Food Deserts: The Comestible Topography That Brought Unilever to Its Knees

I recently participated in a project called #mytomato which was sponsored by Hellman’s.   The point was to bring awareness to the concept of food deserts which can be loosely defined as geographical  regions which have limited availability to fresh, quality produce at a reasonable price.  Food deserts are a component of a broader issue called food insecurity which is loosely defined as  the inability for a person to buy the food they want to buy when they want to buy it. It’s the mother who chooses evaporated milk instead of formula for her baby because it is all she can afford.  It’s the father who can’t buy ground beef anymore because the price has doubled in the last 2 years and he needs to pay rent so it no longer fits in the food budget on a regular basis.  This is not the same as a decision to not buy a cut of steak because it is too expensive. The difference is choice.  I could buy the striploin if I wanted to but the decision not to is more of a value assessment than one out of necessity.

The #mytomato campaign involved the transformation of a GTA grocery store into one more reflective of a food desert experience.  As a participant, I was asked to enter the store and react to what I saw. The produce was scarce, of questionable quality and priced through the roof.  Among the limited choices was a $69 watermelon and tomatoes priced at $18.00/kg.  A subsequent interview allowed me to state that I would have a hard time feeding my family the way I wanted to if this what was available on a regular basis.

Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film
Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film

The campaign launched on facebook, twitter and youtube with reasonable fanfare.  There were comments reflecting sides of the fence. On one side there  was sympathy for the situation whereas others suggested that the ridiculous prices reflected supply and demand, meaning that if people aren’t interested in buying fresh tomatoes they won’t which raises the prices for those who do.  Another keen observer quoted the price of tomatoes in their community but also cited  the price of a jar of Hellman’s at $6.49 which is significantly higher than what you would see if a Southern Ontario grocery store and points to the fact that it isn’t only produce prices that are affected by geography . Then, as quickly as it started, the campaign vanished.  The facebook comments stopped and the youtube clip is now unviewable and listed as private.  When I inquired about the reason for the rash cessation, I was told that a few retailers objected to the campaign so it was terminated.

(Don’t Bother…you can’t see anything)

I got thinking about this and  a number of interesting issues came to mind which merit a discussion.  There is the clash of big business versus big business, the issue of convenience versus necessity, the responsibility of government or other agencies in the regulation of food prices and the acceptability of corporate involvement in campaigns which deal with public health or social issues.

1. Big Business versus Big Business

Hellman’s parent company is Unilever, a multinational conglomerate who produces and markets some of the most recognizable brands across most sections of the grocery store. As a result, there is the need for Unilever to work with these retailers to ensure that they get ample shelf space and a strong visual presence in a highly competitive environment. That said, I imagine the saying “Don’t bite that hand the hand that feeds you” enters the discussion. If Hellman’s #mytomato campaign suggests that the retailer is even partially responsible for the inflated price of poor quality produce, then there could be a harsh retaliation including the omission or displacement of Unilever products from shelves.  We are not talking small mom and pop shops either.  The big three (Loblaw, Metro and Sobey’s) have an infrastructure in place which services everywhere from downtown Toronto to remote communities across Canada.  As a result, pissing them off may have ramifications far beyond a few towns speckled above the 60th parallel.  Nobody wants to loose the opportunity to have their mayo shelved at eye level after all.

2. Convenience versus Necessity

We live in a society where convenience has evolved into necessity.  It also comes at a price.  If I run out of bread at 11 at night or don’t want to make the long haul to the grocery store during the day, there are at least three convenience stores within a kilometre or two of the house which will gladly sell me a loaf of its finest Wonder bread for 5 bucks. In either situation, I have a choice.  I can wait it out or get off my ass and drive the extra kilometre to grab a loaf.  The same opportunity doesn’t exist in remote communities.  In this case, the alternative may not be a kilometre but instead a hundred kilometres. In order words, the grocery store IS the convenience store simply because it’s the only one in town. The interesting question is whether the inflated prices are a reflection of the realization there is a monopoly and that most local residents are handcuffed or the fact that the store is in a small town which means less volume and therefore lower overall sales.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  It’s no secret that a grocery business involves razor thin profit margins which in most cases rely heavily on high volume to succeed and that the only way to sustain profits in a smaller store may be to increase prices.

3. Government Responsibility

The question arises as to whether the government or some other organization should be responsible for regulating food prices across the province or country. I suspect most would argue that we do not need big brother to monitor the price of a tomato.  Sure, affordable produce would couple nicely with the numerous (and generally unsuccessful)  public education strategies geared at increasing the population’s fruit and vegetable consumption.  I find mundane strategies including Canada’s food guide lose steam when a person is asked to spend beyond their means or purchase unavailable foods to ensure a variety are included in the diet.  I have to disagree with those who suggest that regulation of food prices is impossible.  If there was financial incentive to do so, I’m sure the government would not hesitate to employ an infrastructure to ensure it got its fair share. Think of beer and alcohol sales. The price of a case of beer is the same whether you live in downtown Toronto or in Red Lake, Ontario.  Beer is heavy, boxy and requires refrigeration yet these burdens of transportation doesn’t add to the price in remote communities.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact the government scoops a tonne of revenue with every case sold. Since produce isn’t taxed one can speculate the urgency to regulate produce (or even food) prices in general is less than a priority for a cash-strapped government. It is cheaper and less difficult just to run ineffective healthy eating campaigns through public service announcements than it is to implement tangible policies changes which might actually result in behavioral change.

