Featured Image: Front of La Vielle Gare Menu
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 21 February 2020
Winnipeg Center of the Food Universe, 1973
I moved to Winnipeg as a PhD student in zoology at the University of Manitoba in 1973 and lived there for about 14 months. I have many memories of this time, but memories of food are particularly strong though the details are vague. Preliminary contact with Winnipeg newspapers and historical societies to verify my memory of restaurant names were fruitless. No helpful strangers. Memory is unreliable as I showed in False Memories & the Mill on the Floss, an article also set in Canada in 1973.
I’ll therefore take the Christopher Isherwood approach from Lions and Shadows 1937.
Christopher Isherwood’s autobiography of his school and university years is perhaps reminiscent of my situation in Canada. My recollections are not indiscreet and perhaps not entirely true.
Why was Winnipeg the Center of the Food Universe?
I use ‘was’ rather than ‘is’ because it was a very long time ago and entirely personal.
Winnipeg in 1973 had a population of around half a million. It has grown very slowly since. The population in 2019 is 808,419. Winnipeg has more restaurants now but they don’t look unique on the net. One feels that they’d be typical of any English speaking small-city anywhere, nowadays. They were perhaps more culturally distinct then.
I’d grown up in post-scarcity Australian society in the 1950s and 60s to a diet of meat and three vegetables (or veg in Australianese) on a basically English diet, with better ingredients than the ‘home country‘ at least but not adventurous in any way.
Winnipeg was the first place I’d resided overseas. I’d enjoyed the changing cuisine in Australia as new ethnic groups moved in and influenced food culture. At university I’d experimented with different cheap cuisines and had decided that I liked eating and enjoyed new culinary experiences. Yet, I was untutored and naïve.
I had aspirations for novel and better food but no expectation that Winnipeg would provide them. But, the food in Winnipeg was a revelation. There was really good food to be had, if you looked.
Eating in Australia
My mother was an excellent if relatively predictable cook. We ate good food even if the vegetables were overcooked. For me her best recipes were steak and kidney pie (even though I didn’t eat the kidney) with pastry made from roast meat-flavoured lard, potato cakes and apricot pie. Outside home meals were had at pubs and clubs, and occasionally at the local Chinese restaurant, mostly as takeaway. In those days one took one’s own pots and later tupperware to collect the food. The Chinese food did not resemble real Chinese food but was different and slightly exotic.
Takeaway fast food was from the local Greek cafe. And, on trips it was from ‘truckers’ cafes, where one could get good steak and eggs, with bacon and veg, even for breakfast.
There were also fish & chip shops, everywhere. This came about by a religious oddity amongst Catholics that it was a good thing to abstain from eating meat on Fridays, which spread to the whole population. One bought fresh or cooked fish from Thursday night in Australia, but never Monday through Wednesday. Fish & chip shops sold fish and chips seven days a week, but most of the population bought them only on Fridays and the weekend.
America was also replacing England as the cultural focus of Australia, because they’d helped us in the Second World War (WWII) and had taken over from the British Empire as the major world power. Great waves of immigration into Australia since WWII were also beginning to influence Australian cuisine slowly.
Greek immigrants to Australia founded the Greek café early in the 1910s and 1920s, based initially on the American drugstore and later bringing in modernity based on New York and soda fountain and milkbar chic. The Greek café had become part of every city and town in Australia by the 1950s.
In the 1960s and 1970s foreign food based on the waves of immigrants initially Italian, then eastern European, Lebanese, Vietnamese and later Thai were making inroads into Australian cuisine. Australians began to go to restaurants.
Although we were becoming Americanised, as students we didn’t have to like America. Like everywhere else, though we thought we were unique, we were rebelling against the culture of our parents in general and later the Vietnam War in particular.
At university in Sydney, I didn’t have much money, but beyond food as fodder at university and in pubs, I was beginning to spread my wings food-wise but tentatively. I enjoyed a rather dilapidated Swedish restaurant in Kings Cross and also forays into the exotica of China Town.
I also went to Melbourne occasionally. Melbourne has always been the gourmet capital of Australia and from memory China Town in Little Bourke Street, the fish & chip shops and the early pizza restaurants were better there.
