New Orleans Gastronomy

May 13, 2013

In addition to the culture, and the history, and the amazing music, an essential thing to do in New Orleans is to eat.  And to drink, but that almost goes without saying in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). We were here about 10 years ago (pre hurricane Katrina) while I attended a business conference, but other than some convention food and a great steak at Smith & Wollensky (since closed), we didn’t really experience the food here. Thankfully my buddy Lee introduced us to his friend Greg, a foodie from North Carolina, who sent us his top picks for New Orleans.

We approached the city from the North, over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway (the longest continuous bridge over water in the world at 23.8 miles or 38 kms) , which allowed us to stop at the Abita Brewery for their afternoon brewery tour.  The tour includes a video about Abita and a quick walk through of the brewery itself.

Patrick and Diane standing with a large stainless steel tank behind and blue paper booties over their sandals

Enjoying the tour, booties and all!

The best part of the tour is that all of Abita’s beers are available on tap, from which guests can pour as many or as much as they like. Diane’s favourite beer was something called ‘Purple Haze’. With unlimited beer, the tour quickly turns into a ‘kegger’, with everyone having a great time. We met Andre and Laura here, a couple who just recently started full-time RVing. The tour and the beer are both free!

Patrick standing in front of a wooden bar with many beer taps and pouring beer into a plastic cup

Open Bar!

The next afternoon, after narrowly avoiding a deluge on the walk there, we visited Cochon, a restaurant in the Garden district. We arrived moist to find the restaurant was just getting going again after a power failure. Neither affected our great lunch.

Our first appetizer was the Wood Fired Oyster Roast. Others had raved about this dish online. They were the best oysters I’ve ever eaten. An ideal combination of garlic and spice that didn’t mask the taste of barely cooked oyster. The perfect compromise between cooked and raw. They were so good that we licked the shells. They were so inspiring that afterwards Diane launched in to a spontaneous emotional monologue about how “I just don’t understand people who don’t like good food”. I wanted to make a trip back later in the day, just for some more oysters. That’s how good they were.

A white bowl of dark brown gumbo and beside it a metal plate of 6 oysters with red sauce on a bed of rock salt

Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo & Wood Fired Oyster Roast

We also had the Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo. Dark in colour and rich in flavour, it had a deviled egg floating on top. It was good, but not hot enough, and it paled in comparison to the oysters.

The Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli was lightly battered, deep fried and dressed in aioli containing sizeable pieces of parsley and mint. It was pleasingly firm on the tooth with the occasional chewier piece. The meat was perfectly spiced to balance the creaminess in the sauce.

Fried alligator bites in a beige sauce on a white plate

Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli

Next up were Smoked Pork Ribs with Watermelon Pickle. The ribs were cooked just right, and easily encouraged to shed the bone. The rib sauce was tangy, with a pronounced but agreeable vinegar taste. It contained diced, pickled watermelon which is sweet, almost like candied fruit. The combination was packed with flavour.

Finally, we shared the Louisiana Cochon. The base of the dish is pulled pork fashioned into a disc and then baked to crisp the exterior. It’s topped with turnips, cabbage, and picked turnips with a large cracklin balanced on top. The cracklin was intentionally served at room temperature and was perfectly salted. It wasn’t the moistest pork I’ve ever eaten, but was good when dipped into the flavourful pan sauce.

A disc of roast pork with a large crackin on top in a white bowl

Louisiana Cochon

Another New Orleans essential we visited twice is Café du Monde. The original French Market location has been serving hot coffee with a hint of chicory and glorious beignets since 1860.

Patrick in white shirt holding 3 beignets coasted in confectioner's sugar on a small white plate

Patrick (right) and Beignets (left)

We ate dinner at Adolfo’s, an Italian Creole restaurant above a tiny jazz bar in a nondescript building on Frenchmen Street. It’s a small and incredibly popular place that people line up for. No reservations, no credit cards, and no web site. The service was more efficient than caring during the first stampede seating.

We started with the Muscles, classically prepared with garlic and white wine. Amazing. The huge serving (enough for 2) was perfectly cooked. They served it with bread, lightly flavoured and barely toasted, which was essential to soak up every drop of the flavourful broth.

A large white plate of muscles on a red and white checked tablecloth

Adolpho’s Muscles

Salad and pasta starters also came with our meals but were nothing special. The bagged salad had a spicy dressing, and the spaghetti was properly cooked but forgettable.

As an entree, we shared the Drum (a type of fish) with Spinach Lemon Sauce, which was recommended by the waiter. It had no shortage of creamy yet light spinach sauce that was surprisingly spicy.

Drum with Spinach Lemon Sauce on a white plate on a red and white tablecloth

Drum with Spinach Lemon Sauce

We also shared the Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce, another favourite of prior patrons. The inch thick steak was cooked medium rare, but wasn’t overly tender. This was more than made up for by the fact it was topped with Ocean Sauce, a house speciality. Half of the steak was covered in shrimp and the other half in crawfish, both in light cream sauces. Gorgeous. Worthy of the acclaim.

