Enough About Politics! Back To The Wine!

The Elegant Bastard acknowledges that many who read these posts are beneath the legal drinking age in their various jurisdictions. However, we force young people to pick their careers before they can have them, learn about cars before they can drive them and draw plans of bridges before they can build them. Why not introduce them to wines before they can drink them? In fact, when better?

I received an amusing letter yesterday. It commented favourably about a recent post concerning Toronto’s mayor but then concluded by saying to me, “Ok, we get it. You don’t like Rob Ford. Now let’s get back to the wine talk.” In other words, enough with the gripes. Get back to the grapes.

I agree! It’s time. For now there are no more mayors. With our corkscrews in one hand and our Riedels in the other, let us all go forth and together be wise. Here is the first of a series of reviews about white wines currently available in Ontario. (They are also likely accessible in other regions.)

Rabl Kittmansberg Gruner Veltliner (Austria) 2011, $14.95: When I first sniff a glass of wine, I do so with all the delicacy and finesse of a dog greeting a new best friend. My nose is not near the glass; it is in the glass. My inhalation is not subtle. It’s deep. I am a man looking for metaphors; let no one interfere.

As per usual, the first sniff of this wine suggests fruit. Is it apple-y? A tad. Pearish? A bit. Then the truth arrives. It’s peachy – the restrained suggestion of an under ripe peach that danced quite closely with an overripe melon while holding a flower in its teeth. (Yes, I know peaches don’t have teeth. If you’re going to be like that, go away.) The aroma is not at all cloying but I still worry. This much fruit on the nose might be a warning that the wine is sweet, and I generally do not like sweet.

Then another scent begins to manifest in the glass and now I get eagerly and noisily nosey. The epiphany strikes on the third inhalation. It is suddenly a bracing spring morning on the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal and I am there, breathing in the familiar odour of old wet stone.

The first tastes confirm my hopes. The fruit is mellow and almost rich but there is no hint of syrup.  The wine is dry but not at all puckery. There is no hint of the unpleasant astringency that turns so many away from white wines. Instead the combination of fruit and minerality gives the wine a balance rarely obtained at this price point. There’s even a hint of pepper contributing a pleasantly subdued “burn”. The taste lingers and seems to cleanse the tongue with each sip.

As many wines must, this one had to do duty a second night. One day later, it was still intriguing, not bad given that so many wines go flat within a couple of hours of being opened. Day one it paired with basil and lemon braised chicken; on day two its tangy undertones went well with a sage and tarragon flavoured smoked turkey and split pea soup.

When friends and I encounter a new wine, we will often assign it a “personality”. We decided that if this wine were a person, it would be a pleasantly witty and slightly acerbic dining companion (or an advisor of some sort) who arrives dressed in a sophisticated version of business casual. The talk would be all about interesting events and unusual people, with perhaps some wry political commentary tossed in to keep the mood light.  Were any business to be done, it would of course be dealt with successfully. (Professionalism always shows!) The two of you would then stroll together through the light rain to the nearest subway station where you would part, already looking forward to the next encounter.


(This wine is currently available in some Toronto LCBO locations. Its product number is 346007. Rabl is the producer. Gruner Veltliner is the grape and this was my first – but hopefully not my last! – encounter with this varietal.)

To the Reader: As Facebook attempts to deal with its unpleasant economic realities, it seems to be changing the way it serves its members. If you enjoy “The Elegant Bastard” and wish to know when new material is published, you should consider going to its Facebook page and “liking” the page ( not just a specific post.) You will then automatically be notified when new posts occur. Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/theelegantbastard

As always, I love your comments. There are also two earlier wine pieces.  “All’s Fair in Love and Wine” is at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3M and “Of Red Wines and Dancing Partners” can be found at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-23

Of Angel Poop and the Meaning of Life

In which the Elegant Bastard avoids Guilt while finding truth in a handful of lima beans.

Perhaps there are 4 year olds out there who are precocious enough to consider hedonism consciously and fully, but I was not among them. Whatever moral understanding of the world I had at that age was simple and personal. “Good” was a largely domestic phenomena that included my parents, my grandmother, anything made of chocolate, “I Love Lucy”, sweetened condensed milk on toast, the Montreal Canadiens and on three days of most weeks, my sister. “Bad” was more widely dispersed and not so easily defined. It included the bully next door, my uncle’s cigars, the Evil Queen stepmother in Snow White, the Toronto Maple Leafs, my sister on the four remaining days, and something called Communists.

 As for true “Evil”, it consisted of one thing and one thing only. Lima beans.

I was not a picky eater. In fact, much of my parents’ time was spent making sure I did not eat everything too slow to escape my grasp. If it crawled, wriggled, chirped, hissed, sat dead on the ground or even went bump in the night, I tended to wonder what it would be like with a little peanut butter.

But not lima beans.

Nowadays they strike me as merely insipid – bland little legumes the colour of cheap bathroom tiles and with a mouth-feel like chalk mixed with wall paper paste mixed with harvested dandruff.  But to a four year old with a vivid imagination, they looked (and  likely tasted) like the fat little white grubs my father disturbed when he pitch-forked the back garden. I would not eat them easily. So powerful was my aversion to them that it remains the primary reason I have yet to visit Peru.

I was never a child to suffer in silence. The appearance of lima beans at dinner would unleash wails loud enough to awaken the dead and shrill enough to send them rushing back to the quiet of the grave again. Amputations before the age of anaesthetics were accomplished with less noise. So hysterical were my protests that my parents increasingly lowered their expectations. What began as a soggy spoonful became “just a few”, then three and finally just one, given more for symbolism’s sake than nutrition’s. Even then my mother would usually sneak it under my potatoes. I quickly learned to prod it out into the open and my practiced puppy–dog-eyes would then silently accuse her of betrayal. I would push the bean around the plate for a bit – like a cat might a mouse too-long-dead – and then, with a shuddering suffering sigh, I would fork it up and swallow it. This was not surrender or a bargain meant to ensure dessert. It was merely my first attempt at peaceful coexistence and it lasted until the next time the beans appeared.

