I’m never so happy to see goose poop and swan feathers as I am when I’m in Stratford. Any of you who know me know that a summer trip to Stratford, Ontario is an annual tradition for my family. This summer, we booked more days out, giving ourselves more time to see the plays. (Twelfth Night and Guys & Dolls were the kids’ favourites). And, we reserved half of the McCarthy House at our go-to Forest Motel, so we could take advantage of the little secluded dock and the salt-water hot tubs. The theatre was great. We hit all of the kids’ fave restos. And, I read a ton.
So, when Nathalie, of Plenty, invited me to join her on a Saturday trip to Stratford for the Appetite for Words festival, I said yes in a heartbeat. Who’d be fool enough to turn down a weekend that combined food, booze, and books?
We hadn’t even gotten to town, yet, when the magic happened. We’d made good time on the road. So, we stopped in at St. Jacob’s Market for the kind of non-perishables that can last a good 24-hours in the trunk of a car. I hadn’t been to St. Jacob’s since it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt / built-up. The warm heart of the central market was much the same, but with the addition of some really interesting new booths. I’m dying to learn how to make the Moroccan Royal Pie, Bestillah, from La Casbah. And, my family is still reaping the benefits of the giant R.F. Weber Summer Sausage I brought home. Somehow, food markets draw the only crowds I’m willing to immerse myself in and am not afraid of.
Then, on, to our first Appetite for Words event: a ploughman’s lunch at Church Hill Farm with a interview with essayist Jonah Campbell. It was pouring rain when we arrived, so the event took place inside the farmhouse, with lunch served buffet style on the large island in the kitchen. The rooms were buzzing, but not overflowing. Nathalie and I actually ran into friends from grad school while we indulged in local cheeses, meats, pickles and preserves by the fire. (I really need to figure out this whole pickled egg thing, already.) The meal was followed by Theresa Albert’s interview with Jonah Campbell, who gave us a glimpse into his book of essays, Eaten Back to Life. I only wish I could have heard more about his “tongue on tongue” experience…but then, that’s what the book is for.
Personally, this event got me wondering why authors are always asked about last things. I was incredibly alarmed, recently, when my father-in-law, Al Moritz, was asked, in a public interview concerning his life as a poet, what his “epitaph” would be. So, during Campbell’s interview, I kept wondering, anxiously, if he was going to be asked what his last meal would be, and, in turn, how he or anyone who loved him would feel about being asked that question. Why, instead, don’t we ask about “firsts?” If you could go back and choose your first, conscious meal, say, something you would be introduced to at 4 or 5, or, as an an adult, what would that be? What would “set” your palate? Then, is that question any different or more or less discomfiting than the death-bed/epitaph stinger?
Next, we stopped in as guest “students” in a Stratford Chef’s School course on culinary writing. First, chef Andrew George Jr. gave a basic, yet miraculous lesson on saltiness, sweetness, acid, and heat via a simple grapes and greens tasting. He followed this up by assigning his students the task of writing a menu that reflects or reimagines their personal history or heritage in 50 words, no more, no less. Strange enough, this got me thinking of the foods the old Italian ladies brought to my grandfather’s funeral repast. And, my mind was spinning with ideas for savoury twists on their pizzelles and home-made cheeses.
Next, Nathalie and I showed up at Pazzo Taverna thinking we were about to attend a Wine and Words event which, as it turns out, was cancelled. “Didn’t get the memo,” however, turned into some amazing cocktails and a heroic sampling of Dillon’s Absinthe, which is now on my Advent-Bar-Cart-Most-Wanted list. And, we followed that up with Nathalie’s first trip to Rheo Thompson for Mint Smoothies. Praise Be.
Then, we went to Junction 56 Distillery for a “Literature on the Rocks” event – which was the initial draw for Nathalie. I enjoyed the “Ice and Fire” cocktail so much I brought home a bottle of the Fireshine Moonshine Liquer to pour over ice or to mix with hot cider. The real draw of this event, though, wasn’t so much the relationship between the cocktails and their inspo book titles as the story of the distillery itself. Leah McGuire gave us the 411 on the history of the building, how the business was inspired, and how the distilling process worked. For a moment there, I had a vision of becoming a cooper and making whiskey barrels for Canadian distillers in need. I don’t think I’ll act on that impulse, but it was a lovely vision while it lasted. Proof positive that you should really drink the Moonshine, here.
The final event of the evening was a literary dinner inspired by Alice Zorn’s novel, Five Roses, at Stratford Chef’s School. The plates reflcted the Montreal of Zorn’s novel and were paired with wines from the cellar. For me, the “fetish” of the night, was a deconstructed or reconstructed “Habitant” soup. A bowl of ham, peas, croutons, and poached egg, was presented naked, but then flooded with green at table. That soup certainly got me thinking about the gentrifying Montreal of Zorn’s novel and the hidden secrets and lies therein.
Of course, we couldn’t just drive back to Toronto after all this. On the advice of my friend Susan, who knows her B&B’s, I’d booked us in at Duggan Place for a good night’s sleep. Now, after a day of chefs showing us their stuff, I was concerned that the next-morning’s breakfast wouldn’t be as fantastic as advertised or that we’d be too full to eat it. But, as promised, brunch was amazing. We made room for Laura’s legendary scones, and then some. Consequently, Nathalie and I required and took a lovely brisk walk beside the Avon before we left town, looking out for fall colours. P.S. It was the weekend before Halloween. So, no surprise, we saw a man dressed as Gandalf.
Another side-trip on the way out of town. We stopped at a farm in Shakespeare for pumpkins. I wasn’t sure if the kids would be okay with my picking out their jack-o-lanterns-to-be. But, the white pumpkins I chose were a big hit.
As it turns out Stratford’s “upside-down,” that is, the Stratford of the theatre off-season, is warm, welcoming, and, well, kind of addictive. I have a feeling I’m going to be sneaking back for moonshine and Chef’s School dinners for years to come.