food guide
Health Canada’s Answer to Food Deserts

4.  Corporate Involvement in Public Health Campaigns

The last argument is whether or not big corporations should even be involved in health promotion or campaigns. On one side, I have read numerous criticisms of Hellman’s investment in its real food movement.  Some question how real mayonnaise actually is.  On the other side, supporters feel that big business should be obligated to funnel resources into strategies which potentially better society as a whole.  That said, philanthropy rarely comes with no strings attached and I’m not sure there’s a problem with this.  I guess the bigger question is where to draw the line.  A hands-off financial sponsorship? A partnership with third party consultants?  A jump into bed as long as the outcome is good relationship? I think delving into this at this point  is beyond the scope of this particular entry blog  (I think I’ll tackle this one separately)  but it is ” real” food for thought.

My Take

A little over a month and a half ago Hellman’s launched the next installment of their real food movement which involved a closer look at food deserts which are defined as areas in Canada that have limited availability to fresh and affordable produce on a regular basis.  As quickly as it went up it came down and now has all but disappeared presumably due to pressure from retailers who took offense to Unilever’s finger pointing.  In other words, addressing food deserts essentially caused the biggest consumer product company globally after P&G and Nestle to drop to their knees and assume the fetal position, presumably over fears that they would lose prime real estate in the condiment section.  This makes me concerned that any resolution to the problem of food desserts is nowhere in the immediate future. Big companies will simply abandon such fruitless endeavors and replace them with smiling celebrity chefs handing out tomatoes at food fairs (which I’m sure goes over well with those who are selling deep fried dough). Given relatively lower sales volumes, retailers in remote communities  will continue to stick to a supply and demand system to ensure their thin profit margins are just a little thicker . Government will continue to address the issue by using money generated from liquor sales to produce colourful sheets to remind us that fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet while they rot in produce bins due to exorbitant cost and poor quality.

I don’t know the solution for food deserts. Retail subsidies by either the government or by companies seems feasible, especially if funneled through the big grocery chains.  An issue might be the need to negotiate with franchisees but perhaps it can be offered with incentives in the same way  weekly flyer specials  from the parent company work.  Maybe a coupon system specific to produce could be created.  I would hate to compare this strategy to food stamps but it may be the easiest way to facilitate and specify corporate and/or government investment in this initiative.  Plus, it would be an interesting social experiment and one which could  test the validity of the famous Field of Dreams catch line “If you build it they will come” since one of the biggest arguments against providing fresh, affordable produce is the speculation that it would just sit there anyway because consumers would still opt to spend their food budget on other choices including non-perishables.

In the end, Hellman’s #mytomato campaign was a short lived mirage in an expansive food desert.  The intent was good but was quality quashed by point of sale retailers (likely related to the big three) who likely feel handcuffed by an inability to offer fresh fruits and vegetables without cutting into profit margins and ultimately their own livelihoods.  The solution is not evident but at the same time the problem shouldn’t fade into the sunset by pretending it doesn’t exist or by succumbing to the perception that if a powerful multi-national company like Unilever can’t tackle the problem then nobody can.

 

 

 

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Everything I Know About Hipsters I Learned from Watching the Walking Dead

I have recently jumped on the Walking Dead bandwagon.  For the past month or so I have religiously hooked up Netflix and plowed through episode after episode, taking periodic breaks to sulk whenever a major character gets killed off.  The show has taught me a few things.  First, it convinced me that in the midst of a zombie apocalypse humanity would not unify to preserve its existence.  Instead, the balance of power would become crucial and opposing human survivors with a functional capacity greater than that of a newborn would be more of a threat than a drooling pack of the undead. Second, the more I watched the show the more it made me understand hipsters.  I have struggled with the concept for a number of years but watching the show has brought a much needed clarity that allows me to comprehend and somewhat accept, if not empathize with, the hipster lifestyle.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters travel in packs

Zombies wander aimlessly through forests and streets with one purpose; to eat. Hipsters travel for the same reason.   They walk  urban streets  like amoeba through a digestive tract,  weaving around sidewalks and down alleyways in search of sustenance . In doing so, they remain rather unaware of their surroundings which in some cases includes moving motor vehicles, puppies and non-hipsters.  The latter can take advantage of this phemonemon by setting hipster traps. Whereas a zombie can easily be corralled  using a large pit or a wall of sharpened sticks, the hipster can either be distracted by noise (see below) or other strategies. For example, having a member of your party slow down in front the oblivious pack allows your friends to rush to the door of the destination and scoop the last table well before the hipsters can get there.  Such a strategy was employed by some of my family members outside of Beast  in Toronto during brunch and it worked like a charm.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters are attracted to noise

Anybody who watches the show knows that zombies are attracted to noise.  Packs of them have been known to veer completely in the other direction with anything from the clinking of pots, the rattling of a fence or jumping up and down repeatedly  and screaming “over here!”  The same rings true of the hipster.  Although the noise does not need to be of an auditory nature, it needs to satisfy the impulsive nature of the hipster and may include things like a semi-lit neon sign, a sandwich board advertising a happy hour or the promise of a 45  minute wait in order to eat a beef cheek taco.

