This appeared in the Toronto Star in July, 2005
Dear readers, Toronto friends and my beloved Kensington Market family, this is not goodbye.
My daughter Ruthie is leaving home to study at McGill and it’s time for both of us to leave the nest. Although I’m moving soon to the beautiful Ontario town of Stratford after many years of living in this city’s best neighbourhood, I’ll be back.
I’m taking the summer off to settle into my new home. That’ll be no mean feat having spent 25 happy years in my lovingly restored Victorian row house on one of the busiest streets in the heart of Kensington. But I plan to visit my one-of-a-kind former ‘hood, eagerly and often.
After 16 years of writing about food for this newspaper, my column will re-appear in these pages in September. As usual, it will be a place to share my undying passion for food and cooking.
It was the latter, along with a life-long search for roots and that elusive thing called home, that drew me to Kensington – Canada’s most original, still flourishing, fiercely feisty outdoor market – in the late 1970s, a few years after arriving here via North Bay, Edmonton, Alberta, and London, England, where I spent 15 formative years.
It’s tough to find roots and home when you’ve been raised in a peripatetic, secular Jewish family that stands out like a loaf of caraway rye in a white-bread, white-collar North London suburb in the 1950s and ‘60s.
It’s even trickier to grasp those concepts when your father disowns his rough-and-tough Montreal family and your mother is a holocaust refugee with almost no surviving relatives.
As my brother Eric says succinctly: “We’re wandering Jews.”
Enter Kensington: an eclectic ethnic mix of merchants housed in wall-to-wall shops and eateries interspersed by residents of every age, shape and colour.
It’s a wild and whacky mish-mosh of tumble-down buildings, hand-scrawled signs, gentrified houses, noisy traffic and food smells of every kind.
These few densely populated blocks have been a welcoming home to waves of immigrants since fledgling days a century ago when this was called the Jewish Market.
Today, Kensington is a microcosm of cosmopolitan Toronto: Caribbean ginger beer meets New Age head-shop meets fair trade coffee meets Portuguese chorizo, vegan muffins, Chilean empanadas and vintage clothes.
And it’s always in a state of flux. During the two weeks it took to compile this guide, two eateries opened and my favourite Persian food shop Alvand (source of the ultimate lime-soaked pistachio) closed.
What better place for a once rootless, food-loving bohemian like me to find both family and home.
Like any family, my adopted one has its ups and downs, its affections and feuds, its laughter and its tears. This vibrant community is relentlessly real and never dull.
Take the time in the 1980s when a thankfully short-lived bar a few doors from my house attracted a questionable clientele. One night, I was awakened by the yelling of a dissatisfied customer who promptly drove his car down some steps and through that establishment’s front door.
Like any family, we sometimes disagree.
Many, opposed to the snazzy Fresh-Mart supermarket which opened in a former clothing store some months ago, call it “corporate” and “not a Market place.”
Kensington has been evolving since its inception and is going through rapid change as I write. People here have diverse reasons for opposing Fresh-Mart. Most, like me, feel this store is simply out of place and that the universe will unfold as it should and always does in Kensington.
As in any good family, if you’re in crisis, help is at hand.
My friend Joe Freitas of the inimitable housewares/clothing emporium Sasmart has fixed a leak in my garden house, replaced fuses and supplied plates at a moment’s notice for food photos to accompany this column.
Some years ago, when my kitchen window mysteriously fell out of its frame with a huge crash, I ran across the street to the amazing Portuguese restaurant Amadeu’s. Lovely Chris Vitorino, son-in-law of owners Celeste and Amadeu Goncalves, didn’t miss a beat. We rushed back to my house, he fixed the problem and made me promise to always call in an emergency. Of course, I did.
In September, 2003, Chris died of a rare blood disease at the age of 29. My Market family mourned and, at the nearby funeral home, we gathered to console each other and say our heartbreaking goodbyes.
Like any family worth its salt, we know how to have fun.
Where else would a statue of Al Waxman, located in Bellevue Square Park, be dressed in a hand-knitted scarlet hat and scarf in the thick of winter and, more recently, a black velvet yarmulka studded with shiny beads?
Walk through Kensington Market at twilight when merchants kibitz with each other as they sweep the sidewalk and you’ll feel the magic.
This is a bittersweet time for me but I know I’m going to be missed by the cherished family I’ll be missing.
The other day, I dropped by “Casa” – our affectionate nickname for the bulk food-cum coffee shop Casa Acoreana that’s this Market’s hub – for my morning espresso.
“I haven’t been able to get out for a smoke it’s so busy,” grumbled Ossie, second eldest of the four wonderful Pavao brothers whose father Luis opened this wondrous place as a tiny grocery store 40 years ago.
“So when are you leaving?” he continued brusquely, not looking up as he poured coffee into my usual small blue cup. “In mid-July,” I answered warily.
“You’d better come by here for a hug before you go,” came the firm reply.
That’s my Kensington Market family: tough on the outside but irresistibly tender at heart.