Mrs. Potato Head


After a lengthy series of random essays, I’m heading into the blog’s roots and bringing back the life hacking posts. And on the topic of roots, we’re headed into gardening territory this week!

Where Are My Overalls?
I have long fantasized about being an urban farmer. (I blame this on genetics. I’m descended from grandparents who farmed.) Last spring, I stumbled onto a gardening book called “Grow Great Grub” by a Canadian author named Gayla Trail. I loved this book. It combined nifty urban gardening experiments with straightforward, easy-to-read instructions. When spring 2015 rolled around, I borrowed the book again and got all excited, thinking about what kind of crops I might grow.

Enter a little dose of reality. I’m currently living in a 111-yr-old heritage house, perched at the top of Edmonton’s river valley. We have a beautiful back yard, which is also very large. What that means is that the upkeep of said back yard consumes a fair amount of time in the summer. My roommates warned me not to get carried away with my crops, as there would be plenty o’ chores available.

When planting time came, I decided I wanted to undertake two experiments:

  1. Growing potatoes in a trash can, with Gayla Trail’s instructions
  2. Growing Early Girl tomatoes, so that I could try out Karen Solomon’s recipe for oven-dried tomatoes

I also planned to grow some herbs that I actually use: basil, rosemary, and garlic chives.

I think that this is the real trick with gardening — to grow stuff that you like and will actually use. And to do it in small quantities.

Trash Into Treasure
Growing potatoes in a trash can is pretty straightforward. First, buy a trash can, dirt and seed potatoes. Next, drill holes in the trash can for drainage, add some dirt, and plant your seed potatoes. Ta dah! You need to be a little bit patient for the next part. I hovered around the trash can every day, looking for sprouts, but it took a good two weeks before those lazy little suckers poked their heads out of the soil. (I even went in and uncovered one to see if it was actually sprouting.) But once they’d come up, my little potato plants grew like crazy.

Skip the Supermarket
Seed potatoes cost $4.99 at Canadian Tire and I only ended up using two of the twenty-odd that were in the bag. This seemed wasteful to me, and I wondered if I could simply have bought some organic Yukon Golds at a supermarket, chopped them up and planted them.

As it turns out, this is not a good idea. In her book, “The Resilient Gardener”, Carol Deppe says not to plant supermarket potatoes. They’re treated with sprout inhibitors and often won’t grow at all. She recommends that you buy certified seed potatoes from a reputable seed supplier.

So, how do you get around the wastage? Well, you could get together with a group of fellow potato farmers and share a bag. You could also give your extra seed potatoes away. Or … if all else fails, they do make an excellent addition to a compost pile. And once you’ve harvested a first crop, you can keep seed potatoes for next year — Carol Deppe will tell you how to do it in Chapter 8 of “The Resilient Gardener”.

Time Marches On
It’s now September 1 and the potatoes are doing great. The tomatoes, however, had a rough start. We have ant hills in our yard and thought that we might do away with the hills by plunking containers of plants on top of them.

Pretty, pretty. My trash can potato plants.

Pretty, pretty.
My trash can potato plants.

Wrong. The ants crawled up the drainage holes and very nearly did away with my fledgling crops. I ended up pulling the tomatoes out of their containers and re-planting them in fresh pots with fresh soil. It was touch-and-go for a few weeks, but the tomatoes survived and are now thriving. The ants DID manage to kill my basil and rosemary but steered clear of the garlic chives (garden folklore says that ants hate garlic).

I expect to be able to harvest in a few weeks, and we’ll do a check-back on the final poundage of potatoes my trash can yields. We’ll also talk about how those oven-dried tomatoes turned out.

Great Grub Indeed
Did I mention that I love “Grow Great Grub”? It’s well-written and beautifully illustrated. It’s smart and funny. And it’s creative. This book gives you basic instructions on how to grow a given vegetable, fruit or flower, but then adds some suggestions about unusual variants on traditional crops. Thanks to Gayla’s inspiration, we’re growing wildly cool chioggia (striped) beets in the communal garden at my house.

Dollars and Cents
When we check back later this fall, I’ll talk about what my crops cost me. But in the meantime, I’ll tell you that you can save yourself an average of $19.23 by taking “Grow Great Grub” out of the library. Here are the details on this wonderful book:

Grow Great Grub:
Organic Food from Small Spaces
Written by Gayla Trail
Published by Clarkson Potter
Released Feb 2 2010
ISBN 0307452018

And… We’re Done
That’s it for this week. Tune in next week, when we look at DIY expert skin care with the help of Dr. Harold Lancer, Dermatologist-to-the-Stars. Until then, have a great week, and feel free to share your garden hacking stories!