An example of a hipster distraction tool
An example of a hipster distraction tool
  1. Skin blemishes are key characteristics of both zombies and hipsters

Skin blemishes are a key identifier of both groups.  The presence of decay and discolouration, usually the result of partial death and the lack  of SPF 30,  is a sure fire way to pick out a zombie.  For a hipster, look for colourful sleeve tattoos, quotations or foreign language mantras peppered somewhere on the surface area of the skin.  This is not to say that these blemishes can’t become a clandestine feature of either group.  A good makeup job, some body spray and a little human love was enough to disguise a zombie in the motion picture “Warm Bodies” while a donning long sleeved plaid shirt nicely hides the floral arrangements and depictions of exotic woman on the forearm of a hipster. Unfortunately, all the Drakkar Noir and Abercrombie and Fitch in the world can’t camouflage the obnoxious behavior exhibited by each  which means an astute observer can easily see through the façade.

  1. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Although each zombie in a pack is a unique individual, little regard is given to that individuality of the zombie by outside observers. They all have distant looks on their faces. People tend not to discern between the old and young, male and female or still human like versus quite decayed.  A zombie is a zombie.  Hipsters are much the same. They all have looks of angst on their face. Externals do not differentiate hipsters based on the size of their ear spacers, their sleeve tattoos, what side of their head their hair is parted on or the colour of plaid shirt they are wearing. A hipster is a hipster.  To be fair, there is a subtle difference between the two groups in this regard.  Zombies don’t KNOW they are zombies and hipsters don’t THINK they are hipsters.

A Pack of Zombies
A Pack of Zombies with distant looks
A Pack of Hipsters
A Pack of Hipsters with looks of angst
  1. Both zombies and hipsters relish the “nose to tail” concept

Although they do it for different reasons, both zombies and hipsters adopt a nose to tail philosophy when it comes to eating.  Zombies are not particularly fussy in regarding their diet and will consume anything  they can get their hands on.  The hipster is slightly more discerning but will often include foodstuffs such as  jowls,  liver pates, animal glands and heart tartare. I suppose the difference is that a zombie takes little pride in consuming an entire organism while the hipster will tweet, facebook, yelp, zomato snapchat, Instagram or tumble such milestones not to mention the likelihood of a “Keep Calm and Eat Sweetbreads” shirt surfacing somewhere in their wardrobe.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters are primarily nocturnal

The walking dead zombies are a bit atypical from those depicted in other television shows and movies in that they are not overly adverse to light.  That, said, one can argue that they prefer the evening hours for feeding.  This is true of the hipster.  Feeding hours usually begin after dusk and will proceed until the wee hours of the morning.  This is not to suggest that hipsters, like zombies, are adverse to eating during the day.  There is a ritual in which hipsters do hunt and feast outside of the dusk to dawn hours…it’s called brunch.

  1. You don’t mind watching them from a distance but you sure as hell don’t want to be there.

While watching a walking dead marathon, it quickly comes apparent that there is no rest for the human characters.  Just when you think Rick and the gang are safe, a hole in the fence or an evil human henchman foils the plan for long term safety, forcing the protagonists to flee and the cycle continues.  I sit there watching, grateful that I don’t have to spend my life, like an antelope,  looking over  my shoulder wondering if I’m about to get eaten. It is extremely uncomfortable but I can’t get enough.  I have the same feeling when I see a pack of hipsters.  There are fun to watch from a distance, but the thought of actually being involved in the dynamic is as frightening as an encounter with a walker.  Sure the smell of hair gel and musky cologne  may be slightly better than that of decaying flesh, but the same lack of personal space and relentless monotony of behavior  would simply be unbearable for any extended period of time, let alone 5 seasons.

  1. You can get rid of them by messing with their brains

Any object inserted in the right part of a zombie’s head  is enough to curtail any immediate threat .  Swords, shovels, sticks and arrows are all effective tools in this regard.  For a hipster, the use of such weapons would be illegal and unnecessarily cruel.  Instead, aiming your assault at their mental acuity is much acceptable. Engaging in general trivia including references to key historical events or geography  outside the hipster universe (such as areas in Ontario outside Parkdale) works nicely.  Also, referring  to the evening hours in military time (ie. Hey, it’s 2100 hours..don’t you think you should go home now?) or  listing menu items that include cents (ie $17.00 vs 17) may be enough to clear a room of hipsters with relative ease.

I think we are in the midst of a hipster apocalypse.  Although I wish Max Brooks would release a hipster version  as a sequel to his best selling “ The Zombie Survival Guide” , I think the walking dead has taught me enough about hipsters so that, if was cornered in a room with the last crawfish beignet on earth, I could survive the onslaught and live to see another industrial night.

How to survive a zombie apocolypse...a good disguise!
How to survive a zombie apocolypse…a good disguise!

Why Making a Reservation in Toronto Reminds me of an Anchorman Melee

There has been a definite evolution in the process behind making a restaurant reservation over the past decade.  Years ago, you either showed up live or called ahead and a friendly person on the other end would scratch your name into a book.  Now, the lucrative online reservation systems has blossomed  and many restaurants are left to choose which system fits their business needs the best.  In the end, the choice appears relatively seamless to the patron, but there are some interesting observations to make about this cutthroat business.

