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Ancient Chinese Seeclet…I Just Don’t Get It

There is a very mature adult, deep inside my head, who insists on keeping my mouth out of trouble.  Some might consider it my Conscience, some might consider it the Voice of God, but I just see it just as a very little person.  Sometimes this little person has a big voice and sometimes a gentle whisper is all I need to close my mouth and smile.  Today, my little inner person screamed herself hoarse, stopping me from outright ridiculing a nice friend of mine.  Unfortunately, now that the little person has laryngitis, there’s a party going on in my head, and my mouth wants to dance on the speakers.  What I am about to write will surely offend many, but I just cannot help myself.

 

I was enjoying coffee with a visiting friend, this morning (we shall call her Betty), when her carpool partner joined us.  He is also a friend, and a co-worker of my husband.  Very nice man, about as whitebread as I can imagine a Canadian, with Scandinavian roots.  These roots are so strong, he named one of his sons Eric the Red (okay, it isn’t Eric the Red in real life, but a name so close, he might as well have named him Viking Boy).  I shall call this Scanadian Man Bob, to protect the innocent.  We all started discussing their visit to Jasper; my husband had rolled out the red carpet for them, catering all their meetings and hosting feasts at night.  Our Food and Beverage Team went above and beyond, creating drool-worthy meals.  Bob and Betty recalled the yummy food with closed eyes and dreamy voices.  But then, Bob said, “It was all so heavenly, but with my food sensitivities, you know, I really paid for it last night and today.”  I raised my eyebrows in concern and asked, “Food sensitivities?” And he said, “OH, nono, nothing like Celiac or allergies.  But you know mixing the hot foods and the cold foods, and you know, the hot kinds of foods just set me off, and I couldn’t sleep…”

 

This whole time, my eyebrows are still raised, and my jaw is slowly dropping open, as I realize that this tall white Canadian man is describing ancient Chinese food personalities.  I discretely brought my hand up to my chin to shut it quietly, as Bob proceeded to launch into his special relationship with his food.  He was very quick to point out that Chef had created such amazing delicacies, that he couldn’t resist eating it all.  But the discomfort he described afterwards, made it sound like there was a battle of the food divas in his tummy.  Eventually, we changed the subject, and started talking about little Eric the Red, and my daughter the Assassin – they are growing nicely and are poised to take over the world.

 

Long after Betty and Bob headed home, I puzzled over Bob’s latest diet trend. I pondered over this obsession people have with creating meaning from the unknown and manipulating things they just don’t understand.  Dying of the Black Plague and the monarchy has left you starving?  God will save you and punish the rich; you just have to pray pray pray, and give all your money to those less fortunate than yourself.  Don’t want to catch a cold?  Make sure you wear your cozy slippers so you don’t catch cold through the soles of your feet. Oh, and God Forbid you go outside with wet hair – you will catch pneumonia!  Well, if you do, we’ll just throw some leeches on you – the bloodletting will balance your humors…  

 

Granted, Asians are an old enough race that there are some tried and true remedies that even science has accepted.  But if I mention powdered bear gall bladders as a remedy for male impotence, all of you should roll your eyeballs along with me.  Some things are completely ridiculous.  

 

Asians aren’t the only ones with a corner on the Crazy Market.  My husband’s family is quite earthy-crunchy when it comes to medicines.  Rather than head to the doctor when coughing up green phlegm, they will try 42 different herbs and potions, all distilled into small vials of alcohol.  My sister-in-law came to visit us when we lived in California, and I wondered why her giant purse clinked when she moved.  It turns out she took a minimum of 6 different potions every hour – several drops of each.  And she said she was very nervous being in America so she also guzzled Burt’s Rescue Remedy too.  I mentally calculated the amount of alcohol in all her potions by the end of the day, and realized that it all seemed to work for her because it was the equivalent of several stiff drinks.  Well, DUH, I could have given you that prescription.  And years ago, I knew a man who went through a very painful cleanse just because his meditating yogi wife told him he would lose 30 lbs in intestinal blockage alone.  After a week of lemon juice and hot pepper water, I’m thinking he was not a fan of hot foods.  

 

So let’s get back to this hot foods cold foods thing (or the Yin and the Yang foods, as some put it).  According to Wikipedia (my main source for Asian information, as my Chinese mother is currently rolling over in her grave, filled with shame for her half-breed ignorant daughter), “Chinese food or Nutrition therapy, is a modality of traditional Chinese medicine. Central to this belief system is the idea that certain foods have a “hot” or heat-inducing quality while others have a “cold” or chilling effect on the body and its organs and fluids. An imbalance of this “heat” and “cold” is said to increase susceptibility to sickness or to directly cause disease itself. Such an imbalance is not necessarily related to the subjective feeling of being hot (tending toward sweating) or cold (tending toward shivering).

