The summer of cake

July 22, 2013

“Happy birthday Doris!”

This summer I took a creative non-fiction continuing education course at Langara College. For the last class the instructor thought it would be a nice idea if everyone brought an item of food to share with the class. I wanted to bring something nice so I went Maple Leaf Bakery on Davie St. in Vancouver where they sell excellent baked goods.

I looked in the glass display case and noticed a round chocolate mousse cake that had “Happy Birthday Doris!” written on the top.

Doris' cake underneath the glass

Doris' cake underneath the glass

“Oh no, you probably want to get a blank one,” she says as she points to an identical cake right next to it. “I can write anything you like on this!”

“Well… I would like you to write ‘Happy Birthday Doris!’ then.”

And she did!

The class instructor thought it was a wonderfully random idea and at several times throughout the evening she toasted Doris. We don’t know who she is or where she lives but for one night at least, she was a friend to a class of engaged and inspired writers.

My cake in the class

My cake in the class

It was a delicious mousse cake with a chocolate crumble crust, iced in some kind of delicate chocolate coating, and topped with these Belgian chocolate wafers that are affixed to the cake with dollops of butter cream mocha icing.

It really has been been a summer of cake!

I had my birthday in late June and my neighbourhood friend Kate made all six layers of a mammoth rainbow cake. It was a work of art and a feat of engineering! How did it she keep it all together? Easy! Icing, eggs, and four knitting needles for good measure!

My six-layer birthday cake!

My six-layer birthday cake!

My friend Peter kindly drove me and the cake home and I somehow managed to keep it from tipping against the motions of the car or melting in the heat. I carefully cut it up into about 16 chunks which I kept in large casserole dishes in the fridge.

But apparently the cake gods thought I needed more!

The next morning I received an unexpected knock at the door. “Delivery for Nathaniel from Janean!” said the friendly delivery person who seemed about as happy to give me the cupcakes as I was to receive them. Of course, who wouldn’t love a job that entails handing free cake over to delighted strangers?

They came from Elwin at the amazing Bluebird Cakery in Vancouver.

Cupcakes from Janean

Cupcakes from Janean

The butter icing, I could tell, was prepared from quality ingredients which render a very pleasant taste and consistent texture. I enjoyed three flavours: red Velvet, creme brûlée, and Chocolate with salted caramel. They were all delicious but I enjoyed creme brûlée the most.

I lived with Janean in my second and her first year at Trent University in Peterborough. She moved out to British Columbia several years ago now and always been a thoughtful friend.

We exchange birthday cards every year and last year she fulfilled my lifelong dream of appearing on a postage stamp by mailing me this sheet of personalized Canada Post stamps:

Nathaniel's stamp!

Nathaniel's stamp!

And last, but not least, are the cake and cupcakes served at a friend Lee’s wedding in Nanaimo last week.

The bride’s sister – my dear friend Stephanie – made three varieties of cupcakes including: sticky toffee double chocolate with salted caramel frosting, vanilla bean with vanilla butter cream frosting, and white chocolate coconut with coconut cream cheese frosting. The wedding cake itself was a chocolate gluten free cake with cream cheese frosting was made by the mother of the bride, Sandy whose experience as a professional wedding cake decorator shone through in this delicious work of art.

Lee's wedding cake

Lee's wedding cake

More than cake, however, I cherish the happy memories of the wonderful people and celebratory events that seem to come along with it. I’m sure Doris can relate!

Truth in advertising: frozen dessert

June 23, 2013

Recently Housemate came home with a big smile on his face. “Ice cream sandwiches were on sale at Safeway for only $1.99!” he exclaims.

I don’t even need to turn around and look at what he bought to know that it’s just too good to be true. Heavily discounted “ice cream” is always a bad sign.

“Yeah, look at the box before you get excited,” I say without turning away from my computer.

“Oh crap!” he says. “It’s expired!”

