Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Snacks Between Meals: Sexyland

At work, we're having a Biggest Loser competition, and I've decided to enter.  I've always been a bear in the winter months (eat more, sleep more, grow more body hair), but this year has been especially bad.  At 168 pounds, I'm heavier now than I have ever been. (You know it's bad when wearing a tie gives your neck a muffin top.)  If I don't do something about it soon, I won't be any use on the dragon boat team this summer except as ballast.

Also, Alison has been skating much more lately, has shed a lot of weight, and is enjoying the confidence (and men's glances) that has come with it.  She has been trying to get me to eat better and exercise so I can "join her in Sexyland."

Yes, she actually said Sexyland.

The problem with an invitation to move to Sexyland by one of its self-proclaimed residents is that I don't really find the idea of obtaining citizenship all that motivating.  You see, I already know someone from Sexyland, and she often visits me in Dumplingtown.  (And yes, those visits can include the conjugal variety.)  So, if Alison is already willing to go slumming with a denizen from the dark and seedy (well, pudgy anyway) underbelly of Dumplingtown without me having to give up the other women in my life (i.e. Little Debbie, Sara Lee, and Dairy Queen), why would I want to emigrate?  

Besides, even after I lose the extra pounds, I still expect to be stopped at Sexyland's borders. 

Sadly, no amount of weight loss cures homely.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Snacks Between Meals: The Beatles vs Cheese

There has been a serious debate going on in our house over the past couple of weeks.  I'm not sure how it started, but it keeps resurfacing over dinner, in the car on the way to school, during commercials while watching TV.  I wish I could say it's an unusually strange topic, but around here this kind of thing is pretty typical.

The question is: The Beatles or cheese?

No, cheese isn't some indie band with an all too clever lower-cased spelling.  We're talking about cheese cheese, the dairy product.  So, the question really comes down to: if you had to choose between the existence of solid milk foods or the seminal britpop band, which would you choose?  And not just for yourself, either.  The losing item gets wiped from all humanity, past, present, and future.  (The Gregsons only argue when the stakes are really high.)

Duncan has basically taken a Swiss stance (the country, not the cheese) and hasn't completely committed to one side or the other, and Alison just thinks it's a stupid question.  (Whatever that means.)  Will comes down strongly on the side of The Beatles, but has always been a bit unenthusiastic about cheese.  I think it's a texture thing.

Me?  I believe The Beatles are the most influential and staggeringly talented band to ever hit the airwaves.  But this is cheese we're talking about!  Can you imagine a world without cheesecake?  Without pepper jack, brie, or asiago?  Without nachos, pizza, or lasagna?  Sorry, Fab Four, you say hello, but I say goodbye.

I don't make this decision lightly.  The musician in me almost weeps at the thought of never hearing "Let It Be" or "Come Together" again, but I did consider all the facts:

Viable Substitutes
  • The Beatles = The Monkees (I could almost live with that)
  • Cheese = Soy Cheese (hell no)

Cultural Significance
  • The Beatles = 20 number one singles in the US, 17 in the UK, covered by thousands of performers (very significant, except maybe for Ringo)
  • Cheese = "Cheesecake" by Louis Armstrong, "That's Amore" by Dean Martin,...um...the Pizza Hut Theme Song? (fine, The Beatles win this one)

Effects of Aging
  • The Beatles = of the four, only McCartney is aging well, and Ringo is faring the worst (and that's even considering the other two are dead)
  • Cheese = the best cheese just gets better with age (none of The Beatles look appetizing with mold on them)

Therefore, when it comes down to a choice between The Eggman or cheese omelets, I will find a way to live in a world lessened by the loss of the profound artistry of "I Am The Walrus".  

Besides, I don't think I have anything to worry about.  Yoko Ono has been a vegetarian for decades, and I still have no problem finding a cheeseburger.  The Beatles?  Less than 18 months after Yoko's appearance, The Beatles were toast.

Long live Gouda!  (Goo goo g'joob.)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Snacks Between Meals: Where in the World is Darin Gregson? Part 2

Sorry.  I'm back after a long absence again.  This time it was because of technical difficulties with the blog's website.  But I've added a few entries (backdated when appropriate), and I hope to get back to being more regular with entries.

And yes, laziness is too a technical diffculty!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Fleur de Sel

The other night Alison and I went to a French restaurant called Fleur de Sel.  It was a gift from my dragon boat team, and it was nice to finally get out and enjoy it.  It is a very small, warmly decorated restaurant where you sit so close to your neighbors that you can hear their conversations, and when the front door opens everyone shivers as the cold wind blows through the whole restaurant.  These might seem like major inconveniences, but I actually take it as a good sign: if people are willing to put up with such discomforts, the food must be pretty damn good.

I rarely order fish.  I don't dislike fish; I just like the flesh of land-dwelling beasts a lot more.  But when I saw the ahi tuna in a wasabi butter sauce on the menu, I decided to give it a try, but only after asking the waiter if it was real wasabi.

"Oui oui, but of course zee wasabi eez real." Okay, he didn't say "oui oui" but he was definitely French.  He had a strong accent and a naturally patronizing tone that made me feel foolish for asking.

But I had to ask. 

Why?  Because I had just recently learned a terrible secret: the Japanese have been lying to me for literally decades!

