The Arbutus Line: Railway barons, green cities, and urban nature

Vancouver’s has a tempest in a teapot brewing on the West Side, in a neighbourhood better known for garden parties. In short, CP Rail today started tearing up community gardens to somehow up the ante against the city in what has to be the worst bit of corporate PR I have seen in a very long while. CP wants to sell the Arbutus rail line for housing, and the city wants to buy the line for future transit use and greenway space, at a much lower price. Now let us be clear, CP does currently have the right to clear the land, but let’s also be clear they were given the land for free back in the day when railway barons were lined up for corporate welfare from government, and let’s also be clear that the land is unceded Musqueam territory. So one could argue the city is squatting, the railway is squatting, and the gardeners are squatting.It is likely this fight will drag on for a while yet, with more gardens falling to the ax, and we might, before this plays out, see a train or two trundle down the rotting tracks to turn around and trundle back again. Motorists will be briefly outraged.

The rail line is to the left

The rail line is to the left

But what is being lost in this is the railway itself. As much as I hate to see mature fruit trees getting knocked down, I think the real danger is that we will forget how priceless a wide right of way going from False Creek to the Fraser River really is. It is priceless for transit, connecting 4th Avenue, Broadway, the rapidly developing Arbutus Corridor, Kerresdale, and on to Marpole. It could even wrap from Olympic Village Station right to Marine Drive Station. The city simply can’t afford to lose the track. However it is also priceless as a greenway. A clear path from water, over the crest, and to water again. That sort of thing just doesn’t exist in most cities. With a little work a streetcar could share the right-of-way with a green path connecting all of these neighbourhood hubs. And like it or not, unless CP can find some customers lurking along the line, the railway is going to look like the bully.

The Arbutus line is also drenched in history. The Sockeye Limited ran from downtown Vancouver to Steveston along the right of way, bringing workers from Japantown and Chinatown to the fish canneries, and then returning with fresh milk and produce from Richmond farms. The Limited ran at least every half hour, a service level one has to envy today. It was a critical link in a transit system torn up in the early 1950’s, a transit system superior in some ways to what we have today. In my perfect world, a lovely transit line would run up the corridor, and the rest of the space could be used for gardens and recreation. We could even cut and cover a streetcar system, and build a broad linear park above.

It is also interesting that very little is being said about the loss of greenery and habitat along the line. CP of course has zero need to clear as wide a right-of-way as they are clearing, but urban nature just doesn’t command much respect. This is a great shame, though nature will, ultimately, be found to be the owner of the right-of-way, though it might have to wait a few millenia for final judgement.

Summer food fact: Ice cream sandwiches should melt

I love summer, and I love enjoying some of the special foods that are best when the weather outside is at its hottest. Ice cream has been fueling fun summer food memories for generations now, and is such a lovely trick of chemistry, cream and air combining to make something smooth and ethereal. I was particularly fond of ice cream sandwiches as a child, despite the incredible mess they made as the ice cream melted and dripped. I thus shared the internet’s concern when ice cream sandwiches from a certain giant corporation were found to not melt at all.

The more science-oriented food blogs ran with this disturbing news, and showed that the stability of these ice-cream sandwiches is due to the addition of calcium sulfate, guar gum, and cellulose gum, which make up for the lack of cream and thickeners such as eggs in the industrial ice cream sandwich. Now I should make it clear these substances aren’t totally terrible for a person. Cellulose gum is the safest, as it isn’t really even digestable, though it can act as a laxative. Guar gum and calcium sulfate both can disrupt digestion, and some studies link guar gum to cancer. But I’ve seen worse things in food, so I decided to see how these sandwiches stuffed with filler actually taste.

Bad. They taste bad. The punch my childhood memories in the gut and leave them curled in a ball on the sidewalk. They taste like what they are: inedible filler! Granted they are very cheap, but at what cost? Who is going to remember them fondly?

Feeling somewhat like I needed someone to restore summer for me, I sought out Vancouver Island’s Cold Comfort Ice Cream where I found amazing ice cream sandwiches. I indulged in this lovely honey graham flavoured ice cream sandwich.

Summer is saved!

Summer is saved!

This little gem was likely the best ice cream sandwich I’ve ever had. The ice cream was rich and creamy and the cookie was delicious and crisp. As I savoured my sandwich, the ice cream melted, soaking into the cookie. Bliss!

