My first thought, extricating myself from the ruins of a self-sabotaged relationship with a sense of accomplishment (At least I know for sure that’s over…) is of food.
“But who will I eat meat and cheese with? Who will get a coffee in the morning with me?”
Chef very kindly pretends not to see me weeping on the line, prompted by cues too numerous to count or remember. It is his greatest kindness to me, to continue as if everything were normal, while I am not sure if I am even a real person anymore. The cod still needs de-boning and the flatbread needs to proof before service and the date cake needs to set, regardless of whether or not you can see through those tears.
Who will study restaurant menus and pore over similarities between the tiny bistro where we work and the big boys like Bar Raval? Who can look at me, straight faced, and discuss the relative merits of different kinds of bitters, overlook the balcony covered in terracotta pots of herbs, the indoor citrus trees, the endless mason jars of home made bourbon cherries and poached pears and brandied peaches that I sell to the bar? We are insufferably pretentious. Food is life, life is food. Life and restaurants and bars are all tangled up in one another. Finish work, stay at work and read cookbooks, leave to spend a few hours at Skin and Bones or a newly discovered German brat haus on the Danforth.
It is almost funny that my sense of loss relates first and foremost to my experiences with food. I’ve lost my best friend, my partner, and soon, my home and job, but the first pang of regret and desperation is that I no longer have somebody to eat with.
“Anybody in the world will eat meat and cheese and drink coffee with you.”
But there’s a deep sense of importance to me in knowing a partner’s dining preferences. A double short espresso or a dry cappuccino, the fork with the long tines, al dente pasta, a Boneshaker from Amsterdam Brewery. To remember these small things, that’s love. Dump somebody if they don’t know how you take your coffee after the second date. Preparing a meal for somebody can be a great act of love- remember the small details.
This, to me, is part of why I love food so much. Food can be the backdrop, the catalyst, of love and friendship. A good food experience can be transcendent, untouchable, perfect. When you put out a good plate of food from a restaurant, you’re not just creating a sensational taste experience, you’re creating a moment, a longing, a desire to remain in that perfect, transcendent second. I treasure, dream like, nights we spent over a tasting menu in Leslieville or speechless at Bar Isabel. When we had a friend visit from Finland, we ate like kings across the city of Toronto- one of the best facets of the city to share with a visitor. Octopus at Bar Isabel, tapas at Bar Raval (and peering into the kitchen, longingly), charcuterie Bar Volo. Our own restaurant, The Beech Tree, my old neighborhood haunt Tequila Bookworm, celebrity chef owned Momofuku, cocktails at Shangri-La, a candle-lit communal table at Bellwoods Brewery, followed by a bar crawl to Ronnie’s, to the Embassy.
These establishments capture the spirit of a place, they define and embody their neighborhoods. Thinking of Bellwoods can evoke the entire neighborhood in memory associated with it’s name- walks down Ossington in the summer, newly hip, picnics in the dog bowl with beer cans, a stand up comedy night at Tall Boys, an all night date spend on a park bench until the sun rose over the trees and you grabbed a coffee at Sam James Coffee Bar. Skin and Bones, intrinsically Leslievillian, evokes cycling down Queen on a halcyon summer’s day to Ashbridge’s Bay, watching a snowstorm from within their windows, Ed’s Real Scoop as dessert, the train bridge at Gerrard and Carlaw. I savor the taste of these places as much as the meal itself. Eating out somewhere can make you, temporarily, belong there- anywhere in the world.
There’s a sadness, also, at the loss of shared shopping for food. What to make for dinner tonight? A walk down the boardwalk, dog in hand, to the butcher shoppe, to the vegetable stand, to the cheese store, to the bread store. I know my neighborhood by food. Which green grocers has the best asparagus or the most eclectic produce selection. Picking out a waxy skinned pork belly, nipples still attached, arguing about the best way to make pasta, experimenting with producing alkali ramen noodles.Two chopping boards, getting lunch prep done for a busy work week. Day off sausage rolls and pastries from Courage. Hips bumping in the kitchen over ginger beers and a board of cheeses from The Pantry at Gerrard and Coxwell, on the way home from work from yet another restaurant.
It is a practice in belonging and an art of being to know the best banh-mi this side of the Danforth or where to get the cheapest vanilla beans. It is a meditative exercise in becoming a part of something to know the flour-streaked cooks having a cigarette in the alleyway by name. To know that despite its unassuming facade, a hole-in-the-wall on Dundas East makes a mean pierogi or the most luscious brownie you’ve ever had. It is a feeling of settling and of great love and welcoming. Every new neighborhood or city you encounter you learn to approach with the same learned eye- find the best food, find the locals, find the most talented bartenders, the best window seats.
Food shadows all my losses. Can one go there and rediscover, by tasting, a neighborhood? Feel like a part of it again, fast forwarding through those full color film reel memories, into new territory? Can forging forward alone, to a new place, where the coffee is different and the menu is new and you don’t have a regular table, help to heal? To one day, share a meal with another person, proffering, as a token, the properly prepared coffee? To rebuild, alone, safe havens and corners of home, to create new memories, laced with the taste of garlic, shallot and butter. And maybe someday, as you wait, sipping on a Sazerac, somebody you love will come through the door and you will turn to them with a vibrant smile, their favorite drink waiting on the bar.