Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another First

fig. a: Michelle's panforte

We've mentioned cooking classes here at " endless banquet" before, but who ever thought we'd have the occasion to mention our own?

That's exactly what happened, though: a couple of weeks ago Michelle gave her very first cooking classes. Well, not her absolute very first cooking classes. She's been known to host free "cooking classes" for small groups of our friends on topics like making and canning your very own tomato sauce. But these were her first professional cooking classes, and they took place at a very professional, very chic location: Les Touilleurs.

fig. b: Michelle's candied fruit

The agenda for the evening consisted of three things: 1) candying fruit, including oranges, lemons, and quinces; 2) using the candied fruit to make both a fruitcake and a panforte; and 3) making an autumnal preserve, the infamous l'autrichienne, with apples, raisins, and walnuts.

I know what you're saying: "Great! What's the point of telling us after the classes took place?"

We apologize for having been remiss in advertising these events, but, frankly, the two classes were fully booked months ago, and they got fully booked almost instantly--between the time Michelle made the final arrangements with our friends at Les Touilleurs, and the time she told me later that day (!). Suffice to say, Les Touilleurs' cooking class series is very, very popular.

Anyway, the classes went exceedingly well and Michelle hopes this is just the beginning, so, should there be a "next time," dear readers, we'll do our best to get the word out to you pronto.

For more about Les Touilleurs' cooking classes, give them a call: 278-0008


Saturday, October 24, 2009

On and Off the Road 3, or KFC*

fig. a: Kaaterskill Falls

One of the prime attractions in the Catskills are the legendary Kaaterskill Falls. And when I say "legendary," I mean it. The cult of Kaaterskill Falls dates back to the early 19th century, when casual references to the Falls' breathtaking natural "amphitheater" in Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and in the work of James Fenimore Cooper turned them into a pilgrimage point for Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. Cole and the Hudson River School not only devoted themselves to the region, they established the look of the landscape of the Catskills and did much to popularize it. “Irving had dealt with the Catskills in a mood of urbane detachment; Cooper had devoted only a few pages to them. But Cole passionately identified himself with the Catskills.”

By the late 19th century a number of hotels and a railway link had been constructed to handle the tourist traffic to the Catskills, and a great deal of this activity was clustered around the Falls. Not just any old hotels, either. Catskill Mountain House was built in the 1820s and it quickly became one of the most famous hotels of its day, hosting a virtual Who's Who of America's elite over the course of the century.

fig. b: Catskill Mountain House

The Kaaterskill Hotel was built in the early 1880s as the modern (electric light, elevators, etc.) alternative to the Catskill Mountain House, and it eventually expanded into a 1,200-room behemoth.

fig. c: Kaaterskill Hotel

And soon these impressive, ornate hotels were joined by others.

fig. d: Grand Hotel

The hotels are long gone, victims of changing tastes, neglect, and disastrous fires, but at the top of the Falls you can still see evidence of the observation deck that used to provide tourists with a stunning view of the valley,** as well as plenty of graffiti, much of it dating back to the lookout's 19th-century heyday.

geological graffiti fig. e: geological graffiti

And while access to the Falls, the "amphitheater,"

k falls 3 fig. f: the top of the "amphitheater"

k falls 2 fig. g: falls, "amphitheater," swimming hole

and the gorgeous swimming hole that sits within it, is not nearly as safe and established as it once was, it's just as impressive as it ever was.

What does any of this have to do with food? Well, making your way to the "amphitheatre" is hardly a long hike, but it's treacherous*** enough that you can work up a pretty nice appetite going there and back.

We didn't bring much food with us, when we visited back in August, just some cherries for a snack. But by the time we were done, we'd worked up a most unusual appetite for fried chicken. Which is a funny thing... You see, we didn't realize it at the time, but the reason that there were two major hotels in close proximity to Kaaterskill Falls was not only due to the heavy tourist traffic that was attracted to the Catskills during the 19th century, it was also due to the so-called "Fried Chicken War."

The story goes as follows: in the summer of 1880 a famous patents lawyer named George Harding was vacationing at the Catskill Mountain House, accompanied by his wife and his ailing daughter, Emily. Now, Emily was on a strict no-red-meat diet that relied on chicken for protein. One day, early in their visit, the Hardings were informed that the dish of the day was roast beef. Mr. Harding politely demanded that his daughter be brought an order of fried chicken instead, to which the waiter refused. “Other hotels might have their supper rooms and their kitchens staffed to prepare whatever a guest might want whenever he might want it. But not the Catskill Mountain House, where the old-fashioned ordinary reigned in all its anachronistic rigidity” [my emphasis]. Well, tempers flared, and eventually Charles Beach, the owner of the Catskill Mountain House, was brought in to settle the matter. Which he did. Mr. Harding must have been sure that he Beach would decide in his favor. After all, Mr. Harding had been a patron of the Catskill Mountain House since the 1840s, and, by the 1870s he was a veritable fixture at the hotel, a man who was widely regarded as the center of the summer social scene. Instead, Mr. Beach graciously informed Mr. Harding that if it was fried chicken he wanted, he should go ahead and build his own hotel. Which he did. Harding apparently received Beach's sarcastic suggestion in silence, but inside he must have been seething, for he promptly checked his family out of the Catskill Mountain House and decided to construct “a hotel that would dwarf Beach’s Mountain House by its size and eclipse it by its modernity," not to mention a hotel that, in all likelihood, would have the common sense to serve fried chicken. The very next year, Mr. Harding opened his Kaaterskill Hotel to great to-do, and the bitter hospitality battle that ensued became known as the Fried Chicken War.

