On June 29, two days before Canada Day, I took the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver. Homeland.
It leaves in the middle of the night, 7.45a. I usually doze off. Pretty scenery aside, the ride’s uneventful.
But I was awake an hour away from Vancouver when the conductor announced, “You’re in for a special treat.” After a brief silence, a woman – apparently an employee of Amtrak – proceeded to sing O Canada over the speaker system. I rolled my eyes, but it was clear that, despite the tinny speakers, she had a lovely voice. I absently mulled over how the American passengers felt about this unabashed display of patriotism from their northern neighbors, whether they thought it impolite – the conductor announced a contest:
The first passenger to sing the anthem will win their car the right to disembark immediately after the business class passengers; and the winner will be the first to disembark from that car.
I groaned. When you take the train up to Vancouver from the States, you clear immigration at the train station in Vancouver, where you’ll be processed in the order of leaving the train. You can end up waiting in line for a half hour before you’ve wended your way to the desk. That’s a good reason to buy a business class ticket – you’re among the first off the train. Totally worth nineteen bucks.
But this time around, business class was sold out. I sat with the paupers, despondent. Time’s money, time’s vacation.
Yet: here was a chance to short circuit all that.
Yet: surely someone had already dashed over to the bistro car. Surely someone knew the lyrics to O Canada, even if no decent Canadian, myself included, remembers off hand any of the words beyond the first line. We tend to la la la our way to the very end, when we declaim our pride in the “summer of ’69″.
There was a long silence. I sat, confused. Really? No one? Finally, another woman came on:
O Canada. Our home and native land.
You guys are so nice, and it would be great
To get off the train first.
La la la laaaaa laaaaaa
The conductor coughed. “Yes, thank you, but if someone can sing the actual lyrics, they can still win the prize.”
I stood up.
Suddenly, there was silence. Everyone in the car looked up at me. “Are you going to do it?” someone asked.
I reddened. (Given my skin tone, it was scarcely visible.) “Um. Yeah,” I whispered.
He was from Burnaby and he beat me to the bistro car. Rats. He began nicely enough. But after several lines, he stopped abruptly. “I forget the ending,” he said, abashed.
“Very good,” the conductor nodded. “Ahsan from Car Five is next.” I heard cheering in the distance. He handed me the handset. I took a deep breath and briefly debated beat-boxing it. Or perhaps a dramatic reading was in order…
I clutched my iPad to my chest as I sang the anthem, reading the lyrics from the Wikipedia, trying to modulate my natural screechiness into something deeper. In short: Badly, out of tune, but still in rough approximation of the melody.
Like any good Canadian.
I walked back to Car Five. As I entered, people clapped and cheered. I stared at the floor and went straight to my seat. “Well done,” said the man sitting opposite me. I smiled weakly.
The train arrived at the station. The baggage was unloaded. The business class passengers disembarked. The conductor arrived at our car and asked, “Where’s our hero?”
To final applause and cheers, I stepped off.
Seriously, I was minding my own business, waiting at 59th for the F train to take me down to West 14th, impatient, when a guy accosted me. I ignored him, for I draw crazy like flies to shit – an unfortunate metaphor, given my skin tone, but there you go. Saying nothing and stepping away is generally the best strategy for dealing with crazy people.
He moved away, grumbling.
Then: “Bitch,” I heard him call. He repeated the term, and then, “I’ll kill you.” Whatever my flaws, that seemed an unreasonable response to any provocation I might’ve offered. Perhaps he was addressing someone else? I glanced in his direction. He was glaring at me. I looked around. No one seemed concerned, except one woman. Her look said, You’re on your own, bub.
I cast another wary eye in his direction before staring into the distance, waiting for a train that was already 10 minutes late. He was twenty feet away. White, six foot two, squarer jaw than my own. I listened carefully for any footsteps approaching me as well as any aspersions.
“Come on, bitch. Let’s do this. Right now. I’ll kill you.” Nice. Never been threatened with violence before on public transit. Suddenly I felt tired.
I swiveled to him. “Alright, motherfucker, here’s how it’s gonna go down,” I snarled. “You run to me, and when your foot hits that piece of gum,” — I pointed to a pink blob 6 feet away — “I’m going to step to my left and jam my right hand at your throat, pound your jaw with the other. Then you’re going to fall on your ass, the fucking train’s finally going to arrive, and I’m going to step over your prone body into the car and flip you off as the doors close. Capish?”
