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.)

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” (and other stuff) at the Walterdale Playhouse

Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its Ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice.

-Lady Windermere in Act 1 of Lady Windermere’s Fan

I’ve just had a truly remarkable day of theatre experience, all of it in the old brick firehall now known as the Walterdale Playhouse. I’ve long had a warm place in my heart for the Walterdale and its people. For Walterdale people, the Ideal of Theatre is Love, and they purify their Theatre with sacrifice.

My day began with an intense Cradle to Stage workshopping session with Brian Dooley (Director of New Play Development at the Citadel Theatre), Vlady Penchoff (Cradle to Stage Festival Coordinator), Payam Saeedi (Associate Dramaturge), Eric Smith (Director), and nine members of the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company. These thirteen people spent the daylight hours of an Edmonton December Saturday voluntarily taking a dry script written by yours truly from words-on-a-page to passionate performance — twice. No one was being paid. There wasn’t even free coffee. And no one except the fourteen of us witnessed the event. Everyone was there from a pure love of Theatre.

Those young actors sacrificed more than just their Saturdays. They weren’t there to just walk through the piece. They passionately engaged with the text. They dug down into their young selves and somehow pulled out flashes of powerful — unbearably powerful — feelings of humans twice their age. They patiently worked through my ridiculously long and convoluted sentences and found the coherence. They even happily recited some Old English verse after a tiny bit of coaching.

It was a wonder and an honour to behold!

Edmonton is a wonderful theatre city. I’ve said it before: over the course of each year there are literally thousands of individul theatrical performances within a half hour walk of my front door — most of them within a lazy ten minute stroll.  But the Walterdale is its own kind of special. The Walterdale functions completely on the Love of Theatre, on the belief that Theatre is human nature, and on a mad certainty that if people act as if they are the glowing heart of Theatre, they will damn well be the glowing heart of Theatre. The people who muck about in Old Strathcona’s Number One Firehall (AKA The Walterdale Playhouse) have an Ideal and a Love of Theatre. And they make it pure through their individual sacrifices of time and effort.

The evening of my Walterdale day was a delightful two hours with Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. I’ll not go too deeply into the production or the play as Jenna Marynowski has already offered one of her always sensitive and insightful reviews at After the House Lights. Just a few observations.

It was a full house and the house was in stitches throughout.  The costumes were sumptuous, the set was lovely and far more elaborate than expected by minimalist me, and the performances ranged from good to remarkable. The crowd on the stage nailed it and the crowd in the seats loved it.

If I were forced to name a stand out performance, I might choose Marsha Amanova as the absolutely self-sacrificing Mrs. Erlynne.  But I just as likely would select Emanuelle Dubbeldam for her brief, understated, almost totally body-language turn as Lady Windermere’s maid Rosalie. David Owen’s Lord Augustus is wonderfully bug-eyed-stunned, and Patrick Maloney’s Lord Windermere is perfectly achingly conflicted. And Hannah Haugen as Lady Agatha out does Vin Diesel as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy: her repeated “Yes, Mamma”is an “I am Groot” that is actually easily comprehensible to the entire audience in all its varied meanings.

But the centre of the piece is Miranda Broumas’ Lady Windermere.  At first I thought “she’s stiff. she’s thin.” like a stick is stiff and like water or American beer is thin.  But quickly I realized that Lady Windermere is very young in a very formal society, that she is not yet fully formed, but trying to be strong. She’s a young willow trying to be a stout oak.  Broumas has brought something to the role a more seasoned actor (this is her first Walterdale performance) might have moved beyond and abandoned. This Lady Windermere has, through her theatrical Ideal of Love and Sacrifice, created a truthful performance, to the great benefit of that full house of which I was honoured to be a part.

Lady Windermere’s Fan plays at the Walterdale until December 17, 2016.

Go see it. It’s a hoot.
P.S. Ever notice the influence of Othello on Lady Windermere’s Fan? Think about it. And Othello‘s in Stoppard’s The Real Thing, too.