Sunday, August 29, 2010

Washington D.C. - Attractions, Part 2

Before getting into the second part of my post, there is something I would like to add to my description of the National Zoo. Near the entrance of the zoo, I noticed that one of the main paths going through the zoo was Olmsted Trail. On Mount Royal in Montreal, there is also an Olmsted trail, named after Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the park back in the 1870's. I mentioned this in my post a few weeks ago. On my return I did some research and it turns out that, when the National Zoo was established in 1890, one of the three individuals who drew up plans for the layout of the zoo was the very same Frederick Law Olmsted. In his career, he also designed Central Park in New York, the US side of Niagara Falls, Yosemite National Park, and the grounds of the US Capitol.

The plans for Sunday involved a trip to Eastern Market, Washington D.C.’s largest farmers market, something I mentioned in a post before I left. As it turned out, the market was somewhat of a disappointment. It was smaller than I imagined and had little of interest beyond fresh foods. There was a craft market connected with the market but the offerings were uninspired. There were very few vendors selling ready-made food. The produce was very nice, including some fantastic local peaches, including the only flavourful white peaches I have ever had. There were also some very nice heirloom tomatoes and other quality fruits and veggies. Inside the historic market building, there were meat and fish vendors with an impressive range of products. The fish market in particular had a lot of exotic items, including baby octopus, eel and even a kind of blowfish (no, not that deadly Japanese one). There was also high quality meat and all kinds of smoked turkey parts. Back home we can only find drumsticks or wings and even those are not very common. They had these, but other parts as well, like neck. My companions and I had some sweet treats from a bakery, but they were hit and miss. I had a sweet potato bar with cream cheese icing that was fairly good, but their key lime cupcake had hardly any taste and the icing tasted like industrial lubricant. Overall, I still liked the market and, if I lived in Washington D.C., I would definitely be a regular customer. As a tourist destination, on the other hand, it left something to be desired. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Eastern market does seem inferior when I compare it to Jean-Talon, my regular local market. Jean-Talon is actually a huge market with amazing variety. I imagine most farmer’s markets would pale in comparison.

By now, we had some hungry people in our group, so we headed off in the general direction of Capitol Hill looking for a place to eat. It was then I found that a great many restaurants in D.C, close on Sundays. We then decided on the Mitsitam Café in the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. The museum is dedicated to providing information about all aboriginal cultures throughout the Americas, not just the communities based in the USA.

I described the café and its food in the restaurant review post. After eating, a guided tour was beginning and we joined it. I thought it was going to be a tour of the museum’s exhibits, but it was actually primarily concerned with the architecture and how the building was designed in accordance with native belief systems. Not all in my group were interested but I found it fascinating. One of the interesting aspects was how important the cardinal direction points are to most native cultures. There was a rotunda topped by a skylight at the centre of the museum, the centre of the skylight lining up to a centre point on the floor. From that point, lines radiated out in the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). If one were to follow these lines outside the museum to the edges of the museum grounds, one would find four large stones at each directional point. The north stone came from the Canadian Arctic, the east stone from Maryland, the south stone from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and the west stone came from Hawaii. The Canadian stone was aged at billions of years old, and is one of the oldest known rocks on earth. The Hawaiian stone is of lava rock and is only about 500 years old. An interesting side note is that the Hawaiian stone is only on loan for 20 years, at which point it will be returned to Hawaii and replaced with another. At some later time, I will explain a little about Hawaiian religion and mysticism, which explains this unusual arrangement. All rocks were removed from native soil only with blessings and ceremonies from native communities and were placed at the museum in another aboriginal ceremony. Because of the time spent on the tour, there was not enough time to see the other exhibits. We stopped briefly at the Air and Space Museum to attempt to meet up with some additional family, but we missed each other and ended up calling it a day.

Monday was my flight home. In the morning, after checking out from the hotel. My mom and I finally went to do some birdwatching. The site we selected was the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens located at the east end of D.C. To get there we used the D.C. Metro, which we had also used on Sunday. Monday we finally got that heat that Washington is known for. The forecast was 92 degrees F which is much hotter than I am used to (summer temperatures in Montreal range from high 70s to mid 80s), but there was massive humidity and bright sunshine on top of that, and we picked this day to do a lot of walking around outside! The main gardens featured a network of small ponds filled with lotus plants, water lilies and other aquatic plants. Beyond the gardens, there was a boardwalk that led into a wetland. On the other side was a trail that led to the Anacostia River. There were herons near the ponds and egrets along the boardwalk, but the heat and humidity was getting to me. I was also nervous about getting back to the hotel in time as I had a flight to catch.