Quality comes with a price, of course. My lovely sandwich was about 15 times more expensive than the cheap ones from the discount store that must not be named, and six times more than the cheap ice cream bars sold in corner stores. But that’s the rub, isnt it? There is no way to produce a quality product for the price of industrial food. And so I would rather have a couple of good ice cream sandwiches over the summer than gorge on a box of cellulose-laden cheap sandwiches. Thanks to Cold Comfort for giving me the choice!

 

Toronto roti, Vancouver style

A perfect evening

A perfect evening

I lived in Toronto for seven years, and there are things about Canada’s largest city I still miss. Simple things, like the sound of the streetcar wires on a cold morning, or the way the thunderstorms lash the old brick buildings with cooling rain on baking summer days. I miss the Herculattes at Moonbeans coffee in Kensington Market, and I miss the hangover specials at Mars Diner in Little Italy. But the thing I miss most of all is the roti, and recently I was chatting with a Toronto expat and she too was craving the hot spicy wraps that Toronto dishes up out of storefronts such as Gandhi Roti, which I have written about here before.
Faced with a renewed craving, I hunted around and found, to my delight, that Indian Roti Kitchen at Cambie and 13th is serving up a really good Toronto style roti, which is a roti bread stuffed with Indian food, in my case a nice spicy malai kofta curry. And the Indian Roti kitchen is delivering a great and reasonably priced roti. I’ve been back, and both times I was very impressed with the flavours, though they could go a little spicier on their spicy rotis. Rotis are a great take-out food, and as I sat on the beach contentedly munching away, I began to get curious about this odd food. In Toronto roti is very common, and is either East Indian, such as the ones they are serving up at Indian Roti Kitchen, or West Indian, usually a really spicy curry. But where did this food come from? Why does it come in two very different forms?
A little research suggests that using a roti as a wrap originated in Trinidad in the 1940’s as a way to serve spicy curries as a fast food. Hummingbird Roti in San Fernando claims to be the first place to do this, but it spread very rapidly. They are also popular in Guyana. The roti bread and the name came to the Caribbean along with indentured servants from India. However the West Indian dish, both curry and bread, is quite different from the East Indian version found in cities such as Toronto. Who started making a Caribbean dish based on Indian bread with typical Indian roti and curry? Likely someone in Toronto, Montreal, or New York, as the dish is found in all of those cities. The odds are reasonable that East Indian roti wraps are a Canadian innovation! As many people online note, roti with East Indian filling isn’t the same as the West Indian variety, but given roti is originally from India, it is an example of a food that has been modified multiple times. Definitely reason for further study!

Trout Lake Market turns 20

I’ve been taking some time away from blogging to work on some other projects, but the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Farmers’ Markets deserves some celebration. It is hard to imagine how much has changed in Vancouver’s food scene since 1994. At the time there was no mechanism for direct sales in Vancouver, and so the small band of farmers, crafters, and community members who set up in the parking lot of the Croatian Cultural Centre were technically breaking the law.  The idea of local food was still radical, and the idea of using parking lots for anything other than cars seemed a little crazy. I imagine that those first steps into a market culture felt anything but certain.

The cake was bursting with local berries!

The cake was bursting with local berries!

Oh how much has changed. VFM is a multi-million dollar non-profit operating a growing set of bustling markets that operate on nearly every day of the week. We have a winter market, a holiday market, and highlight the best local foods of the region. The market has helped feed a culinary rennaisance in Vancouver. Kale and arugula and rare cultivars of just about every fruit and vegetable are now common, but twenty years ago Vancouverites had to make do with a shockingly poor selection of farm goods on offer at the big grocers. Food trucks prowl our streets, giving us an alternative to fast food. The markets have helped create social spaces in our notoriously insular city, drawing people out to mingle and picnic. The markets have encouraged the restaurant scene, which has grown exponentially over the last decades, driven by a more adventurous public and cutting edge chefs.

Ultimately, what the market gave us was choice. VFM didn’t single-handedly reform Vancouver’s food scene, but it was an important piece of the puzzle in a general resistance to the boring, limited diet offered by the food system of the late 20th century. Vancouver’s markets rank as some of the very best in the world, largely due to their dedication to the pillars of quality and locality. A hub of innovation, the markets continue to evolve; the introduction of craft alcohol sales promises to highlight the exciting and growing worlds of brewing, winemaking, and distilling in our region. New foods continue to debut at the market, and we are reaping the rewards of a growing urban farm population alongside of a new generation of conventional producers. 20 years in, the sky is really the limit. So happy anniversary, VFM. Here’s to the next 20 years.

