23 12 2014

I am no fan of bottled water.

Here in the West where we have easy access to plentiful clean safe drinking water it is a shameful waste of plastic and logistics infrastructure. Every plastic disposable water bottle – even if it is ultimately recycled – is the result of a bottling plant, a trucking and/or rail journey and a few minutes of “aren’t I cool, drinking Naïve  – oops, sorry, got it backwards: Evian – water?”

That said, I always enjoy a cool advertising campaign. Especially with hamsters. Jazz I can forgive.

Just because you’re an arsehole doesn’t make you racist

6 12 2014

So we went to get a pile of groceries today. We went to Langley because we like the food selection available in Real Canadian Superstore (Loblaw). (To my knowledge there isn’t a Pretend Canadian Superstore, before you ask.) It’s been a while, and they’ve changed things up a bit. The pricing is a bit – how shall I put it? – sneaky!

There’s now often two prices on the shelf for an item, so you need your wits about you. It may have price A in a large font, then below it there is price B in a smaller font. Alongside this higher price B is one of two statements. (i) If you buy the item individually instead in sets of perhaps 3 or 6, then you pay the higher price per item. (ii) if you buy more than a maximum number of the item, perhaps 2 or 4, then you pay the higher price.

For some reason I was overcome with the urge to try tinned chilli. Not quite sure what came over me. There was a bewildering array of options, brands and prices. And you guessed it – they all had these weird two-tier prices. Should I buy a single tin? Was it worth taking a chance that I’d really like it and buy 6 tins to get the lower price? That tin is more expensive but only needs 2 others to trigger the lower price. Ah… my brain hurts!

It was whilst contemplating these decidedly first world problems that my mental calculations were disturbed by a most un-Canadian event. I missed the trigger. Perhaps someone rudly barging past a fellow shopper. Perhaps some impolite glance. Whatever the initial cause, I heard very loud and close behind me a woman saying “What did you say? I’m not from Surrey you fucking racist. Say it to my face!”

For those of you not resident in the Lower Mainland of BC, Surrey is the second largest city, sprawling out to the East of Vancouver. It has a cosmopolitan make-up, but undeniably has one of the regions larger concentrations of Punjabi Indians. This makes for an amazing selection of restaurants, and some bizarrely large houses. I myself live at the southern end of Surrey where it meets White Rock. Despite its diverse cultures and many successful businesses, it is not without its problem areas and drug crime (primarily Marijuana grow-ops). These things have led to such unfair stigmas as “Better safe than Surrey” and “Brown Town” to name a few. As an ex-pat from the UK, I have to say that it is still way safer than pretty much any European city I have visited. Racism is real, to be sure, but it’s nothing compared to the skin-head days I witnessed as a youth in the UK’s 70s.

So anyway, I turned to see a young woman of Indian extraction (with a very Canadian accent) wearing typical weekend “daggy” clothes – hoody jacket and black leggings. She was with a middle aged Indian lady whom I took to be her mother. Facing off with her was a white guy in his 30s wearing a lumberjack shirt and accompanied by a pretty Philippino lady of similar age – better dressed than the rest of us put together.

Obviously unable to “let it lie”, the guy took umbrage at being called a racist, and said so. This presumably was accompanied with gesticulations towards his Philippino companion. I say presumably, because my English genes kicked back in, and I had entered my little bubble containing myself and the pricing dilemma of tinned chilli. My back was therefore once more turned on the scene in the hopes that it would simply dissolve and go away. But no. What we had here was “young lady with massive chip on shoulder” vs. “hurt male ego in front of girlfriend”.

The guy said he had assumed she was from Surrey not because of her ethnic origin but because of her “ghetto clothes”. She seemed well-versed in Anglo-Saxon profanity, questioned his education, and generally showed a most unladylike handling of the situation. Her poor mother, whom I felt completely sorry for, was struggling to keep her in check, and to let things go.