On the way back, I suddenly became very glad that the D.C. Metro cars are air conditioned! Here in Montreal, the metro is not air conditioned and I never really missed it or saw the need. I couldn’t really understand why so many people, especially in the US, are of the opinion they cannot live without A/C. Now I understand. The weather we had on Monday is typical of Washington in the summer and it would be difficult to live through an entire summer of that kind of heat without air conditioning. I still don’t see the need in Montreal, where it only gets that hot a couple days each year and is more temperate most of the summer.

After returning, it was off to the airport for my trip back. It was an easy, uneventful trip back and I was glad to be back home, even though I did have a great time.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Washington D.C. - Attractions, Part 1

In this post I will be reviewing things to see in Washington D.C. - but only the sights that I saw during my weekend trip. And don’t expect reviews of the standard tourist posts that most will mention. You won’t see anything here about the White House, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the US Capitol or the major Smithsonian museums. It was originally my intention to not even go to the National Mall during this trip. As you will see, this did not work out as I did see one sight on the mall and passed by the Capitol. But I will also mention a couple sights most of you have probably never heard of.

This is about as close to the capitol I will be getting on this blog.

On Friday, I toured the Adams Morgan neighbourhood of Washington. I mentioned this in my last post, but I would like to add that the architecture and public art in the area is quite interesting. It is an interesting place to walk in the daytime, and the nightlife makes it an exciting place to be at night. The pics from Google Street View I had in my last post give a good idea of the nature of the region.

Saturday was very busy. This was the day of the wedding, so the afternoon and evening were occupied with important family events. In the morning, I went to the National Zoo, only a short walk from the hotel. The zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which means that entrance is free and there were many volunteers around to explain things about the animals. I started with the Asian animals, including a sloth bear, an Asian bear whose claws look like a sloth’s. There were also some wild cats, otters, red pandas and, of course, the Giant Panda, long an important feature of the National Zoo. The Bird House has many exotic birds with amazing plumage. I also saw the lions and tigers, always a key element of any zoo visit.

On the other hand, my mom and I found the Ape enclosure unsettling. There is a certain contradiction inherent the modern zoo. Many years ago, zoos simply displayed exotic animals with minimal concern for the animals’ welfare. They were enclosed in small cages and no effort was expended to ensure comfort. Attitudes have since changed and the public wants to see that animals, if they have to be in captivity, are at least being well treated. Currently, zoos are at the forefront of the conservation movement and are dedicated to aiding the survival of threatened species. However, zoos still enclose animals that would certainly be more comfortable in larger spaces. Many animals, having been bred in captivity, could not survive in the wild. Still, walls and cages of enclosures create kind of a discomfiting image. The gorilla exhibit at the National Zoo seemed to illustrate this. The enclosure was large and contained a climbing apparatus but that didn’t really seem to help. The problem is that gorillas and other great apes have so many similarities to humans that you can almost read facial expressions and I got the impression that the gorillas seemed to “know” that they were not only caged but being watched as well. Their expressions seemed to resignedly acknowledge the crowd of people watching and that really made us uncomfortable. This is not to say that I think the zoo mistreats the apes. The orangutans have a system of ropes strung up on high poles that they can use to travel from their indoor enclosure to a larger area. That is a very thoughtful and caring feature but it still kind of feels like seeing humans in a zoo. After seeing this and talking about it with my mom, we were both much less enthusiastic about being at the zoo.

We had planned to do some hiking and birdwatching in part of Rock Creek Park, a riverfront trail that runs adjacent to the zoo and stretches a long way in either direction. Unfortunately, we had spent so much time at the zoo, we only had enough time to get back to the hotel and change for the wedding ceremony. So instead we walked through Rock Creek Park from the zoo to the hotel, which also is next to Rock Creek.

The sights from Sunday and Monday will be posted either tomorrow or Sunday.

In other news, I have added a link to a new blog that has quite an interesting flavour. I have been caught up in Timmy’s story as of late and am pleased to add it to my list of recommended blogs.