Attempts were made to increase my consumption. One uncle offered me a penny for every five lima beans I would eat in his presence. But by then I was earning a dime or at least a nickel from the Tooth Fairy at fairly regular intervals and I seemed to have enough teeth remaining to ensure great wealth. When his economic arguments failed, other adults tried the “It’s good for you!” approach. Naive as I might have been at that age, I knew that those four words meant someone was going to force-feed me cod liver oil or stick a needle in some innocent part of my body.  My response was automatic. Whatever I could clench, I clenched. It would be one bean and one bean only.

For people of their generation, my parents had relatively enlightened ideas regarding child-rearing, so the lima bean issue never escalated beyond these and other sneaky variations on the “good for you” strategy. A few whimsical relatives even made a game of seeing who could put forward an argument that might convince me to take more than one of these sodden little objects into my mouth. Didn’t I want to be the next Rocket Richard? How was I ever going to become Prime Minister? What girl would want to marry me? But invariably one cousin or other would point out that while all adults in the room were lima bean eaters, not one had yet won the Stanley Cup or a seat in parliament. And my favorite uncle would then tousle my hair and point out that no girl would want to marry a “scrawny  wee bugger” like me even if I did eat lima beans. In short, a good time was had by all and no one ever tried to guilt me into compliance.

And then my father’s maiden aunt entered the lists and suddenly it was war.

She was well into her eighties at the time, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened to her if she lived now instead of in those years before we invented terms like Alzheimer’s and built the institutions those words spawned. In our world, she was a vaguely terrifying family myth who would periodically emerge from her bedroom and wander about the house, turning the lights and the stove on and off and talking to various pieces of furniture. My sister and I would watch from safe corners and giggle fearfully into our fists. She made our lives exciting and my mother’s life hell. She did both without motive.

That all changed one Sunday dinner. She watched impatiently as my mother served me my lima bean. Suddenly she stood and muttered something about the Lord. She took the pot from my mother’s hand and unceremoniously dumped a great mound of beans on my plate. The long tableful of aunts, uncles and cousins watched as my parents stared open-mouthed and I went into my defensive crouch. The battle began. According to eye witness reports, it went something like this.

Her first salvos had to do with children starving in India while nasty little boys like me wasted good food. I had no idea what “India” was. Perhaps that was where the communists lived. Apparently I told her that if I had to cross the street to get to India, I wouldn’t be allowed to go there on my own so she would have to give them my beans for me. I was then asked if I knew how hard my father worked so that rude little boys could have dinners they didn’t deserve. Again, I don’t think I really understood her. I knew my father did this thing called “work”. He went to “work” each morning and came home from “work” every night. He would spend dinner telling us funny stories about “work”. I am told I just looked at her and smiled and nodded and agreed that Daddy worked. But I did not eat my beans.

Now she brought in the big guns. If I didn’t eat my beans, Jesus and all the angels would be sad and I might never get to Heaven. My cousin tells me that a look of concern finally spread across my face. Perhaps this was because I had seen drawings of Jesus and Heaven in the colouring books at Sunday school. In Heaven, all the little children got to ride around on happy lions and live in a land of milk and honey. No mention was ever made of lima beans. Heaven was also filled with angels. Angels were big happy people with huge white wings like seagulls.  I liked angels and I suppose I wanted them to like me. Apparently I mentioned that fact to my inquisitor.

“Well,” said my great aunt, “if you want to go to Heaven to see the angels, you have to eat your lima beans because lima beans come from there.” She then raised her eyes in Heaven’s direction as if anticipating an immediate downpour of the things. Her momentary distraction gave one of my cousins a chance to lean towards me and whisper in my ear.

“Yeah, lima beans come from Heaven all right. They’re angel poop.”

That was it. Nothing in the world – not dessert, not money, not even promises of hockey glory – would force another lima bean between my lips. I was far too young to understand either metaphors or metaphysics, but I knew enough about life to know that if it something lived, it pooped. Therefore, if angels lived, they pooped too, and according to my older and much idolized cousin, proof of this was now sitting on my dinner plate.

I’ve no idea how the whole event concluded. I’m told that even my tormentor smiled before seeking comfort in her drug of choice, a cup of tea. I certainly did not rush from the table to spend some angsty hours musing on the dynamics of guilt or the role of pleasure in our lives. I likely just ate my dessert – a piece of chocolate cake – and then abandoned the adults (and the lima beans) in order to watch my cousins and their friends practice various dance moves while they listened to “Rock Around The Clock” and “Ain’t That A Shame” on the radio.

It was only years later that I understood the event and its significance. It had been the first time in my life that someone else’s version of Good and Evil had been turned into a club to be used on me. My great aunt had decided to add “Thou Shalt Eat Lima Beans” to the original list of Ten Commandments.  That was her right. Others may, with similar freedom, add, edit or delete at will. By all means deny yourself various actions or partners, live in anticipation of gloom and doom, refuse to wear this, eat that or pay whatever. And as long as what you do or don’t do in no way infringes upon the basic rights of others (and that includes your children)  you can stand on one leg and howl at the moon if you want to – even if it’s under my window! (Hey, I’m a tolerant guy!). Just don’t demand that I howl with you or that I feel guilty if I don’t.

It was also the first time I encountered the idea that pain must come before pleasure. Again, we are all free to establish arbitrary rules for our own guidance. You may have determined that Wednesday is “red socks” day and I can decide that if I don’t do my early morning 5k run, I can’t add maple syrup to my breakfast smoothie.  But you may not mock my sock selection, nor may I sneer at your butter-laden waffles and demand to see a sweat stained t-shirt as proof that you’ve suffered enough to deserve them.

In short, there is no moral link between lima beans and chocolate cake. And if someone tells you that there is, remember this.

It’s all a bunch of angel poop.

So begins an intermittent series of posts concerning Hedonism in this modern age. And I would like to turn to you, Gentle Reader, for help in arriving at a key definition. Tell me what you think Pleasure is and answer the following question: Can Pleasure be pursued? For now, Happy New Year!

(And as always, feel free to tweet, like, share or offer comments.)

