Thoughts Arising from the Passing of Stuart McLean

At some point yesterday I idly tweet-quoted a CBC tweet-link about the death of humorist Stuart McLean, adding a little thought:

 

I choose to remember the times I sat in the car long after parking listening to Mr. McLean’s terribly clever & essentially human absurdities.

 

I confess, I was not a devoted listener of Mr. McLean’s, but when I did catch his stories – usually on the car radio – I always experienced as joyful and love-of-humanity-filled laughter as I’ve ever experienced.  I will never forget the story of the two boys witnessing what they thought to be the explosion of a human head due to a held-in sneeze.  That was just one of the many times I sat in my parked car, tears of laughter freely flowing down my cheeks.

I didn’t think again of my idle tweet until late last night when I was surprised by a direct message on Twitter from, of all people, Shelagh Rogers!  She was asking me permission to quote my tweet in a piece she was writing.  Who asks permission to quote a tweet these days?!

I replied “Heavens to Murgatroyd! Of course you may!”

I don’t use the expression “Heavens to Murgatroyd” very often, but when I do it always calls up warm but dim-with-the-passage-of-years memories of my father inventing bed-time stories for toddler me about Murgaroyd the rabbit and his adventures avoiding Farmer MacGregor.  I’m sure my father cursed the night he first started taxing his creativity with that project!

I’m not sure where I picked up “Heavens to Murgatroyd”. Isn’t it funny what becomes a habit of mind? Isn’t it interesting how our memories are stories. and wonderful how those memories are polished by life and time into memories of feelings?

I’m ever grateful for those happy memories of a bunny living in a bramble bush and a working man rising to poetry for a moment each night.

A great many Canadians will, I’m sure, be ever grateful for laugh-filled memories of Dave and Morley and the rest, and for memories — for the feelings — of Stuart McLean lovingly making poetry of the absurd, the mundane, and the ordinarily and essentially Human in us all.

Thank you, Mr. McLean.

I Took My Father for a Drive Today

My father was born and raised in Montreal in the first half of the last century. He served in the RCAF (briefly) and the Royal Canadian Navy (less briefly) during World War II. In the ’60s he traveled in Europe as a merchandise buyer for a major Canadian jewelry chain. My father has been around the block.  For some reason, although he had never visited this city on the North Saskatchewan River, my father always wanted to live in Edmonton. He had a feeling it was the place to be.

In the early 1970s he was offered the position of Edmonton Area Manager of the jewelry chain and, of course, jumped at it. We were living in Windsor, Ontario at the time. My father flew out to Edmonton first to find a place to live and settle into his work. I can still remember him describing Edmonton to me: the River Valley was everything in that description! As you approached the city, everything was flat and then suddenly, this vast expanse of green opened up beneath you! My father took a furnished apartment downtown and walked everywhere.

A few months later when the school year had ended, he flew back to Windsor and packed us all into our old Ford Custom and drove us to our new home. It was the best move ever! Our family is now into its fourth generation in Edmonton (our eighth generation in Canada, if my arithmetic is correct). Edmonton has been very good to us.

My father lives in Sherwood Park now, a bedroom community on the east side of the city. He’s ninety-one and hasn’t been downtown for a few years.

Today I took my father for a drive.

He could not believe his eyes! The New Arena! The Epcor Tower! The new City office tower, the Stantec tower going up, MacEwan University, Norquest College, the U of A’s Enterprise Square campus, all the apartment towers! The warehouses converted to lofts! The Neon Sign Museum! To close off the little ten minute tour, I turned south onto 104th Street, heading for Jasper Avenue.

“Look up to your right,” I said. My father craned his neck to try to see the top of the newish apartment towers on the west side of the street.

“And look. There’s the Armstrong Block. And the Birks Building.”

Edmonton had come full circle for him.

We turned east on Jasper and struggled through rush hour to take a look at the new Hyatt hotel and to go down Grierson hill for a glimpse of the new funicular. “Is that a new bridge?” he asked, pointing at the giant white arches connecting Walterdale to Rossdale.

I told him that indeed it is the new Walterdale Bridge.

When he packed up his family to pursue his odd conviction that Edmonton was the place to catch a ride to Tomorrow, my father was much younger than I am today. This afternoon I felt like my little car was a time machine, and I’d gone back and fetched that younger version of my father from a 1970s River Valley stroll and brought him right into the future he had been dreaming of all those years ago.