As an example, if one had a cold, or felt he was about to get a cold, he would not want to eat any “cold” foods such as a lemon, melon or cucumber. If one had a so-called “hot” disease, like Eczema, then he would not want to eat “hot” foods such as garlic, onions, or chocolate lest the “hot” disease is worsened. Indeed, it is thought by some that these “hot” or “cold” properties of foods are so intense that merely the eating of too many of one or another can actually cause diseases. For example, the eating of too many “hot” foods like chili peppers or lobster could cause a rash, or the eating of too many “cold” foods such as watermelon, or seaweed could cause one to develop stomach pain or diarrhea. In this way, this health system is in direct opposition to evidence-based medicine and the germ theory of disease (where microbes are described as the cause of many disease states).”  The article goes on to list different foods in a temperature table, showing the supposed side effects of consuming too much…for instance, my over-consumption of foie gras and other duck/goose related products, should give me hemorrhoids.  Well well well, my bottom is as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom. I am a walking miracle, then eh?   And how convenient for them that beer is listed as a Yin food, to counteract the dry fire effects of the Yang foods like chili peppers.  Who makes up this shit? Could it be that instead of the explanation for diarrhea after eating too much watermelon is NOT because it too much of a “cold” or Yin food, but because you are a PIG and too much fruit will give you the runs?  It’s all sugar and water, people!

So there you have it.  I am in turmoil.  The Chinese half of me is horrified that I have betrayed my roots and shamed my ancestors.  I actually flinch when I see movement in the corner of my eye, thinking it’s my mom reaching out from the grave to smack me upside my head.  When I do, the American half of me shakes her head and laughs.  SCIENCE.  We have SCIENCE to prove or disprove most of this. I will tell you what we do know.  Yes, there are chemicals in many herbal tinctures that are very helpful.  Yes, too much watermelon will give you the runs.  Yes, I take herbal supplements to help me with PMS, Hashimoto’s, and my immune system.  These herbal supplements have scientifically proven chemicals and properties that do more good than harm if taken in moderation.  But damned if I know whether or not my Evening Primrose Oil is a Yin or a Yang food.  Once again, I demonstrate that I am the Worst Chinese Person Ever, and that my inner white chick has the tiniest brain ever.  I just can’t open it up to let in this “food therapy.”  My idea of food therapy is a pan-seared slice of foie gras, with a few figs and a baguette.  Put that Yin my tummy, and Yang I’m happy! 

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Blessed Be the Gluttons

Gluttony is Good.  At least it was today.  Just in case it really isn’t, Gaby and I decided to visit Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montréal (Our Lady of Montréal Basilica) first.  We started by thoroughly sleeping-in this morning.  If you’ve never slept in a Fairmont Hotel before, you might want to scurry to the closest one as soon as you can.  The beds are the BEST and they make you want to stay in them all day.  Nevertheless, we dragged ourselves out at 9am, wrestled with the Nespresso machine, then promptly swooned when we tasted the creamy goodness of fine espresso in our cups.  After recovering, we made ourselves presentable, stopped at the hotel patisserie for almond croissants, and took the escalator down to the train station under the hotel.  Yes, there is a train station in the hotel basement (not your average basement – no pool table and moldy cement walls) – you could hop on a train to New York City if you felt like it.  We didn’t feel like going to New York, we felt like finding the Metro, so we wandered around in circles until a charitable lady took pity on us and turned us toward the tunnel we needed to follow.  We bought 3-day passes from the ticket booth, and hopped onto the train to eat our croissants.  2 stops later, we stepped out onto Place-d’Armes station, and walked up the street to the imposing Notre Dame Basilica.  When the enormous entry doors closed behind us, we were enveloped in the hushed silence of the cathedral; the smoky aroma of candles and incense swirling around us.  I’m Catholic, but Gaby is famous for saying that she stays away from churches because she will burst into flames if she enters.  Regardless, we both agreed that it was incredible to see the intricate carvings, the painting, and the painstaking details that went into the creation of churches like this.  Inspired by their spiritual beliefs, the builders made a tangible representation of their faith; awe-inspiring for all.  Columns made from entire trees, ceilings so high they seem to be the sky…I had to sit still in a pew just to absorb it all.  There was a door to the left of the alter that led us to the Chapelle Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart Chapel).  It seemed to be a hidden, secret place.  When we entered, the lighter wood that covered every surface glowed in the sunlight.  I followed the Stations of the Cross until I found my favorite one: #5 Simon reaching out to help carry the cross for Jesus, on the way to the Crucifixion. My little boy, Simon, always perks up during Mass, whenever Simon is mentioned in a reading, whispering, “Mama, Simon was Jesus’ friend!” I texted the photo to my son and had to smile.  Before we left, I needed to take a picture of Gaby inside the chapel – Proof of Life – to show she had survived and that we didn’t need a fire extinguisher.  