Sunday Morning Coffee 3: Of CNN and Doo, the Truth Revealed

In which the Elegant Bastard shares with his readers the truth they had always suspected was out there.

(Note: The Elegant Bastard accepts as a given the fact that this is Monday but argues that since it is Canada Day it deserves to be regarded as an honorary Sunday.)

It did not begin as an auspicious day. Toronto seemed much the same as it did when I’d put it away the night before. The sun did not rise in a different sky. The city’s potholes had crept further but not noticeably faster. Mayor Ford had neither lost weight nor gained wisdom.   True, the Starbucks across the street had opened five minutes early – a sure sign that the universe was preparing some surprise or other – but I was too busy yawning my way from kettle to computer to television to think much about the significance of this omen.

The only thought that really did force itself to the front of my brain where it stood and swore loudly was the one that threw the same hissy fit every day. Why had I turned on CNN – again? Was there not already an overabundance of big teeth and artistic hair in the word? Did I need a dose of pablum with my decaf?  Had Truth been sent the way of DOMA?

This time, however, I found myself listening to the strident inner yapping. Why had I turned to what claimed to be a news channel? I knew what happened in CNN land. People cried, people sighed, people died, and people lied. They did this individually, in groups, in several countries and for no really good reasons. Why start each day with this televised proof that evolution wasn’t working anymore?

That thought sparked another. I found myself wondering how the world would look and sound if some benevolent form of AI took over. Something along the lines of HAL 9000, the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey would be great – if we could just get him over his unfortunate habit of killing people (albeit only for the best possible reasons.)

HAL’s name once sparked a controversy. People with nothing better to do had played with the three letters H A L and discovered that if you moved each letter one space over in the alphabet, you obtained IBM. Well OMG said millions! Does this mean HAL the killer computer is really a statement about the corporate ethics of the great and powerful computer giant? LOL but NO said the film’s director, script writer and producer all at once; proof that yes, that’s exactly what happened. (Don’t you love conspiracy theories?)

It was thus inevitable that my by now seriously bored brain would start playing with acronyms. This proved less than entertaining. The UN makes no more sense as the VO, nor does NATO gain more street cred as OBUP.  ATM’s become BUNS, a giggle I suppose to those who are bread or ass obsessed.

Then came the real discovery. I stopped dead. I gasped. I dropped three eggs. If you take the letters C, N, N and move one letter to the right with each, the outcome is D – O – O or doo[i], as in – forgive me Dear Reader but these words are sometimes necessary – shit! CNN is one short step from shit!

Yes, yes, I hear you. The fact that CNN is so close to Doo as to make no difference is not really much of a surprise. We have all watched breathless reporters standing in front of a storm that didn’t happen or asking the relatives of murder victims how they “feel”. We listened to broadcasts that warned us outcomes could change if the winds shifted (they didn’t) or a last county reported (it never did). We have been fed the endless trivia of what one Star or another said, bought, believes, married, slept with or gave a weird name to. We have been given images, sound bites and videos that contain nothing we can really use to accomplish anything more than deep depression.

In fact, we have all long known that CNN is not merely doo; it is the enormous pile of doo generally referred to as “deep doo-doo”. I’d take it even further to the sinister sounding “doo doo doo doo” series of musical notes that always signifies the approach of something evil.

What does shock me – and no doubt you as well, Dear Reader – is the sheer effrontery of CNN/Doo. For all that they strut around with their silly sombre faces, mouthing platitudes about running “ Situation Rooms” and doing “360’s” and being “Live”with all the “News”, they are not only doo, they don’t even bother to conceal the fact that they are doo. I mean, come on, one letter away?

Now we know why we had three days worth of updates on “Alec Baldwin’s Twitter meltdown” or so many wonderings about leaker Edward Snowden’s location that the publishers of Where’s Waldo are thinking of suing. We discover why Winnie Mandela is described as “regal” and “emotional” without anyone pointing out that she’s a convicted fraud artist and suspected child killer. We understand why we get to meet Trayvon Martin’s “real” mother and hear about George Zimmerman’s weight gain and we get to do so “Live”! And we finally learn why we get endless images and videos of everyone crying everywhere.

Because it’s doo!

I am glad to be able to share this with you all, Dear Readers, but as I said, I am sure you were all on the verge of the same discovery on your own. You are therefore correct when you point out that merely informing the world of what it already knows is not an action that in and of itself makes a day auspicious. You are quite right.

Yesterday was an auspicious day for the following reasons.  I found a new bodywash with enough eucalyptus and mint in it to send me storming out of the shower singing and grinning simultaneously[ii]. I got to stroll along Toronto’s streets in non-humid sunshine. My favorite olive store had my favorite isplanaki borek[iii]! I had the opportunity to watch and cheer as twelve of my former students marched in Toronto’s Pride parade – along with the Premier of Ontario. I found three street musicians in a row who could actually play. And I got to share a phenomenal red wine[iv] with some phenomenal minds.

Why is that enough to make a day auspicious?

It all fit nicely into my small world. I could use each event to grow me up and out just a little bit. It was all real.

And none of it was doo.


For Toronto based readers, I include some possibly helpful information in the end notes.

[ii]   MensEssentials, 412 Danforth Avenue. At last, a store for men who take their shaving seriously.

[iii]  The Best Olives in the World, 974 Danforth Avenue. Incredible olives in the midst of a group of stores and restaurants that deserve more notice.

[iv]  Secolo by Sebastiani, Vintages 35402 $42.95 An unqualified WOW!

“Confessions of a Flesh Eater” or “My Right to Eat Meat”, Part Two

In which the Elegant Bastard speculates, confesses and neither demands nor offers an apology.

 I suppose the first answer to the “Why eat meat?” question – and one of the simplest – would be to acknowledge my status as a living organism requiring protein. However, I hate – and reject – such reductionism.  Referring to meat as protein is like referring to wine as grape juice gone bad, to a Lamborghinis as metal, plastic and rubber powered by fossil by-products, to Notre Dame as a pile of organized masonry with an attitude problem. Besides, I do not eat meat for protein. Protein I can get from slaughtered beans or some seriously tormented and camouflaged version of tofu.

