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June 24, 2002

Glorious, Gluttonous, Glutinous Food

I'm not sure how I lasted so long. Food is such a central theme in my life it's amazing that I haven't written about it sooner. And no, the series on vending machines doesn't count - that was food-related, yes, but it was only about acquiring food, not about food itself. Well, I'm going to rectify that.

I can cook. I'm not talking just KD, Chef Boyardee, and beans and wieners, either. (Mmm... haven't had beans and wieners in a long, long time. Might have to change that.) Ever since we were quite young, my mother always involved my brother and I in the kitchen. She bought kid-oriented cookbooks, and would help us make a batch of Sweet Kisses (individual-sized meringues with chocolate chips in them) or Carrot-Pineapple Muffins (my favourite muffins at the time) or whatever was on the menu.

This early involvement in food preparation probably helped me avoid having to rely on KD and the pizza guy throughout university. Things started out simple (sometimes too simple) but eventually I got the hang of cooking, and can prepare a full meal all by myself if I have the opportunity. With a toddler running around, dinner preparation time has been considerably reduced, but I can still manage a decent meal. Nobody's died yet.

I certainly haven't gone gourmet on anyone. I've watched my fair share of Iron Chef, and while I think it's absolutely amazing stuff, I could never do it. Not only do I have a barely rudimentary knowledge of spices, there is some stuff I just plain don't like, most non-fish seafood and mushrooms, for example. What I tend to gravitate towards are easy, basic, yet flavourful meals that don't require an exquisite French palette or strange delicacies from around the world to enjoy.

Two favourites from my repertoire include my apple and peach perogies, and my cranberry Russian chicken. The perogies are the no-name brand from my local grocer, which I actually highly prefer to the gross ones that President's Choice inflicts on people. After baking them, or frying if fat doesn't scare you, I add them to sautéed apple and peach slices with an orange sauce. (You can also boil perogies, but I fail to see the point. However, they can be good that way if you're making them into a student's version of won ton soup. Make your favourite package of ramen noodles the way you normally do, add perogies, and serve. Added excitement: try eating it with chopsticks!) It's very yummy, very filling, and a great cool summer evening meal. The cranberry Russian chicken is even easier - just cook a few chicken breasts in a frying pan, and pour over them a small bottle of Russian dressing and a can of cranberry sauce (or equivalent amount of fresh homemade cranberry sauce). Serve it over rice with either broccoli or green beans. Mmm.

It's not a coincidence that both of those involve fruit of some kind. I'm of the opinion that fruit isn't used enough in mainstream cooking. At best you'll find a fruit sauce (apple for pork chops, cranberry for turkey) during your meal, but mostly they're relegated to the dessert tray. I'm trying to change that where I can, but as I'm not talking to Martha Stewart or Emeril on a regular basis, I have a feeling my fruity opinions aren't going to go very far. Not yet, anyways.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I have some favourite comfort foods. Everybody does. In highschool I would make an after-school snack of garlic bread. Sadly, I would do so by buttering a piece of white bread, sprinkle garlic powder on it, and microwave the whole mess for ten seconds or so. It was painfully hot, goopy, almost soggy, but tasty. Once in university I was in desperate search for an interesting meal, so I fried up an onion to translucent caramelized perfection, added the segments of an entire mandarin orange, and used the resulting mix as a spread over some warm pita bread. My roommates thought I was nuts, but they were the ones missing out on a nice, flavourful meal.

In more recent years I've occasionally reverted back to two typical childhood favourites (with a twist) when a proper lunch is just too much hassle to pack for the day. Peanut butter and jam and peanut butter and banana are two sandwiches that have always been good. But have you ever toasted them? I'm not talking about making them with two pieces of toast - that would be good, but you'd miss out on the best part. I start by making the sandwich, but then stick the whole damned thing into the toaster oven and put it through a normal toasting cycle. The result is a toasted outer crust, and inside the peanut butter has slightly melted, and holds a nice, warm temperature while you eat. Oooh, baby. Come to papa.

One of my closest friend insists that a peanut butter and banana sandwich is best when you use a bit of homemade mayonnaise with it. Personally, I think he's a complete freak, along with those yahoos that put ketchup on eggs and grilled cheese, but he's welcome to his other-worldly comfort foods, as is everyone else. Even within my own family there have been some odd comfort foods. For the longest time my own father's favourite snack was a can of sweetened condensed milk. Yup, he'd open up a can, sit down with a spoon, and consume the entire can in one sitting. Man, that's a sweet tooth. My paternal grandfather had some strange culinary notions of his own, too. His favourite snacks came fresh out of his own garden. In the morning, he'd fry up slices of green tomatoes with salt and pepper. (Yes, fried green tomatoes.) His evening snack were a few fresh-picked leeks, which he would simply dip in salt and eat raw. Yikes.

Food has its evil side too, and I'm not talking about those butter calories going straight to your love handles. Like any power, the misuse of food can lead to disaster, suffering, and oral misery. No surprise, I'm talking about cafeteria food. During the 12 months that I stayed in residence at university, I'm glad to say that in hindsight I can't complain about the food too much. The variety was pretty good, it tasted good, and there was lots of it. However, there was one encounter that shall forever be seared into my mind.

This incident revolves around a common cafeteria practice of food recycling. I'm not talking about taking uneaten food off of plates and reserving it - I've heard of that, and some restaurants have been busted for it. I mean using the leftovers in new meals, and using those leftovers in new meals, and so on, and so forth; you see the mixed vegetables in the morning's omelette, the fish from lunch ends up in a chowder, that sort of thing. On this occasion, we were being served "lasagna" for our evening meal. On inspection, I noticed some very un-lasagna-like ingredients stuffed between the layers of pasta; tomatoes, carrots, and even broccoli florets. It was rather unappealing.

"Big deal, I've had bad lasagna, too!" you say. I'm not finished. As I had no intention of eating the slab of whatever it was in front of me, I decided to do the proper thing, and bury the dead. I gently placed a paper napkin over the offending "meal" to lay it to rest. The napkin started sopping up the moisture from the slab, and with nothing better to do I helped it along with my fork. Inside of a minute, the napkin had been fully drenched, and was no longer distinguishable from the normal top of the lasagna. My roommate, who was witness to this event, even went so far as to call the assistant cook over, whom he asked, "Do you see anything wrong with this lasagna?" The cook answered no, and then seemed simply amused (not mad, not bewildered) to learn that a napkin had been assimilated by the lasagna. Ugh.

Luckily, I haven't met another mystery lasagna again. I have had to endure a week of Cuban resort low-season leftover recycling, but then I've also had the privilege of gorging myself on at least four of the dozen meals a day available on the Caribbean cruise we honeymooned on. Either way, I suppose I shouldn't complain, as my midriff reminds me daily that I have plenty to eat (way too much, actually) where others are going hungry or starving. I'm glad for what I have, and for the fact that I can enjoy what I eat. Now, if I can just stop what I eat from cover what little abs I have...


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