 

We wanted to also see Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel) and found it down the road with only a couple of turn arounds.  All my friends and family know I am the opposite of a GPS – I am guaranteed to get you lost if you follow me.  Gaby impressed me, pulling out her iPhone and looking at street signs…I followed like a little baby duck.  Only later in the afternoon did she surprise me by laughing and saying, “I’m horrible with directions!”  I’ve never had such fun getting lost before!  If I’m by myself, I’m crying.  With Gaby, we’re like, “woops!” and we’re moving on.  So we made it to the chapel (singing all the way – “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re Goin’ to get maaaarrrrriiied”) and were told by the lady inside the museum that we would need to climb an unGodly number of stairs (yeah, I said unGodly about chapel stairs – I bet if you’d ask Him, He would agree!) to the tower up above.  Deathly afraid of heights, I quaked inwardly and wondered just how high the tower was…but when we made it to the top, I was so busy trying to gasp air and grip my bum because it had met the worst Stairmaster of all time, that I was only slightly terrified of the height.  The little railing around the outside of the tower would stop us from falling to our deaths onto the passers-by in the street below—on a still day.  Today was a little too windy for our liking; some of my photos came out crooked because while taking the pictures, I would suddenly think about dropping the iPhone off the tower, and I would crazily grip it in reflex.  I need an off-switch for my brain.  Despite the gusts, we were still enchanted by the view of the St. Lawrence River and the 2 angels on the towers of the chapel, with their arms outstretched in the blue sky, welcoming all the seafarers home.  It’s good to ignore your fears sometimes.  

 

After we dizzily made our way down the spiral stairs to the street level, we realized that some of our light-headedness was caused by our growling stomachs.  A measly almond croissant is not sufficient fuel for cathedral-exploring.  Having read about a nice little cafe close by, we decided to finish touring the little museum below the chapel, and then go to lunch.  The museum had a very interesting display about the chapel’s founder, Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys.  There was a painting in the house of the religious order she founded, that many doubted was the true depiction of Saint Marguerite.  The painting was x-rayed and an entirely different style of portrait was revealed.  An olden day mystery solved. There was also a creepy little room filled with miniature dolls and dioramas made in the 1950‘s, illustrating the many events in the life of Saint Marguerite.  So many of the dolls had hilarious expressions on their faces – I think the Sisters of the order who made the dioramas just bought little plastic dolls from toy stores, dressed them up, and glued them into the dioramas.  It was an odd room, and I’m not sure I wasn’t hallucinating from hunger, so maybe it doesn’t actually exist.  Exiting the museum, faint with hunger, we consulted Gaby’s iPhone and set forth.  Getting lost in Old Montréal is actually quite lovely.  The cobblestone streets and the ancient buildings make you feel like you are walking in another time.  I kept staring at old wooden doorways, fully expecting little French people to come out, dressed in 19th century clothing.  The shop fronts were sometimes very deceiving – beautiful old windows with wooden frames…and then modern day souvenirs leapt out at us; t-shirts that screamed, “I ❤ POUTINE!”  We eventually found Olive et Gourmando, and entered the BEST lunch experience I have had in Montreal.  It was hopping inside – a line to the door, and people bustling all around.  On every wall, there were chalkboards with menu items, funny stories about the restaurant, and cute drawings.  There was an entire counter dedicated to coffee and pastries.  Did I mention I love Montreal?  If this is an imitation of France, then I might have to visit France so I can eat myself to death.  The hostess told us that we would be table #5 as soon as the current occupants finished up, then we would take the blank notecard she handed us and make our way to the back, where we would puzzle out the menu in French, and give our order.  I am on a lifelong quest to find the perfect Rueben sandwich, so I had to give the OG Rueben Panini a try, Gaby ordered a Cuban Panini, and because you must always say YES to truffle, we ordered the homemade mac & cheese with mushroom and truffles. Yes, we ordered 3 lunches.  We’re on vacation, don’t judge us.  The tables were so close together, I had to humiliate myself and squeeze my large American rear end between our table and our seated neighbors.  I shouldn’t have felt embarrassed – poor Gaby had to witness my neighbor eat her entire lunch with her mouth open.  People who haven’t been taught by their mommies to eat with their mouths closed should be more embarrassed than I am about my bum.  Seriously.  See-Food Lady beside us did nothing to take away from the sheer decadence of our lunch, however.  Even when the neighbor table accidently splashed their homemade ketchup on me, it didn’t bother me.  The paninis were perfect.  Slightly crispy, thin focaccia bread, melted swiss cheese, Montreal smoked meat, sauerkraut, whole-grain mustard, and a creamy sauce.  I almost screamed.  The mac & cheese came bubbling in a cast-iron pan.  All the food was so hot, we burned our greedy hands and mouths as we stuffed our faces.  Oh, the gluttony.  Oh, the glorious scent of truffles, wafting up to our quivering nostrils… We finished lunch with a good, strong, kick-in-the-ass double espresso (actually, Gaby enjoyed a creamy latte while I gulped the caffeine) so we could have the energy to visit one more museum: Musée d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Pointe-à-Callière (Pointe-à-Callière Archaeology and History Museum). We rolled our stuffed selves up and down a few windy streets, completely lost, until we re-oriented ourselves and found our way. We discovered that the museum was going to close in an hour, so we rushed down to the bottom level – one of the coolest parts of the city.  Archeologists had discovered, under the old building, the foundations and remains of the original settlements of the city – starting with the First Nations inhabitants.  The area’s first cemetary is actually right there as one of the displays – creepy.  The little river (St. Peter) that the settlement was built next to, was eventually overtaken, converted into an aqueduct for wastewater, and the city was built over it.  Now, the museum is excavating further, and future museum patrons will be able to take tunnel tours under that part of the city, following the route of that stone tunnel. I look forward to the new exhibit!

