Friday, March 31, 2023

Discovering the World of Flavours Part One

Do you like ice cream?  I do, too much for my own good.  Do you have favorite foods?  Aren't they one of the things that make life a joy?  If you didn't find eating a joy, you might not survive, certainly would be less satisfied with life. Taste is one of our five senses and is chemical in nature.  Food is adventure.

  Our taste buds are necessary for our survival and a big part of our enjoyment.  Of course they can steer you to unhealthy choices, but this is intended to be positive.  Although this post is personal it contains universal themes that everyone can relate to because we all go through some sort of discovery of the world of food.  Food is more than sustenance.  We remember social gatherings and vacations where food played a role.  Like many a baby boomer I grew up with what I would call relatively bland foods, but that also were part of life's enjoyment. and family belonging.  As I became aware of a wider world I came to appreciate the variety of food experiences that formed part of a good life.  Look around, lots of food is waiting for your attention--but take it moderately. 

 I started out in a WASP home, that is White Anglo Saxon Protestant or more commonly meat and potatoes.  Sometimes you can hear that expression "meat and potatoes" but I am glad to have ventured outside it.  Still meat loaf, mashed potatoes covered with gravy, corn on the cob, roast beef, turkey and blueberry pies were enjoyed.  I thought I was pretty sophisticated when I discovered hot beef sandwiches with french fries.

Variety is the spice of life.  Spices indeed are a good metaphor.  They can make the difference.  Salt and pepper. are basic  I remember my father admitting that because he smoked he put extra pepper on his food so he could taste it.  I discovered salt at an early age and went overboard.  Salt is a necessity of life, but without any special effort you are likely to get more than is healthy.  These days I stay away from the salt shaker, but I usually let the waitress grind pepper for me.  

At one time I used to pride myself on eating the hottest spices, but was brought down to earth by a restaurant manager at an Indian restaurant in Kitchener who pointed out that if too hot you lose the taste.  I have borne that in mind, but found one exception in the Hamilton Farmer' Market with a somosa dealer who had different spices and I decided to try one that was made by the founder and it not only was pretty hot (perhaps not quite the hottest), but it had a unique flavor that I have come to prize.

When I was young, a hi-lite was Christmas, not just the gifts and visitors, but also turkey with dressing and cranberry sauce.   My Grandmother Davidson used to make a Christmas cake that contained rum although both she and my grandfather were abstainers.  Lots of other things that were yummy.  Later learned white meat is healthier than dark, but confess I like both.  In some ways Thanksgiving was better as it included pumpkin pie.  Nowadays people eat turkey whenever it is on sale or they just want a change from the usual.  Few of my in-laws would consider eating cranberry sauce, although cranberries are now considered healthy.

The rest of the year we of course would find a variety of things to fuel up our bodies and nurture our souls.  As a youth not worried about fatty foods which tasted better.

As a youngster and carrying over to retirement years there has been an unhealthy attraction to junk food, especially with sugar.  Chocolate bars and other forms of that addicting substance probably spoiled my appetite for healthier choices.  I liked chocolate bars with nuts, but another favorite was Turkish Delight.  A fairly common dessert from my mother was tapioca which I haven't had hardly at all since marriage.  I remember sometimes eating with strawberry jam.  A favorite from my mother was date cookies which I used for dunking in milk.  As an adult I learned they are full of starch and is now a thing of the past.

Another dessert that brought out my competitiveness was fruit cocktail from one can and with only one cherry.  As the oldest I usually managed to grab it and lorded it over the other three at the time.  I believe they now put out more than one cherry per can to cut down on fights.

Must have drank gallons of pop.  Coke, Orange Crush and Seven-up were my favorites.  As I developed a reaction to caffeine I gave up Coke, along with a late discovery of Brio.  On a Florida vacation I loved Cherry Seven Up with no caffeine, but learned that when tested in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan it was not popular enough and no distribution for Canada.  Root beer I learned was without caffeine and I liked it.  Tried one brand that claimed to have bite and learned it was caffeine that gave it bite. 

