Sunday, March 1, 2009

This blog is history

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Silver Donald's Rustic Restaurants: Eastern and Northern Nova Scotia

February 22, 2009

Last week, I shared readers' suggestions about excellent year-round restaurants in small towns on the South Shore and the Valley. Today, guided by readers, we take a gastronomic tour of northern and eastern Nova Scotia.

Joan Czapalay reports that Reid's Bakery and Restaurant in Middle Musquodobit “has been run as a family restaurant since the 1880's. There is the Temperance Pledge mounted on the wall (which backs on to the NSLC). The bread is home-made, turkey or chicken for the House Club is freshly roasted, there are pots of homemade jam available, and the molasses jug stays on the table.”

My friend Bill Fisher suggests Kennedy's Restaurant in Middle Stewiacke, while Mary Anne White cites Fletcher's in Truro. Also in Truro, Judy and Arnold Forsythe praise Murphy’s Fish and Chips, while Herald gardening guru Jodi DeLong proposes lunch at The Wooden Hog, “where the crab and salmon cakes are regularly sold out. Their homemade soups are fabulous and so are their desserts.”

Heading westward, Joan Czapalay notes Diane's Diner in Five Islands for “great clams and chips, very good pan-fried haddock” and free country music. And in Amherst, try Duncan's Pub, suggested by CBC producer Mary Munson for its tasty and affordable lunch specials, and Old Germany, on Church Street, nominated by Madelyn LeMay. When one of her children was studying music at Mount Allison in nearby Sackville, NB, Madelyn writes, she went to Old Germany whenever she could.

“One of the owners is the cook, the other serves - and the food is incredibly good,” she writes. “I would highly recommend the spinach appetizer, which I can't reproduce no matter how hard I try, the specially-made sausage, and for dessert - my kid would highly recommend the quark and custard! And if you are looking for the best, and least expensive fresh stollen ever for Christmas, your search is over.”

Stollen, aka Weihnachtsstollen, is a German fruitcake, and a quark is a subatomic particle, a piece of software and a central European fresh curd cheese. But you knew that, didn't you?

East of Truro, several good restaurants adorn the five towns of Pictou County. Rod Desborough likes The Dock, an Irish pub on George Street in New Glasgow, for fine seafood chowder and soda bread. My fellow scribe Al Farthing singles out Cafe Italia, “owned, staffed and operated by three really hardworking, charming young women, ” and also the Eastside Family Restaurant opposite the hospital. “Been there for ages, never changes,” says Al. “Their specialty is Chocolate Cake with boiled icing. People come from far away for that.”

In Pictou, deputy mayor Ken Johnston endorses Sharon's Place Family Restaurant on Front Street for “reasonably priced home cooking in an old fashioned diner setting.” In Stellarton, Gord MacPherson says that whenever he returns from working out west, he heads immediately for The Pantry Kitchen on Foord Street, whose fish and chips are “the best I've ever had.”

Mary Munson likes Gabrieau's in Antigonish while Lloyd Daye directs our attention to the Days Gone Bye Bakery and Eatery in Guysborough, owned by Aldona and Fabian Gerrior, where “everything on the menu is homemade and very reasonably priced.” In Canso, in the very far east, Joan Czapalay praises The Last Post for great haddock dinners.

In Cape Breton, Nancy MacLean applauds the home-made food at the recently-opened Bayside in Whycocomagh. Taiya Barss, one of my favourite artists, nominates The Cedar House on the main highway across Boularderie Island, for “fish cakes, their own baked beans, and the plate I always get, the hot turkey sandwich. They also sell loaves of their own bread, containers of their baked beans, and a variety of cookies to take home. Mmm,mmmm.”