For an unknown reason (but probably Chinese students both as customers and proprietors), Canberra had a string of the best Chinese restaurants and Yum Cha venues in Australia in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Canberra is still a gourmet town with perhaps the highest number of restaurants per capita of any city in Australia. This relates to higher average wages, a well-educated population, international visitors, the public service and the transitory and well-travelled nature of the Canberra population.
First Impressions of Winnipeg
These were vivid and have stayed with me. The Canadian prairies are beautiful in a subtle way that grows on one. In summer the day length is around sixteen hours. The farmers who work from daylight to dusk are burned black by the sun. I probably didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of the prairies, until after my first winter and second spring. Despite that I did not relish the idea of a second winter
Winnipeg is located at the bottom of the Red River Valley in the province of Manitoba. The Red River flows through town. There are two huge lakes nearby to the north — Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba.
Winnipeg was an important junction in the fur trade routes across Canada in the early days. The corner of Portage and Main downtown is reputed to be the windiest corner in Canada.
Manitoba is on the eastern edge of the Canadian prairies and quite flat. Winnipeg is cold in winter like all the prairies. The snowfalls are light but hang around. The winter lasts at least five months with average temperatures around -20°F, which is why everybody goes mad outdoors in the spring.
I arrived in early April. On my radio on my first morning it said it was 25°. I looked outside and saw people in shorts and t-shirts. I dressed similarly but did not get past the air-lock doors of University College. I was used to Celsius. In Canada they used Fahrenheit.
The Food in Winnipeg
Supermarkets and Butchers
The supermarkets were an eye opener. I can no longer remember Australian supermarkets in the 1970s but they were smaller and didn’t have the vast array of goods of those in Canada. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all good. Variety doesn’t necessarily mean quality. I’d never seen so much frozen food, particularly frozen pre-prepared dinners. In Australia we’d seen ‘TV dinners’ on American TV programs, but we’d never experienced them.
You also couldn’t buy a good steak in a supermarket. We later found there was one butcher left in Winnipeg in a native Canadian Indian area on Main Street. But, though its meat was better than the supermarkets. You still couldn’t buy a single steak of premium quality. They all went to the restaurants.
In 1973 most Canadians were very prejudiced against native Canadian Indians, but today they are much more advanced with their First Nation’s people than we are in Australia. How we treat our indigenous people in Australia is shameful.
Steakhouses and Franchise Eateries
To get downtown you took a bus to Pembina Highway and another along it into town. Like everywhere in Canada there were strip developments along the highway and quite a number of franchise eateries. There were several steakhouses and we tried a few. They were cheap and the steaks were excellent, much better than you could buy yourself.
In those days Canadians were as anti-tipping as Australians and always complained about the practice in the USA. Today, tipping is as obligatory in Canada as in the US.
Another franchise place along Pembina Highway was King’s chicken. On Tuesday’s you could have a meal at half-price which made it incredibly cheap. We went there regularly on Tuesday. I loved one starter dish, New England clam chowder and ordered it every time. The trap of memory. I ate a lot of clam chowder in Vancouver and BC mid-last year, even a recommended ‘best of the best’ at a fine-dining hotel in Vancouver. They were all disappointing.
The main course at King’s was roast chicken with vegetables and roast potatoes. It was excellent but not as memorable as the clam chowder. I also liked the habit of providing you iced-water on arrival at these franchise establishments with endless refills.
There was a short wait between buses between the university bus and the Pembina Highway one. On returning to campus I’d sometimes nip into McDonald’s at the bus stop and buy their smallest hamburger. It wasn’t especially nice but I was a hungry 23 year old and for a quarter (25¢) you couldn’t beat the value.
The best hamburger and French fries in Winnipeg at that time was at a non-franchise place called Juniors. The French fries were like real Australian chips, not the horrible shoe-string potatoes at McDonalds, cooked in good clean oil and really tasty. Juniors hamburgers had the typical American sauce and mayonnaise with excellent beef patties and not too much salad. They were superior to other hamburgers.
In Australia our hamburgers should have been better. They were made by Greeks usually with good home made beef patties, but they didn’t have the superior flavour ingredients of the North American ones and had too much filling, including beetroot, tomato and lettuce. Some Australians were very fond of beetroot in hamburgers and still are!
