06 January, 2012

Home on the Grange; the historic kitchens of the AGO

Sometimes all a girl like me wants is to spend a few hours at the AGO.  I'm seated in The Grange for a bite before I venture into the gallery, when I overhear the older woman to my right ordering exactly the same thing I did:  Ham and Cheese Sandwich with Greens (on the side) and an Americano with milk.  It is an interesting coincidence that I attribute to both our shared appetite for simple, 'school lunch' food and the fact that the sandwich is the cheapest on the menu.

We are both seated alone in a room full of families and ladies who lunch; she keeps to herself writing in a small coiled notebook (the kind from the dollar store) as do I, except I'm alternating between browsing on my phone and flipping the first few pages of a tattered second edition of Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs (this book!  it was buried beneath some institutional magazines in a basket near the fireplace).

Easily seduced by the genuine service and the details put up by the cafe, I fall in love with the contents of the sugar bowl.  I don't put sugar in my coffee but with these staring me in the face I'm hard pressed to say no.  According to the delicate wrappers, the tiny cubes are manufactured by Saint Louis, depuis 1865.

Speaking of the 19th century, I wanted to take a tour of the historic kitchens.  I make it downstairs (they're in the basement) first in the company of a young server who tells me not to touch anything and that I "probably shouldn't" take photos.  He seems relieved when a co-worker tells us that the volunteer tour guide has arrived.  He skips back upstairs and I meet Nicole, a bright spark who fills me in on the scene laid before our eyes - the cooking hearth, the baking station, the ironing station - and in the next few rooms the larder, the scullery, the pantry, the candlestick station, the dumb waiter, the servant's bells...  (are you too watching Downton Abbey?)

The historic Grange kitchen, restored to the 1835-40 period  
Neither of us outright believe in ghosts, but Nicole tells me an (admittedly unsubstantiated) story about a child who died in one of these basement kitchen rooms. The gallery's Security sometimes sees a figure in the house after hours.  

My burgeoning interest in historical interiors grows leaps and bounds as I wander about the kitchens. It reminds me of visiting historical sites as a young student, led around by women in period costume who then offer you a piece of "old style" bread.  Alas, the AGO cancelled their costumes (and the bread tradition) five years ago.  And Nicole is very relieved by this executive decision.  

After touring the kitchen rooms I have a very strong urge to touch everything and spend hours photographing still lifes (I do neither).  I also, strangely, want to bake a pie from scratch, run to the woods and shoot a pheasant for dinner, then cozy up to the fire to read Jane Austen by candlelight.  

The historic pantry and larder ("a cool place to store food prior to refrigerators") are not just part of the mundane tour for keen visitors; these particular spaces are used by the chefs at Frank upstairs: to store preserves - green walnuts, pears, sour cherries - and for the perfect climate to make sauerkraut.  I'm doubly impressed. It's the 100-mile diet across the centuries!

Executive Chef at Frank, Anne Yarymowich
After eating my sandwich (simple, tasty and the crusts were cut off...who does that?) and strolling through the kitchens, I stay on the historical theme and wander through 21 rooms of the Thomson Collection (I love cultured philanthropists).  

Weaving through images of les habitants in 19th century rural Quebec makes me think of Chef Chuck, as well as my study days in art school (why didn't I take Canadian art history?).  My mind is reeling from the colours and brushstrokes and the sheer quantity of paintings.  I'm making notes, getting ideas, making more notes, and then finally I step out into the (delightful and bizarre) Galleria Italia and come back to thinking less about art on walls and more about what I'm going to make for dinner...

Less than a block away is a small grocery on the edge of Chinatown, offering a bag of seedless clementines for $1.  That's almost nineteenth century prices!  I grab the oranges, a bottle of rice vinegar (for its pretty label), vegetable dumplings, salted pistachios, and an Asian pear cocooned in one of those styrofoam sleeves (it looked very well rested after travelling all the way from China).    

I am off to research Canadiana now and learn more about the history of my new city and its ancestors.  And in the end I think I will make pasta for dinner (the sauce will be from scratch), then sit by the electric heater and finish my Ruth Reichl book.  By candlelight.