Some restaurants have gotten rather creative with the reservation process. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, for example, offers reservations for dates two months later.   The reservation process starts at midnight and  I will admit I woke up at 3 am to try and secure a spot but was left unsuccessful and had to stand in line with the rest of the peasants.  Others restaurants are asking for credit cards in advance and threaten charges if there is a cancellation too close to the reservation time.

No Reservations

Congratulations, you are a successful restaurant who is either relishing in the fact that people line up to get in or your establishment is so tiny that  you have no problem hitting your capacity on a nightly basis and don’t need a system.  You’re a pain in the ass because if you are looking to entertain clients, have a birthday or plan to propose to your girlfriend, you have to hope to hell that the stars align and you can get a seat without having to wait two hours.  You probably will only seat people once the whole party arrives and you likely take cash only as well.

Reservation by Phone 

Yes, there are restaurants which still see a phone as something you talk on as opposed to checking in, tagging friends and taking pictures.  This system is not conducive to those who have a whimsical desire to make a reservation at 3 am.  In all likelihood, restaurants who subscribe to phone only reservations are:

  • long-standing eateries that have been using a reservation book since 1960 and damn well won’t change now.
  • owned by control freaks who don’t think a computer could never do what a human can.
  • likely to still hand-write bills and frown when you insist that the stub on the bottom is not a sufficient receipt for business purposes and begrudgingly copy one by hand upon request.

OpenTable

OpenTable is the patriarch (or matriarch) of online reservations systems. Once a monopoly, they were known for offering bonus points and a lack of a 7 pm slot on almost any night of the week at some restaurants. Although they still own the lion share of the business (but still only have 322 accounts in Toronto proper), they have responded to recent competition by  undergoing  a major rebrand focused on pillars which include warm and welcoming, inspired and reliable and fresh and current although it would be naive to think that all restaurants they work with have the same philosophy.You still get the opportunity to review the restaurant after and get the subtly threatening email if you don’t show up threatening that you might get banned if such indiscretions continue (even if the restaurant fails to record your attendance).  Open table restaurants tend to include:

  • those who fare better on tripadvisor than yelp.  Tripadvisor uses open table as their reservations system.
  • conglomerates such as O and B and The Khabouth empire since you can refer to affiliated restaurants in the event your first choice isn’t available.
  • those whose names start with numbers or the letter a since they are listed in alphabetical order when searched by region.
  • pricey restaurants in expensive hotels and those who wish they were pricey restaurants in expensive hotels.

 Seatme

Now owned and operated by yelp, this reservation system is less centralized.  Seatme does not have a master website like OpenTable but is meant to attract small business owners  who either find open table too difficult, expensive or cumbersome.  Unlike urbanspoon and tripadvisor, the yelp site itself does not pimp their online reservation system by embedding it in the reviews.  Instead of going to a central site, one gets prompted to reserve via seatme when they go to the restaurant’s site looking for a table.  On the consumer side, it is hardly distinguishable from other reservation systems but  on the vendor’s side it promises a better and cheaper experience than Open Table.

Bookenda

At the end of 2014, yellow media (the yellow pages people) announced the acquisition of both bookenda and dine.TO.  Bookenda is a online reservation that is gaining steam in pockets across Canada including the GTA.  It’s membership is impressive; Pai, Thoroughbred, Rasa, People’s eatery, Ruby Watchco and Edulis are among the hot destinations under the bookenda umbrella.  Like OpenTable, there is a reward program. Instead of saving points in the hope of someday attaining an elusive dining certificate, bookenda offers a variety of reward opportunities for as little as 400 points.  Points are not only awarded for booking online but also if you post your reservation on facebook or make a comment about your experience on their site afterwards.

My Take

Long gone are the days of picking up the phone and dialing a rotary phone during business hours in the hope of securing a 7 pm reservation at your favourite eatery.  Now, you can simply go on a smart phone, tablet or computer at anytime of day and secure anything but a 7pm reservation at any number of establishments.  In some cases, you can be recognized for your loyalty with points which may lead  to a glass of wine, a free appetizer or the ultimate prize of an OpenTable dining certificate.

I picture that scene from Anchorman when the rival broadcasters including the likes of Vince Vaughan and Tim Robbins assemble in the parking lot for a good old-fashioned brouhaha.  In the restaurant world, the clans would be divided based on their reservation system.  In one corner would be the no reservation group who ironically would need to wait outside the lot until space in the lot became available and the whole group was there.  Their main artillery would be dirty looks and ignorance.  The reservation by phone group may sport tin foil hats to prevent satellite interference and carry archaic weaponry  reminiscent of  Game of Thrones. The OpenTable entourage (although they would not likely show around peak dining hours) would be the largest, led by Michael Bonacini and includes fans of tripadvisor and urbanspoon wearing “Keep Calm and Use Opentable” T-shirts. Seatme peeps would be scattered throughout the parking lot like lone vigilantes. The bookenda bevy would likely be led by Lynn Crawford with patrons wearing red t-shirts symbolizing Canada which spell out “Bookenda is the New OpenTable” scrawled across the front in large white writing as they sipped free wine they got for 400 points.

"I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!"
“I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!”