And finally, Eileen Coady points out a “little gem” on the Cabot Trail at North East Margaree called the Dancing Goat Bakery and Cafe. Opened in 2006 by a returning Margaree man named Marvin Tingley, the bakery offers assorted breads, “old-fashioned cookies including Cape Breton 'Fat Archies,' and some delightful dessert cakes and cheesecakes.” The cafe provides delicious soups, hearty sandwiches, decadent desserts, assorted coffees and teas – and glassworks by a local artist adorn the front window.

Bon appetit. In Gaelic.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Silver Donald's Rustic Restaurants: South Shore & Valley

February 15, 2009

Last month, I asked readers to tell me about good year-round restaurants in small Nova Scotian towns. Here's the first of two reports, covering the Annapolis Valley and the South Shore.

In Hantsport, Judy and Arnold Forsythe recommend the R & G Restaurant on Wednesdays for their fishbits, served with fries, garden salad or potato salad. Down the road in Wolfville, Margaret Archibald likes The Front Street Cafe, especially the fresh haddock and the bread pudding.

Also in Wolfville, with a second location in Kentville, is Paddy's Pub and Rosie's Restaurant, recommended by Robert MacNeil and others for “good food, good service and great beer brewed in house.” He and others also admire The Port, a spacious “gastropub” in nearby Port Williams, with a great menu featuring its own beers as well as local foods, notably beef and cheeses. The Port, writes chef Michael Howell, is “a collaborative community investment” with more than 40 community shareholders.

Two readers praise Vicki's in Coldbrook, which Angela Leighton describes as “a little 'hole in the wall' in a small strip mall just past Valley Volkswagen, with haddie bits and home fries to die for.” Belle Darris ranks Vicki's fish and chips “the best in the province. And don't get me started on the pies...” Vicki's recently expanded, and also includes a small fresh fish market.

In Berwick, two readers favour the Union Street Cafe -- which is on Commercial Street. My niece Sharon Kendall describes it as “quaint and cozy,” with owners who frequently host east-coast musicians. To satisfy Marjorie's haddock addiction, however, Sharon suggests Kellock's, across the street. Harvey Freeman champions a third restaurant on Commercial Street, the Driftwood Take Out, which, despite its name, actually has tables and booths, and seems to be Berwick's lunch-time hot spot..

In Middleton, journalist Scott Milsom dines at The Capitol Lounge and Grill, located in the former theatre. Calum MacKenzie, however, avoids his Friday-night cooking obligations by taking his wife and her 97-year-old Mum to Pasta Jak's on Main St. He particularly approves “the salmon and haddock dishes, pan fried and slightly browned.” Further west, Jack Swan nominates the 35-seat Lawrencetown Restaurant, whose specialties include a Saturday night bean and scalloped-potato supper.

Numerous readers passionately endorse Chez Christophe in Grosses Coques, on the French shore, where chef Paul Comeau specializes in traditional Acadian dishes like rappie pie and fricot au poutines. The restaurant was the home of Comeau's grandfather, and patrons may eat in the original kitchen with the old kitchen stove. All the seafood dishes are splendid, says Dr. Gerald Boudreau. Comeau's seafood lasagna is “uniquely delicious,” and his rappie pie with local clams is “simply heavenly.” Claire Boudreau contends that Marjorie “will adore not only the haddock, but everything else on the menu.”

In Yarmouth, Pierre Belliveau suggests Chez Bruno, just up the hill from the ferry wharf, while Margo Riebe-Butt favours Mern's for “really great home cooking” including a notable lobster poutine. Eileen Coady nominates Rudders Seafood Restaurant and Brew Pub, located in an old warehouse on the Yarmouth waterfront, for its fish cakes, pub steak, Acadian rappie pie, hot lobster sandwiches and coconut creme pie. Marjorie and I agree. In 2004, we moored our boat at nearby Killam's Wharf, and walked to a memorable dinner at Rudders.

