That week of 30-degree weather in March was nice, but it means there won’t be any apples this fall. A gloomy update from the Leslieville Farmer’s Market, for Open File.
I was into avocados before they were cool.
I have loved their creamy, subtle flesh since I learned to pick the fruit from the tree in my aunt’s backyard in San Fernando. The Trinidadian world for avocado is “zaboca,” and I was well known to be a zaboca freak—obliging aunties coming to Canada would smuggle newspaper-wrapped booty in their giant suitcases. When guacamole came onto the food scene during my teen years, I adopted a tired, worldly attitude, informing everyone that “avocados” were nothing new. In reality, the appearance of $1 zabocas was a cause for celebration: I no longer had to convince my parents to stop by Nicey’s and shell out.
The little pear isn’t an exotic ingredient anymore. Since I was born with a guilty conscience, it weighs on me that my favourite food is now easy pickings. Zabocas have evolved from an occasional treat to an everyday food, one that’s in cheap sushi and expensive sandwiches, and one that’s impossible to grow within 100 (or 1,000) miles from my house. Each bite is a carbon sin. I used to be a second-gen kid longing for a taste of my childhood. Now, I’m just North American scum.
The lines connecting “ethnic” to “green” food are twisty. There are butchers trying to educate kosher eaters about avoiding factory farms, and there is halal vanilla made with propylene glycol, a known carcinogen. I once knew a born-and-raised Jain who had never eaten animal flesh, and had no urge to: he very regularly had cravings for his version of a Big Mac, which was basically bread, pickles and special sauce (McD’s charged him full price). The year-old FoodShare market at Jane and Finch sells bok choy and mangos as well as local blueberries. Oyster mushrooms look cool, but the reason Ontario farmers grow them is because they sell. Local is lovely and we’d all eat more organic if we could afford it, but catering to real appetites is the bottom line. Recently, I had a bang-up avant-Asian meal at Rocky Raccoon in Owen Sound, where a Nepalese chef using Grey County ingredients offered house-made naan topped with local butter, maple syrup and subcontinental spices. That meal help convinced me that giving up familiar tastes doesn’t always mean a loss. Sometimes, like in a yellow dahl soup made earthy and intensely oniony with wild leeks, it means a real, delicious gain.
I ate vegetarian for three years, and once asked my mother to find and buy me a chayote. I had no idea what it would taste like, but the fancy vegetarian cookbook I was reading told me I should be stuffing one. She came back from the store with three chayotes, and informed me that they cost $7. “When I was vegetarian, it was because I was poor,” opined my father, who grew up on a farm, walked to school without shoes, only ate meat at weddings, etc. I’ve noticed that lots of immigrants, regardless of birthplace, consider eating copious amounts of animal one sign that they’ve achieved the Canadian Dream. A cousin once made me a quick dish of curried potatoes when a family potluck turned out not to have one meat-free offering. One of my uncles couldn’t stop shoveling it back. “I’ve always loved aloo,” he said between mouthfuls, as if someone had been preventing him from eating it. In the rush to prove that he could eat meat, he had forgotten to consider whether he wanted to.
My zaboca consumption has stayed steady through recent price increases. I can’t imagine the dollar value that would make me swear off for good (though bananas are apparently now $9 a pound in Australia–global food definitely has a tipping point). I promise, though, that I’ll pause before my next purchase, and think about whether, just this one time, I can nourish myself another way.
This post is part of the Ethnic Aisle blogging project. If you’re interested in race, ethnicity, diversity and the GTA, check it out.
From Saturday’s Globe, a piece (by me!) about whether four historically “bad neighbourhoods” still deserve a bad rep. This was pretty inspiring to write – the tiny, one-table farmer’s market at Jane and Finch caused my heart to swell far more than the yuppie fest that is the Brickworks. And I say that as a veritable yuppie myself.
I had some extra time yesterday, so I finally made this Chili Lime Tequila Popcorn recipe from 101 Cookbooks that I’d been drooling over for months. It made me miss my dear departed Auntie Zan, who used to make us stovetop popcorn all the time, drenched in butter. I have a fear of deep frying, so I thought it would be hard. Instead, it was incredibly easy. I cheered out loud as the corn bombs rattled off the pot lid, then considered again how foolish most “convenience” food is, and how it isn’t really convenient for anyone but big food companies.
That train of thought was cemented when I idly scrolled through the comments on the recipe, and saw a mention of “popcorn butter lung.” I knew that microwave popcorn tends to be insanely high in trans fats, but until yesterday I didn’t know that a chemical called diacetyl in artificial butter was giving factory workers that make the stuff a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.
