I remember the day I was strolling through Kensington Market in the heart of downtown Toronto and realized that, for the first time in my life, I’d found that place called “home”.
It was the late-’70s and, a divorced single mum of a young daughter Esther (now 40 years old, married and a successful therapist living in B.C.), my career as a food writer was germinating. I was also learning some hard life lessons. While dealing with a lot of painful change, I was about to find my calling.
As often happens in my life, serendipity was about to strike.
Driving through Kensington in 1980, I decided to knock on the door of a Victorian row house on Augusta Ave. a block north of Dundas overlooking Bellevue Park. I don’t know what made me do it except that the location was perfect and the house looked well maintained. Here’s what happened.
An elderly, sweet-faced gentleman came to the door. I asked if he wanted to sell his house. He replied in a Polish accent: “You must be an angel from heaven – and yes.” It turned out he had lived in that home for 50 years and raised a family there. His wife had just died. An attempt to sell the place had failed. $80,000 later, I bought that house with my then-partner.
For the next 25 years, it and Kensington Market were my home – and I mean that in every sense of the word.
The babysitter for my younger daughter Ruthie, now 24 and about to graduate as an RN, lived across the park. The public school she attended for 10 years was a few blocks away. I bought impeccable food of all kinds from local merchants whom I called friends. Amadeu’s, the wondrous Portuguese restaurant opposite my house, had the best patio in the city, a delectable steak sandwich and luscious grilled squid. It was my second home.
Mine was the ideal world to inhabit for a wandering Jew and fledgling member of the food media.
Following a recent five-year stint in the town of Stratford after Ruthie left home, I’ve returned to live in Kensington. What possessed me to think I could replace the colourful, vitally warm, feisty mix that makes this neighbourhood unique?
Back on home turf, I’m also well aware that the one constant about this inimitable place is change.
There used to be live chickens outside the shops on Baldwin St. when I arrived. For a few years in the early ’90s, an infamous spot a few doors from me called the Tropical Paradise attracted more than its fair share of police attention – mostly in the middle of the night. The “egg lady” Cipora Offman ran the famous family business on Augusta at Nassau for many moons until her death in 2008. Max & Son, a landmark little Jewish butcher shop became Sanagan’s Meat Locker three years ago. And the amazing emporium Sassmart, still there, was once a crowded, elbow-to-elbow haven for shoppers seeking a myriad of housewares and house-coats.
Wave upon wave of immigrants to Toronto have made Kensington their favourite place to shop – and, in some cases, live – for generations. Today, what was called “the Jewish market” is home to South Americans, Chinese, South Asians, Portuguese, people from the Caribbean and other diverse cultures.
And on Saturday, April 7 – two weeks ago – a Kensington landmark, European Quality Meats and Sausages, located at 176 Baldwin St. in the market’s hub, closed its doors for the last time.
In preparation for an audio documentary on the changing face of Kensington, I took to the streets, microphone in hand. (That lively piece documenting a historical moment will be on this site in a few weeks).
Shalom Kenigsberg has been the general manager of European Meats for 43 of its 53 years.
He concedes that business has been going down of late. “There’s a different kind of people,” he explained as we sat in owner Morris Leider’s wood-panelled office on the second floor, boxes of rubber gloves, pictures and other stuff already packed in boxes on the floor. “It used to be family-oriented here. Now it’s single guys, yuppies. The area has changed quite a bit. It’s going downhill.”
Long famous for their in-house, Eastern European-style smoked and cured meats – kielbasa, picnic hams, pork hocks and the like – European Meats has lost much of its former clientele to the suburbs. Gone are the days when there were line-ups outside and it took 45 minutes to have your number called.
Shalom says the huge three-floor shop is like home to him after all this time. “I’ve seen this place more than I’ve seen my wife and kids. But, like everything else, it’s got to come to an end.”
Tom Mihalik, the tall, spiffily dressed owner of renowned clothing store Tom’s Place a few doors away, loves to talk and does it well.
His father opened a place in 1958 on nearby Kensington Ave. selling used clothing and furniture with $500. “He was a peddlar in Hungary. Here in Kensington, he became known for used white shirts, tuxedoes and fur coats.” Ironically, those are sought-after items today in the Market’s many popular vintage stores.
Tom came to work at the store 10 years later at age 12. Today, he has a whopping 10 to 12,000 men’s suits in stock – rack upon rack of them.
