Tag Archives: food

Delusions of Culinary Grandeur

By Jason Menard

I’ve discovered that the greatest thing those TV cooking shows serve up are delusions of culinary grandeur in people like me. But for every cooking nightmare they spawn, they’ve also helped to foster a dream-like world of excitement, flavour, and exposure to a world of food influences.

I admit it. I’m a Food Network addict. I can while away countless minutes watching any manner of food presentation on television. From Giada De Laurentis to Anthony Bourdain, from the Iron Chef to the Surreal Gourmet, I’m hooked on the concept of food preparation – and now I’ve deluded myself into believing that I can emulate what I see on TV.

After all, it seems so effortless. The fact that these people have honed their craft through years of slogging through the culinary trenches doesn’t seem to register to the average viewer like me. If we view it, we can do it.

Maybe I’m hearkening back to my youth, when Martin Yan would exhort, “if Yan can do it, so can you!” Of course, back then I was content to let mom and dad handle the cooking duties, so that latent passion for cooking lay dormant for many years. Even in my university years, when long days working at the student newspaper meant take-out took precedent over home cooking my idea of cooking was to pour some salsa over a chicken breast. When I got married, my wife ruled the kitchen – although I was a willing assistant who had my own set of meals in the rotation.

In the end, necessity truly is the mother of invention. And its father is clearly access to information. A few years back, my wife and I were involved in an accident that has left her with severe pain issues. As such, I’ve gladly taken up the slack in the kitchen and the Food Network has fuelled my delusions of culinary grandeur.

A recent meal? Tandoori chicken with saffron-infused basmati rice. If the ends justify the means, then the meal was a success – but the process of preparing the meal certainly didn’t come off as smoothly as the Man-Made Food broadcast made it seem it would. And that’s often the case. Exotic ideas that celebrity chefs pull off with flair and élan often don’t have the same sense of romance when you try to transfer that experience from the television screen to the dining room table. Yet despite the challenge (and the mass clean-up that resulted), I know I’ll be back in the kitchen trying out something new.

But at least I’m not alone in this passion. It seems that our increasing access to culinary television has broadened our perspectives on food as a whole. Meals and presentations that were once the exclusive domain of high-end restaurants have been demystified and made accessible to the average family. Ingredients once considered exotic are now commonplace on the local grocery store’s shelves.

Best of all, people are no longer will to settle for the status quo. My generation has truly embraced the foods and influences of a broad spectrum of cultures and our palettes have been improved because of it. We grew up in a Canadian society that was becoming increasingly multi-cultural. As such, we were able to take the staples we grew up with and accent them with ethnic influences that we were comfortable seeing as they were the ones our friends were growing up with. For us, it wasn’t about experimenting with food – it was about embracing our peers’ cultures as we embraced them as friends.

And we’re seeing that change commercially as well. Where not all that long ago Italian and Chinese restaurants were considered ethnic, we’re now inundated with a delectable panorama of dining options ranging from Lebanese to Peruvian to Ethiopian to Indian. Our culinary passport is now only restricted by our own threshold for experimentation!

So as our cultural influences expand, we’re introduced to new influences in our food. And then when you combine the proliferation of food-based television designed to make cooking accessible to the masses, you have an equation that allows average guys like me to believe that cooking for my family can be an event, not just a chore.

In the end, not all experiments turn out well, and I’ve had my fair share of disappointments. That will happen when one’s aspirations exceed one’s talents. I know I’ll continue to grow in the kitchen. Already I’ve come leaps and bounds – moving from dry chicken with salsa to hand-made Chicken Kiev or Marsala dishes. But the great thing is that there will never be a point where we’ve done it all.

There’s always room to grow, there’s always room to learn. Too often we shovel our food down without appreciating it. We take for granted what we’re eating, when we should be savouring it. And if food television has taught me anything, it’s been that food should be an experience.

So I’ll continue to emulate what I see on TV. After all, the worst thing these delusions of culinary grandeur can bring is a failed cooking experiment. But the potential reward that comes from making food an experience is one that my family and I can enjoy for years to come.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Hospitals Having a (Mad) Cow in Response

By Jason Menard

The response by University Hospital to the alleged discovery that a man has presented with the human version of Mad Cow disease is almost more terrifying than the presence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the city of London itself.

Let’s see. Because brain tissue samples from the patient, who underwent brain surgery in the north-end hospital on Nov. 30, 2006, tested positive for CJD the hospital has cancelled all surgeries, turned ambulances away at the door, and put the kibosh on most medical procedures — all this because certain instruments may have been contaminated by the disease.

