Sometimes you come across things by chance. The initial plan on the way from Cleveland to Columbus was to hit one of the many Amish buffets that populate mid-Ohio. However, I still super full from the previous day. Curious about the weather, I flipped on the news to look at the map and get the forecast and saw that the town of Mansfield, Ohio was about halfway to Columbus travelling down highway 71. After a quick internet search, I discovered two things; Mansfield, in particular the Ohio State Reformatory, was the venue for the 2019 Inkcarceration tour featuring the likes of Godsmack, Five Finger Death Punch and a whole lot of tattoo artists which, as a guy who’s skin is a blank canvas, wasn’t particularly appealing. Second, the same prison was the hub for the filming of the Shawshank Redemption which hit theaters 25 years ago. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this movie, which follows the wrongful conviction Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) has achieved cult-like status. That year, it couldn’t compete with Forest Gump and the Lion King but surprisingly, it didn’t even crack the top 50 in box office earnings that year and was even beaten by the likes of Beverly Hills Cop III, Richie Rich and the Schwarzenegger classic Junior. Nonetheless it was nominated for 7 Oscars including best picture (at a a time when there weren’t 17 candidates), best adapted screenplay and best actor for Morgan Freeman. It failed to win any. Also, it seemed a fitting tour stop given the fact I stomped around Bangor, Maine last year posing near numerous landmarks referenced in Stephen King’s “It” so why stop now.
One can tour the reformatory for $15 and we got lucky because it was the first day it was open following the concert (they were still disassembling the stages and cleaning up the grounds when we arrived). The tour is a peek into the history of the Ohio penal system with a number of Shawshank references scattered throughout. One gets a bit gobsmacked (or is it Godsmacked) viewing things like the electric chair, shanks (made from spoons, pencils and other routine prisonware) and the eerie symmetry of the numerous cells stacked on top of each other. In regards to the movie, you can also the warden’s office, the infamous “Brooks was here” room, the solitary confinement area where Andy spend a lot of fine as well as the tunnel that was used for his escape. Cardboard cutouts of various characters including the ominous Captain Hadley are strategically placed throughout the grounds to recreate many of the movie scenes.
Other movie scenes scattered throughout the town of Mansfield itself which are identified by Shawshank Trail signs which made me feel like I was competing on the amazing race. These included the building who’s front facade was the movie’s halfway house and the green bench Brooks rested and reflected on after his release. There is also the Food Way(now a convenience/grocery store called the KV market) which was used in the movie. It was purchased by a Brampton family and now looks nothing like the market Red was employed at following his release. I had a nice chat with the owner’s son about life in rural Ohio and whether the Honey Jalapeno Fetty Wap chips were any good.
The Shawshank trail also scoots up to Upper Sandusky (which is south of Sandusky….). Here you can see the courthouse where Andy was originally sentenced in the movie as well as the workshop where many of the prisoners worked throughout the movie. Other than that, it is a quaint Northern Ohio place with a picturesque central street where you can get a decent coffee and a friendly small town smile at a place called Beca House Coffee Co.
Given I stumbled across Mansfield by fluke at the 11th hour, I didn’t have a chance to venture to Ashfield or Butler to sit under the “Shawshank oak tree” and ponder why I might want to get “Brooks was Here” tattooed on my forearms in sanskrit. I guess I don’t really have to; I bought the beer koozie which I can nicely tuck it away in a drawer when the novelty wears off.
I’m going to take take advantage of any rock music reference I can make when I’m anywhere in the vicinity of Cleveland. Rest assured, the reference will likely not include the likes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, is worth discussing. With a father and uncles who grew up in this era, I was constantly exposed to second hand Floyd mixed among some of the other compounds circulating the air at the time. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the impact this band (and their individuals) have had on musical progression, politics and my ear drums. Inducted into the hall in 1996, their rather subdued and almost somber performance of “Wish you Were Here” with Billy Corgan made you wish Rogers Waters was there (he refused due to long standing tension between band members).
