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December 2, 2013

City Noel

streetcarLiving in the city and not having a car, we have always brought our Christmas trees home quite conspicuously, carried on our shoulders (which is a bit awkward when pushing a stroller or carrying a baby, but we’ve made it happen in all these circumstances). And that is part of the reason I am so enamoured with the Christmas cards I’ve bought this year, which show another quite ingenious method for bringing home Christmas in the city. These cards are by Wendy Tancock, whose site is here. The image is beautiful and who doesn’t love a streetcar? I’m due to start writing a pile tonight

August 14, 2013

Destination Bookshop: Ella Minnow Books

Destination Bookshop is a new feature here at Pickle Me This! Part book-shopping-spree, part city travel guide, we want to inspire you to visit vibrant neighbourhoods all over the Toronto with excellent bookshops as a chief attraction.

ella minnow logoElla Minnow Children’s Bookstore brought us to the Beaches one day in late July. Located on Queen Street East just east of Woodbine, the shop was definitely worth the journey and situated in a neighbourhood with so many excellent things to do.


Photo from the Ella Minnow Facebook page.

The Shop: We were warmly greeted upon entering Ella Minnow, and informed that as this was our first visit, we should probably start at the back of the shop and work forward. This was especially exciting because it was in the back that we met the resident rabbit, a white bunny called Marshmallow.

The shop is well-organized, with books for older readers at the back and picture books and those for younger readers at the front. The feel is definitively maximalist, charmingly cluttered even. I love the worn wooden floor. Books are everywhere, displayed facing out and also by spine like a library. Stock is carefully curated for quality, and not a Disney princess in sight. Bewarned that the shop does sell toys, but they’re pretty good ones, and many are bookish tie-ins. I’m always up for a bit of Mo Willems plush.

They’ve got new releases, lovely hardbacks, vintage paperbacks (a wide range of Virginia Lee Burton, I notice approvingly) and a good selection of Canadian authors/illustrators and small presses. After some debate, we settle on Read Me a Story, Stella, the new book by Marie-Louise Gay.

Ella Minnow was a pleasure to explore, and we could have played all afternoon, but there was more to do…

readWhere to Play: Kew Gardens is a fantastic park just east on Queen Street. The park features an excellent playground with a fun climbing structure, beautiful shady trees, lots of room to rove and explore and so much going on–it’s quite the community hub. We made our way through the park down to the beach on the shore of Lake Ontario, and bumped along the boardwalk. On good days, the beach is great for swimming, though it was more of skipping stones day when we were there.

When you get back to Queen Street, make a wee stop at the Beaches Library, a beautiful building and one of the city’s historic Carnegie Branches.

And of course, there are plenty of fun and interesting shops along Queen Street.

IMG_20130723_154450-001Where to Eat: Attracted by a sign promising free ice cream with lunch sets, we had lunch at Thai House Cuisine (2213 Queen Street East), and it was delicious. Snack-wise, Ella Minnow is well-situated with a Dufflet Cafe next door and even a door between them–great for a cake and a coffee or tea. And don’t miss milk and cookies at Moo Milk Bar.

IMG_20130723_114014How to Get There: You can get to The Beaches by transit, on the Queen Streetcar (a [slow] adventure in itself) or by taking a bus south from eastern stations on the Danforth line. We elected to drive, however, as these days we travel with a baby and a ton of stuff. The trick of driving, however, is parking, which is hard to come by in the ‘hood, and also that the narrow, congested streets are busy and traffic is slow. This is one of those rare “it’s the destination, not the journey…” situations.

So what else are we missing? What other great things lie within the vicinity of Ella Minnow? Let us know in the comments in order to make Destination Bookshop all the more comprehensive.

July 3, 2013

Redfish Bluefish

Over at Bunch, I  wrote about our new favourite cafe Redfish Bluefish. Read my piece here.


May 7, 2013

City Books for Spring

(This post is cross-posted over at Bunch)

Right now as spring arrives and family life moves back out of doors, it is a perfect time to share some books that connect readers to the local and which affirm the goodness of life in the city.

in-lucia's-neighbourhoodIn Lucia’s Neighbourhood by Pat Shewchuk and Marek Cole: This picture book based on the NFB film Montrose Avenue tells the story of “the ballet of the good city sidewalk” (as quoted by Jane Jacobs) in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood. The book opens with the epigraph by Jacobs, and then goes to render the urban visionary’s ideas in a way that a child can easily understand. A fabulous celebration of city life, In Lucia’s Neighbourhood is most remarkable for its illustrations which are so utterly Toronto: streetcars, three-panelled windows and wrought-iron porches. How wonderful to encounter one’s own world within the pages of a book.

maybelleMaybelle the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Burton: This one’s not a Toronto book, but in some ways it may as well be. San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are under threat, as Big Bill the Bus explains to Maybelle: “I just heard the City Fathers say/ the cable cars must go…/ that you’re too old and out of date/ much too slow and can’t be safe/ and worst of all YOU DON’T MAKE MONEY./ What they want is Speed and Progress/ and E-CON-OMY…” San Franciscans don’t respond well to the potential loss of their cable cars, forming a citizen’s committee to save them. Petitions lead to a referendum, and the cable cars are preserved. “We, the people, are the City. Why can’t we decide?” And with that, your child’s political foundation is laid.