Love, Lust and a Really Great Dress

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

Today marks the very last essay in this series.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

When I finished my summer school adventure in Europe, I had to write a final paper for my liberal arts class, which had been built on the twin themes of love and lust, and wrapped around the art and architecture of Austria and Italy. What follows is an abridged version of that paper.

My 2014 field school experience was bracketed by two in-flight movies.

Flying into London at the end of June, I watched The Monuments Men, a film based on the story of a group of American art historians who came into Europe near the end of World War II, in order to track down and return thousands of pieces of art plundered by the Nazis. I didn’t know it at the time, but Austria, the country I was ultimately headed for, had been a key target of the art-stealing Nazis, and Adolf Hitler had planned to house all this stolen art in his Führermuseum at the Austrian city of Linz.

When I flew back out of London at the end of July, I scrolled through the list of movies, but my choice this time was easy: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Based on Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, this charmingly wacky movie stars Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H, a man who is most certainly ruled by lust but also proves to be capable of great love. (Ironically, Gustave H also steals a masterpiece, and has several brushes with pseudo-Nazis.)

As well as love and lust, my weeks overseas were an education in European history, especially the history of Vienna. And how I loved Vienna! I was quickly at home in this genteel café society. Vienna is driven by intellect, always asking questions, earnestly discussing, exploring ideas and looking for innovative ways to do things.

At one point in our classes, we were asked if cities have souls. Indeed they do, as do countries. Austria and Italy are countries with entirely different souls. Austria is smart, creative and industrious. Italy, on the other hand, is excitable, fun-loving and single-minded in its pursuit of enjoyment. Which is not to say that Italians don’t work hard. I believe that they do. But there’s a careful and joyful attention to the small sensual details of life: food, drink, dress.

American author Elizabeth Gilbert put forth the idea that every city also has its own word. She decided that Rome’s word is “sex”. I didn’t get that. I think Rome’s word is “look”. Look up, look down, look now – because you might miss something. Vienna’s word is “be”. And Salzburg’s word somehow eludes me.

Florence’s word, on the other hand, is “relax”. Relax, and take in all this beauty that’s in front of you. Relax and listen to those musicians in the piazza, or the ringing of church bells on a Sunday morning. Relax, and stop shooing away the sparrows that are helping themselves to your lunch in an outdoor café. Relax and sit on the steps of your hotel, with the proprietor, who wants to know where you came from and how long you’ve been speaking such hilariously awful Italian.

The things I have seen in these four weeks! The Sistine Chapel, Galileo’s own telescope, the cremation ovens in one of the SS’s most lethal concentration camps, a gravesite that contains the bones of the disciple Peter, the house Mozart grew up in, and – one memorable morning – Pope Francis himself. I’ve also had the incredible good fortune to stand in front of some of the world’s greatest art treasures, works that bear signatures like Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Kandinsky, Vermeer, Raphael, Botticelli, Bernini, Giotto, Michelangelo, and da Vinci.

I’ve come back to Canada with some interesting souvenirs. From the monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg, two tiny pewter medallions bearing the image of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. One has gone to my friend Royce, who wants to sail around the world. The other will go to my friend Linda, who has just won a bid to run for the Wild Rose party in Alberta’s upcoming provincial election. These strike me as equally perilous journeys, and both in need of some divine protection.

And there’s more. Dozens of postcards, little candies made of Murano glass, fashion magazines, and one serious luxury: a green silk dress which cost more than I’ve ever paid for a garment in my life. But it’s beautiful. The clever design of this dress delights me, and wearing it makes me feel sophisticated, chic and … a little tiny bit Italian.

Let’s roll back to love and lust now, and finish with a quote that comes from another great travel memoir, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together;
sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk — real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

If we’re fortunate, we get to travel. And if we’re very fortunate, our travels show us moments that we hold onto – in our hearts — for a lifetime. Jack is right. Life is holy. And those moments are indeed precious.

Very, very precious.

