Flin Flon and Comfort Food

When I was two years old, my parents, who had finished their residencies in Edmonton, moved us to Flin Flon, a coal-mining town in northern Manitoba. Canada was importing doctors from the developing world in great numbers at that time in order to send them off to northern outposts where the white doctors wouldn't go. My parents were not that great with geography, to tell the truth. I don't think they knew what they were letting themselves in for.

We drove out to Flin Flon in winter in the orange VW that my parents had bought. My aunt Ashu was with us. The route took us through northern Saskatchewan, which is flat, cold, and desolate. We stopped at a redneck bar and restaurant en route; apparently, I disappeared and my parents panicked. They found me in the bar, dancing with the band on the stage, being cheered by the farmers and bikers. This became a defining myth of my childhood.

My parents were not that experienced at winter. My dad skidded off the road and into a snowbank. It was night, and I was still a toddler, and my mom was pregnant with my sister. My dad left us in the car to go get help. He found a farmhouse and knocked on the door; I imagine that the people who opened it must have thought he was an alien dropped in from another planet, with his dark skin and his Elvis sideburns and natty coat and Indian accent. They asked him, first thing, whether he had turned off the engine when he left the car; when he said he hadn't they rushed over to us, worried that we had suffocated from CO poisoning if the tailpipe got buried in the snow. We were fine.

Tina Horne, Canada Vignettes: Flin Flon, National Film Board of Canada, 1978.

Flin Flon was what you might expect for coal mining town near the Arctic Circle: it was dominated by a huge smokestack, and was sort of dingy and dull in my recollection. My recollection is pretty incomplete, though -- we only lived there until I was 6. The things I do remember I remember vividly, in technicolor.

My parents built a house; when we went to see it for the first time they realized that it was being painted pink. They insisted that the color be changed. They picked three different shades of pink, looking in horror at the results each time. It was a sort of pale salmon when they finally gave up. There was a hill behind our house where the neighbor's son and I used to play and explore in the woods. We would find rocks with glitter and think it was gold, and we'd pretend we were on safaris. Every week, there was a kid's day at the park where we all dressed in bathing suits and played in the water fountain, and then we paraded around the fountain for a beauty contest. I won once, which made me very proud until I found out that every kid in town won at least once. In summer, the horseflies were huge and black, and left scabs on my scalp; in winter, the cold was unimaginable. One of our neighbors used to build an ice rink every year; he'd build a frame out of two-by-sixes and stand there every day with the garden hose when temperatures dropped below freezing and make the ice. When the big kids weren't playing hockey, the little kids would go out and learn to skate.

The local hockey team was the Flin Flon Bombers, a farm team which specialized in training NHL bruisers in the '70s, the golden age of hockey violence. My dad, the town surgeon, took me to a hockey game when I was four; we sat at center ice. In the first period, one of the (typically helmetless) players got slammed up against the glass and I remember the blood dripping down in front of me from his cracked skull. We got up and went to the hospital so dad could fix him; dad left me in the car while he went into the emergency room, and (I think) forgot about me. I got bored waiting, and so got out of the car and wandered into the ER in time to see the hockey player being wheeled in, grey matter spilling out. I don't think dad ever took me to another hockey game after that except for one, when the doctors played and encouraged my dad to give it a try; my heart squeezed to see my daddy clutching the sideboards trying to stay upright on his skates. Everyone clapped and cheered to see him on the ice, this man from tropical climes, and appreciated what a good sport he was.

