Recently in Food and Drink Category

Diet Cherry CokeNow that we have the trivia out of the way, I'll get to what you really want to know: what's the situation with the Diet Cherry Coke and Easy Cheese?

In short, you guys are great. I've had so many friends drop by with a supply of one or the other or both, we're getting nicely stocked up. (If it was in the evening or nighttime, I either missed you or was in pretty sad shape—sorry Boris and Rachael.) The Easy Cheese has made a good snack on crackers or toast, and actually tastes more like cheese than I remember. We're building a little wall of the cans in one of our cupboards.

The Diet Cherry Coke situation is even better. Being a drink, we go through it faster, but people are delivering it at such a rate that there's no shortage. And just as I remember, I really, really, really like it. It has, in fact, replaced coffee and in my diet, since even first thing in the morning I'd rather have the nice cold bite of a fresh can of Diet Cherry Coke than a cuppa joe.

In my correspondence with the Diet Coke folks (see below), I have also found out the big secret. Yes! The answer is here! Why do they not sell Diet Cherry Coke in Canada? Is it a grand conspiracy, a secret plan to keep this delicious beverage from us, a sub rosa war with Canada Dry and Orange Crush? Here's what Teresa from Coke wrote:

There does seem to be a very loyal following for the beverage here in Canada, though demand is not high enough for us to produce it for the Canadian market.

Sigh. Simple market supply and demand. There are lots of people like me who enjoy Diet Cherry Coke (and Cherry Coke), some quite enthusiastically—but not enough to make and sell it here. Damn, I wish it were something more sinister.

Coke has scheduled April 19 (next week) for their "care package" of Diet Cherry Coke products to arrive at my house via FedEx Ground, so I'll be interested to see what that includes. But if you've been planning to bring some cans of Diet Cherry Coke cross-border for poor cancer-riddled me (oh, as well as Easy Cheese), then keep it comin'. No one will be manufacturing it to sell here anytime soon.

As my health has taken a sudden decline, some of you (thanks especially to my parents, my in-laws, and Beth) have offered to cook us food that we can freeze and reheat, and that has been quite helpful. But not everyone likes to cook, yet many of you still want to give me a hand somehow. So here's a suggestion you might not have thought of. (It only hit me last night.)

UPDATE: It turns out that Coca-Cola U.S.A. found this post, and will be sending me "a small supply" (I.e. not a semi truck) of Diet Cherry Coke. Wow! Thanks to them.

UPDATE 2: Of course my network of friends is even faster. Sylvia dropped by today with both Diet Cherry Coke and Easy Cheese, courtesy of her visiting uncle. Another thanks!

My family and I live in Vancouver. When we travel to the U.S., we often pick up a couple of things that are simply unavailable here. One is Diet Cherry Coke. No, nothing weird, none of the bizarre combinations of flavours that the soda companies keep experimenting with. Simple: Diet. Cherry. Coke. Like this:

Diet Cherry Coke, nectar of the gods

I have never figured out why this wonderful drink, easily available just across the border in Blaine, Washington, has never been for sale in B.C.

The second is a true guilty pleasure. It's Kraft Easy Cheese, which sprays out of a can onto your cracker or other eating surface:

Easy Squeeze Cheese 1

In the 1970s, we could buy something similar here, but I haven't seen it in a Canadian grocery store in decades. No particular flavour (Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar, whatever) is my favourite, it's the squeeze-cheese experience that I enjoy.

So if you're a Vancouverite travelling to the U.S.A., or you're a U.S. resident visiting Vancouver, I'd be happy to reimburse you for the cost of some Diet Cherry Coke, some Kraft Easy Cheese, or both.

And if you say that those are horrible food-like substances that will give me cancer, I will just laugh and laugh.

New Starbucks logoI found today one of mixed messages. Over the course of a few minutes' watching the news on TV this morning, I saw this:

  • Today marks 100 years of International Women's Day, focusing on reducing inequality and oppression. Much has changed for the better in a century, but there remains a long way to go, especially outside the Western world. In Canada, there are several hundreds events underway.

  • But today is also Mardis Gras in New Orleans, where men toss cheap bead necklaces to encourage women to show their breasts.

  • And Starbucks Coffee celebrates its 40th anniversary today by unveiling what I think is a fairly spiffy new logo. Yet at the celebration event in Seattle, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was surrounded by a bunch of male executives dressed (like him) in suits, then a bunch of baristas (mostly female) in aprons.

Yes, some way to go.

My living wake

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A "Living Wake" for Derek K. MillerA dying man can wish for many things, but one of them might be to have a party with many family and friends: like a funeral, memorial, or wake, but actually being able to be there, before he dies. That's exactly what my wife Air put together for me a couple of nights ago, on March 3. We had a "living wake" at the newly-renovated Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver, with a couple of hundred of the people in our lives joining us for a great Lebanese buffet, lots of mingling and chatting, and some fine live rock-n-roll music from my old bandmates and me, as well as my friends in Vancouver's legendary group Odds.