 Milk used to be a favorite of mine.  I remember my father driving me home from university and dropping into a store to buy extra milk.  However research suggested milk was not as healthy as I had assumed.  My daughter's swim coach told them not to drink milk before a competition as it took too long to digest.  A choir leader told my youngsters not to drink milk before a performance as it clogged up their throats.  I still can't resist ice cream, but have eliminated regular milk and cut down on cheese.

A special treat once in awhile was Fish n Chips wrapped in a newspaper.  Salt, vinegar and ketchup.  Prefer malt vinegar.  For salads I like Balsamic.  I didn't realize for many years that my mother had an allergy to fish, at least some fish.  On a trip with my father she had an allergic reaction to anchovies on a pizza, not realizing they were fish.

One creative idea occurred when a friend gave us a basket of pears from a tree in their back yard.  We thought we might eat them one at a time, but my mother got the idea of substituting pears for apples and baking Pear Crisp.  I loved it and still ask for it.

Somehow my parents had established a tradition of regularly visiting a particular Chinese restaurant (like a date nite).  The strange thing was for many years they never actually ate Chinese food.  Then somehow they were persuaded to try some and they both loved it.  Chinese food became a family treat we all looked forward to. When we moved to a place where there was no Chinese restaurant my parents sometimes drove about 45 minutes from Haliburton to Bobcaygeon where they did enjoy.  

The Chinese are well known for buffets and many feel that is a poor way to eat.  It is true that in our desire to try different options we fill our plates and then go back for our favorites.  In our area the Mandarin chain had a few options and I always liked it.  Locally they were sponsors for the MS fundraising and my wife was a top fundraiser which allowed us to visit a few extra times.  

There was a pizza store on way to high school and eventually my family discovered it and became addicted.  Pizza  has become universal, but I met a real Italian that originated near Naples, our beloved Nanny.  White pizza basically plain,but very tasty.  From my daughter, Roma pizza that is soft is another--One of my favorites was from a bakery on Isle d'Orleans, Quebec.  These days there are countless toppings to tempt us.  Pineapple, although controversial was a pleasant surprise.  From Korean tv I tried corn and enjoyed it.

The family comfort food of choice was ice cream.  My father explained that when first married he and my mother used to split a brick of ice cream.  As the years went by buying a half gallon went just as fast, of course by this time they had kids, starting with me. You can be pretty sure all of us loved ice cream.  I came to prefer ice cream blended with cake.  Favorite flavors included black cherry, rum and raisin, pistachio, chocolate, chocolate mint, maple walnut, but really I love dozens of flavors.  Strawberry ice cream was an answer when my Grandmother Coakwell asked me my favorite and she responded with a small freezer full of it. Like pizza manufacturers are looking for more exotic flavors to tempt us--a special danger for me.

Hot dogs and hamburgers were a regular part of my diet as I headed for the teenage years.  I  remember the difference was between 15¢  for hot dogs and 20¢ for the more filling hamburger.  Later I discovered footlongs which could be found in Port Dover and Easterbrook's in Burlington.

As a youngster I snuck into a neighbor's back yard and made myself sick eating plums.  That left a strong impression and I avoided plums most of my life, but have gradually enjoyed them (obviously loved the taste at one time).  Not realized they were included in fruit cocktail.

When I became obsessed with track athletics I developed the idea that liver was ideal the day of a meet.  Part of it was grossing out onlookers. I ate liver cold after my mother cooked some and at one level the practice seemed to work. 

Olives and Asparagus are truly items that are acquired tastes.  A great taste experience, but one that also makes you feel superior.  Blue cheese is similar and through my daughter's swim club I learned about Gorgonzola from a lawyer parent who loved Italian cheeses.  

Cooking on my own became a serious concern with my first job.which was in Barrie.  I remember a recipe of ground beef, pasta, onions and noodles that could be improvised.  I remember one salad made by my sister Pat made of rice, peas and onions.  To impress my girlfriend I made a roast beef with wine, mushrooms  and onions and for dessert, baked Alaska.  Once married I confess my cooking efforts have not been common.

Buckwheat honey with a strong taste that I enjoyed in herbal or regular tea and occasionally on toast..

