Awesome Thing – Halloween Greetings

spidergirls

Back in olde times, Halloween wasn’t the big deal it is today. The trick or treating, the parties, it just wasn’t as prominent. Although, as the ladies above demonstrate, the “sexy” costume dates back to at least the 1920s (honestly, no idea where this image came from or if it’s at all Halloween-related, I just dig the flappers).

One thing that does seem to have a place in history is the Halloween postcard, and the Toronto Public Library has an extensive collection. Even better, a great number of the things are online for your enjoyment. Most seem to be from the early 20th century, and range from the adorable to the downright creepy.

halloweenpostcard

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Alternative Christmas Viewing

Does the “bumbumbum” of Bing Crosby send shivers of fear down your spine? Do you secretly hope that when the little girl pulls Santa’s beard that it will come off and expose him as a fake? Maybe you even hope that Ralphie really will shoot his eye out with that BB gun. You, my friend, have Christmas movie fatigue. What hides under the guise of tradition mostly means getting stuck watching the same five movies every single holiday season, year after year after year. Apparently some people find comfort in this, but few movies are good enough to warrant such reverence – or repeated viewings. So here are a few truly alternative alternatives, most of which can be ordered from Amazon, or found online for download if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Where to Eat in Toronto on Christmas Day (2012 Edition)

Heya – Updated version of this list for 2014 can be found here.

 

Despite the pervasiveness of the festive season, not everybody gives a damn about turkey and stuffing and sitting around with the family listening to some pop singer butcher the holiday favourites, for a whole variety of reasons. Some folks might want a more low-key celebration (one in which they don’t have to do the washing up) and for others, it’s just, well, Tuesday.

I’ve been putting together a “Christmas Day dining for heathens” list since the first year we ran TasteTO, and it was very popular last year when I was writing for Toronto.com. So here it is again, modified and updated and fact-checked for your dining pleasure. (Parkdalers – the Beaver is closed on Christmas Day this year, so check the list below before heading out!)

As usual, I’ve not included a lot of Chinese restaurants because they are usually open on Christmas Day as a default. However, because Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, and many Chinese-owned businesses are closed on Tuesdays, do yourself a favour and call ahead if you’ve got a favourite spot in mind.

Also, reservations are required for all of the options offered at hotels.

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Happy Krampus Day!

It used to be December was all about Santa Claus, but in recent years, North Americans are rediscovering Santa’s European sidekick. Krampus (who actually derives from Pagan mythology) is said to have accompanied Saint Nick on the evening of December 5th, leaving switches and coal for the bad children (or even abducting and torturing them) while Santa left presents for the good kids (hey, dude’s got a heavy workload as it is, why not contract out the beatings and torment?).

Krampus is now celebrated in parades, baked good and greeting cards. Here are some of my favourite Krampus images.

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Death by Turkey

I am spending this week watching holiday specials. Not the cartoons and tired old movies of yore (Come on admit it, It’s a Wonderful Life is three hours of tedious, sentimental schlock.), but holiday food and cooking shows, specifically of the UK variety.

As it turns out, holiday cooking shows are the big thing for UK chefs, and anyone with an existing series, or a cookbook, or a well-known restaurant, is there on the screen, setting fire to booze-soaked puds and making the holiday hassle look easy. But because there are so many shows, so many chefs competing for viewers’ attention, they’ve all got to do something different, to jazz up the traditional Christmas dinner in some way to make it unique.

Stuart Heritage of the Guardian sees the mass of holiday cooking shows as a as testament to gluttony in the “so… much… foooooood” vein. Because, he claims, it’s all about the watching and not about the cooking. But isn’t that really the saddest part? By which I mean, I bet that your Christmas dinner this year will be exactly like the Christmas dinner you had last year, and the year before that, and the year before that… there will be no trying of new dishes from Jamie or Nigella or Gordon. It’s fun to watch, sure, but hey, don’t fuck with Christmas dinner.

