A couple of years ago, I moved to Stratford, Ont., a lovely city of 30,000 about an hour-and-a-half’s drive south-west of Toronto nestled in the snow belt on the scenic river Avon amid farm country. It’s home to a famous theatre festival, pig farming, car part factories and a well-known chefs school. A real town with enough eccentricity to welcome a vintage-clad urban type like moi who’s wont to call it the land of Shakespeare, swine and swans.
A strong believer in immersing myself in the local culture, especially when it comes to food, I recently found myself in Stratford’s cavernous newly built, fluorescent-lit Rotary Rec Complex attending an annual event of 45 years: The Sparerib and Pigtail Dinner.
Clad in one of my several vintage animal-print coats (all reminiscent of Hamburg 1965), I was seated at one of the many long tables each covered in white plastic sheets (Chinese restaurant-style) at which row upon row of blue chairs were neatly lined up.
After a brief chat with Stratford’s affable mayor Dan Mathieson, who explained that this fundraiser makes big bucks for for local hockey team the Stratford Cullitons, I watched the action.
About a dozen men and women were unloading vats of food from heated containers on wheels at one end of the room. On the other side, a bar serving mostly beer from kegs was attracting a huge and ever-increasing crowd.
Soon, the assembly line of servers began dishing out rolled stuffed ribs, pigtails (both of these are local specialties), creamy scalloped potatoes, superb sauerkraut and all kinds of pie to folks wanting take-out. Some had brought boxes with them in order to carry several servings at a time. One young man dressed neatly in black trousers and a grey jacket, the mayor noted, was a regular who brings the meals back to his place of work: a funeral home.
Soon it was time for those dining in to join the line-up. Our paper plates were bending at the sides so bountiful were the servings. Once seated, I began chatting with a man who works as an engineering consultant in Stratford and commutes to a nearby town. Looking around, I made an observation. “I seem to be the only woman here,” I noted suddenly aware that, among the almost 1,000 attendees, I was the lone female.
“Yes, a woman at work told me this is a stag event,” came his shocking reply.
Munching on on those delicious ribs (all food is prepared by Kennedy’s restaurant in nearby St. Agatha), I quickly understood the mostly friendly but occasionally funny looks I’d been getting and made a quick decision: To enjoy this sumptuous meal and vamoos.
Pondering all this the next day, I realized why the fellow from whom I’d bought my $20 ticket the week before had seemed surprised. I also realized it wasn’t my animal-print coat that was making me stand out in this hungry crowd.
Writing this, I can still taste those fall-off-the-bone ribs and that delectably chewy roast pigtail in its sticky, slightly sweet sauce. Maybe next year I’ll bring along one of my fellow foodie female friends and start a trend.