Many years before I opened a restaurant, I took the streetcar to and from work everyday. It was a lumbering, crowded sardine can on rails that carried me, rather slowly, from the inner city to the outer city where I lived. For many years, I always brought a book to read for the long trip, but over time my thoughts became so preoccupied that I couldn’t focus on a book—instead, I day dreamed. I thought about sous vide circulators, whip siphons and industrial mixers. More often, I would plan out how I would cook the hard-to-find ingredients that I had bought during my lunch break. I would jot these things down in a quaint and earnest blog that I used to dutifully write in. There were probably thousands of enthusiastic home cooks just like me watching the Food Network, buying expensive cookbooks, making messes in the kitchen, creating blogs with terrible photography and referring to ourselves as food writers—as if we had actually published a fucking book. And maybe even some of us dreamed of taking that next step. At the time, I was a broadcast analyst. I sat at a desk all day in front of a computer screen. I was as far away from a restaurant life as someone could possibly be. Yet something changed when I discovered that I could buy pigs blood around the corner from where I worked. My office was located between Little Italy, Chinatown and Kensington market in Toronto. My exploration of these neighborhoods created a connection to food; a proper connection that no suburban mini-mart ever could. It was an education. This is my ode to those neighborhoods; the good, the bad and the tasty.
Little Italy, to the west, was where I went for double zero flour, tinned salted anchovies and a type of jarred chili from a small family-owned Pugliese company called Donato Macina. This product, in my opinion, is one of the best tasting things on earth. Bar none. Donata Macina chillies are bright red, chopped roughly (seeds and all), and are packed into salty, crimson-stained sunflower oil. That’s it. No other ingredients. Upon opening a fresh jar, the oil sloshes around near the top; spillage is inevitable. After about one-third of the jar is gone (a few weeks in), the chili-to-oil ratio hits a sort of sweet spot – also at this point, distribution is much easier – shirt staining, less likely. The contents of that jar are very hot, but also pleasurably saline; the searing heat will settle after a moment followed by a lingering, fruity and savoury goodness that tickles your nasal passages as you exhale. It’s a sublime pain and one that often finds me pounding the dining table with a closed fist, my mouth burning in ecstasy.
To the east was Chinatown – one of several in Toronto. This is the original, the downtown strip that started out as a Jewish quarter decades previously. By the time the last delicatessen closed in the 1980’s, Spadina Avenue was no longer the neighborhood of Al Waxman – it became that city in Bladerunner. It is a crowded, neon-lit, chaotic place, or at least through the eyes of someone with deficient mayonnaise-fed cultural baggage; accustomed to wide boulevards, one-stop shopping grocery stores and elbow room. To the locals, it’s business as usual. Like most populous cities outside of the western world the streets are alive with throngs of people, high decibels, strong smells, buying, selling, aggressive haggling and not even enough room on the sidewalk to do a Wonder Woman spin. While the back alleys are awash in the greasy fragrance of rotten fish guts and here and there, weird, oil slicked-puddles, there were also the good smells; the main thoroughfare: ginger-laced smoke drifting from various Chinese barbecue joints where they dye everything red and orange so you know it’s Siu mei. In other shops there are deep fried shrimp, crab and other oceanic, multi-limbed beasts; their crispy battered skins kissed with fresh lemon and covered in jewel-like scallions. Despite being of Vietnamese origin, pho is served in one of the busiest joints. It’s a messy, delightfully nourishing soup, within its gelatin-rich broth lurks raw fatty brisket, tripe, tendons, possibly entrails and other dubious animal parts mixed with tangles of starchy noodles, sprouts and fragrant fresh green Thai basil. For nine bucks you’ll get a litre of the stuff and a small steel carafe of cold tea. It’s places like this for which paper napkins, cheap wooden chopsticks, vinyl table cloths and cracked bowls are generally all the accoutrements anyone needs to immerse themselves in some beguilingly spicy, sweet and sour delicacies. It is a neighborhood that is testament to the cultural flux of Toronto: certainly a long way from the chewy unleavened bagels and schmear that used to proliferate in the area during some distant, sepia-tinted vision of its Jewish past. Chinatown is a reminder of what it is like in other parts of the world. It’s medieval. There are no sterile polystyrene trays of mechanical-looking cylindrical pork tenderloin or pre-packaged watery factory-sliced bacon. Here, the animal has not been removed from the meat equation. A walk past some of the restaurants and food shops reveals the truth. ‘Barbecued’ cuttlefish, surprisingly large and stained luridly orange, hang menacingly like the mythical kraken next to mahogany roast ducks with skin that has been crisped up to absurd levels of crunchy, sticky deliciousness. These two creatures, I would never think to put together, hung in death, unlikely partners. Pork bellies, or often entire pork sides, are ubiquitous, displayed in windows in much the same way; layers of golden brown, smoky flesh separated by strata of barely rendered glistening fat with skin that is blistered into crackling that would make a Welshman weep. The chicken still have their feet and heads. Eyes? Ears? They got ’em. Snouts? In spades. But it’s not just snouts. Here too, I discovered trotters. Pick up a fresh pig’s foot, hold it your hand, consider its weight, its smooth, cool flesh. You’ll swear you’re holding a misshapen human hand like your own – a sinister, asymmetrical handshake. A trotter may frighten, but it shouldn’t—it’s replete with healthful gelatin and is just begging to be stuffed like a sausage and braised with bay leaves in Port. You get the whole animal, all on full view, that is, if you can actually see through the steamed-up windows, the fogginess pierced by the obligatory blinking pink neon signs of mysterious Chinese characters.