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Assessing the Haggis

I was just about haggised out after putting together last week’s round up of Robert Burns activities and dinners. Then Chef Martin Kouprie of Pangaea (1221 Bay Street) sent me a message on Twitter. He was holding a haggis competition for his kitchen staff; the winning dish would be served in the restaurant on Robert Burns Day. Would I like to come and be a judge?

I was of two minds; my experience with offal – all organs and all animals (I’ve only recently learned to like foie gras) – hasn’t been good. But then I remembered the advice of Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, that you must try a food at least ten times before you can determine that you truly don’t like it. I’d had haggis once before and found it repulsive, but here was an opportunity to try seven additional versions of the dish, created by seven different professional cooks who would be pulling out all the stops to make the lowly stuffed sheep’s stomach into gourmet fare.

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Food With Legs

We had to take the dog in for surgery last week. We knew it was coming and planned it for the week before Christmas because we knew it would be a quiet time. With all of our shopping and baking and wrapping done ahead of time, we had nothing to do but sit around, watch movies and pamper a recovering pet.

Except things don’t always work out as planned and our pooch came home with a painkiller patch on his belly – that didn’t work. By the night of the 23rd, when the anaesthetic had worn off, he was miserable and was whining and yowling in pain – straight through the night. We got zero sleep and didn’t know what to do. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I rushed over to the vet’s office for new painkillers; apparently there’s a small percentage of dogs that just don’t take to that medication – I had one of them. Needing groceries, I also stopped at the local Metro and grabbed three lobster.

Lobster are typically cheap around the holidays, and Greg and I have a tradition of eating lobster on Christmas Eve. I got the last three in the tank, telling the girl behind the counter that I only wanted them if they were alive and active. She assured me they were and boxed them up.

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Clean as the New Fallen Snow

We went to the Festival of Lights Solstice parade last night. Which I guess is what you do if you’re not quite sure how else to celebrate the season but want to pay homage to nature, pre-Christian traditions or just generally like the sound of hippies banging drums. Because you can be sure that all the real Pagans and Wiccans who consider this an actual religious event were probably not standing around in Kensington Market last night watching people walk around with lanterns.

However, the idea of celebrating the Solstice is much more concrete to me than the birth of Jesus. Yes, I believe Jesus existed, but I’ve always taken umbrage with the idea that early Christians moved the celebration of his birth to coincide with Saturnalia and the Solstice to lure pagans to Christianity through the temptation of a bigger and better party. Almost all of the “traditional” Christmas traditions predate Christ.

Also, as someone who is really into food, sustainability, supporting farmers and enjoying the harvest, the Solstice as the huge year-end celebration just seems to make so much more sense. On the darkest day of the year, it is just so logical and down to earth to celebrate the returning of the sun, without which we could not survive. After a long year of harvesting, the Solstice celebration is not only a way to enjoy what has been reaped in the previous year but a way to look ahead to the the year and new crops and new conquests.

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It Came Without Packages, Boxes or Bags…

Someone called me a Grinch today.

Not because I was ranting about how much I hate Christmas -I wasn’t and I don’t – but because I was ranting about the fact the people were complaining about having to do their Christmas shopping.

Now, I’m one of those annoyingly organized people. I make lists and check things off (much like the jolly old elf himself), and most people are not surprised to learn that I keep Christmas on a spreadsheet in my computer. That’s right – a spreadsheet. A workbook actually, with lists of what I bought for people, what they bought for me and what stuff I baked, how it turned out and who liked what (ie. no fruitcake for brother, extra Turkish delight for the folks).

I like to think I know what my recipients like and keep an eye open all year for appropriate gifts. That’s why my Grandmother’s gift was bought in August during a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and that book for my brother was nabbed at a holiday book sale in 2008 at a publishers warehouse sale. Yes, that’s right… I buy Christmas gifts a year ahead.

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Proof of My Insanity

Go big or go home. Not my life’s philosophy, but apparently one I follow when baking.

