[Bennell has just removed a small indistinct object from a stock pot with a pair of tweezers]
What is that?
Cook: A caper.
Matthew Bennell: Nope.
Restaurant Owner: You presume to tell me what is in the stock?
Matthew Bennell: It’s a rat turd.
Restaurant Owner: A what?
Matthew Bennell: A rat turd!
Restaurant Owner:[sniffs the “caper”] A caper!
Matthew Bennell: A rat turd.
Restaurant Owner:[sniffs again, now angry] A CAPER!
Matthew Bennell: If it’s a caper, eat it.
[the restaurateur sheepishly demurs]
That’s from the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Spookily, Jerry Walter, who played the restaurateur, died just a few months later, but apparently not from eating dodgy capers. The health inspector Bennell was played by Donald Sutherland, the fairly famous Canadian actor perhaps better known to us prairie types as the erstwhile son-in-law of Tommy Douglas, a towering figure in Canadian political history, born in Scotland, raised right here in Winnipeg, and wisely elected premier by our neighbours to the left/west.
As successful and virtuous as he was as politician and man, Tommy did have his low moments, such as the No-Bubble Bubblegum Incident of 1959. My dad had sat me down on a log on Carlyle’s Crescent Beach, and was failing in his attempt to teach me how to blow and snap/pop bubblegum bubbles. The fact that he’d never actually mastered the art himself was unhelpful, as you can imagine. But then he said, “Oh, good. Here comes the Premier of Saskatchewan. He’s bound to be able to show you how.” Well, willing Tommy was, but able he wasn’t. Clearly his father had been as ineffectual as mine in passing on life’s essential skills. He impressed me, though, as an exceptionally friendly and funny man, and impresses me still as the most engaging and breezily dignified politician I’ve ever met on a beach or anywhere else.
Almost exactly a year earlier, my father and Mama & Papa Trossi had similarly failed to teach me how to eat spaghetti unmessily with the old hold-spoon-against-fork-and-twirl manoeuvre. I did learn, though, that life, like a plate of spaghetti, sometimes requires that you simply suck it up.
Mama Trossi’s was a short-lived but still fondly remembered Winnipegland phenomenon, easily more successful than the arrivista Pizza Place in living up to the latter’s hilariously self-described “…no better eating anywhere from Winnipeg to Rome!”. Sadly, Mama Trossi’s was closed down in the early sixties. Word on the street (as if anything as Fort Rouge-gritty as “the street” could exist in whiter-than-white-bread suburban Fort Garry!) was that the villain in the piece was a public health inspector. I’d like to think it wasn’t Donald Sutherland, and indeed that the whole story was apocryphal, particularly the bit about the rats, which grew implausibly bigger and bigger in the local collective memory as the years went by.
You may chuckle at the quaintly low prices on Mama’s 1958 menu: all but the most exotic items were a buck & change, and espresso was 15 cents, a bargain if you could cope with the misspelling. But these days the site at Pembina & Chevrier is occupied by a Szechuan restaurant, and pretty much everything on the menu, inflation-adjusted, is a buck and change. Plus ça change... Those apocryphal rats will be the size of cats now, but I am happy to report – and yes, I’ve checked – that capers are only very rarely found in Chinese kitchens.