(Please click pictures for their sources.)
Of course you are saying to yourself, “Rabbit, in Belgium? What’s she on about now?” Let me explain.
I’ve lived nearly 50 years on this earth and I can honestly say that almost every one of my memories of that 50 years is somehow tied to food. I’m not just talking about birthday cakes and Christmas dinners; I remember every fine dining experience, every fast-food take-away, spreads for family get-togethers, pub-lunches and even that strawberry shortcake on a stick that the Dickie Dee guy used to pull out of his bicycle- freezer.
I think I can attribute my culinary remembrances to having had parents who were great lovers of food. Admittedly, growing up in the 60s and 70s made me the child-guinea pig for any manner of processed and packaged food experimentation, but thanks largely to my dad’s membership in “The Book of the Month Club” and my mom’s willingness to try new things with Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and Ann Seranne, I was exposed to many great meals as well as the “Squeeze-a-snack” cheese and the Pillsbury Crescent Roll wiener-wraps.
Plus, my dad had been to many exotic places while stationed with the British Army in the 1940s and 50s, so on Saturday afternoons, he was always mixing up things like leftover soups in the fridge with curry and spices and encouraging me to have a taste.
When I was very young, my father came home from his Chartered Accountancy job with Revenue Canada and said that our family (my dad, my mom and I) had been invited to an Indian dinner at his co-worker, Cal Mohatra’s house. I was puzzled by this whole “Indian” reference, but being a generous (and let’s face it, a bit precocious) four year old, surreptitiously packed a present in my dad’s briefcase for Mr. Mohatra— an Indian head-dress made out of shirt cardboard. When we went to dinner a few days later, I realized he was not the “Cowboys and Indians” sort of Indian at all, but a very nice man with brown skin who wore a suit just like my daddy. This was perhaps my first view of people from other cultures. It was also my first exposure to foreign spices and it was the beginning of a life-long love.
My parents enjoyed going out to dinner too and whenever possible, we would head over for Chinese at the Nanking restaurant— a little place tucked away on a narrow street behind the Toronto City Hall. It was on the second floor of a building and I remember having to walk up what seemed like a hundred stairs, (it which was probably only a dozen or so) to a rather dark room with lots of tables and clinking glasses and silverware and the hum of people speaking in quiet tones. It was also my first time hearing people speak in another language—a very speedy, sing-song sort of way of speaking, I thought. I also remember loving sinking my teeth into the crispy-spongy batter of chicken balls with plum sauce and of course, fortune cookies. I admit, this was a very Canadian-style Chinese food and it wasn’t until I was much older that I was exposed to the really hot stuff like Kung Pao Chicken and Singapore noodles.
One particular food memory that sticks in my head is when we were driving home from a vacation down east (we always say “down” even though it’s actually out east and I don’t really know why), and stopped in the town of Peterborough, Ontario and went to a steakhouse called “Roland’s” where they also served lobster. It was a roadside spot that had fancy white tablecloths and napkins, but I think what I remember most is the large blackish-green lobsters with the elastic-bands around their claws that were swimming in the big tank up at the front near the kitchen. I was captivated by them and didn’t have the sense at the age of seven or eight to question their sad plight. Now I certainly do.
(Still open for business!)
If you want to talk lobster, mind you, I must tell you of the fantastic feasts we would have at my aunt’s house in Cape Breton. They lived on the Bras D’or Lakes—the East Bay side and my uncle Mack trapped his own lobsters. Now when you buy a lobster in a grocery store, I’ll bet they’re not much bigger than a crawfish! Mack’s lobsters were easily a foot and half long or more! He would boil them up in a huge oil drum over a roaring fire down at the boathouse across the road and then we would all sit out at a long line of picnic tables covered in newspaper. (Family would come from all over for these feasts and there would easily be 40 people.) There’d be dishes of melted butter and vinegar and mayonnaise and we’d each have our own machete (well, it looked like one to me) to hack away at our meal. I don’t like to think about the poor lobster, but I can honestly say that was bar none the best seafood I ever had and will probably never be topped.
My mom and I can talk about food for hours. In fact, it is one of the things that we truly have in common and that usually doesn’t end up in debate (unless you count Coronation Street and even then we can “get into it”). We both love cookbooks and cooking. She passed the love of food on to me and I ran with it. I can sit with a cookbook and read it like it’s a bestselling novel. What’s really amazing, is that I can actually taste things in my mind, so when it comes to working with recipes and making them my own, I have a bit of an advantage over folks who don’t know what something will be like. I can read a recipe and know if I will enjoy it or not and I can tell if someone has put a recipe together that will just never work.
I have had few disasters with my own cooking and the same goes for my mom. The one of hers that stands out for me was a fish dish that used a can of Campbell’s Cream of Celery Soup and a smattering of curry powder. All the curry powder in the world was never going to save that undercooked, over-sauced blunder. I shy away from cans of soup in recipes; they’re loaded with sodium and other nasty stuff.
As for me, it was a potato-pancake creation that had way too much flour and tasted something like play-dough that is my claim to infamy. My husband likes to bring that one up when I get too cocky.
(Should have looked like the top shot, but tasted like the stuff on the bottom.)
You must be wondering about the whole “rabbit in Belgium” thing. It’s not just a catchy title; it really is true! In 1977 (just after my 16th birthday) my dad took our family to Europe for a tour of World War II battlegrounds and Catholic Churches. We got to experience some very interesting meals and dishes and I distinctly recall a gorgeous confection of vanilla ice cream and chocolate-dipped wafers that I had at a konditorei in Zurich (after just having purchased a gorgeous floral print, tiered dirndl skirt and clogs). There was also the seriously hot pepper masquerading as a green bean on my dad’s plate in the little restaurant in Cloppenburg, Germany. My dad’s head nearly blew off. That turned into a family legend, as things like that are wont to do.
One time the tour culminated in a unique culinary revelation. A dish of rabbit stew at a small, ordinary restaurant in Bastogne, Belgium, was memorable not only for the dish itself, but also because we ate it at the site of the Battle of the Bulge. It tasted very much like chicken—tender to the teeth and sauced to perfection. It is conceivable that General Patton ate the same dish, since he had brought his Third Army north to Bastogne to relieve the U.S. troops who were holding it off from the Germans, 32 years earlier.
My dad always loved the story of General McAuliffe, who after being asked to surrender by the Germans at Bastogne, sent a message back that read, “Nuts!” It really broke him up every time he told us that tale.
Well, that’s all for this round. We’ve gone from soup to nuts, but there are many more courses to explore, so if you love food and you want to come along for the ride, please join me and please leave a comment about your own memories (and disasters are always welcome).