You've had wasabi, right?  Ha, wrong!  Almost nobody has actually had wasabi.  It turns out that the stuff they serve at sushi bars and put in those dried out supermarket bento boxes is really just horseradish, mustard, and #%!$-ing food coloring!  (FD&C Blue#1 to be exact, which is a total crock.  Everyone knows that FD&C Blue#2 is the good stuff.)

I found this out by accident when I looked up the ingredients for Blue Diamond Wasabi & Soy Sauce Almonds to see if they contained any real wasabi.  (By the way, if you haven't tried those yet, you gotta get some.  I don't even care that they don't have any real wasabi on them; they've got great bite and go straight up your nose the way I love...no, not the almonds, I mean the effects of the horseradish.)

Anyway, while searching online, I stumbled across several references to this faux-sabi conspiracy, and my eyes were opened to just how enormous the reach of this bold lie extends.  Not only is the stuff from most local providers artificial, but even the imported wasabi (you've probably seen it in those green plastic toothpaste tubes with Japanese characters boldly claiming "Wasabi!" on its front label) contains absolutely no wasabia japonica (yes, that's the scientific name).  Same thing goes for every wasabi-flavored snack I've purchased from import stores:

Wasabi peas?

Wasabi potato chips?

Wasabi gum balls?
Fake.  And really really disgusting.

After further research, my heart dropped when I realized:

Even though I lived in Japan for nearly two years, I have probably never tasted real wasabi!

I feel like Cookie Monster after being told, because Jim Henson didn't build him a throat, he hasn't actually ever eaten a single cookie.

First it was Pearl Harbor, now this.  (Sigh.)  What else have the Japanese lied to me about?  Is Kobe beef just mad cow leftovers from Britain?  Does Sailor Moon get sea-sick?  Is Mount Fuji only 32 inches tall?  Is tofu really the Japanese version of Soylent Green?  Maybe "banzai!" actually translates to mean "Damn, I thought I had enough fuel for a round trip."

This is why I asked my French server.

Now, it is possible that the bona fide (look at me, using French...or is it Latin?) stuff was used in the sauce.  They might have imported the raw root from new wasabi farms in Oregon (unlikely) or used the powdered variety which, unlike the paste, is sometimes the genuine article.  I'm leaning towards the powder theory because it had none of wasabi's famous sinus-scouring kick; not even a little.  This is the drawback of using anything but the freshly ground vegetable: drying, powdering, freezing, or cooking true wasabi removes most of its zing.  Only the fake variety seems to maintain its tear-inducing power over time.

Still, the ahi tuna was pretty good.  Alison gave me a taste of her maple mustard encrusted rack of lamb, and it was excellent. 

Yes, Alison and I always share each other's food at restaurants.  Now, don't be all "Eww, germs!"  That's nothing compared to what we shared after dinner.  Hey, the kids were at their grandparents for the night, there had been more than a little wine with our meal, and we were feeling naughty.   Don't judge.  We may be in our forties, but we're not dead!  You guessed it.  We had dessert.

Alison ordered the chocolate profiteroles, and I had the creme brulee.  Both were very rich and definitely worth having again.  And the creme brulee had pieces of candied ginger that were a nice touch for the holiday season.

Speaking of nice touches (no, I'm not saying anything about anything that may or may not have happened after dessert...honestly, I can't remember.  Hmm, maybe forty is closer to dead than I thought), the kitchen is open to the patrons' prying eyes, and all of the chefs wore blue and white striped shirts.  They reminded me of the gondoliers of Venice's canals.

Yes, I know that Venice is in Italy, not France, but c'mon, with the tight striped shirt, the red neckerchief, and the little hat with its flowing ribbon, even the Italians probably mistake gondoliers for Frenchmen. 

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Snacks Between Meals: Blood on the Ice

In spite of a brutal cold virus that took out most of the city over the holidays, including my family, Christmas was still pretty good this year.  Quite frankly, I'm just grateful to be alive (no, I'm not whining about a runny nose and a dry cough) instead of being a frozen corpse at the bottom of a valley in the wilds of Kananaskis looking like the opening scene to a CSI: Calgary episode.

It all started when someone at work told me how I could buy a $5 license to harvest up to three Christmas trees from natural forests on provincial park land.  My mind instantly switched to Norman Rockwell mode, and I pictured me and my family hiking out into the woods; finding a fresh, perfectly shaped (that's how God grows 'em!) tree; and effortlessly chopping it down to carry home.  Of course, hot chocolate and spontaneous Christmas caroling would abound.  I was going to bring my camera to capture warm memories of precious Kodak moments with my family in an idyllic winter wonderland.

You would think I'd learn: Gregson outings don't usually resemble Norman Rockwell scenes so much as they do Francis Bacon.  Alison has it figured out; she elected to stay home while the "men" went a-hunting.

After a much longer drive than expected (after the second wrong turn, "Are we there yet?" turned into "Isn't the Home Depot a lot closer?"), we pulled off the road and started walking into the woods.  As we worked our way through an obstacle course of criss-crossed fallen tree trunks, I began to notice only two types of evergreens: the forty foot variety that were off limits according to our license, and scrawny five footers starving for light and nourishment under the shadows of their elders.  Having been a Queen's Scout (the Canadian equivalent of an Eagle Scout, and yes, an ironic name from an organization that disallows gays), I decided that we should move our search down into the valley where younger trees might have had better luck along the river. 

