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Malcolm Jolley: Recalling a fantastic food year: Three iconic lunches of 2022

Commentary

This column was devised as a thinly disguised appeal to my editors to furnish me with a large expense account. I thought I could take prominent interview subjects out for boozy lunches, in the way that the British financial papers do. I would pick my subjects based solely on their epicurean and oenophile qualifications and write profiles long enough for at least three courses and two bottles worth of deep inquiry.

Then, I had second thoughts. That arrangement would, I came to realize, neither be good for my girlish figure nor my liver. The quality of notes taken might also be reflected in whatever mangled copy I handed in. In any event, the failed plot did remind me how much I like a good lunch in good company and inspired what follows.

For me, 2022 was a crazy year of travel and gastronomic excess. I made up for two years of rarely straying far from home by getting on as many planes as I could. When I think back on the whirlwind of the year, the moments of calm, when they came, were often at lunch; a pause in the middle of the day to reflect on the adventure. Here are three that made my year.

Month: February

Place: Quebec City

Food: French onion soup

Wine: Niagara Resiling

On our first venture out of Southern Ontario since the pandemic hit in March of 2020, my wife and I flew to Quebec City. There we would meet our eldest son and his girlfriend and drive up the St. Lawrence to the Charlevoix to ski for a couple of days. Their train arrived a few hours after our flight, so we had a layover lunch. It was brutally cold, though the sun shone brightly. There will still COVID restrictions and we couldn’t find an open restaurant when we walked from the parking lot of the train station through the lower town.

We decided to head up the stairs of the cliff towards the Chateau Frontenac, which we reasoned would have a restaurant that was open. Once we were there, we were surprised to find a crowd of people coming and going from the hotel and a lobby full of more. It was, we figured, a school holiday in Quebec, and half of Montreal and their kids had come to Quebec City for a getaway. Life had returned after the lockdowns, and people were eager to travel and stay in a bed different from their own.

We lined up for a table at the restaurant off the lobby and got one after a few minutes. Hot soup to warm up and a glass of wine. It was good to see a familiar label: the CSV Riesling from Niagara’s Cave Spring. A reminder that at least goods were still traveling around the country, even if people hadn’t been.

Month: April

Place: A vineyard on the Loire

Food: Oysters from the Brittany coast

Wine: Muscadet Champtoceaux

It’s less than 100 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean to the castle town of Ancenis, where a bridge crosses the Loire River, about halfway between Nantes and Angers. The Domaine des Galloires sits downriver from the bridge on the rise of a hill whose vines of Melon de Bourgogne slope gently into the valley. Galloires is about as east as Melon gets, as the grape is particularly fond of the cooler weather that rolls in from the sea.

I am at the winery with a group of international wine journalists, and we’re here for lunch, which is a spread of innumerable local French delicacies on several tables under a big tent on the lawn next to the winery buildings. It’s a warm spring day, the sun is shining, and, having spent the morning at the Angers convention centre tasting and spitting wines, were glad for the fresh air, for the view of the river, and the occasional medieval church spire in the distance. We’re also grateful for the Muscadet; there are dozens to try with a few sips and maybe a spit onto the grass, or maybe a swallow since it is lunch.

I don’t remember everything there was to eat; mostly the local cheese and honey from the vineyard’s bees we finished with and the “dish” almost everyone started with: Belon oysters fresh from the Atlantic. Never mind Chablis, Muscadet is the wine for oysters, grown almost next to the beds on the Brittany coast they came from. No sauce, not even lemon, just the crisp citrussy white wine, deepened from months on the lees. Life is good with each swallow.

Month: November

Place: Los Angeles

Food: Spaghetti alle vongole

Wine: Gavi

The Mauro Café used to be the restaurant in a fancy boutique department store on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. The store has changed hands and names, and the restaurant seems to be its own thing. It’s still physically part of the building complex that houses the store (or stores, I’m not sure), but now you have to exit one to get into another. The way to do that is to go outside by the parking lot behind the buildings.