Waters’ tumultuous personality continues to shine (on you crazy diamond). Since the advent of the Trump administration, he has targeted the POTUS more cynically than Alec Baldwin on SNL. I mean you have to respect a guy who can piss off Trump so supporters so bad that they storm out of the venue after paying a few hundred dollars for a ticket. Just watch the near 11 minute updated video for Pigs (Three Different Ones) to see what I mean.
Day two entailed a lot of walking through the wide streets of downtown Cleveland. Once a victim of a slowing of American industrialism and one of the primary members of the Amercian “Rustbelt”, Cleveland’s recent reinvigoration was due in part to a major investment in the city’s downtown prior to the 2016 Republican National Convention in which Donnie J was elected king of the castle. In addition, there are other city landmarks of note including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Progressive Field (which had just hosted the 2019 MLB all-star game), a waterfront on the south side of Lake Erie which was home to the tall ship festival and downtown’s Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument designed by Levi Scofield (spoiler alert….Mr. Scofield will come up again in the next post). There were also a number of musical venues such at House of Blues ( with Carly Rae Jepsen playing that night) and Sunday Reggae at the Music Box.
Another popular spot in Cleveland is East 4th street in the heart of downtown. Called a shopping and dining experience, this pedestrian way houses the likes of the aforementioned House of Blues as well as celebrity chef and Cleveland native Michael Symon’s flagship restaurant Lola and her sister Mabel’s. I opted for the latter for two reasons; a more casual experience and a huge bourbon list. Living in Ontario, the LCBO tends to strangle imports such as fine American Whiskeys and Mabel’s offers a wide array ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars including private barrel selections. I went for a $16 New Riff 4 year old CBC (Cleveland Bourbon Club) #26 a which was a little smoky a little sweet and a little smooth.
Mabel’s is called Cleveland barbeque, meshing American smoking with Eastern European influences including kielbasa, sauerkraut and spaetzle. At the time of my visit, the website boasted a Sunday happy hour but this has recently changed to Monday-Friday and wasn’t updated so I was stuck ordering wings and cracklings (puffy pig skin) at full price. I threw a half pound of smoke turkey and some baked beans into the mix which arrived on a metal tray along with pickles, rye bread and chip dip. I felt the four choices were like the cardinal directions on Mabel’s map representing a bit of everything BBQ. In particular, the turkey was a far cry from the normally dry holiday mess and was full of subtle smoky flavour. Personally. the chip dip was unnecessary and the bread was a slightly dry and unneeded touch that weren’t as appreciated as the rest of the condiments. The banana pudding for dessert was spot on but I’m also highly biased based on my unnatural love for nilla wafers. Looking back, Nilla would have been a cool name for my daughter but I would never her tell her she was named after a cookie or that her name was short for vanilla although it may be a compliment given the fact the vanilla bean seems to be the frankincense or myrrh of this millennium.
Now that I think about, Cleveland has become a Mecca for both governmental and musical politics. It did host the nomination of the most controversial president in US history and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has no shortage of politics itself whether it’s the inductees (ie. Bon Jovi), the no shows (Sex Pistols, Thom Yorke) or the numerous failed attempts at reunions between jaded ex-band members (ie. Dire Straits/CCR etc). That said, Pink Floyd’s famous lyrics ” if you don’t eat yer meat you can’t have any pudding” continue to resonate a life time changing from a literal meaning as a child to a figurative one as a adult. Perhaps Trump just sees it as another brick in the wall.
After a bit of a break, the request to pay my $25 renewal fee for my web domain reminded me that I need to at least attempt to justify the cost to keep the name and a recent jaunt down to the Midwest seems a perfect start to the new fiscal year.
The intent was to eat my way through parts of Ohio starting in Cleveland and ending in Columbus. As usual, these gluttonous escapades usually encompass a combination of James Beard nominees, triple D’s and some degree of celebrity chef stalking. I’m no stranger to the city of Rock and Roll but the Buckeye city is new to me.
