A Letter to Myself on the Occasion of My 47th Birthday


Dear Self,

47, huh? That’s one of those totally irrelevant birthdays that you pretty much just ignore. No milestone, no novelty balloons, probably not even a cake, just you and maybe a loved one out for a nice dinner and home and in bed at a reasonable hour. You could just be easing up to the halfway mark of your life (hey, Grandma has made it to 90!), but more likely than not, you’re sort of thinking about how life is slowing down, and how you need to adjust pretty much everything in preparation for the years ahead.

This past year has not been your best. Memorable for prolonged illnesses and a traumatic event that tipped you onto a path of anxiety, 46 was mostly a year to recover from and hopefully forget, not one to note in any way.

But let’s face it, Self, even at your most depressed and anxious, you still have a fiery spark of optimism. You’re hanging in there because you live life by the motto “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. You like being angry because you see it as an impetus for change.

Well change is ahead, my friend. It’s happening whether you like it or not, so you might as well get on board and make the most of it.

Here are the rules for year 48…


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Alo! Alo!


So these are from a visit on July 29th (was sick, then travelling, then sick again… really. Stupid recirculated airplane air.), so the menu at Alo might have completely changed in the meantime, but we were so taken with Chef Patrick Kriss’ lovely new spot at Queen and Spadina that I couldn’t just leave these photos sitting on my hard drive.

In a city where the dining scene has become a rush to line up for the opening of the latest burger joint, it is really refreshing to see someone doing refined cuisine. French food doesn’t have to be stuffy and Kriss and general manager Amanda Bradley have created a spot that is both welcoming and comfortable. There are no white table clothes, but we did get lots of cutlery.

While the food and service were sheer perfection, professionally executed without being overbearing, both Kriss and Bradley keep a keen eye out for any issues. They both noticed me smelling my hands after a trip to the washroom (scented soap in restaurants is one of my biggest peeves), and put out some unscented soap to accommodate me.

And while the room got busier as the evening progressed, an earlier reservation (on a sunny day) means getting to experience the room as it lights up with a beautiful pinkish glow as the sun sets to the west and shines through the row of windows looking down onto Spadina.

The menu is 4 courses with 2 options at each course, plus plenty of  amuse bouche, pre-desserts and fun things in between.

Fabulous food, fabulous room, can’t wait to go back.

Shown above: Lameque oyster, watercress, salsify, cultured cream.


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Book Review – Stir


Stir – My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
Jessica Fechtor

In February of this year, I got knocked down in the street. A complete accident, it occurred as a woman was stepping out of a shop door and wasn’t watching where she was going. She slammed into my back and sent me flying, face-first onto the sidewalk. I walked away from the fall but was left with severe muscle tears and sprains, including both shoulders. On top of an already herniated disc in my neck, the combo left me useless in terms of cooking or housework for months. Even now (mid-July) my shoulders are still very fragile, having been re-injured a number of times when I overdid something such as lifting a too-heavy item or exercising too much, too soon.

Through it all, as my husband and I ate take-out or prepared food night after night for dinner, I desperately wanted to get back into the kitchen. But I couldn’t bend my head forward to chop, lifting stockpots sent me back to recovery, and even the repetitive action of hulling a bag of peas caused a major set-back. Of all the different types of illness and injuries I’ve had over the years, I’ve never gone this long without being able to cook.

So Jessica Fechtor’s story in Stir, of how a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her, also took away the thing she loved doing most, was very relatable to me. Not the nearly dying part, but definitely the part about wanting to get back into the kitchen.


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Smörgåsbord – The Tastes of Hamilton: Brux House and Quatrefoil


Recently my husband Greg and I got to spend a day in Hamilton. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t travelled a lot in the past few years, so a trip – even just as far as Hamilton, even if we had to take a stinky Greyhound, and even if the main purpose was for a beer festival – was still a trip. And if I could bargain a visit to the lovely Quatrefoil Restaurant in nearby Dundas out of the deal in exchange for sitting around at a beer festival for hours, all the better.

Incidentally, the Because Beer Festival at Pier 4 Park in Hamilton, overlooking the lovely Hamilton Harbour, was delightful. Okay, I mostly sat at a picnic table by the water watching boats and geese while Greg drank and schmoozed, but it was well organized and relaxing.