In fact I will admit that meat is not essential to my survival. I could get by without it if I had to. I could also make do without satellites, leather furniture, and Brooks Brothers. But choices and the ability to make them are an important part of what makes life exciting and us human. If necessary I could survive (I suppose) by breathing whatever air is available in Wawa or even Pittsburgh. I just happen to prefer the air in Paris, especially if it’s infused with the aroma of a little bœuf en croûte.

However, the fact that consuming meat is not essential does not mean the action is itself unnatural. Consider our primitive ancestors. They could have just strolled casually along some primeval pathway, thinking great prehistoric thoughts while nibbling a few berries here, some mushrooms  there (the ones that didn’t kill Uncle Urg) and handfuls of various greens just about anywhere . Not only were these foodstuffs available, they were largely non-violent. Whatever person-eating plants may once have flourished, they had long since vanished into extinction. (I’ve seen the cave paintings.)

Yet for some reason our earliest ancestors felt an overwhelming need to hitch up their saggy furs and confront great beasts that came equipped with tusks, claws, talons, teeth, unpleasant smells and other ways of inflicting pain or early death. They did this solely in order to shove large uncooked bits of these animals into their mouths – without the benefit of gravy or artistically arranged side dishes. To me that goes far beyond simple curiousity or some early manifestation of latent colonialism. Deep down inside First Man, something awakened, saw a squirrel run by, drooled involuntarily and immediately started muttering, “Got to get me some of that!” The chase was on.  One does not chase zucchini.

I suppose it is possible that the attraction of meat is in some way symbolic or even atavistic, but I have trouble accepting that. Do I eat meat in order to return to my pioneer roots and to those lives lived four generations ago? Does something in my sinews want to experience again the aching back of the harvest or the tired legs of the hunt?  I do not think so. If true, would I not feel a similar need to darn a few socks or churn some butter or at least read by candlelight? And would I not be more likely to be cleaning a rifle than polishing my sous vide machine?

My grandmother might remember a day when chickens came from eggs, lived in coops and were ready to eat when they achieved a certain weight and the axe leaned sharpened in the barn. Now chickens come from Loblaws, live in styrofoam and are ready to eat when they grow a barcode and are reduced to half price.

Guests at the table speculated that in the “mouth feel” and texture of well prepared meat we encounter a certain sensuality that no fruit or vegetable could ever provide. Our flesh overcomes the flesh of the Other, encountering a succulent and rich resistance that then yields and parts softly as our teeth insist upon penetration. Rich juices or perhaps even a bit of warm blood moistens our lips and sits glistening on our chins. Hands lift bone-in morsels to waiting mouths. Elaborate meals – even vegan feasts (I’m told) – always have a touch of the erotic to them, but surely such pleasant and private carnal fantasies are easier with rib steak than with radishes.

As for the idea that my love of meat is some repressed and shameful form of speciesism, I reject that. I feel no need to declare my superiority by smirking at a grilled pork chop and thinking “Gotcha Pig.”  I have never stood outside a slaughterhouse loudly singing “Hey, He-ey, Good Bye!” Maybe there are those who pull the wings off chickens for reasons other than paying homage to Buffalo or the Super Bowl, but I am not among them. I refuse to step on earthworms, I release house flies and wasps back into the wild and I will occasionally allow the spider its web. My dog does not stoop and scoop; I do.

And yes, I understand that the raising of animals for food requires enormous amounts of land and energy and there are likely more efficient ways of feeding the masses. First, however, I do not “feed”, I dine. Further, if that kind of dedication to efficiency and restraint is to become the rule, then let’s keep in mind that the cotton clothes on our backs, the leather shoes on our feet and the perfect flowers on the dinner table must all go the way of the dinosaur – as must cars, private gardens, most perfumes, single family homes, inexpensive paint, air conditioning and hardwood floors.

Perhaps the “Eat Meat” impulse emerges from my culture or stands as a relic of my Depression era father’s pride. Meat on the table was proof that the man of the house was a person of substance, capable of protecting and providing for his family and his guests. Or maybe it honours my mother’s impressive ability to turn the cheap and the tough into the tender and the tasty. It could also be the on-going accumulation of meal-based rituals: Christmas was turkey, not turnip; Easter was lamb, not lima beans; a university rite de passage was mystery meat, not vague veggies. Yes, birthdays were cake – but only after the hamburgers and the hot dogs!

There is one other reason and I feel it is unanswerable. Simply put, I like meat. Meat tastes good.  It provides me a moment of sensory pleasure, the reward for a day well done or it offers solace for my bruised and bloodied ego when the world has been unkind. And if my love of meat is not even that logical, is nothing more than a careless preference or a semi-conscious habit, so what? I am no monster made only of my appetites, no noisy villain deserving punishment and censure. I am sufficiently green, I am almost always humane (though I do sing in the shower) and I pay my taxes with minimal fuss and only a few curses. I smile at (most) children and will even watch Canadian TV. Most importantly, I allow others their petty foibles without judgment. I am – and this is key – a quiet carnivore. I choose to eat my meat in peace and without guilt. I claim to deserve no more; I will accept no less.

I know that others seek a different path. I say to them, “Munch madly and be happy!” I simply ask that they worship their gods quietly and leave me to mine. If they will not, if it is war they want, then I suppose it is war that we shall have. They will fire frozen peas and brandish carrot sticks. I will respond with chicken balls and sharpened wishbones. They will argue that Einstein’s vegetarianism likely led to the discovery of relativity. I will point out that if Eve had left the damn apple alone and just sent out for a bucket of the Colonel, we’d all still be in paradise.

And we will all end up looking a little silly, no?

Chew on that!

“Confessions of a Flesh Eater” or “My Right to Eat Meat” (Part One)

In which the Elegant Bastard encounters the guest from hell and a question regarding his right to consume whatever fellow creatures fail to escape.

