Book Review: Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Aubrey McKee
Alex Pugsley

This collection of stories about a well-to-do kid from Halifax’s South End is apparently meant to be the first in a 5-part fictionalized autobiographical series. This book covers Aubrey’s childhood and teenage years in the 70s and 80s, and includes a cast of characters that range from his parents’ friends to drug-dealing ruffians from the poorer parts of town, to a collection of eccentrics and misfits who are the early adopters of Halifax’s vibrant punk music scene in the early 80s. But Aubrey’s life is pretty insular and posh. Private school, tennis lessons, and yacht clubs all play a role in his development and it’s only when another character tells him off and points out that his life is nothing at all like that of other Halifax youth (a refreshing twist, because I wasn’t sure the author actually had that self-awareness up to that point and was beginning to think he might be an awful jerk), that it became clear that somebody had the great good sense to consider Aubrey a poncy twat, and to call him on it.

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The Cold November Rain

I joke every year — in fact, with great seriousness — that the day after Autumn Daylight Saving should actually be a statutory holiday. In theory we’ve all got that Sunday to adjust to the changing schedule and light, but it’s never really enough. The “extra hour of sleep” everyone enthuses about never happens (I still wake up at the old time) and while those of us truly dedicated to our eight hours a night end up tottering off to bed an hour “early” (but actually at the same time as before the change) might manage to get enough sleep, most people don’t. And I don’t think we take the afternoon changes — the fact that it gets darker earlier still affects our circadian rhythm — into as much consideration as they warrant. So I am firmly of the opinion that we all need at least a day or two to just sleep in and get used to the differences in light before we have to use our brains for anything important.

It doesn’t help that when Daylight Saving got changed from mid-October to the first weekend after Halloween (Thanks Dubya!), it also placed this very stressful event in roughly the same period of time as the November rainy season.

Here in Toronto, it’s a given that the first few days of November will be rainy. The leaves remain on the trees until well past the end of October (they never used to, a clear sign of global warming), but the inevitable winds and rains of November immediately begin to lash at the city and the first week of November is almost always dark and dire. The first damp cold of the winter sets into the bones. Ankles and elbows, injuries sustained in childhood and long forgotten, begin to ache from the low air pressure. Scarves and gloves are suddenly needed as necks and fingers unaccustomed to the chill protest the cold. Allergy sufferers scan the weather report for predictions of a hard frost in the desperate hope of avoiding the coughing and sneezing that comes with millions of wet leaves rotting away on lawns and in gutters, spewing out mold spores until the air becomes cold enough to kill them off.

As a grumpy adult, this weather makes me, well… grumpy. For all of the reasons listed above — it’s dark, it’s cold and how the hell can I be suffering from tennis elbow when I don’t play tennis? But as a child, this weather, this time of year, was full of excited promises that involved making sure your skates were sharpened.

Looking back, it seems that, as a kid, growing up in Halifax, I always had skates on my feet. The nearby Lion’s rink was open every winter weekend for a community skate, and I learned to glide across the ice at an early age. My high school was next door to this rink and a few times a week it would be open at lunchtime for students, where fifty cents admission would secure enough funds to run the Zamboni around the place after the twenty or thirty regular skaters went back to class.

But as a little kid, I mostly skated in an empty lot down the street.

Those lashing November rains would cause this extra wide lot to flood. A steep hill at the back of the property and the edge of the sidewalk at the front caused the water to pool, and when we were lucky enough to have a good hard frost, to freeze. Measuring maybe fifty feet along the front and close to the same from front to back before the ground rose up to the hill, our makeshift rink was encumbered at one end with the stalks of bushes and a few trees but was mostly clear and open. With a depth of only six to twelve inches, it froze fast and solid. And when it didn’t freeze completely and was still thin in places, the worst that would happen if you broke through the ice was a soaker in your skate.

