Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tasty can be healthy

Not a fine photo but it was a fine dinner. Maybe I'll get a better shot next time.

I don't recall how I discovered Elena Paravantes' blog Olive Tomato but, as someone attempting to enjoy Mediterranean cooking regularly, I have found the blog inspirational. A recent post encouraged readers to quickly fry sliced zucchini, serving it warm with sprinkles of parsley and feta cheese. The picture that Paravantes posted made her zucchini look quite appealing. Inspired, I decided to use a both yellow and green zucchini as a side dish.

My wife and I are not only trying to adhere to a diet advised by my heart and stroke doctor but we are also trying to adhere to a Weight Watchers friendly diet. This dinner met all the requirements: low in fat, exceedingly low in cholesterol, no meat, no eggs, and lots of fresh vegetables and very low in points.

The star of this dinner was potato gnocchi. At a little over 100gms per portion, the gnocchi contained only four points. It was boiled until it rose to the top of the bubbling water. After a minute it was removed using a slotted spoon.

Meanwhile the small tomatoes were fried in a little olive oil seasoned with finely diced garlic . The zucchini was fried in the same pan at the same time. Two minutes on each side in a very hot fry pan was enough for the zucchini. The tomatoes were removed when the skins began to split. Both vegetables were placed on waiting dinner dishes.

The chopped asparagus was tossed into the hot fry pan with a little more finely diced garlic. After a minute the gnocchi was added to be quickly fried with the asparagus. At this point about 90gms of Alfredo sauce diluted with an ounce of the gnocchi water was added. The sauce immediately came to a boil and was soon reduced to thick sauce coating all. A couple of tablespoons of chopped dill were stirred in and the mixture spooned onto the dishes with the zucchini.

While I cooked the gnocchi and asparagus my wife sprinkled parsley and feta cheese on the hot zucchini and tomato. Now, she sprinkled a little grated Parmesan on the hot gnocchi and asparagus. We carried to the plates to the table and toasted our fine meal.

With a small glass of wine, this dinner came in at only about 15 points. It may have been even less. The only cholesterol was in the small amount of cheese and the light cream used in the sauce.

I have been eating like this for a little more than a year. I had my arteries checked a couple of months ago and the plaque noted a year ago has diminished. Of course, I am also taking some powerful drugs and so it is impossible to say to what extent the Mediterranean diet has been responsible for the improvement.

There is one improvement that I can credit to my new eating habits: My weight. I've lost about 45 pounds.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Originally I posted this image on Facebook and Google+ but now I'm sharing it here as well.

There has been about twice the normal amount of rain this June. It has forced me to stay indoors with my youngest granddaughter. Last Friday I had had enough. I decided to take Isla, 2, outside to show her some temporary treasures created by the stormy weather.

Treasures is the term my grandchildren use for beautiful, found objects. In this case, the treasures were the drops of water beaded up on the plants and flowers surrounding our home. Although we could not stuff these treasures into granddad's pocket, we could capture them with his camera.

Wearing her biggest, highest boots and a raincoat with hood, my little 25-month-old granddaughter wandered about the yard seeking treasures that might "make a picture." She would point and I would aim the camera. When she was happy with what she was seeing on the large monitor on the camera back, Isla would snap the picture. She shook with excitement every time she saw the image she wanted appear on the back of the camera. 

We stayed outside until both of us were dripping with water like the foliage and flowers we had been shooting. Oh, how I wish someone had been there to take a picture of us. I think, for me, that picture would have been a treasure.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Can food be art?

Can food be art?
A piece in the New York Times, widely quoted on the Internet, states unequivocally that beautifully prepared and presented food is not art. I beg to differ.

Taking my inspiration from R.G. Collingwood, I have no problem calling some food creations art. For a short summary of Collingwood's work in aesthetics please read the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It will quickly become apparent I play fast and loose with Collingwood's ideas.

For me, I make a quick and easy divide, placing art on one side and craft on the other. Art requires creativity and the results are often unique. Craft, on the other hand, demands skill and the resulting product is cranked out repeatedly.