My memories of food are childish ones, too. My sister and I would go out with my mom's friend and pick blueberries at the graveyard, where they grew plump and sweet-tart. Another one of my mom's friends used to invite me over whenever she made donuts so I could help cut out the holes and fry them up hot and sweet. My mom had lots of friends who would invite us over for tea -- the Indians would make samosas and her Icelandic friend would make Vínatertra, a cake constructed of layers of shortbread and prune filling. It was one of my favorite things. Every Sunday the CBC (we only got one channel) showed the Bugs Bunny-Road Runner hour, and then Wonderful World of Disney; my sister and I would get into our PJ's and mom and dad would let us eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in front of the TV, with gravy on our crinkle-cut French fries. We would always complain that the chicken was dry so we'd only have to eat the skin. Once my aunt and uncle traveled from Montreal with a Swiss friends of theirs, chefs, and scared us all (especially my mother) into thinking that we had to make everything as properly European as possible for them; the Swiss guests treated us to a proper fondue, the most memorable aspect of which was their accidentally lighting our coffee table on fire. Another time, we went on a canoe trip with two First Nations guides, who took us hiking through the woods and picked mushrooms for us to eat; my mom would hang back and knock them out of our hands before my sister and I could eat them, just in case the foragers got their identifications wrong. We went out on birch bark canoes and caught trout that we fried up at night for dinner to my great delight. One of our guides wore an eye patch because he had been shot in the face by a hunter when he was out tracking deer. Those are things I remember.

When my mom went back to work after my little sister was one year old, we had a babysitter named Helen Bolton. Helen was quite a bit older than my mom, a grandmother type, and had the air of someone completely able to handle life. Her husband, Clarence, was a coal-miner. He would go out to work early in the morning, so we wouldn't see him when we arrived at her house in the morning, and he would come home early in the afternoon black with coal dust and go straight to sleep; I think that was the reason I was always a bit scared of him. Helen and I would wash his work clothes every day in her ancient washer, which agitated the garments in a tub with no lid, and then would run them by hand through a roller-wringer and hang them on the clothesline outside. Before she did that, she would have to clip off the buttons so they wouldn't crack going through the wringer and then sew them on after. Every single day.

There were all sorts of rules and ways of doing things at Helen's house that were different than at home. The house was tiny and old and -- I don't know how else to say this -- poor. Of course I didn't know anything about rich and poor at the time; to me it was just different, and fun. Like the laundry -- I loved trying to turn the crank, oblivious to the amount of extra work it involved for Helen. I loved the food that we ate at Helen's house -- peanut butter sandwiches (always with butter on the bread), canned chicken noodle soup, boxed macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy. So exotic, so unlike what we ate at home -- it was the stuff you heard about on Sesame Street, you know? I think we even had Hamburger Helper sometimes, which tastes to me like Proust's madeleine. Whenever Helen would give us chicken noodle soup for lunch, she would give us cheese sandwiches; I'd always want peanut butter instead. She'd say no because they didn't match; I'd insist, stubbornly, even though she was sort of right.

That time with Helen introduced me to the concept of comfort food, Canadian style. I miss her.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1. Put a large pot of water to boil. When boiling, add three large pinches of salt and 12 oz elbow macaroni; cook until almost al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. In the meantime, start the cheese sauce: heat 3 TB butter over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. When melted, add 1/3 c minced onion. When softened, add 3 TB all-purpose flour and let cook in the butter for a minute or two. Add 3 c milk (skim or 2%) in a steady stream, whisking constantly. (Don't worry if there are lumps at this stage; you'll end up whisking them out.) Add one bay leaf and some grated nutmeg to the sauce, along with 1 tsp salt. Whisk until smooth, and then switch to a wooden spoon and stir occasionally as the sauce thickens and cooks. When it's thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, take off the heat. Add 2 c grated sharp cheddar, stirring constantly to incorporate. Taste for salt; it may well need up to 1 tsp more. Remove bay leaf.

3. Mix the pasta and cheese sauce together and pour into a 2-quart gratin or baking dish. In a bowl, mix together 1/3 c fresh breadcrumbs (throw a few slices of bread into the food processor, or use panko breadcrumbs if you can -- so much better than the canned dried kind) and another 1/3 c cheese. Sprinkle on top of the mac and cheese, and then bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes until bubbly and hot, and the topping is melty and crunchy.