 

The whole day has been a bit of a blur, with us absorbing history and chasing food….somewhere along the line we decided to try again to find the famous Queues de Castor—Beaver Tails!  You would only understand our obsession if you’d ever tasted the fresh-from-the-fryer crispy, chewy goodness of this pastry, smeared with Nutella that is melting from the heat of the fried dough, maybe sprinkled with sliced bananas or strawberries…Heaven on Earth. Yesterday’s search for Beaver Tails was a bust.  Today, we found another address online, and tracked it down to the banks of the St. Lawrence River.  On the King Edward Pier, we pressed our noses to the glass doors of the Centre des Sciences de Montréal…and woefully read the sign on the Queues de Castor shop, “SEE YOU NEXT SPRING!”  We turned around and slowly dragged our weary asses up the hill to the Metro station, mumbling all the way, “But it IS Spring…why they no open? We want Beaver Tails…”  

 

As soon as we landed at our home station, we searched for a pharmacy in the underground city.  Nothing hurts more than middle-aged feet that have been pounding the pavement all day, after years of sedentary living.  One more thing I love about Canada?  We are not so Scroogey about our over-the-counter meds.  You can find Tylenol with muscle relaxants at any drugstore, no prescription needed.  Gaby snatched up 2 boxes for the road, and we bought the 2 biggest diet cokes we could get our hands on to wash them down.  A gajillion steps and a few ventures down the wrong tunnels later, and we were back in the blessed Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth.  We didn’t have the energy to make it to the elevators to crawl to our rooms, so we collapsed in the cushy armchairs in the lounge in the hotel lobby.  Slurping icy cold soda, popping Tylenol for our throbbing feet, we made noises of satisfaction that you normally shouldn’t make in public.  I neglected to mention that I am on Day #2 of treatment for Strep throat as well, so I had to gulp down some absolutely disgusting cough syrup.  Following it with a mouthful of diet coke, I realized too late that I really hate the taste of cherry coke. Bleah.  But our day was so good, and the food so fine, that even our complaining muscles and the foul taste of cherry coke could not drown out the pleasure we felt.  After about 30 minutes of recovery in the lobby, our fickle stomachs turned to thoughts of more food opportunities.  We explored the guidebook and the reviews online, and decided our feet would like to eat at the closest good restaurant.  We chose the Dominion Square Tavern.  We had just enough energy to return to our rooms and make ourselves presentable.  Then, we hit the streets.  We are getting better with our senses of directions; we only had to turn back once on this journey.  In just a few minutes, we were opening the doors to one of the best places I’ve ever been to for dinner.

 

Built in 1927, the Dominion Square Tavern has the golden feel of the Roaring Twenties, but somehow has become one of the hottest current spots for people to gather in and share a loud meal with friends.  The low roar of music, working bartenders and servers, and friends laughing and talking, was just as my husband once told me was his ultimate goal for his restaurants: loud enough so that you had to slightly lean in to your dinner companion for conversation, but you don’t have to yell.  Music in the background, but not imposing on your conversation.  The chatter of all the tables jumbled together so you don’t hear one particular voice or conversation.  A gentle roar. Gaby and I were seated at the bar (the place was crowded and busy) where we could watch the very cute bartenders mix drinks in their simple uniforms of tuxedo shirts tucked into blue jeans, white aprons tied on their waists.  I tried a Pimm’s Cup for the first time, and Gaby had a Royal Gin Fizz.  The menu had me drooling, so I ordered the Bone Marrow appetizer, and the Roasted Cod on Pureed Carrots and Kale.  Gaby ordered the Deviled Eggs appetizer, and the Braised Beef on Mashed Potatoes and Greens.  The appetizers arrived and mine almost rose up from the plate and beat me over the head.  There were 2 HUGE beef bones, the length of my forearm, sliced lengthwise, marrow broiled and glistening.  A tiny spoon stood straight up, stuck into the marrow.  On the side, there were 8 points of toast on which to spread the marrow, and a tiny silver bowl of course salt to sprinkle on the deliciousness.  Gaby’s deviled eggs looked like the stunted midget little brothers to my enormous appetizer. It was spectacular.  Of course, my greedy eyes were scolded by my wimpy stomach, and I only managed to down 1 1/2 of the bones of marrow.  It was like eating straight butter – beefy butter…Sinfully good.  The entrees made their appearance, and my stomach immediately rejoined the game.  The roasted cod was tender and creamy, the carrots silky, and the kale gave the dreamy mouthfuls the bite they needed to be well-rounded.  I cleaned my plate like a good little girl – no nagging necessary.  Gaby’s beef was fork-tender, and I think she regressed into her infancy, curling up on her barstool while she savored each morsel.  And since we were on a Romanesque roll, I thought we could ask around for a feather to take care of our full stomachs, and perhaps order desserts as well.  I am not a sweets kind of gal, but the lemon tart looked very nice.  Gaby is a sucker for sticky toffee pudding, and lo and behold there was one on the menu.  No feather needed – just the right amount of dessert came out on dainty plates, and my little lemon tart was presented with flakes of light sweet merengue chips scattered on top.  All of it was so light, I could almost fool myself into believing we hadn’t indulged in dessert.  Almost.  We definitely needed the walk home, to wiggle and shake that dinner down to our toes.  And the desserts must have had a healing influence on our inner GPSs.  We went straight back to the hotel, no problems.  I can’t recall much after that; the food coma lifted just enough for us to stumble into pajamas and Facetime my family, then we slurred, “Good Night, Sweet Dreams” and oozed our way to our rooms.  I lost track of Food vs. Exercise…I really wanted to justify all that gobbling we did all day.  Then I remembered how we like to resolve arguments or competition among the kids…”Let’s just call it a tie!”  Whattayasay?  Gluttons Indulging vs. Gluteus Maximus Toning…Let’s just call it a tie! 