Most people can appreciate craft (skill) and they like their art (creativity) mixed with craft as well. This is why Jackson Pollock just doesn't cut it with many people. His work may be creative but "a child could do it." Pollock's splatter approach to art, to these viewers, doesn't appear to require a finely honed skill.

The creation of a new food dish is, in the beginning, an act of craft driven by art or creativity. But once an artistic result is achieved, then craft, the skill of being able to duplicate the artistic work, quickly becomes the force pushing the entire endeavor forward. Great chefs are both artists and craftspeople. They develop unique dishes and then prepare them on demand.

I had this at the Blackfriars Bistro.
Take the cold, potato salad I make. The olive oil used is the result of both an art decision and a craft decision. My goal is to delight the sense of taste and I want to do it repeatedly. My personal favourite oil for this salad is one from Provence in the south of France. It has a very light flavour that doesn't mask the flavour of the potatoes. This oil is dependable when it comes to its flavour and thus the resulting potato salad is at once satisfying and yet holds no surprises -- at least, not for those who have enjoyed it before.

I often serve meals that are high quality when it comes to craft but are partial failures on the artistic side. Why? These dinners taste great but fail to impress the eye. A great dish ripples across one senses like a hand playing chords on a piano. A perfect dish delights the eyes, teases the nose and surprises and satisfies the taste buds. Restaurant chefs have perfected the skill of the presentation.

And with this post, I am now ready for my meeting with a lady from the art gallery here in London, Ontario. Apparently the gallery is about to mount a show featuring food and I have been invited to give some input. I believe I can now argue food can be art but, as is true with a lot of art, many people insist on a good smattering of skillful craft with their art.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pluck must be partnered with a moral compass

According to Larry Cornies, Canadians have become "weak-kneed." We lack "political pluck." Cornies writes:

My, but what weak-kneed nation builders we’ve become.

Forget the formidable challenges that faced our forebears: stitching together a new federation from scattered and diverse colonies, or building a transcontinental railroad, or aspiring to be a nation that would one day stand upright, on its own, on the world stage.

Forget all that. These days, the prospect of merely reforming and renewing the upper chamber of our bicameral parliament is enough to make us cower like frightened turtles.

Cornies tells us, "the nation builders . . . seldom flinched when it came to difficult political negotiations or the job of building a better Canada . . . "

Wow! I thought flinching was in the job description when it came to politicians. Flinching and successful political negotiations go hand-in-hand, don't they? When I started looking into our forebears, I found more than I wanted. I discovered our forebears are no better than the folk in power today and possibly quite  a bit worse. I posted something on this -- No saints found despite newspaper's praise.

I was shocked to learn Sir John A. Macdonald was a shakedown artist. A plucky shakedown artist but still a shakedown artist. To be clear, this means a crook.This is not to say Macdonald didn't achieve a lot of good stuff. He did. Hey, he was one of the Fathers of Confederation. But he also did a lot of bad stuff. We should not forget this as Larry Cornies appears to have.

But, when I think of important Canadian forebears, I don't think just of only politicians but I think of all those in positions of power in times past. For instance, I think of the chap Sir John A. was shaking down, a fellow by the name of Sir Hugh Allan. Hugh Allan is most certainly a Canadian forebear and a very determined one. Allan had pluck (spirit and resolve). Unfortunately, he didn't have a working moral compass. Or, more accurately, he ignored it.

Richard J. Gwyn in his book, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times 1867-1891, tells the following story: During a dinner at her home, Lady Macdonald asked Sir Hugh Allan for a donation for her church. "You can't take it with you," she told Allan. From the other side of the table her husband, Sir John A. Macdonald, quietly added, "It would soon melt if he did."

Curious as to who this fellow Allan was and why he was important enough, and rich enough, to attract Macdonald's interest, to enjoy dinner at Macdonald's home, I began to read biographies on Allan. The words associated with Allan paint a sad picture: scandal, stock manipulation, haphazard bookkeeping, unwarranted dividends, debt, bribery . . . . At one point, Allan called the rumours surrounding him "absurb" and "senseless." Many, including Macdonald, I suspect, would not agree.

Another term appearing again and again is "political patronage." Sir Hugh Allan controlled Canada's second largest bank. Here are but three high-placed connections: Ex-finance minister John Rose became the bank’s London solicitor, future prime minister J. J. C. Abbott had a $1,000 annual retainer as the bank’s Montreal lawyer in 1866, Sir Charles Tupper and Sir John A. Macdonald were both special solicitors for the Winnipeg branch in 1883. Favoured politicians popped up time and time again on the bank's employment rolls.

And the bank had another way to keep politicians on a tight leash. For instance, Sir John A. Macdonald was probably the bank’s most prominent debtor. Shocking and disgusting but the ugliness spills over to the manner in which employees of Sir Hugh Allan were treated.

A Royal Commission revealed the oppressive exploitation of workers by Allan. For instance, many of the longshoremen employed by the Allan Line were compelled to work 30 to 35 hours at a stretch for the wretched wage of 20 cents an hour. Plus, the Allan Line, according to the Commission, retained "one per cent of the wages to provide workers' insurance from Citizens’ Insurance Company which had Sir Hugh Allan at the helm.

The commission found that the longshoremen of the Allan Line paid a premium . . . equivalent to an annual premium of $9.12 for a protection of ten hours a day during 365 days. Better coverage could be obtained elsewhere for $8.75, payable per quarter, and providing coverage for not only accidents happening during the ten hours of the work but all the accidents that could happen during the twenty-four hours of the day.

Sir Hugh Allan is a very sad fellow to have as forebear, but he is one. And worse, his is but one embarrassing forebear among many.

Some links to other Internet sites dealing with our forebears:
Chartered Libertine? A Case Against Sir John Macdonald and Some AnswersA History of Canadian Wealth/Chapter XII
Charles Tupper and his "reputation for parliamentary blather"

Monday, June 15, 2015

No saints found despite newspaper's praise

An opinion piece in The London Free Press this Saturday told me, "When we lack the political pluck needed to reform the Senate, we're not keeping faith with our forebears." And yes, the word in the paper is 'forebear' and the newspaper is correct. Google 'forebearer' to read why.

According to the paper we have become quite the "weak-kneed" group since the nation-builders of 1867 successfully tackled the difficult job of creating Canada. Apparently, these leaders from the past were chaps who "seldom flinched" when facing tough problems. Be it building a nation or building a railroad, these chaps were up to the task, or so claimed The Free Press.

I believe the editorial writer would call me a cynic because such glowing praise immediately made me question the truth in all of this. Were our early politicians actually more akin to saints than sinners? If so, what happened? The quick answer is "Nothing happened." Our early political leaders were quite human. Sainthood eluded them.

I quote from A History of the Vote in Canada from Elections Canada and a discussion of corruption in the early years of our nation:

The figures on members who lost their seats because of fraud or corrupt electoral practices indicate the extent of the problem. Between 1867 and 1873, when petitions protesting the outcome of an election were presented to a committee of the House of Commons, just one of 45 contested elections was invalidated. 

When the courts began to look impartially at claims . . . the number of voided elections soared. Between 1874 and 1878, 49 of the 65 contested elections submitted to the courts were voided, forcing nearly one third of the members of the House of Commons to resign. 

The rigorous approach of the courts appeared to lower the incidence of fraud, at least temporarily. Between 1878 and 1887, some 25 members were unseated following contested elections. Corruption flared up again, however, between 1887 and 1896, with some 60 members losing their seats after court challenges. 

By the end of the century, the number of members convicted of election fraud or corrupt practices began to decline again – not because of any improvement in election practices, but because of the political parties' increasing use of "saw-offs" – friendly agreements to withdraw equal numbers of contested election petitions before appealing to the courts. 

Yes sir, these fellows would surely have solved the problems facing the Senate in Canada today. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

As for the building the railroad, the stain of corruption is found here as well. The following is from Library and Archives Canada: The Pacific Scandal.

Sir John A. Macdonald
In April 1873, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald was charged with accepting illicit funds from Sir Hugh Allan. In return for these payments, Allan was assured that he would be awarded the lucrative contract to construct the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. When evidence of the agreement was made public by Opposition members of Parliament and published in newspapers across Canada, the episode became known as the "Pacific Scandal."

Allan's correspondence revealed that he and his American partners had attempted to influence a range of public figures, including journalists and politicians. During the election campaign of 1872, large sums were contributed to individuals such as George-√Čtienne Cartier and Hector-Louis Langevin. A telegram from Macdonald to Allan's legal adviser, John J. C. Abbott, provided the scandal's most sensational evidence, as it read: "I must have another ten thousand; will be the last time of calling; do not fail me; answer today."

Macdonald employed a number of delay tactics in an attempt to avoid the political consequences of the scandal. However, there was no avoiding the public backlash and unrelenting attacks of the Opposition. The political cartoonist J. W. Bengough became popular for his illustrated commentaries on the Pacific Scandal.

A Royal Commission was appointed in August 1873 to examine the matter, and in November Macdonald's government finally resigned. A general election followed, and Macdonald managed to keep his seat in Parliament. For many individuals involved in the scandal, the long-term consequences were negligible. Macdonald's party returned to power in 1878 and Macdonald served as prime minister until his death in 1891, when he was succeeded by none other than John Abbott.

Ah yes, those were the days. I believe some of our disgraced Senators today would feel quite comfortable sitting among the distinguished members from days long gone.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Stretching our imagination and the Thames

An old French map shows the river now known as the Thames flowing above the Grand River.
In an earlier post I mentioned that at one time I wrote a weekly column, Celebrate the Thames, for the local paper, The London Free Press. (If you are thinking my writing doesn't seem good enough for a daily paper, you're right. I thank the excellent editors at the paper for cleaning up my prose for publication. Oh, how I wish I had those people helping me now.)

While writing that column, I would hear from local history keeners who had their own take on a local stories and were eager to get these stories, their stories, given a public airing. One story I heard repeatedly was that the Thames River, contrary to local folklore, was part of the reason that London did not become the capital of Upper Canada. The little river was simply not up to the task.

According to this interpretation of history, it was the myth of the Thames River and not the river itself that encouraged thoughts of London as the capital of Upper Canada. When reality hit, the truth doomed the dream and the growth of London was stalled for decades. This, of course, is not the version of history bandied about by city and river boosters today.

According the folk who contacted me, years before all the talk about a city at The Forks there were people in Europe who believed the Thames River, known then as La Trenchée (among other names), was a mighty river offering hundreds of miles of navigable waterway as it carved a path through thick, wooded wilderness. Maps at the time showed the river headwaters in the Halton Hills northwest of present day Toronto.

A quick search of the Internet found a map of Upper Canada done for John Graves Simcoe. Note the length of the Thames River and the placement of the Forks of the Thames on this map. The forks are shown many miles west of the true position. The river flows north of the Grand River, extending all the way to a spot a little northwest of Toronto.

Clearly, the Thames as depicted almost reaches a river flowing south into Lake Ontario. This map hints at the possibility the military could use the Thames River to travel safely from Lake St. Clair all the way to Lake Ontario after the completion of just a little river work and the addition of a short canal. (Click on the map to see an enlarged version.)

The Forks of the Thames are circled and are wrong - much too far east.

It is interesting to note that one can easily find backing for these revisionist arguments. Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s conviction that the capital of Upper Canada should be build at the Forks of the Thames River did not come to him as a revelation inspired by a visit to the site. No, Simcoe selected the Forks of the Thames as the ideal site before he left England.

Early in 1791, Simcoe wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society:

I mean to establish a Capital in the very heart of the country upon the River La Tranche. 

A city built on such a river would not be as open to an attack by the Americans as a city built right on the edge of one of the Great Lakes. It would be a city protected by location but not isolated by it. To a military man, it was the perfect site except for one thing — it was perfectly untrue

Simcoe did not visit the Forks until 1793. The position of the Forks and the small size of the river itself may have come as a surprise to the Englishman. Simcoe, who fought openly with Lord Dorchester on many matters, did not completely dropped his plans for a capital at the Forks but he did acquiesce rather quickly to Lord Dorchester's resistance and soon Toronto was the chosen capital.

With Back to the River calling the Forks of the Thames "the heart of London: past, present and future" and pressing hard for a river revitalization project, it may be a good time to fight for the true Thames River and not the mythological one.

As should now be clear, when "Sir John Graves Simcoe stood at the forks of the Thames and imagined it to be the site of the provincial capital," as local journalist and historian Larry Cornies recently wrote, Simcoe was not having a sudden, and quite unexpected, revelation. Simcoe sought out the Forks for confirmation of his already formed thoughts on where to best place the capital of Upper Canada.

The Thames River may be small but the river of public opinion against Simcoe's decision was huge and growing. In the year before Simcoe's historic visit and pronouncement, Kingston merchant Richard Cartwright called the idea "perfectly Utopian " in a letter to a friend. Cartwright appeared to mock the Thames River as a navigable waterway saying an "ingenious invention" was needed and suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, hot-air balloons might fill the bill.

It is a little early to know what direction the London Back to the River movement is heading but the early signs are not all promising. The plans seem more Disneyland than necessary. The talk is all fountains, splash pads, man-made beaches beside huge swimming pools, sweeping sidewalks and a constant flow of major riverside events. Pittsburgh has been mentioned as a model to follow.

City insists the broken Springbank Dam will be repaired.
Simcoe was out of touch with the river. When he formed his opinions he was still in England on the other side of the Atlantic. Are the Londoners pushing Back to the River also out of touch? One can only wait and see but there are signs folks in power still do not appreciate the true Thames, the little Thames, the natural Thames.

Think of the Springbank Dam that failed some years ago after undergoing expensive repairs and modifications. CTV London reported the dam plays no role in flood protection. Its only value is to keep water levels unnaturally high during the summer.

John Fleming, city planner
The dammed river, more accurately called a reservoir, is a crucial part of the city's new Downtown Master Plan. John Fleming, city planner, is quoted as saying, "That higher water level really is important."

Is it really important? According to the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, removing the dam is what is important to the river, if by important we mean beneficial. Read: Springbank Dam’s Benefits Far Outweighed by Damage to River’s Ecosystem by Barry Wells.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Back to the River, the small, pretty, little river

Glen Pearson, former member of parliament for London North Centre and co-director of the London Food Bank, is also a board member with the London Community Foundation, the group behind the Back to the River initiative.

Monday night I briefly sat beside Mr. Pearson while attending a Back to the River consultation session in the Stevenson-Hunt room at the Central Library. At one point, Mr. Pearson informed us how 500 or more cities are actively engaged in river renewal projects. He was making the point that people everywhere are rediscovering the rivers flowing through their cities. In the past, he has called this "a global movement."

I thought this was interesting, especially the number — 500. But, I wondered, what were the goals of these other cities? And were these goals similar to the goals being expressed at this consultation meeting? Was the thinking in London in tune with the thinking in those other cities or are we out-of-step with the rest of the world? I wanted to ask Mr. Pearson these questions and more but the opportunity never arose.

Mr. Pearson did mention one specific city from his list of 500; he mentioned Pittsburgh. And he said that of all the cities on the long list, Londoners would be most familiar with Pittsburgh and what the former steel town had accomplished when it comes to rediscovering their river — actually, three rivers: Allegheny, Monogahela and Ohio.

I confess I knew a little about what the American city had accomplished but I was no expert. But now, I was curious. I began reading about Pittsburgh. It had been a great American city in the early years of the last century but, unlike many other cities from that period, it entered the next century admittedly a changed city but still a great one.

At this point I direct you to Downtown Pittsburgh, Renaissance and Renewal by Edward K. Muller. This is an interesting read that details the historic battle to save downtown Pittsburgh, to keep it relevant in a changing world. There were a surprising number of similarities between London and Pittsburgh. Cearly there are lessons to be learned but in some ways London has already closed doors that Pittsburgh opened and rushed through.

Benedum Center         Photo courtesy of Christian Carrasco.
For instance, in Pittsburgh the former Stanley Theatre was converted into the Benedum Center for Performing Arts. In London, the former Capitol Theatre auditorium was demolished for a parking lot. The city turned its back on not one but two fine, heritage movie houses. Today the city is still longing for a performing arts centre but does not seem to be even close to seeing this dream realized.