A thick rib eye steak covered with shrimp and crawfish and sauce on a white plate

Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce

We frequented d.b.a, a primarily beer bar with live music. It has a less than rustic décor and no furniture, but is packed every night because of the live music, with performers on the low stage so close that you can almost touch them.

Black sign with white an yettlow writing

Diane also liked the Spotted Cat Music Club, another intimate music venue on Frenchmen Street. Like d.b.a, the musical performers were almost too close. We listened to a jazz trio on steel guitar, harmonica, and washboard.

A sign of a black cat with white spots sitting on a brown wooden fence in front of a full moon

The Spotted Cat

On our last day in New Orleans we went to Elizabeth’s, a funky restaurant in Bywater for brunch. The colourful décor included bright colours and plastic tablecloths on simple wooden tables. The service was very fast, despite it being a busy Saturday. In our case, they lived up to their motto, Real Food Done Real Good.

A 2 story rectangular white building with a dark roof covered with hand painted signs advertising food they make

Elizabeth’s Exterior

Diane ordered Crabby Eggs, crab cakes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Each had just the right amount of hollandaise to accent both the egg and the fresh warm crab. Unfortunately, the dish had a lacklustre presentation on an oversized plate filled with fried potato chunks.

2 poached eggs on 2 crab cakes and fried potato chunks on a white plate

Crabby Eggs

I ordered Eggs Florentine, an over-the-top dish of creamed spinach and fried oysters on a bed of pan-fried potatoes topped with 2 perfectly poached eggs, each with a dollop of hollandaise. The sauce was rich and subtly spicy, but the potatoes which could have been warmer.. The hollandaise was creamy and sweet with a distinct lemony top note. The deep fried oysters had a crunchy coating sealing in a juicy, flavourful interior.

Potatoes, fried oysters, and poached eggs in a white bowl

Eggs Florentine

We also ordered the house speciality, Praline Bacon. 4 thick slices of bacon covered in a sweet praline topping, which wasn’t hard or overly crunchy, just on the edge of crystalline. It was sweet and salty, but a bit of gimmick. Not something that I’d order on a regular basis. Bywater is 1 mile east of the French Quarter, and the trek back allowed us to start walking off our brunch.

Diane eating a piece of pracline bacon

What’s better than bacon? Bacon AND dessert!

Later that afternoon, we had 2 plates of crawfish boil from a booth at the 30th Annual French Quarter Festival that we’d been attending all weekend. After Mardi Gras, the <> is probably the largest event in New Orleans, with live music from over 1400 musicians on more than 20 outdoor stages. The streets are packed with lively people moving between the various venues, restaurants, and bars.

A large stainless steel vat filled with boiling crawfish

Crawfish Boil

Crawfish (also known as ‘crayfish’, ‘crawdads’, and ‘mudbugs’) are boiled whole with spices, sausage, potato, and corn, which augment the terrific flavour and provide accompaniments. If you’ve never eaten crawfish, it’s relatively simple. Using your hands, you pull the head off, and suck out its rich, savory contents. Then you peel the body and eat the small bit of meat. It takes a lot of crawfish to satisfy one hungry crustacean-loving person, typically 3 pounds or more.

A styrofoam food container with boiled crawfish, dorn , potatoes, and sausage

A crawfish boil serving

Thanks again to Greg for some great food recommendations. New Orleans is a terrific city that never disappoints, espeically in the food and beverage department!

A hand holding a singe boiled crawfish for a side view

Wave bye-bye!


River Road Slavery

May 7, 2013

At the River Road plantations that we toured, there was only a brief mention of slavery, despite the fact that each of them relied on the forced labour of approximately 200 slaves.  Although both plantations retain some slave quarters, and the topic received an obligatory acknowledgement in the guided tour, not enough information was provided about this critical aspect of the plantations.  It would undoubtedly interrupt the sense of fantasy and glamour that these mansions and their beautiful grounds tend to evoke.

Slavery existed in the United States from the early days of the colonial period.  Slavery had its early roots in indentured servitude, where people of all races could pay off their debts with their labour (for example, the cost of their passage to the Americas).  Over time, as more captive slaves were imported from Africa, state laws were passed that racialized slavery, restricting black Africans and their descendants to slavery. By the time the United States sought independence from Great Britain in 1776, slavery was firmly entrenched.  By 1804, all states north of the Mason Dixon Line had either abolished slavery outright or passed laws for its gradual abolition, but slavery continued to grow in the South with the expansion of the cotton industry.  The fledgling nation became polarized into slave and free states.