Finally today, August 27, 2010, is a very important day in the lives of certain people in my real life and in my online life; two couples who are each celebrating anniversaries. Many of my readers know about one of the couples celebrating their first. The other couple is my mom and dad, who celebrate their 43rd wedding anniversary today. Congratulations and I love you so very much!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Washington D.C. - Restaurant Reviews

I will begin my Washington posts with a review of the restaurants I ate in while in D.C. First is Meskerem Ethiopian, then Tryst, the Mitsitam Cafe and finally the Marquee Lounge of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Google Maps and Google Street View has been a real help in preparing this post to give you a feel of where I was.

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I went to Meskerem Ethiopian on Friday night and, out of several positive dining experiences, I would consider this the best of the lot and by far the most interesting. I was a little worn down from the flight in, but some walking around in the interesting Adams Morgan neighbourhood helped get my energy back and was ready for dinner and we decided on a restaurant I had walked by earlier in the day. I went with my mother and one other relative also there for the wedding. Meskerem is located on 18th Street between Columbia and Belmont in the Adams Morgan neighbourhood. This area features many bars and clubs and a large number of casual, mostly ethnic restaurants. The restaurant does not have tables the way we normally envision them. Diners sit either on carved, low-back stools or on round backless cushion-chairs arranged around what is essentially a large bowl. The menu focuses on stewed items with plenty of meat and vegetarian options. We ordered the Meskerem Messob, sort of a mixed plate with about 6 different items, accompanied by an Ethiopian-style Honey Wine. When the food arrived, it was all on a large concave platter that fit into the bowl/table. The platter was lined with Injera, an Ethiopian crepe, which tastes somewhat like sourdough bread with a rubbery but still quite enjoyable texture. I know this sounds like it wouldn’t taste good, but it truly does. We also received a side plate with several additional rolled pieces of Injera. The flavours of the food bear some similarity to Indian curry but the balance of spices are a little different. Some of the dishes have a sour edge to them, partially from the sauce and partly from the Injera. Others are spicy, but the best was probably one of the vegetarian items, some kind of spicy lentil-based puree with an amazing flavour. The wine was only slightly sweet and tasted a little bit like a Sauternes, a well-known French dessert wine. In reading the label, I found that the wine was made not only from honey, but with hops as well, which I’m sure contributes to the complexity of the wine. The mild sweetness matched well with the somewhat spicy food.

The service was fairly good, but not ideal. As this was our first time eating Ethiopian food, we wanted some additional information about what was included in the Messob, and whether we could substitute, but our server did not seem to understand. This was after we spent a good deal of time trying to get the server to our table. However, it was very busy so the wait for service was understandable. The cost of the meal was extremely reasonable, especially considering the quantity of food, the quality and that we ordered wine. The bill came to $85 US for three people, including wine, tax and tip.

Meskerem Ethiopian on Urbanspoon

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Rather than have dessert at Meskerem, we decided to find another place on 18th Street. Most establishments were bars, but just across the street and a few doors down, we found Tryst, a coffee shop and lounge. I really liked the atmosphere, kind of like a campus coffee shop, but bigger, a bit louder and maybe a little more sophisticated. I have since read reviews that complain of service being poor, but I believe the problem is that people are expecting restaurant style service when this is a bar/coffee shop. The service was acceptable, you just have to be more assertive in requesting service, otherwise you will get ignored for some time. Though several of the items we wanted were unavailable, there were still many excellent baked goods. I had cherry pie, and my companions had peanut butter cheesecake and a fruit tart served inside a danish. The pie was excellent, the cherries were loaded with flavour and it was not too sweet - even a little sour, which was quite refreshing after the meal we had. The others enjoyed their desserts very much as well. I also had a cocktail known as a Voodoo Lady - vanilla chai tea with dark rum. My mom had a really good jasmine pearl tea. The music was quite good, and I do have very picky taste in music. While it was a little loud, it was a good match with the overall vibe of the establishment.

Tryst on Urbanspoon

I did not eat go to any restaurants on Saturday, as this was the day of the wedding. I will not go into much detail here except to say the food at the reception was acceptable, considering that the wedding was quite large. In my profession, I have come to know a few things about catering large banquets. Even if a big event is held in a very fancy restaurant, you will not be getting the food they are famous for, as it just cannot be produced for 100+ people at the same time. There is also a tendency to dumb down flavours for events like weddings as everyone has different tastes and it is important to satisfy everyone. Finally, the difficulty inherent in serving a vast number of plates in a reasonable period of time and have them remain fresh and hot means shortcuts will be made and corners will be cut. Bearing all this in mind, the food wasn’t bad - I was even mildly impressed, though others at my table were disappointed. The wedding cake, from Incredible Edibles, was very impressive. The design was rather traditional, but the taste was surprisingly good. Wedding cakes have a reputation for not tasting very good, because the structure and decoration have usually been considered more important than the taste, resulting in a dense, dry cake. In this cake, each tier was a different flavour and the cake was very moist and tasty.

