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Toe in the Cocktail
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

"How would you like your drink? With a mint sprig or a human toe?” Human toe? Were my ears buzzing? Was I drunk in Dawson City even before swigging four fat quarts? Or, was the bartender being impish that nippy autumn evening? During the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush, gold nuggets floated in Dawson ’s creeks and boisterous miners rimmed their whisky glasses with gold flakes, but little did I know that in the eight-street tiny town cocktails would be so sinister. Never before had I heard of a drink with a human toe. Never.

“With the human toe, please”. In Downtown Hotel, the beginning of my Canadian food trail had taken a wicked turn and I played along. “Take the oath, first,” the poker-faced bartender blurted pompously. The world’s only sourtoe-drink drill was getting a tad awkward, but I timidly put on the grubby white captain’s cap, raised my right hand and mumbled the oath. On the table lay the yellow Sourtoe Certificate with the story of Captain River Rat, the first man to drink the weird cocktail, scribbled on the margins. If I quaffed the drink, I would become Member No. 33,508 – that’s the headcount for those who have had the sinful drink so far. I picked the frosted glass. And, then…. (hold your breath and wait for the denouement!).

In the Downtown Hotel, the ritual is repeated religiously every evening - frozen toes (there are 10 of them in the freezer) are pulled out of rum jars, oaths muttered and certificates doled out “with rights and privileges as may at any drunken moment be decided upon….” In north-west Canada, my food story had begun on a baleful note and I decided to fly five hours to Fairmont York Hotel in Toronto to peek into Canada’s largest kitchen where chefs count “food miles” of the ingredients, can bake 15,000 French rolls a day, grow Pinocchio nose chillies on the 14 th floor terrace garden, serve choux pastry swans, toasted crumpet and finger sandwiches for afternoon tea, and where Birdbath Martini is a potion to die for. I was not the only one drooling over the menu – in the Fairmont Royal York, Richard Gere, Ingrid Bergman, Drew Barrymore, Antonio Banderas have all walked in talking of Lake Ontario Trout, filet mignon and strawberry soup. And, the ghost in a red satin smoking jacket who often swaggers out of the hotel’s basement.

Ghosts are not my idea of dining companions and in Royal York I was not prepped to walk those 72 kilometres of carpets in search of the table where Queen Elizabeth once sipped the famous loose leaf tea; instead, I walked into Julius Vesz Pipesmith store where smoking pipes look like jewels and are so pricey that even princes would squirm at the tag. If you thought tobacco sitting in the bowl of clay or wooden pipes were not really ‘food’, listen to Lord Bulwer Lytoon who once said, “A pipe is a great soother. A pleasant comforter. It ripens the brain, it opens the heart….” In Toronto , Julius Vesz pipes are legendary; it is the ‘smokiest’ way to end an evening or begin the night.

My morning, however, began not with a curl of smoke but with a Farm to Fork tour with Chef Joshna Maharaj who runs Food Studio Restaurant at Royal Ontario Museum . I had heard stories of how Maharaj blends spelt (ancient wheat with a 7,000-year history) into chocolate chip cookies, zucchini cupcakes and her signature almond, apple and blueberry cake, but that day I was ready to substitute spelt with charcuterie tasting in Reds, a restaurant known for its preserves, wine collection, artisan cheese tray and the charcuterie which is served with bread, condiments and mustard on long, slim wooden platter. Executive Chef Michael Steh had laid the platter so exquisitely that digging a fork seemed like sacrilege.

But I had no time for niceties, Maharaj was to take me to the Toronto neighbourhoods where food borrows its flavour from immigrants – tikkas and pakoras in Little India, gelatos and pizzas in Corso Italia; syrupy honey donuts in Danfort, the Greektown; dumplings in China Town; bagels and lox in Eglington West; khimchis along Bloor, the Koreatown; strangely named hot dogs (Buddha Dog) in Roncesvalles Village, a Polish neighbourhood; and Leslieville, which New York Times dubbed as the hippest place to dine, drink, live and shop in Toronto. However, nothing beats the snazzy Gerrard Street where saris double up as garish décor, a rickety rickshaw is parked outside Lahore Tikka House and where kulfis are frozen on chopsticks! The Little India is oh!so Indian that I felt as if a slice of Punjab had been beamed thousands of mile into Toronto. The air was redolent with the whiff of cardamom and the street cluttered with women in saris and little girls in tight, oily plaits and frilly frocks.

Ask Maharaj what is that must-eat in Canada and she would shake her head in despair. “There are so many things; there is no one thing.” Perhaps because Canada ’s belly holds immigrants from across the world and each region boasts of its flavour as the best. In Toronto , however, I had my fave-list ready: apple coleslaw in Le Petit Dejeuner; gourmet sandwich at My Place; all natural ice cream with bourbon caramel sauce from Drake’s Scoops; seafood feast of scallops, shrimp, mussels in Donatella; and the irresistible French toast with bananas in dulce de leche chantilly and maple syrup at Delux. The list is laden with calories and now I am afraid of standing on the weighing scale. I know it would tip dangerously.

PS: Did I pick the frosted glass with the vile toe glistening in the vodka? No. I did not. I could not. I am no Captain River Rat. My yellow Sourtoe Certificate stands void; I prefer the Lemon Squeeze at CN Tower.

The Hindu, 2011

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