In total, hospital officials estimate that upwards of 1,500 people could have been exposed to the disease. Again, I stress could, because hospital officials state they are confident that they have contained the situation. At this time, they say they’re not even sure if any of the instruments are contaminated. They’re just playing it safe.

But obviously not safe enough. To be honest, the fact that this hospital has essentially been shut down by the presence of this disease makes me more frightened for the standards of quality control that exist in this environment.

When it comes to hospital equipment, the one thing that shouldn’t be scrimped on is sterilization. Unfortunately, Keystone Kop capers like this make me wonder if I should question whether that scalpel about to enter my body has received little more than a rinse and shake under running hot water. Or maybe they dipped it into that unidentifiable blue stuff that barbers use to sterilize their scissors.

Sure, I’m being flippant, but I only am because I’d hate to think that this is an issue to take seriously. Unfortunately, it is.

A few years back my father was at this very same hospital for a quadruple bypass. But if that wasn’t stressful enough, at the time we also had to be concerned about the presence of Norwalk Virus in the area. In Montreal we were regaled with stories of deadly bacteria entering the bodies of surgery patients through antiquated ventilation systems. It almost makes you wonder whether you’re safer taking your chances at home.

I’m a big believer in second chances. I’m also of the mind that everyone should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. That is, everyone except doctors and medical staff. Maybe that’s unfair of me. But the simple fact of the matter is that when I go into a hospital environment, chances are I’m entrusting my life to these people’s hands. I’d like to think that they’re capable.

A mistake made in a hospital can often result in dramatic consequences – for the patient. It’s not like a kid missing a spelling error on a test. Even someone who makes a poor business decision – no matter how dramatic or costly it may be — is only dealing with a bottom line. With the medical community, the bottom line they’re affecting is one that can rapidly go flat when something goes wrong.

Is it unfair to expect perfection from our medical staff? Is it wrong for me to expect that my hospitals should be a place of respite from the illnesses in the outside world, instead of being a place for me to catch the latest Superbug?

The fact that University Hospital is taking such drastic measures should assure the public that they are taking this threat – no matter how remote it may be – seriously. They are doing all they can to contain the disease.

But what I would have rather heard is simply this: nothing. I would rather have read an announcement from the hospital saying that a patient in the ward presented with CJD, but due to the rigid sanitation and care standards enacted by the hospital, any potential contamination was eliminated through the standard procedures.

I’m not naïve enough to think that bad things don’t exist in hospitals. There are some nasty diseases and bugs flying around there. But if I know that, my hope is that hospitals are aware of that fact and do everything they can to eliminate any threat that’s out there. Otherwise the ramifications can be huge.

After all, our doctors, nurses, and other medical staff aren’t restricted to the hospital. They don’t live their lives in hermetically sealed facilities only to serve us. They put in shifts, they go out with their families – and they have the potential to spread whatever nefarious illness that they’ve encountered during their normal rounds with the society at large.

There are two solutions: one, which really isn’t a solution, is quarantine; the other is obsessive care with a compulsive attention to detail. If it takes boiling each instrument in lava after each procedure, then that’s what it takes. No half-assed attempts, no cutting corners, and no mistakes.

It’s a lot to ask. But that kind of attention to detail would mean that instead of a health scare we’d be facing a health triumph. And we’d all feel a little bit better about going to the hospital.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Chewing the Fat on our Kids’ Health

By Jason Menard

Does it really come as any surprise that Canada received a D for its overall commitment to our children’s health, when our kids have us setting an example?

On Thursday, May 26, 2005, the Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth was released to the public and the results certainly give us something to chew on – unfortunately, it appears that we’re chewing on fat.

Essentially the report states that Canada is failing its kids by not ensuring that they’re active enough each day to ensure optimal growth and development. The report continues by saying that “less than half our kids are expending the energy required to maintain a healthy weight, and to develop healthy hearts, lungs, muscles, and bones.

But should we really expect anything less? We’ve gone from a society that had to chase down our own food and kill it with our bare hands to survive to one where we can sit in our boxers at a computer screen, click a mouse, and have our groceries delivered to us.

And it’s a good thing that we only need one hand to use a mouse, because the other’s usually immersed in a bag of Doritos.

Physical activity, which was once a given component of daily life, is now nothing more than an afterthought for the majority of people. Instead of being an expected part of our day, exercise is treated as a luxury for which we don’t have enough time. Most of us – and speaking as a parent, I am more than guilty of this – find that by the time we’ve come home from work, prepared dinner, and done our evening chores, there’s precious little time to enjoy with the family. So because it’s difficult to shoehorn physical activity into our evenings, we make excuses to avoid it.

