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An Open Letter to Noilly Prat

It’s so long ago now that I don’t remember how Noilly Prat vermouth came to be the other ingredient, along with gin, that I use to make martinis.  But it has become indispensable.  I have never been one of these Churchill/Buñuel martini drinkers who talk about letting the light pass through a bottle of vermouth to infuse their gin.  It’s a charming idea, but that drink is not a martini.  It’s straight gin.  Now, to reinforce the slogan that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, Noilly Prat began disappearing from store shelves (in my part of the world, at least) in May.  And now the shop keeps a hole on the shelf where it used to be with a sign underneath that reads “Disponible sous peu”, rather than replacing it with something else.  I check the empty spot every time I go in and occasionally ask an employee, what’s up with Noilly Prat?  No one seems to really know.

Eventually, I found out from a blog on the internet (rather than any official source, which is baffling) that Noilly Prat is re-introducing its old-old formula sometime this autumn.  The story of the different formulas is a little confusing.  However, what frustrates and engages more than that saga is that the company simply decided to let its old supply run out months in advance of the new supply arriving, leaving nothing in the shops in the meantime.  So from May until roughly September (I think that’s their deadline), no Noilly Pratt, which has sent me trying out every other type of vermouth with very high and very low and extremely mixed results.

In capsule, the story of Noilly Prat’s changes involves switching out the New World formula for the Old World formula, which I noticed happening back in 2009 only because the shape of the bottle had changed.  I thought it was just a cosmetic uplift, and then eventually noticed that the colour and flavour of the vermouth had changed (for the better).  Now they’re going back to their old formula, in which it’s one vermouth for North America and another for the rest of the world.  The American formula was always cleaner and less characterful than the European, which was slightly golden in colour and could credibly pass for a fortified sipping wine.

I have to say that I’m going to miss the old Noilly Prat.  And now that I’ve had a few months off from its flavour, we’ll have to see how it stacks up against the sickly sweet likes of the Martini brand and its cousins.  It will have to win back its crown from Dolin vermouth, which is easily the most pleasant vermouth I’ve had to drink in the meantime.  Noilly Prat must be bargaining that its loyal customers will return, even after a long absence and the substitution of a “new” product for something that we’ve now had a couple years to get used to and enjoy.  I hope the risk they’re taking will merit the reward.

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Making Caipirinhas

Some weeks ago, I was over at my friends Jenny and Eloisa’s place for a summer party, and Eloisa was operating an assembly line in the kitchen cranking out caipirinhas.  At some point in the evening, she said to me, “Here, I’ll make you a real one.”  I don’t know the difference between a real one and a phony one, so I said, “Sure.”  She had been making the caipirinhas with vodka all night because her own supply of cachaça, much scarcer and more expensive to get here than in Brazil, was very low.  Anyway, at that point, having consumed half a dozen or so of them, I may not have appreciated the subtle difference imparted by an alcohol fermented from cane sugar, rather than a neutral spirit such as vodka.  But I was certainly intrigued enough to go back and ask for a lesson.  If you want to know something about Brazil, ask a Brazilian.

Over the past decade, the drink has gone from being available mainly at common roadside stands, beach huts and bakeries to high end nightclubs and bars outside Brazil.  Likewise with the spike in popularity, different varieties of the drink have evolved.  A caipirinha made with vodka instead of cachaça has always been popular and is called a caipiroska.  Then there are the fruit-flavoured versions, passion fruit being the most popular, with strawberry a close second.  You can also substitute rum for cachaça and call it a caipirissima.  No matter how refined it gets, the caiprinha can’t escape its origin as a drink of the common people, its name derived from the word caipira, which means “hick, yokel, hillbilly” or whatever colourful pejorative you can think of for a hayseed.  “-inha” just supplies a diminutive suffix for anything you feel affectionate about, so the translation for the drink just about means “cute little country bumpkin” or words to that effect.

While purists will shun anything but the classic cachaça, lime, cane sugar and ice recipe, many people prefer the vodka version for the very practical reason that, according to Eloisa, “vodka gives you less of a hangover.”  This jibes exactly with my experience with sugary alcohol drinks (or Champagne) which can pretty much kill you the next morning, compared with the relatively pain free morning-afters inflicted by purer spirits.

The obvious secret ingredient is cachaça, which can be bought either mass-produced or as very small-batch, almost homemade brands.  I begin to get confused during the process when Eloisa starts using the word pinga interchangeably with cachaça.  She tells me, “Cachaça and pinga are synonyms.  Apparently, there are more than a thousand names for it.”  Just like snow.

As for all the brands of cachaça available in Brazil, in North America we’re sort of hostage to whatever the local liquor authority decides to stock.  Some cachaças are better than others, however, and similar to the way you don’t necessarily want to use the finest bourbon when making an Old Fashioned, if you spot a pricey bottle of cachaça it might be better reserved for reverent sipping than mixing into a caipirinha.  Says Eloisa, “When you make really good pinga, then you put it in barrels, to age them.  So they get a lot more character because then they get woody and they get softened.  It softens the taste, so it seems less alcoholic, but it also acquires a character, so you really don’t want to use that for caipirinha.  Sometimes you do it because you’re desperate, you just find a bottle, a super nice one and you make it and just go, ‘Yeah, not that great.’”

There’s a social component to having a drink in Brazil that goes beyond bar culture.  I’m most surprised by the idea that people go drinking in corner bakeries, padarias in Portugese but informally called padocas.  Eloisa explains, “In São Paulo, you go drinking a lot in bakeries.  There’s like the bread section, which is also like a lunch, dinner section.  You can sit at a counter and order a sandwich, or you can order a full meal, rice and beans and meat and salad.  And they have, when you go pay, around the cashier, there’s always a big glass thing that surrounds the cashier, like aspirin and cigarettes, you know, that stuff.  It’s a mix of bakery and that and a bar, so it’s three things at once.  Not all bakeries are like that, but many are.  They put two tables on the sidewalk outside.  And this is probably the cheapest way of drinking, and bars.  You end up going to bakeries because you’re there and your friends say, ‘Let’s go have a beer.  There’s a bakery on the corner of my place.’”

To begin assembling a caipirinha, you have to evaluate your lime.  If you can find key limes (called limão galego in Brazil), those are your ideal.  And if you’re using regular limes that seem like they might be a bit hard or dry, you can help them along by rolling each lime under your palm on the cutting board with some force, to loosen it up a little.  Some people cut the lime into slices and others cube it.  In either case, the white pith running through the centre should be removed.