 

In the end, the competitive world of online reservations has made it easier than ever for patrons to plan in advance when eating out.   Of course, there are still a number of restaurants who feel that it is an honour and privilege to dine there and don’t mind making people wait for the experience. Otherwise, with some flexibility, one can plan a dinner without too much of a headache regardless of the system.  A quick call to the restaurant might be necessary to secure the elusive 6-8 pm time slot but otherwise it is a pretty easy to book, show up and reap the rewards of a completed meal.  You even have the opportunity, good or bad, to enlighten fellow diners about what you ate and how the experience was….without the need for pitchforks.

 

Ten Predicted Food Trends for 2015

As usual, I try to predict the wacky world of food trends.  It’s like a horoscope…I get a few right and a few wrong every year but it’s fun nonetheless.  I think there will be a trend toward more interactive dining experiences. From a food perspective, I think extreme tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami) will highlight menus: Here’s what we can expect in 2015:

Tableside Service

Dim sum service doesn’t have to be limited to weekends.  Places like State Bird Provisions in San Francisco and Ma Peche in New York have made tableside service the norm.  A little closer to home, Buca Yorkvile carves branzino crudo while you watch.  Watch this trend to explode in 2015 as diners demand a more interactive dining experience and restaurants see the opportunity for a sweet price mark-up.

I’m a Little Bitter

Look for greens like hickory, endive, dandelion and maybe even radicchio to grace salad plates.  The strong bitterness and varying colours and shapes will be like playing lego for the palates of foodies everywhere. Even better, it might come with a housemade honey/maple vinaigrette for a great contrast.

Getting in the Game

Bison, venison and maybe even elk will compete with beef on menus in 2015.  The strong, gamy flavours will be more in demand than the 86 ounce steaks that graced menus in 2014.  Also, look for rabbit to hop onto menus as a substitute for chicken or pork.

Duck Dynasty

Half the hipsters I see look like these lovable hillbillies, so why not eat the damn stuff too.  I’m surprised duck hasn’t been deemed the other “red meat”.  Although it has never declined that much in popularity, its unique flavour and versatile use makes it a strong candidate to soar up the ranks of fowl in 2015.

Pssst…achios

It’s no secret that the pistachio has been the most aggressive ad campaign to come of the Golden State since the California raisins. Once nothing more than a snack food which left red dye all over your mouth and fingers,  the pistachio’s recent endorsement by the witty, satirical, side-part, spectacle wearing Stephen Colbert coupled with the fact they can used in everything from salads to desserts might result in “pistachio is the new walnut”  t-shirts popping up everywhere.

Root, Root, Root for the home team.

Dainty vegetables won’t be able to withstand the assault of extreme tastes of 2015. Potatoes provide a blank canvas for all sorts of flavours. The sweetness of  beets and carrots amidst bitter and spice should be a great compliment. Foodie favorites like sunchokes and salsify should round out a good year for the root.

Squash the competition

The squash is longer reserved for soup. This local fall favorite is emerging as a player across the board.  It’s a great base for vegetarian dishes and pairs nicely with a number of spices including clove, nutmeg and even sage, The regional production should appease the locavores and the diversity of the gourds available make them ideal for salads and even desserts.   

 Korean- More popular than “The Interview”

Although Korean is already enjoying popularity in the GTA, I think there’s more to come.  Twists on bibimbap and hot pots will become options on fusion menus while hole in the wall Korean joints may be chosen over a sushi bar or ramen house for a quick and inexpensive lunch.  Plus, your playstation shouldn’t  crash over a little bulgogi.

Micro Booze

The popularity of 40 Creek whisky within what was once seen as an impenetrable rye market plus emerging players like Gibson’s in the vodka and gin world make the small batch production of potent potables is as lucrative as  micro brews.  Bourbon enthusiasts will gravitate toward micro booze whether in a clever cocktail or even on tap.  Look for tasting flights of infused shots of gins, vodkas and vermouths to wiggle their ways onto bar menus everywhere.

The Dumpling and Pancake: More than a way to describe your ass

The use of either a dumpling or a pancake as a canvas  has limitless possibilities. To date, dim sum and gyoza have been all the rage.  In 2014, we saw the emergence of savory pancakes such as latkes.  Look for both to explode in 2015.  From perogies to beghrir, the possibilities are endless. So will the choices on menus.

My Take

2015 will be a year filled with intense flavours highlighted by extreme taste profiles.  Much of the sweet may in fact come from fruits and vegetables including beets, carrots and squash.  Bitter will come from a resurgence of fragrant leafy greens  and infused alcohols.  Strong flavoured proteins such as game meat and duck will be needed to compliment these extreme tastes. Dumplings and pancakes will provide an ideal medium for many trendy tastes.  Pistachio is the new walnut.  Korean will surpass sushi and ramen as the preferred Asian provision of foodie nation. Regardless of the food, look for more options to be served tableside or in some other type of extravagant fashion. So, bring me a duck pancake atop of bed of mixed greens served under a cloche with a shot of vermouth and a pistachio cannoli pronto!

Why an Elton John Concert is Like a Michelin Star Dinner.

A good meal is music to the mouth.  A good concert is music to the ears.  I went to see Elton John in London at Bud Gardens recently and saw comparisons between his concert and a good meal.

The amuse bouche was a stunning performance of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. I somewhat naively picture Elton front and centre with nothing more than him and his piano gracing the stage.  Instead, he was on the left side with a complete band.  It was louder than I expected as well…perhaps in part due to the fact that three quarters of the audience was over 65 and probably needed a few extra decibels of help.  It was a good starting bite by hitting hard and setting the tone for the remainder of the evening.