At the bottom of the descent, we came across a frozen creek - a small tributary to the main river - and it looked like a perfect photo opportunity.  Only thing was, the angle I wanted couldn't be achieved from shore.  Fortunately (there's our friend irony again), a tree trunk had fallen across the creek, creating a "bridge" about two meters above the mostly ice covered water.

This is where you are probably thinking, "Really?  You tried to walk on it?"

Ha! No, I didn't!  I'm not a complete moron.

I just sat on it.  I held my camera in my right hand, and balanced myself by holding onto the slender trunk of a leafless tree growing on the bank.

Duncan tried to warn me, saying, "I don't think Mom would want you to do that."  Wrong thing to say.  If I had any misgivings before, I cast them aside immediately.  You think your mother knows better than me?  Me, a Queen's Scout?  Ha!  (OK, I know this is a bit of a character flaw that I need to work on.  When Alison errs on the side of caution, I automatically err on the side of recklessness.  If I had been standing in front of a hot waffle iron and Duncan said, "Mom thinks it's a bad idea to put your testicles in there," I probably would have done that too.)

Now you have to realize that, in winter, all trees that are not evergreens look barren and skeleton dry, so there was no way for me to know that the young tree steadying me had tragically passed away the previous summer and was now about as sturdy as a Pringles potato chip.  The trunk snapped apart right above the root and I tumbled backwards.

Time slowed as I fell, and several thoughts passed through my mind.

First: "Really? I broke the whole tree?"

Second: "I hope I don't break my camera."

Third: "I am so glad Alison isn't here."

It also occurred to me that, with the way I was falling, I could tuck my shoulders, round my back, and completely avoid hitting my head.  Of course, for this plan to work, I would  have to be able to accurately assess where my body and all of its parts were in space.  Anyone who has watched me play sports knows that I completely lack this ability, so naturally I broke my fall with my head.  And my camera.

A picture worth dying for?  Don't think so.

I lay still for a moment while visions of sugarplums danced on my head.  The pain gave me a strong sense of deja vu from the time I wiped out waterskiing and the ski tried to beat me to death, starting with a cut to my forehead that required 13 stitches.  (Who knew waterskis carried shivs?)  Lying on the cracked ice of the creek, I gingerly reached for the back of my head.  I expected blood - there was a little - but I was surprised to find a lump so large it completely filled my hand.  You could call it a goose egg, if geese were 5 stories tall and frequently stomped all over Tokyo.

Also, my lens broke, preventing me from capturing any memories for the ol' photo album ('cuz we were having such a good time!). Well, my boys were apparently enjoying themselves; once they realized their father wasn't dead, they started laughing their asses off.

I swore a couple of times (in my defense, Duncan did later report to his mother that I demonstrated great restraint and only let fly with PG rated profanities) and crawled to the bank, careful to not put too much weight on the Darin-shaped cracks in the ice.  I was just grateful I was still conscious.  There's no way my kids have the upper body strength necessary to carry me up a snow-covered hill. 

We cut down the next halfway decent looking tree (decent in a Charlie Brown Christmas kind of way) we could find and got out of there.  Considering fuel costs and the price of a new camera lens, my $5 tree was going to put me back about $250.  It was either that thought - or a mild concussion - that made me pause partway back to the car, drop the tree, and throw up.

Yep, a classic Gregson outing.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Snacks Between Meals: Merry Christmas 2012

If you want to see the history of our strange Christmas card tradition, you can go back and look at 2010 and 2011's cards.


Saturday, 6 October 2012

Snacks Between Meals: Only in Canada, Eh

This is an actual ongoing story in our Canadian news cycle. Recently, there was a heist  where criminals stole 119,000 litres - 16 thousand barrels - of a highly addictive substance known to be produced abundantly in the province of Quebec.  It's street value is estimated at $20 million.

It was maple syrup.

I can only imagine that the culprits plan to push the substance onto unsuspecting school-children, giving them their first taste for free but charging them increasingly more for each subsequent "hit".  As health risks go, maple syrup is relatively benign (compared to, say, cigarettes or the Atkins Diet), but it is a gateway substance that can quickly lead to dependencies on things like Pixy Sticks and Lik-a-Stix.

Truly, there is nothing sadder than a pre-schooler strung out on a deadly addiction to Hawaiian Punch and marshmallow Peeps.

It's not just the fact that these surreptitious sap siphoners (see what I did there...that's how you make literature, kids!) thought they could move half a swimming pool's worth of pancake topping into the market without being noticed that I find bizarre.  No, it's where the liquid gold was stolen from that really makes this story perfect.

The barrels of Aunt Jemima's best were taken from the provinces's global strategic maple syrup reserve

Most governments worry about having oil reserves or secret vaults of gold or emergency stashes of antibiotics.  In Canada?  The United Nations might fall and international trade unions may collapse, but the International House of Pancakes knows that Quebec has got its back.

I love this country.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Fries & Dolls

Yes, you heard right, dragons!

Okay, to be completely accurate, I raced dragon boats, and it's just as cool as it sounds.

Before I tell you what the sport of dragon boating is all about, I should give you a bit of background on my relationship to sports in general.  My talents are definitely more intellectual than physical, so I have attempted to apply those strengths to sports whenever possible.  For example, when I played softball as a teen, I would be out in left field (literally, not figuratively) waiting to intercept anything the batters sent my way.  When the batter would hit the ball hard and low, it would usually sail by the knees of the second baser before it would touch the ground.  Using my exceptional spacial and mathematical reasoning skills, I could quickly estimate velocity, delta V (including effects of wind resistance), mass, and angle of descent to calculate the most likely vector of the ball after it bounced off the clumpy, weed-infested surface of the outfield.  This would enable me to place myself and my glove in the perfect position to catch the ball...