The United States and Great Britain both prohibited the international slave trade in 1808, but the domestic trade in the United States continued and expanded.  The South was vigorously defending slavery and supporting its expansion into the new American territories. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, eleven Southern states broke away to form the Confederate States of America.  This led to the Civil War, during which (not before) the abolition of slavery became a goal.  On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln unilaterally freed the slaves in the territory of his opponent, the Confederacy, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Black and white photo of Abraham Lincoln's head and shoulders wearing a black suit

Abraham Lincoln

This decree was based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, not a law passed by Congress. It proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the Army to treat as free all those enslaved in the 10 states that were still in rebellion (3.1 million of the estimated 4 million slaves in the United States at the time). The Proclamation could not be enforced in areas still under rebellion, but as the army took control of Confederate regions, the slaves in those regions were freed rather than returned to their masters.  After the war, the 13th Amendment, effective December 1865, abolished slavery throughout the entire United States and its territories.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas (South, Central, and North). Of these, only an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States.  But by 1860 the slave population in the American South had grown to four million.   Of the 1.5 Million total households in the 15 slave states, nearly 400,000 held slaves (one in four), which was 8% of all American families.  The great majority of slaves worked on plantations or large farms, cultivating cash crops like rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton. By this time, most slaves were held in the deep south, where the majority worked on cotton plantations.

A small building with a tiny front porch

Slave Quarters for 2 families

Slaves could gain freedom only by running away (which was difficult, dangerous, and illegal), or by rare manumission by owners, which was regulated by states and became increasingly difficult or prohibited.  Slaves resisted through non-compliance and rebellions, and escaped to non-slave states and Canada, facilitated by the Underground Railroad.  Even after abolition, freed slaves in the South were forced into second-class legal and economic status through Jim Crow laws intended to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy which persisted until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The terribly scarred back of a black slaves, seated with no shirt on

The first African slaves were brought to Louisiana in 1708.  On the River Road, and throughout Louisiana, slavery was governed by The Code Noir.  Passed by King Louis XIV in 1685, it defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.  Among other things, it also restricted the activities of blacks, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, and forbade Jews from living in French colonies.  Ironically, it required that all slaves be baptised in the Roman Catholic church (they were apparently still concerned with their immortal souls while disregarding all their earthly human rights).  The Code Noir outlawed torture, but institutionalized corporal punishment like beating, disfigurement, and execution (not much of a difference in my book).

A small grey and white building with porch out front and a museum sign on the lawn

River Road African American Museum

One place that I learned about slavery was at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.  Founded in 1994, this small museum is a labour of love of one woman, Kathe Hambrick.  She created the museum to celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans in Louisiana, and to provide a more accurate historic account.  Like me, she noted that the plantation tours which bring thousands of people to the area provide little information about slavery.  Unfortunately, her museum is sparsely attended, and was only open by appointment when we visited.

Some small black dolls in front of a wall with signs saying, "White", "Coloured"

Museum Artifacts


River Road Plantations

May 6, 2013

In the years prior to the U.S. Civil War, the 70 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was a corridor of sugar cane plantations, many showcasing monumental homes.  Today the sugar cane and a few of the antebellum mansions remain, intermixed with petro chemical plants that sprang up in the 20th Century.  We drove the length of the River Road, visiting the plantations and small, historic towns along the route.

Of the historic River Road plantations, the most recognized is probably Oak Alley.  Its white pillared house, built in the Greek Revival style, has been featured in many movies and television shows.

A white pillared house at the end of a long walk line with beautiful old oaks

Oak Alley

The 300 year old Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) which line the path extending from the house to the river, pre-date the building.

Pat and Diane on the oak-lined walk of Oak Alley

Visitors to the plantation are taken on a guided tour of the house.

Our tour guide wearing a white dress standing in front of a fireplace

Our tour guide in period dress

Oak Alley looks like the stately southern mansions of my imagination.

The parlour filled with furniture include blue upholstered wooden furniture, and a small piano

The Parlour

A foyer long foyer extending the width of the house with a narrow staircase extending to the 2nd floor

The Foyer

A long dining room with wooden floor and a set wooden table, with a fabric fan hanging above the table

The Dining Room

Many plantation homes were abandoned, ruined, or destroyed during the 20th century due to encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry, and a weak economy.  The revival of the remaining River Road homes began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s.

Diane standing behine a large metal cauldron filled with water and lillies

Diane with an old sugar cauldron

The River Road plantations were narrow and long, allowing each to have access to the Mississippi river, which was bounded by a small levee to protect from spring flooding.  In addition to the main house, each had a large number of buildings including a sugar mill and many slave cabins.  The plantations produced a cash crop on a large scale for world export.  They were self-contained communities run like a manufacturing business.

We also visited the Laura Plantation, one of the few Creole plantations that remain.  Creoles were a multi-racial people descended from the French, African American, and Native Americans.  Creole plantation houses were generally smaller and brightly coloured.

A 2 story house painted hellow with an upper pillared balcony

Laura Plantation House

At its largest size, the Laura Plantation was approximately 12,000 acres (4850 hectares), which included properties amassed over time.  The main house, in addition to being the living quarters of the plantation owners, was also their business office and the place where grand social occasions took place.

