Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Parsing Huena's pickles with relish

I don't get radishes.
said my mom, never.

I know lots of people do and that's okay, and sliced ever so carefully radishes can make lovely little decorative additions to a table; but of all the things that are available to eat, I rank the taste of radishes at the bottom.

Maybe if we are down to foraging for food.

But until that time?

Here's what I think of when I think radishes. When I was in university, one of my  housemates, Stuart Ziegler, took me to his family home for Passover and it was to this day one of the richest experiences in my life. Part of that meal was "bitter herb" which, Wikipedia tells us, "symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in Egypt... 'and they embittered their lives with hard labor, with mortar and bricks and will all the bricks and with all manner of labor in the field'..."

That's not only what bitter herb tastes like. Radish does, too.

Radishes also remind me of when I was a kid growing up and my parents had company.

My mom, Huena, put out, as appetizers, little glass trays, which were never used for anything else, covered with what people called "pickles."

The glassware contained a variety of bite-sized foods that included radishes, olives, little white onions, pieces of red pepper and always, a green goopy sort of home-made wet grassy creation that mom called "pickles." ("Ooo" somebody would say, "Your aunt Kaye pickled these herself! They're delicious!" Somebody was lying.)
SECRET INGREDIENT: Maybe guests appreciate this more
if they're a little pickled themselves. 

If you were a nine-year old and actually liked anything that was on that "pickle plate," you probably also enjoyed homework and going to bed at 9:00 p.m.

I admit I was spoiled and an extremely fussy eater and didn't like anything that wasn't candy, french fried or covered in ketchup.

The only vegetables I remember enjoying (beyond corn on the cob) were "raided" from one of the local gardens  For some reason, swiped carrots tasted great. It was good to grow up in a neighbourhood filled with new Canadians.

I'm happy to report that my mom, a registered nurse, never ever once said, "You'll eat everything on your plate." She was far more likely to ask us what we wanted for dinner and then make it for us.

As far as I can tell, her nutrition M.O. was the same as mine: Eat food that makes you happy. Everybody knows happy people live longer."

What's really weird this despite that, I still don't like doing homework or going to bed at 9:00 p.m., but I might be the least picky eater you've ever met. If you showed up this very second -- it's just before 1:00 p.m., with one of those pickle plates, I'd likely down the whole thing.

Except of course, the radishes.

And the lesson in all this?

Don't blog on an empty stomach.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

You say potato; I say we're good to go

But does anybody know what English fried potatoes might be like?
When I was a teenager, I thought it would be cool to be a writer for a big magazine. And when I got older, I was fortunate enough to find myself on staff at Canada's most recognizable publication, Chatelaine.

And it was indeed great. Here's why.

Chatelaine was located in a downtown Toronto office building at the corner of College and Bay streets. (My nephew and Godson Hugh Carter once commented that everybody around there must have great lips, and I was like "Huh?" Hugh responded: "Colagen Bay!"... ladies and gentlemen? My nephew.)

Anyway, Chatelaine was on the eighth floor of 777 Bay and down in the basement of the building was a very diversified  and substantial food court.

One of my favourite things to do was go to a certain French fry joint in that food court and order "a large fry."

The fries that that chip stand produced were like the fries that came off the chip trucks I grew up with in Northern Ontario. Sometimes, the Northern Ontario chip trucks were  buses, but never mind that. They had all been, at some point, vehicles.

The best was in a village called Sturgeon Falls, which was about 60 miles east of my hometown of Sudbury.

Lucky for me, my bilingual sister Mary attended a French boarding school in Sturgeon and inasmuch as I love Mary to pieces, what I remember most about the times Dad drove us to visit was sometimes, he'd stop at a chip truck not far from Mary's school so we got some of those deeply oily, salty, crispy French fried potatoes, covered with ketchup, salt and vinegar.

If I thought long and hard or if I phoned Mary and asked, I'm sure we could come up with the name of that chip joint but that's not the point of this story.
HERE'S THE SCOOP: You are allowed to
make a whole meal of fries and nothing else. 

What I'm getting at is, the fries from the place downstairs Chatelaine were almost the same high-quality product as the Sturgeon Falls fries. Perfectly crispy and maybe just a tad singed on the outside yet soft but not mooshy on the inside. The best ones had potato peel still stuck on.

I would swear in court: Chip truck fries are nature's most perfect food.

But back to the Chatelaine building. Plus I just remembered something.

