Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Strawberry Season

I used to be a leader of men. I was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, and through one of those strange quirks which could only happen in the Canadian Forces, I was posted from sea to Newfoundland, to be the Headquarters Sergeant Major, responsible for the training and well-being of army reserves in that province. I was pretty good at it. I travelled about the province in some pretty tiny aircraft, conducting unit inspections and whatnot. Often there were opportunities to take a company of young troops for a nice hike and if I was nice to the instructors, they let me participate in some training exercises. How I loved bailing out a window four stories up with a rope tied around my ass! Salad days indeed.

Now I'm a follower. In the winter I follow the snow blower up and down my 550 foot driveway and in the summer I follow the lawnmower, hoping the grass will dry enough for mowing between the rains in Nova Scotia. I have officially retired, but I'm a busy sort, gardening and poking my nose into local affairs - there's lots to do. I edit the Open Directory once in a while and sometimes I write for Wikipedia.

I take care of things. I care for my wife, the Flower of Acadie. I look after the cat and the dog; and I cherish Hilda, my wife's mother and my own belle-mere. In French, belle-mere means mother in law, although of course as in all translations, something is lost. It means literally "beautiful mother" - sort of like an Inuit uncle I suppose. She gets all the parenting privileges, but has none of the responsibilities for discipline, which can make the right person pretty popular. Hilda had lots of daughters and all of them are well married, so she has lots of beau-fils.

Hilda stays with us because she can no longer stay alone. She is widowed and frail and topples over a bit. She stays with us because we have the space, resources and the talents and skills. My wife is a special unit registered nurse and I am a first aid instructor and observant. It is a good fit. Hilda will not be staying with us for all that long as she is eighty-one and her health is delicate. We are hoping to get her moved into a nursing home in her neighbourhood called Villa Acadien. All of her friends and contemporaries are there. They go to church together and cheat each other at cards. They all know the same songs and the same people and all of the stories about those people. If Hilda can get into the Villa while she is still a competent and functioning adult, things would be well. While we wait for the bureaucrats to find the forms and cross their endless T-s and dot their endless I-s, we make sure that Hilda enjoys her stay here with us.

Hilda and I breakfast together most mornings and then after, if the weather is good and she feels strong, we visit the gardens. The tulips and daffodils and the other smaller bulbs were glorious this year and the poppies, globe flowers, lilacs and peonies are a treat. The roses are coming along nicely and look to be full of buds. The apples had us blanketed with blooms for a while and something you might not expect - we have a lot of blueberries and their little white bell blossoms have a winey scent that carries a long way. When we're done with the flowers, we visit the vegetables. I garden in raised beds, so Hilda doesn't have to stoop much to inspect. We check out the broad beans, the green and wax beans, the carrots and the peas and she bad mouths my onions. Every time she bad mouths my onions. She says they are too small and slow to ever make salted onions, and she laments over the scarcity of good gardeners nowadays. Salted onions are important. A few years back, chef Paul Prudhomme visited in Clare township from Louisiana. He tasted the local rappie pie (potato rapure) and declared that it would make good wall paper paste. The man was arrogant and incredibly ill-mannered and completely missed the heart of Acadian cooking - salted onions. It is the base of all soups and stews and lends an impossible to duplicate flavour to all Acadian cooking. Over the past year and a half, Hilda has been teaching me how to make fricot and potato soup using salted onions. Pretty good stuff and be damned to Paul Prudhomme and his great wide arse.

When Hilda was in her prime she was a very strong willed woman, absolutely in charge of everything and everybody in her household and definitely not someone to be messed with. Now she has withdrawn, her focus is on grand children and great grand children, visits and the little things in life. She listens to her own body more and is in that stage of mild hypochondria that most old folks inhabit. Her focus is more on herself and less the denial of self for the good of all that the matriarch exhibits. Now that she is no longer personally responsible for the well-being of all her children, she has the opportunity to be good to herself. It can be difficult when you are an eighty-one year old woman and dealing with doctors. Hilda had breast cancer and it was determined to be estrogen-related, so they gave her Tamoxifen, which was a good drug, but it has side effects, among which are light headedness, lack of sleep, poor appetite, thrombosis, visual defects and cataracts. If you consider that at eighty-one, any estrogen that Hilda has is probably rejoicing in its viability and throwing parties to which no other estrogens come, you might conclude that a five year regimen of a drug whose side effects so closely parallel the standard effects of old age is almost malicious. At best, it was short-sighted. Her doctor of course is only forty-two.

