Last weekend I had to stay in Stratford overnight for a work assignment. I took the Beast with me. It was the first time I’ve ever slept in a king size bed.
You can fit, like, six people in one of those things.
The next morning, we considered our breakfast options while drinking coffee from some sort of coffee pod machine. I’ve been reading a lot of Calvin Trillin, an American food writer whose work often appeared in the New Yorker and who traveled the country looking for the best examples of classic American food. So I was a bit obsessed about finding a classic Canadian breakfast.
Foodie: We could go to that roadside place we passed whiled driving through Shakespeare–what was it called?
Beast: Rosemary’s. That place looked good. What about Features? It says here in the Yellow Pages that it’s the best breakfast in town. They have something called, “The Paul Bunyon” breakfast.
Foodie: Well, I don’t know how authentic-sounding that is but let’s give it a shot. I’ll also text Erinn because her friend Lisa used to live in Stratford. Maybe she’ll tell us a few places to visit.
Before we found Features though, we passed this place on Stratford’s main strip.
Foodie: Let’s go here! Look at this place! It looks amazing–and this is exactly the sort of thing Calvin Trillin would do!
Beast: Whatever you say. You go in first.
Foodie (whispering): Oh fuck no. Oh shit no. This is a bad idea.
The place was empty, save for an elderly couple sitting at different booths who jumped up when we opened the door. And the place was dead silent, save for the loud hum of a very old air conditioner affixed overtop the front door. We wanted to run away. But it was too late. The old lady, who didn’t appear to speak any English, showed us to our booth and gave us menus.
Foodie (whispering): I am so sorry!
Beast: Give me your iPhone.
Beast: Because I want to look up this place.
Foodie (handing him phone): It’s not that bad. I’m going to have a western sandwich! That’s hard to mess up.
Beast (reading from phone): Ah, Justine from restaurantica.ca advices against ordering eggs. Think about it? This place is empty–how often do they get new eggs?
Foodie: Oh it’ll be fine. What else do they say on there?
Beast: Ashleigh says, ” I suspect this place only stays open because they sell American brand cigarettes…and because the odd unsuspecting tourist accidentally wanders in for an awful meal from time to time.”
Foodie: Are you fucking kidding me? That’s hiliarous! That’s us! What a shit head I am.
Beast: I’m scared of ordering eggs but now I want a western sandwich too.
Old lady approaches.
Old lady: Order?
Foodie: We’ll have two western sandwiches please.
Old lady: Drink?
Foodie: How about two cups of coffee.
Beast: Where do you think she’s from?
Foodie: Germany? Hungary? She seems very sweet. But how does a place like this stay in business?
Beast: They must own the building. Look at the back of the menu.
Foodie: It’s 11:30 right now–maybe the place will fill up with regulars any minute. (Pause) It was rude of her not to ask what kind of bread we wanted our westerns on though. I would have liked mine on some dark rye or 12-grain.
About 20 minutes later, the nice old lady brought out two western sandwiches with some homemade fried potato wedges. And you know what? They weren’t half bad! Although, the coffee was undrinkable.
Walking the main strip of Stratford.
Foodie: I need some real coffee now please. We’ve only had shit coffee today and I’m getting grumpy.
Beast: There’s Balzac’s. I’ll buy you an espresso. And you know what?
Beast: I think we both learned a valuable lesson about authenticity today.
Beast: It doesn’t exist.
Foodie: Or maybe you can’t go looking for it: it’s got to find you.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in old book stores, antique shops and little country bakeries. We bought a rhubarb crumble pie, summer sausage, kaiser rolls and cheese curds to take home to my dad’s place in Port Stanley that night. We also wondered through a lovely park that didn’t allow dogs in it. And when the Beast saw a lady walking her dog in the park, I had to restrain him from saying something to her. I used his own brand of humour to distract him.
Foodie: Hey! Do you think this is where William Shakespeare is buried? Hahaha!
Beast: The thing is, she’s the type of lady who’d tell me to not smoke near her and the dog, even though she’s a hundred feet away. The sign clearly said, NO DOGS ALLOWED.
Foodie: We should move to Stratford! I could try and get a job at the local newspaper and you could get a job teaching stage fighting to the Festival actors! Oh, that would be good!
The Beast sat there looking very serious for a drawn-out moment, presumably considering my joke in earnest. And then he stood up and began demonstrating some of the moves he’d teach the class. He kicked his little legs and did chops with his little hairy arms. There was a lot of jumping too. And yelling, “hi-yah!” He was playing both the student and the teacher. It was overwhelming–a real tour de force. It may have been the best performance in Stratford all day.
Because we were starting to get a bit peckish, we decided to get a sandwich from the York Street Kitchen–a tiny little spot just opposite the Avon.
In keeping with our theme of authenticity, we ordered the Mennonite Sandwich, which was summer sausage, cheddar, corn relish, tomatoes, honey mustard, mayo and lettuce piled high on white country-style bread. We took it to go and found ourselves a park bench in front of the river.