As soon as that little pond froze, and I can only remember one year when the weather gods left it dry, the neighbourhood kids would be on it, wobbling clumsily down the street on skate blades covered in guards, rather than changing from boots at the edge of the ice. Sometimes, if there had been a lot of wind, the surface of the ice would be bumpy with ridges of water that froze fast before it could spread. But we would be on it regardless of the texture; a good half dozen kids, often more, every night after supper until our mothers called us in at bedtime.

I cannot stress how magical these evenings were. The light from the streetlights kept us safe and allowed us to see the trees and bushes. If there had been an ice storm, the branches themselves often glittered and sparkled like magnificent Christmas decorations. Above our heads, galaxies of stars twinkled better and brighter than any strand of fairy lights. Our breath made little clouds against the dark sky, and amidst the laughter and singing and bursts of childish delight, the sound of skate blades scratching across ice punctuated the night.

In the summer, the children of the street would roller skate along the same stretch of sidewalk, but it wasn’t the same kind of freedom and joy we experienced on those winter nights.

Eventually someone build a house on the vacant lot and our little skating pond was gone, replaced with a lawn and some tasteful landscaping. My family moved to another part of the neighbourhood, and I went to a different school and no longer saw the kids from my childhood street. My roller skates were abandoned and my ice skates lived in my school locker for those lunchtime sessions at the rink. The first weeks of November no longer held as much promise. The rain and wind, no longer a harbinger of childhood play and magical evenings outside, became an annoyance. But every year, as the leaves form piles in the gutters, and the wind whips around corners, reminding us of all the blizzards in store for us in the coming months, I watch the rain, the cold November rain, and think back to a time when it came with such joyful anticipation.

Book Review — Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes

Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes
edited by Valerie Mansour
Nimbus, 2017

As long as people have lived in Nova Scotia, there has been a need to cook and thus, a need for recipes. While many cooks of the past needed no written instruction, keeping all the details in their heads, once the popularity of cookbooks grew, plenty of regional recipes were shared through books (both mainstream and community publications), newspapers, and on scraps of paper, either handwritten or typed.

The Nova Scotia Archives has, well, an archive of old recipes, from handwritten notes for a lemon pie to the mass quantity recipes used at the old Moirs’ chocolate factory. Editor Valerie Mansour has compiled a collection of these, dating back nearly 200 years from 1786 to the 1970s and arranged chronologically. For a fun twist, the recipes were passed on to various Nova Scotia chefs who then analyzed the recipe and made their own version.

In some cases they stuck to the original recipe and in others the chefs deviated far off track because the original was just too scary or unworkable. Each entry includes an image of the original recipe in its original form, the revised recipe developed by the chef, and the chef’s comments, as well as a splendid, mouth-warering photo by Len Wagg.

The collection includes expected favourites such as rice pudding, devilled eggs, seafood chowder, rappie pie, and ginger beer, but there’s a Thai peanut soup recipe from 1910, and a Mulligatawny recipe from 1922 that reveals a worldly sophistication not typically ascribed to Nova Scotians of the time.

Recipes range from cocktails and cider to hearty entrees, side dishes, and desserts, and every Nova Scotian will find an old family favourite among the pages.

While some of the chef’s might have taken more artistic license with their dish than was absolutely necessary, this is a fun and interesting collection that offers updated versions of classic dishes that are within the grasp of the majority of home cooks. Some of the best reading in the book is the detailed archival citation of each recipe in a section at the back which cites the sources for each entry, and references community cookbooks, private collections, and publications ranging from promotional corporate cookbooks to community fundraising books.

As an ex-pat Nova Scotian, this book is a delightful taste of home, but it is also a wonderful resource for anybody interested in food history or Nova Scotian cuisine (past and present) in general.

The Long Road to the Pot of Gold

When I came up with the idea to write a book about the Halifax Explosion, back in 2004, I didn’t think it would be a 13-year journey. The bulk of the writing was done in ’04-’05, but just as I was getting ready to send the manuscript out to agents, I took a header on the front walk and ended up with a broken arm. By the time I had healed I was working on two different food-writing gigs and so set the MS aside. I had been advised by a friend within the publishing industry to get my name out there by doing some other writing, that it would be an encouragement to potential publishers, so I did that.