Of course this didn’t happen. The threat was real. But J wanted me back in Seattle the next day, preferably unbruised. The train came, I took a seat, watched the doors until I got to 14th.
The anger was real. His form sprung the memories of two different pasts, twenty-five, fifteen years ago, long forgotten but now refreshed. I don’t remember the whys – white or brown, someone will find a reason to dislike you. (I’ve never quite understood my own oddness.)
Still, I remembered when Adrian clocked me in the jaw, and racing R – even now, separated by a degree on Facebook – and the afternoon specials and the Diff’rent Strokes Very Special Episode and the comic books. I don’t remember my father saying anything, I do remember my mother’s fears after he’d died, and how she cloistered me after that, reacted with unease to my mentioning troubles.
– but these are stories for another day.
(This is also posted on http://blog.seattlepi.com/twoandahalfglasses/)
A while back was the Lamb Jam, a wine-and-lamb tasting event held at Pier 6x Convention Center. I frequent these sordid affairs when I can, in the hope I might find a new favorite winery or restaurant. Like me, you approach wine tastings with a sense of militaristic precision — what’s that? You don’t? You say you’re quite lackadaisical and aimless?
We should fix that. Here are my tips on making the best of these.
1. Your friends are your enemies.
Yes, yes, these are social events to give you an opportunity to hang out with your friends and experience something together – No. You want to hang out with your friends? Go to a bar, go for dinner, go anywhere else but a tasting, because this is important work, folks. Your friends will only slow you down with their idle chatter and catty comments about that aging blonde’s Botox treatments. Amusing, I’m sure. But a distraction.
Furthermore, if you’re a good friend, you’ll be concerned for their feelings, making sure they don’t feel left out or overwhelmed, finding out what their thoughts are, so on, so forth.
They only serve to slow you down. So fail to mention the event to them, or prepare to ditch them as soon as you enter. (They do making standing in line a little less tiresome, though you could use your smartphone (see below) to while away the minutes.)
There is one exception to this rule: The friend who says, “Great, I’ll try these places, we’ll share notes later” is an asset, especially if you both share similar tastes. In fact, you should marry them. Move to Canada if you must.
2. Keep your tools handy.
These are the tools you need to get through this event:
- A ballpoint pen, or some writing utensil
- A map of the space
- A smartphone
The smartphone’s for taking pictures and exchanging texts with your allies. The map’s to guide you. The pen’s for taking notes. Always keep them at the ready: fumbling for them in your bag or coat will cost you crucial seconds that you could be using for better purposes.
3. Get there before opening
This is critical when food’s being served, but also for particularly cherished wines. These events are typically three hours long, and the best food and wine’s usually gone two-thirds through. You don’t want to be eating Aunt Mabel’s Pig Nose Surprise, do you?
4. Set up base.
You want to move efficiently through the space, of course. Especially during these winter months when you’re encumbered with a thick coat, a scarf, gloves, purse or man bag, sunglasses and so forth – these items only serve to slow you down. Leave them at home, in the car, dump them on the floor: just get them off your hands.
Identify a spot in the facility which you can claim as your home. Here’s where you can drop your stuff, and return after visiting each table. Why?
Your hands are already full with your tools. And on top of that, you’re holding a glass of wine in one hand, and a plate of food in the other. You can see the problem now: you have at most two hands, yet you need four. Presumably you’ve practiced finger calisthenics to finesse this. The Ahsan Maneuver 5 and The Ahsan Maneuver 14 may serve you well.
When you obtain your samples, take them back to the base to give yourself the opportunity to enjoy and consider these specimens. If you establish a spot, you will have glaring rights that allow you to tell someone to move elsewhere.
5. Plan and triage
People are lazy. Hence they start at the beginning, carry on until they reach then end, and then stop. This produces a traffic jam at the start, which you can break out quickly. Because you have a plan, right? You have the handy dandy map they offered you at the entrance, and you’ve scanned down the list and marked your top ten choices for wineries and restaurants.
Go to them. Then evaluate and work your way down your list, listening to the grapevine for fodder.
6. Make allies.
Yes, yes, I said don’t take your friends, but the strangers at the event mean nothing to you; they are but tools to serve your goals. Don’t feel bad about this objectification: they look on you in the same way. Soon enough you’ll see the ones who’re serious about this enterprise. Be brave. Ask for recommendations and pointers. Match what you’ve liked with what they’ve liked – the more similarities, the more likely you’ll find that wine, or that food, that will push you to orgastronomic heights.
