Home in 11 Meals

Toronto: land of diverse food options.

How to summarize 2 and a half weeks home? The place that I grew up, where everyone I ever knew and loved lives? Where I did stuff, and saw people, and slept in a comfortable bed and had constant air-conditioning, and regular, unrestricted access to a pool? I could allow you to swim in the sea of my neurotics, on the mixed feelings I got about returning to Korea when everything at home just seemed so perfect (except for that whole, you know, joblessness thing). I could talk about how weird and how good it feels to be back in the adopted home. But food is evocative, and it provides me a nice narrative structure when I couldn’t hash another out, so here we go: Toronto in 11 meals.

  1. My plane arrived 5 hours behind schedule, and thus my planned “Surprise! I’m home!” bomb would have to wait until the morning. I was also starving, and my sister, bedraggled from working insane hours, was plenty happy to stop and pick us up actual, Canadian pizza. At the corner of Kipling and Rexdale, we waited in the parking lot of the Pizza Pizza, one of the outlets that serves Halal meat because of local demand. The air was fresh like I couldn’t believe, the night was hot. We sat on her living room floor and ate pizza and potato wedges and made bets on whether our mother would cry or have a heart attack when we dropped my arrival on her the following day.
  2. The sun was beating down, it was late afternoon. One of the hottest days Toronto has had on record. I took up my sister’s offer to go to a theme park, and we sit under the boughs of a low hanging tree, away beside some stand selling bottles of pop for 4 dollars. Pigeons stand sentry nearby, opportunists waiting for any hint of food to bedropped. I share enormous funnel cakes, drenched in ice cream, strawberries, and syrup, with my sister, her daughter, my cousin and his nephew. Both of the kids are growing tall at obscene rates. I prod them with questions about the school year that has passed, and the one to come. They’ve grown a lot. It seems like no time has passed since I last saw them, but at the same time, it seems like a lot. The ice cream melts almost instantaneously, and the plates are soon covered in a strawberry soup.

    Stop distracting me with politics, bring me to the Vietnamese food.

  3. I take my first trip into downtown Toronto, and meet Josh in Chinatown. We eat bánh mì at a deliriously cheap Vietnamese restaurant, and drink bottles of amazing beer on Queen street. It is made with apricots. Seeing Josh, a friend made in Korea, is like running into a character from a dream in real life. The beer is better than any beer I have had since moving to Korea. We nearly weep.
  4. Hayley and I eat obscene amounts at a buffet, and she catches me up on her time in the sketchiest parts of London, teaching the offspring of chavs and slags. We haven’t seen each other much since graduation, and it seems absurd that we will only have one evening, spent at Mother Tucker’s of all places, to catch up and slake our thirst for friendship for a whole year. Two booths over, someone we come to describe as Kanye West-like stays longer than we do, and puts away more than both of us put together, I like to think. There is some sort of raucous party happening in another area of the restaurant; people are standing on tables.
  5. Damon offered me a choice between our usual ethnic food obsessions, but the long deprivation made it like choosing amongst dying children. We ate shwarmas and I mewled about the lack of quality in Korean simulacra shwarmas I had purchased; we talked about the children we had both taught, and the layers of intrigue developing at one of the schools where we had both learned to be teachers. Soon after we were on the rooftop of the bar where I spent most of teacher’s college; here again suddenly, we drink for hours and develop sunburns. The first few pints were non-negotiable, simply agreed upon just by entering a bar with one another. By 4 and 5, each was debated, and we hemmed and hawed before our long-suffering barmaid, then easily succumbed. When the prospect of sixth loomed, I demanded that we order food: an absurd hub-cap of pub nachos, which we somehow managed to consume. It was 5 p.m. — I don’t know how I managed to get home.

    Wedding cakes are just better at midnight.

  6. The wedding. It is at the Old Mill, the height of simulated class. The meal is fine, but the quality is subsumed under how happy I am to be there, so it doesn’t matter. Also there is an open bar, and a midnight buffet. I stuff myself with sandwiches and cake at 1 a.m. People later tell me the cake had weird frosting, but I don’t actually remember the taste, just the joy of having it at midnight, and at receiving fuel to continue partying with my family.
  7. I take my mother out for lunch, after I try to purchase some sweaters and she demands to get them for me as advance Christmas presents. She hates the prospect of another Christmas I won’t be home, even if she doesn’t talk about it. She puts no pressure on me when I’m home, only happy that I’m there. While I’m running all across town, she never raises any qualms that this is also her only chance to see me before I disappear for another year. I should have had lunch with her every day.
  8. I have dinner and drinks with my cousin, Zack. We talk about my future, and his. I’ve spent a lot of time on this trip with my cousins, and he’s one who I’ve come to know the best. He plans on visiting me in Korea, and travelling beyond. If he does, that’ll be three continents we’ve trudged across together.
  9. In Little Italy, Nancy forgets how big the large pizzas are when she orders 2 for us. She figures that since it will be thin crust, it will be more easily digestible. It is sweltering, and we sit under a Keith’s umbrella, drinking bitter sangria with mounds of frozen fruit. The pizzas are enormous. There is so much cheese. We wage a war against these pizzas and lose.

    Eat until you die.

  10. We are once again at a buffet, my last dinner out with my family. We mention only briefly that this is our last meal together, because why talk about the obvious. I’ve barely seen my father, because work has put him on the night shifts: he plans to come to Korea in the new year, and I feel fairly confident they won’t switch me to night school when he does. My sister notes the kimchi on display near the sushi, and I turn my nose up at its lack of quality. We have all mentally calculated how long I may be away from home this time; I want to get another plate to prolong our dinner together. When we get back home, my father goes to work, and while we watch a movie, my sisters and my niece fall asleep. They say goodbye to me one by one. Megan visits me until just past midnight, to get in her goodbye.
  11.  It is 5:30. I shellack toast made in a real toaster with home-made jam. My mother has fretted for two weeks that she did not make fresh jam so that I could take a jar with me, a distillation of how they all just wish that I’ll be safe, and happy, and also be-jammed no matter where I go. We leave for the airport together, and we try not to talk about me leaving again.

16 thoughts on “Home in 11 Meals

  1. Powerful stuff. Not about food at all, really, but all the emotional connections you miss.

    I had a meal with a new friend I made recently in Minneapolis and we had a fantastic wine and he said “But it will never taste this good next time because it won’t be this evening.”

    I’m also from Toronto and always look forward to eating there when I go back to visit…schnitzel at Prague deli on Queen Street, a few Tim Hoton’s doughnuts and, yes, maybe even a butter tart or two.

  2. This post starts out innocently enough — oh, look! A neat post about the food on a trip home! — and sucker-punches your readers with meaning and import and all that stuff.

    Well done.

    I continue to bow to your superior bloggerness 🙂

  3. Michael, as you know, I did stop by to see you at home on your last day but as I now know you were out having one of your “11 Meals”. It is amazing how you have captured life from the perspective of meals but you hit the spot. Sorry we missed the midnight buffet but as you know we too had just arrived back in Canada from England/Scotland the night before so were still on a clock five hours ahead. Cheers, Glenn (P.S. As you can probably see I am getting caught up on your Blog)

  4. I visited Toronto just a month ago ….I used to live there for 20 years before relocating westward.

    So you didn’t have peameal bacon sandwiches at the St. Lawrence Market or lovely custard Greek pastries at a nice bakery in Greektown?

    Great you had a good visit home. And yes, spend more time treating your mother to lunch, brunch, etc.

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