Eventually I settled on 2 tins of Campbell’s steak chilli, though I’m not convinced I’d made the right choice. As the air cleared, I saw a group of around 5 youngish Indian guys wearing turbans and carefully watching the lumberjack shirt retreating to continue his shopping. This could have turned very ugly indeed, it seemed. A minute or two later, I encountered the guy talking to what appeared to be his father – similarly dressed in checked padded shirt. He seemed proud of his “argument with that lady”. His use of “lady” did not imply any inherent distaste for the woman.

I found the whole thing fascinating. Presumably the young lady had slighted the guy in some way – perhaps by barging past or something equally innocent. He had made some comment about her “going back to Surrey”. He’d intended this as a comment on her clothing. She’d jumped to the assumption it was a racist attack and verbally lashed out. The guy felt the need to defend himself against the accusation of being racist. Both seemed to agree that coming from Surrey was a bad thing.

I’m an immigrant. I live in Surrey. On reflection, perhaps they were both attacking me!

Just Eat It – A food waste story

4 10 2014

Well, it’s VIFF time of year again, and Vancouver is hosting films from around the world once more. Tonight I saw “Just Eat It!” and was stunned.

It’s a quirky Vancouver-made film with a serious message. The film-making couple use humour to bring home some uncomfortable facts. 40% of the food we grow… goes to the land fill. For 6 months they live off “waste” food… and live very well with Grant putting on 10lb! They spend only $200 in 6 months on food, and yet eat their fill of top quality chocolate, organic food and fruit and vegetables. They even end up giving food away, they have accumulated so much.

At one point we learn that in order to produce a single hamburger, enough water to have a 90 minute shower is required. Meat is one of the most energy and resource consuming foods we grow… and we throw 40% of it away!

If you can – watch this film! Now… go and eat your vegetables. You’re not leaving the table until you clean your plate…

Just Eat It – A food waste story Trailer – YouTube.

I’d be up for it…

11 09 2014

Would you?

Japan’s Burger Kings Sell Black Burgers Colored With Bamboo Charcoal And Squid Ink | Bored Panda.

Black BurgerKing

On regional cheese and milk-maids

2 03 2014

Hello faithful reader.
I know I’ve been less than engaged of late. I’ve written nary a line for weeks, yet here you still are… indulging my need to write rambling screeds of nonsense, then casting them like so much epistolic (I use the word loosely which I’m sure you’ll have no problem agreeing with) flotsam (or is it jetsam? – I always get them confused) onto the tides of the interwebs.

Photo: Flotsam & Jetsam, The Disney Wikia

Years ago I had a friend who worked at Mars – the US confectioner – in Maidenhead, UK (a place name that still makes me smirk with a pubescent love of uncommon words). They’ve branched out over their 100+ year history. First, the younger Mr Mars was estranged from his father and sent off to do what he could with the eponymous bar in the UK. “Not too shabbily”, it turned out. It was tweaked for the British palate, and the rest is confectionery history. Thank the gods Hershey wouldn’t do a deal with him and the UK Mars bar has superior chocolate. Can’t beat the special edition dark chocolate ones in my view. By the way, I heartily recommend Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury (yes THAT Cadbury) for a really interesting look at the rise of the chocolate industry in Europe, the US and obviously the UK. Lindt, Mars, Rowntree, Hershey, Fry’s, Cadbury’s… they’re all in there. Even van Houtte. Great read.

Amazon: Chocolate Wars

Anyway, I digress. They also branched out into vending machines.
And meat pies and sausages.
And dog food. (Just a coincidence, I’m sure.)
All this just to say that said aforementioned friend once explained to me the difference between “best before” and “eat/consume before” dates on foodstuffs. The former is a date by which the manufacturer has deemed their product will start to be perceived as less than optimum to the consumer. The latter is the date beyond which the subsequent medical well-being of the diner can no longer be guaranteed. Since the former is more a matter of cosmetics, and the current fashion for people to claim allergies to everything from peanuts to shellfish makes the latter a much less well-defined thing to prove, the former is much more widely seen on packaging. The two are also sometimes quietly merged into the much less specific and therefore more defensible “sell by” date.