 

Blessed Be the Gluttons, For They Shall Eat the Earth.Image

Beaver Tails, Croissants, and Wine, Oh My!

After waking at 3am to drive to the airport this morning, I am completely exhausted.  But the excitement of traveling and the anticipation of the next few days in Montreal just won’t let me sleep!  My cousin ,Gaby (who flew in from Philadelphia), and I were reunited at the baggage carousel of the Montreal Trudeau airport and were zoomed into the city of Montreal in a taxi whose driver weaved fearlessly between other cars, pursued by what sounded like an ambulance.  Or it may have been the police, but they couldn’t catch us.  We were gallantly deposited on the steps of Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth (Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth – home of John and Yoko Lennon’s famous Bed-In), and a short time later we entered our luxurious 2 bedroom executive suite on the top floor.  After getting lost a few times, we discovered a formal living room, a dining room that seats 10, a kitchen, 2 bedrooms, and 2 and 1/2 baths.  I think we might need to keep the gps tracking devices activated on our phones so we can find each other in this set of rooms!  We then dumped our bags and rode up and down on the elevators until we found Le Montréalais bistro to take care of our rumbly tummies.  We immediately ordered 2 glasses of sparkling wine and toasted our Spring Break.  After our Pacifique Salad and Smoked Meat Sandwich, we took a walk to search for the legendary Beaver Tails (deep-fried pastry dough smothered in Nutella or other delectable sweet toppings of your choice).  We walked far, pushing through wind gusts like a good little Dorothy and Scarecrow would.  Eyes watering, hair askew, we came upon an empty storefront, with the remnants of Beavertail menus on the wall.  Tragic.  Heads bowed, we thought we would take a shortcut back to the hotel through the Underground City (a warren of tunnels that span 11 miles under the city of Montreal, that are filled with thousands of shops and places to eat and drink).  We now know where to go when the Zombie Apocalypse arrives.   One could live in the Underground City for years and never need to visit the street level.  As usual, I was a dismal failure at being Navigator, and luckily my cousin is a naturally talented pathfinder.  I think I’d rather have her plugged into my car, giving me directions, than my crabby Garmin, who always scolds me and repeats in her jaded phrase, “recalculating.  recalculating.”  Gaby got us back to the hotel through the tunnels, and we rewarded ourselves with pastries and lattes from the Boutique Gourmandise.  It was an eclectic mix of very bright spring clothing and handmade pastries.  We chose the pastries.  Bringing them to our room, we claimed a small end of the enormous dining table, spread out our tour books and iDevices, and proceeded to while away the afternoon, sipping coffees and planning the rest of our week.  At the end our day, we were too tired to get dolled up to eat out, so we ordered some Caesar salad, some foie gras, some fruit salad, and a bottle of wine from Room Service.  Then we settled into our living room and Facetimed my husband and kids, tormenting them with our plans to find a functioning Beaver Tails the next day.  Tomorrow, we will intersperse sightseeing with bouts of eating, followed by strolling along the mighty St. Lawrence River.  If anyone would like to join us in our gluttony, we have a sofa sleeper in the living room, or space on the room-length dining table than could sleep quite a few folks.  Day 1 completed, and things are only going to get better…Happy Easter, Mon Ami!Image

I Want My Fingers Back – Lunchtime Fun

Yesterday, driving home from school, my little boy, Simon, looked sad and announced that after a year of living in Jasper, he was “sick of this place.”  He started by saying that his gym teacher always put him on the weak teams because he is the tallest and strongest kid, but that it rarely tipped the scales, and he was tired of losing with her pre-arranged teams.  Then he was really quiet for a while.  I asked if something else happened today, and he said he didn’t do very well on his math test.  Then he was quiet again.  Again, I asked if that was all that was bothering him, and his face fell and he said that when he went to eat his lunch in the classroom today, other kids made fun of his beef and vegetable soup.  I guess it looked gross when it was cold, and some small-town brat, stuffing a boring turkey sandwich into his face, wouldn’t shut up about how ugly and weird it was, and who the heck brings soup to school for lunch, anyway?  Sometimes, I could really punch someone in the face – go ahead, call the cops.  Simon warmed up his soup in the microwave and replied, “yeah, it might be ugly, but it sure tastes delicious!  How’s that turkey sandwich taste…every day of every week? Is it as yummy as it tasted on the first day of school LAST YEAR?!”  I was so psyched to hear he had a good response to the little turd’s comments and that he felt confident about himself, until I could see that it was just bravado, and that he was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing.  I said, “Honey, I could make you turkey sandwiches every day too – you just tell me what you like!”  And he said, “No, Mama, I like your lunches.  They’re healthy and they taste good.  I just hate jerks. I hate it that they think everything has to be the same – that they think I have to have a stupid turkey sandwich, I have to wear the same Halloween costumes they do, and I have to play hockey to be cool.  I hate playing hockey!”  We pulled into the driveway and sat in the car for a little bit, complaining about a bunch of things.  The rule is: we can swear and complain in the car, if nobody can hear us.  It’s the only place where we can have some privacy, so sue me.  After he was done crying and I convinced him that he really would hate homeschooling with boring Mom teaching him how to do math the wrong way, I told him a story about truly disgusting lunches from my childhood.  But first I had to tell him a ghost story.