One time, after the chef  handed me my cup of fries, I walked to the ketchup dispenser. It was one of those complicated affairs with the pump thing that you push like a plunger on top and the ketchup comes out of a long curved skinny spout. I held my fries under the spout, pushed the plunger and the equivalent of two drops came out. I did it again--nothing. The guy waiting behind me said, and this true, "somebody upstairs must be using the ketchup."

Clearly his house had the same plumbing as every place I've ever lived.

So after I bought my chips, I'd  go back to the Chatelaine office where all my health-conscious colleagues were, and hear them, one by one, say exactly this: "Oh those fries. They're like s-o-o-o-o-o bad for you. And they smell so good."

I would say "want one?" And 100 times out of 100 times, my colleague said, "Oh I shouldn't. But okay maybe one. Or two."

That's why it was so great working at a big fancy magazine.

Of course the reason I'm telling you all this is that during this weird time (there's something going around) a lot of people have embraced fulfilling projects, like physical fitness and sourdough.

We here at Pete's Blog&Grille have taken to making French fries from scratch. And we've nailed it.

Best thing is, should editing ever dry up, I'm pretty sure I know where I can get a bus.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Pete's Acme Canada Day Crossword Puzzle Story

I just made, from scratch--really--a blank Excel spreadsheet and a bunch of  bad puns--this Canada Day crossword puzzle. When I was younger, the devil found work for my idle hands? These days? Not so much. The crossword puzzle clues are in the story. Happy Canada Day everybody!

A few years ago, I visited my niece in The 11D (and yes, we nipped over to cross-border shop in Michigan) but flew back to Toronto and landed at Billy Bishop 6D at high 10D. That evening, I had plans to go to the 18A or whatever it’s called these days—maybe 12A something—to see Shania 17D. Guess who was in the arrivals area? None other than the orange-turbaned politician 16A just in from 7D (I hope he didn’t think I was 5D I couldn’t remember his last name. He just 15D and shook hands. Speaking of celeb sightings, I once spotted Michael 22A on Yonge street. He was like, “junowme?” Another time, I ran into a well-known comic, went over, and said “I’m Peter, and…” but he cut me off and said “Nice to meet you, Pete,” so I was like, “Nice to meet you …20A!” Speaking of names, did you know that lovely Mennonite-rich town 12D isn’t actually called after somebody who’s been canonized? True fact. It was just one of the earliest settlers’ first name! They added the holy part to make it sound pretty. Which reminds me. After I’m through with this colossal waste of brain power, I shall pour my energy into composing an extremely simple tribute to a War of 1812 hero called “The 2D C-chord Blues.” And I just found out those eponymous candy stores are owned by a couple of Quebec guys! There’s still some seriously Canadian product out there! I wonder if the main ingredient in their 1A products comes from Quebec, which is also, by the way, home to the fleetest-of-foot 4D rollers on the planet. Come to think of it, I’m certainly glad Canada held its own in that 1812 war. Otherwise, we might be the 51st state and although I have endless admiration for all the Americans I know personally, if they’d won, we’d probably have to pony up a mitt full of twonies every time we go to the 1D. (I know a lot of folks who would 19D all day about that). What’s more, the world would never have had an 8A at Come From Away! Our Home Depot flyers would be delivered by somebody besides trusty ol’ 9A; if we were lost in France and a direction-giver told us to turn 13A or 14D, we wouldn’t understand and might end up driving into the Mediterranean 21D. Or when your Plymouth beater cacks out up near Fort Mac, 3A, you couldn’t summon those automotive guardian angels 22D! And finally, we wouldn’t be able to claim musicians and tasty treats such as 23A as our home and native brands.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Spectacles on the porch

Around 1:30 p.m., yesterday.
SURVIVAL OF THE KLUTZIEST: My cool daughter with her dusty old man

Our front porch.

I was sitting cross-legged (my left knee over my right) in a wooden Muskoka chair that my son Michel built in high-school shop class. I was wearing jeans, sandals and my second favourite hoodie; it says NEVADA across the front.

I like when people ask me why I have NEVADA on my shirt because I can casually tell them that I picked it up in 2016 in the Reno airport. My daughter Ria and I had spent the week at that bacchanalian arts festival in the Black Rock Desert called Burning Man and the clothes I had afterwards were too dusty to wear on board a plane. So I bought the cool blue Nevada hoodie. (My very favourite hoodie says McLuhan.)

But back to my porch.