It was divine.
We hit the road at about 6pm. I decided that we wouldn’t take any major highways to get to Port Stanley: instead, we’d take the country roads. The Beast seemed indifferent so away we went.
Foodie: I fucking love driving in the country. It’s probably because it’s in my blood, you know? You know that we had a corn field for a back yard practically, right? I played all day in that fucking cornfield. I built palaces in there, man. I looked like a little indian by the end of the summer. Can you say that? Indian?
Foodie: I just think this part of the province–what county is this? Perth? I just think Perth is lovely. Oh goodie! We just crossed the line into Oxford county. I’m from Elgin county but I know Oxford. Oh do I know Oxford! We competed against schools in Oxford for high school sports. My last year, our soccer team won the Oxford-Elgin Championship. Did you know that? Anyway, they’re just the prettiest counties–all the farms and rolling hills and prettiness. You know, you can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl! Is that a country song? By Shania? Or Taylor Swift? I should write a country song like that. Don’t you just love this, with the windows down and the sun shining?
Beast: ARE YOU DONE! I’M TRYING TO LISTEN TO THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS!!!!!!
Foodie: Will you turn on the GPS thing on my iPhone? I’m just not sure if I want to take this road or not coming up. Oh don’t worry–we’re not lost or anything! As if! I know these parts like the back of my hand. I grew up ’round here.
Beast: Did you just say, ’round?
Foodie: That’s how we talk ’round here. Can you see if I take this next left? I just don’t remember anything about a “Nova Scotia Line” on the way home from Tillsonburg. This is tobacco-growing country, did you know that? One summer–
Beast: How the fuck do you work this thing? It’s not working. I hate this phone.
Foodie: Is that a text from Erinn? What does it say?
Beast: It says that Rosemary’s in Shakespeare is the best truck stop.
Foodie: Oh no!!!! Are you serious? We should have gone to Rosemary’s for our authentic breakfast experience!!
Beast: We don’t need this phone. We’re going in the right direction.
Foodie: Take it easy there, city boy! Ah, better leave the navigation up to me. Just give me that phone.
Beast: NO! We are headed west so we’re fine.
Foodie: How do you know that?
Beast: SEE THAT GIANT GLOWING THING STRAIGHT AHEAD IN THE SKY? THAT’S THE SUN, DUMMY. AND IT SETS IN THE WEST.
Foodie: Oh, right.
Beast: And besides, there’s the lake to the south and Port Stanley is right on the lake. We just keep heading west and we keep following the lake. We don’t need a stupid phone.
Foodie: This is just like a country song. I’m going to write it and it’ll be called–
Beast: It’s be called “Cuntry Roads” spelled c-u-n-t-r-y.
Foodie: Don’t worry, once I hit Port Bruce we’ll be fine. And would you look at that! There’s a sign for Port Bruce! What did I tell you? Do I know these parts or what!?!
Beast: You’re behaving like a real spaz.
Foodie: Don’t blame me: blame it on the country.
We made it to idyllic Port Stanley safe and sound and had ourselves a lovely weekend, which included consuming quite a bit of wine, wonderful meals and a memorable hazelnut pavlova smothered in whipped cream and rhubarb compote. I also managed to squeeze in a couple of cuntry road runs, one of which ended at Hawk Cliff; six kilometers outside of town.
I ran past the Port Stanley water tower and turned onto Dexter Line. I ran past a horse farm, several dead toads all dried up on the side of the road and about a dozen bikers headed to the beach. Each one waved at me as they zoomed by. And then I turned onto Hawk Cliff Road.
It’s a dirt road–one I’ve been up many times before in a car, but never on foot.
I ran past farm land and meadows.
Until the road ended here.
And then I walked the path to the edge of the cliff. I remembered coming here for picnics with my mom, dad and brother. Sandwiches, chicken noodle soup in a thermos and juice, probably. Mostly, I remembered coming here, rather reluctantly, a few mornings in a row in 1986. My father woke my brother and me up well before school started and loaded us into the car, still sleepy-eyed. It must have been early autumn because it was still dark out and the tall grasses at Hawk Cliff were covered in frost. We were lucky, my dad told us, because it was the last week we could see Halley’s Comet and with some good fortune–and a pair of binoculars my mom bought us from K-Mart–we just might be able to spot it before it left for another 86 years. It took a few mornings of trying. But on the last morning, there in the tall grass with his kids probably complaining about the cold and damp and about being tired, my dad spotted the comet. “Where! Where!” We squealed, hardly knowing what to expect once he gave us each a turn with the binoculars. My brother found it next. I remember having some difficulty but eventually, I found it too–hovering over top of the jet black lake, like a pale ghost shimmying away in the night sky. It was beautiful.
I remembered all that, standing there in the tall grass with the cool lake breeze gently sweeping over me.
And I knew I was home.
York Street Kitchen: Foodie ** Beast **1/2