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I was with more family on Sunday looking for a lunch spot near Capitol Hill. Someone in our group had heard about the food court at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, and we decided to go there. The museum itself is located on the east end of the National Mall, near the Capitol Building and I will describe the visit in my next post. The Mitsitam café specializes in Native foods from across the Americas. It is a cafeteria-style setup with stations organized by region, such as Great Plains, Northeast, Mesoamerica, South America, etc. This was like no food court/cafeteria that I had ever seen. There were so many wonderful options, I had a very hard time choosing. I had finally settled on a Buffalo & Duck Burger, only to find the last one had just been sold (and to one of my dining companions! Grrr!). Instead I chose mole wrapped in tortillas. There was chicken mole with apricots and beef mole with peaches. I found the chicken to be slightly lacking in flavour, but still quite good. The beef, on the other hand, was exceptional. The others I was eating with had very good food as well and the beverages were also unique and very good. If one is comparing prices to food court or cafeteria food, the prices may seem high, but this is clearly restaurant caliber cuisine. In a fine dining restaurant you would easily pay much more than we did for food of equal quality. This is quite a find, especially considering the food court at the museum next door, the Air and Space Museum, is a McDonalds.

Mitsitam Cafe on Urbanspoon

By Sunday night, I was getting tired and, as we had had a late lunch at the Mitsitam café, I was not feeling up for another dining adventure. Instead, my mom and I ate in the hotel bar, the Marquee Lounge at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. It was really more of a lounge with deep cushioned chairs and a nice, relaxed atmosphere. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings with a Sam Adams Boston Lager and my mom had crab cakes with white wine and a cheese plate. The cheeseburger was well made, cooked correctly to order and the onion rings were excellent (the beer was good too, but I am already familiar with Sam Adams). The crab cakes were good as well, but we have certainly had better cheese plates. The cheese plate was not as good as what is served in Montreal, but I think that is because 1) cheese plates are popular and taken very seriously in Montreal and 2) Quebec has some amazing local cheeses that restaurants use eagerly.

Next post: Things to see in D.C.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Being Gay and Jewish

I’m back from a long weekend in Washington D.C. and there is lots to write about. The upcoming posts many involve restaurant reviews, accounts of sights to see in the area, and maybe some other thoughts (but nothing too personal). But first, there is something that came up in the days before I left, that I wanted to share with you. Events over the weekend only served to underscore its importance. But this piece of news requires some background.

I have not mentioned it before in this space, but I am Jewish. I am not very religious or observant but I do identify with the Jewish religion and culture and I like to think I maintain Jewish values. I am very proud to be a Jew. In any religion, being gay can present many contradictions and difficulties. On the one hand, almost every religion is based on love and understanding for your fellow humankind. On the other hand, many religions have prohibitions against and condemn homosexuality. Judaism embodies both sides of this dilemma very well. There are a great many verses from the Torah and other scriptures that command treating people with respect and dignity. What immediately comes to mind is the statement of Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbour”. This is actually the origin of Christianity’s Golden Rule, which became: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. On the other hand, there is a very clear statement in Leviticus that very clearly condemns homosexual activity. In addition, one of the most important things Jews are urged to do is to marry and have children. I was in Washington to attend the wedding of a family member, so these issues are very much in my mind right now.