Chicken Pot Pie
Serves 6

I make this when I'm making chicken stock -- I use the meat from the chicken that I boil for broth, and use the broth in the filling. But it doesn't have to wait for that -- you can make it with a rotisserie chicken or leftover roast chicken, canned chicken broth, and store-bought crust, too.

1. Make a crust: put 1.5 c all-purpose flour and 1/2 tsp salt in the bowl of a food processor outfitted with the metal (sharp) blade. Add 8 TB (1/2 c, 1 stick) butter, very cold and cut into cubes. Pulse the food processor until the butter and flour looks like coarse sand. Add 1/4 c ice cold water, in a stream, while the machine is running; AS SOON as it starts to come together, stop the food processor. Open it up and test the dough: if you can easily gather the dough into a ball, you're done; if not, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until you can. Gather the dough into a ball and then flatten it into a thick disc, wrap in plastic, and put in the fridge till you're ready for it.

2. In a saucepan, melt 3 TB butter. Add 1 chopped onion, 2 diced carrots, 2 diced celery stalks, 2 diced parsnips (optional), 1/2 c chopped green beans, 1/4 c chopped parsley, 2 peeled and diced potatoes, 1 TB fresh thyme leaves (or 1 tsp dried) and a good pinch of salt. After a couple of minutes, add 3 heaped TB all-purpose flour, and mix until the flour coats everything and is starting to cook. (It won't look white and floury anymore; this will take two minutes or so.) Add 3 cups chicken stock (homemade if you can), mixing while you pour it in the pot. Scrape the bottom and stir until the sauce comes to a bubble; turn the heat to medium low as it thickens, about 5 minutes. (The vegetables don't have to be soft at this point; they'll continue to cook in the oven.)

My daughter demonstrates proper crust technique.
3. Add about 2 c cooked chicken meat or the same amount of (raw) diced boneless, skinless chicken breast. When the chicken is cooked, add 3/4 c frozen peas and (if you'd like -- my kid does) 3/4 c frozen corn kernels. Taste for salt -- you will need at least 1 or 2 tsp of kosher salt, trust me -- and season with pepper. Transfer the mixture to a large-ish baking dish or two smallish ones, one to eat now and one to freeze for later.

She's eight.
4. Take the pie crust out of the fridge. Sprinkle your work surface with a bit of all-purpose flour, and roll out to the necessary size for your baking dish. Place the crust on top of the baking dish and crimp around the edges to form a seal. Cut some vents into the top of the crust, brush with a bit of milk or an egg wash (an egg white beaten with 1 TB water), and transfer to a preheated 350 degree oven. Make sure to put a cookie sheet under the baking dish to prevent drips.

5. Bake the pot pie for about an hour, until the crust is golden and flaky. Remove from oven and let sit for a good 15 minutes or so before cutting into it. Serve in shallow bowls with another bit of chopped parsley sprinkled on top.


sheila syed said…
Your daughter is an expert already, will write a cookbook by ten. So enthusiastic and lovely, Priya, miss her a lot.
I couldn't believe how well she handles the dough -- better than I do it! She also makes chappati dough really well.
Anonymous said…
Good memories from a four year old. Very nostalgic. And what about the time we got you a white ski jacket and you went out right away and slid down the muddy slope. Disposable jacket!
Haha -- I didn't slide down a muddy slope -- the neighbor's son and I rolled in the burning barrel and I got covered in ashes. The jacket -- pale blue. I loved it, and then I turned it black.
Anonymous said…
Hi Rooni. First time I am reading your blog and really enjoyed your stories. And wow, Priya is already following your footsteps both in cooking and I am sure in writing....can we substitute butter with olive oil in all these recipes??
Hi Vim. These two recipes rely on butter, unfortunately, but I'll post some more "heart healthy" ones soon.
Anonymous said…
Stumbled on this post after looking for your tikka masala recipe via Jude's FB post. I just love everything about this piece of writing. Hope you are well. :) This is Bernadine. I'm choosing anonymous because I'm lazy and don't feel like logging in.