Then you add sugar to the lime in the glass and gently crush the whole thing with a wooden muddler.  Ideally, you’ll use cane sugar, but can substitute plain white granular sugar.  Using simple syrup would probably work, too, as a sweetener, but Eloisa advises, “you sort of use the sugar as a grit to get the oil out of the skin.”

Then add your cachaça (substituting vodka if you can’t find it) and stir.  Fill the glass with ice.  The ice should be quite small, not like snow or slush in its consistency, but smaller than full-size ice cubes.  Give that a stir and it’s ready.  Transfer it to a serving glass if you’re worried about presentation.

Bartenders who work at beach huts will use these small glasses called americanos.  They fill one glass with the mixture above, put an identical glass on top, wrap a hand around both, sealing the gap, and then shake (see video for demonstration).  Your technique has to be pretty good to avoid spillage, not to mention that it helps if you have hands big enough to do the job.  These bartenders no doubt make hundreds of these per day, so I imagine they have it pretty much down.

This has all made me want to look into booking a flight.  If you do get the chance to go, there is a city that lays claim to being the caiparinha’s home.  “The specialty stores in Paraty,” says Eloisa, “they have everything.  If you go to those stores, they have everything that’s produced in the region in the state of Rio.  They have a wall of just cachaça.  You talk to the guy, because they have cachaças from that area.  You just ask them, ‘I want a very soft one, just to have by itself.  Or I want one to make caipirinha.  I want one with a lot of character, that’s like smoky.’  And they just bring it to you, and they give you to taste, so you leave the store kind of drunk.”

Short of making such a trip, though, you can get by making your own and enjoying Brazil’s national drink in this hemisphere.

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Shrubbing It

The shrub (a fruit-flavoured vinegar for use in a cocktail, typically involving rum and soda water) is a portal to another time, another place, the 19th-century American South, to be exact, front porches, white suits, and all that.  It is also, with its perfect combination of lightness (the water), strength (booze) and tart (vinegar), a beautiful summertime drink.  Looking it up, one finds that it’s an anachronism, hardly drunk by anyone, and not very well known even among the drinks cognoscenti, which is a pity.  But clearly it’s also a drink on the rebound, or at least a drink with nowhere to go but up.  And so it goes.

Paradox rules in life, and summer heat adds a layer of delirium over top of even the most counterintuitive drinking decisions.  You might reach for a drink that seems like a good idea in that moment, but what you need is to clear the cobwebs.  A dose of sour, administered by a fruit-flavoured vinegar, is just the corrective to get your head right in the midst of the haze of mid-July.

Following the recipe in How’s Your Drink?, the great book by Eric Felten, we begin by making the shrub itself, which is a fruit-flavoured vinegar concoction.  Readymade shrubs are apparently available in many flavours and can easily be had, thanks to the Internet and mail order service.  But why not make one, in honour of those who enjoyed the innocent pleasures of this drink in pre-industrial times.

One must:

-Stir together 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of water in a saucepan over brisk heat until the sugar is dissolved.

-Add 2-3 pounds of raspberries (or any kind of fruit, actually), reduce heat, stir occasionally over 10 minutes.

-Add 2 cups white vinegar and raise heat again.  Boil for two minutes.  Remove from heat, cool, strain and bottle.

The bottle of shrub can go in the refrigerator for summer-long use, but the whole point of the vinegar is to preserve a flavour without refrigeration.  Like confit de canard, this is a recipe that, strictly speaking, is obsolete, but it’s a pleasure all the same to go through the ritual of keeping jars of duck parts suspended in fat in the larder.

Once you’ve got your bottle of shrub, you’ve got the basis for a raspberry rum shrub “cocktail” (though this drink predates the formal beginning of what we now know as “cocktails”, and therefore deserve a different style of drinking as those more metropolitan drinks).  The fruit-flavoured shrub feels essentially rural, a pastime of innocent summer.

The drink itself calls for ice in a glass, topped with 1 oz. of shrub vinegar, 2 oz. of rum, 4 oz. of either ginger ale or soda water (I find that soda water works better at showcasing the shrub), a brief and not-too-vigourous stir, and perhaps a garnishment of one or two leftover raspberries.  Delish.  Long live the shrub.

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Hard to Get: The Appeal of Pimm’s N°. 1

Wimbledon is said to be the right time to enjoy a Pimm’s N°. 1, custom mandating that tournament attendees slurp the quintessentially English drink out of a jar, which seems a perverse reinforcement of snobbishness.  You imagine a bunch of people standing around in their idea of formal dress, holding these drinks in their hand and, in the words of Simon Amstell, talking as if their mouths were full of pound coins.  I first drank Pimm’s some years ago when in London a friend of mine and I were wandering around looking for a bar.  We came across an appealing looking place called the Sherlock Holmes Pub, and since it was a sunny afternoon, he asked if I wouldn’t like to have a Pimm’s.  “A what?” I replied.  Simultaneously freakish and plummy sounding names for things is another mark of the English character, like we’d be drinking it with men called Chuzzlewit or Balls or Jagger.  I’ll admit the appeal of the drink wasn’t immediately evident to me, like a fruit salad floating in a slightly bitter off-red stew, but that’s the way it has been with a lot of my favourite things:  Brussel sprouts, Elvis Presley, watching tennis.  Now when I dislike something, I often wonder if there might be a pearl lurking in there.  Usually, though, and seriously, my initial judgement is correct.  And Pimm’s is appealing exactly the way a shabby English rooming house is elegant (nice if you squint ).  What I mean by quintessentially English, too, is that its refinement stems from its vulgarity. It is both reassuring and baffling at the same time, just like the highs and lows of British culture.  The comfortable fug of the drawing room is interrupted by the appearance of a Miss Havisham in the doorway with a bit of decayed cake frosting on her lip.  A sporty man in tennis whites and a sweater tied round his waist is only five years from becoming a paunchy sea monster with rotten teeth reminiscing about his fondness for a bit of the old argy-bargy, his hands motioning in front of him as if turning an invisible steering wheel.  Pimm’s embodies these English polarities well, refreshingly so even.  It is the best of drinks and the worst of drinks, redolent of the nation that gave us Shakespeare and Benny Hill, both equally revered.