In recent years, many Jews have been seeking ways to resolve the above contradiction. There are many branches of Judaism that vary most obviously by degree of adherence to tradition and Jewish Law (Halakha). Their responses to gay rights have accordingly been quite different. Reform Judaism does not require its followers to be bound by scriptural laws, but focus instead on Jewish values, morality and the connection with God. Because of this, many Reform Temples are very gay friendly, and I think I recall hearing of one or two openly gay Rabbis. Reconstructionists tend to practice their faith with more rigor, but holds that many of the ancient laws are open to modern reinterpretation. This is probably the most gay friendly branch out there. I say probably because I am not very familiar with this small group of Jews, but I know there are many female Rabbis, something impossible in more traditional forms of Judaism and I have heard it is also gay friendly. Conservative Jews are more traditional, but there is some leeway granted to the congregants in how strictly they follow Jewish law. Finally, orthodox Jews follow Halakha very strictly and are reluctant to accept modern changes. Many orthodox Jews who are gay feel pressured to hide their sexuality, because to be an openly practising homosexual is to openly violate halakha. Furthermore, this practical banning of gays seems to have engendered hatred and intolerant attitudes, including belief in the debunked notions that being gay is a choice or is an “illness” that can be “cured”. These attitudes now violate Jewish morality and are greatly out of step with modern attitudes, so the orthodox community has been making attempts to settle the contradictions and clarify the orthodox position on homosexuality. Recently, a book was published by a gay orthodox Jew in Montreal about living as a gay man and an orthodox Jew. Just last week, I became aware of a Statement of Principles developed by an international group of orthodox rabbis to codify gay rights in the synagogue and also to identify the limits of these rights. It also serves as a petition and invites Rabbis around the world to sign on to this statement. It was completed about a month ago, but it only came to my attention last week, when there was a news story about prominent Rabbis in Montreal that had added their signatures to the document. The overall tone of the Statement of Principles is one of acceptance and tolerance. The first principle states that “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect”. This basic point about dignity and respect is repeated several times throughout the document. The first principle condemns ridicule and harassment of homosexuals. Further statements state that gays should be welcomed as members of congregations, that Jews who want their orientation to remain secret should not be outed and, by the same token, those who are openly gay should not be required to stay in the closet, a statement considerably more progressive than the US Military’s position. Although some in the orthodox community still believe that homosexuality is a choice and promote “change therapies”, this statement asserts that, since the majority of mental health professionals reject these ideas and believe they could be dangerous, it is morally correct to reject these “therapies” if one feels them to be unnecessary or dangerous.

Some will feel that the statement does not go far enough. It very clearly states that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and that homosexual activities constitute a violation of halakha, as distinguished from homosexual feelings. It also says that the orthodox community cannot give its blessing to same-sex affirmation or commitment ceremonies. I agree that it would be nice if the Rabbis had gone further and allowed these things, but knowing what I do about orthodox Judaism, I understand that it would have been just about impossible to maintain religious standards as they practice them currently. This statement was also produced as a result of debate and consensus among a very large group of Rabbis, which meant many people with a wide range of personal views needed to all be satisfied. Furthermore, if one reads the statement carefully, one will realize there are many things left unsaid that indicate a more progressive attitude, Although they can not approve of commitment ceremonies, they encourage synagogues to welcome and accept children of same-sex couples into the congregation and religious schools. While homosexual activity is prohibited, they state that

“We do not here address what synagogues should do about accepting members who are openly practicing homosexuals and/or living with a same-sex partner. Each synagogue together with its rabbi must establish its own standard with regard to membership for open violators of halakha.
Those standards should be applied fairly and objectively. “

What this means to me is that the rabbis are equating homosexual activities with any other violation of halakha, for example, violation of the Dietary Laws or other, far more obscure prohibitions that few people follow. Most orthodox synagogues are not overly harsh with these other open violations and the interdiction that standards be applied fairly and objectively ensures that openly practised homosexuality is no more severe a violation than any other. It is acknowledged that, while gay Jews cannot fulfill all the biblical commandments, or mitzvot, most scholars reject the notion that fulfilment of mitzvot is an all-or-nothing idea, meaning gay Jews can still be good Jews. Another statement implies that the only real criteria for special religious offices within the synagogue should be that the entire congregation is comfortable with the choice. This means that any synagogue can appoint gay people to the positions, if the members are comfortable with the choice. This satisfies the more conservative congregations that don’t want to be forced to be more progressive, while opening the door for those who wish to be more progressive. There is even more to the Statement of Principles, but this post is getting long enough. The full text of the Statement of Principles is available online, posted in English and Hebrew and is accompanied by a list of rabbis, educators and mental health professionals who endorse the Statement and have signed it. If you are an orthodox Jew and are in one of the above professions, you are welcomed to sign the document yourself by replying to the email address provided within the document. The link to the document is posted below:

I urge you to read the full document yourself and would like to hear your opinions on the issue. Please remember that this represents the MOST CONSERVATIVE AND TRADITIONAL form of Judaism and does not represent the majority of the Jewish community, which fall into on of the other branches of Judaism. Other forms of Judaism are generally more tolerant, even allowing gay Rabbis and accepting gay partnerships or unions in some form. I believe that, when compared to other religions, Judaism offers a very progressive approach. Perhaps some of you who practice other religions might know more about how your religion deals with gay issues. I welcome and encourage comments about this but, since I am venturing into religion, I will ask again that all comments remain respectful. Any hateful comments will be deleted. I don’t really expect any problems but just want to make sure everyone is aware of the rules.

