Wednesday, December 28, 2011

happy new year!

Health and happiness to all!

Cultural Flotsam Inc.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday Baking: A Study in Contrasts

Aftermath: what's left of 3 tourtières and 3 batches of sucre à la crème

In an unusual move toward domesticity, I decided I'd take on some holiday baking this year. Shortbread, rum balls, traditional French-Canadian tourtière and sucre à la crème. To turn the pressure up a few notches, we decided to host a Christmas dinner for friends, so I couldn't just feed the results to myself and my squeeze (or the compost bin), real live friends and even a couple strangers would be gladly forking my efforts down their gullet, and I was determined not to kill them in the process.

Now, while I'm not a total newbie when it comes to baking (I recall a rather well-turned out Ginger-Brandy Cheesecake from the Moosewood Cookbook on New Year's Eve, 1999), I would say that the general infrequency of these trials makes them much more of an event. Expectations run high.

Holiday baking, for me, is purely about nostalgia and pride. It's about recreating the sights and smells of childhood, and checking my ability to live up to, or rather strive to imitate, weakly, my own mom's indisputable talents in the kitchen.

Unlike cooking in general, baking requires extreme precision, which is why I often fail at it. My tourtière pie crust, which I was determined to make from scratch, turned out too dry and crumbly to even hold together. Despite adding far more water than recommended (I am repeatedly baffled by these recipes that call for no more than 2 tablespoons of water... Were these written for the tropics?) it just would not co-operate. Devastation! Oh my wounded pride! After a brief cooling off period, I trudged over to my local grocery store and picked up 3 boxes of Tenderflake ready-made pie-crust, and finished the job thusly.

Seeking guidance from my old French-Canadian cookbooks, the Joy of Cooking, plus innumerable websites, one thing became clear: the more I looked for clear, concise, simple recipes, the more convoluted things seem to get. Favouring tradition over modernity, sadly, did not prove to be the magic bullet I thought it would be. Perhaps knowing that today's folk bake far less than their parents' generation did, websites generally offer much more detailed, step-by-step insructions, as if speaking to a child, or someone who'd never seen an oven before. This works for me. In the typical shorthand language of recipes in ye olde cooke book, I cannot decipher what "boil until ball forms in cold water" means when making sucre à la crème. A minute ago I was combining the ingredients, and the next, balls and cold water are expected. Say what? I shamefully admit that I ran to the oracle, Master Google, for the answer to this age-old cryptic puzzle. What has become of me? Why do I turn to a faceless, heartless Internet in search of clues into such traditional wisdom? Still, it took me three batches to finally nail that sucker. And the results, I might admit, were heaven.

Of course, when I later spoke to me dear ol' ma, recounting my day's adventure, she calmly unraveled her own culinary wisdom, as if speaking to a child, which, in this case, she was.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Santa's Village

While in Moncton this past summer, we stopped in at Carson's Flea Market, where I found a bunch of odd-ball postcards from the 1960's from Santa's Village in Jefferson, New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die" indeed). Since the Christmas season (which now seems to start the week before Hallowe'en) is such an oppressive capitalistic enterprise, I am irresistibly drawn to anything that resists or subverts it.
See this post from November 2009 for more on that.

All tarted up for the tourists.

I love that expanse of bright blue sky above Santa's helicopter. How it suggests escape.
The dramatic angle of the helicopter blade as it pulls him toward freedom.
The friendly wave that belies his desperate urge to get the --- out of that itchy beard and suit 'cause it's 90 degrees already.
Fly Santa! Fly!

I guess the whole North Pole theme doesn't get you very far when planning amusement parks. Bring in the whale!

"Christmas is Santa's birthday, children."

Only now can we understand this as a foreshadowing of Global warming in the far North.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Cultural Flotsam is 5 years old!

Simple. Imperfect. Kinda awkward. Delightful (and hopefully delicious). That's what this cake looks like, and that's how I feel about this ye olde blog five years in. Got some enticing posts up my sleeve which I plan on banging out within the next short while. Stay tuned for Things That Make No Sense and a short rant about the faux-hawk.

Thanks for checking in.

xo JB

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What is it?

