Counter Culture


Counter Culture


Alternative Cuisine


A hot hamburg sandwich with double gravy is a thing of beauty and a joy forever

I love restaurant food. I love restaurant food from restaurants that have jukeboxes blaring and seedy formica counters and red leatherette booths with mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles and chrome serviette dispensers and plastic-wrapped menus and a faint vinegar smell on Friday nights when the local movie house lets out. Restaurants on the thousands of street corners of the thousands of small towns where long-legged schoolgirls with names like Loretta and Fay have complex smiles and stretch and bend and busy themselves with the beauty of the moment. Restaurants that serve toasted westerns and chicken salad sandwiches on plain brown and hot sandwiches from the grill and if you want . . . gravy over everything. Restaurants where you tell them what you want, wait a while, play some Lightfoot on the box, read the literature provided by the placemats (wild game fish of Canada, migratory birds of Grey County) and out it comes from somewhere in the back behind dirt-splattered swinging doors, mysteriously it appears, like a Durer painting, as if it always existed, waiting for me to look its way . . . “Do you want your coffee now or later?”

Or other images: small town Mount Forest in the centre of rural Ontario, its main street splashed with the hot summer sun of a few summers ago, the sun washes the stucco front of Steve’s Chicken Villa, a great greasy spoon that served a hot hamburger sandwich that made the 10-mile drive into town from my farm seem like the night before Christmas. It was . . . beautiful: french fries and peas with still a hint of green in them, slippery strings of cole slaw and two hamburger patties cloaked in bread whiter than my wife’s thighs, all slowly sinking into a sea of steamy Vandyke brown gravy. Ooohhh . . .

But the Toronto-Dominion Bank across the street had to expand and made its move to that sunnier site and the eager wreckers tore at the very heart of Steve’s Chicken Villa and left it a dusty rubble of potato peelings, tubs of wasted fat, and stained steel grills blackened with the good wishes of the good food well and truly served in all those good days gone by. I felt the loss personally. Good gravy is the true hallmark of the great greasy spoon. Steve’s was right up there.

My honest idea about home cooking is that it should do its best to emulate the formative tastes of your childhood, when your mother did everything just right, and then take you along that very same step you yourself took that sad day when you had to leave home. That is, it should try to be as much as possible like that home-away-from-home for the young starving artist, the local greasy spoon.

I’ve tried other foods. Other ways of eating. I have my ritzy friends with credit cards who sometimes talk me into some elegant evening in some fancy-dancy place where you’re waited on by people in dark suits who hate their jobs and you’re supposed to fuss over the wine list and meanwhile all the food is some tragic surprise and the conversation is hushed and always polite till someone complains that the meal wasn’t as good as it should have been, and then the only serving arrives that isn’t criminally small — the bill. The entire evening is fraught with such peril that I cannot believe anyone has a good time anyway. (I once ate guinea hens. They were so delicate they drove me crazy and I had to take four Libriums just to calm down enough to tackle them.) A friend and impeccable gourmet once invited my wife and me to a sumptuous gathering at her place. She’s a great cook, lots of class, lots of skill, a kitchen magician. But she understands. So while everyone else was sucking on weirdo seafood she sent out for Chicken Chalet for me, bar-b-que chicken, extra sauce, french fries, toasted bun . . . beautiful.

Now the problem here is that (although sometimes I can’t for the life of me understand) you can’t always eat in a restaurant. There just are times when home is the place to be. Since I’m no art nouveau eater all that spice and garnish of fancy fixings just make me lose sight of the fact that I’m eating because I’m hungry. Don’t inspect the kitchen of a greasy spoon. Just your plate and your enthusiasm. And bring those insights home.

Yes, and bring it home for sure Saturday night. Winter Saturday night. Hockey Night In Canada and friends from sunnier climes may come to enjoy the traditional feast for soul and eye. The color television is always in the kitchen. The fare perfect and exact. And absolutely ready for the eight o’clock whistle. (We do not stand for the playing of the Queen.) We eat and cheer and scream and rant and stand and shout and drink and eat with the ease of perfect food perfectly suited to the perfect occasion. The main course is . . . hand held! It allows you to do anything. That’s important. You couldn’t really stand up and scream with a yard of spaghetti hanging off your fork, waving and spraying spaghetti sauce all about. Yes, without a doubt, Marlene’s Hockey Night in Canada Regulation Repast is the perfect Saturday night.

The Markies are known far and wide for their traditional winter Saturday night dinner before the kitchen color television. The set flashes blue with the grace of Keon, the pine floors gleam with the polished shine of rural Canada, the dogs lie quietly, their wondrous adventures in the daytime snow now fond memories. Outside the winter moonlight catches fire on the glistening chromed Ski-doo. It sends long shadows of night blue into the black. Peace here. Our table filled to overflowing with the good things: golden french fries arching sharply into the kitchen light. Wooden bowls of green salad splashed with the spicy, vibrant orange of good Canadian Kraft dressing, Wonder Bread hamburger buns wondrously soft and spongy. Plates of Spanish onion and tomatoes sliced to perfection, their aromas mingling / continued on page 50 across the plates’ pattern af gold leaf. Napkins and knives and forks and plastic squeeze bottles of ketchup and truly regular mustard, relish, salt and pepper. Plates of bone-white deviled eggs peaked with the rust of paprika worthy of the steel company picnics in the remembered summers in the Hamilton haze of my childhood. Icicle-cold root beer or orange pop or real beer, frothy, amber gold in A&W mugs.

Eat during the first period. Relax and digest during the second. Dessert, tea, coffee or liqueurs during the third. And hope there will be no overtime. Can life get any better?

My wife usually makes an extra number of cheeseburg patties since I’ve recently discovered a joyful Sunday afternoon lunch. A reheated cheeseburg patty on toasted white bread with a crisp leaf of lettuce and lots of salt is great with Sunday afternoon NFL games. The football is interesting and each bite echoes the truly Canadian excitement of the night before.

I have it on good authority that even those high-toned city people looking for a low-rent experience, people who don’t give a damn about hockey or football, are onto this too. Difference is they buy their hamburger meat in the Gourmart, use sesame seed buns, drink wines by candlelight and listen to Astrid Gilberto. Sounds like perverse chic to me. ■