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This is LA, and anything bigger than a single storefront will have a parking lot. What’s fun about Mauro is that the parking lot also doubles as a patio. It’s a perfect Hollywood juxtaposition of fancy fine dining and casual, slightly jerry-rigged surroundings. And besides, the best views are of the people, like the group of Boomer friends, with not one but two gentlemen sporting Karl Lagerfeld-style ponytails.

I am at a table with my wife and my youngest son, whose Godfather lives in LA, and who we have come to see. We are happy to escape the gloomy grey skies of Toronto in November for some California sunshine and one last lunch outdoors. I have a salad, because it’s LA and they know how to make salad. It does not disappoint: butter lettuce with a shallot vinaigrette.

Then, the main event: spaghetti alle vongole with Manila clams from the Pacific. It’s a perfect West Coast version of the Italian classic, and I wash it down with a Gavi from the North of Italy, whose lean acidity is said to be encouraged by its winemakers to pair with Ligurian seafood. It works, cleansing the palate after each meaty and garlicky bite and fortifying the body and mind for the adventures to come in the afternoon.

Howard Anglin: The top 10 non-Christmassy Christmas movies

Commentary

There are two kinds of Christmas movies: movies about Christmas qua Christmas—the Christian feast celebrated on the 25th of December—and movies that happen to take place at Christmas. Only the former are, strictly speaking, Christmas movies, but what fun would life be if we always spoke strictly? 

If you want to insist that a movie cannot be a true Christmas movie if its central theme is about something other than redemption through divine intervention, that’s fine. I’ll even concede that you have the better of the argument, as long as you promise to go away and enjoy the warm seasonal glow of sanctimonious rectitude alone and leave the rest of us to enjoy a more eclectic selection of holiday movies. 

My list of the top 10 non-Christmassy Christmas movies is inspired by Jeet Heer. Unless you waste a lot of time on Twitter, or are one of the few remaining readers of The Nation—a venerable New York magazine that has never fully moved on from its earlier Stalinist apologetics and now reads like the splenetic propaganda organ of a particularly paranoid progressive cult—you are unlikely to have encountered Mr. Heer. If not, imagine Cliff Clavin … if he’d spent too many years marinating in the cultural studies department at Canada’s loopiest grad school, York University. 

To give Heer his due, he is a gifted writer, albeit one with a special talent for self-parodic contrarianism. Case in point, two years ago, he tweeted the following list of the five best Christmas movies: 

1. Fanny and Alexander 

2. Eyes Wide Shut 

3. Metropolitan 

4. The Dead 

5. Brazil 

It’s such a preposterous list, so self-consciously over-the-top in its pompous provocation, that one can only applaud the conceit. And the funniest part is, he’s not wrong. Well, perhaps Eyes Wide Shut is a stretch, but Heer seems to have a thing for the movie. In the last four years, he’s tweeted more than a dozen times about it being either Kubrick’s best movie, which is absurd, or the best Christmas movie, which is both absurd and unnecessarily revealing. 

But everyone gets his own gout, or whatever it is the French say, so I’ll refrain from further comment and instead provide my own definitive contrarian-but-correct top 10 list. You won’t find much recent Hollywood fare, and you definitely won’t find Richard Curtis’s smarmy creep-fest, Love Actually, so inexplicably beloved by people who wouldn’t recognise love, actually, if Socrates dropped by dressed as Cupid and read them the Symposium underscored by the overture to Tristan und Isolde.

Instead, these are the movies to watch after the mandatory viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Scrooge (the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, still the best of all Christmas movies), while there is still sherry in the decanter and dishes or guests to avoid. Here they are, in no particular order, beginning with the ones Heer got right:

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

A five-hour epic about an unhappy home life in early 1900s Uppsala might sound like a bit of a slog, and it is, but it is also one of the most beautiful movies ever shot, and the first hour, which shows the family in happier times, captures a postcard-perfect Swedish Christmas celebration, including snowy streets, a nativity play, real candles flickering on the tree, and a Christmas party from an age when adults still dressed like grown-ups.