Note that I have added some new blogs to my link list. I may be adding some more in the future if I feel they are a good fit for my site.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Better Way of Eating

In my last post I described the Public Markets of Montreal, where I prefer to buy my produce. It is not the most convenient thing but I choose to do so anyway. There is a good supermarket a block away from me but I will still travel a good distance on the Metro (subway system) to get to Jean-Talon market. The primary reason is the quality and freshness of the product available at the market compared to that at the supermarket. Another reason is that I believe strongly in the principle of local eating and want to support local producers whenever possible.

In the 80's and 90's, the leading trend in creative cuisine was fusion. In practice, this involved sourcing ingredients from every corner of the world and combining them in new and (hopefully) tasty ways. This trend had its place as it did introduce global flavours to the dining public. Unfortunately, it was frequently the case that the bounty at our feet was completely ignored. In the past several years, the trend has swung the other way. Local cuisine is the new driving force in culinary creativity. The best chefs want to let the ingredients speak for themselves. This ethos fits very well with other concerns of the culinary world: reducing environmental impact and ensuring sustainability. The pursuit of global ingredients to feed an insatiable dining public has led to dramatic depletions of many fish stocks and heavy pollution due to transportation of products.

There is even a movement is some places to encourage a 100% local diet, or at least to get as close to it as possible. There was a well publicised “100 Mile Challenge” held in British Columbia, Canada, where participants would only eat things that were produced within a 100-mile radius of their home for a period of 100 days. I don’t think we have to go to this extreme. We do live in a global village and there is nothing wrong with making use of some ingredients from elsewhere. For instance, I use imported soy sauce and other asian ingredients, spices from around the world, and tropical fruits such as pineapples and passion fruit. However, if an equivalent product is available locally we should use it. Why should I buy garlic that was picked months ago in China and required vast quantities of fuel to get it here, when I can buy better garlic picked just the other day a few miles away, just outside the city?

A related food trend in the recent years is the slow food movement. This phenomenon has its origin as a reaction the public obsession with convenience and “fast foods”. Slow food refers to food that takes time and effort to prepare but, more importantly, uses natural ingredients and avoids manufactured and processed foods. This movement began in Italy, a country where the cuisine is primarily based on quality and freshness of ingredients. Even in Italy, fast food and convenience items have become more popular and the slow food movement was an attempt to get people back to the origins of cooking. It would be even more useful, though perhaps not as easy a sell, in North America and the UK, where food habits seem to have deteriorated far more.

I fully realize that many of you may argue that, while the goals of slow food and local eating are laudable, you do not have the time, skills or budget to follow through on this. While the very term slow food implies that natural, wholesome eating takes a lot of time to prepare, this does not have to be the case at all. Since the goal is to preserve the essence of the natural product, many foods can be prepared very quickly and simply. As for skills, cooking can be accomplished at any skill level, from avant-garde professional, to complete novice. All it takes a willingness to put a certain amount of effort into preparing one’s food and, once that criterion is met, you should have no problem producing something tasty. Finally, although it is sad but true that local produce can often be more expensive than ingredients brought in from halfway around the world, home cooking is always cheaper than eating out, even if you are eating fast food. The one thing you do have to have is the commitment to put some effort in and assign some importance to food preparation.

Even with the desire to embrace a more natural approach to cooking, we still need to get the ingredients. Supermarkets are fine for some things, and I shop at one regularly. However, markets are much better. In addition to the great local, high quality meat and produce available, there are sometimes arts and crafts, snack vendors selling freshly made food and even entertainers. It can also be a social gathering place, since some smaller markets are only on weekends. I even like to visit markets while on vacation. I will be in Washington DC for the next few days to attend a family event, and one of the sights I plan to see is Eastern Market, the city’s largest farmers market, located close to Capitol Hill.

