Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Square Boy

Friday July 31st, 2007

A hot sweaty day. I’m swimming in a soup of myself as I stagger through the rapidly gentrifying Toronto East neighborhood known as Leslieville. I’m going over to meet my buddy Beau (who you might remember from such stops on the burger quest as The Rivoli) and then we’re headed North to The Danforth and the next stop on The Quest: Square Boy.

Yep, time to restart The Quest. Emma and I have been out of town on a honeymoon of sorts, hanging out with her sister Thaba and Thaba’s husband Phet and their kids and other various assorted family and friends at Thaba and Phet’s house near Wiarton (home of Wiarton Willie, Canada's answer to Punxsutawney Phil.) We’ve been swimming at the beach, reading Harry Potter, eating good food, running around with the kids on the lawn... cheers to Thaba and Phet for their generous hospitality! But alas, as John Milton puts it in Paradise Lost, “All things move toward their end,” and our Wiarton vacation is no exception. So here I am, swimming through the concrete city beneath a blazing sun, still striving for that perfect burger.

I meet Beau at his house and we detour over to Value Village so Beau can drop off a load of crappy-- and I mean really crappy-- records. Then we catch the Pape bus-- which is air-conditioned, thank God-- and off we go, heading North toward The Danforth.

The bus drops us off and we start trekking Eastward. “I used to call ‘Square Boy’ ‘Burger Cube’,” Beau says, and as we walk closer I can see what he means. The restaurant is in fact a giant cube, a good example of the utilitarian architecture of the 1970s. Not quite Brutalism, but pretty damn close. ‘Square Boy’ is in a square building... makes sense. Oh, so you mean the owner wasn’t a big fan of Spongebob Squarepants? Not to my knowledge, no. But why is it called Square BOY? I envision a restaurant frequented only by stereotypical nerds from the 1950s, all tucked-in button-down shirts and thick black-rimmed glasses, calculating burger prices on their slide rules while a goateed beret-wearing hipster walks by sadly shaking his head. “Those boys are Square, man. I’m talkin’ boxed in and uptight. Real Nowheresville, Jim.”

Is that me? Am I now, after my marriage, a Square Boy? Is it time to move to the suburbs, put up a white picket fence and start waxing philosophical about lawn care? In a word, no. In two words, HELL NO. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a Square Boy. These are the people who keep the entire ball of society bouncin’ along. If everyone wanted to live like a crazy artist... well, it wouldn’t work. “Sorry, man. I’d love to fix your exploded toilet but I need to be inspired first. Hey, you mind if I borrow some of this water? I’ve got an idea for a watercolor painting. I call it... ‘Exploded Toilet.’” So here’s to The Square Boys for providing us all with Goods and yes, Services! There’s nothing wrong with being a Square Boy, but it’s just not who I am. There are many, many ways to lead your life on this planet. You do not have to accept the default. You can find your own way and negotiate your own system of living. Some time-honored traditions make sense and some do not, and we here in the Secular West have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which traditions to keep and which to kick to the curb.

Emma and I have been talking about traditions a lot recently during the run-up to the wedding. Makes sense, right? Marriage is an institution that carries a lot of cultural baggage. This baggage sinks into our heads as we grow up: this is the way A Wife acts, this is the way A Husband acts. Oop, now we’re married-- better start up the lawn mower! I suppose the important thing to keep in mind is that there is not A Husband, there are husbands and there is not A Wife, there are wives. And there, waiting for Beau and myself on the Square Boy patio, is Emma, my lovely wife.

Into the ‘Burger Cube’ we go, lining up next to the vintage (or is it fake vintage?) tabletop Galaga/Ms. Pacman arcade game. Man, that video game takes me back to the first video game I ever saw, or at least the first one I remember seeing. The year was 1981 and there it was, a Pacman tabletop game in a Pizza Inn back in Dallas. I remember being intrigued by the colors and the noise and I wish I could say that I knew right then that the world was on the cusp of a technological revolution but man, I didn’t have a clue. I was just an 8 year old kid who wanted a slice of pizza. My childhood pizza topping? You guessed it: hamburger.

Back in The Here & Now we The Burger Questers sidle up to the counter, peer at the lunch counter-style menu board and place our orders. I order a Homemade Burger with fries and a root beer and then we walk over to a lavender-colored (Lavender? Dirty Lavender? Off-Lavender? Hospital Purple?) booth and wait for our numbers to be called.

