelized fennel, anchovies, red onion, and buffalo mozzarella with herbed olive oil.

By Elisha Denburg

Ingredients

hot Italian sausage, fully cooked and cut into thin slices
one large fennel root, very thinly sliced; also cut up the soft green tops
a few very thin slices of red onion
6 anchovy fillets
about 2/3 of a baseball-sized chunk of fresh buffalo mozzarella
a handful of freshly grated parmesan cheese (“Reggiano” is the best)
extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of dried oregano and dried basil

I used store-bought ready-made pizza dough and it was delicious. If you want to make your own, please call me and show me how.

I was lucky enough to have leftover cooked sausage for this, but if you just bought yours you can cook it up by frying it in a pan with some olive oil, then taking it out and slicing it and frying some more. You can add some barbecue sauce, mustard powder and paprika for extra flavour at this stage if you like. You could also grill it on a barbecue.

To caramelize fennel, just heat some oil in a skillet and put the fennel in with some salt and pepper. When it’s softened and starting to brown, put in a small spoonful of brown sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Let this cook down for a while until the fennel has really reduced in size and is really soft with a dark brown colour.

Preheat your oven to 375°F and brush the shaped dough with some oil mixed with the dried herbs as a base. Make sure to get the oil all the way to the edge of the pizza. Put on your sausage, caramelized fennel, anchovies, and red onion, then crumble the mozzarella over the top. Finish with the fennel tops, parmesan, and a little bit of the oil from the anchovy tin and/or some more herbed oil. You will not need salt or pepper.

Put the pizza on a cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes or until the crust is browned on the edges and the cheese is bubbly. Before serving, add a touch more parmesan cheese.

Be sad when you finish because there is no more left in the world, and although it can be reproduced, it will never be truly duplicated.

Denny’s Dishes: French Toast

Posted by lifestyle On July - 31 - 2007

The Best French Toast is served with warm fruit topping

By Elisha Denburg

A delicious and devilishly decadent dessert — for breakfast!

Ingredients

thickly sliced challah (egg bread)
about 1 large egg for every 2 pieces of bread
a splash of milk
a dash of cinnamon
a few drops of vanilla extract
4 tablespoons of butter
pure Canadian maple syrup (room temperature or warmer)
powdered sugar and fresh mint leaves for garnish (adds pizzazz and pretentiousness)
a selection of fruit

Directions

Beat the eggs and whisk in the milk, cinnamon, and vanilla. Dip each slice of bread in the egg mixture to coat evenly. Don’t leave them in the batter or they will get soggy. You should get them in the frying pan shortly after you’re done dipping.

For the fruit, just put whatever you’re using in a medium saucepan on moderate heat and let the fruit soften and warm up, stirring every now and then. You can cook it for a longer time if you want something more akin to a pie-filling or gooey, jam-like substance.

Melt the butter in a large non-stick frying pan on medium-low heat. Fry the dipped bread pieces until golden brown spots appear on each side.

Serve fruit over French toast, garnish with powdered sugar and mint leaves. Drown in maple syrup. Only eat on special occasions or you might die.

“Ugh… I can actually hear you getting fatter.” — David Spade, Tommy Boy

Note: You can use many different kinds of fruit, obviously: whatever you like. I went out on a limb and used blueberries and mango. If you are heating up the fruit I wouldn’t use something like melon but you can always just have the fruit as is without heating it up. Almost any kind of berry would be really good for this recipe.

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