REMEMBER THIS? My sister Charlene and
my brother Alex both of whom I think
love me, call me Captain Klutz
The same Acer laptop that I’m using now was balanced on top of my left thigh. On the six-inch-wide armrest of the chair sat an opaque blue dinner plate holding a hockey-puck-size piece of steak, and a mashed-up baked potato covered in sour cream. We’d had a barbeque the night before and I’d actually gone to bed looking forward to this great lunch of leftovers.

The sun was shining, I was checking Facebook and I decided I needed a glass of home-made ice tea. There was some in the fridge.

I started uncrossing my legs. What I didn’t realize, until it was far too late, was that somehow, en route from the hole in the side of my computer to the wall plug, my laptop power cord had somehow found its way under the strap of my left Birkenstock.

So an almost imperceptibly tiny shift of my left foot was enough to send the Acer flying. Worse, I instinctively tried to ameliorate the situation and my right elbow went down on to the edge of the blue dinner plate, catapulting the meat, potatoes, sour cream and fork up into the air like the French guys’ cows in Monty Python’s In Search of The Holy Grail

Of course this happened in less than a second.

Things got worse.

For whatever reason, I still tried to stand but tripped because the computer cord remained stuck in my shoe so I fell to the right, landing first on that little ridge in the door frame and then completely on to my side and for at least a quarter of a second my right baby finger took the full load of 180-pound me.

Pretty sure I said a swear.

Oh yeah. Almost forgot. My glasses.
IS THERE A KLUTZ GENE?  I can't remember the why of this weird episode;
 but I sure remember the who

At some point, as one’s eyeglasses always do, mine flew off of my face and slid — lenses up —clear across the porch, underscoring the entire klutzy spectacle.

“You,” they seemed to be saying, “don’t look so cool right now.”

Here’s something eerie: That very same day my super sophisticated Burning-Man-going daughter Ria got laser-eye surgery. It cost a few thousand bucks. I later told her it’s worth every penny if it means that never again would she — clearly an inheritor of the Carter klutz gene —suffer that dehumanizing soul-destroying cool-killing and humiliating sensation that you only ever experience when your glasses fly off because you did something klutzy. Yup. Every last penny. But I digress.

The porch action came to a stop. 

First thing I did? I glanced around, hoping nobody saw me.

The blue plate was upside down but intact, the steak but not the potatoes was salvageable, many objects including the door and my cool Nevada hoodie were splattered with sour cream but  — and I couldn’t be telling you this story if the outcome were otherwise — the Acer computer’s fine.  

My right baby finger still hurts though, especially when I type question marks, “P,” quotation marks and apostrophes so I’ll stop now.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Public Service Message. From a Cat.

Yesterday, one of my sisters called wondering about the well-being of our cat Iris. She was worried because she hadn't seen any Iris in the window messages recently.
TINY TALON TIME: Most of the summer;
Iris is the missing lynx.

I happily told her Iris is indeed healthy but there's been precious little Iris-sign action because for some reason, Iris takes the summers off. 

Same thing happened in 2018 and 2019 and I can hardly believe what I just wrote because it means I've been playing handservant rather pawservant to a cat for going on two and a half years. But never mind that. 

Others have enquired about Iris's health, too.

So this very morning, I decided to write a quick blog about Iris taking her summer holiday.

I started writing at 7:30 a.m. It is now just past 10:00. (Now you're like--this takes him how long????) 

Here's the thing. And also, here's what my life has come down to: I finished the blog, re-read it, was satisfied and was just about to hit "Publish" and what does the friggin' cat do? 

She climbs up behind the sign. For the first time in almost a month! That sign was created and stuck in place on May 21 and left unphotographed because Iris hadn't gone near it. But the moment I want to explain to the world why she's MIA, up she goes. As if she knew.

So I had to stop typing, find my phone, get my sandals on, quietly open the front door to go outside hoping my movements didn't disturb her, sneak up to the front window, get a picture without too much glare and then come back in and make a liar out of myself by posting a new Iris picture.

Still. I'm not about to waste those two and a half  hours. (Some would say:"too late!")

But if Iris the cat did not just moments ago play an award-winning practical joke on yours truly,  this is the blog you would have read.

Pete's Blog&Grille: Summer's Like Giving A Cat A Tonic.

Today is Word Day here at Pete's Blog&Grille and today's word is "Amanuensis." According to Wikipedia  an amanuensis is "a person employed to write or type what another dictates."