The thing is, as petty and insignificant as this incident might seem to us today, it soon developed into a small-scale civil war, one which, in some ways, came to define an era:

At once, word of the Beach-Harding struggle traveled from town to town among the Catskills and to every trading center along the Hudson River... Fervent Beachites portrayed Geroge Harding as a malevolent associate of “Grab-all Cornell”**** motivated by nothing at all but a passion for crushing Beach and destroying the prosperity of Catskill. Hardingites saw Beach as a greedy and arrogant reincarnation of Rip Van Winkle who was determined to keep the modern world from penetrating the Catskills... The rivalry between Harding and Beach came to symbolize the changes taking place. The expansion of railroads, the multiplication of hotels, the change from the old simplicities to the comforts and sophistication of the final two decades of the nineteenth century--all became reduced to two men squabbling over a fried chicken.

No joke.

Our fried chicken feast was no joke either. We made plenty of good, old-fashioned Southern-style fried chicken, with cream gravy and all the trimmings, and then we took our positions and went to battle.


Source: Alf Evers’ The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (1972) is both endlessly entertaining and authoritative. All quotes in the post above are attributable to Evers.

*Take your pick: Kaaterskill Falls Chicken or Kaaterskill Fried Chicken.

**If you look closely at fig. a, you can see the structure I'm talking about.

***As Paul Grondahl of the Times-Union put it, "[Kaaterskill Falls'] beauty is matched by its treachery." Earlier this year, the Falls claimed another victim. Making your way to the swimming hole is no high-wire act, but it's no cake walk either. If you're going to attempt the climb, you should be a seasoned hiker/climber, and you should definitely be wearing proper footwear.

****Famously, Harding had been the patents lawyer to Samuel Morse. Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University, made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Morse's (and, presumably, of Harding's).

p.s. Among the many good reasons to visit the Bronck Museum in Coxsackie, NY, is its Victorian Horse Barn, which houses impressive scale models of both the Catskill Mountain House and the Kaaterskill Hotel.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


myriade fig. a: cappuccino @ myriade

Lest one get the impression that Montreal is some kind of coffee world also-ran... Exhibit A: Café Myriade.

Without question, Myriade has been our café of the year--here, there, or anywhere. Montreal may not have its very own world-class coffee roasting operation, but at least we have people who know what to do with world-class beans when they see them.

Their formula? Top-notch beans, most of which come from Vancouver/Burnaby's ambitious and gifted 49th Parallel. Precision equipment, including a veritable arsenal of French presses, Nordic flasks, and super-high-tech Japanese siphons. Talented, meticulous, and ultra-attentive staff, all of whom appear to have been drilled in the art and science of proper coffee and tea brewing. And, get this: an in-house professional barista handbook author and an in-house competition barista who just placed second in the national championships. What's not to like? Hell, even their drip coffee is outstanding, because they make it to exacting standards and never allow it to sit any longer than 20 minutes before making a new batch.

The thing is, none of this would be worth a hoot to us if Café Myriade wasn't actually a pleasure to visit and its team wasn't so darned friendly. Which it is. And they are. In fact, sometimes, especially when the weather allows, and those big sliding glass doors are wide open, a seat at Myriade, with that perfectly prepared cappuccino (see above) sitting right in front of you, can be positively dreamy. As in: when I'm away from Montreal, as I am right now, Myriade is one of those places I dream about. A lot.

Café Myriade, 1432 Mackay, 939-1717


p.s. full disclosure: thanks to our friend LC, we got to meet the above-mentioned competition barista/co-owner, Anthony Benda, a few months ago, and when Anthony found out that Michelle was a pastry chef, well, the two of them started bouncing ideas off one another. The result of those discussions was the signature drink that won the eastern regional championships and that was showcased at the national barista championships.

Now, Anthony happened to mention that he had collaborated with Michelle on his signature drink when he was interviewed by the CBC's "Home Run" a few weeks ago, and ever since people have been stopping by to request "Michelle's coffee drink." Let us clarify: the drink was absolutely, positively Anthony's, and, unfortunately, signature drinks tend to be competition-only affairs. But, that said, Michelle is thrilled that her collaboration with Anthony was such a hit (and she hopes to get a chance to taste it herself one of these days).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Technical Difficulties

We are presently experiencing technical difficulties.

Please do not adjust your set.

last photo taken before my camera went on the fritz fig. a: shot from the hip

This moody, purely accidental shot was the last photo I managed to take before our camera went on the fritz.

Too bad, too, because there's been a lot of good food prepared and consumed here at " endless banquet" over the last several weeks.

Regular programming will resume shortly.

--the management