What a strange week. Scorching heat, tornados and torrential rain. Ventured out into the neighbourhood to buy lunch, wading through warm puddles, and found all the fruit and vegetables on Chinatown’s sidewalk stalls were brown and bruised and rotting. The astonished greengrocers stood staring at them with eyebrows raised and mouths silently shaping an “Oh!” while street musicians pounded a relentless apocalypso on their African drums. Our garbageman talked of lifting the lids of bins and finding them brimful of maggots. In the corner of my tiny urban garden a dormant tree suddenly started to grow a foot a day, frantic and unnatural. I thought it was just a sumach tree but apparently not. On Wednesday, a strange woman from Saskatchewan leaned over my fence and told me it is a tree of god, that its seeds came to Toronto from the Indonesian tropics hidden in the crevices of a packing case. This is the weather it has been waiting for—waiting to make its move. On Thursday, I trimmed it and the white sap burned my fingers, dissolving the hairs on my arm, leaving a pattern of pinprick scabs like a coded message I couldn’t read. And also, in this strange week, I have become a changed man, going out for dinner at five major restaurants. I’d like to tell you more but it’s all very hush-hush until the column appears in November’s Toronto Life.
The weather has taken its toll on the street people in my neighbourhood. Lots of late night shouting and anxious, obsessive, head-down-striding rants about the end of the world. Every morning I find empty bottles of cheap Korean vodka among the weeds in the front yard. I would like to fashion a rant of my own but no great resentment springs to mind. Complaint is exhausting. It diminishes life. So how come I’m a restaurant critic—one of the miserable breed who makes a petulant living by bitching and dissing and finding fault? I’d like to think the critic has the potential to make a slightly more positive contribution. If we can put aside our egos and offer some kind of constructive criticism, we might even do some good. Because we’re all in this together—chefs and restaurateurs, customers and critics. Civil advice, humbly offered, can actually raise standards. Trash talk, for all its mordant entertainment value, just breeds anger and paranoia.
Though we’ll be pissed off if the world really does peter out tomorrow morning. And what would you choose to eat for your final dinner tonight? What flavours would you want to carry with you into the great unknown? It might be a good time to turn vegetarian—to feel a little more righteous on Judgement Day. Or would it be a sentimental choice —some childhood dish of cherished memory like banana custard or apple pie? I canvassed a couple of my friends. One would overindulge in kilos of caviar and finish by finding the courage to finally try fugu. Another immediately needed to know how the ingredients would be delivered, who would cook them, who else was invited… She’ll still be planning the menu when the planet splits asunder. My most sociable pals thought they would organize a vast barbecue for family and friends and carouse until the moment came, even at the risk of spending eternity with a hangover and shreds of pork stuck between their teeth. Me? I don’t think I’d want to waste my last hours eating.