Used in a sentence? "Way too many people think Peter is Iris the Cat's amanuensis." Like I take dictation. 

From a cat.
SIGN OF SUMMER: Come the warm
weather, Iris has better things to do

My neighbour Steve's one of those people. I've known and liked Steve for years, but here's him, while walking his dog past my house yesterday:  "Hey Peter. So what's Iris's message for today?"

Iris's message. 

Do people go up to Jeff Dunham, the ventriloquist whose main character is Achmed the Dead Terrorist and say things like, "Oh that Achmed. He has such great timing."  Come to think of it, they probably do.

My sister Charlene once called Iris "wise." She's never called me that.

But she did call the other day to ask about Iris's well-being. Evidently Charlene and my sister Mary had noticed there'd been no new signs recently and were worried about Iris's health. 

So no. Iris, like Paul, is not dead. 

But just like she did over the summers of  2018 and 2019, Iris The Cat seems to be taking a little time off.. During the hot weather, she prefers greeting and getting petted by kids who stop at the little library out in front of the house. But sitting in the window behind the sign she's not.

Plus can you believe that this ridiculous Iris sign in the window thing is going into its third year. This is scary. 

I need a project.

If I don't get cracking at a real contribution; say, helping the poor or, like, desalinating the ocean so everybody can have fresh water, my entire obit, when the time comes, is going to be all about a cat. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Curious Case of Marshmallow Wine

I just phoned my sister Norma to ask if she remembered when our older brother Tom introduced the Carter household to marshmallow wine. She didn't but added she wasn't surprised to hear it.
Huena with her brother Alex. (I'm pretty sure)

In the house that Norma, me, and the rest of the Carters grew up in, a lot of stuff got drunk.

The marshmallow wine appeared when I was pretty little; under 14 for sure if Tom was still living at home. Somebody was visiting, Tom offered them a glass of wine, went to the kitchen and returned with something dark and winey-looking.

Afterwards, my mom--her first name was Huena-- asked Tom what he'd served the guest. He said the marshmallow wine was the only thing he could find. She'd never heard of marshmallow wine.

Tom got the bottle to show Huena and turns out what he actually served was some sort of medicine that had to be kept refrigerated and started with m and had some a's and some l's in the name.  I'd phoned Norma to see if she remembered the actual name of the medicine.

The point is, marshmallow wine, in Huena's universe, could have been a thing. Huena tried to brew everything, at least once.

Regular beer, root beer, ginger beer -- Huena was a craft brewer a half century before they got trendy. She also made--Norma just reminded me--something called banana champagne, two words that when typed right beside each other actually made me laugh.

It was the unscheduled popping-off of banana-champagne corks that scared the crap out of a workman my dad had hired.

My father Tom was a one-man combination welfare office/John Howard society, hiring all kinds of guys right out of jail or off the bus from the east coast, and many of them ended up sleeping in our basement.

somebody actually does make marshmallow wine!
The day of the great banana-champagne explosion, one of my dad's recent hires was napping in the cellar when something went terribly wrong with mom's batch of home-brewed banana-champagne and all the corks blasted out of the bottles. The hired man, recently arrived from Ireland or maybe Newfoundland, jumped awake, hightailed it upstairs and out the door, only to explain to Huena later he thought it was gunfire that woke him up.

More frequently than champagne, Huena brewed root beer. I remember it being sort of flat and, rooty tasting.  Huena's root beer shared as much DNA with A&W's delicious product as I do with Joe Carter the pro baseball player.

Ditto ginger beer. I think I was in grade 12 when I first tasted store-bought ginger beer and thinking, "Wow! This stuff 's delicious! How can that be?!"

Then there was Huena's signature brew: Dandelion wine.

And although I was technically too young I'd be lying if I said I didn't try it and a question just occurred to me: Might Huena have concocted her dandelion wine to look and taste the way it did in an effort to have all her kids swear off drinking for life?

Oh well. E for effort.

Finally, I bet you're dying to know where she got all the dandelions.

GREY MATTER NEVER SLEEPS: Huena was always brewing something
Our house was on a north-south hilly street called Eyre. Two and a half blocks south of our place, at the end of Eyre, is the protestant graveyard. (The property marked the end of another Eyre, too. The land was once part of the farm belonging to Frederick Eyre, who our street was named after. The cemetery is Fred's final resting place.)

That graveyard was where a lot of the dandelions for mom's wine came from.

I used to wonder if the wine would have turned out better if it was Catholics that were buried there.

