Book Review — The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony

The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony
Adam Platt, 2019

Adam Platt has been the restaurant critic at New York Magazine since 2000, when he took over from Gael Green. His own food background skews heavily to Asian cuisine as he spent his formative years in Japan and China, so while he has no formal cooking background, he has a deep understanding of the current food scene.

The early chapters of The Book of Eating read more like a very tasty auto-biography, detailing Platt’s childhood eating experiences in the US and abroad. These are engaging as part of the bigger story and especially for anyone interested in regional Asian cuisine, but I can see where and why some readers on Goodreads gave up near the beginning as Platt doesn’t really dish a lot of dirt on the NYC food scene, and he can tend to be repetitive with phrases that he presumes are witty (the term “boiled owl” appears far too often).

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Got Blog? Yes, Some People Still Read Blogs

It’s a weird old world we’re living in these days, especially online where traditional forms of media are falling behind in favour of social media, and the news sites that still exist care more about clicks and views than producing interesting content.

I realized recently that much of what I read on an average day is often a rehash of another story or article from a different site, likely posted a couple of days before. And even then, a lot of what I’m coming across (aside from local, breaking news) is just variations on the same theme. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of truly original content out there.

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No Talking

There’s a popular philosophy that silence can equal strength. Saying nothing often says more than any words. But what about when you’ve been silenced involuntarily?

Like many people this month, I’ve found myself flattened by a cold. This is not rare or unusual except that at the exact same time the virus hit me, I experienced an allergic reaction to the massive amounts of Christmas tree debris that some of my neighbours left strewn about the elevators and hallways of our building as they took their dead trees to the garbage. Even though building staff seemed to be vacuuming continuously, we were finding needles in the rugs in our (tree-free) apartment.

I’m allergic to evergreens but the worst I usually get is itchy ears in the spring when the conifers pollinate. So when I woke one night unable to breathe, my throat swollen near closed from inflammation and likely a bit of anaphylaxis plus the typical cold-related mucus gluing it all together, I was terrified and really shaken.

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The Girls

This took place a few years ago, but continues to plague me in an odd, unresolvable way…

The scene: I’m in the disabled washroom at a live performance space called the Theatre Centre because my herniated discs occasionally make it incredibly painful to go up and down the stairs to the regular washrooms and the elevator must be run by a staff member. The disabled washroom is accessed through a storage area off the lobby and the door has one of those open slatted sections on the lower half, either for ventilation or communication in emergencies or both.

While I’m in there I hear people enter the storage room. It sounds like they’re gathering some extra chairs. There are two female voices and what sounds like an older man. There was an older man working the door as a volunteer when I came in so I assume it’s the same guy.

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We Be Jammin’ — How to Make No-fail, 3-ingredient Jam With Any Quantity of Fruit

Do you ever watch an episode of Bake-Off and boggle when the contestants make jam — in a frying pan? Just because their recipe calls for a small amount of jam for a layer of a cake? How do they do that? Jam must be made in huge quantities, in a gargantuan pot, from flats of berries or massive big baskets of peaches… doesn’t it?

And what happens if you get your fruit home and there’s not enough to make Grandma’s beloved recipe because it calls for 11 pounds of peaches and you’ve only got 7? The recipe will get messed up and jam is already a hot, scary, time-consuming task. Better to just buy a jar and forget about making your own, right?

Hang on, ya’ll, I’m about to rock your world.

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“So you just turned 40, I want you to go have a mammogram,” says my doctor at my annual physical just after my 40th birthday.

“That’s not necessary is it?” I scrunch up my face.

“What, it doesn’t hurt, don’t be a wimp,” she replies.

“Oh, you’ve had one?”

“Well, nooo…”

Fucking doctors. Who’s with me on the idea that every general practitioner should, during their medical training, have to experience every test they could potentially send a patient for? Not the actual mammogram with the scan, but everything up to that point, including the boob sandwich (male doctors too), as well as a colonoscopy, and a partial toenail removal.

“So how do you know it doesn’t hurt?”

She sighs. “I don’t, but you have a family history of breast cancer from your grandmother, so let’s be safe.”

I can’t honestly remember now if my grandmother had breast cancer or not. I think she did, but she had so many other cancers, along with pneumonia, diabetes, and tuberculosis at one point, that, sure, better to be safe than sorry. And it can’t be that bad, right?

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How to Go to Concerts When You’re Middle-Aged

Let’s face it, middle-aged folks don’t go to many concerts. We’re busy doing other stuff. Or we can’t afford it. Bands we like, that are still around with some semblance of the original line-up, are pretty rare. Mostly we take a pass more often than not. Bands also tend to go on stage well past our bedtime.