I figured there was no better place to start than Ohio City, the trendy Cleveland suburb on the West side of the Cuyahoga river. The plan was to head to the Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, a deli nominated as a James Beard semifinalist in the best new restaurant category this year. Set in a old firehouse, the interior looked like a library of hipster libations. Bottles of homemade palatable potions lined the walls and the utensils were shelved atop an antique stove tucked away in the corner. Despite the cooler full of kosher pickles and deli salads, it’s hard to call this a true Jewish deli. Sure, I could have ordered gefilte fish or rugulach as well but there was no shortage of pork on the menu either. In fact, I opted for a from scratch pork shoulder Reuben. The bologna sandwich, which I assumed contained some sort of non-cud chewing creature but was too afraid to ask, was also unorthodox…at least in Cleveland terms. It seems a standard Cleveland Bologna sandwich is adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayo whereas Larder’s take used carrots and old (sharp) cheddar. Despite the deviations, both sandwiches were creative and thoughtful and demonstrated the from scratch mentality reminiscent of the phenomenal Reuben at Lucky’s cafe a few miles down the road.
Satisfied with foodstuffs, I wanted to tickle my thirst sensors with a jaunt back down the road to Bookhouse Brewing on W 25th. This time the walls were donned with books instead of bottles and games instead of gherkins. It seemed sensible to opt for a sampler of drafts which included Life in a Northern Town (the word northern is certainly subjective given my home town is over 800 km north of Ohio City although it could be paying homage to the 1985 Dream Academy song), Study Session IPA (a reminder of the many university exam cramming sessions that ended up with a pint in hand), Bricks and Mortar (such a hipster term) and a brilliant Key Lime Three out of Five Gose. The experiment lead to a couple of Crowlers (specifically the first two), a 32 ounce emperor can spun to seal after filling. I figured downing a half gallon of Key Lime would have been like eating a whole pie vs just a slice.
I had no idea as to the importance of summer family reunions in US culture. Upon checking into the Embassy suites that night in Cleveland’s Beachwood area, I realized the lobby was inundated with red, yellow and green shirts representing a few clusters of families from all over America. When I asked the bartender later that night, she informed me that a chunk of summer banquet business are family reunions and outlined the normal itinerary; meet, mingle (plus/minus argument), picnic, formal dinner, church and/or depart depending on the amount of time it takes to get home. In fact, she was not attending her own reunion given the fact it was in Jacksonville, Florida which was too far and much too humid.
Dinner plans included a conquest of my only outstanding Diner, Drive-In and Dive in Cleveland. Geraci’s, a long standing Italian joint originated in the University Heights area, recently opened a second location in Pepper Pike. Although not the original and official DDD location, I chose the latter because it was a lot closer to the hotel and took reservations. I felt like a little less of a cheater when I saw Guy’s smiling face hanging on the wall.
Geraci’s followed the classic Italian restaurant blueprint; bread, salad (Americanized with shredded mozzarella cheese), pizza, pasta and a handful of classic Italian desserts. However, with a number of clever cocktails and craft beer on the menu, they did colour outside the lines a bit which did remind me that I wasn’t at the likes of Tony V’s in Sudbury. For example, cute clothes pins and Ohio’s own Raspberry-infused Watershed Gin resulted in a creation that was another notch on my pink drink bedpost.
Guy’s promise of great pepperoni was fulfilled on a simple pizza with some added sausage. The crust was a bit on the crunchy side and overall the excessive saltiness was somewhat saved by the fresh vibrant sauce. The same sauce was the basis of a very classic and delicious lasagna which would be the same way to describe the tiramisu.
In the end, it was a good day with a game of true and false, some sudsy studies and an old school Italian place which had a family vibe that partially replaced being left out of the multitude of family reunions at the hotel I was at. With the Cleveland core surrounded, day two would involve a trip downtown in search of another brew or two and a maybe a game of Symon says.
The name Sara is fairly prominent in pop culture. On the music side, the name Sara has fronted such singers as McLaughlin and Bareilles although the former is spelled with and H on the end. My sister’s name is also Sarah which gave my grandmother years of difficult since she was never quite sure where the H went. Every year my sister would get a card which read “Happy Birthday Sahra!” or “Merry Christmas Sarha!” or “Happy Graduation Shara!”. I also used to bug my sister in the 80’s by humming the tune “Sara” by Starship which,in addition to “We Built this City”, could the two worst songs released in 1985. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.