The Wisdom of Ferris Bueller

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Life moves pretty fast.
If you don’t stop and
look around once in a while,
you could miss it.
— Ferris Bueller

I had a Ferris Bueller moment sitting on the steps of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. It was a sunny Sunday morning and I was on my way to the Galileo Museum. There were church bells ringing everywhere, and I had a takeout latte and pastry in my hands. As my backside touched down on the ancient stone steps, all I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Part of that luck was the fact that I’d stopped whizzing around for a moment and actually thought about where I was. By nature, I’m a frugal traveller, and so I’ll pack as much as I can into a trip, especially in a place like Florence. I’d arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities on a Friday night, and had to leave again less than 48 hours later. There wasn’t a moment to waste! Except … there was. There were lots of moments.

So I stayed on the steps a little longer than I needed to. Florentine life swirled around me: families heading to church, tourists getting lost, and itinerant street vendors laying out fake Louis Vuitton bags on blankets. It was marvellous to be a speck in that busy summertime universe.

And then I picked myself up and headed off to behold  a telescope that had once lived in the mighty hands of Galileo Galilei (known to us as Galileo). As well as having an interesting name that sounds like the Renaissance equivalent of “Obla di Obla da”, Galileo brought us the concept that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. For this groundbreaking thinking, he ended up spending nine years under house arrest, accused of heresy. La la, how the life goes on.

A sparrow in Florence helps out with my pie crumbs. Il bel far niente at its finest.

A sparrow in Florence
helps out with my pie crumbs.
Il bel far niente at its finest.

A week later, I had another Ferris Bueller moment, this time in Rome. I’d gone to see a Caravaggio painting at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo on a Saturday night. Not just any Caravaggio painting, but “The Conversion of St. Paul”. I’d fallen in love with St. Paul in 1986, in a first-year Art History class. 28 years later, we finally got to meet face to face.

When I was done, I sat down on the church steps and tapped out “I just saw the painting” to one of my nearest and dearest back in Canada. The man at the other end of the phone would squint at the incoming message and then slowly smile. He alone knew that this Caravaggio masterpiece was my single most important quest in Italy.

And then I cast my gaze over to the square that adjoins the church, called the Piazza del Popolo. It was about 7:30 PM, and the sun was starting to go down, drenching the square in beautiful golden light. Someone was playing an accordion and I could see a man making long trails of huge transparent bubbles. Small children laughed and danced around him, like he was the Pied Piper of Dish Soap. All I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Italians use the phrase il bel far niente to describe Ferris Bueller moments. In her landmark travel memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about il bel far niente:

This is a sweet expression. Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing.’ … even against that backdrop of heard work, il bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement.

I think Mr. Bueller was right. Life does move pretty fast. You don’t want to miss those moments. Take a picture with your heart — and tell them that Ferris sent you.

How’s Your Spider Sense?

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Over several years of roaming around other countries, I’ve worked at amping up what I call my “spider sense”.

This is something we all have, in varying degrees. It’s that queasy little feeling you get when someone is trying to scam you, or when you’ve stepped into an unfamiliar neighbourhood and something isn’t quite right.

Last summer, I put my spider sense to the test when I went to Bratislava. (Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country that came about when the former Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993.) I’d never been in eastern Europe, so I was very excited but also a little bit cautious.

I found what looked like a really nice hotel (at a great price), and started figuring out how to get there from the airport. Since I was arriving at 10 PM, it looked like I might have to break one of my primary transport rules and take a taxi. I justified the extra expense based on my safety, and knowing that I could walk to the train station for my departure the next day.

At the same time, I’d started poking through the  Lonely Planet Guide to the Czech & Slovak Republics. I checked the taxi section for Bratislava, which talked about an “unofficial English-speaking surcharge” followed by a reference to “skulduggery”. This looked to me like polite Lonely-Planet-lingo for “thieving cab drivers”. I hit the web and found a current online guide to Bratislava — with an article charmingly titled “Taxis – How not to get cheated”.

Decidedly nervous by now, I checked my hotel’s website and discovered that they had a driver service. Brilliant! I wrote to them and we made arrangements for the driver to pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hotel. This would cost me 23 euros. Not cheap, but not outrageous. I was all set.

I arrived in Bratislava, got through the customs line-up and looked around for a guy holding up a sign with my last name on it. Nope.

So I went outside to the front of the terminal and waited. Nope.

I tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. The lady who’d been sitting beside me on the flight tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. I went back into the airport to the car rental kiosk, to see if the car rental guy could try the hotel on his land line. And … he couldn’t get through.