Well done, Edmonton: you really impressed an old dreamer today!

And that old dreamer was right all along: Edmonton really is the place to be.

On Gluten-Free Bread

Hoy, ayer y mañana se comen caminando,
consumimos un día como una vaca ardiente,
nuestro ganado espera con sus días contados,

pero en tu corazón el tiempo echó su harina,
mi amor construyó un horno con barro de Temuco:
tú eres el pan de cada día para mi alma.
— Neruda, Love Sonnet LXXVII

I never thought I’d be bothered with the gluten-free thing, but, when someone close has a number of food-sensitivities and the request is made to try one’s hand at a gluten-free baguette for a small family dinner, suddenly one is excited by the new challenge.  So, with about two days’ notice, I had to draw on all my experience and knowledge of bread baking and at the same time temporarily forget a lot of what I knew and ignore my expectations and instincts.

The big challenge of gluten-free yeast bread baking is the fact that gluten is the almost-magical ingredient that makes real bread possible. Nothing in the world has quite the properties of that mix of proteins called “wheat gluten”.  Wheat gluten has unparalleled ability to form airtight, extremely elastic little bubbles. Even rye gluten is not a match for the gluten of wheat.  If you try making a loaf of 100% rye bread, look closely at the dough as it rises, particularly if brushed with oil.  You will see — perhaps even hear — bubbles escaping to the surface of the dough.  This is why 100% rye bread is inevitably more dense than a good wheat bread.

What can possibly be added to non-gluten bearing flours that will help form and hold bubbles with something approaching the satisfactory?  Eggs, particularly egg whites, are often recommended. But, did I mention food sensitivities? Living with a mild nut allergy, I’ll not dismiss the concerns of the truly food sensitive. (The fashion/fad food sensitive I will happily dismiss.)

So. No gluten. No eggs. What’s left?

Well there’s this interesting product that is derived from what amounts to bacterial snot. Xanthan gum is a polysacchride, basically a charbohydrate polymer that is secreted by the bacterium Zanthomonas campestris. The gum was discovered by Allene Jeanes and her team in the mid-20th century and approved for use in foods in the U.S. in 1968. It’s a relatively new and very versatile food additive manufactured in a simple process not unlike brewing beer or, indeed, bread making.  A vat of feedstock is inoculated with the bacteria, the concoction is allowed to ferment for a few days, and then a load of isopropyl alcohol is dumped into the vat (that’s the part that makes me smile at the “natural” label on my package of xanthan gum).  The alcohol makes the fresh snot solidify and sink to the bottom of the vat. The gum in rinsed, dried, and ground up for sale in expensive little packets at your local Green, Organic, Whole, Vegan, Gluten-Free Health food store.

Without the xanthan gum, my project could never have risen much above terribly disappointing hardtack. And if I didn’t talk much about the isopropyl alcohol bit, I might be able to get away with it.

I skimmed a few recipes online and read the back of my sack of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour — mostly chickpea flour so watch our for gas if you eat a lot of this bread. Then I laid out my basic recipe, based mainly on my own real baguette recipe.  I used a cup of Bob’s flour, quick rise yeast, salt, two teaspoons of xanthan gum, half a cup of water and a splash of lime juice because it was handier than lemon.  I was aiming for something like the texture of real bread dough, but the result was a little crumbly and not at all elastic.  After a bit of time to rest and maybe rise, I threw it into a 450 degree oven for twenty minutes and pulled out — a bread stick! It was dense but tender and chewy with good flavour, but not a baguette by any measure.

For the second attempt, I used the same proportions except for the water. I used a full cup of water and made what I would call a batter rather than a dough.  I oiled the top of the loaf and left it to rise. I could see bubbles popping through the oil.  When it was close to double in size, I gave it 20 minutes at 450 degrees and this time I had something approaching an actual baguette! And it tasted good!  It wasn’t really what I would call bread, but it was a quite satisfying product in itself.


Now I had to produce the presentation loaf, the one that would be the accompaniment to a family chili dinner. A little bit of tinkering with ingredients and process and the following recipe is what I have to call an almost complete gluten-free success (it wasn’t so good for garlic bread, I’m told):

My Gluten-Free Baguette

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose flour
2 generous teaspoons xanthan gum
1 tablespoon fast-rising yeast
1 scant tablespoon baking powder
salt
1 cup water
a splash of vinegar
olive oil for coating the top of the loaf

Mix dry ingredients very well.
Mix water and vinegar.
Mix wet ingredients well into dry ingredients. The dough will be very wet, more like a batter, about the texture of a pound cake batter.