The end result is that, because of this, we have to shoehorn our own butts into our jeans. The long-term effects can be catastrophic, with poorer long-term health, increased diabetes, and a whole host of other health-related problems all of which can be attributed to our added girth. It’s a good thing

We’ve undervalued the importance of physical activity at school. We look down our noses at physical education classes – and really, is there any profession more maligned in our popular culture than the gym teacher? Instead of realizing the value of daily exercise, we look at gym class like a glorified recess. We talk about the three Rs and lament how our kids aren’t getting a solid foundation in the basics, but there seems to be no recognition that a fourth R should be added to the list – running!

However, the problem does not lie within the confines of our schools. It’s time we look squarely in the mirror for the real source of the problem – the parents. The Report Card gives parents a D for Family Physical Activity, professing that only 43% of parents are physically active with their kids. The saddest thing is that the number drops off as our kids get older: a reduction of 25% by the time our children turn five, and a further drop-off of 30% when they become teenagers. It appears that we, as parents, abdicate our responsibility believing that the school system will pick up the slack.

The end result of all of this? The prevalence of childhood obesity in our kids has jumped from 2% in 1981 to 10% in 2001 – and is there any reason to believe the trend hasn’t and won’t continue?

A 1998 Gallup Poll showed that 78% off Canadians were in favour of instituting 30 minutes of daily physical activity in schools, but that’s not enough. Our kids are not somebody else’s responsibility, but when it comes to ensuring the health of our children, a tragically large number of us take a hands-off approach to their physical development.

Unfortunately, the school system is going to have to be the one that picks up the ball we’ve dropped – after all, the exertion may be too much for us. Parents aren’t going to change their ways no matter how many publicity campaigns or surveys come out. It’s easy to sit here and say we should all spend a half-hour riding a bike, going for a walk, or tossing around the ol’ pigskin with our sons and daughters – but we have to deal with reality here.

This isn’t a matter of who should shoulder the responsibility – it’s about who will. Our school systems – both elementary and secondary – are in the best position to quickly and effectively institute mandatory physical education periods. Just a half hour a day will give our kids a good foundation. There’s really no reason why gym should be an elective course in high school – if we put a premium on developing the mind, we need to do the same for the body.

Looking long-term, by making exercise a regular part of our kids’ lives, they’ll be more likely to continue to make it a part of their everyday routine. Ideally, spending a half-hour or more working out, walking, or just being active won’t be an imposition but rather an afterthought in their lives.

And then maybe they can turn around and show us the right way of doing things. For the good of our health, our kids will have to be the ones teaching their parents – because we’ve shown that, when it comes to healthy living, we’re no role models.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Misrepresenting Chicken Wings? That’s Fowl!

By Jason Menard

There are few foods as transcendent as the Chicken Wing. In addition to their simplicity of presentation and flavour, they are a supremely social food, as they are best enjoyed in a local establishment accompanied by friends, family, or both!

Over the years, I have travelled far and wide sampling some of this country’s best wings. I have plenty of experience built up in this quest – in fact, I’ve recently lost more than a few pounds of experience (too much of a good thing, I suppose.) The problem I’ve encountered is that rarely have these establishments offered what they promised.

You’ve heard the names designed to strike fear in the heart of the unknowing consumer: suicide, homicide, 911… all equally dramatic and all equally misleading. The concept seems to be that adding a violent noun to a piece of poultry will elicit a psychosomatic response that will make what you’re eating seem hotter.

An order of these wings is invariably accompanied by a quizzical look from your server and an “Are you sure?” comment that’s as welcome as that sprig of parsley. It’s inevitably followed by another comment that comes when the food finally arrives. It’s always some permutation of, “Good luck with that.”

Now, wings soliciting such reverence from the staff must obviously be worthy of the fear and awe they inspire, right? Wrong! All it does is build up false hope and increase the disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful wing establishments in this city that produce some tasty wings. I have brought my wife and kids (medium and honey garlic fans that they are…) to many of these places and we’ve enjoyed many a fine night of casual dining. But my search continues!!!!

Just this weekend, I went to a local watering hole and asked about the heat gradients and was told the usual litany, including suicide… but another was added to the list “Chef’s Challenge.” Hotter than suicide? This could be promising, I thought to myself… But, alas, the Chef’s Challenge was a misnomer – in fact, I was left wondering was I the one challenged, or was the chef?

So what makes a good hot wing? Any monkey can dump one of those industrial hot sauces on a wing and serve it up – but it would be inedible! They key is to combine searing heat and succulent flavour into a package that’s truly worthy of this sort of moniker! A wing needs to be plump, juicy, crispy, and with a flavour that resonates in the mouth. I’ve had single baked, twice-baked, double battered, bare, in fact any cooking style you can imagine, but the key to a memorable wing is in the sauce.

