Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish Alison's Farewell

It's only appropriate that we post Irish Alison's farewell culinary thoughts on Toronto on St. Patrick's Day. As she boards the plane home today to Sligo we remember the day, one year ago, she walked in to the store looking for a job. We weren't really hiring but her enthusiasm and of course the accent did us in and Jennifer and I along with our customers have had a wonderful year with Irish Alison on staff. 
Irish Alison's Toronto Adventure
The first two weeks of my being in Toronto have one abiding food memory for me, and not a very pleasant one. Being broke and hungry will make a girl do (and eat) things she mightn’t otherwise consider, and I am no exception. I don’t know if I will ever be rid of the memory of the complimentary pancake breakfast offered by my hostel, I certainly won’t be rid of it anytime soon. Every morning, between the hours of 7 and 10am, the long suffering desk clerk would make up pitcher after pitcher of lumpy instant pancake mix, which lost souls on tight budgets like myself would drown in Aunt Jemima’s generic ‘syrup’ and eat in large quantities to see ourselves through to a late lunch. Often said lunch would be comprised of a packet of Mr Noodles, rehydrated in a communal kitchen of dubious hygiene levels. (Beef or chicken being the flavours of choice. Oriental tastes like nothing in particular, and the least said of vegetable the better.)  When we moved to an actual apartment my boyfriend and I thought, of course, that things were set to improve on the culinary front. There are few better cures for loneliness than the comfort and refuge of the kitchen, and some home cooking can do wonders for homesickness. Unfortunately the kitchen in our month long sub-let proved to be unusable and so we had to look for alternatives. At the time this seemed like an absolute tragedy – I ached for real cooking, to make something from my own hand, for the sense of control which I could feel with a knife and a chopping board. If I add onion to oil I know what the outcome will be – moving 3,000 miles away from family and friends to a city we’d never even visited before, where we didn’t know anyone and had no immediate job prospects, was a much foggier forecast. Now I know what a great benefit it was to be motivated to go out and try all that this great city has to offer, because when it comes to food, Toronto is hard to beat. At that point all we had was a meagre budget and a big appetite, and we learned how to stretch our dollar as far as it could go.
We ate late night $4.99 burgers and fries at Future’s on Bloor, surrounded by gabbing Annex locals and students with the kinds of manic looks that only assignment deadlines can cause. Their end of day pastries, usually at two for one, or a bag for a dollar, made for pre bedtime snacking. Their breakfast was good too, but for a greasy spoon wake up, my heart will always belong to Sneaky Dees $3.25 breakfast special. And then, there was Tim Horton’s. I am still inordinately fond of Tim’s; partly because it helped to keep us alive in those tough early days, and partly because it became a familiar and constant feature when everything else was new. A maple cream donut (my treat of choice) was an occasional breakfast and long bus ride companion.
Of course, once we had some income and a new apartment we could actually cook in, eating out became an activity more about pleasure than survival, and the location became less about the most food for the lowest price, and more about new and exciting tastes and discoveries. We have spent much of the year intoxicated by the choice of cuisine available in Toronto; coming from small town Ireland gives you limited exposure to ethnic foods, no matter how curious you are. We’ve had Korean pork bone stew so spicy my eyes watered the entire time I ate at Ka Chi (totally worth the tears by the way), Persian lamb shanks that melted unctuously from the bone at the Pomegranate, we mopped up split peas and lentils with injera at Ethiopian House, had a lunch of curried goat and jerk chicken at Ackee Tree, slurped pho from Chinatown, and enjoyed tacos in the sunshine at El Trompo in Kensington market. We tried sushi for the first time (seriously, there are like 2 sushi restaurants in Dublin. That’s it). I celebrated my birthday watching Mexican cable tv and eating chicken mole at Mexitaco.
We also learned a lot about Canadian food – for instance, gravy and cheese on fries. Seriously, we thought, Poutine sounds gross. Oh we of little faith. We tried pulled pork sandwiches for the first time, and second, and third. The Victory Cafe fed us cheap, good pub food on many a night when the lure of mac and cheese and a pint of Ontario craft brew drew us out of doors. Our culinary adventures ran the range of 4am fried white bread and plastic cheese in Mars Foods on a Saturday night, to the briny beauty of a kalamata olive and meltingly tender rabbit ragu in Tutti Matti. We ate the Elvis special burger (peanut butter and banana on a beef patty, in case you’re interested) on recycled recliner chairs at Dangerous Dan’s (view of Jilly's is complimentary), did  the summerlicious menu at Pangaea, and ate warm, gelatinous bone marrow sprinkled with Maldon salt at the Black Hoof. Jump offered the best service in the city (thanks Vera!), and the lobster roll at Petite Thuet proved that it was possible to have a take away sandwich worth a $9 price tag. And where do I begin with brunch? It’s a subject always likely to provoke heated debate so it’s best to just go with personal preference. Mine is Aunties and Uncles, my boyfriend loves Mitzi’s. We will probably never agree on this point, so there is no sense in arguing further. (Although I do think I’m right).  That being said, suckling pig benny and pig tails and grits at the Hoof Cafe were declared exquisite by both of us, so perhaps there’s hope for a peaceful Sunday morning yet.
And there are also places which claim my affections for reasons beyond simply the food they serve.  About 3 weeks into our coming here I was homesick, the city was cold, we were sub-letting in a squat that made places of habitation featured on CNN seem cosy, and I was miserable. Completely by accident we stumbled upon Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. It was warm, there were smiles of welcome. A spicy African peanut soup and a cheddar and chutney sandwich tasted like heaven; the slices of apple were tart and crisp, and none of the vegetables had been reconstituted with the aid of a kettle. I ate my first slice of cherry pie – each little fairytale-red berry bursting with juice and flavour. It was food for the soul, food to make you pick yourself up and start again, almost the only thing which stood between me staying to tough it out in a strange city and hailing a taxi to Pearson.
And how glad I am that I did stick it out. I have made great friends, and had so many experiences I never thought imaginable. And most importantly, I have eaten better and more diversely in one year than i ever had before. And for those of us food obsessed and perpetually hungry, that is worth almost anything.

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