Business is boomin’: it’s around noon and Square Boy is packed with the lunch rush but our orders are ready in no time at all. working with the counterman I get my burger assembled: I point out the toppings and he piles on the pickles, onions, tomatoes, mustard, ketchup and mayo. Back at the booth I lift the bun and take a gander. Big burger, nicely grilled, on a toasted sesame seed bun. I dig in. The First Bite: The Square Boy burger doesn’t have that extra-beefy extra-smoky charcoal-grilled flavor I love, but it is still a great diner-style burger. The bun is a bit too big for the patty but the toppings are nice and fresh. No wilted pickles here. We eat our food and drink our drinks and then it is time to go back out into the punishing summer heat, smiles on our faces and our bellies full.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Wedding Burger

July 21st, 2007

Outside my parents’ window is a perfect summer day and I breathe a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanks. Down in the field are two white tents framed against a blue, blue sky: not a cloud in sight. Today Emma and I are getting married.

My Mom Frances and my Step-Dad Don have very generously agreed to host the wedding at their house in the Ontario countryside and this is where Emma and I are now, an hour and a half North of Toronto. Friends and family are converging on the house and some folks are already down by the tents setting up tables and tablecloths and centerpieces. I plunge into work, rolling round tables across the grass.

My Groomsmen arrive and plunge in, too: stringing up lights, carting boxes of booze down from the house. Margie (Mother of The Bride, Mother-In-Law-To-Be) comes down from the house with a basket of freshly made sandwiches, which we gobble down gratefully. More people arrive-- The Photographer, The D.J. Time blends by and the wedding grounds miraculously transform, a full banquet hall emerging from piles of random gear like a butterfly emerging fully formed from an old cocoon.

An army of caterers arrive and fan out, taking care of the finishing touches. My best man Iain hustles me and the other groomsmen back to the house to get dressed.

Inside the house people are everywhere, rushing around and getting things done: The Quartet, The Florist, a madcap flurry of coordination and logistics. Emma and her Bridesmaids are getting their hair done and the photographer is snapping off shots. Best Man Iain shelters me from the activity and leads us down into the basement. We emerge about twenty minutes later to meet The Minister for the Wedding run-through which is like an Abbot and Costello routine: “Wait-- who goes first?” But The Minister is very patient with us and we get it all worked out.

And then it is time. My Best Man nods to me. “Let’s go.” Outside The Quartet is Quartet-ing and guests are piling into the Ceremony Tent, dresses and light summer suits glowing in the sun. The Minister, the groomsmen and I pause a few feet from the tent and Emma-- radiant, glowing-- and her bridesmaids come down from the house.

The Quartet kicks into the wedding processional and we walk down the aisle. At the front of the tent Emma and I turn to face each other: wide eyes and smiles. Ring bearer Ji (who you might remember from The Tulip) in his tiny tuxedo very solemnly brings the rings. Do I, Adam, take this woman to be my lawfully wedding wife? I do. We kiss among the applause and the Quartet plays us from the tent.

Then photos, cocktails, dinner. The caterers have put on a magnificent spread. Smoked prime rib, BBQ chicken, veggie pasta. Em and I make the rounds: handshakes, hugs and backslaps. Everything and everybody looks great. I can’t stop smiling. We dance our first dance: “You Are Adorable” by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. We won’t be going on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ anytime soon, but we have fun.

The seal broken, folks flood onto the dance floor: my cousins, my brother and his fiancee and my Dad, boppin’ around the dance floor in his sunglasses like a 1940s Jazz Hipster.

Hours go by. In the corner of the tent there is a rustle of catering activity and folks start lining up for The Midnight Snack. Originally Em and I wanted a poutine truck AKA a chip wagon AKA a concessions truck to come rollin’ in around midnight to be greeted by shouts and cheers and much rejoicing from the crowd but alas, the caterers’ concessions truck was already booked so we got the next best thing: hot dogs, hamburgers and poutine, the fresh-cut fries deep-fried on the premises. As my buddy and fellow Burger Quester Beau put it: “I saw somebody walking by with poutine... I’m not such a poutine fan. Then I saw someone with a hot dog and thought, well... maybe I’ll get a hot dog. Then I saw someone with a hamburger and said, “they have HAMBURGERS?!?”

Yes, indeed we did. I wish I could say that this burger was IT, that mythic perfect burger from my Texas childhood, the best hamburger I have ever eaten. I wish I could say The Quest ends here at my wedding-- the classic Shakespearean ending-- but alas, it does not. This burger is lukewarm, cooked from a frozen patty, the kind of burger one wolfs down while walking the midway at the fairgrounds, heading for the whack-a-mole game or the bumper cars. Burger fuel: a sustenance burger. Still, I munch it happily. This burger is not about the mythic past or the distant future, this burger is about The Now. I am in the middle of the moment, a huge grin on my face. I am married to the woman I love and we are surrounded by family and friends, wrapped in a swirl of love, hope, happiness, hamburgers.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