Metropolitan (1990)

Imagine if Fitzgerald wrote a John Hughes movie. Whit Stillman’s debut follows a group of college-age UHBs (“urban haute bourgeoisie”) as they navigate the Manhattan Christmas party season at the fag end of the 1980s. Stillman (drawing on personal experience) is probably too sympathetic to a decadent class out of time in a world undergoing revolutionary change beyond the ballrooms of the Plaza and the Pierre and their parents’ Upper East Side parlours. Then again, the cultural elite that has replaced them is coarser and uglier in every way. 

The Dead (1987)

The dying John Huston directed his daughter Angelica Huston, who is luminous as the female lead, in this adaptation of James Joyce’s story of the same name—to my mind the greatest of short stories. Mostly faithful to the original text, the movie captures cinematically the melancholy of Joyce’s meditation on love and marriage, ending with his sublime lyrical description of snow falling “all over Ireland.”

Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece gets better with each passing year as it feels less premonitory and more like prophecy. The futuristic world in which ordinary lives are smothered (sometimes literally) by technology and bureaucracy, subject to constant surveillance by a government marked equally by incompetence and corruption, and sustained by recycled entertainment and the grotesque surgical pursuit of perpetual youth doesn’t look so fantastical in 2022. A work of unique genius: Orwell as translated by Monty Python.

The Thin Man (1934)

Finally, something lighter. A champagne cocktail of a movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age. A detective caper featuring the wittiest, prettiest couple trading top-shelf banter as they chase the titular villain around New York, dog in tow, sustained by a cataract of cocktails (someone once counted how many Nick drinks in the movie: 21). This pre-Hays Code gem is, alas, almost impossible to find today (the last time I saw it was projected on the brick wall of a Washington DC bar), but it’s worth the effort. 

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Trading Places (1983)

Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis. What more do I need to say? Oh, and it’s directed by John Landis at the height of his zany powers. A topsy-turvy morality tale whose ending gives us a taste of the justice that Wall Street’s titans deserved after the Global Financial Crisis, but never got. 

The Lion in Winter (1968)

And you think you have a dysfunctional family for the holidays. It’s Christmas 1183 and Henry II (Peter O’Toole) must decide which of his three flawed sons will inherit the kingdoms of England and Aquitaine. His decision is complicated by his waspish wife, Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn, who shared the Oscar for Best Actress), a plotting King of France (Timothy Dalton), and the King of France’s half-sister, who has been promised to whichever son will inherit the throne and also happens to be Henry’s mistress. As the overlooked son, Geoffrey, says, “Ah, Christmas, warm and rosy time, the wine steams, the Yule log roars, and we’re the fat that’s in the fire.”

In Bruges (2008)

A mordant, talkative, and blood-soaked gangster movie set in Bruges, the picturesque limbo for two Irish hired guns waiting for their fate to be decided by a viciously smarmy English crime boss. If it doesn’t sound like Christmas fare, that’s probably because you are the normal, well-adjusted sort. For the rest of us, it’s a profound, and at times profoundly funny, reflection on the pitiless logic of vengeance and the possibility of redemption.

Das Boot (1981)

The alternating tension and tedium of a German U-Boat mission on the eve of Christmas 1941 is unrelenting and exhausting. Shot with fanatical devotion to detail in an authentic reproduction of the cramped corridors of a World War II submarine, it may be a stretch to call it a Christmas movie, but it is one of the very best war movies, and one of the best movies, period, of the last fifty years. 

Die Hard (1988)

I was tempted to leave it off and include Lethal Weapon (a better movie) instead, just to see how many people cancelled their subscriptions in protest. But in the end I couldn’t leave out a movie that includes the late Alan Rickman (whose best Christmas-related line was delivered in another movie) AND Reginald VelJohnson. 

In the words of John McClane and Tiny Tim, Merry Christmas and Yippee-ki-yay, everyone.