Benny and the Jets was next and reminded me that, like many restaurants, aging doesn’t mean a change in quality.  Sure, Elton’s trademark magazeeeeeeeeeene has been replaced with a lower pitch version, but it’s still a damn good song.

Some of the most memorable restaurant experiences don’t necessarily involve food but often include the people around you.  Take for instance the old couple that sat in front of me.  He sat stoically  with him arms crossed most of the concert while she looked around like a nosy neighbour looking for dirt on the guy in Row H Seat 5 that she could share during tomorrow’s coffee session.  It lead me to believe that they probably got the tickets for Xmas, are against resale and wanted to humour their kids who bought them thinking that “Daniel” was a song they actually liked.  On the other side of the aisle was a couple who hit the aisles to dance feverishly to any fast song including but not limited to “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting (although it was a Monday and I’m not sure how they’d fair in a brawl..they were definitely lovers more than they were fighters).

The appetizers included a number of slower melodies including “Candle in the Wind”, “Levon” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.  The latter featured a yellow submarine type video montage of Elton’s life in the background including paying homage to his husband and kids. The bright lights of iphones  waved in the air and were used by  numerous concert goers to record clips of the show (or in some case the whole concert).  I got a kick out of one guy who whipped out an ipad to do the same.  It looked like a spotlight as the brightness of the screen emphasized the 8 or 10 annoyed face within his diameter.

Throughout the concert his showmanship matched the quality of each song; there was  frequent hand raising Alan Shearer style while breaking from a piano medley. He also ended each song with a bang on the piano or some kind of appreciative gesture.  He would wave, bow and solicit energy from the crowd in ways that made you forget he was 66.

The main course was surprisingly high tempo. Elton pounded the piano while his supporting band kept up with him nicely. The well dressed percussionist reminded me of a good bartender at a chic downtown restaurant.  He rhythmically rattled his instruments like a cocktail shaker. I imagine he would mix up a mean cocktail. Come to think of it, many Elton songs would make great cocktail names….

Love Lies Bleeding– Vodka, housemade clamato, spice medley, worchestershire sauce and spicy, pickled green bean

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road– Bourbon, Galliano, Fresh Lemon juice and gold flakes

Rocket Man– Bombay gin, muddled berries, lime juice, soda water and egg white cloud

Amidst the fast pace was the infusion of some slower tunes including the recent “Ocean’s Away” which is a tribute to the often forgotten veterans of WW1.   The video played in the background and created a sombre but not uncomfortable aura in the arena (even the crowd dancers took the opportunity to rest their weary limbs).

As Elton disappeared the crowd roared into waves of cheers and claps, demanding dessert to end a near perfect meal.  Elton complied, returning for a two song encore which featured songs on polar ends of his musical spectrum (I suppose a good dessert often uses the same mentality).   The first was “Your Song”, the haunting ballad which pays tribute to whoever you want it to.  He dedicated it to the fans who have supported him throughout the years.  I figured I would take the opportunity to follow suit and record a snippet  for my whoever.  He ended with the fast paced Crocodile Rock in which Elton summoned the crowd to sing along…a painful reminder of why most of the audience was singing from the crowd and not from the stage.

There is a lot of congruency between a good concert and a good meal. Restaurants and arenas are mediums for artistic expression. Sure, one stimulates the ear drums and the other the taste buds but in the end both reach out to the primal desires of human beings.  The importance of both food and music are evident in the earliest of civilizations. People don’t mind paying premium prices if the goods and services provided are suburb.  Finally, the music or food doesn’t have to appeal to everybody but it’s utter magic when it’s the right fit.  If an Elton John concert was a restaurant, I’m sure it would easily get two Michelin stars.

John Nist, James Brown and the Bastardization of Humanity’s Most Beloved Staple.

Bread is one of the most powerful foods on the planet.    Each region of the world has taken this simple staple and has adapted it to reflect local taste, ingredients and artisan influence. There is spiritual meaning in this staple.  Roman Catholics equate bread to the body of Jesus Christ.  In the old testament, manna rained from the heavens during times of desert travel. Bread is the focal point of famous works of art throughout many centuries.  In 1498, Leonardo Di Vinci finished the last supper which depicted the sharing of bread among Jesus and his apostles.  Picasso’s “The Blind Man’s Meal” was a haunting painting featuring a small loaf of bread is characteristic of his blue period. One of the most famous pictures of the 20th century was “Grace” by American Eric Enstrom which simply shows a man saying grace in front of a loaf of bread.

The Blind Man's Meal by Pablo Picasso-1903
The Blind Man’s Meal by Pablo Picasso-1903
Grace by Eric Enstrom 1918
“Grace” by Eric Enstrom 1918

I think bread is the fashion of the food world. I grew up in a post-hippy financially constrained family. My clothes were like my bread….most times I ate Cecutti’s white bread while wearing leisure pants.  I was content.  It was a simple time. Grocery aisles weren’t lined with designer bread..choices were limited primarily to brown or white.Weekends were more exciting, which included a ride to Golden Grain bakery in Sudbury after church followed by a rush home so butter could be slathered on the loaf of Dark Rye while it was still warm.