...with my face.

You see, all of this higher brain function stuff is useless in most sports if one doesn't also have something referred to by kinesiologists as "hand-eye coordination".  Without the ability to actually throw or catch, my career as an outfielder was very short-lived.  I was then moved to a position where I could do less damage: catcher.  If there was a serious play where home plate needed to be covered, the pitcher would rush in to make the catch on my behalf.  But eventually everyone got tired of waiting for me to retrieve nearly every pitch that wasn't hit because I closed my eyes every time the batter swung (I was sure someone was going to knock my head off and pop it over to the shortstop), and I would miss catching the ball.  So, it wasn't long before I spent most of my time keeping the bench warm.

Did I mention this was a church softball team?  You know you really suck at a sport when even Jesus won't let you play.

That never stopped me from trying to find my place in team sports.  When I was about eight or nine, I joined an exhibition basketball team called, no joke, Pitcher's Dribblers.   We somewhat resembled the Harlem Globetrotters, only much younger and, in my case, much much whiter.  We would travel around southern Alberta and perform "precision" basketball routines during the halftimes of highschool and college basketball games.  While the others were dribbling figure 8's through their legs, I was once again spending most of my time chasing balls. (Stop snickering.  That is in no way meant as a euphemism.)

Darin "Magic" Gregson

I knew better than to try out for the school football team, but I did occasionally join a pickup game.  It was never a question which team I would be on; it was always the team that chose last.  Once, though, I thought I had finally found my true purpose (besides pouring Gatorade) in football.  My team only had one yard and one down left to make a touchdown.  The whole field, AKA Randy's backyard, was barely 25 yards long but it was still a critical play.  We had been unable to break their defensive line on our two previous attempts (note to my American readers: the CFL only has three downs which reduces offensive rushing.  I suppose it's that way because we're compulsively nicer than you, even in full-contact sports),  so it was decided that our largest player (Kevin) would toss the ball over the defensive line.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention an important detail: I would still be holding the ball when he tossed it.

We were sure this would catch the opposing team completely by surprise and I would be the hero for - literally - landing the winning touchdown.  As I soared over everyone's head, grinning ear to ear, I thought, "This is it!  I have finally found my place in a team sport.  I am proving my worth.  Maybe they'll even name this play after me!"  It felt great...right until the moment someone reached up, grabbed my belt, and slammed me to the ground.  I was only a foot away from the end zone, not that I even noticed.  I was too busy trying to dislodge a football from my abdomen.

Latterly, I decided to focus on non-competitive individual sports like skiing (snow and water) where the only person I could let down was myself.  A low center of gravity was a real advantage and I got pretty good at it, but I would continue to decline invitations to play squash with co-workers or to join the company softball team.

Therefore, when the opportunity to join a different kind of sports team, a dragon boat team, first presented itself fifteen years ago, I was skeptical.  But after a practice or two, I realized that this time I really had found a sport that could make use of my non-traditional athletic abilities.  In this sport, timing, not strength, is the most important factor.  And, dear readers, I was a music major!

(To be honest, strength also matters.  The burliest members of our team sit near the middle of the boat and are referred to as the "Engine Room".  When they paddle, it sounds like giant steam pistons on a great ocean liner.  When I paddle, it sounds more like a cockapoo lapping water from its bowl.)

Hey, look at that...I'm not so short sitting down.
Dragon boating has been around for hundreds of years, originating in 5th Century China (BC!!), so it is a bit puzzling that the boats have evolved so little from an original design that seems flawed somehow.  Each dragon boat holds 20 paddlers lined up in two rows, ten on each side (math...oh, goody!), plus a drummer in the front and a steers-person in the back.  However, in spite of having forty arms driving this one-tonne (note to my American readers: that's more or less a ton, but with more joie de vivre) boat through the water with their paddles, it always feels like a sluggish affair, especially when we get passed at practices by every other boat on the Glenmore Reservoir, including recreational one-man scullers rowed by senior citizens.  Maybe having so many paddlers in one boat actually reduces efficiency, and the Chinese designed the dragonboats, not for speed or aquadynamics, but as another way to try to keep their ginormous population employed.  Kind of like the way our Western cities hire fifteen guys over three days to fill one pothole.

At a dragon boat festival this isn't really a problem, because all of the teams are quite literally in the same boat (groan).  Unusually five boats race at a time over a 500 meter course (note to my American readers: a meter is basically a...you know what, forget it, it's way past time you guys joined the rest of the world and learned the metric system for yourselves).  It doesn't sound like much, but for the First Calgary Financial Never Drag'n team, a group that is made up of mostly bankers and office workers, we find it very hard to catch our breath by the finish line.  Of course, that could also have something to do with having to wear life jackets provided by the festivals organizers, life jackets that haven't been cleaned in four summers of festivals, are tastefully decorated with mildew, and smell like a sweaty tree sloth's underarms.

But those PFDs are absolutely a necessity.  For a supposed "non-contact" sport, we have experienced a large number of collisions and near-collisions (some of them even our fault).  We have an amazing steersman now, but that wasn't always the case.  There was a time that just a little bit of wind would send us careening into the boat in the next lane.  One year, we became so notorious that we could psyche out other boats by simply having our drummer holler, "Ramming speed!"