Of course, this won’t kick in until about forty two minutes after the event has started. Consider this foreplay.
Wineries don’t wish to disappoint all comers and so, like health care, they’re forced to ration their liquids — especially once they realize they’ve been too generous with their initial pours, and so they’re running low sooner than expected.
This is understandable. But it puts you in a bind, for the paltry portion offered is most likely not enough for your critical four sips:
- The initial sip, to get a sense of the dynamics, the tannins, the bouquet.
- A second sip to make sure that your first sip was on target.
- At this point you have your bit of food
- A third sip to determine how well this wine goes with the food.
- And a final sip to either double check the pairing, or round out your impressions of the wine.
Too often, a winery will try to deprive you. There’s not a whole lot you can do except play the male-puppy-dog-eyes maneuver or the female-slight-licking-of-lips-trick, and a polite, “Please, sir, can I have more?” Most winemakers are not such heartless monstrosities to refuse you, except when they are indeed on their last bottle. Under those circumstances, you’ll just have to meter the fluid more finely, and remember to come earlier next time.
8. Use your elbows.
Since your hands are full and elbows bare, you now have handy weapons to defend yourself from spillage and to clear a path to your base. Use them without remorse.
9. Focus on the details.
And now, of course, you have your food and your wine. It’s time to partake in them, to gather your impressions and whether you really want anything further to do with this lot. Write your notes on your map: it’s convenient, and any stains won’t gnaw at your soul as they might were they to fall on your Moleskine.
10. Use custom software.
The point of all this is to have the best experience possible, not the fastest, to skip the mediocre and unrewarding, and to reminisce over the tasty bits. To that end, the truly hardcore among you know that while a poor craftsman blames their tools, the great know how to rock quality weapons.
So clearly, you must write the software that will help you manage your way through these events.
And no, I’m not sharing mine with you.
>I’ve had 72 of these.
1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
10. Baba ghanoush
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
47. Chicken tikka masala
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
60. Carob chips
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill—– having a real hard time saying i’d ever eat this
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
79. Lapsang souchong
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
90. Criollo chocolate
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
>There also comes a time in a man’s life when he must learn to nick a recipe from a restaurant. The restaurant in question is Quinn’s Pub, and the item, no longer on the menu, was a basic — but tasty — pear and greens salad. She liked it, I aim to please, I aimed to pull it together.
a bosca pear
a bag of organic herb salad from Trader Joe’s
a container of Amish gorgonzola cheese crumbles
good balsamic vinegar (optional)
Open the bag of salad greens and arrange it on the plate. Run the pear through a mandoline, this time creating the thinnest possible slices, and arrange them around the plate in a circle. Then grab a fistful of the gorgonzola and sprinkle it around. Optionally, drizzle balsamic vinegar. (Because dammit, I like a good balsamic vinegar, even on my steak.)
Eat the salad.
Forgive the meticulously imprecise directions — all quantities are “to my bloody heart’s desire.” Fortunately, most salads are resilient to these kinds of measurements.
>There comes a time in a man’s life when he must make a salad that goes beyond taking a package of prewashed greens, plopping it on a plate, pouring a cup of Thousand Island dressing, and calling it good — and yet without the aid of recipes from books and magazines and websites and the like.
I had a brilliant idea:
1 medium jicama
1 asian pear
1 bag of prewashed arugula
good balsamic vinegar
Open the bag of prewashed arugula and plate it in a presentable fashion. Peel the jicama. Run it through a mandoline to create straw; do the same to asian pear (which i did not bother to peel). Toss the jicama and pear together, and place on top of the arugula. Drizzle balsamic vinegar. (Cook’s Illustrated had given O&Co’s Premium Balsamic Vinegar a good rating, and so that’s what I used.)
Eat the salad.
It was good.
>I don’t often take cooking classes, out of the misguided notion that I could learn most of the material just as well from a book. But Culinary Communion offers the occasional oddball class — “Foie Gras”, “Sauces”, not to mention “Blind Wine Tasting” — that strikes my fancy. And so it happened they recently had a class on Exotic Meats.
Who could resist the prospect of eating snake and zebra? Aside from all the vegetarians, teenagers, pescetarians, vegans, and other culinary dullards. And observant Jews and Muslims. And Heather. Most of the world, then.
More for me.
It was with some trepidation, though, that I signed up for the class. Would I remember how to cook? In December 2005, I made Sunset magazine’s Pinot-Braised Duck with Spicy Greens. On January 8, 2008, I made a butter chicken curry. Nothing in between.