From a food perspective, perhaps the best known Sara is Sara Lee. The company, once called the Kitchens of Sara Lee and opened in 1935, was a small chain of bakeries in Chicago with a man who named his bakeries and a cheesecake within them after his daughter. Both the name and the bakery was purchased and 70 years later was a multinational company with 137 000 employees. Since then, the company has been swallowed up by even bigger fish and is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods. That said, it still remains a place to pick up a quick cheesecake if you plan to binge watch Animal Kingdom or you forgot it was your turn for dessert once again and a bag of two bite brownies just won’t cut it.
I couldn’t tell you the origin of Sara, the food dudes new culinary experiment in Toronto’s King West area. I can only assume it’s an anagram of Rasa, their other brick and mortar restaurant. I see Sara as Rasa’s more sophisticated but stuffier sister. Rasa hangs out in a basement on Harbord Street, drinking cocktails named after her friends and eating lamb bacon and sticky buns off of wooden tables. Sara, on the other hand, prefers to sip G&T and eat crab dumplings off of marble tables in the vicinity of Lee and Jacob’s steakhouse. I was quite excited for my first date with her.
When I arrived I didn’t recognize her. She is in one of the many recently renovated houses along Portland Street just north of King St so it could easily be mistaken for another person (although she didn’t look like a Jimmy and certainly wasn’t Chubby). After double checking the address, I entered the front door and was immediately impressed with her interior. It was modest but classy with virginal white (damn!) walls and wood accents. Her marble tables were sleek yet practical given the fact they held a chamber for cell phones with the intention of removing texting temptations and force and face to face discussion. She also mentioned they are planning to put chargers in the tables in due time for extra motivation.
It seems Sara likes the hard stuff more than a pint; in particular she’s a fan of a good G&T or a vodka/soda as indicated by the fact that these are the only cocktails formally on the menu. There are 4 combinations using different gins or vodkas along seasonings and house made mixes based on taste preference. I opted for a “spice” G&T ($16) accented with fruit and star anise. In line with the anti-straw movement, she provided an artsy vessel which doubles as a device to muddle the contents. That said, she was full of surprises and produced a solid old-fashioned comparable to some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.
Once Sara got me a bit tipsy, she proceeded to show me a little more of her personality. I quickly realized she was a bit of an uptown girl…a quality vs quantity kind of woman. In addition, she was full of surprises by offering her upscale versions of food I may eat in a roadhouse with a girl named Becky. The chopped salad ($16), fries ($14) ,dumplings ($20) and rice pudding ($15), for example, were hardly pedestrian. The salad was garnished with cashew cheese instead of chunks of marble. The fries were shaped shredded potatoes bathed in schmaltz versus shoestrings in shortening. The dumplings were Prada-like purses darkened with squid ink and overstuffed with seafood and Bearnaise as opposed to generic bags full of ground pork and cabbage. The rice pudding was a rich and savory porridge peppered with corn and bacon and certainly not the senior special with sprinkled cinnamon and a dollop of whipped cream.
Crab and Scallop Dumpling $20
Rice Pudding $15
Chopped Salad $14
Her elegance emerged as the meal progressed. I looked into her (rib) eye ($34) and I felt like a king (salmon) ($25). I couldn’t help but admire her (pork) belly ($22) in my periphery. All were well prepared but the portion sizes were a bit of a tease. The steak went well with the snap pea slaw to balance things out.
Snap Pea Salad $14
King Salmon $25
Pork Belly $22
I thought it was a little risque when she invited me to the washroom but it was really just to show me the toilet. Imported from Japan, they come complete with an wall mounted remote with words like pulsating, pressure, oscillating and position. Needless to say, I was quite excited when she asked me to sit down. Luckily, the heated seat was a wonderful distraction and took my mind off any potential pulsation. I must confess I did play with the controls a little before heading back up hoping I might get the dessert I missed out in the washroom…especially with cherries and a party listed on the menu.