See, I got a freezer, right? And not eating meat, I needed something to put in it. I filled it up somewhat with summer delights; fiddleheads and berries and pesto and tubs of peach chutney. But my original plan for the thing included cookies. I could start making Christmas cookies in September! Thus saving me from running around frantically in November to get everything done.

It was a great theory, but what actually happened was that I had all that extra time on my hands and so made more… much more. Ironically we found homes for most of it and now have a happy postman, building superintendent, co-workers, friends and relatives.

Cookies: clockwise from the top: chocolate coffee crinkles, zimsterne (a rolled meringue cookie with almonds and hazelnuts), white chocolate cranberry and pistachio biscotti, honey sand balls (a shortbread sweetened with honey and studded with walnuts), pfefferneusse, chocolate orange icebox cookies and eggnog shortbread squares. In the centre: zesty lime and coconut shortbread.

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The End of the Desperate Season, or What I Didn’t Do on My Summer Vacation

Counting down the days, hours, minutes. Summer doesn’t officially end for a few weeks, but the psychological end of summer will happen tomorrow afternoon, when the CNE closes, when the last stupid air show plane buzzes the neighbourhood, and when kids head home to pack their pencils and books and return to school.

The leaves are already beginning to change on a few trees, and there’s a crispness to the air most mornings that wasn’t noticeable before I went to Halifax a few weeks ago.

Autumn is my favourite season; it’s not too hot or too cold; it’s sunny but you usually need a jacket (I like jackets); and the eating is especially good as the harvest reaches its peak. I don’t even mind winter especially – except maybe those days when there’s freezing rain, or where the sidewalks are slippery because people don’t shovel.

But I’m delighted to see the end of summer.

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Thinking Outside the (Heart-Shaped) Box

I kind of hate Valentine’s Day. In a world where we should all be saying “I love you” any chance we can get, or where buying a partner flowers or candy should/could be a regular occurrence, there’s just way too much pressure to fill one particular day with a year’s worth of romance and caring. And because most people are out of practice when it comes to showing others that they care about them, they fall back on “tradition” (aka. the tacky and clichéd). So while, in truth, I don’t have too much problem with a heart-shaped box of assorted chocolates (I actually like the orange creams), so much of what falls into the standard Valentine’s Day gift list (a dozen red roses, champagne, romantic dinner for two) sort of makes me retch. Or at least roll my eyes and groan – and not in a good way.

Now while I can’t help readers with the other issues aside from advising that a gift that suits the recipient’s tastes is better than a gift that is simply “traditional” (ie. buy a cool plant or a bouquet of their favourite flower instead of those tacky roses; skip the teddy bear unless the giftee is under the age of 10; and wait until Sunday and go for a lovely brunch instead of getting shafted on an overpriced V-Day dinner…), I am able to recommend some non-traditional sweets and candies that show a lot more thought and creativity than a gift picked up at the gas station.

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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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It Is Done

No, there are no photos. Not that I couldn’t take photos, it’s just that every surface in the house is covered with gobs of chocolate, and I just don’t have the energy.

Christmas baking, I’m talking about, in case you were confused.

3 kinds of fruitcake, 4 types of cookies, 4 flavours of truffles, plus coconut creams, peppermint patties and candied nuts. And despite the fact that it all fits nicely into tins to ship, it doesn’t feel like I did enough. Nevertheless, the box of presents is honkin’ big and it needs to go to the post office tomorrow before we get any more snow (it’s too heavy and unwieldy to carry so it’s gotta go in my old lady shopping buggy and thus must go before there is more snow on the ground because – huh – wouldn’t that suck?), so I’m done with all the stuff to be baked for other people.

Next year I start in September and make better use of the freezer, which is part of the reason why I bought the freezer, if I recall correctly.