My universe expands.  I faintly remember my father eating oyster soup, but years later after a mammoth search for a Christmas treat he said it was nothing special.  I, however felt the smell was nice.  Later on a networking group we were served oysters and a fellow member encouraged me; after the first time I didn't need any encouragement. 

For the most part my mother's idea of Italian food was canned spaghetti or some other canned pasta.   

Before meeting my wife I had been invited to both Italian and Ukrainian weddings as well as many private dinners for their unique foods.  Food is one of the celebratory features of weddings.  When I married into an Italian family got to appreciate finer points.  

My mother did learn to cook pasta, but really you need someone who lives as Italian to appreciate the many options.  Joining an Italian family can label you a mangia cake, which simply means cake eater which was an impression Italians once had to English eaters.   There are many variations on what we know as spaghetti such as linguine.  A variation I discovered was Rotini with its spirals that retained more sauce.  One new treat for me was gnocchi which are ricotta cheese filled pasta pockets.  Then there is lasagna that is eaten in layers of meat, pasta and cheese which also has variations that have gained popularity.   Another layered item and now my favorite is eggplant parmesan and learned later the eggpant had been brought to Sicily by Arabs.  A key element to Italian eating is the sauce.  Apparently Italians were the first Europeans to accept tomatoes as not being poisonous.  I watched my mother in law, wife and especially Nanny put hours of effort to making the taste just right.  Another Italian vegetable not heard of before was Zuchini and opened me up to zuchini relish which is preferable to standard relish.   

Italians certainly didn't neglect desserts.  Spumoni has to be added to my list of favorite ice creams as well as the more popular Neapolitan flavor.  At a pizza restaurant in Etobicoke, Pepi's, the owner encouraged me to try casata which has inspired me to combine cake and ice cream.  Cannoli pastries are another favorite preferring the Sicilian variation.

One peculiarity with my Italian family was that none of them would eat cranberry sauce except one nephew with a mangia cake father being the only other one to request cranberry sauce for turkey dinner.  They also ignored blueberries, another standard for me.  

An Italian habit that I have subsequently adopted was to eat salad after the main course. At restaurants it seemed normal to serve salad first while you waited for the main course to get cooked.  It seems most households carried on the habit.   

My father in law was Ukrainian and we got to eat much of that food.  Cabbage rolls and perogies are common and there can be variations with each, involving stuffings, for example mushrooms, cheese, rice, sauerkraut.  I had developed a liking for sauerkraut on hot dogs.  My son now lives in New Zealand and has learned perogies are hard to find there, so when he comes to Canada that is one of the things he looks out for.  There is Loaded Perogies in walking distance which offer quite a variety and has even got us eating them baked instead of boiled.  Ukrainian Christmas Eve had some unique once a year taste treats.  One was pickled herring and another was wheat in honey, both of which I liked.  One of my very favorites was called holibtchi (I think) and it was basically beet leaf with some sort of stuffing.  In some ways it sounds terrible and it is very labor intensive, but very delicious.  

Driving to Port Dover always involved some food rituals that made it more enjoyable.  A big draw was a 12" hotdog before they became more common.  In Hagersville was Hewitt's Dairy and there was always a long lineup--they always had a very large number of flavors.  As they were their own dairy it was always delicious.  On other visits we tried a restaurant the offered perch dinners that we had heard about back home, another add on was celery bread.  A few years later a crepe restaurant had opened and I loved crepes but seldom encountered them so I loved this restaurant that specialized with many options.  Apparently they had started as carts catering to tourists along the beach.   Unfortunately they decided to close during the pandemic.  More recently discovered Tandoori Salmon at a Port Dover restaurant.

We have lived in  a Portuguese neighborhood for almost 40 years near James St. that had about 4 Portuguese restaurants that we ignored.   Visiting our son in Victoria, but based in a Vancouver hotel at the end of week or trying various restaurants we were both tired and maybe a bit cranky and couldn't agree on a restaurant.  In the midst of our disagreement a young woman popped out and asked "why don't you come here?"  That was our introduction to Portuguese dinner and we no longer ignored them.  We did try seafood which we thought they were noted for, but got off on chicken with a pirri sauce.  Later a ritual became a patio special of mussels and sangria--which fortunately was in easy walking distance.  One of the restaurants posted something about fava beans (with onions and spices) that I quite liked.  When the World Cup or European Cup were being contested and Portugal was involved a parade of honking cars was something we both enjoyed.  One time one store offered fried sardines and I enjoyed one even with the head on.  