There were only three desserts on the menu and I stuck with my washroom thoughts. The cherry crullers ($12) were rich but modest and nicely flavoured with cardamom and cream. The party sandwich ($12) seems the signature dessert and is Sara’s version of a regular ice cream sandwich. It wasn’t sickly sweet partially due to the sesame and miso flavours.
Cherry Cruller ($12)
Party Sandwich ($12)
I think my date with Sara went well. I mean we got tipsy. ate pub food, locked rib eyes, took a trip to the washroom and had a party after. The date wasn’t cheap though. I think there will some complaints about the price points relative to portion size but as mentioned, Sara is an uptown girl and values quantity over quantity. Personally, I’m more of a Rasa guy with a preference for basement apartments and her sticky buns vs lofty abodes and Sara’s cherry cruller. That said, I wouldn’t turn down a second date as long as it was sometime around a pay day.
My annual summer pilgrimage usually involves a trip to the US to explore everything from geography to good eats. This year, I thought a venture to Maine would be a quaint way to travel the US for over 1100 km and only setting foot in a geography responsible for one Republican electoral vote. Other than Nebraska, Maine is the only state which can split electoral votes and the North part of the state decided to opt for a Trump agenda. I would have gladly avoided it if not for my desire to live my childhood dream of to see Stephen King’s house and many of the inspirations for the many book of his I read as a teenager.
Before trekking too far east, our first stop was the small shopping town of Rhinebeck, New York which was my first indication that every friggin’ person in the Northeast drives a Subaru. Every small town seemed to have a flagship dealership and the inhabitants have Foresters, Outbacks and Legacys crammed in their parking lots. The main purpose was to check out Samuel’s Sweet shop. As a Walking Dead fan, I first heard about this place when Jeremy Dean Morgan (aka Negan) was interviewed on Howard Stern. Morgan, in addition to running a farm which includes rescued alpacas, purchased the candy shop along with Paul Rudd to prevent it from closing. Although it’s tough to find many references to them on the shop’s website, you can purchase a custom made Rice Krispy square with their pictures on a canvas of edible icing. There is also great coffee, many nostalgic treats and my personal favorite, handmade pecan bourbon caramels from local confectioner Lauralei’s kitchen. They were ridiculously addictive, triggering the part of the brain probably related to sex, gambling and/or some kind of drug addiction.
The GPS promised that the trip from Rhinebeck, New York to Bangor, Maine was about 6.5 hours but that was definitely fake news. The next stop was Springfield, Massachusetts. Although many have pulled into town to visit the basketball hall of fame, my interest was White Hut, the iconic burger shack which has been around since the beginning of World War II. Famous for their grilled onions, the burger here has been ranked number three on Thrillist’s top 100. As I waited the woman at the grill said “Listen to me carefully. What do you want on the burger?” It made me wish that all people were that clear and politely blunt as I think it would make restaurant excursions a hell of a lot smoother. I’m not sure it was the best burger in the US but the whole experience made me glad i veered off the highway.
What I wasn’t glad about was my attempt to score some IPA at the Tree House Brewing Company in Charlton, MA. Like most of the ill-fated trip to Maine, this was a bit of a disaster. I was optimistic with the Thrillist promise that “thanks to a recently completed expansion, it has finally become *that much easier* to get your hands on a few cans of their flagship IPA, Julius. What I thought was going to be a quick in and out at 130 on a Friday afternoon turned into a jaw dropping experience. There was a shuttle bringing people from the bottom parking lot to the top one and literally hundreds of people in line. It was like a modern day Woodstock 150 miles further east with long beards instead of long hair, IPA instead of LSD and hops instead of hope.
My plans to reach Bangor with remaining daylight were foiled by horrific traffic jams and a few wrong terms which turned into my most pronounced Clark Griswold moment of the trip. After heading west instead of east at a rest stop in New Hampshire, I bolted back to the Dunkin’ Donuts to let my mom run in and scold them for the baconless croissant sandwich she left with 10 minutes earlier. Better her than me because I would have made a pock hock out of a sausage. As a result of our grueling trek, I had to forgo a couple of planned DDD in order to hit Bangor before dark. The one I did make was the Maine Diner in Wells. Like everything else on the east coast in July it was jammed packed so I squeezed into a small parking space, dodged some old people and begged for some takeout. To keep it easy, I stuck with two of Maine’s mainstays; clam chowder and a whoopie pie. The chowder was less than I expected. The pie was bigger than a softball and weighed over pounds and looked like a Jos Louis on steroids. Although my pictures are notoriously bad, this one is worse and i didn’t take it.