Dinae standing in a white walled room in front of a fireplace with a large set dining room table with white tablecloth

Laura’s Dining Room

Laura Locoul, after whom the plantation was named, left a journal for her daughters, so a great deal is known about the family itself and the estate. The guided tour offered at this plantation is based on personal accounts about life on this historic farm found in Laura’s journals and the French National Archives.

in the center of the property, 3.5 miles behind the house were the slave quarters.  There were 69 cabins, each holding 2 families, communal kitchens, an infirmary, and several water wells.  By the 1850s, the Laura Plantation was the workplace for 100 mules and 195 humans, 175 of them slaves.

2 small shacks among trees in the distance with a large bell int the foreground

Slave Quarters


Encierro — The Running of the Bulls

May 3, 2013

Last Friday I wrote about the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.  I said that it’s famous for The Running of the Bulls (‘Encierro’ in Spanish), but left you hanging for the details.  Well here goes.

Each morning during the Festival of San Fermin, hundreds of people run with bulls along a narrow course through the streets of Pamplona.  Each morning, thousands of people line the route to watch and cheer.  Many rent an expensive spot on a balcony to get a good view.  Thousands fill the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena) at the end of the route to cheer the successful runners.  Each morning, people are injured and ambulances cart them away.  Each morning, the event is broadcast live on Spanish television.

The fronts of 5 coloured buildings each with many balconies on the various floors, each filled with spectators

Spectators lining the balconies along the Encierro route

Every year 200 to 300 people are injured during The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  Most of the injuries are contusions due to falls.  Since 1910, when record keeping began, 15 people have been killed, usually a result of goring when a bull’s horn pierces a runner’s lungs.  Despite a high concentration of adrenaline-high drunken tourists, only one foreigner has been killed, an American from Illinois who was gored by a bull in 1995.  There is also a high likelihood of being trampled by other runners, which can result in serious injuries if runners pile up. The worst bottleneck is the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, a narrow concrete tunnel with no cover and no escape except out the other end.  A Spanish man suffocated here in a pile of runners in 1977.

2 fences narrowing to a runnetl with red doors on the side of the arena

Narrowing entrance to the small Plaza de Toros tunnel

Bull running has a long history in Spain.  It evolved with the tradition of bull fighting, something many animal rights activists protest.  Early each morning cattle drovers would herd fresh bulls from a corral on the outskirts of town through the city streets to the bull fighting arena.  Young men started running in front of the bulls, even though it was not allowed.

Why do they do it?  Perhaps for the thrill of it?  To outdo their friends?  To prove their worth, to themselves or others?  All of the above?

“There are only three sports:  bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” – Ernest Hemingway

Runners dress in the traditional clothing of the festival which consists of a white shirt and trousers with a long red sash around the waist and a red neckerchief,   Many have been up all night.  Runners congregate in a starting corral in the town hall plaza.  Police guard the entrances and patrol on foot through the corral, removing anyone who is too drunk or disorderly, not wearing proper footwear, or is carrying a backpack or camera equipment.  Anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to run.  There are no tickets sold, and no controls of the number of runners who crowd the route.

The course runs right through the narrow downtown streets of Pamplona, the same streets where people were, until a couple of hours before, partying all night.  It is half a mile in length (826 meters) starting near the bull corral and finishing in the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena).  It goes through four streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta) and a newer section called Telefónica before entering into the bull arena.  The course is slightly uphill for most of its length and the footing is uneven, a mix of pavement and cobblestones with hazards like curbs and drain covers.  The route is cleared of people, the garbage removed, and the streets washed just before the run gets underway at 8 AM.  Unfortunately, that means that the footing is also wet and can be slippery.

Where the course is not lined by buildings, a wooden fence is erected to close off the side streets and keep the bulls and the runners on route.  The 7 foot (2.13 meter) high, railed fence allows the spectators to see the action, and allows injured runners to be dragged from the course under the bottom rail.  In theory, a runner can also climb the fence to escape a bull, but the rails are usually overrun by spectators, making this much more difficult than it sounds.

A wooden fence with heavy posts and 3 rails

The railed fence

In some sections, there is no escape.

A solid wooden fence with deep scrathes running horizontally

What do suppose made these deep gouges?

In total, 12 animals stampede through the streets of Pamplona (not including homo sapiens). There are 6 bulls which can be recognized by their darker coloring, giant testicles, air of authority, and strong desire to kill anybody who gets in their way.  In addition tothe bulls, 6 steers also run to try to keep the herd moving together in the right direction, with varying degrees of success.  The steers run every day and know the course well.  The bulls only run once.

A stuffed black bull with horns behind glass

An ex-bull

Along the course are gates that are closed after the bulls pass.  This prevents the bulls from running back along the route, which would be disastrous if people weren’t expecting it.  The gates require that runners keep up with the bulls or be barred from proceeding.

