Adjusting — The Blackbirds Know

The red winged blackbirds are back.

They were late this year and it seemed as if they knew the current state of affairs and just decided to bypass Southern Ontario for safer places up north. But then the first “ocaleeee” rang through the trees of the Victorian neighbourhood near us, from a high branch or the peak of a gingerbread-trimmed rooftop, flashes of red catching the eye as they moved about. And then there were more, and more again, like incidents of this virus, multiplying exponentially, so the cacophony is now almost deafening on certain blocks. Turns out, the blackbirds don’t care about current affairs. They return every March, regardless of whatever is going on with the humans they encounter, here to scream their fool heads off, decimate bird feeders, terrorize local cats, and generally welcome spring, pandemic be damned.

Despite the freakishly empty streets, this is heartening. Likewise the songs of the bluejays, chickadees and the laser blast of the male northern cardinal looking for love. Snowdrops and early crocuses are appearing in front yards, buds are close to bursting on various varietals of trees. The tips of privet hedge branches are a greener shade of grey than they were a week ago. The raggedy green leaves of the first dandelion burst from a crack in the soil against a sunny, south-facing wall.

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Book Review — Incorrigible

Incorrigible
Velma Demerson

The Mercer Reformatory for Females is gone now, torn down in the late 1960s and replaced with Lamport Stadium near the intersection of King West and Dufferin in Toronto. I live nearby and walk past the place a few times every week. Since reading Incorrigible by Velma Demerson, I am haunted by what transpired at the Mercer.

Demerson was arrested in 1939, at age 18, for living with her Chinese boyfriend, which was against the law at the time. Her family reported her and she was at first taken to Belmont Home, a residence for “incorrigibles”. When the home closed down, the residents were all taken to the Mercer, even though they weren’t technically criminals.

When the Mercer closed in the 60s, the living conditions were considered to be utterly unacceptable — many cells didn’t have windows or toilets. But it was the treatment of the women there that was the most horrifying. At the same time the Nazis were doing medical tests on women at Ravensbruck, the Mercer was injecting inmates with sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis, and testing treatments on them. The women were not told about these tests, and were told little about their treatments. Demerson recounts being in constant pain caused by the tests done on her and it was only decades late that she was able to settle with the government for the abuses she suffered.

Incorrigible tells Demerson’s story in her own voice. It’s a rough style, told in the first person with no dialogue, and reads in places like a journal. There are details that are brushed over or left out, particularly about her later life and her relationship with the son she gave birth to while at the Mercer.

We like to think of Canada as socially aware, forward-thinking place, but it wasn’t always so. The treatments done on young women without their consent or understanding rank up there with the travesties of residential schools and the export and abuse of home children.

Demerson has written a satirical novel called Nazis in Canada, based on her experiences at the Mercer.

Smörgåsbord – Mamakas Tavern

mamakas_mule

I am terrible these days for going out to try new restaurants and either just not taking photos or taking a pile and never uploading the things. So hurrah that it’s only taken me about a month to remember that we had a fantastic meal at Mamakas Tavern.

Mamakas is a fresh take on Greek cuisine, and it’s being touted as the best Greek restaurant in Toronto. It’s certainly a few steps up from the tired pile o’ dips and sad souvlaki typically found on the Danforth, and it’s scored fantastic reviews from both The Star and The Globe in the past few months. Which is why the place was packed on a Tuesday night.

Chef Chris Kalisperas and owner Thanos Tripi keep the menu innovative and fresh, based on what is good that week – many things we had (below) or that were on the menu during our visit have since been replaced with other dishes.

Enjoyed it very much, stoked to go back.

Above: A Mataxa Mule cocktail with Metaxa 7, ginger beer, lemon and lime, and cardamom bitters.

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Alo! Alo!

alo_oyster

So these are from a visit on July 29th (was sick, then travelling, then sick again… really. Stupid recirculated airplane air.), so the menu at Alo might have completely changed in the meantime, but we were so taken with Chef Patrick Kriss’ lovely new spot at Queen and Spadina that I couldn’t just leave these photos sitting on my hard drive.

In a city where the dining scene has become a rush to line up for the opening of the latest burger joint, it is really refreshing to see someone doing refined cuisine. French food doesn’t have to be stuffy and Kriss and general manager Amanda Bradley have created a spot that is both welcoming and comfortable. There are no white table clothes, but we did get lots of cutlery.

While the food and service were sheer perfection, professionally executed without being overbearing, both Kriss and Bradley keep a keen eye out for any issues. They both noticed me smelling my hands after a trip to the washroom (scented soap in restaurants is one of my biggest peeves), and put out some unscented soap to accommodate me.

And while the room got busier as the evening progressed, an earlier reservation (on a sunny day) means getting to experience the room as it lights up with a beautiful pinkish glow as the sun sets to the west and shines through the row of windows looking down onto Spadina.

The menu is 4 courses with 2 options at each course, plus plenty of  amuse bouche, pre-desserts and fun things in between.

Fabulous food, fabulous room, can’t wait to go back.

Shown above: Lameque oyster, watercress, salsify, cultured cream.