 

When I was in Kindergarten, my dad took a year’s sabbatical from the Foreign Service, in order to get his MBA from Harvard.  We bought an ancient house with a barn, in a tiny town called Groveland.  Despite being penniless, with Dad going to school and the family living off of Mom’s art gallery, my parents prided themselves on throwing the biggest, scariest Halloween parties in the neighborhood.  There were no superheroes or cute little witches at those parties.  My parents’ goal was to get you to pee in your pants from terror.  My dad would tell ghost stories in the stable of our big haunted barn (don’t argue with me – it was truly haunted), and at the end of some of the spookiest, he’d have my mom jump out of the shadows wielding a Chinese cleaver, screaming something bloodcurdling.  Parents would call my dad, days later, complaining that little Bobby or Suzy was having nightmares….and my dad would chuckle.  The only story I can remember was about a boy named Johnny, who was given some money from his mother, and instructed to go to the store and buy some sausages for dinner.  They were very poor, so there was just enough money to buy the sausages and nothing else.  Well, the little boy passed the sporting goods store and his eye was caught by the fancy new jackknife he in the window.  He had wanted that for ages, but his mother had told him they didn’t have the money for luxuries.  Well, now he had cash, so he ran in and bought the little beauty.  Playing with his new knife, Johnny then followed the tantalizing smell of fresh fudge to the candy store.  There, he spent the remainder of his money on creamy fudge, pulled taffy, and gobs of gumdrops.  Stepping out of the candy shop, alternately stuffing his face with gooey candy and picking the sticky sugary bits out of his teeth, he remembered the sausages.  What would he tell his mother?!  There was no avoiding the huge spanking he was going to get; she would be so angry with him…  As he slowly turned towards home, dragging his feet, he noticed the local funeral parlor was open, a funeral in progress.  Out of curiosity, he stepped inside, drawn to the open casket in the viewing room.  Laid to rest in the satin-lined casket was the fattest man he had ever seen.  The man’s chin had several layers, his belly rose up in an obese hill above the bottom half of the open casket, the buttons of his waistcoat straining to hold in the enormous stomach.  His arms had been crossed in a peaceful pose, his large hands clasped together, plump fingers as swollen as…sausages.   Pulling out his shiny new jackknife, little Johnny hesitated for just a moment, then quickly sawed off all of the dead man’s fingers, leaving just the thumbs attached.  He popped the fingers into the paper bag that had held his candy, stuffed the bag into his pocket, and ran all the way home.  Johnny felt queasy handing his mother the bag of “sausages” and even queasier at suppertime when his mom served up his franks and beans.  Saying he didn’t feel well, he rushed up to his room and burrowed under the covers, the rich fudge and chewy taffy gurgling and rolling over in his stomach.  He drifted into a fitful sleep, dreaming of fat knuckles and funeral parlors.  In the middle of the night, he heard some noise downstairs.  Footsteps coming up the stairs.  Big, heavy footsteps.  And he heard a deep, raspy voice whisper, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny yelled, “MOM!!!!” and his mother rushed into the room, turned on the lights, “Are you okay, honey?”  Johnny gasped, “You didn’t hear that, Mom?  There’s someone in the house!”  She rubbed his back, tucked the covers around him, and soothed, “No honey, go back to sleep.  Everything is fine.” Little Johnny kept his eyes open for the rest of the night. The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and Johnny dragged his tired body through school, dreading bedtime in his dark room, later that night.  After dinner, he tried to procrastinate, but his mom sent him right up to bed. Lights out, a few hours later, the house fell silent.  Then, Johnny’s eyes popped open.  He’d heard it.  Heavy steps on the stairs.  Deep and raspy, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny was too scared to scream.  He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.  The footsteps thumped up the stairs and creaked on the top landing, at the end of the hallway leading to his bedroom.  Low and raspy, the voice groaned, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny flipped on the light to his room, and the sounds disappeared.  Shaking, he sat on the edge of his bed until the sun came up and it was time to go to school.  Bags under his eyes, he trudged to school, wondering what the next night would bring.  Later that night, after dinner, Johnny offered to clear the table, wash the dishes, ANYTHING to put off bedtime.  But his mom said, “Oh sweetie, you’ve been looking so tired lately, go on up to bed.  I’ll clean the kitchen.  Sweet dreams!”  Poor little Johnny slowly put one foot in front of the other and forced himself to get ready for bed.  Drawing the covers up under his chin, he lay in bed, dreading the fall of night.  Finally, long after his mother had gone to bed, Johnny heard the footsteps on the stairs.  “I want my fingers baaaack.”  Footsteps slow and heavy on the landing.  “I want my fingerrrrs back.”  Heavy creaking footfall down the hallway leading to his room.  I wannnt my fingerrrrs baaaack.”  Stillness outside his room, in front of his closed bedroom door.  Then the door handle began to turn, slowly, the door creaking open in the dark.  “I waaaannt myyyy finnnngggerrrs….”  BOO!  Simon’s head nearly jumped through the roof of the car.  