When I finally got to Bangor it was about 4 hours later than I expected but not too late to hit up Brewster’s Fine Food and Drink adjacent to the Brewer Motor Inn to fulfill a promise to find the cheapest wings in town. It will never make a Zagat list but for good food, cheap beer and great service I couldn’t complain. The people watching was almost as good as the whales…if I would have seen of them in Maine. The culinary gems of this place included “name that dip” and “balls on a plate (see below)”..both for under 7 bucks. Combine that with the turkey bomber sandwich (complete with gravy and swiss cheese) and you have a meal for a (Stephen) King.
So after a day of slow Subarus, blissful burgers, beyond reach beer, whopping whoopies and balls on a plate I was ready for a good night’s sleep in the master of horror’s home town but unsurprisingly it ended in nothing but Insomnia.
I’ve only come to realize recently the important role that accents have on pop culture. The attention to detail and need for authenticity has often required actors to hide their native tongues to better represent to the role they assume. Actors like Charlie Hunnan and Hugh Laurie fooled us for years by Americanizing their voices to play the leader of a Charming biker gang and a Jersey cocky doctor respectively. Most recently I’ve heard interviews from the cast of the Walking Dead only to realize that both Rick and Morgan among others are from across the pond and their American grunts and mumbles amidst the zombies are just part of the act. It’s not always English to American either; I recently binged watched season 1 of Fargo and listened to hours of Californian Colin Hanks and Texan Allison Tolman speak in Minnesota and surrounding accents.
On the other hand, bad accents can counter attempts at authenticity. For example, shortly after marrying Guy Ritchie, Michigan native Madonna felt the need to let the world know that she became English overnight driven by a lukewarm British accent. The act was deemed rather inauthentic and lead to a good amount of backlash.
The need for some degree of authenticity seems to exist in the restaurant business. In addition to a decor which reflects a restaurant’s overall concept, some insist on ensuring that the staff are equipped with a lexicon synonymous to the overall theme. It makes sense; I love to grab a Guinness from an Irish barkeep or listen to the proper pronunciation of a great Asian dish. Although the logic and emotion behind this is obvious, I think a couple of rules need to be established:
Let’s avoid Madonnaisms. If you are not from the country, don’t use the accent. A crash course using Rosetta Stone won’t fool anybody except the hipsters who did exactly the same thing to create the appearance that they are more intelligent consumer.
If you are fluent in the language, don’t be arrogant about it. If I order rigatoni, I don’t mind having it repeated back to ensure accuracy but don’t need it done to correct my pronunciation. I’m North American; rigatoni is the same as Reeg-a-tow-naaay.
Make the menu authentic but readable. I can figure out that secondi means second but let’s draw the line at having the ingredients listed in a different language along with a 4 page glossary in the back.
I suppose at some point I should get back to reviewing a few restaurants so this may be a good segue. I went to Oretta a while back. I was looking for a semi-quiet Italian place downtown that didn’t have the name Cibo, Terroni or Mercatto in it. I had strolled by it a couple of times prior and was impressed with the roomy layout and decor of a traditional Italian ristorante mixed with a little King Street cheesiness. Not surprisingly when we were seated we were greeted by a young waiter will a full out Italian accent. I didn’t for a second think it was fake or phony but it did make me ponder the impact it might have on my dining experience.
The menu was a shortlist of classic Italian salads, pizzas, pastas and “secondis”. In the dead of winter the Cavoletti salad (shaved brussel sprouts, almonds, pickled red onion, pecorino and crispy prosciutto) was a crisp, fresh and balanced reminder that sulfuric and pickled vegetables can nicely bridge our extreme Canadian seasons.