When I got back, I had a hard time finding Pimm’s.  In my case, it’s because I live in Quebec (not known for its anglophilia).  In Ontario, however, it’s all over the place.  Figure that.  So it being a hard-to-get ingredient created a sort of mania on my part.  But it’s a well-known fact that the attainment of a sought after thing contains as much disappointment as satisfaction.  In the words of the immortal song, “Is that all there is to a fire?” as the singer watches her childhood home burn to the ground.  Quite often, I prefer for some things to be just out of my reach, so that they become special occasions.

Pimm’s is one of those “top secret ingredients” formulas, gin-based, with some kind of herby bitter component.  The most famous iteration of it is a slice of cucumber, slice of lemon, slice of orange, a couple mint leaves, and two parts lemonade (keep reading, British surprise ahead) to one part Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.  The British notion of lemonade, of course, is basically their version of 7Up, not to be confused with the North American soda pop.  So an acceptable substitute (because I’m not big on soda pop) might be to use a lemon/lime flavoured soda water.  Better yet, get your hands on some French limonade artisanale, like Lorina, Elixia, or Rième.  There are, as with any drink worth its weight, a lot of opinions, argument and variations, including the idea that it must be drunk out of a jar, as if it were some kind of working-class summer cocktail.  Not being English, I don’t have much of a stake in the debate except to enjoy the beverage.  And I do.

In the ballpark of other summery bitter drinks, the Pimm’s cocktail comes off pretty extravagant. Compared to the clean, uncomplicated Italian joy of a Campari and soda, Pimm’s piles on its pleasures like a retired colonel telling stories about the war, like a downed fighter pilot stumbling towards an oasis in the desert, like a slightly spiritual woman wearing a couple too many scarves, like a writer drunk on cheap allusion.  I can’t say when I drink Pimm’s that I see the face of Margaret Rutherford, but something of the ex-empire shimmers in the piling up of contrasting elements.  A little bit of sunny conceals an overall dankness; and that’s England exactly.

Which brings me back to my original problem of disappointment.  To want something and to have it is one thing.  If it’s a tangible thing, then you’ve got it and that’s the end.  But to desire a bottle of something is to have that thing for as long as it lasts, a few fleeting hours of enjoyment, before it disappears into your memory.  The desire for it starts fresh and lives there until the next Wimbledon.

Posted in Bar
By Jerry "Woody" from Edmonton, Canada (PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND 1963 ---LICENSE PLATE) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Treasure Island: Getting the most out of Prince Edward Island

Slightly expanded version of an article originally published here: http://www.viarail.ca/sites/all/files/media/pdfs/via_destinations/2011/vol8n3/36_via_vol8no3.pdf

Unfortunately for rail travel on Prince Edward Island, the last section of track was abandoned in 1989, eventually replaced by the Trans Canada Trail bicycle path.  The good news for cyclists today is that the path of the PEIR meandered wildly, consisting of 147 miles of track for a 120-mile-long island.  The contractors were paid by the mile, adding iron solidity to the term “crooked business”.  The cost of the railroad, on the verge of bankrupting the government, prompted the Island to reconsider joining the newly minted nation of Canada in 1873, an unpopular idea nearly ten years after John A. McDonald and George-Étienne Cartier crashed a meeting in Charlottetown of the leaders of a proposed Maritime Union, failing to convince them to join their new country.  The idea that people would eventually experience the ghosts of Confederation by bicycle along the very path upon which gleaming tracks once promised to unite a nation from Atlantic to Pacific would probably strike the Fathers of Confederation as retrograde.  But Prince Edward Island probably contains as many historical ironies per square mile as any place on Earth.  There is now a statue of John A. MacDonald, sitting on a bench a block away from where he was found, legend has it, one morning after a particularly productive session of nation building, face down and unconscious at the corner of Great George and Richmond Streets.   The statue, while personable, almost seems like it was built to sustain considerable abuse.

If history can’t persuade you to cross the waters, then your stomach might.  Food culture on Prince Edward Island has, like everywhere in the last 15 years or so, turned the idea of taking shame in one’s origins on its head, insisting that fine cuisine is best produced using local ingredients.  Lobster was once considered poor people’s food, tantamount to eating rats, scattered as fertilizer over farmers’ fields and, as a sandwich ingredient, hidden by schoolchildren out of a sense of intense shame.  For people of a certain age, lobster tastes like poverty.  It’s because of the commonness of these ingredients that the Island has stumbled into what ought to have been its natural role for decades: seafood mecca.

The word Malpeque holds the same cachet for oyster connoisseurs that Champagne does for lovers of bubbly.  Whether you’re at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station or Joe Beef in Montréal, it’s the gold standard.  And much like privileging an appellation regionally can be unjust to a comparable product produced just outside the product’s boundary, beautiful oysters can be found all over the Island, not only in Malpeque, each variety representing its particular bay or area.  Johnny Flynn, proprietor of Colville Bay Oysters in Lower Rollo Bay was welcoming enough to me in the month of October, asking, “Do you like oysters?”  That’s a bit of a no-brainer for me and we proceeded to pop open several of the lightest, most delicious oysters I’ve ever eaten, within eyeshot of the bay in which they were cultivated.  Strictly speaking, he’s not a retailer but ships to your better restaurants and seafood shops, absolutely worth seeking out at your local oyster-friendly establishment.

A foodie tourist could do themselves no greater favour than booking into the one-day Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute in Charlottetown, particularly Seafood 101, followed by a meal composed of the fruits of your labour in the picturesque L.M. Montgomery dining room.

Also highly recommended is the Cow’s creamery for their aged cheddar.  I picked up a reasonably priced block of their extra-old variety and found it to be about the best cheddar I’ve ever tasted.  Recently at About Cheese, a specialty shop on Toronto’s Church Street, I enquired about Cow’s prize-winning clothbound cheese.  The owner wistfully reported that he didn’t stock it anymore because Cow’s had signed an agreement to sell it through Loblaw’s, so I wandered three blocks south and picked some up.  The good news about that is, if you’re near a Loblaw’s, the cheese is much less hard to find than it used to be and is absolutely great.

Charlottetown’s Farmer’s Market is a great source of local food of a very high standard, animal, vegetable, and lox on a bagel.  The bagel guy smokes his own salmon (and eels!)  The place is full of characters, both sellers and buyers, and is a neat place to people-watch as most of the regulars are there as much for the opportunity to catch up with friends as to pick up a few quality groceries.  In season, many local fishermen will sell you a bag of mussels for a fraction of what you’d pay on the mainland for mussels that have had to endure a transit.  As healthy and fresh as the produce here is, don’t leave without a bag of freshly deep-fried doughnuts.