I was once in a discussion around best before dates, food, and how the length of time on the shelf seemed to vary shop-to-shop. In the UK, people tended (perhaps someone resident on the fair isles could comment if it’s still the case) to treat “best before” as “consume by” in any case, and would get irate if a shop still had items on its shelf that were “past it”, as it were. Obviously large supermarkets would prefer as long a shelf life as possible to avoid having to discard food before it was sold. They’d be pretty well forced to reduce the price as it approached it’s “sell by date” – especially for things like meat or fish. If they were found to still have items on their shelves that were “past it”, reputations could be tattered in the cut-throat high-street supermarket market. Past it food was a phenomenon found only in shonky corner shops – not the large supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco or even good ol’ Morrison’s. So it was common to buy food with several days remaining between date of purchase and the sell by date. I won’t comment here on irradiated food or nitrogen in your bag of salad, just that one didn’t normally find the label date on purchased food to be any time soon.

The notable exception was the venerable Marks & Sparks, who as we all know has been operated since biblical times by St. Michael. Actually, Messrs. Marks and Spencer were a couple of Leeds lads (Loiners) who established a Penny Bazaar in the 1880’s and never looked back. Marks was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus and Spencer was a cashier and shrewd money man. The apparently saintly Michael was actually Simon Marks’ dad. Anyway, back to the yarn: M&S would always have food on the shelf with ridiculously close sell by dates – a few days at most. But this was actually astute marketing…

You see, M&S charge a little more for their food. And, by and large, it’s also a little better. So – they don’t want you hanging on to food past its “best before” date, simply because it has yet to cultivate botulism and is therefore technically still edible. It’s important for their image that you are consuming their foodstuffs whilst they are still in their prime… not merely still technically edible.

So anyway, when we came to live in Canada two big things hit us when food shopping. Firstly there were few items with ANY nutritional information on the packaging (GM soya beans were a big issue in the UK and Europe back in 2001, and scrutinising food labels was a habit)… let alone “best before” dates. Worse though… much worse: you can’t buy alcohol in the supermarkets! But that’s off topic (and BC at least is now actually considering the sale of alcohol in places other than government liquor stores that only open when people can’t use them).

Photograph by: Stuart Davis, via Vancouver Sun

Where was I? Oh yes… labelling. I am pleased to report that it is now pretty common to have food in BC accompanied by at least some vague information about its content. My daughter only yesterday was bemoaning food labelling. She’s studying life sciences (biology and the like) at Waterloo University. She said that she had firmly believed that one shouldn’t eat food if its ingredients list contained items you couldn’t pronounce. I tend to agree. She may even have picked up that idea from something I said when she was younger and “impressionabl-er”. Unfortunately, since her area of study now included lots of long words, this was no longer a sufficient litmus test.

Point? Yes – there is a point. I’m getting there. It may not be particularly sharp, and I don’t guarantee you won’t resent your eventual arrival, but yes, there is a point.

Regulars may recall that since early January, Chez Pachyderm has been in upheaval with the renovation of the kitchen. This basically involved lots of rewiring, re-plumbing of the upstairs bathroom (don’t ask), asbestos, you name it… Several lost souls were returned to the netherworld and I’m unreliably told that House and Home will be featuring us in an upcoming edition of “most frustrating projects”. But it’s all but finished now. A couple of missing shelves and a wobbly wall socket, but otherwise done. Usable at last. So… we went food shopping to stock the wonderful new fridge/freezer. Mrs Elephant unwisely left me with the shopping trolley whilst she went to look for some milk. In her absence, I managed to locate several much more interesting items. Things like prosciutto, Camembert cheese and the like. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find some Limburger cheese. This is a bit of an in joke because the company I work for has its old (pre-Canon acquisition) headquarters in Venlo, in the Netherlands. This is very close to the German border, and the area is called… you guessed it… Limburg. It is actually a bit stinky (the cheese I mean), and not dissimilar to Port Salut in scent and taste, if you’re familiar with that. Ironically, the cheese itself was from “over the line” in Germany.