Scott Milsom thinks that Harris's Quick and Tasty is in “Dayton, on the northern edge of Yarmouth,” while Joan Czapalay places it in Hebron -- but both recommend its seafood and pies. Author Laurent d'Entremont is a regular at the Dennis Point Cafe in Pubnico. He likes their sweet potato fries, and he vigorously applauds the seafood at the nearby Red Cap Restaurant. Marjorie agrees.

Further up the shore, Mary Anne White likes The Two Chefs in Bridgewater. In Lunenburg, Joan Czapalay suggests breakfast at Large Marge's Diner, while Madelyn LeMay favours Historic Grounds for lunch. Deborah Gass reports that The Trellis in Hubbards, within walking distance of the wharf, offers art on the walls, music on Thursday and Friday nights, and good haddock too.

That's it, gastronomes and travellers -- our readers' recommendations for year-round restaurants on the South Shore and in the Valley. Next week, eastern and northern Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton.

Bon appetit!

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living Under Cover

February 8, 2009

“The guy never went outside at all,” said my friend. “Not for a month or maybe two months. The story was in one of the papers here. He went to the theatre, shopped for food and clothing, did his banking, ate out, all kinds of stuff. He even went to Toronto and New York – and he never went outdoors.”

“He went to New York without going outdoors?”

“He went by train. The Gare Central is underground, right under your hotel. ”

We were in Montreal, strolling along the underground passageways which are said to constitute the second-largest underground city in the world, after Moscow. I had been working in Montreal for a week. I was staying at Le Reine Elizabeth, on the Boulevard Rene Levesque, and most of my meetings were on Sherbrooke Ouest, 20 minutes' walk away. The streets were choked with snow and lethally slick with ice – but I wore just a sweater as I walked past coffee shops, jewellers and haberdashers in perfect comfort.

It occurred to me that the underground network made Montreal a safer city than any other in Canada, particularly for senior citizens. Walking outdoors in the winter is a really hazardous activity for seniors. Every year, hundreds fall and break their arms and legs and hips – a significant factor in the Orange Alert at the Halifax Infirmary ER last month. Old bones don't knit quickly, and many never really recover.

The danger was brought home to me a year ago, when I suddenly found myself lying on the ice beside my car. I had taken my key out, and I was about to unlock the door – and then I was on my patootie. I don't remember slipping or falling. It was like a jump-cut in a film. One moment I was up, the next I was down. A few bruises aside, I was none the worse for the experience – but it got my attention.

Young seniors – from 60 to 80, say – often sidestep this problem by going south. You find them all over the southern US, Mexico and the islands, robust and happy, sailing and golfing and swimming. But after 80, snowbirding loses its appeal. At 85 or 90, people don't feel much like travelling, and don't travel as comfortably. They'd rather stay home, close to friends and family and doctors. And that puts them most at risk from winter conditions at precisely the point when they're least able to deal with such challenges.

In Montreal, they're fine. Their apartment buildings connect to the Métro, and the Métro takes them to the under-cover city downtown. They really don't have to emerge until spring.

So at 80, should I live in Montreal?

Why not downtown Halifax? The city already has the beginnings of a covered downtown, with pedways and tunnels running from the Prince George Hotel to the waterfront casino, and branching into apartment buildings and office towers. We don't have to burrow underground. We can just extend the pedway system to link the whole downtown, from Cogswell to the Via station. A large part of Calgary's downtown is connected that way.

In Montreal, I noticed, some of the covered space was captured simply by putting a roof over the space between existing buildings. What was once a back alley becomes a connecting courtyard with a Starbucks coffee shop. In other places, a short tunnel between buildings converts two musty basements into prime retail space. Halifax probably has a score of locations where connections like that would work.

And, although a Métro doesn't seem very practical in rock-ribbed Halifax, we could bring back the downtown streetcars, looping down Barrington and up Water Street, with stations right inside such major buildings as Scotia Square and the Westin. Alternatively, could we use a light elevated rail system like the one that connects the terminals at JFK Airport

I'm no planner, and these notions may be unworkable. Fine: let's hear better ones. The point is that we're about to have a tsunami of seniors, and it would be good for them – and for everyone else, too – if we made it possible to live a safe and active life in the middle of the city all year round.