On Sept. 8, 2010, an obituary found its way into the email accounts of expatriate Prince Edward Islanders everywhere.  Even for those who’d never met Gordie Dunn, it was clear that an era in the cultural life of the Island had passed.  Charlottetown’s most famous bootlegger had died.  The word “bootlegger” may conjure images of the Jazz Age, but while “speakeasies” ceased operation in every other corner of North America post-Prohibition, bootleggers remained a cornerstone of Charlottetown social life into the 21st century.  Gordie’s establishment dominated Chestnut Street until the authorities decided to roll up the industry, once and for all, in 2004.  Bootlegging establishments were essentially bars in houses, unlicensed, operating on a “gentleman’s agreement” between clients, proprietors and police.  Such blind spots are essential to the social fabric of the Island.

Carrying this torch legally forward is Ken Mill, of Myriad View Distillery in Rollo Bay.  He began, in 2008, producing what might have knocked Sir John A. unconscious in 1864: moonshine.  Or “shine”, as he’s allowed to call it by the liquor authorities.  It’s a beautiful drink, as clean and fresh, at 51% alcohol, as can be imagined.  Then there’s his Lightning.  At 75%, I don’t think I’ve had my sinuses cleared, or my heart warmed, quite so thoroughly in my life.  His rum, bottled at 57.1%, is what’s known historically as Sailor’s Rum or Mariner’s Rum.  This level of alcohol is the origin of the word “proof”, being the quality at which gunpowder would still ignite if you spilled some on it.  Watered down more than that, your gunpowder will fizzle out like a damp squib.  He also produces a mighty gin, which, with the high alcohol content, almost freezes its botanical ingredients in time.  He’s developing a client base loyal enough to make the trip from the mainland especially to stock their shelves.  His product is only available on the Island, either at his distillery or through local liquor stores, so you may want to stock up while you’re here.  Tell him Gordie Dunn sent you.

Down the road is Prince Edward Distillery, makers of an award-winning potato vodka, potatoes being, of course, practically the identity of the Island.  The vodka tastes distinctly of potatoes, in a very pleasant, subtle way.  For an alcoholic trifecta, there’s a winery nearby, Rossignol Estate.

As recent advances in home theatres have made going to the movies almost repugnant, it’s heartening to know that there are two moviegoing experiences on the Island that remind you that it used to be fun.  City Cinema is the Maritimes’ last remaining repertory cinema, its cosiness almost a dream for fans of art-house movies.  And Brackley Drive-In preserves a distinctly 1950s atmosphere, even in its concession stand, with classic cars framing either side of the outdoor screen.

The show on Prince Edward Island, however, is nature.  There are many family-friendly beaches scattered all around the Island.  These, however, don’t compare to the epic, cathedral-like beauty of Greenwich Beach.  My ritual is always to grab a bite at local institution Rick’s Fish and Chips in nearby St. Peter’s, either before or after your visit to Greenwich.  So fortified, you’re ready for the lengthy trek through spectacular dunes, some tall as houses, to the water, which you’ll hear more and more insistently as you approach.  Just when you think you’re about to arrive, another layer of dunes presents itself, to the point that you might think you’ll never get there, that the waves are just an auditory illusion.  The payoff for all this work is that the beach is yours and you’re alone with the immensity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  It’s a treasure of the Island.

If You Go

-Holland College, Culinary Boot Camps: 4 Sydney St. Charlottetown, (902) 566-9305, www.hollandcollege.com/bootcamps/bootcamps/culinary/full-day-camps

-Colville Bay Oysters, 83 Lower Rollo Bay Road, Souris, (902) 687-2222, www.colvillebayoysterco.com/

-Cows Creamery, 397 Capital Drive (North River Causeway) Charlottetown, (902) 370-3155, www.cowscreamery.ca/

-Farmers Market, 100 Belvedere Road, Charlottetown, (902) 626-3373, http://charlottetownfarmersmarket.weebly.com/

-Myriad View Disillery, 1336 Route 2, Rollo Bay, (902) 687-1281, www.straitshine.com/

-Prince Edward Distillery, 9984 Route 16, Hermanville, (902) 687-2586, www.princeedwarddistillery.com/

-Rossignol Estate Winery, 11147 Shore Road, Little Sands, (902) 962-4193, www.rossignolwinery.com/Rossignol-Winery.html

-City Cinema, 64 King Street, (902) 368-3669, citycinema.net/

-Brackley Drive-In, 3164 Brackley Point Road – Route 15, (902) 672-3333, drivein.ca/

-Rick’s Fish & Chips, 5544 Route 2, St. Peter’s Bay, (902) 961-3438, ricksfishnchips.com/

-Beaches, www.tourismpei.com/beach-locations

La Pavoni

Macchina per il caffè

I sometimes feel that the day I finally grew up and became a man was the day I acquired and started using a La Pavoni coffee machine.  This happened a few weeks ago.  For the first several days, I kept stealing looks at it as it sat on the kitchen counter, gleaming like a prize from another century, past or future.  It combines elements of something like a highly technological samovar, a stainless steel Dalek, or possibly a time machine powered by a Tesla coil.  Going out the door in the morning was sad as I looked backwards, catching a glimpse of its silver figure sitting on the counter.  I couldn’t wait to get home to both use and look at this machine.  I feel lucky.

I never did have much luck with internet classifieds, which is where this machine showed itself to me initially.  I’ve been both ripped off and underwhelmed buying and selling things online.  And it was a last-minute decision to check the used kitchenware column online after weeks of research about which coffee machine would make the best possible purchase.  After more or less eliminating the higher-end espresso machines, both for cost and counterspace footprint, I finally narrowed things down to an automatic machine that looked a little like Darth Vader’s helmet, but would, according to its reviews, dispense a perfectly good and absolutely uniform cup of coffee time after time at the push of a button.

The La Pavoni is what’s known as a manual machine.  It wouldn’t be sufficient to say that the difference between it and the automatic machine I had settled on was comparable to the difference between an automatic and a manual car.  It’s more like the difference between a bullet train and a steam engine, with live men constantly shovelling coal into the engine’s fiery, all-consuming maw.  Reviews that I read of the La Pavoni online scored it surprisingly low, which put me off until I realised that the sample had been distorted by people who were expecting a god-like machine that produced perfect coffee forever but then became easily frustrated by the fact that no two cups of identical coffee could ever be produced by the damned thing.  But that is exactly why I wanted it.  To make cups of coffee the way the sky makes snowflakes.

