Devouring Timothy Taylor’s Park
ou know those books that go down like a good glass of wine?
Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park would fall into this category. After a barrage of intense reads, it was exactly what the doctor prescribed.
This book was the perfect little amuse bouche to the rich, intense writing of Dr. Maté. Set in contemporary times, Taylor captures the story of Jeremy Papier, the son of an eccentric anthropologist. He struggles through the process of opening his own restaurant in “cross-town;” one that would serve hyper local “rubber boot” haute cuisine. The concept came to him after working in France after completing culinary school. He worked 6 out of 7 nights at a Brasserie in a small town just outside of Dijon. During one evening stroll, he came across the restaurant: open, and PACKED. Packed with local farmers and other workers out in their finest: Sundays were the only evening they were able to go out to eat, and so, Sunday evenings they were served, and served nothing but the best! Jeremy’s X-town restaurant does well, but the initial costs quickly escape him. The rest of the novel traces corporate culture and examines different food relationships. The story is framed by the elusive father, Professor Papier, who has been living in Stanley Park for an undisclosed length of time conducting experiential research and living off the land.
I’ve got to admit, I was initially reading this book as a decompression segue from the intensity of previous books. Taylor’s work is easy to access, rich and free flowing the reader slips and slides through his loving descriptions of haute cuisine, wrapped as lovingly as phyllo pastry in the sights and sounds of downtown Vancouver. The restaurant is set in cross-town, which I can only assume is the nether regions of downtown, the clash between the DTES, touristy Gas town and hip and expensive Rail town. The beat is familiar, Taylor navigates it well:
The neighbourhood offered a shifting multicultural client base that nobody could consciously target. Film school kids in the mid-morning. (It was a financial necessity to open for the coffee trade.) Business lunches for the kind of businesses that embraced neighbourhoods in the earliest stages of gentrification: architects, designers, software developers. After work they had a bike-courier scene. And in the evening, a tantalizing trickle of those foodies and reviewers adventurous enough to dine out deep on the downtown east sie, pushing up against the Hastings Street heroin trade. It was a colourful , kaleidoscopic place. Very Crosstown, very X-town.
It serves as the perfect bookend to In the Realm; it was comfortable, it pulled me out of Dr. Maté’s world, scoping out to me, bringing me back into the X-town world that I knew, that I belong and belong to.
When I first read this book (as with a nice glass of wine), I wasn’t really anticipating much more than that. Hunger, maybe some musings over the importance to eat local and a few tips about underground cuisine for my next trip across the Strait. I devoured this book in less than 48 hours (doubtlessly facilitated by my illness and need to escape building renovations). Surprisingly, rather than walking away refreshed, hungover and empty, I ended up coming away with two little sweet musings of social commentary.
The first is straightforward, it spoke to me on the level of identity. Food has always been deeply linked with who we are. Look at the French, the way food is the culture. Food is crucial to our survival, it is the thing that keeps us alive. How we chose to eat the food that literally becomes us impacts on who we are and dictates the daily unfolding of how our lives taste. In Canada, especially in recently colonized Vancouver, the city is new; “contemporary traditions” are still eking out their own place. In a city so new, so speculative with a bloody history so recently etched on an enigmatic past. There are people pushing their way into the city from every corner of the world, pushing out what was there for so long. At one point, Taylor describes the cuisine of his kitchen for an interview.
We’re beyond international. Beyond globalized. We aren’t the restaurant of all places—Europe and Africa, Asia and the Americas. This is not fusion. We are the restaurant of no place.We belong to no soil, to no cuisine, to no people, to no culinary mortality. We belong only to those who can reach us and understand us and afford us. …Complete with the echoes of sorrow for what has been lost in the process, left behind or forgotten. A revolution without memory…It’s personal, the personal part of your involvement with the food. Your memories. Taste and remember yourself.
This is exactly how I feel about Vancouver. It’s the place of no place and every place. It’s the place of rehashing the past, of wondering what every other city holds. It’s expensive. It’s beautiful. In turn, it demands money and beauty. The city’s lack of identity, rather than it’s identity itself, is a topic of constant conversation. In this long narrative about the food of X-town and his father, Taylor (perhaps unwittingly) effectively navigates the meaning of Vancouver’s identity beyond any other manifesto I’ve read to date. That the city is, what we stole from history, and how we chose to live with it (quote adopted from Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible).
