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?