Every year and only once a year, the strawberries come, and while they are here, those who love strawberries have them every way they can; fresh, with cream, with ice cream, in pies and in sorbets. We revel in the fresh strawberries and treasure them, because we know that fresh local strawberries have no equal and once they are over, it's over.

This is Hilda's strawberry season.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


I had this post written about the arrest of the alleged terrorists in Ontario. Oh, it was a doozy I tell ya. I had written it as a script for This Hour Has Twenty Minutes. It was going to be about an FBI agent who comes to Canada and works with a Mountie on telephone taps using the latest technology developed in that land down under, The Excited States.

In my skit the Mountie and the Feeb hear a group plotting to storm the parliament buildings and raise their revolutionary flag. The Feeb gets excited and wants to call for back up, but the mountie tells him they've obviously tapped into a Liberal strategy meeting and while much of what they plan might be shady or even illegal, that's just the way the Grits do things, eh?

Next they hear an obviously unbalanced protagonist screaming at his troops to bring him the entrails of Mr Harper, or "better yet, I'll cut his neck myself!". Again the feeb prepares for drastic action, but the mountie lets him know that they appear to be eavesdropping on a planning session of the Nova Scotia/Saskatchewan coalition of the Conservative party itself. Fortunately, I won't be writing about that silliness at all. Let the courts sort it out. This is Canada. No folks, tonight we discuss cabbage.

Cabbage is an often maligned but useful vegetable. It belongs to the cruciform group, which your oncologist will tell you is on the 'eat lots' list. It is aromatic and like onions, will add depth of flavour to soups and stews. It makes meat taste meatier and pea soup taste pea soupier and turns turkey soup into ambrosia. Good stuff, cabbage. All that being said, I prefer my cabbage raw, in the form of coleslaw. It comes from the Dutch word koosla, which means cabbage salad.

I like a colourful coleslaw and often shred carrots into it, both for the sweetness and the colour. If I want even more sweetness, and depending on the rest of the menu, a couple of tablespoons of marmalade in the mayonnaise mix will tweak the flavour with an elusive sweetness and character that will have folks guessing. Again, depending on the menu and what folks have been drinking, you may want a more aggressive flavour, and in that case a marmalade made with ginger can really spike the flavour of the coleslaw.

Other aggressive flavours that you might experiment with are horseradish, lemon, and lemon rind, hot curry, chinese chili garlic sauce, grated ginger root, fennel/anise and cayenne pepper. With the exception of lemon and ginger, none of the ingredients would be very good in combination, so in your experimentations, stick to just one and use just a wee bit until you get the flavours balanced. Surprising someone with a very aggressive flavour in a dish they expect to be mild is a form of assault - not funny and not attractive, so mind your culinary manners.

There are many other additions to coleslaw that merit a trial. Nuts such as walnuts and cashews are pretty nice and crunchy, but remember to add them in just before serving. Nobody likes a soggy walnut. I will eat coleslaw with raisins in it, but I'd prefer something a bit more colourful and adventuresome. Go to the bulk barn and try some dried cranberries or blueberries. If you make your coleslaw with red or blue cabbage, why not add fresh blueberries? As a matter of fact, a red slaw with blueberries should hit just about all the anti-oxidant notes. Might as well serve healthy stuff as well as tasty.

Friday, June 02, 2006

No Peeing Here!