From the pasta menu we opted for gnocchi and risotto (aka. Riso di Ieri). The former was doused with a rich meat sauce which made for a heavier dish, especially with the dense dumplings. The flavours were great but it grew monotonous rather quickly. Regarding the Riso; the normal and often overemphasized creaminess and volume of the risotto itself was de-emphasized. It was hidden in a pan fried crust and served atop a generous portion of mushrooms. As somebody who’s not the biggest fan of risotto, I found this version much more balanced and exciting mainly because the rice was de-emphasized. More traditional risotto fans, however, could easily be left disappointed by this interpretation.
I failed to capture a picture of the Margherita pizza ($16) but it looked like…well..a pizza. It passed the test; simplicity by means of a thin crust and fresh ingredients and would reasonably match the others along the King or Queen street strips.
Dessert was “cocco bello”; a tart with fresh fruit, cream and coconut housed in a nutty crust. Perhaps it was not a standard winter dessert but a few berries when it’s below zero is always a kind reminder that, like the salad and despite a horrendous winter, spring and summer are always on the way.
Deciding where on the spectrum between nouveau cuisine and authenticity one’s restaurant will fall must be a difficult decision. Not only does the food have to fit the bill but the vibe and environment also needs to reflect the theme. This includes the manner in which the staff addresses its patrons. I mean, it goes without saying that Game of Thrones would be ridiculous if the Lannisters sounded like Joe Pesci or Donnie Wahlberg.
Oretta was a happy medium along the spectrum of ignorance and imitation. Everything from the decor to the food to the waiter’s accent was authentic and not arrogant. The menu was smallish but highlighted the simplicity of Italian cuisine. The salad and pizza were the highlights although pasta and dessert were more than acceptable. In the end, I found Oretta a welcome change from the hipster-driven Terroni-like chains that have popped up all over the citta.
By now the dust has probably settled on the instant Pot craze (and I mean that literally as I’m sure about 75% of them are likely sitting on the top shelf beside the slap chops and magic bullets). Although they were hotter than a Hatch’em over the holidays, it goes without saying that it won’t top the list of intelligent gifts on February 14. Valentine’s day, the first commercial aftershock of the Earthquake called Christmas, is hardly about anything practical and it would be an utter disappointment to be so unthoughtful.
When it comes to my feelings about the Instant Pot, I guess the biggest question is whether it’s a good thing for humanity’s relationship with what we eat or just another example of culinary sacrilege equivalent to Nutrigrain bars and TV dinners. On one hand, the Instant Pot has at least refueled an interest in cooking. People are keen to actually purchase raw ingredients even it means throwing them all in a magic pot for a ridiculously short amount of time to see what happens. On the other hand, the demand for needing things completed instantly has almost gotten pathological.
Rosie the Robot Maid
First of all, why haven’t they made a live action Jetson’s movie? I’m sure Emma Stone could team up with Damian Lewis, Seth Green or Benedict Cumberbatch in all-ginger starring cast depending on whether she wanted to pad her acting resume with a drama, comedy or oscar winner film respectively. Perhaps the plot could involve a spine-tingling adventure in which the couple tries to determine how two redheded parents could possibly have blond and silver-haired offspring. Perhaps the role of Rosie the Robot maid could be split cast between the Instant Pot and the iRobot Roomba 980.
I think many people dream of one day having their own Rosie in the future and the Instant Pot is a surrogate. Perhaps as we get closer to a Rosie in every home we will see a closed loop system in which Alexa (who based on what I’ve heard from some is not the most intuitive of virtual friends) tells the Roomba 980 what to throw into the Instant Pot so one can arrive home with a delicious meal waiting. As I mentioned, such an automatic process makes me question what we are doing with our relationship with food. It seems to me that using the Instant Pot might be more important than what comes out of it, especially when you have the ability to use annoying hashtags like #instantpotential or #instantpotoninstagram to brag to your instagram friends. Making spinach dips, stir frys or roasted chickens in the Instant Pot, however, seems a bit counterintuitive to me as preparing them are normally quick and/or easy anyways.
You’ll have to wait a minute cause it’s an instamatic.