Fast forward to 2014 or so, and after writing a different book, editing a collection of other people’s writing, and generally writing about the Toronto food scene for a decade, I thought it might be time to dust off Pot of Gold. I had always thought to publish it closer to the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is an anchoring event within the plot, and so, after a few more drafts (making the final version maybe the 10th draft overall) I sent it out into the world. 

Except the timing of the mainstream publishing industry is slow like a molasses-covered turtle, and with each agent taking months to reply/reject, by the beginning of 2017, I realized that it wouldn’t get published in time unless I did it myself. Which is never ideal because there’s no promotion, it’s not on store shelves… but the explosion is such a major part of the book — even though the bulk of the story is set more than a decade later — and I really want to acknowledge what was, for me, a big part of my childhood, and something that I think every Haligonian has as part of their own family history in some way. So even if I don’t sell a single copy, at least I know I did it and that it’s out there, as my tribute to the city I grew up in and the people who lived and died during this devastating event.

Over the years I have read every single book published about the explosion, it’s a topic of fascination still. There are a number of non-fiction works that delve into minute detail of the events of December 6th, and in recent years the number of fiction titles has grown as well, adding different voices and points of view to the two “classic” (tired, cliched, misogynistic) titles that for years were the only works of fiction about the subject.

I hope that, some day, Pot of Gold stands proudly with those other works as yet another voice, another point of view, about the horrific events that destroyed the lives of so many innocent people.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I have included the relevant chapter here for free. While the rest of the novel takes place between 1929 and 1945, the prologue and the explosion establish the characters, their relationships, and many aspects of their lives.

Please visit the Pot of Gold book page to read the prologue.

Hospital Food

This piece was written for my book, Kitchen Party, but somehow, in the transferring of 47 essays and images to the final manuscript, it got lost. I remembered/discovered it this past weekend and was very disappointed, because not only was it written specifically for the book, it is one of my favourite pieces. So I’m sharing it here instead. If you like it, please check out my book over at Stained Pages Press, which is full of similar pieces.

Donuts. Muffins. Trays upon trays of little bowls of pudding; today it’s vanilla. Pan after pan of brownies and carrot cake, both options on the regular menu for tomorrow. And, can it be? A three-layer birthday cake decorated with frosting roses and swags. “Happy Birthday Andrea”. I don’t know who Andrea is but she must be someone special to warrant a huge cake like that in a place like this.

So cold. I can’t stop shivering. The sleeves on my uniform are short, if someone doesn’t show up soon, I’m going to freeze to death. They’ll find me in the morning, asleep in a corner, discarded muffin wrappers around me, jam from the donuts in splurts down the front of my apron, my exposed skin slathered with the butter-cream from Andrea’s cake as an extra layer of insulation against the cold.

What time does the morning shift start anyway?

**

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Those Who Like It… Have Probably Bought Into the Marketing Scheme

I am, in terms of family history and genealogy, a bit of a mutt. The name Kirby, derived from Kerr, and meaning “by the Kerr”; Kerr being a copse or wood, arrived in England with the Norman invasion and spread to most parts of England, Scotland and even Ireland. The Kirbys have both English and Irish tartans and crests. As far as I know, my family, way way back, came from northern England, around Yorkshire, but no one in our family has ever traced the tree back that far to say for sure. (There’s also a story that gets told when family members have had a bit too much to drink that links us to pirates but the veracity of this yarn is unproven. Still.. yarr!)

In any case, I spent my youth not really feeling as if I had a “culture” per se. Which was alright growing up in Nova Scotia, since most of us were pasty anglo-saxons who had little clue as to what part of the Isles we came from.

It wasn’t until I was older, and when someone else pointed it out as a positive trait, that I looked to my Nova Scotian upbringing as part of my own “culture”.

Living in Toronto, surrounded by ethnic groups where people kept close ties to the motherland and continued to live within their culture (through religion, food, music and even dress), I felt a little lost. Embracing my Nova Scotian upbringing was a anchor for me in a sea of otherness.