A British couple was also at the kiosk, waiting for their rental car, and asked what had happened. When I told them, the wife shook her head and said “Well, whatever you do, don’t take a taxi. They’ll rob you blind.” I smiled and thanked her, but my inside voice was busy muttering obscenities.

Car Rental Guy told me to take a bus to the train station, and even showed me how to buy a ticket from a ticket machine. I figured out the bus schedule and then I checked my spider sense. Was this really a good idea? My spider sense seemed pretty calm. I checked again. Still calm. So, I caught the bus. I reasoned that if I got to the train station and things were too scary, I’d be able to find a last-resort taxi pretty easily. Plus, I had a map. A rudimentary map, but still a map.

Here's my goofy little photocopied map

Here’s my funny little photocopied map

By the time the bus got to the train station, it was 11:30 PM and very dark. My hotel was at 4 Stefanikova Street and according to my little map, Stefanikova Street was right off the train station. I walked a few steps and checked my spider sense. I was feeling a little more cautious, but still OK. So I just started walking, looking for street signs and building numbers. A few minutes in, I found a building that claimed to be 8 Stefanikova Street. That seemed encouraging. Lo and behold, 4 Stefanikova Street was another 50 steps away. Ta dah! It was that easy.

Doing stuff like this will momentarily make you feel like Marco Polo. It doesn’t last, but it sure feels awesome in the moment. What does last, though, is a newer spider sense, made stronger by experience.

Your spider sense is a gift, and the time you spend learning to listen to it will pay off handsomely. It will warn you when you’re heading into trouble, as well as reassuring you when things are actually OK. And don’t tell me that you don’t have one, because you do. We all do. You can trust me on this one. Just ask your spider sense.

Walking In Your Footsteps

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school in Austria and Italy. For the last little while, I’ve been posting a series of self-indulgent essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings. Today, however, is a little different.

Because today is Remembrance Day.

“they say the meek shall inherit the earth”
Walking in Your Footsteps, The Police

July 6, 2014

Dear Jan,

Yesterday, I went to see the place where you spent the final days of your life: the site of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.

And you are not one person named Jan. You are many. Far too many.

You came into Mauthausen from Poland, and so your name is Jan. But if it was Italy, you’re called Giovanni. If you were born in the Soviet Union, it’s Iwan. Holland, Johannes. France, Jean. Spain, Juan. And on it goes.

You share a first name with my own beloved father, who was called John, although he was just a boy the day you were marched through the gates of this hell on earth.

It took me a couple of hours to get there from Vienna, on the train. I was nervous. Mauthausen was one of the most lethal concentration camps in Europe. I expected to feel an aura of evil rising up out of the ground. I’d already made the decision not to take any photos.

Instead, what I found was a quiet, solemn place of memorial. A memorial to you and to the legions whose lives were stolen on this small tract of land, overlooking a quarry. One row of the barracks you lived in has been preserved. I can walk into the rooms and see the very beds you slept on.

It’s all strangely benign and I find this disturbing. I tell my companion that I feel like I’m walking through an interpretive display in one of Canada’s national parks. I have to keep reminding myself that my feet are falling on the very same ground as yours, Jan. The same ground as thousands upon thousands of prisoners.

As a Canadian born in 1961, I’ve only experienced WWII in movies and history books. As surreal as it feels, Mauthausen is not a movie.

There’s a pattern to how we visitors are guided through this site. Once we’re past the barracks, the path leads us into another building that houses a museum. Here, the spaces are filled with artifacts that are much more personal. A prisoner’s glasses. Another’s drawings. And one that momentarily takes my breath away — a filthy pair of the infamous blue and grey striped uniforms that prisoners wore. No, this is not a movie.

In another room is a chapel. It’s clean and sparse. I’m confused. Why did the prisoners have a chapel in this building? And then the tumblers in my brain click into place, unlocking the answer. It wasn’t for the prisoners. This was a chapel for the SS to worship in. I make a spitting motion towards the pews. “You bastards” I hiss under my breath. “What did you think you were doing with a chapel?”

Eventually, we come to a set of stairs that lead us to the lower floor of this building. Down here are three rooms, each housing a brick crematorium. They have been left much as they were the day that the Americans liberated Mauthausen. The first two are a disturbing sight, but the third is heartbreaking.

For in that third crematorium room, every square inch of the walls is covered in photos and memorials. To you, Jan. And to Giovanni and Iwan, to Johannes, Jean and Juan.