Wikipedia: Limburger cheese

The connection is that the first wheel of Camembert I picked up was a day past “the best before”. Old instincts kicked in and I scoffed. Ew… “old” food on the shelf of a major supermarket! (Of course – I was conditioned to treat any date as “eat by” or “will contain deadly bacteria by”, rather than the much more benign reality of “might be slightly less than show-winning status by”). Naturally, I replaced the cheese for some less discerning shopper to catch listeria from and picked up the one beneath it with a much more satisfactory date a few weeks hence. Later in my rounds, I had to rummage through no less than 6 pots of Greek yoghurt to find one dated in the future. This problem was obviously endemic at Save-on Foods! I felt a little like Kevin Smith‘s mum, in her character as “The milk-maid” in Clerks – sifting through every jug of milk looking for the one with the date furthest away!

Wikipedia: Clerks

The joke though, as no doubt you will have long ago predicted, was on me. The third kind of cheese I bought was a new one for me: Adarga de Oro. Spanish apparently. Alabaster white… quite a silky smooth look to it. It’s a blend of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. I tried it today. Lovely. Only as I rewrapped it did I notice the best before date was 25th February… 4 days before I bought it, and 5 before I ate it. As I said – it’s pretty tasty. I wonder how much better it was before it was past its best…

Photo: CompraJamon – Adarga de oro

Food, glorious food…

26 01 2014

1 2, 1 2…


Testing, 1 2…

Mary had a little lamb, the vet he was confused, ’cause Mary is a Jersey cow…

Wow – the editor seems to still work! I thought perhaps my connection to Quieter Elephant might have ceased. The conduit through which thoughts and opinions once flowed so readily might perhaps have healed over from disuse.

It’s been weeks if indeed not months since I sat here at my trusty PC and began to type more than a brief quip on some friend’s Facebook page, or merely share someone else’s original thought. I fool myself it’s because I’ve been short of ideas, or perhaps too busy. The truth I know is really that, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered. But I missed it. I missed the mechanics of sitting and expressing myself through the written word.

And the reason for my change of heart? Convoluted, I know… but it’s Netflix. They give you a free month’s trial when you sign up, and just before Christmas we did just that to see what we thought. Along with pretty much everyone else who’s tried it, we each “binge-watched” some series or other. I caught up on a couple of seasons of Dexter, checked out 4 seasons of Weeds and moved on to Californication. The latter, it seems, put me back in touch with my inner sex addict writer.

Hank, the lead character, is a novelist who (in between having sex with anything female that’s still breathing) is trying to regain his writing mojo. He loves the power of the written word, and somehow it spoke to my own sleeping wordsmith and prompted me to put forth some froth.

So then – about what? It’s not like I’m short of opinions, or stuff that I’m sure the world at large would be glad to learn. As is often my wont though, an idea sprung unbidden. A theme that binds together several threads that have brushed my life recently. In this case… food.

Food is a pretty basic need. Good ol’ Maslow put it right at the foundation of his triangle. Alongside the more mundane “breathing” and the much less mundane “sex” (unless you’re doing it wrong). Because it’s so necessary, we (at least those of us with enough access to wealth and spare time to have the ability to be reading drivel like this on the internet) often take it for granted. It takes something pretty major for us to take more notice of what we eat. Perhaps we find ourselves shipwrecked and starving… suddenly finding enormous pleasure in simple foods like coconut and fish. And rediscovering the hitherto underestimated benefits of toilet roll and domestic plumbing. Or perhaps, as in my own case, we recklessly agree when our wives suggest we have a new kitchen fitted.

Now, our house is about 30 years old – nothing in the brick-built suburbs of England. The house we left there was built as World War II broke out, and was more than 60 years old when we passed it on to its next occupants. It had witnessed bombing raids on Bletchley railhead, and potentially known the mathematical geniuses that worked round the corned at Bletchley Park breaking Germany’s Enigma codes. Our home in Canada though was built in 1982 – the year I entered university. It’s an all-wood construction. 60 years is nothing for a well-built brick house, but somehow 30 seems very old indeed for what is basically a glorified shed!

It’s done us well though, and had a few upgrades along the way – including a general energy efficiency update, double glazing, new roof and the like. The kitchen though… well, it was undeniably a bit “meh”.

When all’s said and done it has to be admitted… I am a male of the species (we can debate later which species). It had cupboards, flat surfaces to attract the usual flying motes such as car keys, paper clips, empty yoghurt pots and the like, a fridge, running water, electricity. What more could you wish for?! Well… quite a lot, it transpires. Several tens of thousands of dollars worth of “more” in fact.