“Look closer at the box!” I tell him knowing that he routinely buys frozen dessert that he assumes is ice cream.

“Oh! Frozen dessert! I’m sorry – I’ll buy some real ice cream next time,” he promises.

Here is what he bought:

Lucerne Frozen Dessert Sandwiches

Lucerne Frozen Dessert Sandwiches

According to Dairy Farmers of Canada frozen desserts are made with oils such as coconut oil or palm kernel while ice cream is made with milk and milk ingredients such as cream, milk powder, and whey powder. I wrote a complaint to Breyer’s about this before and this was their response. I don’t like frozen dessert – I think it tastes awful.

And this is what the real ice cream sandwiches look like:

Lucerne Ice Cream Sandwiches

Lucerne Ice Cream Sandwiches

When I looked at the box of the frozen dessert sandwiches I was astonished to see that Lucerne, Safeway’s in-store brand for dairy products, featured the words “frozen dessert” in the same stylized font as their ice cream sandwiches. This sort of honesty in product labelling is refreshing as ice cream manufacturers have a tendency to obscure the fact that some of their products are frozen dessert.

This tub of Breyers frozen dessert is a perfect example:

Breyers frozen dessert

Breyers frozen dessert

“Rich and creamy” and “French Vanilla” are written in prominent text while “frozen dessert” is buried in the corner in the smallest text on the front of the tub. It’s easy to see how many shoppers might buy this product assuming that it is, in fact, ice cream. I detest this form of deceptive marketing and I believe hat Unilever (which owns Breyers) is doing this intentionally in an attempt to bilk consumers into buying their inferior product line, thus lowering our standards for dessert.

I always read the fine print to ensure that my ice cream is ice cream and I do appreciate that Lucerne has made this process so much easier. While it may not seem like a big deal I believe it’s a symbolic gesture that shows respect for the consumer.

And yes… Housemate is forever banned from purchasing any dessert for this house!

(Re)united with my biological brother

June 16, 2013

These were my father’s glasses:

My father's glasses

My father's glasses

They are the only possession of his that I own. When he died in 2003 the prison hospital shipped me his remaining possessions which amounted to a box of papers, a few books, some cards and photos, and those plastic prison-issue glasses in a brown vinyl case.

In 2002 my father looked through these lenses when he saw my face for the first time. It was my first, and only, meeting with him which took place in the visitor’s room at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. I was a pensive, but determined, 20-year-old university student with the same eyes as he. Yes, I was definitely related to this man but I would never call him “dad” and I think that hurt him.
He made poor choices in life and many of these choices meant that he could never be a parent to his children. He did, however, wish to have contact with all of his children including his first son who was born in the summer of 1971 and later put for adoption.

It was me who eventually made that contact – very recently, in fact.

This son is my brother. Robert Russell Burton of Henderson County, Kentucky.

Robert Russell and his father Tommie Robert Henderson

Robert Russell and Tommie Robert Henderson

“Hello, Robert. Are you there? You can go ahead now,” says the executive director of the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry. “Thanks, Peggy,” says the man on the other end. His voice is several octaves deeper than my own and he speaks in a drawl indicative of someone who has lived their whole life in the American South. “Thank you,” I say to Peggy who tells us that she’s going to put the phone in the drawer while we talk. “I guess I should tell you that I’m Nathaniel and I’m your brother,” I say. I’m nervous and I am aware that this is a really life changing moment.

This moment was over 40 years in the making.

Before he came to Canada in n1973 my father was married to a woman from Marietta. They married in the days immediately following his release from the US federal prison in Atlanta. Car theft was the charge on that one, I think. Their marriage was brief. His wife, Evelyn, gave birth to a son she named after my father on 15 Aug. 1971.

“Your name at birth was Thomas Robert Henderson,” I tell the man, only identified as Robert, on the other end of the line. In Georgia adult adoptees do not have the right to access their original birth certificate and I figure that if our line gets cut off, or I get hit by a meteorite he should at the very least know his original name. I believe everyone has that right.