A long metal gate attached to a heavy wooden post in the open position up against the fence

Long, heavy gates along the route

The bulls are closely followed by drovers carrying long sticks.  It is there job to keep the bulls moving in the right direction.  A bull is most dangerous when it becomes separated from the herd and doesn’t know which way to run.  While it tries to figure this out, it passes the time by crushing and goring people.  Runners are forbidden from touching the bulls on their hind quarters.  This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing them to stop running and turn around.  The long sticks are not for the bulls — they are for the runners.  Anyone who touches a bull’s backside receives a slash across the chest.

A black bull standing and staring at 2 people, one trying to balance on his hands on the top of a post, and the other laying on the ground trying to hide behind the post

Lone Bull

The bulls take from 2.5 to 6 minutes to complete the half mile distance, depending on whether they stay together or not.  The average speed of the herd is 24 km/h (15 mph).  With the large number of runners participating, the uphill grade, the bad footing, and the speed of the animals, it is virtually impossible for anyone to keep up with the bulls for the entire distance.  The bulls pass or trample those who start along the early sections of the route, most of whom don’t make it to the end.  About 10 minutes before the bulls were released, the gates holding the runners are opened, allowing them to distribute themselves along the course.  If you want to make it to the end, you should take up a position along the last half of the course, preferably after Dead Man’s Corner.

The Encierro begins with the runners closest to the bull pen singing a benediction in front of the statue of Saint Fermin. It is sung twice, once in Spanish and once in Basque, “We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”).The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermín!” (“Long live San Fermin” in Spanish and Basque).  A rocket is fired at 8 AM when the corral gates are opened.  A second rocket signals that all 6 bulls have been released  The rockets cannot be seen or heard along most of the route.  A human chain of police officers bars the street near the corral until just before the bulls are released.

A huge crowd on a narrow street being held back by a line of police offiers

Police line holding runners back

This ensure that the bulls get a running start in the right direction (like they really need an advantage!).  Two final rockets signal that all of the herd has entered the bull ring.  The average duration between the first rocket and the end of the Encierro is 4 minutes.

People walking in a narrow street with stone walls on both sides

The first section of the route (not during the run)

Runners try to run close to the bulls.  Although it is much safer, it is considered very bad form to run too far ahead of the bulls.  If you do this, the spectators will throw their drinks and other garbage at you.  It is called ‘running with the bulls’ after all, not ‘running where the bulls will be later.’  It is considered the best form to run directly in front of the bulls for as long as you can.  When you tire, you try to dive for the sidelines or you pay the price for your foolishness.  A wiser move is to run right beside a bull, perhaps touching it on the shoulder or back, all the time willing it to keep running, anything other than stopping to chat with you.

3 bulls stampeding down a street with runners all around them

Running of the Bulls

Encierro runners face many challenges.  Getting up early enough to get into the starting corrals before 7:30 AM.  Holding their bladders through the entire event.  Running very fast on uneven ground.  Getting close to a herd of bulls at a full sprint without getting trampled, or crushed, or skewered.  But the biggest risk of all is not the bulls, it’s the other runners who push or trip you, who fall in front of you.  The bulls just finish the job.

A bull trampling 2 men

Are we having fun yet?

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.


Are Canadians paying too much? What can we do about it?

May 2, 2013

Canadians pay more for most retail goods than Americans living just across the border, despite the fact that the Canadian dollar has been near or above parity with the U.S. dollar for several years now. We are constantly reminded of this when we see American advertisements on television, when we shop online, when we buy books and magazines that have 2 different prices on the back cover, and when we visit the United States. My recent investgation into this matter (Are Prices Higher in Canada than in the U.S?) confirmed my suspicions. The price differences in certain product categories are glaring – gasoline (20-35% higher), automobiles (other than economy models), groceries (especially dairy and poultry products), alcoholic beverages, etc. Are we being gouged?

Our unelected Canadian Senate recently looked into this matter, releasing its study on the reasons for price discrepancies for goods between Canada and the U.S. (The Canada-US Price Gap).  They did not look at the price of services, which are harder to compare, nor supply-managed goods (e.g. eggs, poultry and dairy products, which we definitely pay more for but are a political hot-button issue). Although their report was anything but definitive, they concluded that in many cases retail prices are higher in Canada, and the reasons for this difference include: lower economies of scale, a higher level of retailer concentration, higher transportation costs, higher Canadian tariffs and taxes, the high volatility in exchange rates, and different regulatory requirements (like bilingual packaging and product safety standards). For its part, the Senate recommended that Canada review its tariffs, better integrate safety standards between the 2 countries, and consider an increase in the minimum threshold at which low-value shipments from the U.S. are taxed. One of the biggest reasons for price differences that they identified is country-specific pricing by international manufacturers who charge more in Canada simply because Canadians appear willing to pay more.