 

Laughing, I told Simon that he was lucky his mom packed nice lunches like soup or chef salads.  When I was little – 2nd and 3rd grade – we lived in Moscow.  It was 1976, the Cold War, we were living in Communist USSR, with very limited food choices.  The Russians could prepare beets 14 different ways, and do amazing things with potatoes, but my mother couldn’t even manage to cook a pork chop.  Her version of American food was to throw that pork chop in the oven and cook the Hell out of it.  It would come out as hard as a hockey puck, served with some steamed rice and maybe some canned corn (if we were lucky and the commissary in the American Embassy had canned veggies available that month).  We made do – with enough salt, the pork chop tasted just fine.  But for lunches, we were shit out of luck.  My sisters and I went to the Anglo American School, along with all the other children from the various foreign embassies in the city.  The school was very small, there was no cafeteria, so we ate brown bag lunches in our classrooms.  I remembered being so embarrassed, pulling out a cold, hard, pork chop.  Or a chicken leg.  Nothing else. No drink. No fruit. No utensils.  I’d envy the sweet little son of the Kenyan Ambassador.  Every single day, his cook would lovingly prepare a delicate, fresh crepe, spread with honey, and rolled up tight.  Pancake honey roll.  I would drool for it.  On my pork chop days, the little boy would tilt his head, smile and say, “trade?” and I would give him a big hug and savor his delicious lunch.  Who knows, maybe he was bored with the same-old-same-old every day, or maybe he loved pork chop hockey pucks.  Either way, I would cross my fingers for pork chops for lunch every day so I could have my pancake honey roll trade.  Unfortunately, there were days when I wouldn’t get pork chops.  There were days I was lucky to get a lunch at all.  Mom was an artist – a night owl who could stay up for days on end to finish grand paintings.  Her art came first, and feeding the children fell somewhere on her list of priorities near the bottom, under “Drink coffee. Smoke cigarettes. Brush teeth.”  She would drag herself out of bed in the morning, stand there with a cup of coffee in one hand, the other hand leaning on the kitchen counter, eyes squinting through the smoke curling up from the cigarette clenched between her thin lips.  Needless to say, we didn’t get pancakes for breakfast.  My dad bought a giant case of Nabisco Shredded Wheat and a case of Carnation milk powder when we first moved to Moscow.  There was so much of it, I don’t think we ever finished it.  Every school day morning, Mom would boil the kettle of water, crush a shredded wheat biscuit in a bowl, dump some milk powder on top, and pour the hot water over it all. That was my breakfast.  Mom would growl, “It’s 40 below outside.  You need something warm in your stomach.”   We were required to eat everything on our plates, or get it for dinner, then breakfast the next day, upon threat of a beating.  Usually, by the time I worked up the courage to choke down the hot cereal, it had cooled to a pile of inedible mush.  No amount of sugar could help it.  I gag just remembering it.  So on the BAD mornings, my mom would would open the fridge lean on the door, just staring blankly inside for lunchbox inspiration.  I’ve had the waxy ends of hard smelly cheese for lunch.  I’ve had raw onions and a hunk of salami.  But those are epicurean delights compared with Russian mystery-meat hotdogs, drenched in ketchup and wrapped in tin foil.  The hot dogs had a funky smoke flavoring, they were floppy and skinny, and looked just like real fingers. The effect, when the tin foil was opened up and the ketchup dripped out, was horrifying.  Nobody would sit with me at my desk during lunchtime, on I Want My Fingers Back lunch days.  On those mornings, my sisters and I would watch my mom wrap up our I Want My Fingers Back lunches, with sinking hearts, and we would grab slices of bread to hide in our pockets.  Later in the morning, on the school bus, I would help my little sister, who was in Kindergarten, open her metal lunchbox, and we would throw our bloody little packets of tin foil out of the school bus windows, squealing when the cars would run them over and they exploded into hotdog roadkill.  At lunchtime, we would pull the stolen bread from our pockets and chew slowly, dreaming of pork chops.  Ah, talking about the Good Old Days of my childhood always works wonders on my children when they think their lives are tough. 

So this morning, I woke up at 6am, made a pot of short-grain sushi rice sprinkled with a bit of sugar and rice vinegar, pulled out sheets of nori (dried seaweed), and a jar of furikake (seasoned flakes of nori and roasted sesame seeds).  I prepared Simon’s favorite lunch: sticky rice balls rolled in furikake, and sushi rolls with little pieces of roast chicken in the middle.  I lovingly wrapped them and placed them in a bento box with 3 baby mandarin oranges, and paired that with a thermos of his favorite juice.  Turkey Sandwich Boy can stick it where the sun don’t shine.  And if his tiny little mind can’t handle my son’s delicious lunches, I just might send Simon to school with a little tinfoil packet of I Want My Fingers Back to offer as an alternative to his turkey sandwich.  Does anybody know where I can get my hands on some Russian hotdogs in this town? 