I am mostly fortunate to not fall into those parameters (except maybe for the late set times and early bed times, those kill me) and probably go to more concerts than the average 50-year-old. I’m lucky enough to live in a major city, and have a household income that allows for such extravagances. I spent part of my twenties and thirties as a concert promoter and ran a small record label for a few years, so those connections still come up occasionally to lure me out to see bands, in addition to checking out bands from my youth that I missed back in the day because I grew up in a city that few bands bothered to travel to.

The concert-going experience has changed a great deal, though, and it’s important to keep that in mind if your most favouritest band from when you were twenty reforms and comes to town. Especially if every concert you’ve seen in the last decade has involved children dressed as angels or shepherds. It’s not 1987 anymore, people.

Some tips for your middle-aged GenX concert experience…

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Grey Hair, Don’t Care

I got my first grey hair at seventeen. After screeching in horror and pulling it out, I found two more the following week. At that point I began surreptitiously colouring my hair with a black semi-permanent rinse. I was late to the hair colouring game in the 1980s, mostly living with mousy brown hair (and the occasional sneaky rinse because my father disapproved of hair colour) until I moved to Toronto a year or two later.

In the interim, I had a variety of silly mid-80s haircuts with long bangs that hung in my eyes, leaving greasy marks on my glasses (think Dale Martindale from Images in Vogue). These ranged from a brush cut to a diagonal shaved line across the back of my head with floppy asymmetrical bangs on one side. I worked in a hospital at the time and many of the older patients who had been flappers back in the day would chase after me to pat the teddy bear fuzz on my neck and reminisce about their own bobbed hair in the 1920s.

When I moved to Toronto, the first thing I did was dye my hair a bright cherry red. It’s been some version of that shade for thirty years with a few digressions into black, black cherry, and bleached white, which I maintained for one the summer until it started falling out in big chunks.

At one point shortly before I turned forty, I tried to let my grey hair grow out, hoping there was enough grey to have actual grey hair and not just that dishwater colour that brown-haired folks suffer through as they go grey. It was about 50/50 grey to brown at that point and I got to about two inches of growth before it was clear that the grey and mousy brown together made my hair look like it was the colour of one of those horrible beige trench coats most often worn by flashers. To quote the artist Sue Kreitzman, “Don’t wear beige, it might kill you.” When I dyed it back to red, friends remarked on how washed out the grey/beige combo had made me look. When I asked why they hadn’t said anything their reply was, “We thought you liked it and didn’t want to insult you.” I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

Over time, as those sneaky grey hairs multiplied, it was harder and harder to keep the red red. I tried different brands of hair colour, I diligently slathered a toxic neon red tinted conditioner on my head twice a week (which would dribble down my neck when I got sweaty, and which I left on pillowcases at massage and physiotherapy clinics across the city), but nothing worked.

The back especially would turn a weird orange colour within a week. The hair was too lacking in melanin to actually hold the colour. The hair around my face was fine, for some reason, and immediately after an application of colour I would have hair that was two distinctly different shades of red.

I went back to black cherry and even full-on purple shades, figuring that the darker colours might take better. (That came with a bottle of freakishly bright purple tinted conditioner that left purple streaks on pillowcases.) Fuck you, I said to my head one morning, Imma fix your little red wagon, and good. And so I dyed my hair black.

Good, nice; a sleek, classic, little black bob. Because while I’ve explained my lifetime of hair colour, I’ve clearly neglected to mention that my hair is straight. Poker straight. After a childhood of painful rollers, stinking perms, and singeing curling irons to create some semblance waves and ringlets, as an adult, I figured that the best thing to do was also the easiest, and just let it be straight. With a few exceptions, such as a darling pixie cut that required way more product and effort than short hair really deserves, I’ve worn a classic 1920s-style bob for almost three decades.

After I dyed it black and was happy with it being black, the hair on the back of my head faded out to an orangey-brown colour that was everything that was sad about the 1970s.

“You know,” I said one afternoon to my husband Greg, “the front is holding the colour and I really like the black against my face. I should just shave it into a Chelsea cut. You know, to let the grey grow out.”

Without batting an eye, Greg said, “I’ll get the clippers.”

Yes, readers, I trust my husband enough to let him shave my head. He shaves his own head, and he cuts the back part of my bobbed hair each month and does a fantastic job. So I combed and pinned the front bangs and long, straight pieces and he shaved off the rest.

Dudes, chill, it grew back.