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Hopgood’s Foodliner Rocks the East Coast Flavours

Anyone who knows me or who reads this site regularly knows my feelings on donairs. Particularly that we don’t have any good ones here in Toronto, and that it’s a crying shame because we do so much to celebrate the street food of other cultures, but we seldom, even within the realm of “local”, celebrate the food of Canada. That goes for all Canadian foods, actually, not just street food, and it’s truly a delight to see restaurants like Keriwa Cafe, and Acadia to some extent (Chef Matt Blondin has a specific niche but there’s definite Canadian influences) and now Hopgood’s Foodliner (325 Roncesvalles Avenue) picking up on Canadian regional cuisine.

Geoff Hopgood has been very quiet about his recent restaurant opening. Few people knew it was even happening until news of the soft opening broke on Twitter and an exclusive with the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttal-Smith ran the following day. A website with the most basic info was made in late January, but wasn’t getting indexed by Google as Toronto food freaks desperately searched for more information last Friday.

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Life’s a Beach

While having dinner at Acadia (50C Clinton Street) recently, I remarked to owner Scott Selland that the amuse of pickled eggs, confit potatoes and bits of greens and okra reminded me of the beach. I don’t think he really got the correlation, and I’m sure I didn’t explain it well, it was just one of those neuron-firing events where something pulled up images of something else within my brain. So I dug up some photos to see if I could explain it visually.

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Loving the Lobster

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Chives restaurant in Halifax with my brother and his wife. Our mains arrived and I dug into my lobster risotto. “You guys want some?” I asked, in between inhaling mouthfuls of the rich and creamy dish.

They both wrinkled up their noses at me. “No thanks… we’re kind of tired of lobster.”

Whu-whut?? Who could possibly be tired of lobster? Don’t they realize how good this stuff is? Why, if I lived, as they do, a mere 10 minute walk from the local wharf, and it was as cheap as it has been this summer, I’d eat lobster at least once a week. “We do.” They do. And they’re getting kind of sick of it.

Blame it on the recession. When times are tough, we give up the luxuries first, and this past year, even the people who could still afford the luxuries mostly gave them up, so as not to seem ostentatious while their friends and neighbours were losing jobs, homes and life savings. Which means that items like lobster, fine wines and truffles have been getting a bad rap, and people began avoiding them.

For a while it was fine – the price of lobster dropped and those of us who couldn’t afford the crustaceans on a regular basis ate our fill. But then the prices dropped even further, and the wholesalers began offering a price that was so low, it would actually cost the lobster fishers to go to work each day.

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The Christmas Treats

Like any family, when I was growing up, we had snack foods in our house, but throughout the year, these were pretty basic; (mostly) homemade cookies, chips, ice cream. But at Christmas, the grocery cart would fill with more premium brands. To this day, it doesn’t seem like the holidays to me without certain items; notably a can of Poppycock, a tin of Quality Street chocolates; Coca-Cola; and Bits and Bites. These were the more expensive versions of things we would otherwise buy, but probably because they were more expensive, they only showed up at our house in December. It got me thinking recently as to whether these items were really better than their rest-of-the-year counterparts, or whether the novelty of having them at holiday time simply made them seem better.

Poppycock versus Cracker Jack

I can’t find an ingredients list for either of these versions of candy/caramel corn, but I’m going to post one in the Poppycock column without too much debate. Freshness seems to be a key here, plus premium nuts as opposed to peanuts, but it’s really the coating that wins it. Without seeing an ingredients list (and after coming across ingredients for some of the “Indulgence” varieties of Poppycock that includes cottonseed oil, I’d rather not know what the stuff includes, to tell the truth) it at least seems as if there’s a more “buttery” flavour to the premium brand. Cracker Jack, on the other hand, although available year-round, was often stale and hard and cheap-tasting. Googling “Poppycock” actually gave me a number of recipes, so I might try to appease my urges this season with some homemade stuff instead.

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