In order to maximize profits, manufacturers attempt to segment the market, creating real or imagined differences that allow them to sell their products at different prices in the two countries. An example of this are car manufacturers who don’t allow their warranties to be transferred between the two countries. Some manufacturers charge Canadian retailers 10% to 50% more than U.S. retailers for identical products. Manufacturers try to justify this by saying that their higher prices subsidize the cost of maintaining operations in Canada and are necessary to compensate Canadian distributors and wholesalers who face higher costs than their American counterparts. But they also openly admit that they charge more because Canadians are used to paying more (which seems like a chicken-and-egg situation to me). Manufacturers may price more aggressively in the U.S. because in order for their brand to succeed globally, it is essential that it be a success in the U.S. American consumers benefit from this effect. In fact, market segmentation allows manufacturers to lower their prices in the United States, effectively subsidizing their prices using earnings from higher profit territories like Canada.

In addition, American retailers are more competitive. They enjoy lower labour rates, higher productivity, and are quick to respond to competitive pressures. Many Canadian retailers have failed to pass along to consumers the benefit they’ve garnered from a stronger loonie.

Ultimately the price gap is about Canadian’s willingness to pay. Sellers simply believe that Canadians will pay more, and they appear to be right. Canadians don’t shop as aggressively as Americans, and aren’t as quick to seek out deals. Canadian retailers and consumers are failing to put the sort of pressure on manufacturers needed to bring prices down.

This situation won’t improve by itself. Neither the increase in the Canadian dollar nor the arrival in Canada of giant U.S. retailers like Walmart and Target has had a significant effect. So, what can we do about it?

  1. Shop Local

    Where possible, buy locally made or Canadian made products that provide good value for the money. This doesn’t solve the problem of higher prices for Canadians, but at least the profits are going to Canadian manufacturers.

  2. Switch to cheaper brands or basic commodities

    As the Canadian economy has matured and we have become wealthier, we consume more and more differentiated goods rather than basic commodities. The manufacturers of differentiated goods are able to increase their prices as long as consumers demand their products. e.g. They can charge more for Pizza Pockets than no-name pizza snacks, and much more than for wheat flour and tomato sauce.

    Canadians can increase competition and lower prices by switching to cheaper brands whenever possible or using basic commodities instead. e.g. Buying generic brands in the grocery store. Buying unbranded products. Buying commodity items like bulk foods, fresh produce, etc. Choose brands that don’t practice country-specific pricing (or that minimize it) and that are competitively priced to those in the U.S. Manufacturers will lower prices if Canadians don’t pay their marked-up costs.

  3. Check prices and shop smart

    The Senate report noted that, “As more Canadian consumers become aware of smartphone applications and Internet sites for price shopping and comparison, and become price-savvy consumers, competitive pressures in Canada will increase and the price for products in Canada will converge to U.S. prices”.

    Compare prices and buy where things are cheaper. Price comparison web sites make this easy (e.g. Shopbot.ca, ShopToIt.ca, PriceGrabber.ca, NextTag.com, Shopzilla.com). Smart phone apps that scan bar codes and compare prices make this even easier (e.g. RedLaser, Google Shopper, Amazon Price Check, Pricegrabber).

    Choose retailers that offer prices competitive to those in the U.S. Retailers will lower prices if we shop elsewhere.

  4. Speak up

    Let manufacturers, retailers, and governments know that you’re fed up with paying more, and that you’re voting with your wallet. Join consumer associations that advocate for fair pricing.

  5. Shop cross-border

    Canadians have a long-standing tradition of cross-border shopping. 75% of us live within 161 kilometres (100 miles) of the U.S. border. The total number of Canadians travelling to the United States by automobile is closely correlated with the movements of the exchange rate. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 an average of 3.4 million Canadian travelers crossed the border into the United States by automobile each month, including 2.4 million Canadian travelers (69.7% of all Canadian travellers) who made same-day trips (which likely involved some shopping). Duty-free exemptions for Canadians were increased effective June 2012, making it easier to bring back more stuff. Although the duty-free limit for same-day trips is still zero (unlike Americans who get $200), Canada Customs often doesn’t bother with smaller purchases like groceries.

    Shop online. The price advantages of shopping in the U.S. (or even other countries like England) often more than make up for the costs of shipping, a customs broker fee, and duty (if applicable). More U.S. companies offer free shipping to Canada, and downloaded items (like music, movies, and software) don’t need to be shipped at all. Many items are duty-free under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Canada Customs doesn’t charge duty on items valued under $20 Canadian (an amount which has effectively increased with the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the greenback).

I can hear some patriotic Canadians squealing, those who believe that we have an obligation to ‘Buy Canadian’. Hopefully I’ve covered that with my Point #1 above. Please note that while we are smart shopping, I believe that Canadians should continue to pay whatever sales or other taxes are required. I believe that in the long run, Canadians will be better off if our manufacturers, retailers, and government remain competitive in the global market. Competitive retail pricing will benefit all Canadians, rather than line the pockets of international manufacturers.