Snowhuddled and Dreaming of Another Place

3pm in Jasper, Alberta, and the snow has been pounding down since dawn.  It brings to mind the beginning of a lovely memory of my 15th wedding anniversary.  I’m going to let you read my diary…just this once. But remember that this is my diary and if you object to controversial subjects such as the Godlike quality of foie gras and sex in hotel rooms, may I suggest searching for a blog to read in the gardening section?

 

“April 14, 2011

Banff, Alberta

Started out at 4:30 this morning.  The furry German  arranged a friend to stay with the children, instructed me to pack a bag, and announced, “Happy Early Anniversary!” as he hustled me into the car.  Drove 2 treacherous hours through slush and blinding snow, and arrived at the airport with just enough time to whisk through the baggage tagging and boarded the plane.  Needn’t have rushed, because my BadWeatherShit Magnet kicked into overdrive.  The snow storm shut down the main runway at the airport in Calgary, forcing us to wait in the plane for an hour.  It was stuffy and hot, and all I could think of was that we didn’t give out medical powers-of-attorney or make our will in case we died on this trip.  Then the furry guy announces, “We are spending a romantic weekend in Montreal, and we will dine in your dream restaurant.”  All worries and thoughts of piddly things like Death and children are instantly replaced with fantasies of Au Pied de Cochon. 

Landed in Montreal at 2pm and messed up the first step of our romantic adventure.  I wanted to be welcomed to Montreal with a French kiss (get it?) but Markus forgot our agreement, and gave me a quick peck when I asked for a kiss.  Hmph!  The rest of the trip HAS to be better!

Hopped on the Express Bus 747 and rode through the city to Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth.  This is the hotel where John Lennon had his “Give Peace a Chance” Love-In.  Rode the elevator to the 19th floor and checked into Fairmont Gold.  On the elevator door, there is a sign that reads “Fairmont” and under it “Or.”  I asked my husband, “Or what?” and he replied, “Or is the French word for Gold.”  Well, duh. 

The room is beeyootiful, and we decided that after we put away our clothes, we would need to christen all the furniture.  Never finished putting away the clothes…then it was time to get ready for our 6pm dinner reservation at Au Pied de Cochon.  How does one dress for an orgy of the palate? 

At 5:15 we called the kids to bid them adieu – after all, we were heading for Heaven on a 6pm reservation, right?  10 minute taxi ride, and we arrived at the temple…a place so renowned it doesn’t even need to advertise the name of the restaurant on the door.  And we entered the pearly gates…

The bustling atmosphere was exactly as we imagined.  Every server and helper smiled, “Bonsoir!” We were seated at a table across from the open kitchen – perfect view of the frenzy.  First up, we sipped a Riesling – not too sweet; perfect for the incoming fois gras…L’amuse bouche was a dice-sized breaded cube of deep fried, liquid fois gras.  Liquid “Or”  hahaha.  Then we moved on to codfish fritters dipped in homemade mayonnaise.  They were just teasers…the entrance of the fois gras appetizers deserved a standing ovation.  I had the fois gras poutine.  Mein Mann had the terrine.  Better than sex.  Well, almost…husband has some stepping up to do…

Anything after that was just overkill.  I had the Duck in a Can – the flavors were divine.  Marinaded duck breast, fois gras, savory cabbage, pressure-cooked in a sealed can, served on a bed of celeriac puree on croutons.  If I could have borne parting with the fois gras already consumed, I would have tickled my throat with a feather as the Romans did, just to be able to finish my entrée, sigh.  As it stood, I had to leave some on my plate.  A sin.  The furry man’s eyes were rolling back into his head while savoring his beef tartar.  It was so perfectly seasoned, he only needed some bread to crunch with it, and he was set for the evening.  We both filled to bursting.  Best money ever spent on dinner.  EVER.

After dinner, we desperately needed some fresh air and a walk.  It was important to shake that food down to our toes, or it might come back up, we were so full.  So we consulted our map, and set out to walk back to the hotel.  The evening was clear and cool, with a brisk breeze blowing all the clouds away from the shining moon.  A lovely romantic way to end an evening.  But after a dozen blocks, we thought maybe we would try the subway – after all, that was an adventure we hadn’t yet tried.  After a couple of turnarounds in neighborhoods that were positively picture-book, we found an entrance to the Metro.  The underground was busy with people rushing to and fro.  We wandered about, consulted maps, and asked the ticket clerk for some direction.  He set us back on track, and two trains later, we were in the underground tunnel that led straight to the elevators that took us to the Fairmont Or Floor.  Or or Bust!  We poured ourselves some much needed Bailey’s in the Or Floor Lounge, my Lovie filled a small plate with sweets, and we locked ourselves in our little room. 

And so, Day 1 is ended, and we go to sleep with shivery memories of bites of heaven, and we will snuggle and be romantic and…ok I’ll be honest – he is watching a San Jose Sharks hockey game.  It wouldn’t be fair to let him treat me to the most romantic anniversary gift ever, without giving a little bit of joy in return, right?  Bonne Nuit!”

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