I've had this mysterious object for several years now. I found it in my desk drawer at work shortly after starting my job, so the exact provenance is unknown, altho judging by the packaging design, it's fairly safe to assume it's an Apple product. I've held on to it all this time, Googled the product number to see if anything came up, tried to guesstimate what function it could possibly serve, even asked the techie guys at the computer store what they thought it was, all to no avail. It looks like some sort of retrieval instrument you slide into the CD/DVD slot, but that doesn't concord with the type of design from that era (1997 judging by the date on the back of the envelope). Arrrg - it's driving me crazy! Maybe it's an IKEA swizzle stick called SNÖDK.

Anyone out there have a clue? Anyone...?

That Dutchman's Cheese

One of the nice things about settling into early middle-age is that you begin to appreciate things you ignored for so long or simply didn't have time for. Like cheese.

Anyone who frequents the Halifax Seaport Farmer's Market would be well-acquainted with the neatly stacked rounds of Gouda brought in from That Dutchman's Farm, "producers of fine farmstead cheeses". I was introduced to their gouda a few years ago when a friend from Halifax brought some over to Montreal, and I drool for it since. If you manage to get your hands on one of these wheels, prepare to hallucinate.

Photo: Willem Den Hoek, master cheese maker.

Tasty links:

That Dutchman's Farm

Halifax Seaport Farmer's Market

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sin Jan's Newfnlan!

Spurred on by those other-worldly TV and print ads from the Newfoundland and Labrador tourism bureau, I recently realized my dream of visiting St. John's, thanks to landing a show at Eastern Edge Gallery.

While not installing my work at the gallery, I was able to roam the streets in search of the things that St. John's is known for: namely pubs and fish n' chips.

First order of business: The Duke of Duckworth pub. When you order the fish n' chips and they ask you "d'you want dressing n' sauce widdat?" just wipe the drool off your chin and nod hungrily. Who knew stuffing and gravy could catapult regular old fish n' chips into the stratosphere of greasy fried goodness?

The Duke of Duckworth is now most famously known as a regular setting in the CBC show Republic of Doyle, which I watched for the first time while I was there. It's OK.

Just around the corner from Hill O'Chips is Sappho's Café on Duckworth. Try their fish cakes.
Café photo courtesy of Loutron Glouton, Flickr, CC (credit where credit is due now, folks).

View of the Harbour and Signal Hill from The Rooms. I will not get into what an architectural mess that building is, but I will say that the decision to include this wonderful oasis from the rest the museum was an excellent move. The view is spectac.

Typical downtown St. John's housing with its flashy colours. Love it.
You can't quite tell from the photo, but the hills are killer. People there have thighs of steel.

For the record, it's Fred's. I bought Neil Young' latest, Le Noise, as well as a 5-record box-set of The Nashville Sound from the 1960s.

Being from the Prairies, the ocean is a foreign and frightful concept to me, altho interestingly, also strangely familiar at the same time. I was thrilled to bits to be driven out to Cape Spear, North America's eastern-most point. Thrills, chills and potential spills await!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

For here or to go, or from here to eternity?

Whatever happened to the logic behind the question "For here or to go?" in franchise coffee shops? Walk past any Tim Horton's (by far the nation's worst offender) and you will notice that every one of their "for here" customers is drinking from a paper cup. The option of having your coffee served in a ceramic mug seems to have fallen entirely out of favour, and plenty of irate people want to know why. A quick online search of "Tim Hortons + cups + garbage" will bring up reams of rants on the subject, including this blog. There are even reports of people offering their own reusable mugs to have filled, only to have their coffee first poured into a paper cup, then dumped into the person's mug. The paper cup 'measure' was of course immediately tossed into the trash. Time used: 3.5 seconds. This offense seems to be most commonly committed while ordering from the drive-through, in spite of specifying the use of a travel mug upon ordering. Why do these shops make it so difficult for people to make a small gesture of goodwill toward the environment? If a company's bottom line rules so hard that mere seconds wasted can adversely affect their profits, then I think more people need to wake up to the hypocrisy of their special blend of Can-con/hockey-mom/fishing-dude marketing spin, not to mention the fact that their environmental policy, as outlined on their website, doesn't seem to be trickling down to their counter staff. Why aren't they being held more accountable? A statistic quoted in a Maclean's article cited that 22% of the litter in Nova Scotia could be identified as a Tim Hortons product.