And now, I do begin to cry. There’s just so many of you. So many.

And every one was someone’s son, brother, friend, husband, lover … every one of you has somebody who made the pilgrimage back to this terrible place, to lovingly hang your picture on the wall. How can they have been so brave?

Once I leave, there are just a few rooms left on the tour. Two of them, I can’t bring myself to walk into. One is the autopsy room.

The other is the gas chamber.

In hindsight, I realize that there’s a wisdom to how this site has been laid out. Mauthausen didn’t grab me by the scruff of the neck and shove me face-first into the ungodly horror that was the Nazi’s “final solution”. Instead, it led me, step by careful step, on a two-hour journey into its own heart of darkness. And this is wise. For if Mauthausen had simply beaten me up, perhaps I would simply do my best to forget.

And that is the goal, I believe. To make sure that I remember. To make sure I remember that these were people, not statistics. To make sure I remember that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And that the power to create another Hitler lies in nothing more than the hands of ordinary people casting votes.

When the U.S. Army finally liberated Mauthuasen, on May 5, 1945, there were 20,000 prisoners behind its walls. One of those prisoners was a man named Simon Weisenthal, who had been marched to Austria from the Janowska concentration camp in Poland, as the Nazis fled from the advancing Red Army.

Weighing less than 100 lbs., Weisenthal was so weak that the Americans didn’t know if he would survive. But Weisenthal did live. And then he became a legend. He dedicated the rest of his life to hunting down Nazis and bringing them to justice. Today, his legacy is the Simon Weisenthal Center, a global human rights organization, based in Los Angeles, which teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.

Rest peacefully, Jan. Simon Weisenthal didn’t forget you. Neither will I.

There’s No Friend Like An Old Friend

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I made my first trip to Europe. My destination was Greece. I’d pulled $100 out of every paycheque for a year, scrimped and saved, and on July 19 in the year 1989, I put myself on an Air Canada flight to Athens. Twenty-five years ago, I also met my good friend Kieran from Birmingham.

As well as my initial foray into Europe, Greece was my first encounter with the vaguely criminal nature of taxi drivers. I stumbled off the plane in Athens and into the clutches of a cabbie who charged me $50 CDN to be dropped off at a place that was nowhere near my hotel. This is a story for another time, but it’s the early catalyst for this post’s travel hacking tips.

Oh Greece, How I Loved You
Given that my introduction to Greece was taxi-generated robbery followed by culture shock (I’d never been in a non-English-speaking country), I spent the first 48 hours thinking I’d made a serious mistake.

But it got better. Much better. I had booked myself on a tour called the “Greek Island Wanderer” with a British company called Explore (they actually still run this tour) and I consider this to be — quite literally — the best money I’ve ever spent.

Once my roommate arrived, I had someone to share my culture shock with, which helped immensely. And two days later, we were on our way to the Cycladic Islands. I remember stepping off the ferry onto Syros, looking around, and thinking “Aha! Here you are!” Here, indeed, was the idyllic travel-agency-poster version of Greece that I’d been dreaming about every night for the past six months.

The Explore tour took us to all kinds of off-the-beaten-path places and left us plenty of time to roam around on our own. And even though our group spanned a very broad range of ages (and levels of sanity), we had an enormous amount of fun together. I stayed in touch with several of the wanderers, including Kieran from Birmingham, who I swapped letters and parcels with for years afterward.

Sadly, I am as good at losing contact information as I am at losing bread recipes and I fell out of touch with Kieran just before the ten-year mark. Our last contact was 1998, not long after he’d gotten married and had a little girl.

And then one morning in 2011, I opened a Facebook message that started with “Hi! You don’t know me but you know my Dad ….” It was Kieran’s daughter, now an internet-savvy teenager, and she’d located me on behalf of her father. Seriously, how cool is that?

When I planned this summer’s epic voyage to Europe, I made sure to include a side trip to Birmingham, where I got to have a joyful reunion with my old friend, and meet his wonderful wife and daughter for the first time.

Their hospitality was legendary. They let me stay with them, took me out for dinner, and didn’t worry when my still-jetlagged self slept until mid-morning. Then they showed me around Birmingham and made sure that I tasted the best sausage rolls in England. When we went to the airport, I extracted a promise from my lovely friends that they would seriously consider visiting Canada before too long.

