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10.23.2003

The Mystery of Vertical Food

I spent much of my last day in Halifax doing a training run, a big lap around the city. I made a special point of going over the lovely MacDonald bridge, a 1/2 mile span connecting Halifax to Dartmouth, not realizing that it was cursed. Those pesky Micmac. Running may be dorky, but I've found that it motivates me to get out of the hotel and learn some basic facts about a city. Since we have no TV reception at home, I have to fight the temptation to stay in the hotel room watching televised snooker or hippopotamus documentaries, both of which filled a happy evening for me in Halifax. But the thought of beating P. Diddy in the marathon is enough to get me out on the open road. When I got near Point Pleasant park on my run, down at the south tip of Halifax, I noticed there were more and more cars in the roadway. Soon I was passing stopped traffic, and the sidewalk began to grow thick with pedestrians. Everyone was heading towards the park. "Wow," I thought to myself, "People here sure like their Sunday walk". By the time I reached the park fence, there were so many people and cars that it was hard to even get through the crowd. It was a beautiful, fall day, and everyone was bundled up except for the idiot American in running shorts. Many people were pushing strollers or tugging along tiny bundled-up Nova Scotians they had made the year before. All told, I could see upwards of a thousand people making their way down to the park entrance at the bottom of the hill. The park itself, when I finally made it to the entrance, was a sight to behold. In between upturned trees, the park paths were completely jammed with people, all of them there to see the hurricane damage. There was a beatiful, strange smell in the air - a kind of fermented pine scent, as if a tanker full of retsina had run aground in the harbor. The mystery was easy to clear up - half the parking lot was covered in a small mountain range of wood chips, over fifteen feet high. Clearly someone had spent a long weekend with a crane and a wood chipper, clearing fallen wood from the paths in the park. Steam was coming off of the summits, as microflora deep inside ate their way through the pile, turning cellulose into alcohol. I had no hope of making it into the park at a walk, let alone trying to continue my run there. So instead, I weaved along a frontage road leading back downtown, passing old factories and moored ocean liners, the kind of post-industrial lanscape I was always crazy for as a painter. It just means I'll have to go back to Halifax, and bring along the easel. I'm so used to port districts being completely fenced off that it hadn't even occured to me the area might be accessible. But it was, and in the late afternoon light, it was gorgeous. I wanted to walk back to Point Pleasant Park after finishing my run, but police had blocked it off by the time I got there. Rubberneckers like me were still streaming in from every direction, and apparently there were so many thousands of visitors in the park that it was posing a threat to public safety. Barred from the park, I consoled myself by having a late supper at a restaurant called the Five Fishermen. Internet foodie sites will tell you that this is a seafood paradise, or that it sucks, or all kinds of things in between. I had been there many years ago, on a pre-college vacation with my mother, and wanted to see if they still served one particular dish: you got brought a plate of raw seafood and vegetables, and a really hot granite slab on a ceramic tray. You then cooked and assembled your own meal right there at the table - an engineer's paradise, and a nice way to eat delicate seafood. There was no more granite slab, but the Five Fishermen did still have the world's best steamed mussels. These were available at a special buffet station manned by a waitress, presumably to prevent people like me from eating the place bankrupt. She greeted me with a smile at my first portion, looked vaguely amused when I came back for seconds, and then just started looking horrified as I tore through plate after plate of the things. The main dish (halibut) I ordered was also excellent, but I was a little taken aback to have it served to me in the form of a tower. That is, the meal was larger in the vertical dimension than it was long or wide. It was like a Jenga set of fish and vegetables, with a round lobster ravioli balanced on the very summit. This kind of configuration seems to be all the rage at socially climbing restaurants of a certain type, the kind that don't have laminated menus and refuse to serve fried potatoes in any form. But its significance, origin, and acceptable consumption strategies are a mystery to me. Who started this strange vertical arms race? Who was the first to complain that their steak was too planar?

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