I’m only hearing my own thoughts. I’m nervous but decide to tune myself out for a moment and treat this conversation like one of the many telephone interviews I do as a journalist. Cool, in control, and a bit disengaged. I ask him about his interests, his family, and life experiences.

He is originally from Georgia but currently lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children who are 13 and 14 years old. He loves hunting, fishing, as well Civil War history. His name is Robert Burton. He was always aware that his original name was Thomas Robert but nobody told him his last name.

He was absolutely delighted to hear from me and is very enthusiastic about the reunion process.

He bears a striking resemblance to our father

I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with him and I’m getting to know a very interesting, fun, and oddly familiar person. The cultural differences between us are quite pronounced. His accent, lifestyle, and worldview are all a bit different than mine but I have noticed many similar personality traits.
I first found out about him when I sent away for my father’s criminal record in 2002. I was in university and the family I was live with, who wanted me to succeed in life, were worried about me digging into the past. They are good people who did not want to see me sink my roots into a story that would only bring me hurt. “Look ahead,” they said.

Still, the knowledge that I had a brother out there somewhere always nagged at me. I felt that I couldn’t know my own story without knowing at least what happened to my father’s first son.

So, I went through the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry and applied for contact and requested that they do a search for him. Under Georgia law this was about the only way I could ever get in touch with him as his original birth certificate was “sealed” and I had no way of connecting his original name with an adoption file.

I am incredibly happy to have found him and look forward to getting to know him better over the months and years ahead but I wish I had been able to pull this off while our father and his mother were still alive.

I never knew our father so I couldn’t say much except what I’d heard and read. But I did mail him copies of every document I have on our father as well all of our family photos. I also enclosed some handwritten letters from our father as well as his parents’ original marriage certificate and our father’s glasses.

Robbed of any opportunity to know his father I felt that he should at least have something that once belonged to him – I know my father would have wanted him to have something.

“Robert, here are your father’s glasses,” I write my letter. “When you hold them in your hand try to imagine the kind of father you wished he could have been and be that father to your children and yourself.”

Unfortunately I can’t send him a very happy family history but I think our future looks pretty bright.

I am glad to have found my brother. He’s a good guy.

Elizabeth May mailed me a photo of her cats!

April 23, 2013

I just received a big letter from Green Party leader and Saanich – Gulf Islands MP Elizbaeth May! Here’s the photo she sent me of her cats when they were kittens:

Elizabeth May's cats when they were kittens.

Elizabeth May's cats when they were kittens.

Last month my friend Janean sent me a link to a story about a guy who wrote a letter to Stephen Harper to ask about his cats. In response he received a signed letter as well as a photo of Stephen Harper’s cat Stanley. A photo of the letter was posted by Reddit MyLastNameIsHO.

Suffice to say I love cats a heck of a lot more than Stephen Harper and I thought it would be nice to see if other party leaders had cats too so I decided to write a letter to Janean’s MP and Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

25 March 2013

Dear Ms. May,

I am writing this letter as a friendly and light-hearted inquiry about any cats that you may have.

A few days ago my dear friend Janean Sharkey, who also happens to be a wildlife biologist and one of your constituents, posted a link on Facebook about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cat. Apparently someone wrote the prime minister to inquire about his cats and Harper replied with a letter and a large glossy photo of his pet.

While I love cats I am not a big fan of Harper or the Conservative Party of Canada. I will, however, admit that I was touched by his expression of affection for his feline companions but feel that there is room for other political cat stories on the Internet.

I don’t know if you currently have a cat but I am writing this letter with the assumption that you like them. After all, would an educated and committed animal person like Janean live in a riding represented by someone who doesn’t? I don’t think so! Hehe.

Would you please send me a photo of your current or former cats? I would also like to know what cats mean to you and why you believe, if you do, that cats are especially important to British Columbians and Canadians. Furthermore, what do you believe our leaders should do to support housecats and their owners? I intend to post your reply on my personal website at www.nathaniel.ca.