We arrived in Hamilton around lunchtime, rolled through the gorgeous original art deco bus station and headed to Brux House, a craft beer restaurant in the Locke Street shopping district, which is incidentally also owned by the folks who own Quatrefoil. Chef Fraser Macfarlane heads the kitchen in both locations, joined by chef Georgina Mitropoulos at Quatrefoil.

Both places share a similar aesthetic – set up in old houses, with a subdued glamour, and attentive servers; Brux House is slightly more relaxed and laid back, Quatrefoil is pretty and elegant and they fold your napkin while you’re in the loo.


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Review – Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes by Michael Lavergne


Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes
by Michael Lavergne

There are plenty of books on the market bemoaning the sad state of the mainstream fashion industry from working conditions to the life-cycle of the average fast fashion garment. And while they are all well-written, carefully researched, and offer inspiration to change our shopping and fashion habits, most of them fall short on two counts – first because they are seldom written by someone with a first-hand, working knowledge of the apparel industry, and second, because while the suggestions for change are well-intended, they aren’t based in practicality.

Fixing Fashion by Michael Lavergne (Amazon) offers a different perspective. Lavergne made his start in the fashion industry working for corporations such as WalMart, and the apparel arm of Sara Lee. He specialized in product sourcing and supply chains (getting all the material to the right place at the right time and then getting the manufactured goods to stores halfway across the world in a timely fashion), and became an expert in labour and safety standards as he witnessed contractors and sub-contractors ignoring local laws (and corporate standards) regarding everything from wages to child labour to building codes.


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Boralia – Historical Canadian Cuisine for the Modern Palate


59 Ossington Avenue

Smoke gets in your eyes. Just momentarily, but as we enter Boralia, a server walks past with a dish of mussels smoked in pine needles leaving a waft of wood smoke behind them. It’s a good smell – not just camp-fire-like, but green and woodsy. As other tables order the dish the smell lingers, like a less-cloying Canadiana-themed incense.

At a time when Toronto is so busy celebrating food from other countries and cultures, we often forget about the homegrown delicacies created around us. Canadian cuisine is hard to define, and as a young and growing country we tend to look forward, not back, but Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris have built a whole restaurant around historic dishes. Morris comes to Toronto from Nova Scotia via the Okanagan, while Wu – who mostly runs front of house here – has worked in kitchens around the world from Coi in San Francisco to the infamous The Fat Duck. They met while working together in BC, later married, and moved to Toronto to open a restaurant after coming across a collection of historical recipes from Nova Scotia.

The room is elegant and modern, with subtle touches of Canadiana – menus are bound in leather, a sculpture of a wolf greets guests as they exit the washrooms – that never devolves into cutesy or twee.

Most items on the menu have a date associated with them, indicating the date of origin of the recipe. Morris and Wu have pored over historical cookbooks, but have also modernized things, so some dishes are a surprise when they appear at the table looking nothing like we expected.


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Toronto’s Got Fleas!


While most people will still flock to the mall for their shopping needs, Toronto has a whole sub-culture of individuals who are looking for unique and interesting stuff – whether that’s clothing, food, or gift and decor items – and they’ve been finding these cool and creative wares at one of the many neighbourhood-based flea markets that have popped up around the city over the past couple of years.

These are not the junky flea markets of the 70s, full of bags of tube sox and rock band logos silkscreened onto mirrors (not that there’s anything wrong with those fleas – they have a special place in our hearts). Nor are these events a “yard sale” type set-up where individuals sell stuff from their attic or basement. Rather, the new breed of fleas are a carefully curated blend of work by young designers, artisans, and artists, along with some of the best vintage vendors in the city.


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Chicklit Pulp Fiction – When Novels Are So Bad, They’re Good

I don’t read a lot of pulp novels. There are so many great books being written all the time, it’s all I can do to keep up with new releases while fulfilling my desire for the “must-read” classics. The Corinna Chapman series by Australian author Kerry Greenwood is neither new nor classic, nor especially… good, but I am addicted to it as surely as I am addicted to chocolate or potato chips.

Greenwood is better known for the Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries series. Converted to an Australian television series a few years ago, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has just completed its third season for a total of 34 episodes, many of which are true to Greenwood’s original novels. While Phryne madness hasn’t yet hit North America (the first two seasons are available on Acorn and Netflix), I’m predicting that we will soon go crazy for “Mees Fishah”, especially if the much-discussed US version ever happens.