It may be a reflection of my general approach to life, but people have often felt a need to ask me questions. I can recall returning home from a wildly successful track meet in grade three, itemizing my triumphs – I had not run the wrong way even once! – only to have my overly pragmatic mother say, “That’s fine dear, but where are your shoes?” (I told her they were likely with my also absent coat, in retrospect not the best possible answer.) In that same year, the angry parent of the local bully asked me what had compelled me to bite his son’s fingers. (He did not appear to find it necessary to ask why his son’s fingers were often found in places where they could be bitten.)

Some questions were motivated by kindness:  “I see. So someone who loves you actually said you could wear yellow?” (I answered in the affirmative, having not by then fully mastered irony.) Others demonstrated either patience or stoicism: “I am assuming there’s a reason we’re in Moose Jaw?” (There was. Everyone else fell asleep and let me drive. What did they think would happen?) Occasionally, I could feel the presence of a mild antagonism, such as Significant  Other’s recent query concerning exactly what I had hoped to achieve by introducing a third cat in to a residence already equipped with two dogs.

I have myself often taken up the questioning role. “Explain to me again,” I asked my eldest one warm afternoon, “how the simultaneous availability of water and a large red balloon compelled you to search for a window directly above the one vice-principal you already knew was nervous?”  His answer made no real sense but that was not the point. The question, not the answer, matters. It is only via questions that we can understand how it is that we are able to live in a world with smart phones, bubble tea and occasionally soggy vice-principals.

None of this, however, made me any less annoyed when She turned on me her patronizing gaze and oleaginous voice and asked me why I ate meat.

(For purists among you, I will stipulate that however you might wish to define “meat”, I use the term to refer to any formerly living animal that is now 1) dead 2) cooked 3) served and 4) incapable of reversing conditions 1, 2, and 3.) There are further stipulations. Prior to being dead, that which is “meat” does not require me to 1) breed it 2) catch it or 3) contribute in any other way to it’s becoming “meat”. Finally, it should not at any point in the process be an animal capable of turning me into “meat”.

The questioning She had arrived uninvited with an old friend. He explained that she had also arrived uninvited at his home just as he left for my dinner party. I smiled and said she was welcome; he smiled and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief; she smiled and immediately began to demonstrate why all her arrivals were likely uninvited.

It started with the sorrowful and suffering gaze she directed at another guest’s new Gucci shoes. “So beautiful,” she murmured, “but so paradoxical when one thinks of the many poorly shod children in the city.” She apologized immediately, smiling shyly and informing us that she had always been cursed with too deep a sensitivity for those less fortunate than she. A pity, no? Ah well.

Judging Gucci owner’s stare to be indicative of a rapidly impending homicide, I started to open what I knew was the wonderful (and calming) pinot grigio a third guest had generously donated. Our Lady of All Sorrows expressed her sincere wish that so wonderful a wine be organic, for if not it would stimulate one of her incapacitating migraines. Not organic? Ah well.

Then perhaps I had a mineral water, artesian if possible, and bottled in glass, not plastic. She had, you see, the rare ability to smell plastic, a condition that made her life a struggle to be bravely borne. Only plastic? Ah well.

At this point the other guests stampeded to the balcony where they collectively took up smoking.

This allowed me uninterrupted access to her views on a variety of topics. On music. She found the classical genres to be so unfairly Eurocentric. On electric cars. She used only public transit to minimize her carbon footprint. On vacations. She intended to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity and would I like to make a contribution to the cost of her Rwanda trip?

Was she leaving soon?


Ah well.

Through it all she maintained the kind of facial expression that promises she will perform at the very least a virgin birth – or even two – before the end of the evening.

By now desperate to reboot what had been intended as a celebratory evening, I mentioned that the evening’s menu included several guests’ favorites, including prosciutto, scallops and chicken. She then turned to the gentleman she had arrived with, slapped his hand playfully and called him a naughty boy for not mentioning to me that she was vegetarian. Again the suffering smile.  She would just have salad and perhaps a little bread – if I happened to have some that was gluten-free?

It was much later, I think during the chicken course, that she looked around, ensured all eyes were on her, and launched in best torpedo fashion the question she had held in reserve.

“Why do you all feel compelled to eat meat?”

Had she asked why we felt forced to push old folk to the ground or children over a cliff, she would have sounded less judgmental. The unspoken sub-text flashed around the table. “Why, Gluttons, do you tear at innocent flesh, worship your own arrogant species and betray the oneness of Nature?”

“Because I can!” was on the tip of my sinful chicken-loving tongue when I paused. More, I noted that my fellow carnivores had all paused with me. Along with the confit of pork, a question had arrived at the table. It demanded an answer. Why the hell did we eat meat?

I will be back, Dear Reader, when I return from the butcher’s. It isTuesday, the turkey thighs and the beef cheeks are in, and on occasions that momentous, Time waits  for no man.

Of Cheez Whiz, Wonder Bread and the Cuban Missile Crisis

In which The Elegant Bastard examines all available worlds and makes a choice.

I spent much of my eleventh year either under my desk at school or in my basement at home, waiting to be carbonized.  This was a consequence of living in Goose Bay, Labrador during the international hissy fit known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. “The Goose”, as it was known to those trapped there, was an isolated community and a major military airbase. It was, therefore, a likely target if the U.S and the then Soviet Union each decided to – as my grade 7 social sciences teacher put it – “Nuke each other’s ass.” (He was not a renaissance man.).

So, periodically and without warning, we would have air raid drills. In the midst of a recess game or a mathematics lesson or a family dinner, a choir of sirens would scream a sudden warning that missiles from a far distant world were even now hurtling down at us. Adults would curse, children would cry and cats would run in crazy circles. If at school, I would climb under the same desk as Sarah, whose freckles I had learned to love. If at home, we would follow our parents down to the cellar, making sure to close the basement door behind us. (We did not doubt the saving powers of plywood desk tops and plasterboard doors.) Then, stowed away in our hiding places, we would await the world’s dark whirlwind.