I’m not a masochist, but I enjoy spicy food. Eating hot is something I enjoy – it’s not a test of my manhood or a matter of pride. It’s also something that I know won’t last. Eventually, my stomach will have had enough and will revolt against the abuse I’ve heaped upon it for all these years. So, until that time, I want to get what I ask for!

Suicide, homicide, and their brethren need to indicate a heat level more than just one that’s discomforting to those who find tomato sauce a little racy, it needs to be truly awe-inspiring and palette-searing. As our world gets smaller, cooks are exposed to more and more ingredients, spices, and chills, at more affordable prices. The pallet of flavour is now limited only by our own imagination.

My search continues, but my stops along my road are poorly marked. One day I’ll find poultry Nirvana, but until then I make this appeal to our local establishments to adhere to truth in advertising. The majority of food out there is designed to cater to the widest spectrum of purchasers possible. Scan the grocery aisles and the foods labelled as hot barely contain any spice.

Our collective palette has become so dull that restaurants simplify their foods so as not to offend. It’s become so bad that I’ve been to restaurants that feature ethnic cuisine that’s known to be spicy, and it’s been watered down. When I’ve pressed to get “the real stuff” it has resulted in a trip to the back room and the comment “Well, when Canadians ask for ‘hot’ they don’t really mean it…”

We need to reclaim the individuality of food. We must celebrate diverse flavours and unique tastes! And I say it starts with the chicken wing. With this saucy delicacy let our appetites take flight!

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Supersize It!

By Jason Menard

Our super-sized world is shrinking, but it’s not only McDonald’s portions that are getting smaller – it’s also our ability to choose for ourselves.

The announcement that McDonald’s stores south of the 49 th parallel will be removing the super-size options on its menu adds yet another nail to the coffin that I hope our dear old friend Common Sense is desperately trying to claw its way out of. Of course, perhaps Common Sense has simply given up the fight.

I say, go the other way and make mega-sized fries. Mega, Gigantic, Enormous, Ultra Massive — use whatever hyperbolic phrase you can come up! Make a drink so large that it comes with its own diving board. I think McDonald’s should be allowed to do whatever it pleases with its menu. After all, no one’s forcing you to buy the larger sizes.

There’s where the problem lies. I’m not a McDonald’s fan, but I have eaten there on occasion. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never walked through the Golden Arches thinking that I was going to get a healthy meal out of the experience. And the same can be said for any fast food restaurant. I’m not going there for the health – I’m going there to satisfy some craving or another, and none of them are healthy.

But that’s my choice. As an adult – and as an adult making food decisions for my family – I should have the right to whatever food I want. It’s not like a militia of Ronald McDonalds drag me to the counter and stuff the food into my mouth against my will. McDonald’s food can only make you fat if you make the choice to purchase it and eat it to excess.

Our North American society seems to be moving to one where the decisions are made for us. Thanks to Janet Jackson’s nipple, many live broadcasts have moved to a time-delay on live broadcasts to prevent unsavoury material from reaching my sensitive eyes.

Excuse me? I’m supposed to allow some over-cautious television executive decide what is appropriate to watch? When did I abdicate my rights as a human to the concept of free thought? I have the best seven-second-delay mechanism at the ready at all times – it’s called a remote. If I don’t like certain programming, or find something that offends me, I have a bunch of other channels ready to court my viewing time.

And really, determining what’s offensive is a matter of personal taste. I personally find the mindless drivel and milquetoast humour that makes up Everybody Loves Raymond an assault on my intelligence. However, I’m pretty sure the guy with his finger on the delay button would feel pretty safe taking a nice half-hour nap if that show was broadcast live. On the other hand, certain shows that I find exciting and dynamic could give that same guy a Repetitive-Stress Injury on his trigger finger.

As a parent, I restrict the type of shows my children are allowed to watch. I don’t need a V-chip or blocking device – they’re only allowed to watch certain shows. Now, because I don’t feel a certain show is appropriate for my kids, that doesn’t mean the show should be pulled off the air. I don’t want someone else making those decisions for my family. My wife and I should make those decisions and its our job as parents to explain why we feel a certain way. God forbid we actually open up a dialogue with our children and engage them in free thought!

That’s the wonderful thing about being humans. The freedom to choose and the freedom to form our own opinions sets us apart from the world’s other animals. We live in a society that prides itself on these freedoms, but then we willingly allow others to tell us what to do, what to eat, and what to watch, and I can’t understand that.

So McDonald’s Canada please continue to super-size your meals, and I’ll continue to not buy them. And let live shows be truly live – if I’m worried about potential content, then I’ll simply change the channel.

But allow me the right to choose for myself.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved