The Gypsy Curse and Other Tales of Deprivation

I hope I never have to endure life without the comfort of curry!

I just don’t know how it all started.

Perhaps it was that time when my parents took me and my four siblings away for a weekend in the country. It was a place called Kerr’s Farm in Morin Heights, Quebec. The place had guest rooms in the main building and a couple of cabins. Being a fairly large group, we stayed in one of the cabins. There were barnyard animals to pet, a small shack with a pool table, a couple of pinball machines, and a candy counter.

In the main building was the dining room where they would serve meals. In a spirit that seemed to mirror the norm for meals in the context of family life in the early ’60s, they had a “take it or leave it” menu plan — they served something and you had no choice… you ate it or starved. The only problem was that if my father was around, you were not given the choice of “leaving it”.

On one fateful day, dinner was liver. To me, a five-year-old whose life experiences thus far did not include the consumption of this “variety meat”, it smelled fine. I took a bite but there was something livery about it that just didn’t sit well. I ate everything else on my plate. Ready to take another stab at the awful offal, I took my second bite and ignoring my father’s rule of chewing everything twenty-five times, I swallowed it to try to get it far away from my taste buds as quickly as possible, but it was still inedible and wholly offensive.

I decided to take the bull by the horns and try to win an exception to the eat-every-bit-of-everything-on-your-plate rule. “Dad, I don’t think I can eat this. I really can’t.”

I knew what was to come next. “Eat it! There are little children in India who go to bed hungry every night that would love to have this, so eat it!”

I wondered, as I had many times in my young life, how my being forced to eat something I found repulsive would help the Indian children. I considered suggesting that we mail the liver to India but even pre-school children have a survival instinct. So I managed to swallow two more morsels.

Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say my body rejected dinner in a most violent and disgusting way. I thought I could hear a tiny voice coming from my digestive tract saying “No thanks, we already have a liver of our own.” With all the precision timing of a Marine Drill Team, the whole family silently and simultaneously stood up, stepped away from the table, pushed our chairs in, and filed out of the dining room.

I never had to eat liver again and, in fact, I am somewhat of a family hero for opening Dad’s eyes to the fact that sometimes when a child says “I don’t think I can eat this”, maybe you should let him or her off the hook.

I sincerely apologize to the other diners who may have been really looking forward to their slab of cow organ smothered in oily onions whose meal was ruined my gag reflex (or, more precisely, my gag reflux).

I have a funny feeling that one of those people whose meal was cut short might have been a gypsy or a witch who put two food-related hexes on me. The first one is that whatever line I am in at a restaurant counter or a grocery store check-out will grind to an abrupt halt. I have learned patience over the years and have resigned myself to being the last one out of any establishment in which I line up for food.

The second curse takes foods I like off the market just when they’ve established themselves as part of my dietary routine. Here’s a list of the now-extinct delicacies that once held sacred places in my pantry…

The Universal List

These foods seem to have been removed from the face of the Earth.

Noodles Romanoff – This was a packaged side dish that I used to love. When HoaiPhai Jr. went into his Kraft Dinner phase, I’d get him to compromise and accept these instead. I now kind of grown accustomed to KD, but often think of NR’s delicate flavour. 

Hawaiian Hamburger Helper – On Friday nights, Mom didn’t cook anything too ambitious. Somethings we’d order out for some hot chicken sandwiches, pizza, or she’d make something really simple, like Hamburger Helper. I wasn’t too excited about this do-it-yourself fast food until Hawaiian-style came around. Mmm, the delicate pineapple flavour combined with meat!

Carnation Instant Breakfast – This stuff was great! As a young teen there were many times that I needed a little something to hold me over until the next major meal and this stuff really did the trick. You’d mix it with milk and the label said it contained all kinds of vitamins and stuff that teens usually try to avoid, but I didn’t care. It tasted great, sort of like a wimpy milk shake, and really stuck to the ribs.

Lipton Chicken Supreme Soup – This was just ike the Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup that you can still but, except that it had chunks of dehydrated chicken in it. Oh, how I wish I could find packages of dehydrated chicken so I can add it to the meatless Lipton soup that is still around. At our house, we use the current Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup as a starting point, much like we do packaged ramen, adding more noodles, chicken, eggs, and a veg or two.

Spicy Indian-flavoured Salad Dressing – It was made either by Kraft or President’s Choice. This was my most recent disappointment. I went over to my brother’s for dinner and he had a salad with a wonderful bottled salad dressing that was creamy, had a hint of cumin flavour, and a bit of a spicy bite. Sold! I went to the store the next day and there was none on the shelf, never to return.

Red-coloured President’s Choice Salad Dressing – This sort-of-like-Catalina dressing was wonderful stuff, like a tomato-based candy sauce for raw leafy vegetables. Mrs. HoaiPhai is always trying to get me to eat foods other than meat, starch, and coffee and if she would have put this dressing on a cat poo, or even liver, I probably would have eaten it. So long, old friend!

KFC Biscuits – I don’t know what happened to these. They were around up until around 1978 (in Montreal) then were replaced by Grecian bread. Those soggy slices of bread didn’t hold a candle to the biscuits and I don’t know why the word “Grecian” was associated with this product — I’m of Greek lineage and my Aunt Sophie never had anything like this on her table.

Humpty Dumpty BBQ Chips – What the hell happened to these guys? A couple of years ago, poof! They were gone! The signs at the store said that the Yum Yum chip company was using the spice recipe on their chips but the Yum Yums are getting increasingly hard to find. Other flavours of Humpty Dumpty Chips are still around. Did Humpty Dumpty lose the recipe in a poker game or something?

Locally Unavailable List

These are foods that you just can’t seem to get in Niagara but were freely available when I was living in Montreal. I’ve really got to rent a refrigerated truck and make a food run back home!

Coffee – This seems like a simple thing to get right but it’s so hard to find decent coffee here in Niagara. I’ve tried the “specialty” shops but I cannot get a dark bean with a truly oily exterior. I was spoiled growing up in Montreal where they have brûleries… places that sell coffee that is roasted on site. The best coffee I’ve found here, and is now my default brand for filter drip purposes, is the President’s Choice stuff that comes in metal-looking bags in a choice of varieties (the Colombian is the least special of these, in my opinion).

Smoked Meat – I’m talking about the real stuff here, not the blasphemous “Montreal-style” smoked meat. For those who don’t know, smoked meat is beef brisket that is pickled and then hung and smoked over a period of twenty-eight days. It’s sort of like pastrami, only much, much better. It’s also Kosher. Oh, to be able to walk into an eatery that knows what “medium old fashioned” means and serves this on rye with mustard on it even if you don’t ask! My son brought me a half brisket care package on Labour Day… it’s gone now. Thank you, HoiaPhai Jr.!

Corned Beef Hash – Keeping on the subject of salted cured meats just a little longer, when I was living in Montreal there were cans of corned beef with teensy-weensy diced potato in it that was great for a don’t-want-to-get-off-my-ass meal. When I moved to Niagara, I found cans of hash under another brand but it just wasn’t the same. Damn!

Bagel – The bagels here in Niagara are just plain silly… just donut-shaped buns. Unless you’ve experienced a real Montreal bagel from the St. Viateur or Fairmount bakeries just wouldn’t understand.

Harvey’s Restaurants – These were all over the place in Montreal but they seem to be disappearing here in Niagara. For the uninitiated, this is a Canadian chain of hamburger joints, but they had only hamburgers, hotdogs, french fries, and onion rings. The burgers were BBQed on an open-flame grill (natural gas) and were custom cooked from raw for each customer. It was one of two 24-hour restaurants a walking distance away from where I grew up and I associate a lot of great times with those burgers. Please don’t leave us!

The Bay’s “Baron deBoeuf” Sandwiches – When I was a kid, my mom would take me downtown Christmas shopping with her and we’d always stop off at The Bay’s restaurant. I thought the cafeteria format was amazing and I always ordered the Baron deBoeuf sandwich, which was just roast beef on a bun with au jus dipping sauce. I haven’t gone into the restaurant here in Niagara’s Bay store, I just couldn’t take the disappointment and heartbreak if The Baron wasn’t there.

Piazza Tomasso Spaghetti Sauce – Piazza Tomasso was, and possibly still is, a restaurant in Montreal. I have a lot of memories of the place, like when my friend The Pres blew chili flakes into my eyes during my birthday party when I turned 6 or 7. The meat sauce there was simple but delicious, with or without chili flakes! They ended up selling their sauce frozen in stores and it was great for a quick meal. When I moved to Niagara, the only Piazza Tomasso product that was available was their lasagna — good, but I still pine for just the sauce to pour over penne.

Bánh Mì – I’m sure this is around somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet. These are Vietnamese sandwiches with cold cuts, carrots, radish, coriander leaves, and chilis if you want them.

Mr. Steer – Another Montreal restaurant, they had incredible open-faced burgers that were so good, the language police didn’t force them to change their name to French-only in the ’80s! Another place I have to drop by next time I’m in Montreal. It’s right downtown if you’re ever there… I hope they still have the curly-Q french fries for you to enjoy!

Chalet BBQ – This was the place that brought BBQ chicken to North America (supposedly). An all-wood dining room just like a real chalet and the best sauce that blows Bar-B Barn away, in my humble opinion. For take out, the last time I was there they still didn’t knuckle under to having styrofoam or pre-made take-out boxes…the chicken is hand wrapped in cellophane and plunked into a bag. They had one location on Decarie near Vezina and another on Sherbrooke at the corner fo Decarie. Insider’s Tip: If you want to take out just before closing, they’ll sometimes throw in an extra quarter chicken or two for free just so they don’t have to throw it out!

Boreale Rousse Beer – For me this is the official beer of good times and bad in Montreal. It’s smoky flavour is wonderful and is in a class of its own. Boreale also makes beers other than the rousse (meaning “red”) that are also singular beer experiences. They only sell this near Montreal.

Could the Spell Be Broken?

Montreal is the place to go for cakes and pastries if you’re into that sort of thing. The standard icing is butter cream, which you have to special order here in Niagara. Every neighbourhood has a great pastry shop or bakery.

For as long as I can remember, I asked for a chocolate mocha cake for my birthday cake. My siblings thought I was such a doofus, cheating them out of the white icing with colourful trim standard birthday cake on my birthday.

These chocolate mocha guys were nothing special, just mass-produced round cakes that every large grocery chain carried and they all tasted exactly the same, no matter where you bought them! So reliable!

In Niagara, they didn’t exist until a month ago (or at least my wife and I never found one over the past nine years). There in a discount grocery store were a dozen of the cakes, so she brought one home. It tasted just like the traditional Montreal recipe although the cake was lopsided and they were a bit chintzy with the icing, but who cares? I can now have my chocolate mocha without driving eight hours to get it!

The elusive chocolate mocha cake.

Please tell me your stories of now-defunct delicacies!

About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

13 responses to “The Gypsy Curse and Other Tales of Deprivation

  • ::Ruby::

    It’s 11:40pm here and your post really makes me extremely hungry! =D

    Oh so Banh My is available in Montreal? I did not know it was that popular! I wonder how many kinds of Banh My are sold in Montreal since we have Banh My with pork, cheese, hot-dogs, cold cuts and so many other things! And I can not imagine how my life will be without Banh My!

    Umm… I am not a fan of curries but one of my friends told me that Indian curries are really awesome. So maybe I will give it a go some day in the near future! And the chocolate mocha cake looks delicious! I’ve been a chocolate addict for years!

    • HoaiPhai

      There is a lot of VNese stuff available in Montreal. One VNese friend of mine once joked that there were more dentists with the name Nguyen in Montreal than in TPHCM! I also have a funny story about a friend of mine who met a lady who supplied cha lua and other sausages to restaurants and she wanted to matchmake him with one of her nieces in TPHCM. Montreal also has many different genres of VN restaurant from pho places to multi-course dining. There are also bookstores, music shops, and every once in a while you might see women wearing ao dai and non la.

      Here in Niagara, I know of only three VNese restaurants, luckily the pho place is the closest to my home. Now if only I could find a place to buy Ngoc Lan, Kieu Nga, etc. CDs! There’s not much of a VNese community here but just last week I saw a family fishing and most of them were wearing non la (but I don’t know what nationality they were).
      I love curries of all types but I can only make Indian curries fairly well. My wife is Korean and I met her when she had been in Canada only a couple of years and she didn’t have much contact with people outside her family here. The first time I made her dinner, I made her a curry that was a bit spicy. She ate it but she said that in Korea, she heard that Canadian food is quite bland and that she was surprised at the “heat” of this dish. I told her about the food’s “nationality”, of course, and she laughed. We have curries at least twice a month.

  • Mike Lilly

    Great story about the liver, loved it! I remember getting the same lecture about kids in India, but luckily liver was never on my family’s menu.

    And about the KFC biscuits, here in the mid-South biscuits are in the same basic category as guns, as in “you’ll have to pry my biscuit from my cold dead fingers”. So as you might guess, KFC can always be counted on to serve up a biscuit or two to sop up the chicken grease.

    Love your posts, they never fail to entertain and elicit a couple belly laughs.

    • HoaiPhai

      Thanks for the compliments… I’ll try to live up to your expectations in future posts!

      My dad was into all kinds of strange foods. His parents came to Canada from Greece and he travelled a lot on business so whenever he returned home, he’d try to find the exotic foods he sampled overseas (like bird’s nest and shark fin soups) and also cook his old favourites, like calves’ brains which, thankfully, he never tried to impose on us kids… post Kerr’s Farm Era perhaps? He’d also send us kids out to the backyard (in a mid to upper middle class suburb of what was then Canada’s largest and most prosperous city) to harvest dandelion greens and vine leaves to make delicious Greek foods. One time a neighbour asked what we were doing and I said “Dad’s making lunch.” I guess the neighbour thought we had fallen on hard times and had to resort to grazing, and brought over a bunch of sandwiches! That’s a true story. It’s tough to be marginally ethnic!