Now, despite my various experiments with asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s, the Chelsea cut, typically worn by female skinheads, was a style that I had always wanted but never had the nerve to do. If I had come home with my head almost entirely shaved, my parents would have kicked me out. Besides which, I was never really into the hardcore scene and wearing that style would have marked me as part of a specific tribe that I wasn’t actually involved in.

But at 49, well after the style no longer had political implications? It would certainly be more fun that growing out my haircolour via that awful, ever-widening skunk stripe down the centre of my head that most people go through.

So Greg shaved it off and we gasped at how much hair was piled on the floor, then we rubbed my head repeatedly to feel the fuzz.

Reasons not to shave your head into a skinhead haircut:

1. No hat ever creates the same amount of warmth on your head as hair

2. There’s a lot of stuff about Nazis in the news and you wander around terrified that someone will attack you for being one (this didn’t happen, in fact, nobody seemed to get the connection, because it was in fact, Toronto in 2017, not Leeds in 1982)

3. For the first few weeks the hair is short enough that it pokes through the weave of the fabric of a pillowcase and you literally get stuck on your pillow and cannot turn your head

3. The grow-out is… interesting

So the goal really was to grow my hair back out into a full bob, keeping the black in the front, sort of a negative version of the lucky folks with black hair who get those lovely and distinguished white flashes along their hairlines. A reverse Lily Munster, if you will. With enough hairspray, the long black bits at the front can be back-combed to look like I have a giant spider on my head. Or the stripes of a badger. Super awesome bonus points.

As the shaved hair got longer — and it really was a spectacular shade of silver now, not completely white, but probably about 75% grey — it went through various phases. First the Bay City Rollers/artichoke heart phase where it just kind of stuck up all over. Then the Paul Weller phase, which happened in part because I had trimmed my bangs too short. After that there was a shaggy Clem Burke phase. These were interspersed with some awkward lengths that made me happy it was winter and I could hide under a hat.

Shortly after the original cut, someone sent me a message on Twitter to tell me that my dream job had opened up. After not having a Toronto restaurant critic for eighteen months, the Globe and Mail were adding this column back to their paper and were interviewing qualified applicants. Having spent the last ten years writing about food, and knowing that an opportunity to interview for what is, really, the top position in the food writing field in the country was rare, I sent in my resume and some samples and got an email to come in for an interview.

Because I was a conscientious food writer, there are few pictures of me on the Internet. I made a point of not having my photo taken if I could help it. The one or two that exist show me with bright red hair. So when the Globe editor came to reception that day to collect me, she did a double-take. I knew right there that I wouldn’t be getting the gig, but soldiered on through the interview anyway. We discussed how they didn’t really want an incognito critic anymore, that they really wanted a personality along the lines of UK restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who could do appearances if necessary, and that there wouldn’t be disguises or pseudonyms. But I knew that a conservative paper wouldn’t want a stripy-haired skinhead-looking broad representing their publication. Even if the hair would eventually grow back.

The paper eventually hired someone from outside Toronto who was not known to local chefs, and who had a fairly common appearance and name (there were more than 30 people on LinkedIn in Toronto with the same name when I Googled the guy), so it seems they changed their minds about wanting a “personality” for that column. But being able to say I walked into an interview at the country’s most conservative newspaper with a full-on skinhead haircut is a bit of compensation for not getting the gig, especially considering how very, very qualified I was for it.

Since the haircut and the grow out, I have a lot of people stopping me to comment on my hair. Cool folks, plain folks, and lots of women who are probably also going grey and are wondering if they could get away with something similar in their own hair. (The black stripes on grey might be a bit daring for some. The only other person I’ve seem with something close to my style is UK personality Phillippa Perry.)

While there is a cliched idea that older women become invisible as we age, the hair seems to be an opening for strangers to approach me and ask about it. A lot of them even want to touch it, which is weird, and many people seem to think I’ve dyed it grey. (This is even more attention than I got when my hair was red and people would chase me down the street asking about brand names.)

That’s right. I choose to let my grey grow out at exactly the same time that colouring your hair grey became trendy with the young people. “Wait, that’s real?” is a refrain I hear a lot these days, along with, “Oh my God, you don’t LOOK 50!” Uh huh.

It’s disconcerting to realize that people — especially young people — are envious of my grey hair, given how we tend to treat older women in our society. I suspect that if I hadn’t kept the black Chelsea bangs and side bits, I’d not get the same amount of attention, as it wouldn’t be nearly as striking. But I’m a firm believer in working with what you’ve got and if my black and grey hair is something to be admired, by young and old alike, especially if it encourages anyone to be unique and creative with their appearance, then it’s a truly positive thing.

Recently someone referred to my ‘do as “Badass” and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment to be had.

Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.