Building up to "ramming speed".
This past summer we had our own brush with fear when high winds, whitecaps, and the wake from a large paddle-boat ferry caused our dragon boat to list dangerously to one side.  Our steersman fell to his knees (to pray?) and all 20 paddlers tried to compensate by leaning simultaneously to the left, tipping the boat even further in the opposite direction.  The boat began to fill with water, but in spite of our captain's questionable leadership (he was laughing maniacally like some kind of pint-sized Ahab....and, yes, that was me) we righted ourselves before completely capsizing.  Until that happened, we were in second place and closing in on first, however bringing our boat a complete stop mid-race dropped us down to fourth.  Miraculously, we didn't lose.

Pretty intimidating, eh?

Another reason I like dragon boating in Calgary more than other sports competitions is all the food.  In addition to the overflowing potluck our team puts together, there have traditionally been several tents/booths/kiosks onsite selling all kinds of meals and snacks.  This year, these were almost entirely replaced by food trucks arranged like wagons circling themselves against hungry natives trying to steal our women and broccoli crepes.

Having so much food at our team's tent, I didn't have the need nor the stomach capacity to try every food truck, but I did have a salt craving that led me to check out the Fries & Dolls food truck.

Fries & Dolls was pretty much truth in advertising on four wheels.  Setting up shop in a Pinky Tuscadero-inspired truck, they specialized in gourmet seasoned french fries and were staffed by attractive women with pin-up girl makeup, retro chic outfits, and just enough visible cleavage to make me briefly imagine other uses for the squeeze-bottle ketchup.  (Yes, I'm a terrible person.)  They also had a small selection of hot dogs (sorry, smokies), but I didn't need a meal, just a snack. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see her leave the truck...on rollerskates!
I tried the Audrey fries, named, as most of their fry varieties were, after a screen goddess.  They were seasoned with pink sea salt (coloured with the tears of mermaids) and black pepper, and were really quite good.  I didn't get to sample any of the other flavours, but I wasn't really sure I needed to.  In fact, this was probably my only complaint about Fries & Dolls: for a purveyor of exotic french fries, they actually had surprisingly little variety to offer.  The menu listed only four french fried options -  seven if you include the sweet potato fries - and some selections seemed to be just a slight variation of another menu item.  For example, Fergie, named for the disgraced duchess, only had the addition of vinegar to distinguish it from the Audrey fries.  Maybe we'll see more adventurous combinations in the future.

Just a quick shout out at the end here.  I want to thank a couple of fellow dragon boaters: Kent for bringing a "swackload" (trust me, that's a lot!) of Chinese food from his family's restaurant to the Calgary festival, and Amy for buying the aforementioned fries for her teammates.

Because, to paraphrase ElectroVamp, the food tastes better when it's free.

The Last Bite:
Food trucks are all the rage right now, but I haven't had the chance to try many yet.  Have you found some you particularly like?  Besides downtown and at dragon boat festivals, where have seen food trucks parked?  I'm looking for some good recommendations, particularly for weekend foraging.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Snacks Between Meals: Leanne

It's tough to have heroes in our information age.  Even if you pick a really good one, an individual who has done something genuinely important (i.e. isn't a pop star or an athlete who plays games for a living), it is still likely that someone will eventually dig up a fact or two about your hero that will leave you disappointed and disillusioned.  Is it Steve Jobs the visionary innovator and champion of geekdom, or is it Steve Jobs the deadbeat dad and thief?  Lance Armstrong the cancer survivor and 7 times Tour de France winner, or Lance Armstrong the cheater and drug user?  And don't get me started about Chuck Norris the bad-ass martial arts expert and actor.  (He's a...gasp!...Republican.)

It starts to feel like every hero's story is just a carefully constructed fiction, making them no more real than the purely imaginary heroes I worshipped as a child.  And even the fictional heroes would sometimes let me down.  Case in point:

When I was seven, every boy in my neighborhood was crazy about Spider-man.  This was long before movie studios had even thought about trying to make a film about everyone's favorite webslinger; we just had the comics and a psychedelic cartoon that was only animated in the loosest sense of the word.  (I swear that you could almost see the fingers of the guy whose job it was to drag the paper Spider-man cutout across the badly painted backgrounds.  Even my seven-year-old mind recognized the show's creators were making this thing on the cheap when I saw the same painted backgrounds - and sometimes even the same villain spouting the same lines - appearing on Rocket Robin Hood.)  At least we can thank that incarnation of Spider-man for giving us an unforgettable theme song.

However, the problem with everyone being a fan of the same character was when we got together to play superheroes under the large trees in our backyard, everyone wanted to be Spider-man.  This meant we would often have as many as half a dozen little boys running around our backyard making web-shooting sounds (which sound a lot like flatulent birds) but no villains to take down.  It was as if Costco had just received a shipment of radioactive spiders and was selling them in bulk.

This was intolerable; how can you place your fingers against your temples - like your mom does when you play inside all afternoon with five other pint-sized superheroes - and shout, "My spidey senses are tingling!" if there is no danger present to set it off?  It's a whole superpower just going to waste, like Clark Kent using his heat-vision for nothing more than warming up the occasional frozen burrito in the Daily Planet lunchroom.