In any case, I figured that if Greenwood was behind the creation of my favourite show and style icon, surely her mystery series about a baker would be right up my alley.


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Taste of Toronto Festival


Toronto may not be included in the Michelin guide, but we’re the only North American city to be part of the Taste Festival series, which visits 22 cities each year, bringing together some of the best local food businesses and restaurants for a weekend-long celebration of cuisine.

A well-curated selection of small food businesses (Mad Mexican, Mary Mcleod’s Shortbread), innovative products (Ninutik Maple Sugar, hisbicus tea from Nuba Tisane), local restaurants both small and large, and some larger corporate exhibitors (Pilsner Urquell, San Pellegrino) along with a variety of stages featuring chefs both local and international (Mark McEwan, Jonathan Waxman, Masaharu Morimoto, who is opening a restaurant in Toronto soon), make the Taste of Toronto festival accessible and interesting to everyone.


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Book Review – Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler


Twice as much tea is sold as “Darjeeling” each year than is grown on the 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling region of India in the Himalaya mountains between Nepal and Bhutan.

This “champagne of teas” is much coveted, and factors such as weather, politics and working conditions mean that tea sellers are more than willing to blend the lesser batches of Darjeeling with other black teas such as Assam, both to make a buck and to meet customer demand.

Most Darjeeling tea is sold as a single estate product, and is one of four “flushes” that occur each growing season. The tea bushes must be picked (or rather carefully hand plucked) weekly, and starting in the spring, will be categorized as one of four flushes: first, second, monsoon or autumn, each with their own unique flavours and characteristics.


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If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a (Local, Historical, British) Cake – Book Review – A Slice of Britain

slicebritainI blame Nigel Slater. Were it not for his BBC show back in November, Nigel Slater’s Icing on the Cake (the third in a series that also includes candy and biscuits), I’d never even have heard of Caroline Taggart’s A Slice of Britain. But in his search for British cake, Slater encountered Taggert and her recent book, and he interviewed her for the show.

I must have this book, I exclaimed, and promptly ordered it from Amazon UK. Then when it arrived, I proceeded to sort of ignore it for a few months, reading it in short bursts but not really enjoying it. To be fair, as a purchased book, it became my default reading when I didn’t have a library book or a book for an assigned review on the go. As well, injuries sustained to my neck and shoulders in February actually made it hard for me to hold a book for a month or so, which meant that Taggart and her cakes were sorely neglected. It didn’t help that I wasn’t originally enamoured with Taggart’s writing style – it felt too “bloggy”; a string of personal experiences as she travelled England, Wales and Scotland, searching out local baked delicacies, as opposed to a more factual, third person account with a clearly outlined history of each cake.

Determined to give it a second chance, I sat down again recently and plowed through half the book in an afternoon. Taggart’s chatty style grew on me and I found A Slice of Britain to be an enjoyable read. The idea to look up each cake on Google as I read about it helped immensely. Taggart includes recipes for many of the cakes she discusses (and “cake” is a loose term here – the book includes everything from scones to cookies/biscuits and full on cakes such as the ubiquitous Victoria sponge, as well as things we’d classify in Canada as a “loaf”, plus some candy items that are made in cake form), but with so many British cakes containing roughly the same ingredients, a visual aide (the book contains sketches but no photographs) was incredibly useful in determining the difference between, say, a Bath Bun and a Lardy Cake. Because, make no mistake, the Brits, or at least the ones in olde tymes in charge of making cakes, surely did love their raisins and dried fruit.


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The Genuine Marriage Test – And Why I’d Fail

December 31st, 2007. Our friend John performs our wedding ceremony. I rock a wedding boa. Greg still has hair.

First, an upfront – my marriage isn’t technically “genuine” since Greg and I never bothered with a license. In Canada, common law relationships carry the same legal status as married, so there is no financial benefit to paying for the piece of paper if you are a Canadian citizen. So while we’d immediately set off flags if one of us was originally from another country, no eyelashes were batted when it came to the legality of how we chose to “wed”, and as far as we’re concerned we are married and have been so for over 17 years.

But according to this piece in the Toronto Star, if one member of the couple happens to be an immigrant, you’d best be sure that you: have an actual diamond ring, kiss in your wedding photo, have a big reception (not at a restaurant, pub or home), and take a honeymoon immediately after your ceremony and be sure it’s to some place far away… because not doing any of these could mean that your wedding is not about love, but that you’re helping someone to enter and live in Canada illegally.