Spoon the batter into a parchment-lined baguette pan. Shape into a smooth loaf with the back of a wet spoon. Spread olive oil over top of loaf.

Let rise for half- to one hour until sort of doubled.

Bake 20 minutes in a pre-heated 450 degree oven. Spritz water onto the loaf in the oven every few minutes.


If you love bread but have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, there is definitely hope, as long as you don’t have a problem with bacteria being doused in isopropyl alcohol so that bacterial snot solidifies and is collected for your bread. You’re already cooking the life out of yeast cells. Can it be so bad that millions of bacteria died for your baguette?

Cardiac Theatre’s Production of “Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes”

Westwärts
schweift der Blick;
ostwärts
streicht das Schiff.
Frisch weht der Wind
der Heimat zu . . .

— Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

What a wonderful opportunity it is to see Jordan Tannahill’s Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes on stage five short blocks from home! Cardiac Theatre’s production did not disappoint, even on the first-night-preview-shakedown-cruise of a terribly powerful and difficultly precisely timed script.

I’ve written before of Peter Fechter when discussing Tannahill’s Governor General’s Award-winning three solo play collection Age of Minority. I was excited to see that Cardiac Theatre offered for sale copies of Age of Minority after the show. For literally decades I’ve wished that Edmonton theatres would make available copies of the plays they stage to their patrons. I overheard one theatre-goer this evening quite anxiously asking to buy a copy of Age of Minority. It might be a thought for theatre companies to include the cost of a dozen copies of their plays when they put together their grant applications.

But, enough about my hopes and dreams . . .

I immediately noticed that Director Harley Morison had opted for something akin to the original workshopped staging of the play, as playwright Tannahill describes:

The performer traversed the physical space of his memory onstage and would then be thrown back into the excruciating present of the Death Strip. The audience was in alley configuration (i.e., on either side of the performer), mirroring the ‘east/west/ spectatorship along the wall.

Age of Minority, p. 64

Barbed wire hangs above the stage, shoes, books, a telephone, and a perhaps anachronistic pyrex coffee pot snagged in the barbs. Apart from that hanging symbol of division, the set is bare. A chair. Four spot lights on the floor, angled upward.

I’m not certain that this staging is better than the one Tannahill chose for his self-performed premier of the play in Berlin. I was not there. I can only imagine. But imagining Tannahill standing still and alone, a spotlight on his face, as he performs his play, immobile like the wounded and paralyzed Peter Fechter, I can’t help but feel I someday want to see that staging of Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.

Don’t get me wrong: Bradley Doré, even in this preview, gave a wonderful performance. I felt it was a little shaky at the beginning, but he hit his stride almost immediately. And, who am I — I who forgot a line in Sunday Costs Five Pesos and had to be bailed out by my Bertha at the age of eleven — who am I to criticize a young professional who stumbled once or twice in a preview but still managed to nail the fifty-nine minute deadline?

Have I mentioned the timing? It was impeccable.

But wait! “What is this play?” I hear you asking.

Well, this play, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, is a one-minute-less-than-one-hour one-act one -man show based on the short life and excruciatingly long death of Peter Fechter, an eighteen year old German fellow who, with his friend tried to escape East Berlin in 1962. Tannahill exercises a great amount of poetic license with the historical events, but he has made the narrative-construction, the meaning-finding of the dying Fechter powerfully believable. And Doré rises to the challenge of bringing Tannahill’s words to life.

A personal note: I can’t help but think that my response to a play about an eighteen year old who died in 1962 when I was not yet one year old will be different from both the twenty-something playwright and the twenty-something actor. They don’t remember the Berlin Wall! They don’t remember the Cold War! They don’t hear Bowie’s ‘heroes’ the way I do. They don’t hear Bowie’s “Where Are We now?” from his penultimate album the way I do. But then, when I was twenty-something, I didn’t hear ‘heroes’ the way I do now. And when I was twenty-something, I wrote a little play that I’m only coming to understand today, in my dotage. Jordan Tannahill is writing powerful stuff that will last. And Bradley Doré has brought it to life.