      According to Wikipedia, Canada has about one third the gun ownership per capita compared to the US, which kind of surprises me — I thought that Americans owned way more guns than that. I guess most of the Canadian guns are strictly hunting rifles. The only exposure I’ve had to firearms was when I was a boy scout in the early 70s the scoutmaster took us to his chalet for winter camping (he slept indoors, we had to dig though six feet of snow to pitch a tent). In the morning, he broke out the .22s and we blasted a stump and a bunch of coke bottles to kingdom come. Also one time a friend, A.M., found a loaded .303 or .3030 (if that makes any sense) behind the wall of the house his parents just bought so my friend Fat Tommy encouraged him to try it out in the basement. So we set up two phone books and A.M. fired. The bullet went right through both books and around the basement two or three times. Nobody was hurt but a furnace duct did get wounded. Apart from that, the only times I’ve seen guns was when the police drew them on me. Frankly, I’d feel safer owning a gun for self defense but that comfort would be offset by my knowledge that my cretin neighbours were also armed, especially if A.M. or Fat Tommy are living within bullet range!

      The fast food outlets vary what they make available according to the region, unfortunately. The Grecian bread is crap, in my humble opinion. If you come to Canada, be prepared for a shock… fast food corporations seem to feel that Canadians love salty food so they really load everything up with the stuff. The plus side is that we get a lot of snow and ice here (our major exports to the U.S. are cold snaps and arctic air masses) and if your car gets stuck, you can always throw fast food French fries under your wheels for a little traction!

  • elmediat

    Wonderful post. “Brings up” lots of memories. The older we get the more memories and specific foods go together. How we hunger for the past.

    • HoaiPhai

      Thanks! You have wonderful punmanship!

      I hate to speak for everyone who is getting older because I have never been considered typical and that I look at my peers and find that they’ve packed a whole lot more growing up into the same number of years. I will say this, though…. my food memories probably cannot be trusted too well based on how terrible my general memory has become. I keep confusing the names of grocery stores, like Food Basics and some other bare-bones place they have down here. For the life of me, I can never remember the name of Sobeys in normal converstation. I have to resort to identifying stores by their locations such as, “You know, the one near the library” or “The one at the bottom of the hill where the newly-paved road ends”, etc. You may have noticed in the post I wasn’t able to actually name the two salad dressings. These were the most recently introduced products on the list but, for the life of me, I cannot remember what they were called — their names never took root in my brain. There are a couple of other things that I intended to write about, like pork rib loins costing more here in Niagara than rib roasts on special (but I forgot). In Montreal we could pick them up for less than $2 a pound, and I’d use them to make a wonderful pork and turnip soup. Down here they’re a luxury item!

      The other problem is that the older you get, the more foods have come and gone as a natural process of market variation. And with age we (or is it only me?) tend to look at everything in the past in a nostalgic light. I even find disco in small doses mildly comforting. How sick is that?

  • jennygoth

    i hate liver and kidneys but liver i have to go out of the house if its cooked by anyone id never have it in my house as a kid id retch if i smelled it cooking the only meat i like is turkey and chicken we had a teacher at school used to make me eat cabbage until i threw up she never made me again lol it was over her feet lol xxjen

    • HoaiPhai

      I still cannot eat liver, except a bit of pate and have learned to hate the smell of cooking liver. I think that feeding the stuff to kids who have tasted it and don’t like it should constitute child abuse in the 2nd degree!

  • The Hook

    I love Harvey’s! Great post!
    Who knew curses could be so much fun?

    • HoaiPhai

      In the town I grew up in there was only one place that was open 24 hours and they wouldn’t let you loiter too long after you finished whatever you bought. Harvey’s was just another 10-minute walk farther and into Montreal proper. It was perfect for teens on a budget to just hang around in. The burgers were nice and juicy. *slabber, slobber* I’m signing off now to check the Yellow Pages for a Harvey’s nearby!

  • The Hobbler

    Here in America they still sell “carnation instant breakfast” in chocolate and vanilla. Like someone else mentioned, we still have kfc chicken biscuits too. I haven’t tried liver, but when I was a kid we lived on a farm in the country. One day my sisters and I came in from playing to an awful smell and my mom standing over a frying pan. Apparently our land-lord had brought over the parts of a butchered cow that he didn’t want to feed his dogs. In the pan was a cow’s tongue. Thankfully my oldest sister managed to talk my “waste not, want not” mom into throwing it out.

    • HoaiPhai

      Oh, man! Next thing someone is going to tell me that Noodles Romanoff are still on Piggly Wiggly shelves! I just might have to plan a trip across the river to Buffalo to check out a grocery store but am a little worried that my wife might get jealous if I’m searched. I hear American border guards routinely engage in touching tourists at a level of intimacy I didn’t experience with another human being until I was of the legal drinking age!

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