In Chinatown, food is on display, it tempts the passing shoppers, luring them in like garter-wearing hookers in a red light district. Everything is edible; everything is on the table here. You can buy pig’s blood in an obscure grocery store down a stairwell with no English signage; not obvious from the street, but everyone seems to know about the place. It’s fucking crowded in there – white and Asian alike. I’ve seen it fresh before: the blood is so dark that it’s not really red, more like the purple-brown of a fresh bruise, sloshing about like a horror show. More commonly and perhaps less intimidating, it is sold in a stable form of coagulated cakes. They are stored in those nonthreatening one-litre plastic deli containers that in other neighbourhoods would see a likely application of macaroni salad – certainly not blood. But why the hell not? Why shouldn’t we be able to pick up some fresh blood at the local Safeway? I think everybody should put aside a Sunday afternoon at home with grandma and the kids to noisily gurgle warm pig’s blood through a funnel into hog casing along with some barley and Grandma’s secret spice blend, the water pot already simmering, ready to gently set firm the unctuous and creamy boudin noir––good for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Why don’t we do that, damn it? It’s beautiful. I’m not sure what the shoppers in Chinatown are doing with all that blood, but I know what I would do with it.
Smack between little Italy and Chinatown, almost hidden with no obvious entrance or exit is the cubic zirconium in the crown: Kensington Market. It is a colourful, bohemian wonderland of slightly rundown looking homes mixed with the most unlikely collection of businesses from a large established butcher shop that attracts celebrity chefs to an April Bloomfield-financed bakery all the way down to sketchy, un-licensed lemonade stands and old ladies under parasols selling their garden produce out of beat up Coleman coolers. The market’s namesake street, Kensington Avenue is the old haunt of my youth where I bought my prized biker jacket, its vintage clothing and army surplus now is largely ignored by my adult self. I’m drawn now to the more edible possibilities to the North West. A walk along Baldwin Street will have you passing pine boxes of beans and dried legumes, a reeking cheese shop, an insurgence of fresh produce all out in the open, easy to steal under corrugated metal roofs and within storefronts that are nothing more than a hole cut in a wall. You’ll walk by some girl with a tattoo on her face playing Led Zeppelin on a ukulele and inexplicably, in the dead centre of it all: a men’s suit store. There’s a junk shop at the top of the street that is so crammed full of stuff that only one person at a time can get in there, Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse is probably hidden in there under all those old VHS tapes and National Geographic Magazines.
Peter Sanagan’s butcher shop is one of the biggest draws. All walks of life can be seen waiting anxiously for their turn with their crumpled number ticket in hand. The shop offers the best of the best, but also the best of the worst: I’ve probably never eaten as fine a meal as their beef heart sandwich. Peter’s shop started several years earlier a few doors down in a space that was so small that the staff had to climb down a trap door ladder to use the washroom. Little more than a large walk-in fridge and a massive, blood stained butcher block, his shop would often have interesting cook books lying around for customers to peruse whilst waiting for their lamb shoulder to be boned out and tied up. Eventually it would be Sanagan’s meat that my restaurant would order, without exception.
The smell of fish is thick where Baldwin Street meets Augusta Avenue. There are three mongers there, my favourite closed because of a rat problem a few years previous. One store is a boutique fish place, selling very expensive local Ontario stuff, fish that my dad would have caught for free at the old lake. It is good, but I feel that it only really attracts the curious new moneyed classes that have been coming in larger and larger numbers to the market. The other fish shops are modest, messy and likely repelling to anyone who hasn’t lived in a poor country near the ocean. The fish are largely representative of the south Atlantic and Caribbean: big-eyed porgies, groupers, grunts, bright red butter fish, and plenty of small silvery wrigglers. They are unceremoniously heaped into ice-filled wooden pallets with hand-scrawled signs indicating the price per pound. During the summer, store keepers battle buzzing flies, but rarely defeat them. There’s a wee spice shop around the corner on Augusta avenue that is my go-to for interesting Indian curry blends, smoked salts and the best and cheapest lentils du Puy in the city. My favourite green grocer, just off Nassau Street has a couple of 1970’s wooden speakers blasting obscure blues music at the doorway. My first taste of watermelon radish, garlic scapes and stinging nettles came from there; and they always seem to be the first to get ramps in the spring.
Organs, offals, kidneys, bellies and necks of animals, wild foraged mushrooms, green garlic, black garlic, wild garlic, smoked pimenton, stinking cheeses, chillies I’d never heard of, goat meat, fucking brains, mutton, intestines and many other esoteric delicacies that I found in the market inspired me to take my cooking to the next level. I spend my entire lunch hour in the markets. After buying all this stuff, I would bring it back to work and store it in the office fridge—likely stinking and contaminating the secretaries’ sanitary, polystyrene boxed chicken salad. Then I would lug it home, causing crinkled noses on the crowded street car. Much to Dorothy’s’ consternation, she often lamented for a day when I would simply throw a steak and a foil-wrapped spud on to the grill like normal husbands and not dirty so many pots and pans.
It was just one more step on a long journey that led me to my restaurant. These neighborhoods are dying thing in our world. They’re messy and crowded and inconvenient. There’s no parking. There’s no shopping carts. We are slowly being trained to look for meat that does not look like flesh. Where once the feet and heads were removed, now grocery stores are removing the skin, fat and bones. Future generations will have no idea what meat is. We need markets. We need butchers. We need the unapologetic Asian grocery stores that should not be seen as the ‘other’, but actually a mirror image of what North America used to be before food became an industrialized, generic packaged commodity. I worry for the future of places like Kensington Market. Without these places our food culture will slowly whither away until we will no longer know how to prepare food without the help of the industrial-food-complex.
Also, where they fuck would we buy pig’s blood?