My friend decided to sit this play out, feeling that the subject matter was a little too intense. Yes, it is intense, and painful. But I couldn’t help but think as I tried to explain to her afterward that, in fact, there is something uplifting in the narrative Fechter constructs, in the life he creates, in those fifty-nine minutes at the wall, and in the Pieta-like image of him being lifted by the East German Border guard as the clock, Peter’s clock, ticks down to zero.

Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes runs until January 22, 2017 at the PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Arts Barns in Old Strathcona. Tickets may be had at the Fringe Theatre Adventures Box Office.

And please read Jenna Marynowski’s behind the scenes interview piece,  “Searching for the reason behind the risk in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes” and her review, Theatrical experiments abound in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.   Jenna’s blog, After the House Lights, is one of the best things for Edmonton’s theatre world!

On Bread

Like bread-making, any mugwump can do it.

— Elizabeth David, “Pleasing Cheeses,” Nova, October 1965.

Real conversation:

“You make bread?”

“Yeah”

“You got a bread machine?”

“No.”

“Then how do you make bread?”

“?”

I’ve baked bread as long as I can remember, first with my mother’s guidence and for at least four decades now on my own. Through high school I kept a sourdough starter alive, baking five small.loaves every Sunday as the centrepieces of the next week’s school lunches. Some might argue that I find baking bread to be one of the simplest of kitchen things because of this stupid long experience making the stuff. I would argue, however, that I feel this way because it truly is absolutely dead simple to bake a more than decent loaf of bread with little experience and less effort.

The other day I made a couple of loaves. No kneading. About three minutes of hands on effort. Lots of free time to do other tasks in and out of the house while ostensibly making bread.
Here it is:

Stir together

2 cups of bread flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
a bit of salt
a spoonful of “instant”yeast

Stir in 13 ounces of water

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and go away for the day or go have a good night’s sleep.

Whenever you get around to it, give it another quick stir.

After an hour or two, divide the lump roughly in half and quickly shape the two bits into elongated lumps on well-floured boards. Cover with plastic wrap. Go away for an hour or two.

Put a couple of heavy cast-iron lidded casseroles or pots or something into the oven and crank it to 450°F. There’s only one in the picture because my sister-in-law had my other one.

A while after the oven and the pots get hot, take the plastic wrap off the loaves, pull the pots out of the oven, take the lids off, sprinkle flour into them, flop the loaves into the pots, put on the lids and shove the lot back into the oven.

After thirty minutes or so, take the lids off and let the bread brown for five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, take the pots out of the oven, lift each loaf out of its pot, scrape the flour off their undersides, and put them on a rack to cool, if you can wait to taste your newly baked bread!

That’s it. Bread the easy, old-fashioned, no machine way. I’ve even baked this bread in a fire pit in my back yard (the cooking time was under ten minutes).
To be honest, I don’t know why there’s any sort of market for bread machines.

A Fragment

A fragment discovered during excavations at San Giovanni di Ruoti in 1983.  It seems to be part of a much longer epic, but at this point it is impossible to discern the intended development of the narrative.

. . . the shout was heard from R’oti unto Bella
as then came down the wrath of bold Wendela
for Jackie had climbed up the pot-strewn hill
and talked to Jenny, ‘gainst her leader’s will.
The shout died out and all around no sound
nor sight of one who cared could there be found.
Now with the speed of treacle in the snow
fair Jackie hastened back into her row
and as she wandered pass’d, wise David said
that Romans on the mould of cows were fed.
Up from the trench stood Jeremy the good
expounding that he’d not heard of such food:
“In all the years that I have Latin took
I’ve never found such words in any book.
I don’t know where you find your silly lies.”
He turns and up the eastern hill he hies.
And Mary Ellen strode through all the ranks —
or rather limped — she had herself to thank:
the other night, in battle with a beer
she’d broke a foot, and swore no doctor’d see her.
So on she limps, her metatarsals blue,
and she’ll dig on ’til rock — or bone — shows through.
And all of this came to the Doctor’s sight
as he watched from the Tip-Pile’s foggy height.
He shook his head and twirled his trow’l around,
said, “Well, we’ll see” and turned and stumbled down.

 

(Dedicated to the memory of Bob Buck, who taught me Latin, and to Alastair Small, who arranged that trip to Cumae, and who together somehow wrangled us all that summer.)