I don’t know why this surprises me. I’ve been an advocate of real, fatty food over weird, low-fat food since forever. It seems completely counterintuitive to, for example, add gelatin to make low-fat yogurt creamy when full-fat yogurt is already creamy? But still, the idea that a 44-year-old woman now needs a lung transplant due to popcorn butter…well. It’s an outrage.
After mounthing off about the artificial butter travesty to Le Jenk for a bit, I put the popped corn goodness into a giant paper LCBO bag and head off to see Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m not a cinephile because I have both snobbish and bummer tendencies. I find that most movies fall into two categories: stupid or depressing (with Wes Anderson representing strongly in the latter). Well, Mr. Fox was one of those rare gems that I wholeheartedly enjoyed. It was funny, it was smart, it was awesome to look at, engaging, touching but not heart-wrenching, overall thoroughly enjoyable. It was the best movie to watch on a -20 degree day after sneaking buttery, spicy snacks into an overpriced movie theatre. Do yourself a favour: melt some real butter onto some real popcorn, then go see it, soon.
So another thorn in my eco-conscience is that I can’t compost. I live on the 17th floor (sort of—my building has no official fourth, 13th or 14th floor, which is very accommodating to various superstitions, but kind of confusing) with no balcony, in 670 square feet that I share with Le Jenk, his seven fish and large collection of knick knacks. Our building doesn’t do green bins and we do not have the room for a worn composter. Really, we don’t.
It’s super annoying because we don’t make much garbage, and the vast majority of it is compostable. Using cloth bags (or backpacks) for shopping was already a habit before the 5 cent bag tax, and so we’re out of free plastic bags and forced to buy bags for our kitchen garbage. Obviously I’m not going to buy Glad Kitchen Catchers, but every single biodegradable bag I tried ended up leaking pukey-smelling liquid by the time it was full enough to toss.
So, we tried these Seventh Generation bags, which aren’t biodegradable, but are made of recycled plastic. And ta-dah, they don’t leak, even after two weeks of being filled with 35 lbs. of apple cores and parsley stems. I’m glad, because my friend Tay works for them in Vermont, and I was afraid I’d have to talk eco-shit about her boss. Phew.
Apparently Toronto is recycling plastic bags now, so I feel kind of a little better. But really I want a green bin, and a garden, to call my own.
I adore Kensington Market, except on Saturday, when in a quest to prove their amazing explorative funkiness, hordes of tourists descend upon the shopkeepers and barrage them with 10,000 questions. But yes, I do 98 per cent of my grocery shopping in the market. Can’t beat the prices, can’t beat buying things from the independent stores (and sometimes straight from the farmers). I don’t even notice the slog of it—Le Jenk said when he first started buying groceries with me it was irritating to have to travel from store to store, but he now thinks it’s worth it (except on Saturday, or when excessively tired or hung, or during bad weather).
I start at 4 Life Organics on Augusta, which is such a lovely little store. Everyone that works there is so nice and smart, and in the summer I was buying heirloom tomatoes straight from the grower, which makes me feel amazingly funky myself. Then I walk south, stopping at Freshmart (yes, it sucks, but they have orange juice), Perola or Emporio Latino for queso blanco, dried chiles and tomatillos and House of Spice for things like harissa and tamarind paste. Fresh tortillas from La Tortilleria are a must. Peanut butter, rice, pasta and other bits and pieces comes from one of the bulk shops, multigrain bread from My Market Bakery, then cheese and olives from Cheese Magic (yes, they got a red card last summer. I’m over it).
The produce at Essence of Life is pretty sad, but it’s a good store for eggs, yogurt, granola and organic packaged food, and the toiletry selection is fantastic, especially since I need evvvverything to be fragrance free. Then I go to the Portuguese produce store across the street for any veg I didn’t get at 4 Life. They’re very friendly but insist on putting my herbs in plastic bags.
St. Lawrence Market is swoon-worthy, but pricey. Whenever I go there I drop a zillion dollars and come home with two days worth of food. Still, the fish is pristine, the bagels are awesome, the baby arugula from the organic store downstairs is the best ever, the cured meat and antipasto at Scheffler’s is wicked, the perogies are infinitely superior to anything at the grocery store and the sausages make me want to eat sausages every day.
Other stores that are out of my ‘hood that I love and always visit when in the area: Nasr Foods for Middle Eastern, T&T, natch (though they really need to lay off on the excessive use of Styrofoam and plastic), Pasta Pantry for the best ravioli anywhere. I’m forgetting a lot here, will add as I remember.
I really can’t shop at big grocery stores. I’m not trying to be snobby, but I just get confused when I go into Loblaws or Metro. Why is all the food in a box? Yes, one day I will probably not live within walking distance of Kensington. When that day comes, I’m telling you now I will probably cry.