I don’t need to outline why this is not only stupidly racist but also just really idiotic, right?

Here’s the thing, in 1997, my wedding to Greg cost us under $500. Were we not both Canadian citizens, we would totally have flagged Immigration Canada’s checklist.


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Review – The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky

language-of-foodThe Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu
by Dan Jurafsky
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014

Fresh. Delicious. Perfectly cooked (oh, how I hate that one). The way we talk about food, especially how it’s described on menus, plays a huge role in how much we’re going to end up paying for those same dishes.

Dan Jurafsky’s amusing and informative book The Language of Food looked at thousands of menus from all types of restaurants. Fancy restaurants with “five-dollar” words on the menu charge more money for their dishes, But beware any place telling you the food is fresh, real (as in maple syrup), or crispy – because don’t you already assume that the food in restaurants is fresh and real? As Willy Shakes said, “I think thou doth protest too much.”

Menus aren’t the only thing Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University discusses in his book. He spends a lot of time looking at the origin of food words and how they morphed as food culture was carried with explorers to new countries. Ice cream, for instance, started as flavoured syrups used in drinks in the Middle East and Persia. Then the Chinese discovered that salt-peter used in gun powder made ice really, really cold and that process also moved east where it was used on those syrups to make the frozen treat sherbet. It didn’t take long for someone to start flavouring milk and cream and using the same process, and voila – ice cream.


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Join Me For Dinner – May 5th at The Depanneur


So the brilliant folks at The Depanneur have started a cool weekly new program called Table Talks where they invite people involved in the Toronto food scene – from farmers and producers to local food writers – to drop by each week for an hour-long informal “around the kitchen table” sort of talk. Owner Len Senater cooks up something tasty and everyone shares a meal while discussing a pre-determined issue or topic related to that week’s guest.

I’ll be the featured guest on Tuesday, May 5th from 7 – 8pm where I’ll be talking about Canadian long-form food writing; specifically the lack of diverse voices and foodways in Canadian food writing and why we should all care about not just keeping the food stories of our past alive but why we should be expanding our views to encompass all Canadians.

There will be copies of Stained Pages Press titles for sale and a stack of my favourite Canadian food books to peruse. Not sure what Len is planning on cooking up just yet, but it’s guarantee to be tasty and inexpensive.

The Depanneur is at 1033 College Street, and the talk takes place on Tuesday May 5th at 7pm.

I hope to see you there!

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The Girl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

dior1While it’s often easy to think of fashion as mere frippery, looking back on changing styles reveals a clear indication of society’s attitudes and politics of a particular era. As the western world adjusted to peacetime after a long and terrible war, women were trying to find their new place in society after years of fashion freedom in which they wore slim, close-fitting dresses and even trousers, and worked in factories doing jobs typically belonging to men.

Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947, while offering a whole new silhouette of gorgeous, glamourous dresses, was met with mixed reactions. French fashionistas with money adored the wasp waists and voluminous skirts, but most women, Americans especially, rejected Dior’s designs as restrictive (back to corsets and garters instead of comfortable pants) and pretentious.

The Girl in Dior (Amazon, Powell’s) gives us an insider’s view of the designer’s atelier during this time. The fictional Clara, a fashion journalist assigned to cover Dior’s show, causes a stir when a photo shoot goes wrong, inadvertently pitting models dressed in expensive gowns against impoverished people running market stalls.

The job gets her fired but Dior takes pity on her and she becomes one of his top models; going on to meet her future husband, she moves from Dior model to Dior customer.


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Why We Should Mourn For Worn

I’m not sure how I missed the boat when it comes to Worn. I had always sort of known of their existence, but maybe I wrote them off as being a bit too indie girl twee or something. Or wrote myself off as too old, since it seemed directed to a younger demographic. In fact, I don’t recall actually picking up an issue until I came across a volunteer manning a table at City of Craft a few years back. I bought a couple of issues and even met with editor Serah-Marie McMahon, who was kind enough to offer me some wise advise regarding indie magazine start-ups (I was considering starting a food magazine at the time), but maybe because I assume that, despite (or because of) my own rockin’ style, fashion magazines have little to offer me, I never followed through on keeping up with new issues.