I was home alone with a minor flu one Saturday morning when the warning sounded. My bedroom was originally a dining room and had a connecting door to the kitchen where the entrance to the cellar was located. I shuffled obediently in that direction and then stopped. Sitting on the kitchen counter were the two things I loved almost as much as Sarah’s freckles: a loaf of Wonder Bread (which Howdy Doody promised me would build strong bodies eight ways, and Howdy never lied!) and a jar of Cheez Whiz.

Everything consumed on “The Goose” had to be brought in by air from the rest of the world. This meant that real cheese and real bread, in fact most kinds of real food, were rarely available. Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz were about as good as it got and here they were looking straight back at me.  Ignoring my impending incineration by malevolent faraway Russkies, I took bread, butter, cheez and The Hardy Boys: Footprints Under the Window  back into my bedroom, shut the door, drew the curtains, turned on the light and settled down into the comfort of my bedcovers and my artificial night. Perhaps I wondered if Russian children had Cheez Whiz. How long the sirens went on that morning I cannot say. I had stopped hearing them.

I am now years and miles away from `The Goose`. It is 9 a.m. and I have the day free. The television is on. Something called a Blitzer with manicured hair and impossible eyes is launching urgent words at me. Somewhere something has been destroyed by someone and this modern day Wolfman is tearing at my morning calm, barking words and images that repeat and repeat while my coffee cools. He is joined by another set of hair and eyes and together they promise to watch the crisis unfold and keep me informed. I sense that there is no knowledge I can gain here and certainly no action I can take, but I watch for fifteen minutes, long enough to realize that for all their bass wufflings I have not been informed, merely annoyed. This shows in my posture and my jaw. Significant Other reads these signs and responds with the usual remedy. I am given a shopping list.

I bundle up and I head out. The snow has started and the traffic responds with horn blasts and shouted comments about various peoples’ mothers.  I leap over a slush bank, skid across an icy sidewalk and push open the door of “The Meat Department”. I am greeted by name and assured that yes, the chicken thighs are in and yes, the veal cheeks I ordered for next weekend’s party are coming Wednesday. The woman to my left enlists me in her struggle to choose between bison or beef. The gentlemen to my right remind me that the Maple Leafs suck and so we sigh. Melted snow puddles itself on the floor.

It’s a small warm store with subdued lighting, nose-seducing smells, wonderful things-in-jars and a chalk board displaying the name of personalities banned forever from the premises. Rafael Nadal has been added to the list. I nod and suggest the entire CNN news team join him. This gets general support. I pick up my thighs and prepare to pay when I notice that they have a Spanish ham I loved in Paris and have periodically dreamed of ever since. The cost suggests it travelled to Toronto in business class.  I stare and tap my lips and rub my chin and fold my arms. I do not speak. There is no need. The 50 gram package is already on the counter, elegantly wrapped and added to my purchases.

The snow has intensified and the wind has picked up. I stop to check the weather on my iPhone. It tells me it is snowing. At the same time, all around me, screaming from their sidewalk boxes, headlines warn me that Pakistani cricket, European soccer and Italian politics are all falling to the ground. The same crowds  in the same cities are yet again punching impotent fists at grey skies and chanting the old slogans. One Greek politician has apparently punched another, three times.  Bond prices, air quality and teenage morality are at new lows. A woman and her Blackberry walk by and I can hear the news. Words fall around me like so many end zone fumbles and I decide I do not need any of them. List in hand, I face the storm and walk for thirty minutes, bowing into the wind.

“Crescendo” is a small store dedicated entirely to oils, spices and vinegars. Its windows are fogged so I am not surprised by the crowd I find within. I enter and transfer about three centimeters of accumulated snow from my head to its floor. Amphorae line the walls. In one I find pumpkin seed oil, in another raspberry balsamic. From a third comes the powerful aroma of white truffles. Still more people arrive and soon small conversations weave themselves into the displays.

It’s always easier when everyone is talking the same language.

I have one more stop, two kilometers away so I push back out and I burrow towards the downtown core. I am no longer really walking; instead I need to raise each foot and lurch forward, a tiresome process and a long one. A fire truck screams by followed by a second and a third and the whole city block seems a nightmare of snow and slush and sound. More sirens and ambulances turn on to Jarvis, disappearing towards some crisis. The sidewalk is deserted.

So I am surprised when I encounter the happy crowd inside the Loblaws store that now occupies the old Maple Leaf Gardens. Two elderly women are selecting chocolates, pointing and nodding at some, shaking their heads at others. A young man selects a white baguette but at a glance from the woman beside him puts it back and selects a whole grain sourdough. A gaggle of snow-bedecked teenage girls strolls by, one of them tossing a blood orange to another. Three opera singers wander through the vegetable aisles singing La Donna e Mobile. I gaze up at a wall of cheese and think instantly of the wall of crutches abandoned by those who were healed at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. I gather up my arugula, my Greek yogurt and my two pomegranates and head for the cashiers, pausing just long enough to pick up four cognac truffles.

Then I return to the white world.

And I fume. The streetcar takes an hour to arrive and an hour to travel the distance normally covered in fifteen minutes. It`s jammed with people, backpacks, buggies and cell-phone conversations. Despite the outside temperature, it`s hot.  Still, I am heading home. Then I remember. Onions.  I was supposed to buy onions. I cannot go back out. I will not. I text the problem to S.O., grab the nearest pole and close my eyes, hating everything around me until I hear my stop. A text message arrives. “Need anticipated. Just head home.” I do.

Outside my building is chaos. Traffic is at a standstill; snow plows belch smoke but are helpless due to an accident; buses slide to a stop, transfer hordes and then cannot start again; people are everywhere. Shouts. Horns. Another siren somewhere. A CP24 television camera crew barges toward the crash scene. I push my way past and a few minutes later I am home.

No comment is made as I babble my frustrations and lurch about the apartment, closing curtains,  and turning on lights and even shutting off today`s version of Obama in mid-speech.  Nor is anything said as I spread what I`ve purchased across the kitchen table, mumbling on about the world being way way too much with us. I am not told to calm down or grow up or snap out of anything.

Instead there are nods and I am given two bags,

In the first is an onion.

In the second I find a loaf of Wonder Bread, a jar of Cheez Whiz and a hardcover copy of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet`s Nest.






