27 April – Pop’s birthday and #tellastory day. Time to tell another (just like the other one…).
Food, glorious food. Like many people, I have lots of memories and associations with family members and food. When I started to think about Pop and food, I came up with many little stories and memories.
One of my earliest involves A&W. I remember a few times visiting the drive-in location – on St. Anne’s Road in Winnipeg – and the thrill of eating in the car, with the incipient danger of spilled root beer or a dropped onion ring, the tray dangling precariously from the edge of the window. This particular evening, we were having take-out at home. It would have been 1972 or early 1973, as I was not only kid in the house, but the only one eating at the table. After quite a while at the table, I was not able to finish my meal. As he cajoled and encouraged me to finish my supper, Pop at last challenged me – “finish your supper before I finish mine, or you’re going to bed.” In those days, Pop was a large man, so had a lot of food to eat. I struggled through tears to finish my Baby Burger. As he got down to his last piece of burger, he picked it up, turned to me and went to pop it in his mouth…and then took just a small bite of it and put the rest back on the table, giving me his familiar raised-eyebrow look. That sense of reprieve – and that kindness – is something I never forgot. I still had a chance! I did end up finishing my meal (I think he ate a few of my onion rings to help) in time, and was not banished to bed. I gave Pop a big hug for letting me win.
Several years later, while completing his PhD, Pop went through a physical transformation, losing a lot of weight and eventually ending up with the slim and trim figure he maintained for the rest of his life. While there are many family theories about how he did it, he maintained that his secret was simple: just ice water and Planter’s Dry-Roasted Peanuts. He ate jar after jar of these, sometimes as his only food during the day, and drank gallons of water (who wouldn’t need to, to wash down all those peanuts). Whatever the secret, the change was remarkable, leading to some very funny moments of him trying on his recently altered blue jeans, which now had just a single back pocket.
When he wasn’t scoffing peanuts and it was BBQ season, Pop was in charge of the steaks on the grill, which he dressed with his own sauce concoction. While it wasn’t that extravagant a mix (Kraft BBQ sauce was its main ingredient), there were some custom additions, including a big dollop of honey, that made it special and his. BBQ steak with a baked potato filled with all the extras was one of his signature dishes for many years.
In his later years, Pop’s food taste became both simpler and more extravagant. He was a creature of habit, so didn’t try new things often but when he did and he liked it, it became something he had often (rather like his approach to music – the same thing on repeat, over and over and over…).
In Ottawa, Pop’s favourite restaurant was Giovanni’s, in the heart of the Italian district. Every visit to him would involve at least one visit here (sometimes more). Every meal began with calamari, was accompanied by a pinot grigio recommended by the server, and ended with the best tiramisu I’ve ever had, before or since. The main course varied but was mostly likely some kind of veal. In later years, Pop would visit the restaurant late in the evening and sit at the bar with a tiramisu and an Averna (which is a digestif even viler than grappa). In 2013, I was in Ottawa for a conference and made a solo dinner date at Giovanni’s. It was delicious and lovely, but sad to eat and drink there without him. The tiramisu was as perfect as always.
At home, Pop had expanded his cooking repertoire over the years but not by much. BBQ was still the main event, occasionally with a side of pasta aglio e olio, cooked to perfection. He had also perfected a poached pear recipe (borrowed from another favourite restaurant), but his favourite dessert was a simple oldie but goodie – tinned fruit cocktail with arrowroot cookies. Those cookies will forever remind me of him.
Like music or smells, food can be richly evocative of people, places, and memories. Be it a BBQ steak or an arrowroot cookie, memories of Pop continue, and bring smiles with each and every bite.