One of my most vivid memories of high school was when my grade 13 teacher recited a poem called  Revolution: The Vicious Circle by John Nist. He quietly sat and started muttering the word bread, repeating it over an over, raising his voice each time.  By the fifth bread he was screaming like a lunatic and suddenly recited the word dead with the speed of a machine gun. After a brief pause he repeated the bread mantra again with the same deliberate crescendo, ending with a BREAD! that even woke up the dude in the back who slept through 80% of every class he ever sat in.

                                    bread!

                                 b r e a d !

                              B  r  e  a  d  !

                            B   r   e   a   d   !

                         B     R    E    A     D   !

        dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead.

        dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead.

        dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead.

        dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead.

        dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead - dead.

                                   bread!

                                 b r e a d !

                              B  r  e  a  d  !

                            B   r   e   a   d   !

                         B     R    E    A     D   !

I can’t deny that bread, like anything else, is based on  a supply and demand model. In our current age of entitlement and need for individualization, it’s not surprising that such a wide variety exists.  Choices now range in the dozens but the irony is the vast majority of these are controlled by two companies; George Weston Limited Weston and Canada Bread (who is utlimately owned by Maple Leaf foods). Otherwise, the smaller bakeries are being swallowed up by others.  Take for example, Guenther and Son, a Texas company  who has recently acquired three Canadian bakeries including one which supplies baked goods to McDonald’s in Eastern Canada and the US Midwest.

Canada’s flawed food guide preaches that we as consumers should eat an abundant amount of baked goods but recommends whole grains to provide the necessary fibre and nutrients necessary for optimal health.  Dempster’s for example (yep…owned by Canada Bread) among others have pounced on this by producing the Healthy Way line which includes the  Double My Fibre!, Say No To Fat and Sugar! and Boost my Protein! (just a note..exclamation marks must mean it’s good).  This whole line is nothing but a feel good means of fooling people into believing that they can rely on a quick and packaged means of providing the necessary nutrients necessary for optimal health.  Each designer bread promises exactly what you need.  They are surprisingly similar however.  For example, Say no to Fat and Sugar! comes with the tagline “helps maintain a healthy body weight” although it has the same caloric content as Double my Fibre!.  Boost my Protein! offers the same amount of protein as Double my Fibre! It’s smoke and mirrors..nothing more than disguising a similar product with an ingenious marketing program. Take the following clip for example.

First of all, James Brown must be rolling in his grave. Clearly, the rock ‘n roll icon is being copied  as a second rate entertainer you would hire for a birthday party.  Second, it’s unclear as to what anything in this entire scene has to do with bread other than the one or two second break the guy takes to gnaw into a sandwich in between his slick dance moves. And who the hell is Jason?

Speaking of James Brown, perhaps his death may have been avoided if Dempster’s Healthy Way with ProCardio recipe bread was available.  Nothing speaks cardiovascular health like this ingredient list:

Water, whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ, oat bran, wheat gluten, sugar/glucose-fructose, inulin (chicory root), yeast*, oat fibre, sugar beet fibre, plums, vegetable oil (canola or soybean), vinegar, salt, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, calcium propionate, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, sorbic acid, trisodium citrate 2-hydrate, potassium chloride, magnesium carbonate, natural flavour. *order may change. May contain sesame seeds, soybean and sulphites. [L804].

Other than a slightly lower amount of  sodium (110 mg vs 150-200 per slice) and a good whack of fibre , I see little to justify the bold claim made on their website: “The only bread uniquely designed for those looking to maintain healthy cholesterol  and blood pressure levels and reduce the risk of heart disease”. I’m unaware of any data showing the positive effects of acetylated tartaric acid of mono and diglycerides on cardiovascular health. Some will attempt to link inulin to improvements in metabolic parameters but little data exists.  In fact, any benefit from inulin seems to come from ultra-high doses and usually comes at the expense of diarrhea, bloating and other GI upset.

You are What you Eat.

As mentioned, bread is a staple in the diets of many. It is rooted in symbolism and has meaning  beyond simple sustenance. Therefore, it makes sense to suggest that the type of bread one prefers says a lot about themselves as a person.  Take the following for example.

Home Baker

Owns at least one apron with something like “World’s Greatest Baker” or “Better than Eggspected” written on it. Announces days in advance that they will make bread with the eggspectation that everybody will be in a fasting state come the day. In turn, they consume half the homemade loaf and justifying it by citing the caloric expenditure needed to kneed bread for seven minutes. Prone to criticize any bread that isn’t theirs, especially their rival down the road who uses, gasp!, a bread maker instead of good old-fashioned elbow grease.

White Bread

Afraid to take chances and probably still lives at home.  Likely rejects health professionals and their misguided calls for healthier eating.  Extremely stubborn..showers with soap instead of body wash, drives with a stick shift and probably likes bologna.

Whole Wheat

Tend to think this is the only diet change necessary to sustain optimal help.  Enjoys one upping white bread eaters by ordering brown toast with their greasy breakfast followed by the comment “You eventually get used to it”. Parks as close to front door of restaurant as possible.

Ancient Grains

Always had a secret desire to live off the land but didn’t develop the skills to do so. Owns a Tilly hat. Also wanted to be on the archery team in high school.   Likely watches Survivor, Siberia and Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls. Secretly tapes shows on OLN and about Mayan history.