“For me, the Market is home,” says Tom. “It has a lot of free spirit.” On a personal level, “It means a lot to me to come to work each day and see the pictures of my mother and father that hang by the cash register. I think about how hard they worked.”
As for European Meats closing: “It’s a great loss. They were probably the busiest meat store in the country at one time.” Then he quickly adds: “They will be missed but the Market will stay alive. You cannot kill the Market. The Market is here to stay.”
Sal Borg, owner of Sanci’s – wholesale purveyors of vegetables and tropical/fancy fruit – is in the warehouse at the back of the storefront and house where his mother Frances Borg still lives. In between answering the phone and dispensing orders, he chats with me.
Sal’s Sicilian grandfather built the place in 1929 as a retail tropical fruit store and banana-ripening warehouse. “We were the token Gentiles back then,” he quips referring to the largely Jewish population of Kensington at that time. “There were also Portuguese, Italian – a mish-mash of people – and these days, Africans, Oriental and West Indian.”
Today, it’s a different picture. “There are lots of WASP-ish, trendy, long-haired health food fanatics.” The Market, he says, used to be “a village” but is becoming “a quaint little place in the middle of Toronto, more of a destination for tourists.”
Peter Sanagan, 35, opened Sanagan’s Meat Locker, a tiny 400-square-foot shop in the former Max & Son’s location on Baldwin St. three years ago. He sells local, naturally-raised meat and is typical of Kensington’s new wave of young merchants who are filling a special niche.
He chose this location because he loves the Market. “It’s a food-centric place with so many different cultures.” The closing of European Meats, says he, “is unfortunate. It’s a landmark for the area and draws a lot of business.” He sees the need for Kensington to upgrade. “Every 15 or 20 years, a place needs a fresh coat of paint and to renew itself.”
I’ll give the last word to 79-year-old Morris Leider who opened European Meats at a small shop on Baldwin St. on Tuesday, November 15, 1959.
Looking somewhat frail and his voice breaking, he speaks to me on his store’s closing day. “I haven’t slept for four nights. I grew up here. This was my second home.”
Morris is trying to find positions for some of his 20-plus employees at his main location in Etobicoke, a couple of whom have worked in the Kensington store for more than 40 years.
He says the people who own Essence of Life a couple of blocks away have bought the building and equipment therein. He hopes they continue to sell meat.
He feels bad about leaving. Meanwhile, he’s trying to heed his wife’s words. “She told me it isn’t the end of the world.”
It isn’t the end of Kensington Market either. Just another reminder that it’s best to say a fond farewell to things that must end and try to embrace change.
Maybe a cup of tea and a couple of mandelbrot/biscotti will help.
Frances Borg’s Mandelbrot Biscotti
Frances Borg (nee Sanci), whose son Sal still runs Sanci’s wholesale operation specializing in tropical fruit, is in her 80s and lives at the back of the vintage store that her family opened in the heart of Kensington more than 80 years ago. She gave me this recipe in the late ’90s for a feature article I was writing for the Toronto Star when I was the food editor for that newspaper. They are a cross between the Jewish mandelbrot and Italian biscotti – richer and crumblier than a traditional mandelbrot, twice-baked in keeping with both cookie’s mandatory baking method. Unblanched almonds still have the peel on them. A standing electric mixer works well for this.
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp finely grated lemon rind
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups chopped unblanched almonds
1/2 cup sesame seeds (optional)
1/2 cup granulated or fruit sugar
Preheat oven to 375F.
In large bowl, using electric mixer or hand mixer, beat together butter, oil and sugar until smooth. Add eggs; beat until thick and pale yellow. Beat in lemon rind, lemon juice, vanilla and almond extract.
In another bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. In three batches, add flour mixture to butter mixture, stirring to form a soft dough. Stir in chopped almonds. Divide dough into two pieces. Using your hands, roll each pice into a log about 15 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide.
For Coating, in small bowl, combine sesame seeds and sugar; sprinkle mixture over logs. Press logs onto work surface to coat evenly, making sure coating sticks to dough.
Place logs about 3 inches apart on large greased baking sheets. Press dough down with hands to flatten slightly.
Place in oven; bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven (Do not turn oven off.) Cool slightly, about 5 minutes.
Gently transfer one log to cutting board. Using sharp knife, cut diagonally into 1 inch-thick slices. Repeat with second log. Place biscotti on baking sheet. Return to oven. Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Makes about 32.