I have enclosed a photo of me and my cat Khan which was taken at the Sears portrait studio in 2011. Khan is an eight-year-old diabetic domestic shorthair and he’s pretty much the centre of my life. He loves sushi, cake, houseguests, and the sun lamp. He’s a very friendly and mellow pet who gets along with just about anybody and the vet even describes him as “very Zen.”

Kind regards,

Nathaniel Christopher

The photo I sent to Elizabeth May.

The photo I sent to Elizabeth May.

Today I received a reply! In addition to the photo she also sent me a lovely card that she purchased in support of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee as well as really sturdy vinyl photo holder with the House of Commons logo on the front.

The stuff I got from Elizabeth May! The brid on the card is a black-throated green warbler.

The stuff I got from Elizabeth May! The brid on the card is a black-throated green warbler.

This is what she wrote in the card:

Dear Nathaniel,

Thanks so much for your sweet letter. I do love cats. The enclosed photo is of my cats when they were kittens!

Thanks for your photo with Khan.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth's letter to me.

Elizabeth's letter to me.

The binder thing that Elizabeth May sent me!

The binder thing that Elizabeth May sent me!

Licorice ice cream

April 10, 2013

Have you ever had licorice ice cream? It’s my favourite flavour but it’s so darn hard to find so I was absolutely thrilled to learn that my neighbourhood ice cream place, Gleburn Soda Fountain and Confectionary, had just added Licorice Marble ice cream to their menu. I’ve gone there twice this week for a scoop… or two.

Glenburn uses Birchwood Dairy ice cream which has a 16 per cent butterfat content. This means it tastes really good.

Licorice ice cream at Glenburn.

Licorice ice cream at Glenburn.

Birchwood describes their licorice marble flavour as “a black licorice flavour based marbled with a dark black licorice.” I thought it was very good. The licorice flavour is on the light side – it’s not overpowering. That being said, it carries a nice blend of flavours that meld well with the cream. The colour is very light and it has a pleasant aftertaste. It’s a definite must for any licorice lover.

My all-time favourite licorice ice cream was produced by Island Farms but they have discontinued it in recent years. They used to sell it in those big 11.4 litre bulk tubs. Back when I was growing up and until about 2010 it was not terribly uncommon to find a gas station or corner store on Vancouver Island that sold it.

It was as black as a slab of cold coal and packed a very potent dose of licorice flavour that just grabbed your taste buds. You had to be careful eating this ice cream if you wearing a white shirt. I hope they bring this flavour back.

Island Farms Licorice ice cream at the Old Country Market in Coombs B.C. 2009.

Island Farms Licorice ice cream at the Old Country Market in Coombs B.C. 2009.

Canada Post Kiosks!

April 04, 2013

I still communicate with some people and organizations by mail which means I am frequent visitor to the post office. Unfortunately it’s usually an unpleasant experience on account of the lines and incredibly slow wait times for even the most simple services.

Today, however, I was intrigued to see a pair of self-serve kiosks at Vancouver’s main post office on W. Georgia St. I’ve seen similar machines in the States that dispense stamps but this machine, a Wincor Nixdorf ProPostal 2000 stamp vending kiosk, allows you to weigh parcels as well.

I am quite pleased with how quick and easy it was to send off a parcel to Yukon. – it was as simple to use as a bank machine or one of those self checkouts at the grocery store.

Of course, I do worry that these new self-service kiosks may cost some people their jobs a Canada Post employee if said that it’s too early to tell and the machines are only in a limited number of locations.

Canada Post Kiosk at the main Vancouver post office.

Canada Post Kiosk at the main Vancouver post office.


Weighing my package to Whitehorse.

Weighing my package to Whitehorse.


Printing off the stamp and receipt.

Printing off the stamp and receipt.


My stamp.

My stamp.

