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.

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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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The Food Emporium

When I was a wee thing, one of my greatest delights was stopping at the bakery counter at Simpson’s where my Mom would buy me a gingerbread man. Simpson’s was an old Canadian department store, at that time paired with Sears (old folks referred to it as “Simpson-Sears”), and then later bought out by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The bakery and candy counter at the Simpson’s store in Halifax was right by the main doors that opened onto the city bus depot, convenient for anyone who had to switch buses to get to where they were going.

In those days, upscale department stores stocked a huge variety of sweets, particularly penny candy, and as a kid, it was a place of true wonderment. I’d clutch my gingerbread man tightly all the way home, careful not to let an arm or leg break off before I could eat him.

At some point in my early teens, Simpson’s moved to the other end of the mall, and Sears took over the space, removing the candy and bakery counter and forcing a bit of a trek for anyone who wanted a gingerbread man or a bag of Chinese Chews for the bus ride home.

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Rhubarb Coffee Cake

My Mom and Dad have a massive rhubarb patch in their back yard. I think it might actually be one gigantic plant, in fact, but it keeps them well-stocked in rhubarb all summer long. This recipe gets made a lot in their house, to use up the rhubarb, but also because it’s really good. My Mom cuts these smaller, into squares (16 from an 8-inch pan), but I tend to think of this as more of a coffee cake, and given the small amount of fat in the recipe, don’t feel terribly guilty serving up larger pieces and thinking of it as cake.

I cook this at a slightly higher heat than the original recipe calls for, and I also tend to find the original a bit too sweet for me, so I’ve switched the topping to brown sugar from white, and cut the amount slightly.

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We All Know Where the Rainbow Goes…

I’m eating chocolates and it’s bittersweet. I had been craving “box o’ chocolates” (as opposed to the swank organic, fair-trade, single-origin stuff I usually eat) and grabbed a box of Pot of Gold the other day. They’re getting hard to find.

The Pot of Gold brand was developed in the 1920s by a confectionery company in Halifax, Nova Scotia called Moir’s. Moir’s had started in 1815 as a bakery, but by 1873 was exclusively making candy and chocolates. Moir’s was actually the first company to come up with a mixed assortment box, and the Pot of Gold was an instant hit, becoming and remaining the best-selling boxed chocolate in Canada for decades. In most of the Maritimes, it wasn’t Christmas without at least one box under the tree, although you might also find rival Ganong as well.

Moir’s was sold to Nabisco brands in 1967 and in 1975, moved across the harbour from their location on Argyle Street in Halifax, to a modernized plant in Dartmouth. Hershey acquired the Nabisco confectionery division in 1987 and expanded the Pot of Gold line to a variety of different assortments.

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Queen of Donairs

A couple of weeks ago, someone posted to the Toronto LiveJournal community, asking about where to get Nova Scotia style donairs. After we collectively determined that there is no place in Toronto to get this much-loved street food, I fessed up and admitted that I have a copy of the original recipe created and marketed by the chain King of Donairs. And despite encouragement to start my own donair stand here in Toronto, I’d still rather just make the things at home.

Now while the donair resembles the traditional Greek gyro in many ways, it’s not a gyro. Not even close. The meat is different, and more importantly, the sauce is different. How Halifax became the place where the gyro or doner kebab was bastardized and grew in popularity, I’ll never know, but donair joints are on every block in downtown Halifax. Most of the shops that sell donairs also sell pizza, most famously on the corner of Blowers and Grafton Streets, aka “Pizza Corner”, where three of the four corners (the fourth is a church) have some variation of a pizza/donair joint. There’s even a donair pizza for those who can’t decide.

It should be pointed out that Halifax has three different institutes of higher learning in its rather miniscule downtown area, which means a lot of students (note to anyone considering a trip to Nova Scotia, do NOT go to Halifax during the first few weeks of September), which means a lot of bars. At one point in the 80s, Halifax had more bars per capita than any other city in North America. What this means is that there are a lot of drunk people looking for something to eat after last call.

And nothing is more satisfying than a donair.

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King of Fish

MAAAACKrel! MAAAACKrel! MAAAACKrel!

As a small child I was fascinated with mimicking the mackerel man. We lived in a suburb of Halifax that verged on rural and the small fishing villages that dot the Nova Scotia coast were only a few miles away. While most of the Atlantic fishery is based on massive ships far out to sea for days or weeks on end, the area around Halifax harbour abounds with fish as well, and during mackerel season, small-scale fishermen with one small boat can make a regular month’s wages in one day simply by heading out to the mouth of the harbour in the morning to catch mackerel and then driving through the residential neighbourhoods at mid-afternoon, selling mackerel from the back of his car or truck – just in time for supper. (This is not exclusive to fish, although the mackerel man is the most memorable. It is still not uncommon to buy strawberries, corn or even lobster from the back of someone’s car in suburban Nova Scotia.)

The mackerel man who frequented my Grandmother’s neighbourhood had a distinctive nasally voice and during the last weeks of June (when the mackerel started “running”), I would wait impatiently for his wood-paneled station wagon to make its way slowly up the street. I would then run out to greet the mackerel man, following along behind him, yelling “Mackerel!” at the top of my small lungs until we got to the point on the street where I was not permitted to go beyond by myself. Then the mackerel man would wave good-bye, and I would make my way home, continuing to yell “Mackerel!” until my Grandmother stuck her head out the window, demanding that I shut the hell up.

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