Vintage Canada, 2001
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
“You are what you eat.” In his new book, Stanley Park, up and coming Vancouver writer Timothy Taylor rescues this rather tattered axiom from high school health class, and endless motherly lectures, and places it squarely at the spiritual centre of:
- a compelling father and son story of alienation and reconciliation
- an entertaining coming of age adventure, complete with the devil
and dark nights of the soul
- a hip, funny and occasionally scathing examination of cutting-edge
food fashion and the culinary arts
- a hymn to community, locality, connectedness, and
- a metaphysical appraisal of the dangers of globalization.
The story begins as Jeremy Papier, a gently, charmingly goofy young man, fresh from a chef’s apprenticeship in France, is meeting his quasi-estranged father with whom he has had little contact over the last ten years, in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. The premature death of Jeremy’s mother, Helene, who had been, clearly, the family’s gravitational centre, had sent the two men spinning off into very separate orbits – Jeremy to France, where he came to embrace the idea of culinary tradition and the importance of regional ingredients, and his father “the professor,” who escaped deeper into obsessive academic theories and his studies of the homeless.
The reason that this most important reunion is taking place in Stanley Park is, it turns out, that Jeremy’s father has taken up residence there – moved in amongst his subjects to better observe them, and to understand what they have to contribute to his “great Work-In-Progress,” a study of “the connections between people and the places they call their own.” “Participatory anthropology,” he calls it. “Quite beyond immersion.” “The next step, really.” An understandably skeptical Jeremy (and reader) is left to wonder if his father’s “next step,” has carried him right off the deep end.
The current, exact state of his father’s mental health is not Jeremy’s only worry. He has returned to Vancouver to open his own restaurant, the aptly named “Monkey’s Paw,” where he idealistically hopes to produce food which will remind people of “what the soil under their feet has to offer.” Good intentions aside, it’s an expensive, risky undertaking; he finds the business end of things a bit beyond him. Soon, despite the restaurant’s rising popularity, he is teetering on the brink of economic ruin.
Enter the allusively named Dante Beale, creator of Inferno International Coffee, a phenomenally successful chain of trendy “cookie cutter” coffee shops and, it could be reasonably argued, quite possibly the devil himself. In a moment of entirely justified desperation, Jeremy hands over majority ownership in his restaurant to the coffee shop magnate, in return for financial security, and a chance to practice his art without distraction. Trouble is, Inferno is “a brutally efficient, market-researched repudiation of the local” and once its creator’s attentions are focused on his restaurant, Jeremy finds himself trapped in an enterprise which is the antithesis of all he believes in..
It is while spending time with his father, and the peculiar denizens of Stanley Park, waiting for the restaurant to be refitted, that Jeremy formulates his unique response to his dilemma – one which will push some of his culinary theories quite literally, down the throats of the restaurant’s unwitting patrons, and, in the process, provide his escape.
Jeremy’s struggles with his restaurant provide the main arc of the narrative in this complicated melange, and give Taylor a chance to poke some wicked, satirical fun at food culture, and trop haute cuisine, and also, to examine the delicate relationship between food, chef and the restaurant patron. High-concept pizza, high-end coffee, vertical food, in fact, a whole host of recognizably recent food fads are trotted out and dispatched with, in favour of a tradition-inspired regional cuisine. (In the unhappy event that Taylor should choose to abandon fiction-writing, there is a second brilliant career as a bilious restaurant critic waiting for him. His assessment of a piece of designer pizza, as a “commodified splatter of culinary incoherence on a shingle,” must certainly rank among the all-time great review put-downs.)
The character of the professor, of course, allows Taylor to explore the serious side of his subject, which brings us back to our introductory axiom: you are what you eat. Taylor interprets this quite literally, arguing that, in times past, the people of any particular region ate the food that the soil and rivers of that region could produce. The building blocks for their bodies came from that location and were demonstrably different from those produced in another region. Thus food is part of what connects us to our land, gives us our unique identity, is, in fact, an essential ingredient in the alchemy of place. The professor begins to divine this truth while studying the homeless in Stanley Park, coming to believe that the tendency of these people, who have lost nearly every human connection, to enact an urge to return to wild land, gives evidence of an innate human need to connect to place, in some ways comparable to the DNA-encoded imperative which brings salmon back to their spawning grounds. It is evidence, as he says, “of the deepest roots of all.”
Globalization, particularly the globalization of our food supply, seen in this light, is problematic. What happens to your connection to place when the food you eats comes from everywhere, is, as Jeremy identifies it, post national? Is this contributing to our 21st century sense of alienation, of rootlessness? Definitely food for thought.
The delight in this book lies not only in its entertaining narrative, wicked wit and topical and engaging theories. Taylor is an accomplished writer, sensitive to the subliminal frequencies of words. When considering various new names for the Inferno-backed Monkey’s Paw, he comments that one candidate, “Cucina Gerrissimo” is “a lemony mouthful of pseudo-Latin pretension,” identifying, very correctly, to my mind, the citrus quality of the phrase. It’s a frothy example, but it’s this sensitivity that dictates that Taylor’s words never work against each other, on any level, that they possess a harmony and coherence, immediately apparent only as a fluent “readability.”
In a season dominated by meditations on the past, moody, nostalgic or otherwise, Stanley Park stands out as a fresh and surprising effort from a writer with all the necessary credentials – a sharp appreciation of the power of words, incisive humour, and fascinating and provocative questions to explore.