One thing I’ve always grappled with in Canadiana, from Who has seen the wind to Colony of Unrequited Dreams, is the central role that geography tends to play in Canadian literature. It’s something undeniably true of life in Canada, but by the same token, something we are constantly trying to deviate away from, rebellious adolescents making their own way in the world. Taylor navigates this conflict successfully in the novel. He describes this central idea, of people eking out a new community with a mishmash of random bits of culture they’ve stolen and trekked to the west coast. He lured me in: finally, a core Canadian dialogue I identify with. Then, sneakily he backdrops this elaborate story, filled with characters and food against what eventually becomes the foreground, the centrepiece and eventually the title of this book: Stanley Park itself.
Taylor further’s these ideas by reflecting heavily on his culinary roots in France, roots that are both deeply important to who he is, but at the same time enigmatic and difficult for him to relate to. Pieces of history he carries around, knowing they are important but at the same time not really understanding how they fit into his current life. These are sentiments that are shared by many Canadians, drunken, youthful, soul-searching pilgrimages to Europe, returning with bits they’ve stolen from the Old Country, trying to fit them into crowded Canadian apartments, ill-fitting but somehow necessary to our understanding of who we are, what we are trying to break from and to become.
Five minutes from my house in Ucluelet, BC, 2010.
For everywhere I have ever lived, geography becomes deeply linked to identity. The geographical features become why you live there, these features take on personality and bring you into relationships. Subversively, these become the lasting relationships that keep you in a place. For close to three years, I lived in Ucluelet, a small town of about 1500, on the rugged, remote West Coast of Vancouver Island. A peninsula 100km from Port Alberni (the nearest major town) spanning a marathon-coastline of over 25 km of sandy beaches and the balance in rocky, inaccessible coastline from Ucluelet to Tofino. The first year I lived there, I had no phone, no computer, no car. I biked an hour each way to work along a highway, and made friends by stopping by houses and meeting people on the beach. I relished the solitude. The hours I spent at work, staring at the ocean is what brought me back. The beaches and the ocean take on their own relationship with each person that lives there. Whether it’s through a surfboard, the waves they’ve ridden, the thrashings they’ve weathered, or it’s through long, solitary beach walks or hours in a boat. It’s humbling. The centuries of man vs. nature (with man often losing) has left it’s imprints on the coastline.
Each day you live through on the coast is like a little gift, a permission that the Pacific has offered up to you, like a little pebble. The Silence. The drone of the fog buoy, out by the lighthouse. The constant barking sea lions. The omnipresent fog.
West Coast Vancouver Island, BC, 2009.
The third year I moved back I almost revelled as my devotedly tended garden failed miserably. Temperatures consistently dropped below 10 degrees Celsius every night well into August, the fog often didn’t burn off all day. I was rewarded in September with my largest pea pod yielding a single, fully formed pea, and my largest lettuce head consisting of a pair of leaves roughly the size of my thumb. Conventional modes of North American living did not belong here. People begin to cling together against the chill. But always, the individual relationships against the Ocean remain.
Siwash sea stack, November, 2011.
Stanley Park subtly manages to navigate this Canadiana dilemma by giving the Park constant cryptic hommage through Professor Papier. Using the Professor as a father figure: parents are always tied to our past, putting him in the Park, it forces Jeremy to regularly assess his relationship with the Park, and forces the reader to assess how the Park then impacts Jeremy’s life, and in turn the restaurant (our classic perception of what a city is). Stanley Park has always been a magical place. A round little wart of an island off the downtown, Siwash sea stack, a stunning, spiritual place that has had significance to the people who have lived in the area predating “Vancouver” makes appearances in the novel. Taylor successfully manages to integrate these places of immemorial significance into a contemporary hip setting. This is something that few manifestos about Vancouver accomplish. This international-nowhere land party of people rapidly gobbling up the city area has been there for barely two-hundred years, the forest and geography of the city are ancient, and their voices and stories, inescapable are louder and will continue to colour our existence as long as we continue to try to share their space.
What I initially interpreted as a light tasty read, became a vindicating manifesto of what Vancouver is growing into. Taylor’s Stanley Park is a gentle introduction to anyone seeking to integrate themselves into the city from the outside. At times clumsy, the gentle writing tells a balanced tale that goes down as a rich, indulgent meal. Overzealous and at times unmeasured, it cannot be faulted for lack of love or poetry. I look forward to Taylor’s next book.
The Guinness Bridge, November 2011.
All other blurry photos in this post have been taken during the past year by me, using my 3GS (a promise: I will include new camera photos this week!)