northern ontario (chinese) food: treeplanting (pt. II)

You may recall how I raved about the food at our camp this past contract. Well, treeplanting didn't have us always eating in the bush - in fact, we function in shifts of 4-6 days, with a night/day off. Typically, the last day of a planting shift will be an early one, so we're planting until 2 or 3 (instead of 6 or 7). We almost always head straight to town from the block (the land that we plant), meaning we show up with dirt on our faces (and everywhere else) in our smelly sweat ridden and blood stained work clothes (which were probably the same ones worn yesterday, the day before, and the day before that). Once in town, planters are responsible for feeding themselves. That night's dinner, and the next day's food (though we head back to camp on that next day, we're not fed).

With our 7 or 8 days off this contract, the first two were spent in Timmins, and the others (with an exception of one night in Hearst) were in Kapuskasing. Having grown up in Toronto, and lived in Montreal for the past 4 years, I wasn't really expecting much in the way of food, way up there. A little bit of a stuck up city mentality, I suppose.

Over the last several years, the boy had become familiar with Timmins, as he frequented this town on days off of previous contracts. Both nights we were in town included Chinese food at the Cozy Corner (24 Mountjoy St S). Just next to the Days Inn at which we stayed, the restaurant is owned and operated by a speaker of Cantonese (I suspect he's an immigrant from Hong Kong). The boy has been returning for years, but hasn't had a chance to order off the back menu until now. I was amused - during our first day off, I had to convince the two young women working in the front that I wanted to speak with their chef/owner for dinner. They may not have known what to do with a Cantonese speaking girl still in dirty dirty clothes. Not bad, actually! Just priced twice as much as Toronto: rice noodles with beef, along with Shanghainese bok choi with garlic and spring rolls. The second time we were there, we decided to eat in, ordering a seafood concoction off the menu. Scallops were way over cooked, although the shrimp were still okay. Dinner was even costlier this time (as expected, with the seafood), at over 40$ for two. (Costly, you say? Why yes! compared to dining in Toronto for Chinese food - if you find the right places, you can be paying as little as 15, 20$ for two).

During our one night in Hearst, we had dinner at King's Cafe (824 George St.), where Robert Munch declared they made the best chicken balls, ever. Though we didn't end up trying to aforementioned deep fried spheres, we found out that the bean sprout chop suey dishes comes with... toast! Yes, a stack of buttered and toasted white bread. The things you learn about Canadian-Chinese cuisine, I suppose. I must confess that I didn't even know what an 'authentic' chop suey dish was supposed to contain until that night: 'chop suey doesn't exist as a dish in China'. I think the waitress at King's was amused that the boy decided to chopstick the toast. And one of the cooks was surprised by the appearance of a Cantonese speaking girl, still in unlaundered work clothes.

We found ourselves in Kapuskasing for the remaining days off, where we had a chance to try two of their Chinese-Canadian restaurants. To be honest, the two restaurants tasted the same to me, with their standard over-cornstartched sauces. Not to say that the food was bad, of course! It's just that I'm not sure I'll ever be used to "Chinese" food that's been catered to the Caucasian crowd. I was actually quite surprised at the frequency of Chinese Canadian restaurants in Northern Ontario - all of the ones we ended up going to were all Asian-operated, too. Of course, there's a serious lacking of many Chinese staples (such as the various "speciality" vegetables found easily in the city), and I understand from the owner of Hong's Take-Out (48 Queen Street) that shipments from Toronto are only monthly. As just mentioned, their fare was pretty similar to the food at Thong La's (16 Riverside Drive, Kap). In other words, all the noodle dishes featured the same ingredients, switching up the meat and sauce to exponentially expand the menu. Not quite a taste of home, but my expectations were surprisingly exceeded (according to the boy, the sweet and sour soup at Thong La's was pretty good, too). I definitely would go back for their Singapore fried noodles though - authentic to the tee, and not at all frugal with their ingredients. Chicken! Shrimp! BBQ Pork! Bean sprouts!

The boy is currently planting in northern Manitoba, and I understand from him that there are various Canadian Chinese restaurants up there, too. Perhaps I'll have to snag myself a contract on province over next year, and find out for myself. Until then, I'm more than satisfied with the Asian eats of the city.


bush camp life and food: treeplanting (pt. I)

That's right! I'm back in the city after two months of living and breathing in Northern Ontario, treeplanting for one of the largest reforestation companies in Canada. Blood, sweat and tears, anyone? It was pretty much the most demanding thing I've ever done, period. Both mental and physical stress add up to a little (or a lot!) of 'bush craziness'.

You may be wondering: why the heck is she mentioning these adventures on a food blog, for crying out loud?

The answer is simple: I wanted to ramble about the food I've consumed during the months of May and June. It's not every day that you're eating at a bush camp. And it's not everyone who has the opportunity to do so for two months. I'll even throw in some details regarding food consumed on days-off, when we partied it up in Northern Ontario small towns (namely Timmins, Kapuskasing, and Hearst). So here we go:

First, regarding the bush. Many vets on my contract corroborated the fact that our camp was pretty much set up to be the Cadillac of bush camps. Complete with a mess tent (where breakfast + dinner are consumed, where things get schloppy during in-camp parties, where general hanging-out while drinking hot chocolate/beer and reading/playing cards/playing scrabble/etc occurs), dry tent (for the somewhat drying of clothing/boots after rain days - though in reality, things never really dry completely), shower trailer (that nobody actually used - yes, treeplanters are dirty dirty people), cook shack (propane fueled for all cooking needs), and shitters (our portable outhouses that divulge quite the odor after 3 days).