We know it can be done. Vive le Montreal!

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Monday, February 2, 2009

The Big Lie about Deficits

February 1, 2009

The Big Lie theory was enunciated by Adolf Hitler.

The masses, said Hitler, in “the primitive simplicity of their minds..more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie.” We all tell small lies, and people easily recognize them. But real whoppers, frequently repeated – the Holocaust never happened, for instance – often succeed, because people cannot believe that anyone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Was Hitler right? Consider this whopper: conservatives handle money prudently, while “tax-and-spend liberals” are financially irresponsible. That's the exact opposite of the truth – but this Big Lie has been so often repeated by the right that it's rarely even questioned.

Look, for instance, at the recent interview between Maclean's editor-in-chief, Kenneth Whyte, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Talking about upcoming deficits, Whyte asks, “Do you think it's fair to say that the big-spending liberals of Canada and North America are taking advantage of the political situation to drive through more of their ideological agenda?” And Harper's reply concludes, “That is a significant risk, which is why I think it's important to have a Conservative government managing this kind of program.”

Whyte purports to be a journalist, but he performs like a Conservative shill. His question is drenched in falsehood.

Pierre Trudeau, a big Liberal spender, did leave Canada with a hefty debt. But Mulroney's Conservatives, as Jean Chretien once commented, “took Trudeau's $160 billion federal debt... and 'reduced' it after eight years to $450 billion and climbing.” Mulroney's last annual deficit was $42 billion – higher than even Harper's current proposals. A full 94% of the deficit, Statistics Canada reported, was due to Mulroney's tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, and to his government's high interest-rate policies.

Slashing ferociously, Chretien's Liberals routed the deficit in their first four years, and ran fat surpluses thereafter. In the US, the “tax-and-spend liberal” Bill Clinton inherited a record $290-billion deficit from Ronald Reagan and George the First. He balanced the books in his second term and bequeathed a $236-billion surplus to George Dubya. By 2009, Dubya – a self-described “fiscal conservative” – was projecting a record deficit of $482 billion, largely due to irresponsible tax cuts and reckless military commitments. And that was even before the meltdowns and bailouts.

In Nova Scotia, the Hamm government inherited an $11-billion debt, much of which derives from the spendthrift Tory regime of John Buchanan. The Tory story contends that Hamm balanced the budget in 2002, and that all subsequent provincial budgets have been in surplus. In addition, an $830-million offshore windfall was applied to the debt. The bottom line, notes Halifax accountant Ian Crowe, is that the debt magically “shrank” from $11 billion to $12.3 billion. Wha --?

I nominate for the Solid Brass Award the newly-minted Tory Senator Stephen Greene, who uses the spectre of deficits to flog Nova Scotia's NDP. At a recent nomination meeting, Green reportedly compared Darryl Dexter to the communist rulers of North Korea and Cuba, and urged Tories to “remember the havoc under NDP Premier Bob Rae in Ontario.”

Ah yes, Bob Rae, the Ogre of Ontario. As Rae took office in 1990, Ontario was already heading into recession and projecting a $700 million deficit. Rae tried to blunt the recession's impact using even larger deficits. He failed. But if recession-fighting deficits were bad policy then, why are the federal Tories embracing them now?

And what about Manitoba's NDP Premier Gary Doer, running ten budget surpluses in a row while cutting taxes and improving social services? Anybody remember the balanced budgets of Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan? And the looting of the Saskatchewan treasury by the Tories under Grant Devine, which sent the deficit to $1.2 billion and landed a dozen Tories in the slammer for fraud?

Canada's greatest socialist, Tommy Douglas, held off implementing medicare for 15 years, until he was sure that Saskatchewan could afford it. Why? You can't build social democracy, Douglas argued, if the bankers can stop you by calling your loans. That's not a problem for right-wing governments – but it gives left-wing governments a lively allergy to deficits.

