Thursday, November 2, 2017

Chili Chowder Chow Chow: It's all Scots to Me.


Decades have passed since I worked with my best friend Bonnie at the Corkscrew Restaurant in London, Ontario, yet our friendship remains solid and enduring. The Corkscrew was one of the ubiquitous steak and lobster, salad bar chains that plagued the culinary landscape in the late-1970s and 1980s. Surprisingly, the Corkscrew with its fake castle motif and servers in festive peasant garb attracted a hot-bed of raw talent and many employees went on to illustrious careers in the culinary world. Bonnie was not among them. She set her sights elsewhere.

At nineteen, Bonnie and I were fledglings and hungry for life experience. Though newly acquainted, we decided to travel across Europe together. Yet it was on this trip that our culinary competitiveness first reared its head. Returning from Amsterdam and Brussels, we were boarding with friends, (of our mutual best friend Tara’s cousin) in Barking, just  outside London. In an ill fated attempt to thank them for weeks of self-sacrificing hospitality, I decided to prepare what I then mistakenly deemed a typical Canadian dinner.

Today this day, I recoil when I recall that my meatloaf 
 a noble staple of my childhood and a praiseworthy dish that personifies "peasant" rusticity – resulted in shameful failure. It was due to youthful bravado coupled with an unfamiliar oven. Bonnie, has since mastered the art of a wry, well-delivered anecdote (read fable), alleges our startled hosts hid the undercooked, half-eaten meatloaf behind the sofa. She further claims that while I was doing the washing up they moved it to their bedroom to be discretely disposed of at a later date.

Dreading a repeat performance, I soon learned the eccentricities of the British stove and not to attempt to pass off culinary failures, no matter how high the expectation, or how self-sacrificing the guest. Bonnie, however, did not immediately benefit from my disaster. Her pay off would come later and with alarming frequency in her self-satisfied retelling of this unfortunate incident.
Through the years, she has continued to multiply her litany of complaints about my culinary abilities with fresh embellishments. Chief among them is an exaggerated version of an overly sweet blackberry crumble recipe which I served on a pleasant holiday weekend in Parry Sound some years ago. She has a taste for blood and there has been no stopping her.
Shortly after my youthful calamity, she took her turn in the kitchen. In those days, blackened food had not acquired the patina of respectability it briefly enjoyed in the 1990's. The jury is still out on whether or not the smoke and the flames were intentional.

Bonnie was unaware of our host's discomfort and less-than-enthusiastic reaction to their smoke-filled living room. She asserted that this dish made with turnips and beef marinated and braised in stout was an ancestral Scottish recipe. She misidentified this invention as beer steak with pedantic insistence, despite evidence to the contrary. And, of course, this was her original claim to clan-and-tartan Highland blood, and the first of many ill-considered attempts to revise Scotland’s culinary repertoire and customs. Her lineage are Stewart`s known for several  illegitimate offspring which include King James IV. Never mind the dubious marriages. 

Imagine regional Scot's dishes with names of mysterious origins like Partan Bree (cream of crab soup), Cullen Skink (finnan haddie soup), Feather Fowlie (roasting fowl), Smoored Pullets (fried chicken), Finkadella (meat ball), Howtowdie(roast chicken with poached eggs and spinach) and ForFar Birdies (meat pies). These curious and tempting recipes are all gathered from the rugged Highlands and the loch-studded Lowlands of Scotland in a book of recipes called The Highlander's Cookbook, that belonged to Bonnie's mother Norma. There is no such listing for "beer steak".

Bonnie's true claim to culinary fame, though, is her recipe for Chili Chowder Chow Chow. The chili part of the equation has little to do with the famed bowl of red. Chili may be a generic term, embellished by traditions, mostly to do with heat, but this logic does not apply here. Nor does the mixture bear any passing resemblance to the hearty dish known as chowder. It has crossed my mind that she calls it chowder in honour of the French chaudiere, meaning cauldron. But this explanation is unlikely, since the dish is prepared in the microwave.

Hostility has simmered for generations over New England versus Manhattan clam chowder (Maine once passed a bill prohibiting the integration of tomatoes with clams). But that is a minor dispute next to the intense arguments over chili recipes. In Texas, where it is considered a crime to add beans to chili, Bonnie would be looking at life, for this concoction.

Chow chow, an assortment of pickles of various types, especially mixed vegetables in mustard, must have been added solely for alliteration, because there is none here. If memory serves, this hodgepodge consists of a can of kidney beans, another of creamed corn, some tomatoes, perhaps some canned soup and whatever else might be on hand. Chili Chowder Chow Chow has little hope of gaining a following but, then again, you never know.

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