Naan

If Caucasian, attributes consuming naan bread to a spiritual awakening resulting in the opening of the third eye chakra which further demonstrates their spiritual superiority over their friends and family. Shakes head at those who block their chakras by eating the European stuff.

Roti

Just like the Naan eater but one ups them by claiming a yeast intolerance in addition to the need for chakra cleansing.

Injera

Actively seeks and embraces new food trends to justify donning plastic rimmed glasses and vats of hair gel. Biggest enemy is the naan eater who is outdated by following a food trend that is so 2011. Uses wikipedia frequently to remind themselves why they eat injera and to learn at least one other kind of Ethiopian food.  Opts for sandals over shoes.

Also appealing to running room enthusiasts who attribute their  improved endurance to the consumption of the same carbohydrate as Ethiopian marathon runners.  Specifically, they cite the super grain teff not realizing that ironically most injera in Canada is made with wheat, barley and rye, a stark contrast to their belief that wheat belly is the leading cause of sluggishness in North America (also see gluten free).

Bagels

Thinks that nutritional pundits who equate one bagel with four slices of bread are leaders of a government conspiracy.  Rolls eyes at those who fail to match flavoured bagels with the appropriate cream cheese. Swears the best bagels are either in Montreal or New York even though they’ve never been to either city.

Vegetable Bread

Subscribe to Today’s Parent magazine and pat themselves on the back for fooling their children and/or spouse into eating healthy.  May not eat this bread themselves since they like real vegetables but have empathy for those who don’t. Like crows, attracted to shiny things like orange bread and scantily clad yoga enthusiasts in television commercials.

Healthy Way- Double my Fibre!

Sees a good day as one that includes at least one bowel movement.  Have convinced themselves that  orange flavoured Metamucil tastes good.  Hobbies include watching the Price is Right, reading Prevention magazine and rushing to the grocery store when toilet paper goes on sale.

Healthy Way- Boost my Protein!

Believes that no amount of protein a day is enough and likely washes it down with a whey shake.  May lather with 2 tbsp of mayonnaise because they read somewhere that like protein, liberal consumption of fat at meals makes you feel full….and it’s healthy fat! Could possibly be seen wearing a bandana or a  muscle shirt depicting some animal dressed as a human pumping heavy amounts of iron.

Healthy Way with ProCardio Recipe

Reluctant to take medications since they think all health professionals (except Dr. Oz) are in the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies and swear they can reduce their risk of heart disease by eating bread, listening to Cat Stevens and walking their dog Muffy.  They smell like garlic, drink 14 cups of green tea a day and take melatonin so they can sleep at night.

Thin Slice

Also buy 100 calorie portion controlled chips, chocolate bars and soft drinks.  Reads the less than 600 calorie menu at restaurant but opts for the burger promising to return to lean cuisines tomorrow. Watches “The Biggest Loser” while eating frozen yogurt instead of ice cream and thinks Jillian Michaels is an inhabitant of the planet “Awesome”.

Thick Slice/Texas toast

Laughs at any joke or statement containing the words “it’s not the length, it’s the width that matters” or “Everything is bigger in Texas”.  Thinks breakfasts with two eggs and Hondas are for sissies. Likely has a tattoo paying homage to either  their country or mother.  Drives a domestic car or pickup with a bumper sticker which says “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them”, ” Still have a job? Keep buying Foreign” or “If you can read this, you’re too f@#*ing close”.  Either that or they really like french toast.

Stays Fresh Bread

Takes 3 weeks to eat a loaf of bread.  Otherwise, likely has built an underground shelter with the belief  that Armageddon is imminent and that the only survivors will be themselves, cockroaches and their loaf of Dempster’s Stay Fresh white bread. Not concerned with the fact this bread has less nutritional value than a bag of sugar.

Gluten Free

Insists that gluten free bread is delicious even though it isn’t. Uses lines like “Man, I think the sorghum to millet ratio in this bread is fabulous..well worth the $14.50” and then insist they don’t even miss the real thing.  Repeats the same behavior with brownies, cake, wraps, muffins, cupcakes, bagels, tarts, squares, pasta, cereal and pancake mix. Those around them smile and nod and binge on anything with gluten at their first opportunity, complete with some sort of lactose and/or caffeine containing beverage.

My Take

The once sacred art of making bread has been replaced with the mass production of designer brands with more substance on the package than in the loaf itself. Gone are the days where a table would share a loaf equally among all.  If Di Vinci painted the last supper today I wonder if there would be an array of bread to satisfy each palate.  Maybe before betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot would prefer Texas toast while Bartholemew would opt for gluten free.  In the end, through devious marketing campaigns, celebrity endorsements and misleading product claims, consumers are left confused when they stroll down the bakery aisle at the local grocery store. This spiritual staple, like other foods, has been bastardized by corporate juggernauts who disguise the bottom line as a commitment to improving the health of consumers everywhere.

“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and they “Do the Evolution” of the Diner

I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto).  Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.

Here are a few observations I have made about diners:

1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant.  The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog.  There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa.  The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that  Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul  seems a moot point in the diner culture.

2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on  their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam.  The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which  not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.

4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner.  The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish.  My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which  a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side.  I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”.  This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45.  The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.

5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner.  Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.

6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff.  On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties.  On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there).  This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.

In the end, I adore diners.  They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine.  Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.