At the corner of Bloor Street West and Avenue Rd in Toronto, there’s a stately old building that used to belong to U of T. I can’t quite remember what the stone-etched sign says, but it’s something like “Department of Household and Domestic Science.” Back in the day, women attending college to get their MRS. degree would head here to learn how to cook, clean and raise children. Today, it’s a Club Monaco outlet, selling readymade clothes to busy people who fit cooking, cleaning and child-rearing in between making money and doing important things.
A week or so ago, Michael Pollan published a New York Times magazine piece on food celebrity called “No One Cooks Here Anymore.” Pollan is a personal favourite, both as a food writer and biology journalist. But, like many other women, I wasn’t thrilled with how, in the cooking piece, he linked feminism to the decline of cooking and therefore, the increase in poor health and obesity. Or rather, I didn’t mind that. What I did mind was how Pollan idealized the kitchen, suggesting that women (and men, which he said numerous times) should return to cooking because it’s an essential quality that makes us human. It’s not, he said, like those other dreary chores we’ve thankfully abandoned because of feminism—for example, sewing.
It is a shame that women saw cooking as drudgery, but in holding it above other domestic tasks, Pollan refuses to see just why we did. His oversimplification obscures the fact that cooking three meals a day for four (or six, or ten) people was just part of the housekeeping package—women were also planning the meals and buying the groceries, doing everyone’s laundry and cleaning the toilets, plus rearing the kiddies and providing elder and healthcare. Then we were supposed to put on lipstick and suppress any of our own issues before hubby came home from the “real” world. To idealize cooking and ignore the rest of it is to again devalue the big, exhausting whole of domesticity, which is exactly why women sprinted out of the house in the first place.
The loss of all Domestic Sciences has left us worse off. We need to figure out a way to bring ‘em back. Take sewing, Pollan’s example. Mass-produced clothing is often made under heinous labour conditions, then comes home with us in plastic bags that find their way out to the ocean. Real sewing (classified and priced as an essential, not a hobby) could go a long way in fixing that—to paraphrase Pollan from the piece, have as big a wardrobe you like, as long as you make it yourself. As for cleaning, using the non-toxic stuff indeed requires more effort and time; I fit it in, cause for me that’s far better than using brand name products with potentially poisonous outgases. Childcare is a vast, unwieldy topic—suffice it to say I was shocked to see a City of Toronto brochure given to my new mom friend with “tips” like “Don’t leave your baby alone in the bath.” Losing centuries of domestic knowledge has actually put us in danger.
I was born a feminist, and I do find it sad that definitions of “equality” so often devalue the home. What’s always been needed is a way to properly value domestic work, in the same way all that money- and stuff-making is valued out in the public sphere. (First step: men contributing a fair and equal share.) Ten thousand years ago (in the 1980s), New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring began advocating that tasks like child-rearing be included in countries’ GDP, a provocative idea that’s still fascinating today.
Of course, no one does that. Instead, we eat processed foods, wear pesticide-soaked clothes made by Third World children, and make ourselves sick trying to clean things. Attending to our essentials is a chore to finish as fast as possible, so that we can run out and do something that matters. Home-cooked meals are important, but getting everyone back in the kitchen is just a start.
Right, so, I don’t know what happened but a few weeks ago I noticed that my nominally lustrous black locks were more like stringy, knotted black wires. There was one spot particularly, near the lower right part of my head, that was just constantly gnarled up. This hurt my ego, but not more than the thought of a salon oil treatment hurt my financial conscience. It was, as Bone Thugs n Harmony so eloquently sang, the first of the month. Or wait, was that song supposed to be happy, re: welfare cheques? I dunno. Either way, it was near mortgage time for me and therefore I needed a cheap hair fix.
Going on advice from Tasia, who often goes unheralded for the many ideas of hers that I’ve borrowed, I mashed up an avocado with 1/3 cup of mayonnaise and slopped it onto my head. Then I sat around for two hours smelling like a sandwich and wishing I could have instead eaten the avocado-mayo combo with chips. Then I washed it out, but not well enough. My dry head went from zero to 100, and for a whole day, I had insanely, beyond oilslick, greasy, lank hair. I felt desperate. I felt embarassed, because I didn’t have time to wash it again and I had to go out that evening and pretend that I didn’t notice the seal sitting on my head. I felt meaningless and vain, but also sad, because my hair sucked.
Then I washed it again the next morning and guess what? My hair was (cue advertising voice) noticeably softer and shinier. I’ve also started doing that old Seventeen magazine trick, rinsing with ice cold water before getting out of the shower, which also really adds some gleam and bounce. I’m much happier with my locks and even got a compliment on the weekend. I’ll point out here that this solution is free of weird chemicals we should all be avoiding, like parabens, pthalates, SLS and propylene glycol. So all in all, a win. Go to it, sandwich head.