Huang’s Chinese Restaurant in downtown Winnipeg wasn’t a revelation as other eateries were. But it provided good quality, authentic Chinese food of the type you could get in Little Bourke Street in Melbourne, which I thought was at least unusual in the Canadian prairies.
Jewish Kosher Food
Nearby was a kosher Jewish delicatessen and restaurant not unusual for New York and other cities in North America but novel to me. Although I had spent a year or more in a Jewish neighbourhood in Melbourne while I was at primary school, I hadn’t focused on the food.
I suspect Mark our Jewish friend from Zambia at University College introduced us to the restaurant. I’ve never been a great one for sweet treats so I suspect I ignored the offerings. I’d also never heard of pastrami on rye from homesick Americans yet and probably wouldn’t have been impressed at this stage anyway.
Boiled bagels with lox (or gravlax) and cream cheese, with capers and lemon were exceptional. Years later, I’ve enjoyed the Sunday smoked salmon experience at Jewish delicatessens in Bondi in Sydney many times.
Blintzes, blini, potato and onion latke and potato knish were wonderful snacks. I’m sure I had meatloaf, perhaps cabbage rolls and various soups. Lots of dill. Everything was new.
For the summer Ansie and I shared an apartment with Barry and his girlfriend, fellow zoologists. Barry took us home a couple of times for meals. His mother was a typical Jewish mother and spoiled us with wonderful food. I particularly remember tasty soups and gefilte fish, but there must have been other treats as well. The food was better made from superior ingredients to the kosher delicatessen but both were fantastic.
The experience of Barry’s mother’s cooking was heightened because of envy. Barry’s zoologist girlfriend was a goy (non-Jewish). This was exacerbated by the fact that Barry’s brother had married out of faith, which had caused huge ongoing family ructions. Although she was extremely jealous of Ansie and my visits to the family home, Barry had no intention of ever introducing her to his family.
La Vielle Gare
Built in 1914 by the Canadian National Railway this quaint old station was transformed into a fine-dining French Restaurant, La Vielle Gare in 1970.
In 1973 Winnipeg had a tiny French community and a small but much larger French Canadian one. In the days of the fur traders and voyageurs the French and Métis (mixed Indian and European descent) were prominent in the Winnipeg community. The most famous of the Métis was Louis Riel who led an armed political rebellion against the Canadian Government.
My South African girlfriend Ansie was a francophile and fluent French speaker, who wanted to introduce me to the elements of French cuisine.
We had to save to be able to dine at La Vielle Gare, which was the best French restaurant in Winnipeg in 1973. It was a special dress-up experience for a Saturday night. Although renovated and renamed Resto Gare in 2008, La Vielle Gare still exists and still claims to be the best French restaurant in Winnipeg.
I can’t remember what I had that night. Although I suspect it was the ten-dollar special (see below). I remember the French onion soup. I’ve never been a fan of French onion soup but I savoured it that night and it was excellent. I suspect I would have had the duck a´ l’orange also, which indicates the special.
I’ve always liked orange duck. Indeed, any sort of duck. These days I especially like ducks in Asia and order duck at every opportunity, when I am travelling in Thailand in particular, but in east Asia generally.
When Denise and I were living in Brisbane in 1999/2000, we went to a duck degustion at The Native Sun Restaurant in Noosaville. Ten courses of duck and one of the best meals I’ve had. We even have certificates to prove it.
Back to La Vielle Gare, the Canard de Brome a´ l’orange is a contraction for ‘du Lac Brome’. Lac Brome is in Quebec, which was and still is a renowned source for gourmet ducks in Canada. I can’t remember what Ansie had, but we would have shared and I suspect that would have included the terrine de canard as well.
I’m still surprised when couples don’t share food at a restaurant, even if it is only a taste. I find nothing sadder in an Asian restaurant than to see people not sharing the food. At our favourite Thai restaurant in Canberra they do a wonderful Lao version of Chiang Mai sausage, but we never order it unless we have four or more people, because it is simply too intense for two.
I’d been to a fine-dining restaurant in Australia a few times before Canada but this was my first authentic French restaurant. And, I was still naïve about food.
Ansie had introduced me to a number of new things, including to a decent haircut at a hair salon with a gay hairdresser. I shudder to think of the long flowing hair I arrived in Winnipeg with.