Scott Boudin Festival

May 1, 2013

We drove out of Texas and into the swamps of Louisiana. The tourist office at the state boundary mentioned something called the Boudin Festival happening in the town of Scott. We had no idea what boudin was, but when we learned it was food, Diane set a course for Scott.

Brightly coloured festival poster with a train and pig engineer and boudin!Boudin is a dressing of meat (usually pork), rice, traces of vegetable, and spices that is packaged in a sausage casing (i.e. pig intestine) and boiled. Not as much meat as sausage, and no oatmeal like haggis. Like sausages everywhere, it’s something to do with the leftover bits of slaughtered pig (like liver and butt). Boudin has been made in southern Louisiana since the mid-1800s, probably originating with French Acadians, ancestors of the Cajuns, Some modern versions of boudin substitute crawfish or shrimp for pork.

We arrived hungry on the opening day of the festival. The announcer put out a call for anyone from out of state who had never tried Boudin before. I volunteered and soon found myself onstage and being introduced.

The announcer worked the crowd saying, “We had to go all the way to Canada to find a person who had never tasted boudin before!”  Cheers from the crowd. After some pleasantries, I was handed a foil wrapper. Fearing a set-up, I opening it carefully.

Patrick on stage with drums behind, wearing shorts and a t-shit and standing beside the annouuncer with a microphone.  Patrick opening a silver foiil package.

Opening my 1st boudin

What emerged was an 8 inch brownish tube, warm and slippery. I wiggled it. The announcer said to, “keep it above your waist”. It was family show. Laughs from the crowd.

Patrick on stage holding a half unwrapped boudin

Staring down my 1st boudin

I tasted it. The crowd held their breath. Who knew food could be so exciting?

Patrick on stage with boudin to his lips

Bite the casing and slurp out the goodness

The announcer asked me to describe it.

Tasting Boudin (P1100598)

Patrick on stage holding a boudin in one hand and a microphone in the other

Trying to describe boudin

As is my nature, I gave an overly analytical response, like a damn restaurant review, “flavourful, surprisingly spicy”. What the crowd really wanted was for me to throw my arms in the arms and say, “I love it!”.  Leeson Learned.

Patrick on stage with both arms raised in the air

Patrick whooping it up on stage

My on-stage appearance raised our visibility for the rest of the day. People approached us, we were given tastes by a couple of food vendors, and I was interviewed for local TV.

Patrick being interviewed by a reproter with the camera man int the foreground

My TV interview

An impetus for this inaugural festival is that Scott, Louisiana was recently named Boudin Capital of the World, the result of a bipartisan bill passed by both the Louisiana House and Senate in April 2012. This was done over the objections of Broussard, Louisiana which had previously been using the title but couldn’t prove it had an official designation, and despite the protest of Jennings, Louisiana which was declared Boudin Capital of the Universe in the 1970’s. The feud between the Boudin capitals even made the Wall Street Journal.

The small city of Scott (8800 people) produced 1.5 Million pounds of boudin in 2012. That’s 3 Million links! Within the city limits there are four establishments employing 80 people who make and sell $5 Million of boudin each year.

Although boudin is the raison d’être of the festival, there are other things to do. There is a busy stage with non-stop cajun, zydeco, and rock performances. People aren’t shy about dancing, even in the afternoon sun. Folks sit around on folding chairs enjoying the music. There is a busy midway for the young and young at heart. But the star of the show is definitely the food.

A street lined with food tents and filled with people

Busy food vendors

We ate our way through virtually everything the food vendors had to offer. In addition to boiled boudin, we enjoyed:

Links of boudin on a cutting board with 2 pairs of hands

Smoked Boudin

2 deep-fried balls of boudin about 2 inches in diameter in a white paper dish held by Diane

Boudin Balls

Diane eating jambalaya with a plastic fork from a disposable bowl

Jambalaya

We really liked the cracklins, which are seasoned, crispy bits of deep-fried pig skin and fat with an occasional bit of meat.  Very tasty, but not even remotely close to healthy.

A man in a red t-shirt with a long metal pole standing over a boiling black vat of oil

It’s hot work making cracklins  I

A black pot filled with boiling oil and bits of pig skin

Cracklins fryin’

Diane with a cracklin in her hand about to eat it

Diane enjoying cracklins

We still managed to find room for a grilled pork sandwich, a huge slab of tasty pork on soon-to-be-sloppy white sandwich bread.

A person standing over a large frying grill covered in pork steaks

Grilling Pork

Patrick eating a pork sandwich in one hand with a paper tray to catch the drips in the other

Tricky to eat

A suggestion for next year’s festival is to offer real beer, something other than mini-Budweisers.

Patrick holidng a small can of Budweiser beer

Even when it grows up, it still won’t be a real beer

Overall, it was a great small town festival. Comfortable and friendly. Tasty and interesting food. Terrific music. It’s wonderful to stumble across gems like this, where we can experience something new and unique.