If this post is not quite as well written as usual, it is because I am in a hurry to get this posted before I leave for Washington. While I am away, I will NOT be updating the blog or writing posts, but when I get back there will be plenty to write about. I will be telling you something of my trip and there is some good news in the world of gay rights I would like to share.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Montreal - The Public Markets

Today I will be describing another of my favourite places in Montreal. This is not a typical tourist attraction but I would highly recommend visiting, even as a tourist. They are actually two places: Montreal’s public markets, the two largest and best being Marché Jean-Talon (my favourite) and Marché Atwater. I do a significant amount of my food shopping at the Jean-Talon market, but it is so much more than a place to buy my food (I would not be featuring a supermarket as a tourist attraction). I also believe that supporting local markets encourages better agriculture and a healthier relationship with our food. I will be talking about the benefits of farmers markets in my next post.

I believe that the Jean-Talon market is by far the better market, both for shopping and sightseeing. While the market is open year-round, it is far more impressive in the summer months. In the winter, the number of vendor stalls are reduced and the entire market is enclosed. In the centre of the market are all the produce vendors while shops are located in the permanent building on Henri-Julien street, as well as lining the streets on either side of the market. There are several types of produce vendors. Some primarily sell imported fruits and vegetables that come from suppliers, while others are farm stalls that sell their own product. I greatly prefer the latter, since the whole point of a market for me is to get locally produced food.

La Famille Lauzon, one of the better vendors

The shops sell gourmet and local meats, cheeses, fish, spices and other products. The best shop for visitors is le Marché des Saveurs, located on chemin Marché du Sud, which sells a large variety of jams, jellies, vinegars, and other bottled products from small producers throughout Québec. They also have a wine shop with local wines, ciders and meads. They also sell cheeses, local microbrewed beers and other specialty food products, all from Québec. Another favourite for non-perishables is Olives & Épices, located in the market building. This shop sells spices, olive oils and related products. The owner, Philippe de Vienne, has travelled the world and sourced the highest quality spices available. Though they can be more expensive than supermarket spices, the quality is far superior and I now purchase all my spices there. He also has an excellent book for sale about cooking with spices (only available in French) which has some good recipes and a great illustrated guide to spices. As well, another store a few doors down, La Dépense, sells international foods and has the same ownership.

A note in relation to my last post. Jean-Talon market is fully wheelchair accessible.

There is also a Halal Butcher that seems to have the best price in the city for Québec lamb (which is very hard to find at all in supermarkets). There are several stores that sell gourmet sausages and an outlet of a chain that sells the best french fries in Québec (Frites Alors!).

Best sausages in the store, best fries under the awning

As for the produce, I generally avoid the biggest stalls, which usually have big signs and aggressively promote themselves, because they are the ones that do not sell local, in season produce. By now, I have several favourite stalls where I make most of my purchases, but part of my routine is to walk past all the market stalls to see what is available before I go around a second time and buy my supplies. Some vendors have organic produce, but even the non-organic produce is generally of high quality. Pictured below is one of my favourite stalls. They are pretty much a farm stand in the summer, but in the winter they do sell a small selection of imported produce.
La Ferme des Moissons. I have gotten to know the man on the right, who runs the stall. Sometimes he'll give me a discount for large purchases, another benefit of being a market regular

Atwater market has much less appeal to me, especially where produce is concerned. First, it is a smaller market with less variety and can sometimes be more crowded because it is closer to downtown. The prices of everything there are much more expensive. Still, there are some reasons to go to this market. Inside the market building you will find an amazing selection of high quality butcher shops. Top grade organic beef, lamb from Kamouraska, Québec, locally produced foie gras and other excellent meat can be found. The price is on the high side, but it is not excessive given the quality. There are also gourmet food shops, one of which is my preferred store for truffle oil. Notice that the items I prefer to buy here are high-priced anywhere you buy them. Cheaper products can be found elsewhere for a better price.

Stay tuned as my next post will discuss the importance of the farmers market in a more general sense.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Disabilities - A Lesson from Amar and Noah

I’m sure we can all agree that it is rather difficult to get through life, even without any special obstacles in our way. Imagine how much more difficult it would be if one of our senses was not available to use, or a body part was not functioning, or our mental processes were outside our control.

Many millions of people around the world experience these problems and thus have a more difficult path than the rest of us. These problems are typically called “disabilities” and the people who experience them are typically called “disabled”. But what do we really mean by disabled? And is there a difference between a strict, literal definition of a disability and actually being disabled? To illustrate what I mean, consider the following three examples:

1. The daughter of a relative of mine was born with severe cerebral palsy. She could not speak, was confined to a wheelchair and had little to no control of bodily functions. She needed extensive assistance in almost every aspect of life.