All’s Fair in Love and Wine

In which the Elegant Bastard learns to say “Yessss” Again

Yes, I eavesdrop.

It’s not an admirable habit, I know. In effect, I am stealing other people’s words.  In my defence, I don’t do it everywhere and I don’t do it all the time. I mean, think about it. How much of what you hear daily on the street is really worth the effort?

But I always do it in wine stores when something unusual is happening.

“Unusual” includes any moment when an anonymous unshaven baseball-capped guy wearing a “Militant Meat Eater” t-shirt asks the sales clerk for a case – yes, a case – of something called Ringbolt. The two of them immediately set off, the attendant ambling and t-shirt guy moving as if he were approaching Nirvana. I follow discretely.

A few seconds later I am watching 12 fairly non-descript bottles of the cutely spelled ring . bolt (in elegant lower case letters) being reverently loaded into a cart. T-shirt guy seems almost furtive, as if expecting interference, and hating to see him disappointed, I interrupt with a casual, “So? Is it that good?”

He looks at me as if I’ve questioned the greatness of God.

“Yes!” he moans, and the “yes” extends in sibilant excess, like something whispered in the aftermath of orgasm.

After he leaves, I buy two. I haven’t said “yes” like that in far too long.

When I get them home and observe more closely, I discover I’ve purchased a 2009 Australian cabernet sauvignon so I smile. The red cabernet sauvignon grape is generally my favorite. What they do with it in California is enough for me to forgive the U.S. for both Walmart and American Idol (though not for Donald Trump or Paris Hilton).

This wine, however, comes from Margaret River, a wine region in Western Australia and a little research reveals that many critics consider it to be Western Australia’s premiere region, famous (fortunately) for its elegant cabsavs, a bit of good news that makes up for the corny “Hold Them Fast Work Them Hard” motto circling the bottle’s neck.  The 2009 vintage is apparently highly regarded, as is the great glistening hunk of leg of lamb I scored at “The Meat Department”, my little heaven on Toronto’s Danforth.  The dinner menu is instantly decided.

About an hour before the meal, I open the wine and sniff. “First sniff” is both a favorite and a nervous ritual moment for me. Taking in a pleasant aroma from an under $20.00 bottle is a chancy bet at best and I’ve had a few “first sniffs” that made smelling anything afterwards difficult. But I remain heroic and so goes forth my nose.

The aroma is very pleasant: soft, supple and not at all astringent. I get hints of blackcurrant, butterscotch and smoke. A few minutes later, I sniff again and now there are whiffs of red cherry and vanilla cream. My nose declares itself to be in love and it leads me back for periodic fixes while the lamb roasts.

When we finally taste the wine, it does not disappoint. It doesn’t have the overwhelming “mouthfeel” that big California cabsavs sometimes do, but it’s definitely robust and really quite elegant. The tannins are soft.  There’s a rich red fruit tang on the tongue along with a hint of strawberry and even a taste of what I can only call red licorice. Later in the meal, hints of chocolate and of almond join the mix. The menu includes a goat cheese and avocado appetizer; the wine responds to that in friendly fashion.  What it then goes on to do with the lamb is best described in words that children should not read.

In short, it’s an easy wine to drink and an even easier wine to talk about. Again, I’ve had bigger and better cabs but few were priced at $19.95.

Will I buy more?


(In Ontario, Ringbolt is easily available: VINTAGES 606624)



The Sensual Shave

In which the Elegant Bastard notices that the world and time, both too much with us, can sometimes be set aside.

The clock screams six short fast insults that follow me out of the bedroom.

I have a 9 a.m.meeting.

And …

A breakfast to swallow, trains to chase, words to scan, a shirt to button … damn … a stain … another set of buttons, attachments to download, a four-pawed bowel whimpering that it needs to be emptied, now! … a counter to clean, a slow-cooker to pack, promises to keep, miles to go …

And …

I have to shave ….

Already 6:05

 With a quick squirt here, and a fast scrape there, here some blood, there a rash, everywhere a fast-building-close-to-the-bone-need-and-desire-to SCREAM:

“I hate shaving!”

But another voice tells me to be quiet and in response to the pressure of a palm pressed firmly against my back, I stumble into the small bathroom.

It is 6:15

The room is almost dark. A row of small flickering candles has been lit and they send soft shadows rippling up the walls, over the ceiling, and, as I feel my shirt unbuttoning again, across and down my chest – all delicate motions that seem to move with the muted strains of Orinoco Flow coming from some distant source. My watch is being removed and I try for a quick worried glimpse of its face but I am too late and it disappears.

I glance down.

Two bottles of oil are raised before my face – one is tarragon scented, the other sandalwood, and then the cover of an elegant black pot is removed, revealing a rich white cream that adds a hint of lavender. A brush appears, dry and soft, and something sends my nose thrusting forward deeply into its circle of supple hairs. And I breathe.

My eyes open and I catch a flash of fire. It is my father’s old straight razor, sharpened and glinting, its bone handle and cutting edge set at 45 o, as if fixed in a dangerous grin. Then hands wave in front of me. The razor disappears and then reappears, now straight, and it is laid before me.

“Sail away, sail away, sail away …”

I feel four fingers draw slow circles across my cheeks and chin and down my throat, and with soft strokes they oil the surface of my skin a first time, and then again and once again before they pause. Steam rises from the basin, and the brush returns and soon a thick cream overlays the oil, creating a white mask from the base of my throat to the curve of my cheek bones. When I glance in the mirror, eyes I have not seen before gaze back.

The blade rises ….

“from Bali to Cali far beneath …”

 … and rests its edge upon my cheek; at this touch and promise, anticipation stirs.

A first smooth downward stroke, so light, and a little of the mask is gone. The blade slows. The naked skin by candle glows. Another stroke and then one more. A third,  and once again I have an upper lip, and this now curves itself into a smile.