The Lesser-Known Rewards of Travel
Travel writers will talk a lot about expanding your horizons, feeding your soul and so on. But it’s not often that travel writers talk about the friendships we make when travelling. Kieran had kept all of his photos and memorabilia from our trip around the islands, and we spent several hours roaming through the pictures, laughing, trying to remember names and dredging kooky stories out of our dusty memories.

There was Irish Michael, Crazy Joe and a couple we had nicknamed Flora and Fauna. And there was me, so hung over one morning that I forced my roommate to have breakfast on a seawall (in case I threw up), and Kieran, who’d had a sweet travel romance with a quiet girl named Mary.

Tours form themselves into a sort of temporary mini-society. You might not like everyone, but if you’re lucky (and I always have been), you’ll leave your tour with warm, heartfelt memories of most everybody. Such is the case with Kieran. I’m exceptionally blessed to have had the opportunity to recapture my friendship with him, and in the same space, to have had his help to reach back into a couple of weeks in my life that were absolutely magical.

Taxicab 101
And … now that I’ve made you sit through another chatty, rambling story, let’s talk taxi.

Although I’m sure they aren’t all bad people, cab drivers have a universally bad reputation. In general, I’m pretty cautious with them and these are my tips for handling taxis when you’re travelling:

  • The first rule of Taxi Club is don’t take taxis. Seriously. You learn a lot about a city when you’re walking through it, or using its public transit system. Save your money for exotic local food, exotic local drinks and wacky souvenirs.
  • And if you have to take a taxi, ask. If you’re going to or coming from a hotel or a hostel, ask about fares before you flag down or call the taxi. Staff will usually know the rough fare between their location and common destinations like airports and train stations.
  • The second rule of Taxi Club: when your cab arrives, ask what the fare will be before you get into the car. If there’s a discrepancy, point out that your hotel says that the fare should only be “X” dollars. The cab driver will always argue, but my experience is that this exchange alone seems to curb the impulse to run up the meter.
  • Unless you’re hauling huge suitcases, keep your luggage with you and get into the back seat of the cab.
  • And if there’s a serious dispute, have the driver stop the car. Then get out with your bags and tell the driver to wait while you find a police officer.
    (***Note that this is a very drastic move, and one that I recommend only be undertaken in broad daylight and a well-populated area, only if the driver is attempting an extreme rip-off, and only if you feel that you can do it safely.)
  • Make sure that you’re being dropped off at your actual destination before you pay (see the introduction to this post).
  • And finally, just accept that a less-than-honest taxi trip will happen from time to time. This summer, I think I got slightly ripped off by a Roman cab driver. However, it was a fare of 10 euros including tip, and it bought me enough time to see three lesser-known Caravaggio paintings. 10 euros is about 15 dollars CDN. That’s $5 per Caravaggio. Worth it? Totally.


A Primer on Pyrohy

Hello and Ласкаво просимо!

(If your browser can handle Cyrillic lettering, you’ll see a pair of unusual words up there. You pronounce this “laskavo prosīmo” and it means “Welcome!” in Ukrainian.)

Today, I’m following up on a request from a reader in Australia who wants to learn how to make pyrohy.

First things first. What are pyrohy? (Most often, you will hear non-Ukrainian speakers pronounce this word as “perogies”.) Pyrohy (or perogies) are wonderful little round dumplings made of a lightweight dough and stuffed with all kinds of imaginative savoury fillings. You can bake, boil or fry them and they are most often served with butter, onions and sour cream.

I live in Alberta, one of the western provinces of Canada. Alberta was largely settled by immigrants from the Ukraine and they have left an indelible stamp on the cuisine of my home. I, for one, am very grateful for this influence. I love pyrohy and their cousins, holubtsi (cabbage rolls) and nalysynky (crepes). I’m sure that I’ve eaten at least my body weight in these yummies over the course of my life.

So, I’m not surprised at all that someone in Australia wants to learn how to make them.

Here are my pyrohy, in all their pillowy goodness,  ready to be boiled

Here are my pyrohy, in all their pillowy goodness,
ready to be boiled

And Then the Truth Comes Out …
But I’m embarrassed to admit that the only time I eat homemade pyrohy is when someone else makes them. The rest of the time, I buy pre-fab ones.

Now that I’ve cleared my conscience, the next thing I can tell you is that I hit up my home library in search of a book that would teach me the finer points of making them by hand. “A Feast of Perogies and Dumplings” by Samuel Hofer fit the bill perfectly. This little book was a veritable encyclopedia of Eastern European carbohydrate treats.

