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 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.

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