Climbing Burnaby Mountain!

April 01, 2013

In the Sound of Music Mother Abbess tells us through song to climb every mountain. She probably wasn’t referring to actual mountains but I think it’s a powerful message of hope. So, with that song in mind I climbed a mountain today.

Mount Burnaby to be exact. I was feeling a little sluggish this weekend and thought it would be a good idea to bring in the new month and week with a proactive and inspiring excursion.

The triumphant mountain climber!

The triumphant mountain climber!

The end of Hastings.

The end of Hastings.

I live on Capitol Hill in North Burnaby. The main street here, Hastings, begins at Cardero St. in Coal Harbour and runs approximately 12 km to Dalla-Tina Ave. at the foot of Burnaby Mountain. A path from Hastings then continues as the Trans Canada Trail up to the top of the mountain.

I see Burnaby Mountain every day. It greets me every morning like a reliable friend reminding me of the season as well as the time of day. It’s a subtle and unimposing elevation compared to the nearby North Shore Mountains and I have often wondered how hard it would be to just walk up there. So, today that’s exactly what I did.

It was pretty easy.

Looking down on Hastings from the Trans Canada Trail on Burnaby Mountain.The end of Hastings.

Looking down on Hastings from the Trans Canada Trail on Burnaby Mountain.The end of Hastings.

Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain.

Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain.

Granted, climbing a 370 m mountain is not exactly the most impressive feat. But it’s a mountain nonetheless and the fact that I climbed it empowers me to face some of my life challenges with a bit more confidence and focus.

Burrard Inlet from Burnaby Mountain.

Burrard Inlet from Burnaby Mountain.

Glenburn Soda Fountain and Confectionery

April 01, 2013

When people ask where I live I always tell them “North Burnaby” as opposed to “Burnaby”.

I love this area and one of the best things about it is the abundance of really cool small businesses along Hastings such as the Glenburn Soda Fountain and Confectionery which opened for business in early March.  I love ice cream more than just about anything and I’m always on the lookout for a quality product. I don’t want gelato, sorbet, or frozen dessert, god damn it! I want ice cream! And yes, Glenburn delivers.

They don’t mess about – they use high quality Birchwood Dairy ice cream which has one of the highest fat contents of any ice cream out there. It’s absolutely delicious and you can taste the difference right away.

Many of their products, including the ice cream, are made in British Columbia and their sauces are made in-house with local fruit. The shop is set up to emulate a mid-century soda fountain complete with chrome appliances, old stools which the owner imported from an actual 1940s diner in the States, and a long counter that reminds me of Woolworth’s.

The ownerss, Robert and Ron LaQuaglia, clearly take pride in their business and the community it serves. And yes, North Burnaby Dairy Queens be warned – you guys have some serious competition!

Glenburn Soda Fountain and Confectionery
Glenburn reflects the character of the Burnaby Heights.
Glenburn reflects the character of the Burnaby Heights.
70-year-old stools! w00t!
70-year-old stools! w00t!
I think these are soda fountains.
I think these are soda fountains.
My friend Heidi refused to let lactoce intolrance get in the way of ice cream.
My friend Heidi refused to let lactoce intolrance get in the way of ice cream.
Heidi enjoyed a Canadian Mint sundae which contains mint chocolate chip ice cream, hot fudge, and toasted almonds.
Heidi enjoyed a Canadian Mint sundae which contains mint chocolate chip ice cream, hot fudge, and toasted almonds.
I had a vanilla sundae with strawberries. It was delicious!
I had a vanilla sundae with strawberries. It was delicious!
The menu!
The menu!


Birthday cake flavour Oreo cookies [Video]

March 28, 2013

Birthday cake flavour Oreo cookies

Birthday cake flavour Oreo cookies

The other day I discovered the limited edition birthday cake flavour Oreo cookies at Safeway.