We couldn't throw the invitations wide open because fire regulations restricted how many people were allowed in the grand tiki-themed room in the Waldorf's basement—and we wanted to make sure that the people who came really were those I knew, and didn't get crowded out. After all, it was a wake, not just a party. Luckily, we didn't have very many uninvited door-crashers (and a few guests missed out because of flu and other illness), so we stayed within the limit, and it all worked out.

A dress-up crowd

Amazingly, in fact, few people I wished I could have invited if I'd had contact info, and others I never expected to make it, showed up anyway. Some I hadn't seen in many years, or came from very far away, so that was a nice bonus too. There were family members I've known my whole life, and friends I've had for 10, 20, even close to 30 years. I think I had a chance to say hi to almost everyone. My apologies to the few of you I missed.

Most of them had their pictures taken in the photo booth set up by the awesome Miranda and Reilly of Blue Olive Photography. There are other pictures appearing on Flickr, YouTube, and elsewhere (such as blog posts) with the tag penmachine, with more to come (if you have any from the event, please use that tag yourself). You can also tag pictures and videos with my name on Facebook. We had this slideshow projected on the wall all night too:

I was shocked at how well I survived the evening. I did plan carefully: I took the right combination of medications at the right times, napped in the afternoon, avoided eating too much during the day, and simply ran on endorphins until almost the very end of the evening. During dinner I went upstairs and ate in the hotel room we booked, lying on the bed, to recover some energy. Then, after far more stints on the drums than I thought I'd be able to tolerate, I finally burned out and announced to everyone that I needed to lie down, then disappeared to let them wind things down. I paid for it afterwards, and all the next day, but it was entirely worth it.

Speaking of that announcement, yes, I still had (and have) complete laryngitis. Through the PA system, I rasped out a very few words, sounding like Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight. Out on the loudness of the floor, I was completely inaudible unless I whispered directly into people's ears. I sometimes resorted to typing stuff out on my iPhone for them to read. It was bizarre and frustrating, but somehow appropriate—it was like being a speechless ghost, drifting in the semi-background at my own wake. It also kept anyone from trying to monopolize my time, since I couldn't engage in any serious conversation.

The thank-you brigade

Others made up for it. My wife Air coordinated the evening (and avoided crying, somehow), the guys in the band cracked the usual jokes, and there were four extremely short and touching speeches from those close to me: my friends Tara, Dennis, and Johan, and my (pregnant!) cousin Tarya (MP3 files, between 1 and 4 minutes each). We had tremendous help from my parents Hilkka and Karl (he made the slideshow too), our friend Steven, current and former members of The Neurotics and other bands I've been in, Pat and Craig and Doug from the Odds, the staff at the Waldorf, and our kids Marina and Lolo, who couldn't come because of B.C.'s stupid liquor laws, but who kept themselves and another friend's daughter entertained at home until we got back late.

My biggest thanks, of course, go to Air. It was all her idea, and her work that made my living wake happen. She has kept our family going through my four-plus years of cancer, through surgeries and fear and chemotherapy and a prognosis of death. She made this party happen now, while I could enjoy it and join my friends and family, instead of after I die when I can't. We've been married more than 15 years, and I've said before: that is not nearly enough.

Thank you, too, to all of you guests who could come. I'll remember it my whole life. I hope the rest of you will remember it even longer.

Nicli Antica Pizzeria - DiavolaI don't know a thing about authentic Neapolitan pizza, or authentic pizza of any other kind. But I like pizza, a lot. Ever since I had my first one as a tiny child, from Me-n-Ed's Pizza Parlor in Burnaby, I've been partial to thin-crust pizza cooked in a very hot oven, with relatively simple toppings. In Vancouver, I'd never found anything that competed with Me-n-Ed's for the type of pizza I crave. Until now.

Bill McCaig, who opened Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Gastown last week, is a friend of our friends KA and Jeff, but I can say with certainty that I'd love his food whether I knew him or not. Nicli isn't a pizza parlor, or a pizza joint, or a take-out stand. It's a pizzeria restaurant, where you sit down with a glass of good wine, in a hip, bright, classy atmosphere, nothing like your typical Italian eatery or stainless-steel 99-cent slice outlet. The pizza also has little in common with anything else you'll find in this city.

Nicli doesn't deliver. In fact, they don't allow take-out: I'm not even sure they'll let you bring leftovers home. That's because each pizza is relatively small—about 30 cm across—made with ultra-fresh ingredients sliced right before cooking, and is baked in a unique (in Vancouver) wood-fired brick oven at a blast-furnace 900°F (480°C), for a mere minute or two. You must eat it with a half-hour or so, because it doesn't keep its distinctive character for long.

The crust is something else. Thin, yes, but both crispy and doughy, blistered like Indian naan (I chose to tear and fold mine while eating like naan too). While our party of six tried a variety of pies, we all agreed that the basic-of-basics Margherita showed off the extraordinary crust to its best. With olive oil, fresh tomato sauce, custom fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves, it's all you need. Even my kids ordered a whole pizza each (in the $13-18 range), and that was a good amount.