Those reviews by people who preferred a push-button approach to coffee were luckily corrected by account after account of, “I purchased a La Pavoni in 1972 and ended up giving it to my son who needed a coffee machine for college, and anyway I wanted to buy a new one,” or words to that effect.  I was struck by how indestructible they seemed, wondering how a company that hadn’t figured some kind of planned obsolescence into their product design could even stay in business.  If the thing never breaks down, where will your repeat business come from?  Customer happiness and loyalty, I suppose.

Up to this point, I had got used to drinking coffee from bars that made it well enough and never thought I would have the resources or kitchen space to really dedicate to a proper espresso machine.  Honestly, the best method for making coffee I’d found up to this point was the AeroPress, which is a surprisingly low-tech plastic tube that looks a lot like a syringe and makes a nice, strong cup.  As I looked into pursuing the dream of making more advanced coffee, I began to lose hope.  And then, on a whim, I checked the classifieds, spotted that ad and contacted the sellers.

They were a Russian couple of fairly advanced age who lived in Pierrefonds, a suburb of Montreal.  So a visit was in order to this alien place where people live in homes separated from each other by lots of yard space and greenery all around.  The streets were completely free of sidewalks.  While finding the address, I had the feeling of being an intruder, like someone on neighbourhood patrol might step out and ask to see my papers.  Ringing the bell, I had an instantly good feeling upon meeting the sellers.  It turned out that they had purchased the machine two years earlier during a trip to Italy and that the husband used it only occasionally, the reason for this being that he had recently acquired a more serious machine.  How serious?  The man roasts his own green coffee beans in the shed out back, that’s how serious.  He made me a coffee using the La Pavoni that was close to perfection there in the kitchen, so I closed the deal immediately.  The wife was angry that he was getting rid of it.  She had a sentimental attachment that she associated with their time in Italy, and also it happens to be a spectacular looking object.  I assured them it was going to a good home.  He let me know that another prospective buyer who was scheduled to come by later would be disappointed.  It was just a matter of luck that I was first.

Meantime, over the last several weeks I’ve made dozens of cups of coffee with the thing, some approaching transcendentally good, but many I would describe as watery, bitter or somehow otherwise lacking.  Most of them are almost there, and it drives me crazy which variable I was missing that could have produced a more perfect shot.  It’s temperamental.  Part of both the joy and frustration lies in figuring the thing out.  I think I’ll stop short of referring to it as “her” instead of “it”, at the risk of sounding truly creepy.  Anyway, there are so many variables:  fineness of the grind, how hard I tamp the coffee down into its basket, how much coffee I use, when I raise the lever relative to how much pressure has built up in the steam head, how fast I raise the lever, how fast I lower the lever.  When the Russian couple told me that a lot of people find this machine more trouble than it’s worth, I let them know that for me, the temperamental nature of the machine is a source of pleasure.  The pleasure I’ve had, just from the quality of coffee produced by the thing, has easily outweighed any trouble.

By Unknown Master, Spanish (active 17th century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An Invitation to Meat

A while back, I received a phone call from a friend of mine whose significant other is a vegetarian.  “Can we have dinner and eat a lot of meat?” she asked.  I like nothing better than to be an enabler, and replied, yes, I would love to put together a big meat dinner, just as long as you bring cigarettes.  It’s a you-scratch-my-back kind of arrangement.  This became a surprisingly fulfilling little project.

Partly, I felt duty bound to help because I can see both sides of the meat problem and am sensitive to the hazards it can create for your love life.  Her boyfriend was the type of guy who (and I admire this) actually read an article in a magazine about meat and simply decided to stop eating it.  I was once a vegetarian for five years solidly, eight years if you count falling off the wagon a couple times and getting back on again.  And I had a little experience with the carnivore-herbivore dating dynamic, and so could, if I can borrow the expression, feel their pain.  When I was a vegetarian I dated a meat-eater, who, God bless her, tolerated my too-pure ways for a few years.  And on the other side of the register, I’ve tasted that medicine back, having dated a vegetarian who was not at all comfy with my acquired and very enthusiastic meat habit.  All of these relationships have ended.  Not to say such a relationship could never work, but dietary alienation is at least as effective a source of tension as long-distance.  The meat was definitely a factor.

It’s not like you can enforce a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy with regards to eating meat within the bounds of a relationship.  Do you eat two smoked meat sandwiches on your lunch break before heading home to your vegetarian girlfriend?  Gobble half a pound of bacon secretly while she’s out of town for the weekend?  Hustle down to the laundry room to get the stains out of your shirt?  There is no Extra-Strength Lady Macbeth brand laundry detergent that will help you.  So you might as well confess.

I’ve watched with fascination over the last several years the development of the nose-to-tail movement, which seems to consist mainly (in its adherents more than its proponents) of liberal-minded meat eaters developing a moral pang and enrolling in a butchery class or shopping “free range” in order to assuage decades of guilt.  The way I used to win arguments with people who’d prod me over why I was a vegetarian was to say: “Listen, if you think you could actually kill an animal yourself after looking it in the eye and then skin it, gut it and cook it, then terrific.  Have fun.”  I was a vegetarian for moral, not health reasons.  The death made me queasy.

The kind of people who consume slabs of red on a white styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic with the same gravity with which they’d peel and eat an orange were never really the people who tended to pursue these arguments with me.  I remember an episode of Get a Life, in which Chris Elliot says to his father, à propos of nothing, idiot grin on his face, “Dad, where does meat come from?”  The father, played by Brian Doyle-Murray, scrunches up his face as if to say, can he be mine?  He’s just too stupid to live.  This is not the kind of person who would interrogate me about meat.  No, it was always nice, middle-class, college-educated types trying to tilt me off the pedestal of righteousness.  The kind of person who thinks seal hunting is the worst crime in history and then goes and eats a bacon cheeseburger, who loves the song Imagine but has never lived outside of a metropolitan area.  For all the wishful thinking and masochism, it will take exactly one trip to anywhere to disabuse this person of the idea that only Westerners treat animals callously.  People may not be eating porterhouses on the Subcontinent or in the South Pacific, but the uses and varieties that people all over the world find for animals would cause even the most nonchalant North American meat eater to stop and gaze in open-mouthed horror.