I tested out Samuel’s “No Fail Perogy Dough” recipe and then created an adaptation that worked for life hacking. Here it is, step-by-step:

Get two medium-sized potatoes, scrub them (don’t take off the skins) and then cut them into 1/2″ pieces
Put them on to boil and let them cook until they’re reasonably soft. While they’re cooking, you can:
a) cook any other ingredients (like sauteed mushrooms) or
b) start the dough
Here’s my dough recipe:

  • Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a bowl.
  • Beat 1 egg into the butter.
  • Take 1/4 cup of water from the boiling potatoes, add to it 1/4 cup of cold milk. Beat the milk and water into the butter-egg mixture.
  • Throw in 1/4 teaspoon of salt and stir
  • Begin adding all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time. By the time you get to about 1 1/2 cups, you should have a dough that’s starting to form a ball. Keep adding until you have a ball that sticks together.
  • Cover your bowl of dough and set it aside for about 20 minutes to rest.
While the dough is resting, mash your potatoes very well, and beat in about 1/3 cup of milk or cream or sour cream. Once the potatoes are reasonably smooth, you can add some fillings. The dough recipe makes about 18 pyrohy, so you can make more than one kind of filling, if you like. These are what I experimented with blending into my potatoes:

  • Basil and asiago cheese
  • Sauteed mushrooms and truffle oil (I found a small bottle of truffle oil for $10 at the Italian Centre Shop in Edmonton)
  • Chopped smoked salmon, dill and cream cheese

These were all very, very good, but feel free to experiment with your own creative ideas. (And then make sure to write and tell me what you did.)

Once the dough has rested, pull it from its lazy slumber and get out your rolling pin. Roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8″ thick.
Now you need something circular that’s between 3″ and 3 1/2″ wide. (Jar lids and very small plates work well.) Use your circular thing to cut the dough into round pyrohy wrappers. Once you’ve cut out as many as you can, you can start building your pyrohy.
This next step is a little fiddly, but it’ll make a difference to the speed of your work, and the quality of your finished product. Wet down a paper towel and drape it over all but three of the cut pyrohy. This will keep the dough from drying out while you’re assembling.
Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of your wrapper, stretch the dough so that the edges meet and pinch to seal. (If you’re worried about the edges not staying stuck together, put a small glass of milk at your workspace, and use your index finger to trace a small line of milk around half the wrapper, to act as a sealant.)
Once you’ve filled and sealed up this first round, mash the scraps of dough together and then roll again. You should get about eighteen pyrohy wrappers from this recipe.
You’re in the home stretch! From here, your pyrohy can be either boiled or pan-fried. Boiling will take between 5 and 7 minutes. If you panfry them, brown one side and then flip them over to brown the other side. And I recommend butter.
Serve them with more butter, sour cream, fried onions and crumbled bacon. And marvel at how something so simple can make a person sublimely happy.
Pyrohy also lend themselves remarkably well to being “tossed”. Try lightly frying up some garlic, green onion, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Toss your freshly-boiled pyrohy in the saute. Put sour cream on the side, and prepare to swoon.

Show Me the Money
I tried making pyrohy multiple times, so I really can’t give you an exact price figure. Be assured, however, that these are not expensive to make. With the exception of the fillings, the bulk of the ingredients are staples in most kitchens. The extras ran me about $10.

Pre-fab pyrohy aren’t expensive either, but — like many of our experiments on this blog — there’s just no comparing between pre-fab and homemade. The homemade ones are about 127,000 times better. And given that they take about half an hour to create, it’s well worth it.

Library Resources
Samuel Hofer’s wonderful little book, alas, is no longer in print. The copy at my home library has also been taken out of circulation recently. However, I located an excellent fall-back in the form of “The New Ukrainian Cookbook” by Annette Ogrodnick Corona. She calls pyrohy by their alias, which is “varenyky” and there are 7 pages of varenyky recipes in this lovely, recipe-packed book. If you take the book out of the library instead of buying it, you’ll save yourself $19.75. Which is not bad at all.

And that’s it! Thank you for reading all the way down to the bottom of this very long post. If you’re reading this from Canada, let me take this opportunity to wish you a belated Happy Thanksgiving. Tune in again — in a few weeks’ time — for another travel essay!