But let's cut to the chase: the river. Pittsburgh sits at the confluence of three mighty rivers, each of which dwarfs the Thames in London. The Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers together drain an area eight and a half times that of the Thames River watershed. The Ohio River watershed is more than 80 times that of the Thames. Comparing the confluence of rivers where Pittsburgh sits to the Forks of the Thames is quite the stretch.

The Thames is not a mighty river. It is a small river. As one person at the consultation session pointed out, in the summer, during hot dry spells, the Thames River almost runs dry in certain shallow areas. But the dearth of water at these times can be deceiving. I once lived quite close to The Forks of the Thames in a small, brick home built in the 1920s. Labatt Park was directly behind my home and then the river.

Ivey Family London Room, London (Ontario) Public Library
When I bought that home I looked at the river and thought "canoeing" but probably best after a heavy rain. I even bought a canoe. The following spring there were sandbags holding down the sewer maintenance covers in my neighbourhood. I linked a new word, at least new for me, to the river: "flood." And, also the words "fear" and "respect."

A neighbour brought me up to speed concerning the likelihood of being caught in a flood while living on the west side of the Thames near the forks. It could happen, I learned, as it had happened in the past, and quite a number of times, in fact.

I learned of the flood of '37. More than a thousand buildings flooded, including my home and my neighbour's. Along with many homes ruined, there were millions of dollars in property damage. There were five deaths in the watershed associated with the flood — an amazingly low death toll considering that a river surge in 1883 after a severe rain storm took the lives of 17 Londoners.

Glen Pearson writes, "The allure of rivers — aesthetics, economic development, environmental sustainability, and recreation — is easy for us to grasp . . . " All true. What is harder to grasp are the dangers urban rivers, even small ones, represent. Rivers are beautiful but also unpredictable. Developing the land beside a river is always a temptation and often a mistake.

After the flood of '37, it was suggested that all the homes affected, all built on the flood plain, should be purchased and razed. It was argued that this would cost less than building the multiple flood control dams demanded for flood protection. The idea failed to gain traction and the homes were not demolished.

Instead, some years later, Fanshawe Dam was built immediately north of the city, plus Wildwood near Stratford and Pittock at Woodstock. Another dam, the Glengowan Dam, was planned but never built. This is no big deal as far as London is concerned as it promised the city little in the way of additional flood protection.

Now, almost eight decades after the Great Flood, London city planners have rediscovered the river and are promoting the forks as a centrepiece of their newest designs for downtown. At one point, the city planners were showing a picture of South Bank beach in Brisbane, Australia. The planners were making noises about having a similar man-made beach created at The Forks of the Thames.

How has the man-made beach worked out for the Aussies? Well, in 2011 the Brisbane River overflowed its banks, lifted concrete slabs, washed away tons of beach sand and left the liner of the giant pool badly damaged, all in all doing some $7 million Australian in damage. The lesson here is if you are going to build on a flood plain, you better have deep pockets and a short memory.

Point State Park fountain being repaired. Photo courtesy of Zack Weinberg.

And, I might add, Pittsburgh appears to have deep pockets, too. The incredible Point Park State fountain and surrounding plaza were extensively repaired, upgraded and finally reopened in 2013. Why? Repeated flood damage for one thing. Total cost of the restoration and rejuvenation project: $35 million U.S. It was the largest park project in Pennsylvania history.

But there is more to know about Pennsylvania and rivers than just the Pittsburgh Riverlife project. Early this year (2015) it was announced that for the 12th year in a row, more dams were removed in Pennsylvania than in any other state. Now, there is a fact that has real relevance to London which is being pressured to decommission and remove the Springbank Dam which is presently out of commission.

Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, said in a press release about the dam removals,

The river restoration movement in our country is stronger than ever. Communities nationwide are removing dams because they recognize that a healthy, free-flowing river is a tremendous asset.

Over the past 20 years the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has assisted in the removal of some 350 dams throughout the state and Pennsylvania is not alone in deciding rivers are best when undammed. Talk about a "a global movement."