I did my level best to appear engaged when asked if I preferred one cupboard door to another. One fridge to another. (You’ll recall we had a perfectly functional fridge already.) I was inevitably caught out every time though. When asked if I preferred A to B, I was reminded that not 2 minutes previously I’d given the opposite answer. I hadn’t realised these were scientifically designed double-blind questions! It was not one of my finest moments.

Men simply don’t care about such things! I suspect we’d not even notice if the doors didn’t match, let alone prefer one style to another. I know I shouldn’t generalise so much (or so often). I’m sure there are men out there whose sensibilities are easily offended by mismatched appliances. Likely they even select their daily clothes based on some sense of style. In my experience however, men often dress based on what’s clean (if they’re fussy) and closest to hand. It was only when my daughter reached her teens and felt bold enough to voice her opinions of me that I discovered that one can apparently wear too many stripes (shirt and tie) and that certain colours simply shouldn’t be seen together on the same body. This was a great revelation to me, and shattered much of my world view along the way.

I do admit the sink tap dripped, and it annoyed me immensely. I had changed the washer once, but it had not solved the problem fully, and the dripping to waste of possibly an entire glassful of water a year was simply too much to bear for a Yorkshireman! I agreed to the “reno”, and my life was changed forever.

The first issue was that the new flooring required the lifting of the old vinyl flooring. It transpired that under the easily removed vinyl there was another layer. This however was stuck like the proverbial excreta to the equally proverbial blanket. Worse… as was often the case in the 70’s and very early 80’s… the backing material of this earlier vinyl contained asbestos. Not the deadly blue stuff, but still not to be taken lightly or sniffed at (as it were!) For the removal of the stubborn layer by paid professionals, it would require the full HazMat gear, polythene isolation of the kitchen area for the duration… and the addition of several thousand dollars more to our line of credit. To do it ourselves was just time and effort… and the double bagging of the removed material for proper disposal at the city dump. Not really much of a tough choice after all.

It began with a borrowed hot air gun. It escalated after a day to a Dremel orbital scraper, but concluded, almost inevitably one might say, with the purchase of two crowbars and a new 2lb hammer. Yup – it was easier to remove the entire layer of chipboard than to unstick the vinyl from said wooden subfloor. Along the way I learnt how therapeutic a certain amount of destruction can be. That and how prone to heartburn I am when exerting myself in a bent position for prolonged periods after eating.

Even this subfloor had been glued as well as nailed to the plywood underneath, and so despite all the hammering and crowbarring, there were still small islands of chipboard that refused to surrender to brute force. Enter the next phase… the blade scrapers! These are basically devious inventions to hold an entire length of X-acto snap-off blades in a handy gripper, so you can use them to slice off layers of flooring. Basically like a viciously sharp paint scraper. Even this didn’t complete the job, and once the proper contractors showed up to begin things, they took pity and brought in a power sander to finish off our efforts.

And then it began…

We were already a week into “the upset” as I shall euphemistically call it, simply from the steady removal of the floor. The day before the contractors arrived however, I learnt a new secret about our old kitchen. It’s actually a TARDIS! (“Bigger on the inside”). The contents of that one room needed to be removed to allow the replacement of the kitchen. Not unreasonable. How then, I ask you dear reader, can the contents of that single room subsequently fill up every flat surface in the rest of the entire house? I mean EVERY flat surface! If I didn’t know better, I would swear that the neighbours had ganged up and disposed of all their unwanted kitchen accessories through our back door as we were unloading the cupboards through into the dining room.

All that stuff needs to go SOMEWHERE!

All that stuff needs to go SOMEWHERE!

But the guys that are doing the kitchen were professionals. Within a single day they had totally removed the entire cabinetry. Sink and all. And removed our much-loathed “sunshine ceiling” – a lowered area that housed 6 part-time functioning strip lights. Over the intervening couple of weeks they have steadily refitted new lights, rewired and re-plumbed the kitchen and replaced drywall over much of the kitchen. The new super-smooth sub-floor went in on Friday and I repainted the walls and ceiling over this weekend. As of Monday, the new cabinets start to arrive.