One more lovable thing about Huena and dandelions.

She once pointed out that a lawn full of dandelions after they'd gone to seed looks like a grassy field full of little old ladies.

Think about it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Welcome to Pete's house of noise

I'm pretty sure I've never lived in a house that didn't make a lot of noise. 
SQUEAK FOR YOURSELF: Ikea wood is silent because
it's pining for the fjords.

Some people, I've heard, spend their lives in quiet buildings. 

In fact a few years ago, I was in a new house in Mississauga; the owners had just taken possession of the home so the lovely place was still under warranty. (Who knew?) 

One of the hardwood floors squeaked and the new owner told me he'd lodged a complaint with the developer who apparently said a repair person would be by to fix it sometime.  I never did follow up with the guy.

I wonder if he's like, calmer. Or maybe they have a happier marriage or something. I bet not.

Every building I've ever lived in has been really really noisy. Floors crackle and squeak, pipes whine and moan. When I walk by our piano and get up to where the  high notes are, some of the Hummel figures in the china cabinet rub against each other and rattle. The upstairs bathroom door grinds when it shuts and if you listen closely you can hear the living room light dimmer hum. 
a slender chance the writer took the photo only
because he thought of the pun. 

We've a high-efficiency furnace that competes with Iris the cat's purring and there's something else noisy in the basement that I think is a hot water heater, to which my brother Ed would say "why would you want a hot water heater? Isn't it cold water that needs heating?"

Our house is busy.

But none of those sounds are as important as the noise the stairs make. Almost all stairs not only make sound, they tell stories: Adventure tales that can get a person into or out of trouble.

Consider the one-and-a-half-storey home we dozen Carters lived in, in Sudbury, Ontario. I seem to recall there were 13 steps, all told, if you counted the top and/or bottom, joining the first floor to the second.

By the time I was 15, I knew that if you came home late and didn't want anybody to hear you go up to bed, you had to tread really softly on the first stair but then skip the second and third altogether and when you put your foot on step four, you had to just use your toe and stay to the right. One miss-put step and the ratfink stair would yell to everybody in the place: "It's really late and Pete's trying to sneak in to bed!" 
case to be made for stairs testifying in court. A stair case.

Those -- and the stairs in the old Toronto house where we've been living for the past 18 years -- were actually more polygraph than stairwell. 

And even after all the years of being in this century-old building, I have yet to master a silent ascent.

Full marks to our own three kids, Ewa, Ria and Michel--all in their 20s and living on their own now--for cracking the stairwell code in this joint early on.

I'm sure there were  nights (and early mornings) when my kids played those stairs like Tom Hanks did the giant keyboard in "Big" and therefore got away with lots of stuff I still don't want to know about.

Silent stairclimbing is a lifeskill worth honing.

Plus it's not just stairs.

About 30 minutes ago, I was telling my wife Helena that a certain home-repair contractor had made an appointment for a visit to our place (for a non-stair-related matter); and while I was sharing the information, I was on the move. 

I started the sentence in the living room but by the time I'd reached the actionable part of the story, I'd turned the corner into the front hall. 

When Helena asked when the appointment was, she got the following: "The guy on the phone said they'd be here on on Friday..."

Floorboards drowning me out:  "Squeak, rattle, squeak."
Helena: "What?" (As my pal Richard says, "Nobody warns you that so much of marriage is going to be, simply, yelling, from one room to the next, 'what?'".)

Me: "Sorry. The floor squeaked. Friday, June twelfth at eight a.m."

No harm done, right? 

At other times? That loquacious old hardwood saves my hide.

Two weeks ago, we took delivery of an assemble-yourself Ikea picnic table.

While putting Ikea furniture together is way easier than, like, building something from scratch, it's never either fun or rewarding. I'd rather mow the lawn. (Spoiler alert. I eventually got the assembly done, and with such finesse that I afterwards phoned my sister Charlene to brag: "Chuck I actually just assembled an Ikea picnic table and get this: There are no parts left over!" She didn't believe me.)

A few days after Ikea delivered the unassembled table, Helena mentioned that it'd be nice to get the damn thing together before the good weather.

As I responded, I was heading to the front door, so what I sort of mumbled was  "I'll start work on that table when..."

Floorboards: "..squeak rattle squeak squeak squeak."

Helena: "What?"

Me, quickly reassembling my answer: "I'll start work on that table when I get my shoes on!"   

I'm sitting at the Ikea table as I write this. I love my noisy house.