The Tulip

Tuesday July 17th, 2007

If, like me, you’re a fan of Mass Hysterias, you won’t be able to think “Tulip” without instantly making the mental leap to “Tulip Bulb Mania“: The raw speculative craze which swept through 17th Century Holland and drove prices of tulip bulbs-- that’s right, tulip bulbs-- as high as $76,000 in today’s dollars. Seventy-Six Grand for a single tulip bulb. A freakin’ Tulip Bulb!!! In 1636, the Tulip Market did what all overheated markets do: it crashed, and hard. Within a period of six weeks tulip bulb prices fell by 90%, and kept falling. Soon that $76,000 tulip bulb was selling for less than a dollar. Classical economics teaches us that human beings are rational actors who only act in their best interests. Stories like the above show that human beings can get swept up in speculation beyond any point of rationality and thus Classical Economics is full of crap.

Luckily for me, there is no current speculative Burger Mania sweeping through North America. I can go to The Tulip diner on Queen East and not have to pay seventy-six grand for a burger. This is a good thing. Accompanying me on this leg of The Quest are my future Father-in-Law Randy (who you might remember from *link* earlier in The Quest) and my five-year-old nephew Ji Hong.

The Tulip is a Diner Lover’s Diner, all dark polished wood and deep purple booths and chairs, stained glass Tiffany-style lamps dotting the lemon yellow walls, red-orange floor tiles the color of Mars. The delicious smell of frying onions wafts through the air to be replaced by the smell of freshly-made coffee. Behind the lunch counter is the same pie display case full of frothy cream pies, chocolate cake and cheesecake that you find in every diner everywhere.

The Tulip reminds me of the diner my Great-Grandmother and my Great-Aunt used to take us to in Oceola, Iowa. It was here I had onion rings for the first time in my life. Me, tiny and goggle-eyed at the mountain of crispy golden-brown onion rings in front of us... thank you, Grandma Houston and Aunt Jane for brightening my culinary horizons.

“Let’s sit in a booth,” says Randy. “It’s always cool to sit in a booth.”
“Why?” Asks young Ji Hong.
Randy: “Keeps the chairs from breaking.”
Ji, a devilish gleam in his eye: “When the World explodes, The Restaurant will break!”

In the booth Ji is full of 5-year-old energy, squirmy and full of questions:
“What’s a Quest?”
“Who’s King Arthur?”
“Can I go to the washroom?”

Randy leads his Grandson away and I lean back, cushioned by diner sounds: sizzling grill, murmur of conversation, clang and clatter of silverware, electronic beep de boop of some idiot in the booth behind me playing a video game on his cell phone.

Ji returns and climbs into the booth. “It’s lunch time and I’m having breakfast!” It’s the first meal of the day for me, too.

I flip open the menu. 9 ounce Jumbo Burger or 6.5 ounce Regular Burger? I think we all know the answer to that one, don’t we, Burger Fans? Jumbo, with coleslaw. “It comes with coleslaw.” And a water.

Restaurants in Canada hardly ever automatically set out water glasses. You have to ask, and in some cases (like today) you have to ask more than once. In Dallas, as soon as you sit down, BAM! Huge plastic water glasses as big as your head. Or in nicer restaurants, glasses made of actual glass, but delivered just as speedily. Chalk it up to the climate: in the blistering heat of the Texas Summertime, you must continually down liter after liter of water just to stay hydrated.

The Burgers (and Randy’s Corned Beef) Arrive! Randy helps Ji assemble his burger. “What would you like on your burger, Ji?” “Relish, of course!” Ji, unlike me, is a Relish Man.

The Burger is huge, grilled to perfection and served on a toasted buttered bun on a white oval plate just like at all the roadside diners from my youth.

Across the booth from me Ji strains to get his mouth around his massive hamburger. Ketchup falls into his lap. Grampa Randy steps in and helps him out, cutting the burger first in half and then cutting one half into smaller bites.

I turn to my own burger and dig in. The First Bite is beefy and meaty and delicious: grilled meat, mustard and onion. This burger is similar to Dangerous Dan’s: a member of the thick Meatloaf School of Burgers. It’s not quite what I’m questing for, but it is delicious.

The coleslaw, on the other hand... well, someone has to get the last of the batch and I believe today that someone is me. My slaw is a wilted dingy puddle. Across the table Randy’s slaw looks vibrant, fresh and festive. Ah well-- such is life. The Rose and The Briar. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. You can’t always have the freshest coleslaw on the block. This isn’t Coleslaw Quest, anyway. It’s The Burger Quest, and this here burger is mighty tasty and is soon gone, consumed into memory.

After the burgers are gone we get our server to crack open the pie case and we finish our meal by splitting a slice of chocolate cake. I turn to my nephew. “So what did you think of that burger, Ji?”
Mouth full of chocolate cake, Ji gives The Tulip burger Two Thumbs up.