The back of a woman with a lime green t-shirt with the words, "Where the west begins, and the boudin never ends"

A friendly festival organizer’s t-shirt


Impressions of Texas

April 30, 2013

This is our first visit to Texas, so it was a new experience for us.  Here are some things we find interesting about Texas.

  • I’ve always heard how big Texas is. At 268,580 square miles (695,621 sq. kms), it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, second only to Alaska among all U.S. states, and is larger than every country in Europe (except Russia which isn’t really in Europe in my mind). However, the area of Texas is not quite as impressive as its reputation. There are 5 Canadian Provinces and Territories that are much, much larger than Texas (British Columbia!, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), and 3 that are almost as big (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • The word “Texas” derives from local Indian words meaning allies or friends. Reflecting this, the Texas state motto is friendship.
  • Texas has been part of or ruled by 6 nations in its modern history – Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States (twice) and the Confederate States of America (during the American Civil War). The words ‘6 Flags’ are incorporated into a lot of Texas venue names.
  • The Texas state capitol building in Austin was completed on May 16, 1888. It is the largest of all state capitols in the nation in terms of square footage. Its construction was paid for by bartering 3 million acres of land in the Texas ‘panhandle’ to the builders.
  • West Texas is mostly wide-open, dry desert. It is sparsely populated and there are no big cities except El Paso (on Texas’s Western border with Mexico and New Mexico). The Eastern side of Texas looks very different, with grass, green trees, and more agriculture. The dry west and green east are separated by the 100th Meridian (100 degrees West of Greenwich England), a line which happens to closely approximate the 20 inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation, not unlike the lines of equal elevation on a topographic map) which is commonly used to demarcate arid and non-arid land

    A silhouette of a tree against a graduate grey background

    West Texas Landscape

  • Texas is part of the Southern ‘bible belt’ and has a majority Christian population, primarily Evangelical Protestants (65%) and Catholics (21%, a byproduct of Texas’s 38% Latino population

    A large billboard with black print on a white background reading "Think God"

    Texas Billboard

  • Famous from old Western movies, the Rio Grande River serves as a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

    A piicture of Patrick's muddy feet stadnign on cracked mud earth

    Muddy feet after I waded the Rio Grande into Mexico

  • Because Texas shares a long border with Mexico, there are almost 10,000 United States Border Patrol agents in the state. Roadside checks are common like in Southern Arizona.
  • A lot of Texans like to dance. There are old-fashioned dance halls throughout the state where people enjoy the 2-step, waltz, and occasional polka.
  • Texans also love their bar-b-que (BBQ), which is meat cooked using the indirect heat of wood smoke. What we usually call BBQ in Canada (i.e. cooking over direct heat or flame) is actually grilling, not BBQ.
  • Texas is a conservative place, and is currently one of the most Republican states in the United States. Republicans control all statewide Texas offices, both houses of the state legislature and have a majority in the Texas congressional delegation. Despite this, the state capital of Austin is liberal, artistic, and actively encourages individuality (‘keep Austin weird’)

    Brown building of Austin Texas seen from the river

    Austin Skyline

  • Texas allows RVs to park overnight in roadside picnic areas, which are generally nice and clean, but sometimes right beside and not separated from the roadways.

    The Dream Machine parked with slide out in a rest area beside the road

    Sleeping at a Texas roadside picnic area

  • Texans are very patriotic. There are American flags everywhere and a lot of Texas flags.

    The Texas flag flying against a blue background

    Texas Flag

  • Although George W. Bush is commonly associated with Texas (he was the State Governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), he was not born there (actually, New Haven, Connecticut). But Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected 1952) and Lyndon B. Johnson (elected 1963) were both born in Texas. Johnson spent much of his presidency on his ranch in Texas, operating from his home nicknamed ‘The Texas White House’.

    The Dream Machine parked beside a Jetstar jet under a roof

    The Dream Machine and Lyndon Johnson’s mini-Air Force One

  • Many restaurants in Texas don’t have a license to serve hard liquor, sometimes only beer and wine). Some of these restaurants allow you to bring your own liquor and they’ll sell you ‘a set up’, which is the glasses, ice, and mix that you need to make your own drinks.
  • The Texas drawl is real, not just in the movies. “Y’all” is the most common pronoun here. When people call us “Sir” or “Ma’am” we feel old, but folks are just being polite.
  • Texas’s State Flower is the Bluebonnet, a sentimental favourite, which was blooming as we passed through.

    A field of blue flowers with green leaves

    Texas Bluebonnets

  • Like Arizona and New Mexico, the Texan desert is home to the collared peccary (known in the south as javelina). They are social animals, often forming herds, and adults weight 40 to 90 pounds.

    A brown javelina on dry grass.  it looks like a small pig with stiff hair.

    A Javelina visiting our campsite in Big Bend National Park