The Nanaimo Bar reveals some sweet secrets

A homemade Nanaimo Bar. Mmm.

A homemade Nanaimo Bar. Mmm.

I love Nanaimo Bars, with their combination of bittersweet chocolate, creamy sweet custard, and chocolate Graham Cracker base. I know they aren’t likely the healthiest food, and the dominant flavour is “toothache sweet”, but I grew up with them, and I am proud to call them a Canadian food. However the actual origin of this treat has been somewhat of a mystery, and so I decided given I am a Canada Research Chair in food I should get to the bottom of things. My student Shea Wind and I spent months raking over archives (and yes, sampling to keep our spirits up) and have largely brought the pieces of the puzzle to light. Our results, and a lot more on Nanaimo Bars, are out in a new article in the first issue of Canadian Food Studies, which is open access. Enjoy, but beware that an article about Nanaimo Bars can elicit certain…cravings.

Rhubarb Butter Tarts

Given its national distribution and historical staying power, rhubarb should take a place with salmon and maple syrup as one of our national-level foods. We are into the heart of rhubarb season, and I am finding all sorts of ways to slip this sour treat into pies and crisps. Last night I stewed some with onions and made a salad, and I have been giving small bags away as my patch produces far more than I need.

A delightful rhubarb butter tart. Where have these been all of my life?

A delightful rhubarb butter tart. Where have these been all of my life?

The trouble with rhubarb is its acidity, so I am always on the lookout for new ways to capture and mediate its flavour. The best rhubarb recipe I have encountered this year was being offered by the Tart Cart at the Victoria Public Market; a rhubarb butter tart. I love butter tarts, but they are pretty sweet, and of course rhubarb isn’t and together the flavours blend into buttery goodness. This is an all around great combo, and goes to show why markets are such amazing places; encountering new and interesting foods is a huge part of the market experience.

Two generations of tart cart folks serving up sweet goodness at the market

Two generations of tart cart folks serving up sweet goodness at the market

Inspired by the tart, I decided to make a butter rhubarb flan for the weekend, and I found a few recipes for rhubarb butter tarts drifting about the internet. The trick to baking with rhubarb when making treats with shorter cooking times is a form of par-boiling; the rhubarb is chopped, covered in boiling water, and allowed to stand for five minutes. This softens the rhubarb enough to be tender after a short cooking time but maintains the shape of the chunks. The result is pure deliciousness, so this rhubarb season I urge you to chase after the Tart Cart and try this interesting and very Canadian treat.

The Beavertail

The Beavertail donut might not be made from Canada’s iconic and hardworking little dam builders, but it is a tasty treat that has spread nationally and then globally in a short period of time. I was in Ottawa last week to give a Walrus Talk, and I had enough extra time to spend a little time in the Byward Market district. I finally managed to get a nice photo of the original Beavertail shack, and enjoyed one of these tasty Canadian treats.

Mmm. Donuty!

Mmm. Donuty!

The Beavertail, which is a registered trademark, is a rare example of a food where we know exactly when and where it was created, and who the chefs behind the creation were. It was developed and popularized by Grant and Pamela Hooker in the town of Killaloe, which is near to Algonquin national park. They sold the first ones at the local market, but knew that the sweet treats were a hit, and opened a stand in Ottawa a few years later. Beavertails are sold in many of Canada’s recreational landscapes, places such as Whistler, Blue Mountain, and the Halifax Waterfront. They are a festive food. The best way to eat a Beavertail, however, is while skating on the Rideau Canal, a quintessentially Canadian experience.

Beavertail 2

The toppings are varied, though I am partial to the maple glaze. There are savory toppings as well and one of my friends insists on the lemon glaze. In any case they are best eaten hot, particularly on a cold day. In Quebec they are known as Queues de castor. Though the Hookers claim the recipe comes from their family’s German background, there really isn’t any similar treat that involves sweet flavours in German cuisine that is quite like this. Keekla is similar but is almost always served wrapped around meat, rather like pigs in a blanket. And one doesn’t roll a Beavertail! So this quirky Canadian icon would appear to be made in Canada, and the Hookers can be proud in adding something new and distinctive to our cuisine. And Beavertails are certainly good with a hot cup of coffee!