And anyone who tells you otherwise is spreading a Big Lie.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cheerful Little Restaurants

January 25, 2009

The sauerkraut was bright, crisp and tangy, and the sausages were robust and spicy – just what I wanted. The waiter was an attentive, good-humoured middle-aged man named Burt – the only male server for miles around, he said.

“How's your haddock?” I asked. Marjorie has extensive knowledge of pan-fried haddock.

“Perfect,” said Marjorie.

“This place is a find,” I said. It was noon-hour, and the restaurant was packed.

We were in Bridgewater, at Waves Seafood and Grill – an undistinguished-looking store-front in a thoroughly ordinary strip mall. The décor was clean and simple, but far from fancy – booths, tables, vinyl floor with pools of meltwater.

But the patrons were voluble and happy, and no wonder. The service was first-rate, the food was excellent, and the menu bespoke the location. You could get any of the staple lunches of small-town restaurants – chops, liver, the always-safe clubhouse sandwich. But we were in Lunenburg County, you, so the menu also offered seafood, sauerkraut, sausage – food that reflected the taste that Lunenburgers brought from Germany 250 years ago.

“There are other restaurants like this around the province,” I said. “There's a little place called Crofter's in New Glasgow. It's in a little strip mall on the Stellarton Road. Good solid food, historical photos on the walls, and an unobtrusive Scottish character, as befits New Glasgow. Great staff, great value.”

That's not just my opinion. When I later went prowling online, I found Crofter's described as “cozy, interesting and friendly.”

“I don't know what we expected,” wrote one happy patron, “but this restaurant exceeded our expectations. Good fresh seafood, good steak, helpful hostess, attractive, pleasant and efficient waitress, good ambiance.”

“I remember Crofter's,” Marjorie said. “The pan-fried haddock was really good. And what about the Fleur de Lis in Port Hawkesbury?”

Same story – a simple but welcoming little restaurant in a strip mall, with excellent food which reflects the proprietors' Acadian origins. The last time I was there, a happy lunchtime crowd made it hard to get a seat. I had Acadian fish-cakes with homemade baked beans and thick slices of bread – delicious, hearty and affordable. Marjorie was equally pleased with her meal. In a wild spasm of experimentation, she chose the haddock burger.

And again, the online comments agree. “Oh, this is such a good little restaurant,” writes one patron of the Fleur-de-Lis. “Easy to miss because it's tucked away in the shopping strip mall---near Sobey's. But oh the food is good especially the apple or blueberry crisp. We always eat there when we are in Cape Breton which is at least twice a year. Don't miss this place!!!”

And I was charmed by another Web endorsement from a much younger critic: “i love this restaurant since my mo owns it, (brenda chisholm) i am candice chisholm and I am 13 years old. I guarantee that you will have food at its best from this restaurant so if you go, please enjoy”

You bet, Candice.

These three restaurants are open all year, as is The Knot Pub in Lunenburg, acclaimed as one of Canada's best pubs – and who am I to argue? Once again, The Knot knows where it is – in a German-rooted seaport – so the interior is all rope and blocks, navigation lamps, flags, casks and nameplates. The sauerkraut and seafood is excellent, and so is the house beer, a “Knots Ale” brewed by Propeller. (And, says Marjorie, so is the haddock.)

These cheerful little restaurants are all located in market towns – small communities, but large enough to sustain a year-round business. They're in high-traffic locations with ample parking. They're attuned to their markets, catering to local tastes and budgets. They compete very successfully with fast-food chain restaurants – and they've been around for a while.