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Boralia – Historical Canadian Cuisine for the Modern Palate

boralia_onions

Boralia
59 Ossington Avenue
647-351-5100
@Boralia_To

Smoke gets in your eyes. Just momentarily, but as we enter Boralia, a server walks past with a dish of mussels smoked in pine needles leaving a waft of wood smoke behind them. It’s a good smell – not just camp-fire-like, but green and woodsy. As other tables order the dish the smell lingers, like a less-cloying Canadiana-themed incense.

At a time when Toronto is so busy celebrating food from other countries and cultures, we often forget about the homegrown delicacies created around us. Canadian cuisine is hard to define, and as a young and growing country we tend to look forward, not back, but Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris have built a whole restaurant around historic dishes. Morris comes to Toronto from Nova Scotia via the Okanagan, while Wu – who mostly runs front of house here – has worked in kitchens around the world from Coi in San Francisco to the infamous The Fat Duck. They met while working together in BC, later married, and moved to Toronto to open a restaurant after coming across a collection of historical recipes from Nova Scotia.

The room is elegant and modern, with subtle touches of Canadiana – menus are bound in leather, a sculpture of a wolf greets guests as they exit the washrooms – that never devolves into cutesy or twee.

Most items on the menu have a date associated with them, indicating the date of origin of the recipe. Morris and Wu have pored over historical cookbooks, but have also modernized things, so some dishes are a surprise when they appear at the table looking nothing like we expected.

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Toronto’s Got Fleas!

bellwoodsflea

While most people will still flock to the mall for their shopping needs, Toronto has a whole sub-culture of individuals who are looking for unique and interesting stuff – whether that’s clothing, food, or gift and decor items – and they’ve been finding these cool and creative wares at one of the many neighbourhood-based flea markets that have popped up around the city over the past couple of years.

These are not the junky flea markets of the 70s, full of bags of tube sox and rock band logos silkscreened onto mirrors (not that there’s anything wrong with those fleas – they have a special place in our hearts). Nor are these events a “yard sale” type set-up where individuals sell stuff from their attic or basement. Rather, the new breed of fleas are a carefully curated blend of work by young designers, artisans, and artists, along with some of the best vintage vendors in the city.

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Taste of Toronto Festival

taste_drake_clams

Toronto may not be included in the Michelin guide, but we’re the only North American city to be part of the Taste Festival series, which visits 22 cities each year, bringing together some of the best local food businesses and restaurants for a weekend-long celebration of cuisine.

A well-curated selection of small food businesses (Mad Mexican, Mary Mcleod’s Shortbread), innovative products (Ninutik Maple Sugar, hisbicus tea from Nuba Tisane), local restaurants both small and large, and some larger corporate exhibitors (Pilsner Urquell, San Pellegrino) along with a variety of stages featuring chefs both local and international (Mark McEwan, Jonathan Waxman, Masaharu Morimoto, who is opening a restaurant in Toronto soon), make the Taste of Toronto festival accessible and interesting to everyone.

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Join Me For Dinner – May 5th at The Depanneur

smallcanfood

So the brilliant folks at The Depanneur have started a cool weekly new program called Table Talks where they invite people involved in the Toronto food scene – from farmers and producers to local food writers – to drop by each week for an hour-long informal “around the kitchen table” sort of talk. Owner Len Senater cooks up something tasty and everyone shares a meal while discussing a pre-determined issue or topic related to that week’s guest.

I’ll be the featured guest on Tuesday, May 5th from 7 – 8pm where I’ll be talking about Canadian long-form food writing; specifically the lack of diverse voices and foodways in Canadian food writing and why we should all care about not just keeping the food stories of our past alive but why we should be expanding our views to encompass all Canadians.

There will be copies of Stained Pages Press titles for sale and a stack of my favourite Canadian food books to peruse. Not sure what Len is planning on cooking up just yet, but it’s guarantee to be tasty and inexpensive.

The Depanneur is at 1033 College Street, and the talk takes place on Tuesday May 5th at 7pm.

I hope to see you there!

Got Game?

qb_quail
Crispy Masala Quail from The Queen & Beaver. Photo by Q&B chef Andrew Berry-Ashpole.

Hey y’all! A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to write a feature on local game meat for Toronto’s weekly indie NOW Magazine. Just adding some linkage here to prove it actually happened. 🙂

Got Game – why more Toronto shops and restaurants don’t offer wild-caught meat.

Top 5 places to buy game meat in Toronto.

Top 5 game dishes from Toronto restaurants.

 

Chowing Down for Change

chefchange_noodles

Last week I had the chance to attend a fantastic dinner event called Chefs For Change. Yes, there are a variety of these types of events taking place throughout the year, many of which are formal with a high ticket price. However, this very reasonably-priced event ($75, drinks extra) not only directed funds to a very worthy cause, it was one of those great occasions when guests got to see a gang of local chefs from different restaurants all working together. Food was mostly served family-style with all the chefs and a team of students from George Brown College creating the dishes.

This series of events (there are three more – Jan 30th, Feb 20th & Feb 27th – all sold out) all take place at Propeller Coffee, a spacious coffee roastery on Wade Avenue (Bloor/Lansdowne) that has both a huge prep area and event space.

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