So, one time, we decided to give Spider-man (all four of him in attendance that day) a real challenge.  We were going to use Spidey's climbing power and webslinging ability to scale a skyscraper and swing over to the next towering building.  Of course, for a group of six and seven-year-olds, that translated to tying a garden hose from one tall tree to another, about twelve feet off of the ground.  You can only imagine how excited these four little Spider-men were as they lined up at the bottom of the first tree to take their turns shimmying along the green rubber tubing to the next tree ten feet away.  I think the littlest Spider-man among us might even have wet himself.  Something was "tingling", and it sure didn't smell like spidey-sense.

Anyway, I was second in line behind Fat Spider-man (every super team has one) and that proved to be a near-fatal error in judgement.  Garden hoses don't make for very secure knots at the best of times, and our limited knot-tying abilities were an embarrassment to the Spider-man name.  So all it took was one chubby six-year-old Peter Parker to stretch the knots beyond the margin of safety for the next Spider-man: me.  I had just started to make my way across, going hand over hand with my legs crossed over the hose, when it came undone and I was brought down hard on top of my right arm.

Do you remember a toy called Stretch Armstrong?  You could stretch and twist his limbs in all kinds of inhuman ways.  Well, that's what my right arm looked like between my wrist and elbow.  It lay there next to me, distended and bent into the shape of an "S", and it actually took me a moment to get over the basic wrongness of that image before I realized it also hurt like nothing I had ever experienced in my short seven years.  Fortunately, the skin hadn't broken, but both bones in my forearm were snapped clean through.  I started screaming for someone to get my mother (ok, fine, I asked for my "mommy"), but the other Spider-men and various bystanders (neighborhood kids smart enough to predict the foolishness of our plan and sadistic enough to stick around to witness its inevitable failure) were frozen by horror and morbid curiosity at the sight of my misshapen arm.  Out of the corner of my tear-filled eye, I could see one kid approaching nervously with a long stick, the kind perfectly suited for poking things with.

In the absence of empathy for my "discomfort", it took a bit more screaming and begging to shake them out of their stupor, and they finally retrieved a bonafide parent to tie my arm in a splint and take me to the hospital.

See, you cannot be too careful when choosing a hero to worship.

As an adult, my criteria for what makes a hero has changed greatly.  Superpowers are no longer required (but still an asset).  Instead, I think heroism is defined by responding selflessly to an adversity that appears independent of that person's actions.  (Gee, thanks, Mr. Webster, but what the hell does that mean?)  Here are a couple of examples:

People who have struggled against nature's most extreme environment climbing Mount Everest, sometimes losing comrades, sometimes even sacrificing their own lives to save comrades, have often been called heroes.  I strongly disagree.  They placed themselves directly in the path of danger, not the other way around.  Climbing the world's highest peak is, by definition, the antithesis of selflessness.  Great achievement?  Sure.  Heroic?  Nope.

Captain Sully, airline pilot, is often touted as a hero for landing a failing AirbusA320 in the Hudson River and saving the lives of everyone aboard.  Many will disagree with me, but I don't see his actions as being heroic.  Heroes must have a choice, a choice between a selfish (usually easier or safer) response or a selfless (more difficult and possibly requiring great sacrifice) one.  Captain Sully didn't really have a choice.  I won't be so crass as to say he was only trying to save himself, but he would have done the same thing had he been alone.  Any other pilot would have also made every attempt to land the plane safely.  Would any other pilot have succeeded as well?  Not likely.  But skill alone doesn't make heroes.

(Don't get me wrong.  I still think Captain Sully is one of the coolest men alive, and he deserves keys to cities, supermodel girlfriends, book deals, and the eternal gratitude of every passenger on that plane.  I just reserve the title of hero for a different set of criteria.)

So, who makes the grade?  For starters, my dad does.  He hasn't singlehandedly stopped invading armies or dove into freezing waters to rescue drowning strangers, but he has had his unfair share of adversity over the past twenty years, and while he certainly complains (he's still a Gregson after all), he has never chosen the many opportunities he has had to take an easy way out.  I can name many rich men, and famous men, who have no claim on my father's integrity.  His choices have sometimes come at a great personal cost, and he's my hero for making them.

On a larger scale - as cliche as it sounds - the responders to 9/11, those who risked, lost, and continue to lose their lives because of their actions, their selfless choices, are rightfully immortalized as heroes.

And on a very small scale, a personal scale, there is Leanne.

I must have first met Leanne when I was about five years old, when both of our families lived near Vancouver.  Honestly, I can't recall anything about her from that time; I was better acquainted with her older brother and sister.  Leanne was only four, and really, how well can anyone get to know a four-year-old?  Just because they can talk (unceasingly) doesn't mean they are any more fathomable than the family pet.

My time in BC was short, and we moved to Cardston, Alberta in time for me to start 1st Grade.  But our families stayed in touch, and our respective travels sometimes allowed for brief visits.  The time I remember most clearly was a trip to Echo Lake our families took together one summer.  I was probably 13 or 14, and with Leanne just a year younger, I did notice her this time.  But aside from taking the the occasional walk together, leaving my disgruntled brothers behind, I had no idea what to do about my teenage crush.

One afternoon, I had my head buried in a book (a very common state for me at that age), and Leanne wanted me to come out of the cabin to play down at the lake.  It wouldn't have taken much convincing, but she threatened to kiss me if I didn't move. Well, there was no way in hell I was going to move now!  She followed through with her threat - an innocent peck on the cheek - and we headed down to the dock for an afternoon of launching ourselves off of the rope swing. 