The company website does offer this PDF on their community and environmental initiatives, which outlines a commitment to the following:
  • 5% reduction in packaging within our supply chain and manufacturing operations by 2012.
  • Work to achieve a solution so that our paper cup is accepted in recycling and composting systems in local municipalities.
  • Currently recycling (or composting) our cup at over 400 locations and working to increase these recycling options in other jurisdictions.
On a positive note, two professors at the University of Manitoba have begun research into using discarded coffee cups - currently not accepted in most recycling plants - to turn into biofuel. An article in states that Tim Hortons cups, because of the components and processes used to manufacture them, work better than other cups , such as those from Starbucks.
Should this process actually work in the long run, will people start buying more take out coffee in order to "save the planet"?

Others who address this subject:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Odds and ends in La belle province: numéro trois

An out of town friend of mine once asked me to name my favourite things about Montreal. I can't quite remember what I answered exactly, but I'm sure I included at least a few things from the following list, as they've been favourites from the start. I continue to reflect on this from time to time, when I have one of those quintessentially Montreal moments, where I encounter another quirk in this beautiful, difficult, cold, hot, awesome, oppressive, wondrous place. The list just keeps growing.

In no particular order:

1. Aiguisage Tony. Elusive. Slow-moving. Deadly. This old-world blade sharpening service is a rare and exciting sight to behold, if only because you never know when it will appear. Tony gives a fair but brief warning of his arrival through the unmistakable, gentle clanging of his bell. Like children to an ice-cream truck, adult foodies, lawn and gardening enthusiasts, and just plain old knife fetishists bolt out their doors and down those notoriously windy Montreal stair cases, knives, axes, and scissors in hand, to chase Tony down before he turns the corner and out of sight. I have never caught him.

2. STM night riders. City bus drivers often turn the lights down in the front half of the bus. This is probably to cut down the reflective glare on the inside of the windshield, but the bonus secondary effect is that it has an amazing pacifying effect on passengers.
Pair that with the sweet sound of a Habs game emanating from their little transistor radios, and riding the bus (or even driving it) is pretty alright.

3. The mind-boggling cultural divide. It's quite easy to meet savvy, educated Quebecois adults who, despite having grown up with cable TV, have never heard of David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live, or Peter Mansbridge. That one can, technically speaking, spend a lifetime in Canada, neighboring with the most prolific, bombastic entertainer on earth (them Yanks), and still manage to filter out a large portion of that noise, amazes me. The cultural divide runs much deeper than one might think. They LOVE Elvis, tho.

4. Dépanneurs or "deps" as they're colloquially called. Independently-owned and operated corner stores whose best feature is the offer of cold beer on every corner. Best of all on those scorching summer evenings: large, self-serve, walk-in fridges you can just chill out in while you ponder their selection. Speaking of which...

5. Micro breweries. One of the truly delightful things about living here is never having to order big name "domestic" beers while out for a pint. The choice of locally made beers here is astounding, as is the incredible kitschy-ness of their labels.

Les québécois are as passionate about their distinctness as they are about their beer, so it comes as no surprise someone dreamed this baby up, no doubt whilst nursing a few late-night brews. L'indépendante, as the brand suggests, is a separatist's answer to drinking your way to independence.

Manifesto from their website (translation mine):

"The Independent. Its taste is that of freedom and its aroma that of the will to reclaim our destiny. Its ingredients are courage, affirmation, determination and the confidence to make Quebec a country where ideas and passions are brewed. The Indendendent is a beer that is savoured and discussed. Its profits will go toward the promotion of Quebec as a nation, and the active engagement of those who want to see Quebec take its rightful place in the world. The Independent is a beer that will never surrender."

The text on the image above reads (I did NOT make this up):
"An ambitious fundraising initiative has been launched to promote Quebec independence. A new beer, The Independent, is being brewed in various regions of Quebec and its profits will serve to promote the nation of Quebec.

Forward this information to a maximum of people, visit our website,, and see if this beer is sold near you. If it is not (although soon it will be everywhere) find an alternative means to get it (perhaps someone you know lives near a retailer).

If every Quebec sovereigntist buys two six-packs per year, we will soon have the financial means to launch an important campaign for the country Quebec deserves to become."

While not exactly promoting emancipation through alcoholism (only two six-packs?), if they really wanted to tear the country apart, every Independentiste might look like this.

By the way, I've tried this beer. It tastes like Coor's lite. Although I also entertain the idea that it's actually Molson Canadian with a different label. Ironically, despite Molson's being headquartered and brewed right here in Montreal, Molson Canadian, with it's "I AM CANADIAN" ad slogan and evil, pointy maple-leaf, is biera non grata in Quebec. Although not that many people seem to notice.