The food at La Vielle Gare was magnificent for both of us. We wanted to go back. But neither of us knew much about restaurants. We didn’t know that the second time is never as good as the first and we foolishly booked to go at Christmas. We enjoyed our Christmas dinner, but as anyone else would have known, it was nowhere near the standard of the normal restaurant a la carte.
One night friends invited us to a new Indonesian Restaurant in downtown, whose name I can’t remember. It was my first Indonesian restaurant. We arrived slightly late. There were ten or twelve of us, and the others had ordered a rijsttafel. So many dishes. Every one new. A taste sampling delight.
I’ve had rijsttafel twice in the Netherlands in the years since. Both times were disappointing. I don’t know if it is the tyranny of memory or first experience. Nevertheless the best rijsttafel of my life was in Winnipeg and it remains enshrined as such.
I’ve surprisingly only been to Indonesia once — Bali and central Java for a month in 1980. The food was in general good and often outstanding. But they don’t serve rijsttafel in Indonesia (or very rarely).
Indonesian food was once quite popular in Australia in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, but it never developed into an ethnic tradition as other immigrant cuisines have.
Rijsttafel is a Dutch word that translates to rice table. It consists of many (40 was not unusual in the Dutch colonies) side dishes served in small portions accompanied by rice served in several ways. Popular side dishes include egg rolls, sambals, satay, fish, shrimp, meat, fruit, vegetables, pickles and nuts. The Dutch introduced rijsttafel not only so that they could enjoy a wide array of dishes at a single sitting but also to impress visitors with the exotic abundance of their colony (Wikipedia).
The tensions of colonialism and the armed conflict in separating from Holland after WWII mean that rijsttafel is not considered an Indonesian tradition.
That evening we didn’t have forty dishes but probably close to twenty (it was a new restaurant). All of us were delighted by the meal and I have never forgotten it.
We have a good multi-cultural festival in Canberra over three days, but it tends to be crowded and under-funded. Too many people queue for too little food. The model isn’t designed to showcase the city.
Folklorama began in Winnipeg in 1970 as part of Winnipeg’s Centennial celebrations. Initially the festival ran for one week but became a two-week festival in 1988. Folklorama celebrated its 50th year in 2019. It is run in early August with about 40 volunteer pavilions today spread across Winnipeg showcasing unique cultures.
We attended the fourth week-long Folklorama in Winnipeg in 1973. You paid a fee to obtain a blue Folklorama passport, which entitled you to free bus rides across Winnipeg and entry to each pavilion. I don’t know how many pavilions there were but too many to visit them all. Each pavilion showcased a culture and represented a community within Winnipeg. In each pavilion were varied events, displays and ethnic food. Some of the communities represented in Winnipeg were small and surprising, for example, several from Africa and the Caribbean.
I can’t even remember what pavilions we went to but do remember eating Jamaican food and at least two types of eastern European food. I remember an excellent steel band and other music and entertainment. The food in general was delicious and varied. In particular, I remember visiting the native Canadian Indian pavilion and enjoying the displays, history and chatting with local Indians about their lifestyle and position in Canadian society. I also remember enjoying corn bannock bread and some form of stew with wild rice. It was the first time I’d eaten wild rice and I loved it.
The Folklorama food fair rounded off my gourmet year in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg Center of the Food Universe
I hope you understand and appreciate why to me Winnipeg was the Center of the Food Universe or food capital of the world in 1973. Unfortunately, it was deeply personal and no use to Winnipeg tourism in 2020.
Don’t rush off to Winnipeg or you may be disappointed. Winnipeg wasn’t included in Chef’s Table on Netflix.
Nevertheless, this revisiting of food nostalgia may strike a chord with your own early food experiences in other places. I’d certainly welcome responses from anyone in Winnipeg.
As Edward R Murrow would say Good Night and Good Luck. And Good Eating!
Key Words: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, University of Manitoba, 1973, food, restaurants, fine dining, eating, nostalgia, food universe, food experience, food capital of the world, supermarket, butcher, Canadian prairies, ethnic cuisine, franchise food, Greek café, McDonald’s, French restaurant, kosher food, Jewish delicatessen restaurant, steakhouse, Chinese food, La Vielle Gare, Indonesian food, rijsttafel, native Canadian Indian, First Nations, Métis, Folklorama
La Vielle Gare now Resto Gare
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