Fairly late one weekend nite my wife and I were looking at a new bakery on the other side of James St. that surprisingly was open.  Out of curiosity we crossed and went inside.  We were greeted by the owner and asked him a few questions.  He asked if we had ever had a a custard tart and then offered us each one for free.  I love them and appreciated they were a Portuguese specialty custard tartsdd.  Ola's is a favorite bakery.

At University of Guelph with a heavy contingent of agricultural students I encountered a maple syrup event that included pancakes with blueberries and loved it.  Later took my kids to maple syrup events at different parks so they could appreciate food doesn't just come from grocery stores.  One of my closest friends happened to be an Aggie.  Martin Weber was a city raised aggie student who had the idea he could make himself rich with what he called high bush blueberries which could be picked by machines.  He admitted that they would not taste as good as wild blueberries, but much more cost effective. It was a long and challenging effort as it took several years to reach the point where any blueberries were available and he never reached the stage of being able to use machines.  He had picked land used for tobacco as the soil was a bit acidic that helped blueberries.   I visited a few times and picked a few baskets, but it was very tiring.  He admitted he loved it when a bus full of Mennonites came and they were tireless pickers that probably saved a few acres of spoiled blueberries.  Unfortunately Martin died young and will be missed.  His blueberries were treasured.  Now most of my acquaintances share a love of blueberries which was helped by health benefits not promoted previously. 

Red Lobster was discovered soon after marriage.   I learned later that they did not have outlets in either the Maritimes or the Pacific coast as not cost competitive, but we thought they were a good deal.    Salmon sometimes barbecued with maple or dill was considered another taste treat.

We discovered the Hamilton Farmer's Market and got an education from many of the vendors.  An Indian vendor, really a sales representative sold us biryani almost weekly and explained that it tastes better if the bones are kept in it.  I had come to love Indian food after at first being repulsed by a strong curry smell in a small apartment inhabited by a lot of Indian families.  Tandoori chicken was a favorite barbecue item.  The smell grew on me to the point I loved it.

Also in the Hamilton Farmer's Market we had been introduced to mangoes and avocados along with some tasty recipes.  My sister Rebecca taught me how to cut mangoes.  I came to prefer a yellow skinned variety and at the time they were called Manilas.  I heard Ian Hanomansing say he preferred that type.

A few years ago there used to be a street festival called the Mustard Festival which I learned was supported by a local company, G.S. Dunn, the largest mustard company in Canada.  One habit I gained was that I now put mustard on corn on the cob.  Try it.  It does add to the flavor.  I also learned corn tasted better barbequed in its stalk.

I can't remember when I first became aware of bagels, but soon they became trendy and they are still in our freezer.  My sister, Rebecca on the south shore took us to a real Montreal bakery and we stocked up.

On a trip to San Francisco early in our marriage we had a few interesting experiences, but one that has carried on is the discovery of sourdough bread.  Sharon has a friend Beth who got her started on a starter kit that keeps on providing a variety of tastes. at

My daughter Heather is always checking out new restaurants and discovered one, "Culantro" that is based on Peruvian recipes.  They had a delicate way of preparing chicken and also used citrus flavorings on fish. My son Michael and daughter Heather meet with chef Juan who was a neighbor at the time.   

 Before moving to even more foods that taste good, I will mention one I do not like.  Squash.  I actually like the smell, but it tastes like grass.  Other people have told me that cilantro tastes like soap--but I love it.  So I guess there is something to genetic chemical preferences.

 As you have noticed I love a variety of foods with a waist line to prove it and this blog is already too long, but my world expands even more.  I bet some of you could tell about your own interesting encounters and you are welcome to do so.  Food really is a universal joy and the more you know the more there is to enjoy.  In the second part there will be more global encounters, but also some shifts in my thinking inspired and shared by others.

Be sure to check out part II where I discover more exotic foods, but also get involved with conscience and health issues.

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