I'm sure there are similar restaurants in comparable towns that I'm less familiar with – Amherst, Kentville, Yarmouth. (In fact I'd like to hear about such restaurants; if you have one to suggest, drop me a line at ). Unpretentious, reliable and welcoming, these little restaurants have all built loyal, local followings, and they lift the heart of a winter traveller who's lucky enough to find one.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Allan Blakeney: A Genuine Public Servant

January 18, 2009

“There are disadvantages in being in government in a small province,” writes Allan Blakeney in his recent memoir, An Honourable Calling (University of Toronto Press, 2008). “But there advantages, too. One of them is that the smaller scale allows one to plan and bring about many changes in a short time.” Denizens of Province House, please pay attention.

Blakeney hails from Bridgewater, NS, but he made his mark as NDP Premier of Saskatchewan from 1971 to 1982. His adopted province, he comments, has a long history as “a social laboratory for Canada.” In 1944, it gave us North America's first democratic socialist government, headed by the legendary Tommy Douglas, who soon brought in universal hospital insurance, followed in 1962 by Canada's first medicare program. Canadians today regard medicare as a defining feature of our country – but it was fiercely opposed at the outset, and it only came about after a bitter month-long strike by the province's doctors.

Blakeney was a minister in Douglas' cabinet, and in Woodrow Lloyd's after Douglas moved on to become the first federal leader of the NDP. He succeeded Lloyd as party leader in 1970, and became Premier after winning the provincial election of 1971.

Does it make a difference which party is in power? You bet it does.

Ross Thatcher's outgoing Liberal government had instituted user fees in medicare, and barred strikes in essential services. In its first two weeks in office, Blakeney writes, the NDP reversed both decisions – and also “we removed the medicare tax for people over 65; we reduced hours of work before overtime provisions kicked in; we gave extra protection to farmers against the seizure of their land and machinery by creditors; and we removed charges against the estates of patients who had received treatment for mental illness.”

That was the first fortnight. Blakeney's NDP later implemented Canada's first 40-hour work week, along with longer annual vacations, equal pay for women, and maternity and bereavement leave. It introduced Canada's highest minimum wage – and although business objected, as it always does, profits went up. “Employees who get good wages spend their money,” says Blakeney, “ and – big surprise – employers do well.”

The NDP's vision has always included an enhanced version of universal, comprehensive and accessible medicare that would include drug costs and dentistry, a vision still unfulfilled nationally. More than 30 years ago, however, Blakeney's Saskatchewan had both.

In 1971, Saskatchewan had the lowest per-capita ratio of dentists in Canada, and many families lived more than 50 miles from the nearest dentist. The government created a corps of 400 “dental therapists”with two years of training to provide routine dental services and dental hygiene instruction to all school children. The program was both effective and popular.

Pharmacare, meanwhile, made prescription drug coverage available to everyone. At its heart were “standing offer contracts” with major drug manufacturers based on public tenders for six-months' supplies of approved drugs. The tenders drove basic drug costs down, but pharmacies received an agreed mark-up and a dispensing fee. Normally, the province paid for the drug, and the patient paid the dispensing fee. The plan covered over 90% of the people using prescription drugs in the province.

Blakeney's government was ultimately defeated by Grant Devine's Progressive Conservatives. Blakeney led his party into one more unsuccessful election before retiring. Meanwhile, the Devine government dismantled the dental plan, turning dental care over to private clinics. It also modified the drug plan, says Blakeney, by introducing “financial barriers, with the result that fewer than 20 per cent of the potential beneficiaries received financial support.”

The dental program was never reinstated, although the pharmacare program was later revived. Blakeney notes that the same principles could guide a comprehensive national pharmacare scheme which would produce “massive savings for Canadians, either as taxpayers or patients or both.”

In office, Blakeney confronted many other major issues of late 20th-century Canada -- the National Energy Policy, the Constitution, uranium, native affairs, NAFTA, potash, rural decline and more. What dominates his book, though, is the deep decency of the man and his political philosophy, his in-the-bones vision of a society at once rational, prudent and caring. Canada owes a great deal to Saskatchewan – and to the Nova Scotian who was once its premier.

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