I even missed the publication of the Worn Archive in the spring of 2014, and it wasn’t until the fall when McMahon announced Worn was shutting down operations (the project had always struggled financially), that I clued in and bought the book.

And then I realized what I had been missing.

Because Worn is everything most of us who don’t care about “fashion” actually want a fashion magazine to be. The photo shoots are modelled by Worn staffers and volunteers (Wornettes) – regular-sized folks of various ages and sizes, usually wearing their own clothes. No, you can’t rush out and buy that exact outfit from a store – but that’s the point – Worn is more about personal creativity and inspiration that being able to “shop that look”.


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Got Game?

Crispy Masala Quail from The Queen & Beaver. Photo by Q&B chef Andrew Berry-Ashpole.

Hey y’all! A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to write a feature on local game meat for Toronto’s weekly indie NOW Magazine. Just adding some linkage here to prove it actually happened. :)

Got Game – why more Toronto shops and restaurants don’t offer wild-caught meat.

Top 5 places to buy game meat in Toronto.

Top 5 game dishes from Toronto restaurants.


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Arthur Elgort’s The Big Picture


The photographs are, of course, iconic. As in, I remember exactly where I was when I opened that September 1991 issue of Vogue to flip to the page of Linda Evangelista kicking that bagpiper (plaids are hot for fall, ladies!). But Arthur Elgort’s The Big Picture (Amazon, Powell’s) is about more than pretty fashion models.

Oh, there’s plenty of them there, dating back to his first shoot for British Vogue in 1971, and there’s a sub-theme in The Big Picture that is really the history of haute couture from the 70s forward, as the photographer worked with not just Vogue but Interview, GQ, Life and Rolling Stone, and shot advertising campaigns for Chanel, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent.


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A Little Squirt of Crazy

nasal sprayTo begin, an apology to anyone with an anxiety-related mental illness. I have no intention of implying that anyone with an anxiety disorder is “crazy” (which is considered an inappropriate usage) but really, crazy is the only reasonable term I can come up with to describe what I recently experienced. It was a really brief glimpse at what it might feel like to suffer from anxiety/panic attacks and to experience what people with mental illness must face when dealing with the medical system, but I don’t purport to speak for anybody else, to define anxiety-related mental illness, or to present myself as an expert in any way. Rather I want to share my experience of a very specific situation that was one of the most terrifying events of my life.

Early in February of 2015, I came down with a cold. It moved though fast and I was feeling remarkably better after only a few days. Then the second wave (or a second cold) hit. This time it was bad and I started taking a pile of cold medicines to try and make life a bit less miserable. Specifically I was taking one of those daytime/nighttime cold pills and making regular use (but still following the usage directions on the package) of a generic store-brand nasal decongestant spray.

I had started out with pills that included pseudoephedrine, and those worked reasonably okay. When they ran out I turned to another, similar product that replaced the pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine. For those not in the know, or who missed the early seasons of Breaking Bad, pseudoephedrine, despite its efficacy, is being phased out of cold medications because it is regularly used as an ingredient in the production of meth. (As a cold medicine it tends to make people fairly stoned, but it also works decently well at its intended purpose.) Phenylephrine, the drug now being used instead, does a pretty crap job of actually decongesting anything, which means that in all likelihood, more people will do what I did and will use  decongestant spray on top of that.

The problem with those decongestant sprays is that you can only use them for 3 to 5 days or you risk a rebound effect (it takes more of the medication to work, and it doesn’t last as long); addiction to this product is pretty rampant. So after 5 days (specifically, February 15th) I stopped using the spray.


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What We Do in the Shadows – Review

For more than two decades, Nicholas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss has been my hands down favourite vampire movie. But recently, that place of honour has been usurped by a group of flatmates from New Zealand.

What We Do In the Shadows is a mockumentary-style film about a group of vampires living together in Wellington, New Zealand. Ranging in age from 183 (Deacon, played by Jonathan Brugh, is the baby of the group, and, oh yeah, also happens to be a Nazi) to 862 (Jemain Clement plays Vladislav, who keeps a dungeon full of sex slaves and is known as The Poker) the trio (including Taika Waititi’s vampire Viago, a 379 year old dandy) share a flat along with 8,000 year old Petyr, doing the things that flatmates mostly do, which is to squabble about the housework and rent, go out clubbing, and try to stay out of the sunlight.


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