I am not here to guilt you out on this subject.  I do think that being a vegetarian did me a good turn in that I learned to cook excellent meals with no meat at all, which is a trick I can still pull off.  If your desire for steak and foie gras is really too much for you, make a resolution that you’ll quit for a year.  If anyone asks you, tell them you’re writing one of those stunt memoirs, like not using toilet paper for a year or attending other people’s funerals, so that you can keep a blog on the subject and maybe parlay that into a book deal (it’s been done).  Such a ruse will at least provide necessary cover while you figure yourself out.  Adulthood begins with the acceptance of responsibility, both conceptually and in practice.  Knowing that actions have consequences (what some people call “karma”) is part of what it means to be an adult.  The fact remains, however, that your dog will stop loving you the day you decide to feed it only vegetarian kibble because you’re squeamish about industrial farming.  And rightly so.

The next time you envision a friend who would “never hurt a fly” who nonetheless enjoys a munch of bacon, endorphin coursing through their pleasure centres, you’ve caught yourself in the act of keeping two sets of books.  Pigs are sweet, intelligent, lovely animals, who play no part in your desire to eat them and they also apparently make excellent pets.  The cost of living a double life is high, as evidenced by a striking comment from a man who took one of those butchery courses (enrolment is very pricey!), “Animals do not want to die.  They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second.  If you’re about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes.  It is not going to absolve you.”

Now that industrial farming and technology have freed us from daily contact with food production, there’s really no excuse left for eating meat at all, except for simple enjoyment of it.  We are no longer subsistence farmers and hunters, not recently anyway.  Even a cookbook like Joy of Cooking kept, until its second edition, recipes for preparing and cooking squirrel or other game you might find wandering through or flying over your yard.  These were normal eating habits just a couple generations ago.    Eating meat may very well be a holdover relic of humanity’s barbarous past, something we could better live without.  But I can think of several other relics we keep around that make absolutely no sense in the face of modernity.  And you, like your dog, have biological urges that will not be satisfied by a technocratic diet.

So what a relief it finally was when I decided to join the human race, with its bloodlust and tulip-mania, by acknowledging its lengthy cultural history of dependence on animals.  I no longer felt like a space alien visiting the Earth in silent judgement.  I took up barbecuing.  Since deciding to end my own vegetarianism, I have noticed that I tend to go for odd or serious cuts of meat, identifiable body parts, innards, brains, etc., to come to grips with what I’m eating, and to take it seriously.

Bone marrow has become almost my favourite food ever, roasting a length of bone in the oven until the marrow is golden and buttery, scooping it on to little toasts and then sprinkling a couple crystals of sea salt on top.  Make a simple salad of Italian parsley, a diced shallot, olive oil and lemon juice, maybe a few capers.  The citrus-on-green cuts the over-the-top richness of the marrow, which is a pleasure bullet straight to the brain.  The garnish is optional, but it grounds you, brings you back from the catatonic state that the marrow by itself induces.  Unimaginably delicious.  That and marinated, slow-roasted pork belly was what was on the menu on the evening of the aforementioned meat party.  The post-meal cigarettes and guilty laughter probably gave my neighbours the wrong idea.

Whole pigs for sale in a butcher's window, Madrid, Spain. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Meat Story

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to be gifted a copy of Jennifer McLaglan’s wonderful cookbook, Fat.  It coincided exactly with my own ethos towards food at that time, obsessed as I was with using off cuts and resisting the hysteria around misunderstood ingredients.   I pored over this book relentlessly and lustfully, using it to learn the craft of making my own confit de canard, as well as incorporating things like bone marrow and tripe into my diet.  So it was with unalloyed delight that I nabbed a copy of her follow-up book, Odd Bits, released late in 2011.  So accustomed was I now to her way of treating food that the novelty factor of the title didn’t strike me at all.  I now regarded “odd” as normal, and was eager to dive into the new book.

Following the recipes in Fat led me into some delightful and odd situations, in which I sought out kidneys, preferably still encased in the heavy layer of fat that surrounds them (butchers usually clean and discard or sell this as lard before putting the kidneys out for sale), and later when I walked into a butcher on Mont-Royal boulevard asking in anglo-inflected French for some “peau de cochon” (pig skin).  The girl behind the counter, thinking I was mispronouncing, replied, “Porc?  Ah, oui, c’est par là,” and gestured towards a gleaming tray full of pork cutlets.  As I reiterated that, no, I was after “peau” and pinched my own skin to clarify, her face transformed from a delighted smile to a twisted, horrified grimace, as if I were requesting materials to construct a costume made of skin that I would then sew together and wear.  I ended up finding an East European butcher who treated my request as absolutely normal.

It’s that dissonance between “odd” and “normal”, something that the East European gets, not to mention most of the rest of the world, that has led to a topsy-turvy alienation between people and food, exacerbated by industrial methods of production.  Not knowing what you’re eating or where it comes from is odd.  Or it should be.  Knowing as much as you can, and appreciating that knowledge, ought to be normal.  But the reverse is the case.  When I was a teenager, I became a vegetarian, which I kept up for eight years.  I rejected meat because it was the most obvious manifestation of the hypocrisy that exemplified pretty much every aspect of life as I had come to know it.  The same person who would eat prime cuts and bacon with abandon would make a sick face if exposed even slightly to the business end of how those cuts came to be on their plates, or even to hear the process described.  In the end, I decided that the only way I could take up eating meat again was to accept the responsibility for paying a butcher to kill on my behalf.

While Jennifer McLaglan is a Torontonian by way of Australia, this attitude towards meat has been pioneered by a food genius from Québec called Martin Picard.  I was lucky enough to nab a copy of his first book, Au Pied de Cochon, and also to live close enough to his restaurant that I’ve been able to eat there several times.  Picard’s genius is in elevating the food culture of Québec to an art form, an approach that could be applied anywhere, embracing and celebrating the culture and cuisine of one’s ancestors rather than putting it out of your mind, regarding food as something that materialises with the push of a button.  To appreciate how far we’ve come in so short a time, the second edition of The Joy of Cooking, printed in the early 1960s, contained diagrams detailing how to skin and prepare a squirrel, an animal running through the yards of the middle classes, the book’s target audience, encouraging them to get out there and kill.  Somewhere over the course of a mere 40 years, such intimate knowledge of game, meat and fish vanished, replaced by a strip of red on white styrofoam that the average person wouldn’t know from which animal it came, never mind which part of that animal it was.  The crusades of Picard and McLaglan have begun the pushback, which needed only a slight push to gather momentum.