What is “braising”? Something to do with farming donkeys, I imagine.
We greeted the Five Sea Urchins. ($5 each at Uwajimaya — to check freshness, make sure that the thingie isn’t sunken into the hole at the bottom.) I named them after the Seven Dwarfs, which meant one urchin was called “Grumpy-Sneezy”, and another “Sleepy-Dopey”. Chef Gabriel flipped one over and cut across it, off-center, to crack it open. We pulled out the eggs, tasting some raw — I can’t imagine anyone but my mother actually cooking them — and reserving the rest for a Sicilian pasta dish. Someone boiled six quarts of water with a cup of kosher salt so that the pasta would get more flavour. After the pasta was ready, the eggs were mixed in and melted around the pasta. That’s all there was. (Perhaps olive oil. I think I missed something that helped give the water more of an oceanic flavour). This was great, I sang a toast to Scruffy and his brethren. I wish I’d taken more of the leftovers.
Melvin the sea cucumber ($5 at Uwajimaya) quivered on the table. “Oozed” might be the more appropriate word. Gabe first sliced a portion as though it were a cucumber. It tasted mild, of the ocean.
Melvin proceeded to puke out his guts, which are reputedly an aphrodisiac. In the name of science, I sampled some, but my willie remained wonka for the duration of the class. (A couple also tried a bit; to my disappointment, they managed to behave appropriately. They should’ve drunk some wine.) Gabe sliced Melvin laterally to reveal his muscles, and then peeled off the skin. He’d mentioned that El Bulli makes sea cucumber crackers, and they tried to make it. It ended up looking more and tasting like — I now realize — corolla — Indian bittermelon, I guess is the English term. The sauteed muscles tasted good.
For snacking, someone fried wild boar bacon. That was tasty. And then came the buttermilk-fried Crocs with a cajun remoulade that was regrettably rubbery. Actually, the alligator was good. (While I was working on the roo, another student pounded on the gator to tenderize it. “Say you’re sorry!” she yelled. I squealed, “Uh, uh! I’m sorry! I was bad! I’ll behave!” She paused, and collapsed onto the butcher block in laughter. It wasn’t that funny.)
The remoulade, as listed on the recipe card and prepared by four students, was potent and strong. Gabriel added sugar to soften the sauce, without taking away the spice. Another student insisted on adding sour cream to one bowl, to lighten it further. Personally, I preferred the version without.
I volunteered to prepare the pan-seared caraway and herb-crusted kangaroo medallions. Before I cut it open, I admired the pretty purple packaging. Then I discovered that the packaging was clear. After washing the meat and cutting away the trivial bits of fat in an effort to feel in charge, I found myself immediately stumped. “Uh, Gabriel? What do medallions look like?”
My neuroses kicked in. Is it seasoned enough? Is the parsley minced, or merely chopped? Am I packing the herbs on the medallions correctly? Another student started the sauce, reducing the veal stock and madeira, but it was for me to finish, after I seared the kanga in a heavy cast-iron pan — and I do mean heavy. I could barely lift it with both hands. The recipe said: “Do not disturb for 1 minute. Flip and cook blank side for 2 minutes.” Without a watch handy, I started counting, and because I easily lose track, I muttered the numbers under my breath. A student giggled at my madness. Once the meat was done, I finished the sauce.
I held my breath as it was served, bracing myself for screams of horror, for Gabriel to run up to me and say, “You wasted $30 of good kangaroo meat to make this?”
I heard nothing. I took a bite.
Much to my surprise — particularly since I’m critical of my own cooking — I liked it. I ate some more, and took the remaining piece home. A couple of students, politely or not, said they liked it as well, or at least the look of it. One woman took a single bite. How wasteful. I wrote down her name and while driving home, defaced her Myspace profile using my iPhone.
The recipe called for serving the roo with soft polenta with olives and basil. I’m not crazy about polenta, but I remember liking this. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember why.) I liked the garlicky lemon escarole so much more, though — I regret not taking all of it home for leftovers.
The puree blanc was also good, if not remarkable. The broiled python was disappointing, tough and chewy. It didn’t get much flavour from the soy sauce, lime and mirin marinade. Grilling — as indicated on the recipe card, but for want of a grill — would have been better than broiling.
As for the antelope stew — the stew itself was nice, but the antelope itself was uninteresting, tough. It probably would’ve been better served cooked for several more hours.
Alas, antelope! You died in vain.
Perhaps we’ll have to try zebra sometime.