Exploring, eating and writing about good food on Canada's west coast

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The best meal I've ever eaten

I've taken a little time away from blogging during the summer to focus on some other projects, but it's nice to be back here again. I've got some exciting fall posts planned, including an overview of my first canning experience with Bernardin canning coming soon.

I wasn't sure what I wanted my first post back to be about, and when talking about it with my husband, Jay said "How about writing about the best meal you've ever eaten?".

I laughed at the casual way he tossed that out, but then started thinking, my mind rolling back over hundreds of amazing meals in countries all over the world I've had the privilege to try over the years. Then back to Canada, incredible Okanagan al fresco dinners on the edge of lake bluffs, to things I've created in my own Vancouver Island kitchen that I had no idea I could actually make. There's been so many great meals.

But the best meal of all, hands down, happened when I was five years old. Yes, indeed, I can claim a meal from that far back as my best. And once Jay's random blog post suggest brought the memory of this meal back to me, with it came other memories that explain a lot of about my passion for food.

I was five years old, and my family was down in Rhode Island on the US east coast for our annual visit to see aunts, uncles and cousins and attend one of the huge Howe Family reunions that took place from time to time in different parts of New England. The picture above is from that summer, me sitting on the knee of my beautiful Aunty Linda beside my sister Julia. If you look closely, you can see that she's teaching me about New England clams, I was (and remain) fascinated by ocean shells.

My memories of that reunion are mostly flashes, racing through the thick pine forest with a flock of second cousins, leaping into the crashing waves of the Atlantic ocean with my sisters as we laughed our heads off. But there is one memory so strong it has always stayed with me, the best meal I've ever eaten with my Grandpa Evan.

Pictured here with my Nana Millie, my grandpa on my father's side of our family was a sea-faring New England sailor, a beautiful poet and a kind and gentle grandfather. He died when I was 14 years old and when I had my son years later, I named him Alexander Evan in tribute to Grandpa Evan.

Now back to this best meal I ever had, back to the edge of the Rhode Island ocean where the Howe Family reunion had filled a local park and forest with chattering relatives. Charcoal smoke and tempting aromas wafted through the trees we were playing hide and seek behind as the adults got dinner started. When it came time for us to eat, one of the boisterous Howe aunties with those fabulous New England accents I love so dearly came over and asked me "Do you want have lobster or steak for dinner, sweetie?".

I shook my head and shyly backed away from her without answering.

At five years old, I didn't know what either of those things were. Being from rural Ontario, lobster wasn't making it to our dinner table and up 'til that point, I'd never braved up and tried New England seafood during our summer visits to the East Coast.

And as for steak, my mother had made the bold decision to raise us vegetarian, not an easy feat in the early 80's and I respect it for it greatly now. While my personal taste was (and is) still firmly carnivore at heart, there was no meat coming into our home and I'd never even seen a grilled steak.

Seeing my confusion, Grandpa Evan scooped me up into his arms, chuckling softly in that gentle voice I can still hear to this day. "Come and eat dinner with Grandpa," he said and settled down on a log seat under one of the huge trees with me on his knee. The boisterous auntie brought over a plate of food for us -  two foreign (to me) objects nestled between steaming, buttery corn on the cob and a mound of potato salad.

I remember exactly what my first ever bite of steak tasted like - an explosion of juicy flavour, that smoky charred edge, the tender meat. It was heaven. I looked up at Grandpa Evan, smiled and said "I like steak!". He chuckled again, ate a piece himself and said "Me too!".

The lobster was a little scarier and I eyeballed it with some concern. It was a big, shiny red New England lobster with an impressive set of claw. Grandpa gave me a tiny fork and said I could help him get the lobster ready to eat. Placated by the adorable, doll-sized lobster fork, I clutched my tool firmly and watched with interest as he cracked and wrangled the beast into a pile of delicate white meat on the plate.

"Ok, this is your part," he said, handing me a large claw. "Poke out the part that you're going to eat." I was slightly horrified, but comforted by the knowledge that I could immediately dive back into my new favourite thing in the world - steak, I forged ahead and began poking at the claw with my tiny fork.

I was surprised and delighted when a claw-shaped piece of lobster meat suddenly popped out of the shell. "Now dip that into the melted butter," said Grandpa. This is getting better and better, thought five year old Me who already loved butter on everything else and dipped the lobster claw enthusiastically in the clarified butter topped with fresh herbs. "Now bite!" said Grandpa before I had a chance to decide against it.

Oh, the sheer bliss. Mouth full of sweet, succulent lobster meat, butter and herbs running down my chin, I looked up and mumbled "I like lobster too!" Grandpa Evan smiled down at me and gave my shoulder a proud squeeze that I'd been brave enough to try new things.

The boisterous aunt had been watching from afar and loudly announced to the other kids from various local New England Howe families that five year old Gwen Howe from Canada had tried both steak and lobster! A few glared over their hot dog buns at me, damn Canuck making them look bad.

But I didn't care, still basking in the glow of realizing how great food could really taste for the first time in my life as I rapidly finished off my Grandpa's steak, interspersed with bites of lobster dripping with butter.

So there you have it. The best meal I've ever eaten.

I hope to continue exploring food and seeking out new 'best food' experiences my entire life and I'll always be grateful to my Grandpa Evan for teaching me the rewards of bravery in trying new and unknown foods so early in life.

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