Lunch with Lady Eaton – Inside the Dining Rooms of a Nation
Carol Anderson and Katharine Mallinson
206 pages, Ecw Press; April, 2004
When the first department stores opened across the country, they were considered to be (as they sometimes still are now) the death knell for small Mom & Pop stores that specialized in one niche market. And while some department stores like Wal-Mart continue to expand their grocery offering, higher-end shops have all but wiped out their food and grocery departments to specialize in higher-end luxury goods. But there was a time when Canadian department stores not only sold every dry good item imaginable, but they also made and sold food, both in their restaurants and as grocery items.
Case in point would be the long-defunct Eaton’s. The beloved Canadian department store chain began as a dry goods and hardware store under the guidance of founder Timothy Eaton. Early on, the store included coffee shops and restaurants in addition to a massive food hall. Eaton’s made their own baked goods on site, they owned dairies in rural Ontario which supplied the cream for the store to make its own butter, and by the early 1900s, the lunchroom of the downtown Toronto store was serving 5000 meals a day.
Am I beating a dead horse if I link to yet another article pointing out that health claims on packaged food are (intentionally) misleading?
This NY Times article doesn’t really reveal anything new if you’ve been following the whole story over the past few years, but it speaks to the stretches of truth advertisers will make and the overall gullibility of consumers when you consider that people are still buying these products.
It just feels like a battle food advocates can never win. Between advertisers and media willing to repeat any study that touts a “superfood”, or an ingredient with nutritional properties, the people standing up and saying, “hey now, wait a minute, do more research” are the ones made to look like kooks.
But how sad is it that we’re willing to buy yogurt, or juice or cereal because of false promises of restored health? I’m angry that people don’t take more time to inform themselves about what they’re buying and putting into their bodies, but I’m also a little shocked at the desperation of people willing to try anything that offers any kind of promise of improvement, be it weight loss, digestive health or, scariest of all, cancer prevention.
I don’t agree with everything said by author Michael Pollan, but “don’t buy food with health claims on the package” has to be one of the wisest things I’ve ever read.
Foodies are a fickle bunch. Since eating is, in many ways, a game of one-upmanship, we’re always on to the hot new thing.
But whatever happened to the old things? Do you remember when oil-soaked pasta salad was fancy? When we all first discovered sundried tomatoes? Or in one of the health-driven trends, when we put oat bran in every damned thing?
This piece in the New York Times explores fickle food trends and their cycles, specifically looking at the rise and fall and rise again of mac ‘n’ cheese. Homey and comforting, lurid and plastic, then back to fancy and artisanal.
But think of all the other food we once swooned over but soon grew bored of. I can remember the first time I drank Perrier in the 80s and felt oh so cool and European. And who drinks bubble tea anymore? Remember how enthralled we were with brie, especially wrapping it in pastry and baking it for parties? Chocolate-covered strawberries were once the height of sophistication, now they just seem sad to me, all bland and out of season.
It will happen to our current food trends too. Some day we will look back out the current obsession for bacon and cupcakes and shake our heads -what were we thinking? Pho? Boring. Craft beer? What was all the fuss anyway? The marketing scam that is probiotics will hopefully leave us embarrassed and humbled for being such suckers.
And maybe, just maybe… we’ll figure out that sliders are really lame and tacky.
Do you know this man? Have you seen him recently in a food service capacity, either as a server or a chef/cook? Or possibly making your morning coffee? Do you live in a backwoods logging camp, hundreds of miles from the nearest town? Because that’s the only reason why we should be eating food served and prepared by lumberjacks. No, really, take another look at him. Minus the axe, he could pass for any Toronto barista, hipster server, or chef at a place that serves “rustic” fare.
Yes, yet another “rustic” Italian restaurant is opening in Toronto (4 since the new year). We’re still desperately trying to find more things to put on poutine. Late night comfort food now has its own cross-border trend – “stoner haute cuisine” for the after club crowd (back in my day, all we had at 2am were donairs, and we were happy to have it! /end old geezer Haligonian rant). And while all those things are good and tasty… I can’t possibly be the only person longing for a little bit of elegance and sophistication on my plate occasionally.
This rustic comfort food thing – it made sense two or three years ago when a recession loomed over our heads. The world was a scary place, high-end restaurants were shutting down with some regularity (RIP Perigee), and we just wanted something familiar on the plates in front of us. Nonna’s spaghetti, plenty of fries, some “of the people” pulled pork, piles of game meat to assuage our inner wannabe hunter, and bacon on every damn thing in sight. Like our pioneer forefathers and mothers, we ate all the parts of the animal, preferably off a slice of log, complete with bark around the outside. We canned and pickled and imagined ourselves as a modern day Laura Ingalls (or Catherine Parr Trail if you want to keep it local and Canadian). We lumbered through the spring growth of local woodlands stomping down (or over-harvesting) the very jewels of the forest we claimed to prize and revere. We rejected anything that wasn’t “local”, which meant we ate an awful lot of “white people food”, in the process making many immigrant citizens feel that their cuisine was second class.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s all been very tasty. And homey and comforting and… rustic. But man, isn’t it getting boring?
I haven’t met anyone who isn’t just a little bit sceptical of the communal dining trend, except perhaps restaurateurs who have added a communal table in the hopes of using it for either large groups or stragglers. For most of us, our inclination when going out to eat is to dine and talk with the people we came with. Strangers can be, well… strange, and dining with people we don’t know – people who might have odd table manners, or smell funny, or natter on and on about some topic we have no interest in – can make an otherwise lovely evening turn out to be a bust.
Communal dining isn’t a new idea, though, it’s as old as the discovery of fire when prehistoric man gathered round a single heat source to cook food. Even without the restaurant trend, it exists today in the form of dinner parties, bed and breakfasts,wedding banquets and office lunches. We eat together to celebrate an occasion, to get to know one another, to strengthen bonds. And often we find ourselves eating with people who start out as strangers but who are friends, or at least acquaintances, by the time dessert is cleared.
Despite being a curmudgeon and a bit of a misanthrope, I find myself at a communal table at least once a month, often more. Most of the time, the dinners I attend are comprised of other food writers; colleagues who have been invited to cover the event or a specific product. But I’ve also been to plenty of dinners that are purely social, because I am interested in the food, or the experience.
Ever wonder where the male dominance of professional kitchens comes from? Or why pastry is often considered a woman’s job?
Greg found and downloaded a BBC documentary called A Tudor Feast at Christmas. The show had nothing to do with the holidays other than the 2006 air date, however the premise of the piece was that a group of food historians and archaeologists took over the kitchens at Haddon Hall (a Medieval castle) and spent 3 days cooking a Tudor-style feast. They hunted and fished and prepared food as it would have been done in 1590 when the kitchen was built (it had not been used for over 300 years when the documentary was filmed), right down to the peacock pie complete with the skin and feathers of the bird arranged atop the pie so it looked as if the bird were alive. (Fans of the TV series The Tudors will recognize the technique as the same one used for the swan served to Henry VIII after the death of Anne Boelyn).
In the interviews with the historians, two points came up that intrigued me.