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A Goth’s Christmas Story

Yes, that is exactly what it looks like. A black and silver Christmas tree – one of two types available at Honest Ed’s in Toronto. This one, at 7 feet and $99, is the nicer of the two, but even the 5 foot version at $59.99 was pretty cute (no twigs or pine cones on the smaller one). There was a time when I’d have killed for this puppy. Even now, years after my Goth phase has passed, I stood in the store going “Eeeeee!!!!” and fondling the silver-tipped branches.

It would be either a joy or a complete pain in the ass to decorate – finding lights on a black wire would be near impossible unless you shelled out the big bucks and bought them from a window-display place like Visualizer.

But imagine the tree decorated in silver, red and purple, with all the little Goths gathered around it on Christmas morning, hoping that Sandy Claws had left them a Sisters of Mercy CD, or a pair of bondage pants, or a new cape, or maybe a gift certificate to one of those fancy dentistry clinics where they give you fangs… it would be the best Christmas EVAH!

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Thanskgiving Brunch at the Palais Royale

Holidays are a little weird at our house. Both our families live down east, and being childfree, there’s usually less incentive to get into the decorating and feasting than if we had spawned. Because it’s just the two of us, we seldom end up doing anything huge for occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas. And while we’re mostly good with not having to get on a plane to go eat some turkey (and not dealing with the potential squabbling about who “gets us” and for how long), the various holidays often seem to be missing a sense of celebration.

I always cook the traditional dinner, but it ends up being like any other evening meal, only with more dishes to wash. So this year, we decided to do something different.

We found out that the Palais Royale was serving a Thanksgiving brunch. It was over $40 per person, and we waffled for a bit over the price, but threw caution to the wind and went anyway.

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Hearts and Flowers

Greg came home with the very best Valentine’s Day gift ever. It wasn’t roses, or chocolates or tacky lingerie. It was a recount of a cell phone conversation he overheard on the streetcar on his way home.

The woman seated in front of him dialed up what was obviously her live-in boyfriend. And went about dropping hints left, right and centre, mentioning Valentine’s Day several times and even specifically asking her spouse to “pick up some flowers on the way home for dinner”.

Except that hubby was either dense, not into the Valentine’s game or was really just not that into her, because, as Greg recounted, her next statement was, “Oh. You’re going to the bar.”

There was some more mentions of picking up some flowers (hint, hint, hint), and finally, a “Have fun at the bar!” which no doubt was uttered with the most guilt-inducing tone she could muster. Greg also indicates that he was able to hear the line disconnect just as the woman said “I love you,” in a sad, tiny voice.

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Chinese New Year Banquet

We headed out in the cold last night to attend an 8-course Chinese New Year Banquet at a local seafood restaurant. Hosted by local foodie walking tour guide, Shirley Lum, the evening was both delicious and informative, as Lum explained Lunar New Year traditions and discussed various aspects of the Chinese zodiac as we ate.

Seated at a table of nine people, I must say, the evening, while festive, wasn’t especially banquet-like. Dishes didn’t come out in order, and for the $50 per person charge, we certainly didn’t leave as full as we normally might have if we had gone on our own. it was an opportunity to try many new dishes, however, and Greg even made a new friend.

Because we were at a large round table with a lazy susan in the centre, I wasn’t able to get shots of all the dishes as they arrived, but I did my best.

Each place setting had two kumquats and two candies. The candies represented the red and gold packets of money traditionally handed out at Chinese New Year, while the kumquats also represented wealth and life.

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Dead Yet?

Yesterday, Greg and I headed down to Harbourfront Centre to check out the annual Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) festival. I had heard from people who had gone in previous years that it wasn’t very good, but although the event was indeed small in scale compared to the summertime events that attract thousands and take over the entire Harbourfront complex, this was actually quite charming.

Along with a number of musical and dance performances, there were activities for kids such as a demo on how to make the traditional sugar skulls, cooking demos by local Mexican chefs, and a small marketplace, a restaurant area with a variety of Mexican foods, and a space where the traditional colourful shrines were set up in homage to famous Mexicans like Frida Kahlo and Cesar Chavez.

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