“we can steer, we can near …”

 Now my chin is gently raised, revealing the still white expanse of my untouched throat. I can no longer see the blade but I feel its coolness at my jugular, its slow descent, its touch again and down again, and over and over and over until I am released and I stare. The mask has been removed but for a few thin white lines that, with the eyebrows and the eyes, now set themselves into the smiling shape of what might be sin.

“… hear the power of Babylon …”

 A pool of water gathers. I bow towards cupped hands and the wet warmth washes upwards once, then twice and then a third time. Now in the mirror all traces of the mask are gone.

Wet fingers tap the candles one by one.

And still it is only 7:00. A new song has begun.

“If I lay here / If I just lay here …”

Together we peel an orange and we eat it slowly, piece by piece. We see the sun has not yet risen, but bodies (more than candles) cast their own sufficient light.

“Would you lie with me / And just forget the world?”

 It’s true, I know, that Time’s chariot has great and noisy wheels, not easily ignored and not to be forgotten. We are none of us Gods. And shaving, some would say, is only shaving.

Still, we are rulers of our own empires, poets of our own songs, and it is in our power to set aside the time to make the commonplace erotic. I would not say, “I shave, therefore I am.”  But with a smile I would agree that there are there are rituals done well only when they are done slowly.



Of Red Wines and Dancing Partners

In which the Elegant Bastard encounters two very different ladies: Signargues Cotes Du Rhone Village 2009 and Chateau du Trignon 2006

Let me begin with a digression.

I was sitting on a bus. I often am. Across from me sat (or squirmed or bounced or ricocheted) a young woman, perhaps 19, with pink and purple hair, four visible piercings, the body of a tattooed snake emerging from the thigh of her cut-offs (and yes, everyone on that bus was wondering what the head of the snake was up to) and what had to be twenty different colours of nail polish. Her gyrations seemed planned, responses no doubt to whatever kind of music assaulted her brain and controlled her limbs. She was garish, loud, and yes, absolutely delightful. I smiled and for a moment, envied youth.

Yet I had to wonder what the grand dame sitting beside her, a sombre suited matron all in black, thought of the do-it-to-the-music-hormone-hostel sitting beside her. This lady, at least sixty but possessing that ageless quality that makes such guessing futile, exuded a calm elegance that stretched from the perfect silver hair to the tips of shoes that probably cost about the same as the bus. No one had to be told that the tip of the cane in her hand was gold. This lady could have taught the Queen to wave.

I think all who watched waited for Her Solemnity to turn slowly sideways and deliver a withering glare at the chaos in the seat beside her, the kind of stare that would turn pink and purple instantly to black. But this did not happen. Instead, as we neared a stop, the older woman reached out a hand and gently tapped iPhonia on the knee. Immediately the younger woman calmed, gathered all the parcels scattered around both of them, and when the bus stopped, she dutifully followed what was by now clearly an affectionate grandmother off via the front (of course) door.

This brings me to two new wines. (Stay with me – you’ll see!)

A friend had phoned in a state of semi-hysteria to tell me that for all our wine travels of the recent past we had ignored the Cotes du Rhone. He made it sound as if we had learned long division and somehow never mastered multiplication. Clearly something remedial needed to occur.

Conversations with the more knowledgeable quickly revealed that the name Cotes du Rhone applied to a vast sea of wine, ranging from the so-so to the So-this-is-what-heaven-is-all-about in quality. There is a northern Rhone wine region and a southern, each with fiercely passionate partisans. Above the basic pool in the southern Rhone stood Cotes du Rhone Villages, sixteen communes allowed to attach village names to their labels and by so doing (supposedly) guaranteeing higher quality. Ranked still higher are the “appellations”, names that eliminate the designation “Cotes du Rhone” entirely. In the southern Cotes, easily the best known of these is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not far away, however, are the well-regarded and less extravagantly priced vineyards of Gigondas! After a quick trip to our Mecca – the Queen’s Quay all-brands LCBO – we ended up with a Cotes du Rhone Villages Signargues 2009 (Signargues is the commune) at $15.95 and a Chateau du Trignon Gigondas (2006) at $29.95. School was now in session!

The Signargues came first, paired with a ham-goat cheese-fig comfit appetizer. None of us were sure what to expect with “first sniff” and so we were taken aback with the “in your face” exuberance. Immediately my mind flashed back to iPhonia. There were brash hints of plum, cherry, chocolate and, according to one taster, grilled ham and cheese. (Keep in mind said taster watches the Oscars religiously and is therefore given to moments of irrationality.) In the mouth, this medium bodied wine was reasonably soft, quite fruity, and yet very lively, dancing all over the tongue and lingering long after it was swallowed. It played with the ham, made love to the goat cheese and kicked the fig comfit’s butt. iPhonia’s snake would have writhed in ecstasy.

The Chateau du Trignon did not just come to the table. It “arrived” and sat there quietly and elegantly. From the “first sniff” we knew this was something different. This grand dame did not climb into our nostrils and dance for us. We had to work, swirling and sniffing and waiting and swirling and sniffing again. Slowly the nuanced nose revealed itself. Ultimately this wine was far more subtle. It was silky and paradoxically robust, intense but not heavy. There were plum, raspberry, cocoa, coffee, and even hints of the candied peel normally found  in fruitcake. Dinner was a complex lamb stew, a dish with many heavy flavours, and this wine had no difficulty making friends with that. However, it chose to keep its clothes on.

Both wines were worth their prices, especially the Signargues. It is potentially a wonderful house “plonk” and would go well with interesting but not overwhelming dishes. The Chateau du Trignon would flatten lighter flavours. I would keep it for robust stews, roasts or strong cheeses. And quite frankly, those of you who love the “big” raisin-laden excess of a California Cab, an Australian Shiraz or an Italian Amarone might not be impressed.

Ah, young kaleidophonic  lady on my bus, I will remember your colours and your bling, and on light occasions when the world is in a frivolous mood, I will wonder who you are dancing with … or for. Perhaps I might reach for you.  But on those greater occasions when weighty matters are under consideration and wise minds are moved to converge, I hope you will forgive me if I call upon your grandmother and inquire if she is free.

(Note to others in Ontario: Both wines discussed here were Vintages selections and are available only sporadically.)