Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Get Stuffed - exotic

How exotic can you get?



Startle your friends’ jaded sensibilities with some Uzbek culinary name-dropping: tried a good kuikat palov lately?

I admit it. After cutting my eyeteeth on crusty pork chops and mashed potatoes in the 1950s, just about anything other than prairie food beckoned. After all, there’s a limit to how many greyed meat loaves or beige casseroles a gal can take before mind and mouth open to things a little more colourful. And we aren’t talking Libby’s tinned spaghetti with the electric orange tomato sauce.

In all fairness, I shouldn’t be chauvinistic. Grey, beige and pastel food wasn’t exclusive to the Canadian west. Leonard Cohen makes no bones about his addiction to Kraft dinner, and he grew up in the cosmopolitan cradle of Montreal.

Mercifully, post-Libby’s and pre-’60s, there rose up in our fair nation, as if by some cosmically pre-ordained directive, a collective urge to reach beyond tinned spaghetti and shepherd’s pie. Suddenly, or so friends agree whenever we’ve drunk enough wine to share such embarrassments, Canadian moms ventured into what you couldn’t necessarily call different cuisines. Maybe "alternatives" was more like it.

Spanish rice (made with Minute rice). Eye-talian spaghetti sauce with hamburger. Chow mein topped with those goofy tinned noodles. It was as if moms in every province were suspended in some gelatinous foodland limbo – not quite letting go of the Miracle Whip, not quite moving on to the balsamic vinegar, thanks in large part to the tightly tied apron strings of food editors and advertisers in bibles like Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle. But maybe it was also because Canada was so big and floppy and unsure of itself that we couldn’t find anything as fragile as a starfruit or as assertive as tarama. Even if we had, no one would have known what the hell they were anyway.

Then mysteriously, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as the then very young, very flamboyant global village blossomed along with the flowers painted on Twiggy’s face and the rise in leisure travel, there developed in certain areas, defined as much by class boundaries as regional ones, an edgy – potentially tiresome – national sport: one-upmanship in unusual/exotic foods.

Primo bragging rights went to those who "discovered" a new restaurant or a new dish, the harder to find, the better. For instance, "discovering" one of the mysterious Doors – Red Door, Orange Door, Green Door – in Vancouver’s Chinatown alleys earned big points. Even Pierre Trudeau "discovered" the lemon chicken at the On-On.

By the ’80s, people were literally lining up at unpretentious places dishing up all things anathema to beige and grey. Some of the biggest lines wound round spicy Nick’s on Commercial Drive, and Orestes, the longest running show on Broadway, renowned as much for its Greek food as the booze that oozed from the ouserie.

Add a comment