This was my first kiss (well, aside from games of Kissing Tag in elementary school, but they didn't really count; I was usually caught by my second cousin...yecch!).  This meant a lot to a teenage boy who rarely attracted a second glance from the opposite sex.

After that summer, we may have written each other a couple of times, but I'm pretty sure the next, and last time, I saw her was at her sister's wedding.  We talked for hours, she told me about her boyfriend (bummer), and she told me she liked my long hair (heh).

Full disclosure: this was the mid-80's so I might, maybe, have had a haircut that resembled a mullet.  Maybe.

Anyway, just a purely platonic day or two with her was once again a much-needed boost to my self-esteem.  I have heard since that she has had this effect on many people; she had an optimism that wasn't corny or Pollyannish in any way, and was inexplicably contagious.

In the past several years, this positive outlook was put to the test when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006.  She fought back with a combination of modern medicine and determination, and her "charm offensive" seemed to work on the cancer. It looked like she had beaten it.

Sadly, this wasn't meant to last.  Leanne was again diagnosed in 2008, and once more she faced it down.  Then, in 2011, the cancer returned with a vengeance, appearing in her arm, spine and liver.  This time it was going to require more help than she could find in this country, and her sister led a fundraising effort to send Leanne to a specialized clinic in the states.  After a series of aggressive and alternative treatments, it looked like she might beat it again.  Her optimism throughout the program so impressed the clinic that they filmed short interviews with her to promote their services.

If life were a TV-movie, this would be the part where image on the screen freezes and the closing credits tell you that Leanne goes on to live happily ever after, spending all of her waking hours supporting others in their fights against disease.  Instead, the reality was that her last reprieve proved to be a very short one, and Leanne died on June 27th of this year, leaving behind her husband and two young children.

We had lost touch over the past couple of decades, so I didn't even know Leanne was ill, and only found out a week after her funeral.  Honestly, I hadn't even thought of her for years, and I was therefore surprised to feel such a sense of loss at the news.   I still don't receive second looks from women, I still need my confidence boosted from time to time, and hers was a friendship I now wish I had rekindled.  If for nothing else, I might have learned to suffer the shittier parts of life more gracefully.  (I know, referring to them as "shittier" shows how far I still have to go.) 

Can one person's dignity and hope in the face of death change the world?  Not likely. Still, Leanne wasn't given a choice of destination, but she did choose the brighter, yet harder, path to get there.  It's something I constantly fail to do, and I bet most of the nearly six hundred people who attended her funeral struggle with it too.  But we recognized someone who chose to be better.  Having met Leanne, we feel more optimistic about our own chances, and we aspire to be the kind of hero she will always be to her family.

Monday, 10 September 2012

New York City: Union Square Cafe

I'll admit that I place far less emphasis on the importance of good service than I do good food.  Many places we frequent - Spicy Hut being a very good example - usually have barely tolerable service but such good food that I'm willing to overlook small details like prompt service, full water glasses, or even the remotest hint of human warmth and kindness.  I can have a fantastic meal without it being garnished with smiles and friendly conversations.  In fact, I prefer an aloof server to a fawning one, the kind who compliments your every menu choice like you're some sort of gastronomic genius.

"Yes, excellent choice, the filet mignon is my favorite!  And you'd like it boiled, not grilled?  Oh, very good, sir!  And, sorry, what?  A bottle of...pardon me, ketchup?  We don't usually have any on hand, but only because we haven't as refined a palette as you, sir.  We'll send our chef out right away to get some.  And for you, ma'am?  Whatever is stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and you would like it well done. Brilliant!  I'll just go place your orders and will return in moment with your drinks and more insincere flattery."

However, if I am being served great food by someone who truly understands great service, then even I can recognize that a memorable meal can become something more: a memorable evening.

My wife.  Gosh, she's purty!

We had such a meal at New York's famous Union Square Cafe.  The food was fantastic, and our server, Patti, had a perfect blend of humour and cheekiness, while also taking care of the essentials.  I like someone who can serve up a witty "dig" as easily as they serve a meal.

I know it must sound a little bit masochistic, but I really do appreciate a clever put-down, even at my expense (then nobody gets hurt).  Over the years I've heard numerous attempts, mostly jabs about my (lack of) height.  The vast majority have been unimaginative and just plain irritating.  (If one more tall person leans over to rest his elbow on my head, I'm going to bite him in the ribs.)  But some have risen above the mundane and come up with some clever quips:

Once I was rejected by a prospective date when she looked down, held her arm out, and said, "Sorry, you have to be this tall to ride this ride."

More recently, I was marking attendance for our dragonboat team when one paddler asked me, "Are you making a list and checking it twice?"  To which another team member responded, "No no, Santa makes the naughty or nice list, not the elves."

These were funny, even (especially?) if I was the punch line.  So, if my waitress has similar wit and confidence to banter with good-natured barbs, there's a good chance it's going to be a fun evening.  Assuming, of course, that the food is equally impressive, as was the case at the Union Square Cafe.