2. Myself. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I have a very short attention span and thus have difficulty staying focussed on a single topic and can be impulsive. This has affected my school performance in the past, and has affected my work performance if my medication was not correctly adjusted.

3. A 13-year-old boy is deaf and has been since birth. He is very intelligent, can read lips and uses sign language and seems in every way normal except for his deafness.

Of these three people, who is disabled? One of them? Two of them? All of them? None of them?

Depending on how we define the term, any of the above answers could be considered correct. But briefly, I think most people would agree that my relative’s daughter was disabled. There is not much of a way to see it otherwise. As for myself, ADD is considered a learning disability and it has affected my functioning at times, which should mean I would be disabled. However I do not consider myself disabled and to most people who know me, I am not disabled. The third case presents some very interesting issues. But first some background.

This case example, which inspired this piece, was drawn from a recent post on Amar’s World, where Amar took time out from his vacation to visit Noah, a deaf boy who would transferring to Amar’s school in the coming year. For more details about Noah, visit Amar’s World by following the link on the sidebar and read the post “Noah - The Grand Teacher” posted August 5, 2010. When Amar met Noah for the first time, it was obvious he had an image of Noah being disabled; Amar found it hard to imagine how someone could get along in life without hearing (see “Such an Interesting Day!” posted June 14, 2010 on Amar’s World) and embarrassed himself in his first attempts at communicating with Noah. As he got more comfortable however, Amar began to learn sign language to better communicate and, when they met the second time, Amar came to the realization “that Noah was NOT disabled - he was just deaf.” So his answer to my third example would have changed from a “yes” to a “no”.

I have already claimed that the definition of disability can be very important. In the strictest, narrowest sense, we can take a literal definition of the word, namely the inability to do something. Noah is not ABLE to hear therefore in this very specific way, he is disabled. However, when we normally use the term “disabled” it is used in a broader sense. We see it, as Amar did, to be an inability to function in life. Noah has no such problem. Going further, as long as my ADD is under control, I am not disabled either. If we look closely at people we may think are disabled, I am willing to bet we would find most of them have found ways to function quite well, by using various means to compensate for the obstacles they face. If we apply the broad definition now, very few people are actually disabled. We could probably still correctly define my relative’s daughter as disabled, as well as others who are very severely handicapped, but most people are able to find ways to overcome one or two “disabilities”. This is why the current push to ensure that workplaces make accommodations rather than not hire someone with a “disability” is so important. With just a small bit of effort and understanding, everyone can have the opportunity to exercise their full potential.

With this new realization, however, comes a new problem. If we now decide that it is not correct to use the term “disabled” to describe these people, what words can we use? While we do want to avoid emphasizing someone’s differences, these things usually do need to be addressed in some way and we shouldn’t have to be scared away from talking about these “disabilities”. This is what is so problematic about always trying to be “politically correct” - at some point the verbal contortions become so dramatic there is no longer anything “correct”. Over the years, political correctness has come up with terms such as “differently abled”, “mentally/physically challenged”, or - the absolute worst - “special”. These terms sacrifice a great deal in the way of accuracy and have the added negative of sounding very condescending. Many “disabled” people find these terms to be even more offensive than the original. So, what to do?

First, the very idea of grouping people as “disabled” is probably something we should avoid if possible. Instead we should try to consider every one we meet as an individual human being. I know that this is far easier said than done, but it couldn’t hurt to try. Second, when we refer to the actual “disability”, an alternate term that might be a little more accurate could be to refer to it as an “obstacle”. In today’s world, “disabilities” do not really disable a person, but they are an obstacle. It is there and can impede progress if not addressed. However there is usually a way to get over or around a physical or mental obstacle, much like an obstacle that blocks a road. Sometimes the obstacle can even be removed, but it many instances this is not possible. But even though the obstacle may not disappear, no matter how much you may want it to, it still does not have to stop you in your tracks forever. The only disadvantage to this wording is that changing around words and terminology can confuse matters. That is why I have frequently used the terms “disabled” or “disabilities” while putting them in quotation marks. This was to indicate that these are the terms we would previously have used but I feel are not entirely appropriate.

In the end, I think that if we put less emphasis on a person’s personal obstacles and more emphasis on their character and abilities, it will not matter as much what words we use to describe these obstacles, because it will be understood that making reference to obstacles does not denigrate the person nor does it imply that they are less able to function than anyone else.