The Tomato


Vittles In Viking

by J.P. Priest

Priest was in Viking, just passing through. Viking and district have a population of just 1,080. Viking was begun more than a hundred years ago by North European settlers. Right, Vikings — smack in the middle of rural Alberta.

Where was Viking’s classiest eatery? A young trucker on the highway wearing a huge rodeo buckle had said he had indeed heard that there was one. He reported it to be downtown right next to the bank.

And so, when he had driven the length of Viking’s ancient and dusty street, had duly noted the Swedish, Swiss and Norwegian flags blown out straight by an evil wind, Priest found it. Yes, right next to the bank. What was he letting himself in for?

So, just to define things, food was what Priest was after. Some of the quirkiest eateries in the world are in small towns, but they have to be found and dug out. They do not have golden arches, nor will the local populace gush to passers-through about them.

Priest has sympathy with truckers who wear big belt buckles. They have to grab lunch at convenience stores, which offer mostly garbage to eat. And parking. One could not park a semi-trailer downtown and leave the engine running through lunch. Pizza and fries, hamburgers and fries, hot dogs with ketchup in little plastic sachets. And all on paper plates. If plates at all.

Priest was chuffed to be able to escape the heartburn which inevitably followed upon any of that. And he was not, today, here for grabbing anything at all.

Flair. The hole in the wall right across from the handsome old red-brick bank had something about flair in its title. Just before noon, which is the right time to hit these places, Priest slid in through the glass doors and sat himself down in a corner. He had hunger, he was sharp-set, he had a keen desire for lunch. He had done his part in bringing an appetite; could he expect that he would be rewarded?

There was a hot table which had, just minutes before, been loaded up.

Not a banquet. Just a few items. Simple. Simple is good.

This day’s offerings were of the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn and over-salted gravy persuasion. And carrots. Wonderful carrots. Three kinds of salad in glass bowls all of them swamped with mayo. Also cabbage rolls, according to a peculiar Viking formula. Cabbage rolls in the vernacular, and make no mistake — the Ukrainian style.

Lots of dark meat, the turkey slices had somehow been kept moist and were tasty. Which is quite a trick. Turkey has a suicidal way of drying out, it becomes chewy and gives up its flavour to the air. Gone forever. And then it is unfit for anything but soup. Around Thanksgiving, tomorrow’s soup is always anchored to turkey.

Mayo won’t kill you but it will make you fat. A cook with any creative imagination can mix together a dressing for a salad, which beats mayo. What do you need? Vinegar, oil, dry mustard, a whiff of soya sauce, some piri piri, not much salt and a whiz in a blender. There!

You know about piri piri? Priest will tell you. But not right here.

Corn is a cop-out on a hot table. Dull and tough going. A microwaved write-off. On the cob and straight out of the garden, it is a dream rolled in butter. More than two cobs will get you cardiac hassles. Watch out for butter.

Priest really tucked into that bird meat. But, without doubt, the carrots were the best part of the meal. Those dark-orange, thick-sliced, flavoursome carrots were not from a plastic sack in Super Foods; they were from someone’s garden. Crisp, al dente and again with butter.

The cook, the harpy with the flying hair, had steamed them with a handful of fresh dill weed. Carrots and dill should always go together. A proper and a formal wedding. A blissful and enduring union. Give us this day our daily carrots: and this day’s carrots at the flair were delicious.

Enough poetry, what about the food? Two items which make food taste truly notable and memorable are grease and salt. A pygmy in the Kalahari bush, eating eight pounds of giraffe haunch at a sitting, will tell you the same: grease and salt. Both are murder on your pump. Pygmies do not live all that long.

Grease will clog up the delivery side of your heart. And salt will entrain far more liquid than is needed to be pumped around. That will give your heart far too much work to do; it will get tired, it will feeble out, it will flutter and miss like a miled-out beater. And then where will you find another and who will then undertake to install it?

Butter is likely the best tasting grease there is and the most versatile. Most French chefs should stand trial for their lethal use of butter. But butter and dill, no doubt about it, make a dish of carrots taste really fine.

It was the potatoes. The potatoes made this meal truly distinctive. Alone on the hot table, they had not been contaminated with butter. Mashed? No, they had been smashed. They had been busted up. Those potatoes had been subdued with a two-handed, double-edged Viking broad sword. The variety had been chosen well. A waxy type, not floury and prone to blow away. And there was not a fleck of darkness in the whole pan. The spuds were as clean-peeled as the plates were polished. Work had gone into these. And they were much appreciated, at least by Priest.

We are in deep-dug, hundred-year-old rural Alberta, he reflected: we are not in Calgary’s Cattleman’s Club where the steaks are as big as the foot size of the patrons. Who knows what weapons this culinary Valkyre kept in the backseat of her SUV? But she had used a method of prepping spuds clearly unknown to Auguste Escoffier.

Say Escoffier to any fancier of the beloved potato and you are suddenly talking a special language. Old Auguste lived for 88 years in Paris and, mercifully, was spared the shame of witnessing that grisly second world war. Escoffier spent his very productive life persuading the feinshmeckers of Paris that potatoes were not just peasant food. They could be posh.

Potatoes could be classy in many manifestations, light and heavenly in their flavour. Sublime. He cooked spuds in a lot of different ways but he clearly hadn’t come upon the Viking method.

Escoffier was a digger-out and a developer of new stuff in the culinary world. He might have posted on facebook, had he lived longer: does the two-handed broadsword have a place in the kitchen? That would have got something going.

There was a dessert (a canned-fruit and suspicious pastry creation) but Priest had gone back for extras of those exceptional carrots. No dessert for him.

A grand meal in a lot of modest ways. No, not grand but certainly good and worthwhile stopping for. Twelve bucks. And tipping, it seems, is not the done thing in Viking. Spoken compliments, neither. They are a tight-lipped lot in good old Viking.

No, he can’t tell you the name of the place. That would bring on a lawsuit at least. Or, worse, he might get a chopping up from that broadsword. But there is more of Viking to get under the skin of. Priest will surely stop there again to see what’s cooking.

Priest is the mayor of a small Alberta town, a grower of vegetables and cooker of epics, when his wife lets him.

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