But… for two weeks now, we have had no kitchen. It’s a little like camping… but less organised. We still have the fridge/freezer in the “play room”. Rooms of a house gain labels very quickly and they outlive their original use. Our children were very young when we moved in. One room was assigned as their messy toy-strewn haven. It’s now largely a library/TV room, but still carries the name “play room”. Now it is dominated by a largely empty fridge. There’s a microwave and toaster in the dining room… but no free flat surface to actually prepare anything more complex than a tin of soup or the occasional bagel. Tea is readily on hand and everything else is a distant second. My son still lives with us and has suddenly found an ability to cadge various meals from the families of his close friends… on a pretty ingenious rotation I’ll add.

Suddenly then, simple foods have taken on a new pleasure. I really enjoyed a bunch of grapes the other day. The way Walker’s shortbread crumbles in one’s mouth was rediscovered. Of course we have occasionally eaten out, but that is an expensive strategy which is best avoided.

Contrast then my recent experiences in Salt Lake City. A week or so ago I attended a supplier’s sales kick-off meeting there. I arrived mid evening and was impressed at the suite of rooms assigned me. Even more impressive was the huge bowl of fruit. I really enjoyed the grapes, blueberries, oddly large blackberries and banana. As I devoured each layer of fruit, other delights were revealed beneath. I stopped though when I discovered several large strawberries. They were almost as large as the pear! Worse… the pear was the colour and texture of an apple. I have never seen a rosy red pear before. I’m sure they were totally fine, but the word “Mon-san-to” kept wafting eerily before my eyes, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being outlived by the contents of my lower intestine.

Strawberries just shouldn't be that large...

Strawberries just shouldn’t be that large…

After an internal struggle that included the discovery that my Netflix account gave me access to different options in the US than it did in BC, I eventually relented and went to the restaurant for dinner. I ordered the pork shank and was left with a plate of bread to while away the time. It was beautifully presented and the thin crackers were described as Lavash bread. They were interesting, though I’m not sure they were entirely authentic, since my understanding is that Armenian lavash bread is more like pita bread. I concluded with a lovely glass of 20 year old port (though struggled to make my desires known until the waiter scuttled off to find an English waitress to help translate).

A lavish Lavash spread

A lavish Lavash spread

The next evening, the company held a team building event at the Salt Lake City Culinary Center, and a great time was had by all. The staff guided us through the creation of what was essentially chicken strips and pasta, but somehow looked and tasted so much more intricate. Pumpkin seeds were involved. Handmade ravioli. There was wine too. Hence the sketchy details. No idea what the cost was, but if you live in Utah and are looking for a team event – do it!

At the other end of the culinary extreme was my experience of last Wednesday. I went to LA for the day. Less really – about 7 hours “on the job”. I was up at 4am for a 7am flight, and breakfast was a cup of tea at Starbucks in YVR. Lunch (and I use the term in the loosest of terms possible) was some burger thing from Jack in the Box. It hit all the expected pleasure sensors and was therefore almost certainly extremely bad for me. Afternoon tea was a pint of beer in some bar, and the several hours I had to wait in LAX for my flight home (delayed) were broken only by two more cups of Starbucks’ astronomically priced tea and some wood-carving that was masquerading as a sandwich. Still – I was tucked up in bed by 2am on Thursday, so it wasn’t all bad. Just mostly!

There was one small highlight to the day in LA though. Whilst we were sat waiting for some lights to change in Inglewood, I happened to look sideways and saw a doughnut stand. It was the very same one used in the opening credits of Californication. On Netflix.

And so the world turns…

Californication at Randy's

Californication at Randy’s


Oi – I’m talking to you…

18 06 2013

Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to talk to someone in a bar or café, and they only have eyes for their smart phone?

Salve Jorge Bar in São Paulo, Brazil has come up with an interesting solution. Their beer glasses will only remain upright (keeping your undrunk beer where it’s supposed to be) if you rest them on your phone… thus keeping it safely out of reach, and freeing you up to once more take part in the human race.


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