The restaurant pays attention to detail, and not just in its pizza. I ordered a Diet Coke, and it came in a chilled glass bottle with a tall glass full of ice. Even the washroom sink has its water pressure and temperature just right. Nicli took months longer to open than originally expected, in part because of the usual bureaucratic delays, and in part because nothing like its oven had ever been licensed before here, and it had to be separately inspected and certified. Bill and his crew have taken the time to do things right.

The prices are reasonable for a night out, and the $5 house glass of wine was a particularly good deal. Splitting a platter of antipasti and some dessert, plus drinks, we spent quite a bit more than you might expect when simply "getting pizza," but this is a far superior experience, and much better food.

And now I'm dreaming about that pizza: for the first time in 40 years, I've found a new one in Vancouver to crave. You should try some.

Nicli Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

While I'm a full-blown atheist, I find the idea of Ramadan fascinating for its key component: fasting during daylight hours, and only eating after the sun goes down, for a month. As an insulin-dependent diabetic who has to manage when and what I eat rather carefully, I couldn't even do that if I wanted to. But aside from their religious significance, the Muslim sawm (the fast itself) and iftar (the meal that ends it) are reminders of the significance of food and eating in all human societies.

Humans are far from the only animal to share food. Our closest relatives among the great apes do it. So do wolf packs and prides of lions. The whole structure of many communal insect societies (anthills, beehives, termite mounds) revolves around the procurement, storage, and distribution of food. But with our big brains and language, and with our elaborate methods of cooking and otherwise preparing meals, we have ritualized eating like no other creature, going far beyond food's role as fuel to keep our bodies running.

We organize our days around mealtimes. A gift of food or drink is appreciated as much—often more—than durable goods or money. Eating is a big part of our celebrations of holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings, and other special events. We also serve snacks at funerals, eat for comfort when we are alone and sad, and offer a last meal to prisoners facing execution. Personally, one of the very worst periods of my life was three years ago, when I was unable to eat (or drink!) for several days in a row due to surgery. Our keenest memories often involve food: there's a reason one of the most popular new shows on the Food Network is The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

So when observant Muslims make a point this month of fasting each day, all day, and then breaking fast—almost always in groups—at sundown, it's a constant reminder of the value of food to all of us, and of our rituals of food. It's a tradition that secular society could learn something from, and perhaps even adopt in a less-regimented way, the way we have co-opted Christmas to celebrate the Winter Solstice and the end of the year with presents and coloured lights, and Easter to recognize springtime (which, come to think of it, is how those holidays got started anyway).

At the least, a secularized version of Ramadan would be a great incentive for a bunch of dinner parties, not to mention good business for restaurants.

Feet don't fail me now

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After three days of Disney craziness, my whole family's feet were feeling sore, so yesterday we rented a car and drove from Anaheim to San Diego to visit our friends Henry and Margarete, who had never met the kids. Margarete prepared us a wonderful home-cooked roast chicken lunch (a nice change of pace from chain food), but unfortunately the marine cloud made it not quite beach weather.

So what did we do with our tired feet? Spent the afternoon traversing the San Diego Zoo, of course. I used to come to San Diego with my parents every summer, but I'd only visited the Zoo once, back in the 1970s. I hardly remembered it, so it was like a brand-new experience for all of us. (As a child, I preferred the Wild Animal Park, but that's a bit farther out of town.)

Afterwards we found an In-N-Out Burger for dinner, drove through San Diego's Mission Bay and La Jolla neighbourhoods, and then found our way back to L.A. just in time to see the Disneyland fireworks through our windshield as we were returning to the hotel. Surprisingly, despite some health issues early in the morning, I was much less tired at the end of the day than I expected.

It takes skill to create commercials that make fun of macho manly-manness, and yet appeal to both men and women at the same time. Old Spice and Dos Equis continue to do it:

You can also find out how the "I'm a Horse" Old Spice ad was made. Somehow, it's still funny all these months later too.

Oh, and happy Canada Day.

The Fish House, 45 years later

On Saturday, April 17, 1965, my parents were married in St. Andrews Wesley Church on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver. They held their reception that evening, in a building constructed as the Stanley Park Sports Pavilion in 1930. Today it's the home of the Fish House restaurant.

Last night, 45 years later, also on a Saturday, they returned to the Fish House for an anniversary dinner:

Dad and Mom

My wife Air, our daughter Marina, and I were happy to join them. (Our younger daughter was at a friend's birthday sleepover.)

45th anniversary dinner

I haven't been to the Fish House in at least 15 years, but I won't wait that long again. The food was great—with the added benefit of legacy dishes imported from Vancouver's legendary and recently-closed seaside restaurant, the Cannery. The salmon, prawns, and scallops I ate were excellent, but the rare tuna steak that Air ordered (and which she let me try) was extraordinary.

In August, Air and I will mark 15 years since our wedding in 1995. I hope we can make it to 45, however unlikely my health makes that seem right now. In the meantime, happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thanks for inviting us along.

P.S. Here were my parents later in 1965, in Berlin, on their honeymoon:

Honeymoon in Berlin 1965

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