I like Oreos and absolutely love the taste of birthday cake so this was a must-have treat for Nathaniel. When I saw they were on sale for only $2.99 I had to pinch myself and ask if it wasn’t, in fact, my early already.

These cookies are that delicious!

They look just like regular Oreo cookies except there are colourful birthday sprinkles in the icing which tastes just like cake batter. Many bloggers have complained that they are over-sweet but I find that the cake taste really goes well with the chocolate wafer and it all balances out nicely.

They certainly have more kick and pizzazz than the regular Oreo cookies which have a comparatively bland taste. I’ll certainly buy these again and hope they are not just a temporary promotion that will be gone from the shelves in a few months.

Here’s my video review:

The Woodward Mausoleum – Until the daybreak and the shadows flee away

March 26, 2013

I would like to be a more proactive individual.

Over the course of my life there have been many instances when I have decided to do something but never got around to it. I would make a plan in my mind and I had the will to do it but would often get sidetracked by more immediate concerns and eventually let the idea float into oblivion.

I first became conscious of this pattern when I worked at a retirement home kitchen here in Burnaby in 2001. My walk to work took me past the Masonic Cemetery which is crowned by the prominent Woodward Mausoleum. This is the final resting place of Charles Woodward, the founder of the now defunct Woodward’s department store chain as well as members of his family.

The Woodward Mausoleum.

The Woodward Mausoleum.

One day I thought it’d be a great idea to take a photo of it and post it to Findagrave.com – an online cemetery database that I contribute to. I had my Kodak Easy Load 35mm camera and a roll of film in my bag. “I could just go up there right now and take the photo,” I thought to myself. “I could drop the film off to be developed during my break and then scan and upload the photos tonight!”

But I didn’t do any of that. I don’t know why. I just carried on with my daily routine and put poor old Mr. Woodward out of my mind. There were no negative consequences of me not taking that photo but I had the ability, desire, tools, time, and resources to carry out the task s so why didn’t I just do it?

From then on that edifice, which I see on a regular basis, became a symbol for all of my plans that died before I even tried to make them happen.

I want to change that. I know I can’t do everything I want to do but I feel there is room in my life to be more proactive in achieving my goals. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do that but I thought it would be a good first step to go up on that hill, take photos of the mausoleum, and upload them to Findagrave – just like I planned to do over 11 years ago.

Interior of the Woodward Mausoleum.

Interior of the Woodward Mausoleum.

I took some photos of the tomb’s stone exterior and then attempted to take some photos of the interior through one of the foggy glass windows. I got a few shots of the inside including the tombs of the Woodward family, the intricate tile floor, the stained glass window, and a message of hope.

Above the altar, located at the back of the tomb, there was a marble tablet that read “until the daybreak and the shadows flee away.” That reminded me think that that perhaps, in some small way, I have ushered in a bright day by visiting that tomb and following through with a goal I set 11 years ago.

The inscription above the altar in the mausoleum reads "until the day break and the shadows flee away."

The inscription above the altar in the mausoleum reads "until the day break and the shadows flee away."

I also managed to take photos of other graves for Findagrave users who had requested photos from that cemetery.

I was having difficulty finding some of the graves so I made my way to a house located within the cemetery where I was greeted by the cemetery’s resident secretary-manager Terry A. Staley. He spent a good half hour dutifully finding the plots on his software, printing out detailed colour maps, and then writing his own notes on precisely where to locate the plots.

Stained glass window inside of the Woodward Mausoleum.

Stained glass window inside of the Woodward Mausoleum.

Mr. Staley, a Freemason and former banker, also told me about the cemetery’s history and indulged my curiosity about Freemasonry explaining some of their symbols and philosophies. I got the impression that he, like some of my ancestors, is affiliated with an organization that motivates people to be ever mindful of kindness, duty, and self-discipline.

I enjoyed speaking with Mr. Staley and thank him for helping enrich and fulfill one of my small but personally significant life goals. From now on when I look at that old tomb I’ll think of something more uplifting and empowering.