The day begins at 6am, when we're rudely roused by the honkings of our supervisor's truck (or sometimes, a chainsaw). This usually translates to me trying to ignore the blasts until my own alarm sounds at 6:15, rolling around in my sleeping bag until 6:23, getting up and getting dressed, and rolling out of my tent by 6:30-6:40. Time for 1) breakfast and 2) packing a lunch in the mess tent, all to be had/done in the 15 minutes before our buses leave at 7am sharp, whisking us away to the block for a long day of planting. Prior to actually living the bush life, I was skeptical about the copious amounts of food that would be consumed. Specifically breakfast-related, I didn't believe I'd be doing the daily breakfast meats (there was always either bacon or sausage), but your body definitely can do with the extra fat and protein. And ensuring that breakfast included carbs, fats, and protein helped diminish the effects of hunger's first wave at about 10am. Along with the bacon/sausage, there was always a hot breakfast, too - from french toast, to pancakes, eggs, and BLTs, breakfast burritos, to english muffin sandwiches. Perogies and grilled cheese sandwiches, endearingly named 'grillies', were both favourites of mine, and were ultra portable for consumption during the bus ride. The trick for the former is stealing almost empty cartons of sour cream, filling them with perogies, and bringing a fork for the bus. Also present daily were one or two types of fruit - canned peaches and pears, fresh melons (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon), sometimes even kiwi, bananas and pears. There was always a homemade breakfast bread (chocolate chip, cranberry, poppyseed, blueberry, to name a few), and of course the various selections of cereals. And caffeine presented itself for all in the form of teas and coffee; I quickly learned that my thermos was worth its weight in gold.

I also learned various tricks for packing lunch, including the lovely halfers of PB+J, or hummus + cucumber. Because we had no set lunch break, and eating all of your lunch at once would cause much discomfort when planting, I was partial to eating a little bit of food (a half sandwich or fruit or vegetables or something sugary) every time I was at the cache bagging up. ("Cache" being where the bins of seedlings are stored, and "bagging up" being when we fill our planting bags with more trees once we've "bagged out" and have planted the last "bag in". Food and large water jugs (mine being 12L) are also stored at the cache, along with your day-bag containing things like extra clothes, rain gear, sunscreen, and bug dope.) This translated to about a 1/2 dozen 'cache breaks', and splitting my lunch into that many pieces. Half sandwiches are key: take one slice of bread, throw on the toppings, fold in half, et voila! Save on cold days, I usually stayed away from lunch meats (selections of ham, tuna, roast beef, salami, and sometimes tuna), since rancid and greying sandwiches weren't really my cup of tea. My lunchbox was an extremely large tupperware container, fantastic for minimzing the amount of squished sandwiches, and being spacious. On an average day, it held 3 apples or oranges (or peaches, the one time those existed! needlesss to say, the large box did not last more than a day for a camp of 75 people), a sandwich bag full of veggie sticks (carrots, celery), my 4-6 halfers, and 1-2 lunch treats, if I'm in the mess tent early enough to snag some. Lunch treats ranged from various cookies and cookie-like biscuit-y things (chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, butter cookies...) to rice krispy/cereal squares, to granola bars. Some planters choose to pack leftovers for lunch, if any exists from yesterday's dinner; meatloaf made for great sandwich material.

As a camp, we definitely went through a lot of bread, (especially whole wheat) and a tonne of food in general. Personally, I was eating twice as much as usual (literally) and that still didn't add up to the calories expended while treeplanting! When we were in town for our days-off, the cooks were busy doing food runs so that we would be well fed during the next shift. Orders from Sysco, and runs to the grocery store filled pretty much the entire back of a bus, and then some (a good chunk of seats are taken out of the former school purpose buses to allow for storage of gear and such).

But it was the dinners that made bush camp food on this contract so impressive. From various vets, I understand that food varies from camp to camp, and is highly dependant on the cooks. Though planters must be fed, and cooks are a must, reforestation companies do not place the highest priority on hiring cooks - for them, it's all about about production and numbers, and amount of trees in the ground. Our camp certainly lucked out, though! Our head cook recently graduated from Stratford Chef School, which meant everything was pretty tasty and almost all homemade. It certainly helped with staying on budget, too, compared with camps where cooks would purchase many more prepared/processed goods. It's amazing what the head cook and her assistant (who is starting his first year at Stratford this fall), managed to do with their budget. Which was a mere 10$/day/person.

The two months did, however, make me crave cooking - I'm oh-so looking forward to our fantastically large kitchen at the new apartment. During our 40+ days, there were almost no dinner repeats, save crowd pleasers like meatloaf (which I personally didn't understand - exactly how is plain ground beef exciting, again?). I can now say that I've had scalloped potatoes (yes, another secret confession), and good potato salad. Homemade salad dressings, plenty of soup (fantastic when coming home from rain/snow and/or generally cold days), and plenty of dessert (pies, chocolate and vanilla cakes, butter tarts, make-your-own-sundaes...). Dinners ranged from ribs to burgers (and other goodies off the grill) to mac+cheese (which made me miss the boy's rendition), pork chops, ham, lasagna, burritos, curried chicken, and on our last night, a 'christmas dinner' of turkey (!) complete with stuffing and cranberry sauce. And we were also once surprised with a cheese platter, crackers, prosciutto (!) and veggies + dip. For my birthday, they made vanilla cupcakes with strawberry icing - I was immensely pleased.

Would I do it again, this treeplanting thing? Most probably. Stay tuned for a 'part II' posting, with regards to days off in Northern Ontario, and food in Timmins, Hearst, and Kapuskasing.