It may be no accident that the all-hands-on-deck approach to meat is easier to sell in Québec, which produced two excellent books in 2011, Market Chronicles: Stories and Recipes from the Jean-Talon Market, by Susan Semenak; and The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts, by Frédéric Morin and David McMillan.

Every city should be so lucky as to have a farmers’ market, and not many rival Montréal’s Marché Jean-Talon.  The market itself is lucky to have as its chronicler Susan Semenak, whose book introduces the reader to most of the key proprietors at the market, whether butchers, fishmongers or eggmen.  It’s full of spectacular recipes and is thoughtfully organized by season, so you’ll know exactly what to do with that basket of fava beans in June.

These books, alongside McLaglan’s two cookbooks and Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon volume, go a long way towards making up a bookshelf that presents a cohesive food worldview.  While it’s true that this approach has been on the march elsewhere for years, led by celebrity chefs such as Bourdain and David Chang, the title presented by the proprietors of Griffintown’s Joe Beef sums it up best:  the art of living.  Montréal is a place where the average person is a food critic, you’re never more than a couple blocks from foie gras, you can buy a tub of duck fat in the supermarket, wine is regarded as a grocery, and pleasure is still derived from smoking.  Someone I know from Vancouver recently expressed disapproval at the “hedonism” of Montréal.  “Duh!” I replied.  “Why do you think I live here?”

The exclamation mark resting at the end of your Québec-centric bookshelf ought to be Martin Picard’s second book, Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon.  Thoughtfully released to coincide with sugar shack season, it chronicles his adventure running a cabane à sucre just north of Montréal.  Extending the first book’s genre of edgy, unconventional publishing techniques, no one should be surprised that it, like the old Joy of Cooking, includes a recipe for squirrel.

odyss125

A Man’s Best Friend

“As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears.” – The Odyssey, Book 17

This is Argos, the dog who makes his presence felt during the finale of Homer’s Odyssey, the only creature who recognises the disguised Odysseus, gone for many years and now returning home.  Argos is so old that he cannot climb to his feet to greet the man who named him, but instead meekly wags his tail and radiates joy through his eyes upon witnessing his return.  Not wanting to blow his own cover during this dangerous moment, Odysseus furtively wipes away tears over the neglected state of this once proud hound, tears shed at least as much for the fact that he cannot greet the dog properly, a duty he is forced to ignore in favour of fulfilling the task in front of him, as for the state of the dog’s health.  Argos waits until Odysseus has entered the building before passing “into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more…”

I have always hesitated to use that word “master” to describe my own relation to my dog, Bailey, whom I first met at the SPCA in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, barely sixteen years ago.  The relationship, while it was never exactly equitable, often enough caused me to question who was the master and who was the dependent.  He was already named by someone I didn’t know when I adopted him in his practically newborn state.  I’m glad for that, since I probably would have named him something stupid.  Bailey, it turned out, was his ideal name, both friendly and sturdily dog-like enough to convey a serious nature.

Age eventually robbed him of his ability to walk and he joined Argos in that canine darkness while lying on a stainless steel table in a veterinarian’s office.  The vet was as nice as she could have been, offering her regrets that she didn’t keep scotch on the premises for moments like these.  I could have used it.  For never have I required hard alcohol to “take the edge off” as much as I did in that moment, a moment in which we made the decision to end the kaleidoscopic life of a creature who has shared enough sights, sounds, odours, and experiences with me that I felt his (our) life flying away from us in the moments before his death, as great a sense of overwhelming injustice as any I have ever felt.  All of those ineffable moments parading themselves through my mind in all their colour and force at the same time as they relentlessly dwindled stood in sharp contrast to Bailey’s simple urge to return to the house and lay on the couch, watching me go about my business, something that would never happen again.  The circumstances around any death are probably not ideal.  I do wish that I had managed to get Bailey back to Prince Edward Island, a place I am sure he recognised each time he visited, to let him sniff the red earth and stare out into the vastness of the Gulf of St. Lawrence again.

A strong case can be made for anyone to let a dog in their life.  There are many good reasons for it.  However, in the immediate aftermath of that dog’s death, I cannot in good conscience recommend it at all.  While the cons include the more or less constant walks, whether or not you care to stand around in the cold and rain watching an animal sniff the ground, not to mention the crimp in your social life (“Sorry, I’ve got to go and walk the dog.”), the pros are overwhelming.  And the emptiness that is created in the dog’s absence is so totally disorienting, it’s tough to imagine that anyone would willingly accept the grief if they knew the outcome in advance.

But then again, it is the outcome that we all face.  And facing it at least once in the presence of a loved one does force each person to confront their own impossible fact.  To advise a person to not take a dog would be to advise them against life itself.  Don’t bother with relationships, don’t enjoy eating and drinking, don’t travel, don’t fail, don’t succeed.  All of these things are gone before we can even register that they’re happening to us, and we pursue them anyway.  All that we can do is be aware of experience, even as it escapes our pitiful attempt at harnessing it.  I always wondered if Bailey grasped that he would one day no longer exist.  People are often portrayed as having an advantage over the animals because we’re aware of our mortality.  But I’m quite sure that this awareness is delusional, and that people are as distant from facts in their own way as dogs, the power of our denial turning oblivion into a story for children.

I am in a neighbourhood in Montreal’s east end, a neighbourhood that Bailey knew well, having lived here himself for seven years.  We disappeared for a year and then returned.  The two of us have travelled a lot together.  And we spent more time walking these particular streets as anywhere he ever lived.  I now see dogs outside and playing in the park that he once knew.  There is something reassuring about the continuity of seeing other dogs after my own is gone, not too different from the kind of continuity I feel seeing other people in the present moment, or people in old films who are now surely dead, or being moved to tears by writers who have been dead for centuries, or seeing dogs depicted in paintings from the Middle Ages.  I don’t know how Bailey perceived the world.  As close as we were to each other, his actual thoughts were opaque to me.  The number of times I felt that I clearly understood (and probably misinterpreted) him is easily outnumbered by the number of times I stood in front of him asking, “What?  What is it?”

We can see a version of Argos’s drama being played out in front of shops every day, with a dog waiting outside for a person.  I’ve often wondered how each dog can distinguish using such subtle cues the person they’re waiting for from every other person on the street.  People resemble each other far more closely than dogs do, after all, with vast differences in size, fur colour and texture, ear and body shape, etc.  You cannot distract a dog that is waiting for that person who is so totally imprinted on their brain.  We’re probably mistaken if we don’t believe that a particular dog is imprinted in ours, as well.