Recently I visited the new Windsor Atlantic Superstore for groceries. I had my wife and my mother-in-law in tow and we were at the end of a long trip. We'd decided to pick up a few groceries before going home to Mount Uniacke. It was on our way and we could avoid a trip into Lower Sackville. Convenient. The store had most of the things we wanted to buy and we had just about completed our list, when both my wife and my mother-in-law decided they'd go pee. The location of the bathroom wasn't hard to guess as this store is a cookie-cutter model with the same layout as the new one in Digby. The bathroom is in the far left as you enter.

My wife pushed her mom's wheelchair down to the bathroom. Human physiology being what it is, once the organism decides it is going to pee, that thought moves front and centre and all else in the way of worldly ambition disappears until the peeing is done. The nearer the organism gets to the pee place, the more urgent the need. So, wifey and her mom arrive at the pee place only to find a woman with two small kids, and all three of them are doing the pee dance. Wifey asks the lady if she has been there long and the lady says, somewhat desperately, "forever". There is but one door and one toilet and that door is locked. The facility is busy, occupado - unavailable. The kids are on the verge of tears, the woman is desperate herself, wifey really, really has to go and the mother-in-law is doing a version of the pee-dance while sitting in her wheelchair. Like many older folks, she has bladder control problems. My wife flees the store, jumps in the van and takes her mom down the hill to McDonald's to pee.

I wait of course. Much later my wife returns. My wife is a warm, friendly, open-hearted and forgiving woman, which is fortunate for me, but she returned without her mom and she was distinctly cool. In my considered, expert opinion, she was quietly furious. Mom-in-law didn't quite make it to the pee place. Mortified and now changed into clean clothes, she waited in the van with only tatters and shreds of dignity left. As we leave Windsor Superstore, my wife informs me that we will never; and in her absence, I will never, set foot in that store again. So much for Windsor, Nova Scotia, Birthplace of Hockey and the last bastion against public urination.

Well, except that the Digby Superstore is the same. One toilet. Maybe two or three hundred customers and staff and one toilet.



I'm not sure what it costs to plunk down one of these Atlantic Superstores and pave a parking lot for it, but let's guess eight to ten million dollars. The total cost of the toilet and lavatory couldn't have exceeded say, two thousand dollars. It can't possibly be the money - can it? Is it the male stupidity of the architect who designed these Superstore boxes?

Supermarkets are very carefully designed. They follow the four corners principle. Most of the staples are located in the four corners of the store, which causes shoppers to circumnavigate the store to find everything, and temptations to enter the center, high-priced areas are carefully spotted to lead somnambulent shoppers astray. Look at how the shelves are stocked. The stuff you want to buy is either on the very bottom shelf, or on top. The stuff they really want to sell is at eye level. Don't believe me? Then get down on your knees and retrieve that can of tomato or mushroom soup from the bottom shelf. Yes, that's right - they are the top sellers. The folks who design these stores are cold-eyed, practical and experts in human motivations and reaction to stimuli.

Is there something about the need to pee then, that stimulates shoppers to spend more, or to spend more carelessly? I dunno, but I don't think so. I think they are just arseholes with no consideration for their customers. Consider who spends a lot of time in grocery stores: young mothers, kids and the retired crowd. All of these folks need to pee - a lot; and when they have to go, dammit, they have to go.

I've looked at the Nova Scotia Building Code and it's pretty clear about handicapped accessibility, but it isn't very clear about the number of toilets that must be in place per square foot of retail space. I'll be asking Loblaws, the parent company of Atlantic Superstores about their thoughts and I will definitely be bouncing up and down on my provincial member of parliament about it. I'll also be asking those rocket scientists at Dalhousie Faculty of Architecture (Note that Dalhousie arbitrarily changes their URLs like they change their pants, so I can't guarantee the currency of this link.) I'll be asking questions of Atlantic Superstore Customer Service as well. There is a good article about public toilets in The Coast 10 November 2005 .

Why do I have this bee in my bonnet? I like my mother-in-law. I respect her and the job she did in raising a bunch of pretty good people. I bitterly resent the look on her face as she sat in my van outside Atlantic Superstore in a mis-matched pair of pants. She deserves better than that.