I had lobster ravioli in a lemon butter sauce and was fortunately saved the embarrassment of licking the shallow bowl clean by soaking it up with a few remaining slices in our bread basket.  I was sorely tempted to order another round of ravioli, but I was trying to save myself for dessert.  And I was very grateful I did, because as much as I liked the main course, the dessert was even better!
I know, the focus is blurry.  Blame it on my iPhone.
Dessert was a two-bite Mascarpone cheesecake topped with a scoop of grapefruit sorbet. But what really made it for me was the fennel crust.  I don't know how they were able to peer into my carmelized soul and combine three of my favorite things into one dessert - cheesecake, grapefruit, and licorice - but they did.  Even though this meal was in celebration of Alison's and my anniversary, I was starting to feel something akin to love for our unseen chef.

Alison also enjoyed her meal which she finished with an intriguing dessert: a Porter Ice Cream Sundae.  This thing had pretzel-caramel popcorn and a black pepper (yes, pepper!) whipped cream topping.  Crazy good!  

It's odd.  I've read some very mixed reviews of this New York landmark, but we had nothing to complain about.

Except maybe a lack of booster seats.  (heh)

The Last Bite:
Like I said, I've heard a lot of really lame short jokes/insults, and only a few smart ones.  Have you heard any good ones?  Pass them along!  I can always use more.  After all, the best defense is a good offense.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Las Tortillas

I have a special affinity for “hole in the wall” restaurants.  These are usually family-run, offer little-to-no atmosphere, and have very limited seating.  Some also feature multiple health code violations, but I prefer the ones that have food so good that it makes you overlook the restaurant’s many other deficiencies.  Spicy Hut falls into this category.  So did another Bridgeland best-kept secret, the Cafe de Tokyo, a now-defunct sushi and ramen joint that was run by a family from Hokkaido.  There are many others, but one I been frequenting more...um...frequently (note to self: buy a thesaurus) is Las Tortillas, located in N.E. Calgary.

It’s funny when someone describes hole in the wall restaurants (AKA “dives”) from different regions.  With just a few details about the place, you can probably guess where in the world it is located.  In English cities, a typical dive (usually a pub) will be sandwiched between convenience stores or residences in a row of brownstones a la Coronation Street.  In Japan, I found most of these kinds of restaurants down alleyways, their modest neon signs reflecting dimly off overflowing dumpsters and passed-out salarymen.  In the southern United States, dives are often reclaimed farmhouses, barns, churches, or can be found in the back of gas stations.

In Canada, we seem to prefer strip malls.  I guess all the sexy locations were already taken.

Las Tortillas, like many small ethnic eateries in Calgary, also has a modest grocery section where you can purchase imported foods from Mexico.  This is great if you want to take home some authentic ingredients to make your own tacos, but it’s even better if you can actually read Spanish.  Sure, the serving directions for some things, like lime-flavoured corn snacks, are pretty self-explanatory.  Anyone who has ever popped open a bag of Frito-Lays is going to be just fine.  (By the way, “lime-flavoured” apparently has a broader definition in Mexico than it does in Canada.  In the case of these ring-shaped corn snacks, the term seemed to mean “realistic sock-sweat flavour”.)  But other items on Las Tortillas’ shelves can be more complicated than they at first appear.

For example, I thought it would be great to buy some imported mole sauce to add some variety to the Gregson’s taco night.  If you haven’t tried mole sauce, it’s an unlikely blend of ancho peppers and chocolate.  That’s right, chocolate on a taco!  It sounds revolting, but tastes crazy good…if you know how to prepare it.  Unfortunately, my Spanish starts with the word taco and ends with combo number three, so I didn’t realize that the jar of mole I purchased wasn’t exactly sauce.  After packing it against the side of hard taco shell like the reddish-brown mortar used to glue adobe bricks together, I realized something wasn’t quite right.  It tasted similar to what I remember having at restaurants like Salt & Pepper, but the texture was much closer to sand-infused toothpaste than any sauce should be.  Maybe it just needed to be heated up.  I popped a spoonful into the microwave and zapped it for about 30 seconds.  It was now considerably warmer, but it still refused to liquefy in any way.  In fact, it might have been a bit stiffer.  I think I could have shaped the lump with my fingers, nuked it for another 15 minutes, and made a nice little ash-tray or napkin holder.

So, figuring I wasn't about to be bestowed with the gift of tongues needed to read the preparation instructions on the jar, I asked the all-knowing wizard, Google, what was wrong with my mole.  Turns out it was jar of mole paste, not sauce, and I needed to thin it with chicken broth.

Anyway, this wasn't Las Tortillas' fault.  Their menu is much simpler, mole-free, and pretty much foolproof.  The only items available are: a beef taco, a chicken taco, a pork taco, a shrimp taco, a chorizo taco, a beef tongue taco, and a tamale.  (I think it's hilarious that they recently added the tamale to give their menu so much more variety.)

The tortillas are handmade and they use a variety of red and green salsas that are also created from scratch right in the store.  And their final touch is serving each taco with a slice of fresh lime.  Tara, a celiac friend of mine, introduced me to Las Tortillas because everything there is also gluten free. That doesn't really matter to me; in fact, I would order extra gluten with gluten on the side if I could.  But this will be a bonus for many patrons.

The tacos are very tasty, but be sure to order at least two because just one isn't very filling.  Plus, if you want to try both their red and verde salsas, you'll need to order a beef taco and one other variety.  Also, be prepared to get your tacos to go.  Seating is scarcer than a stable Kardashian marriage, with just six haphazardly placed chairs around a small table, uncovered and bare except for a pile of loose napkins in the middle.

Hm, loose napkins?  Hey, I bet me and my lump of mole paste could do something about that.