During Bailey’s final week, a man standing on his front step in the morning with a cup of coffee asked if I would get another dog, seeing that this one was literally on his last legs.  To me, it seemed indecent even to speak of it.  He interpreted my negative reaction as a verdict against getting a dog, any other available dog, as a replacement, whereas what I meant was that I could not imagine replacing this dog.  I can only point out the weirdness of this fact, how inconceivable an idea that I could ever replace Bailey, given that I have quite freely replaced, acquired and then discarded, people in my life more or less serially, all of whom have had to adjust their own lives to the presence of Bailey, who was as unmovable as he was accommodating.  He was a gentleman.

 

Photo by Art Rickerby for LIFE magazine, 1966

Beautiful Losers

“How different the world would be today,” I found myself musing recently to an acquaintance, “if only the Montreal Canadiens had scored the overtime goal in Game 7 of the 2011 playoffs.”  There is something about the completely arbitrary, could-have-gone-either-way nature of a defeat by sudden death that punishes the brain repeatedly over time.  And yet the triumph of evil over good packs significant and unpredictable consequences.

“How so?” he asked sceptically.  “No Vancouver riots,” I replied.  His eyes popped slightly wider in a “My god, he’s right!” moment of realization.  Even as I saw him struggle to refute the claim, I could also see the truth of it (or at least the possibility of the truth of it) register behind his eyes.  Life is full of crazy and improbable what-ifs:  Trotsky instead of Stalin, Neanderthal instead of Homo Sapien, Montreal instead of Boston.  The mind reels.  Has anyone ever suggested that life is fair?  But things could be so different, if only…  During that series I remember smiling while reading Adam Gopnik’s assessment that Habs vs. Bruins was essentially elves vs. orcs, elegant speed vs. brainless thuggery, good vs. evil.  Even making the allowance that it is possible that Vancouverites would have burned their own city to the ground no matter what team eventually defeated them in the final, there is something just Satanic enough about the character of the Boston Bruins and their style of play to suggest that it could only have been their victory alone that facilitated the opening of Hell’s maw underneath the otherwise pacific Terminal City.

Bygones eventually do become bygones, of course, but the bandage was ripped freshly from my skin again recently when last year’s Bruins were invited to Barack Obama’s White House to complete the malevolent victory lap due them as American champions, never mind that if a Canadian team had won, this invitation would never have been extended, thus creating another reality in which Tim Thomas is still merely a nice, very skilled goaltender and nothing more.  To remove the final plank concealing how unarguably evil this particular version of the Boston Bruins is, the cuddly goaltender turns out to be a card-carrying “you betcha” tinfoil hat wearing opponent of the only actually interesting, absolutely competent, intimidatingly intelligent, fully articulate President of the United States since Woodrow Wilson.  And he publicizes his principled absence via an allcaps manifesto emanating from social media, like a high school student announcing that he won’t be attending the prom because it’s bullshit.  I remember watching his whimsical sparring with reporters during the playoffs, his sassy little lisp hinting at something a bit intriguing behind the moustache.  It turned out that he was, of course, happily married and familied up.  Bear fanciers everywhere no doubt heaved a gentle sigh of regret.  What if, Tim.  What if, indeed.

It did turn out, however, that the goaltender harboured a terrible secret.  I had no idea that, like lots of perfectly intelligent, liberal minded people I believe to be quite sane until I start talking to them, he merely doubts the official narrative around climate change.  Any thinking person does, of course.  And what about those buildings being taken down by some random gang of Saudi nonentities?  You’d have to be stupid to believe such nonsense.  Anyone who knows anything will tell you for free that we’re headed into Road Warrior times, during which the INDIVIDUAL will stake a final claim for freedom during an apocalyptic struggle against the socialist regime of Barack Hussein Obama.  And the room slowly empties around you while these people expound their theories, and you check your watch, dreaming up any kind of escape plan.  Bring on those end times.  Preferably right now.

I don’t hold an ancient grievance against the Boston Bruins franchise.  I didn’t grow up hating them, like many people who are raised in senseless prejudice.  In fact, they were the team of the improbably handsome and skilled Bobby Orr, who once signed a photo for me when I was a boy, a moment I still cherish in my mind.  My father, who pushed me forward to obtain that autograph, children being tougher to refuse than grown men with pens and photos, recently blurted out, “I hate the Flyers,” referring to Philadelphia.  I have no idea why.  Maybe he once ate a bad Philly cheesesteak or something.  I can’t grasp hatred of any particular team or group or city without good reason.  I remember my childhood self infuriating both my dad and my grandfather while they watched a match on television, pointing out the absurdity of rooting for any one team over another, given that the players just get traded from city to city year over year.  So you can believe me when I say, I have never held a historical grudge against the Boston team.  No, it is these particular Boston Bruins that I hate: with their satanic captain, their ratfaced jester, their disingenuous cheap-shot artist, and now their churlish little goaltender.

But getting back to the Montreal Canadiens, the team that I still love, despite their many problems, I have both tribal and historical reasons for remaining loyal.  Being a modern person and having no ethnic or group affiliation does create the kind of need that can be quite harmlessly filled rooting for a sports franchise.  Alternative forms of affiliation tend to be quite a lot more toxic.  The sense of inclusion when the Habs are doing well is intoxicating.  The mood improves noticeably.  The streets of Montreal are alive.  Ah, memories.

In the meantime, it is difficult being a bleu-blanc-rouge partisan during a year in which it looks increasingly unlikely that they’ll even make the playoffs.  The city’s media is unhappy, the coach is unhappy and can only express that unhappiness in English, the Quebec government is unhappy both because of the downturn in the team’s fortunes and because of the coach’s inability to express his unhappiness in French, everyone is unhappy.  And in our unhappiness, even small victories can seem larger than they are.  A little like the slightly fishy claim that money can’t buy you love, you can console yourself with the hope that victory tastes doubly sweet after a period of hardship and defeat.  At least Tomas Kaberle got to visit the White House.  He’ll no doubt tell his teammates how awesome it was when he gets back to Montreal.  And as a cowed looking Hal Gill explained to a locker room reporter shortly after Mike Cammalleri was fired for referring to the team’s losing mentality, “We’re losers until we win.”  Here, then, is to the future, when we win again.  And here’s to the landslide re-election of Barack Obama in 2012.

Update: I am not above a little Schadenfreude.