The words above are one of the many brilliant lyrics penned by the late Gord Downie. From the song “So Hard Done By”, I think it speaks of the ongoing conflict humanity has with time and the need to wait for anything. Just like money, time is a commodity and we decide how to spend it. I get irritated at people who tell me they don’t have time for the gym or television or buying their own groceries. Like money, how you use your time is a choice and there is usually enough for most things so let’s no don’t disguise choice, good or bad, as a by-product of not having enough time in a day.
What does this have to do with the Instant Pot? Simple…people crave any perception that they are saving their precious time even if they aren’t. You can’t tell me that roasting a chicken in an Instant Pot actually saves any time. You still need to prep the bird and clean up the pot after. The only variable is how long it takes. These are two different concepts. It’s kind of like Amazon prime. It takes the same amount of time to order regardless of which means we use; the difference with prime is we get it earlier. Let’s not mistake saving time with a lack of patience or the desire to get something immediately. They are two difference concepts.
The Dan Brown Phenomenon
Dan Brown burst onto the scene in 2003 with the Da Vinci code, his sophomore effect in the successful Robert Langdon series. I’m not a huge fan of Dan Brown’s writing per se but I think his brilliance was taking the concept of religious symbolism and instead of writing a textbook what would sit on a shelf (likely beside an instapot), he transformed his theories into a fictional novel. Despite a weak plot and poorly developed characters, the Da Vinci code has sold around 80 million copies and has people looking at their dollar bills a little more closely. I call the ability to disguise something as another for the purposes of increased exposure and/or profit the Dan Brown phenomenon.
Let’s be real…the Instant Pot is nothing more than a glorified pressure cooker. This technology has been around since the 17th century and the science really hasn’t evolved much since. It is the sole reason, after all, why Top Chef contestants can cook short ribs to near perfection in under an hour; a process which usually takes at least three. Despite the fact the ability to cook food faster by simply adding pressure has been around for almost 350 years, all of a sudden people are fascinated at the fact they can cook a chicken breast easier and faster than microwaving a hungry man dinner.
The Instant Pot: The Universal Remote Outside the Family Room
Maybe proponents of the Instant Pot will argue that it’s not the ability to pressure cook that makes it the best thing since sliced bread (although I believe the Lux model might actually slice bread as one of the features). They will instead argue that its multi-functionality is the key to its brilliance. The ability to steam rice, warm soup, saute veggies, set the pot to porridge setting and even make yogurt all in the same device seems revolutionary. This has likely lead to kijiji sites across the country lighting up with hundreds of only-used-once crock pots on sale due to “downsizing” for $20 o.b.o. My only issue is, much like losing the universal remote, you are screwed if anything happens to the all-in-one device and you may end up in a situation where you may actually have to remember how to turn on an element to boil some water….providing you have any pots or pans left in your dwindling reservoir of kitchen items.
I’m still on the fence about the Instant Pot. On one side, i think it has sparked a re-interest into getting people back into the kitchen with the intention of trying to cook using raw ingredients. This has been coupled by a sizable social media community posting cool and innovative ways to use the device suggesting that cooking may actually be fun again. The device has infused a sense of pride in both those with curious culinary minds who want to truly play with their food and those who are kitchen amateurs and can take pride in the fact they cooked spaghetti with “homemade” sauce in one pot.
On the other hand, the Instant Pot is another example of the constant propaganda intended to give us immediate satisfaction with minimal effort. It’s a glorified vending machine and another step toward Rosie the robot and the near complete automation of food preparation.
In the end, it’s not really about saving time but instead about feeding our need to satisfy our ever increasing impatience. The Instant Pot will eventually join the graveyard of kitchen gadgets with the likes of Gotham pans and George Foreman grills. Until then, people will continue to exercise creativity in efforts to abandon primitive cooking practices including using a stove top and a skillet, ultimately saving a few minutes while only washing one pot. Personally, I’ll continue to roast chickens, make stirfrys in a wok and buy my yogurt for $1.99 in a tub at the grocery store. If I do ever get an Instant Pot, it will likely be on kijiji, partially because I can feed my impatience knowing I can get it right away. Even Amazon prime would take a day or two …even if I eventually figured out how to use Alexa to help me order it.