jonanthanJonathan Cleaned Up and Then He Heard a Sound by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko: Another book that seems eerily prescient of the current state of Toronto politics. “Subways, subways, subways!” indeed, and somehow a station has appeared in Jonathan’s house. “If the subway stops here, then it’s a subway station,” Jonathan is told by a TTC conductor who has a relaxed emphasis on customer service and instructs Jonathan to go to City Hall if he doesn’t like it. When Jonathan gets there, the Mayor has run out for lunch. Wandering the empty corridors of City Hall, he comes across an old man crying behind “an enormous computer machine.” Turns out the computer is broken and the poor man behind it is responsible for running the entire city. Jonathan gets him to move the subway station in exchange for four cases of blackberry jam, demonstrating that sometimes civic engagement (and bartering) is the only way to get things done.

jelly-bellyJelly Belly by Dennis Lee: This one is not the most obvious contender for the list, but I happened to be reading it soon after reading Edward Keenan’s Some Great Idea, and noticed some parallels between the two books, absurdest story-telling aside. Lee gives us poems not only poems about garbage men and traffic jams, but also a reference to David Crombie in “The Tiny Perfect Mayor” and another poem called “William Lyon Mackenzie.”

a-big-city-abcA Big City Alphabet by Allan Moak: I loved this book as a child, and now I love that my daughter is growing up in the very places Moak’s paintings illustrate. City kids will recognize their favourite parks, Kensington Market, the AGO, laneways, variety stores, and other familiar spots. (Hint: A gorgeous print of “I is for Island Ferry” is for sale for $5 at St. Lawrence Market’s Market Gallery, along with other prints from the city’s art collection).

who-goes-to-the-arkWho Goes to the Park by Warabe Aska: We picked up this book as a library discard, a most excellent find, as used copies are hard to come by. Fortunately, a few copies are still circulating in the library system. In his beautiful paintings which manage to perfectly meld realism and the ethereal (as all the best parks do, really), Aska tells the story of Toronto’s High Park throughout the four seasons, and of all the people and other creatures which are part of life there. (Image courtesy of the Osborne Collection’s online art exhibit). 

how-to-build-your-own-countryHow to Build Your Own Country by Valerie Wyatt and Fred Rix: Older kids with an interest in politics and civic life will appreciate this multi-award-winning book from the Citizen Kid Series. It’s a step-by-step guide to building a nation from scratch, and also serves as a fantastic illustration of how our society and those of other countries are structured–however precariously.

watch-this-spaceWatch This Space by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui: Another non-fiction book for older readers, this one about “designing, defending and sharing public spaces.” This one is a nice extension of In Lucia’s Neighbourhood, with references to Montrose Avenue and Jane Jacobs, even, but also takes on a global perspective and discusses how public space is used differently around the world. It”s a vibrant and engaging book with all kinds of suggestions about how to employ its many lessons out on the street.

March 16, 2013

March Break Delights

IMG_0367This week was our first March Break, which turned out to be legendarily good thanks to Stuart taking the week off too. It’s funny how spending a week with my child and another adult is a vastly superior prospect to just kid and me. We had a very wonderful time and were careful to never travel too far from home. We took care too to spend a lot of time hanging around doing nothing, which isn’t to say that we didn’t get up to some excellent adventures. We are also very pleased to have achieved our goal of going out for lunch every single day.

IMG_0386Sunday was our trip to the Maple Sugar Bush, which was sweet and sunshiney. Monday we decided to go crazy and visit the library (it’s true! I know we sound reckless and wild, but it’s just the way we are) which was fun because Stuart doesn’t usually get to come on our weekly visits. And then we had lunch at Caplansky’s Deli, because all the experts say that pregnant women should ingest giant mountains of smoked meat.

IMG_0399On Tuesday, we had lunch at the new Montreal-style bagel place in Kensington Market, which is so so delicious, and then we walked to the Allan Gardens Conservatory to see palm trees and cacti and other green things. Wednesday morning was devoted to having holes poked in my neck, but things got better afterwards. We had lunch at Fanny Chadwicks (our favourite local joint) and then spent the afternoon on the couch watching Pete’s Dragon.

IMG_0413On Thursday, we visited the Textile Museum of Canada (with our free MAP pass) to see the Marimekko Exhibit, whose designs are right up my alley. (I got a Marimekko scarf!). And then we had lunch at St. Lawrence Market, pure deliciousness. We also visited the Market Gallery and picked up a print of I is for Island Ferry to hang on our wall. And then Harriet had a meltdown because we wouldn’t buy her a painting of horses, and cried on the streetcar all the way home (which everyone else found absolutely charming). Later that afternoon, Harriet cheered up and we all visited the midwives, and were thrilled to hear our baby’s heartbeat and to have it confirmed that Baby is growing well.

IMG_0421And then there was Friday. We had a reservation for 3 for tea at the Windsor Arms Hotel. Afternoon tea is my favourite thing in the world, but we haven’t taken Harriet since my birthday 2 years ago when she kind of ruined it for everyone. But she’s bigger now, and more importantly, our March Break had been excellent training in dining out. And she was an absolute star. Staff looked a bit dubious when we confirmed that Harriet would be having her own tea, that we wouldn’t have her “nibble off our plates” as they advised. And we’re glad we didn’t, because then we wouldn’t have been able to eat anything. Harriet had her own pot of apple-mango tea, discovered that she LOVED tiny sandwiches (and even cucumbers), and was an absolutely delightful afternoon tea companion, consenting to have tiny cakes cut into three so we could all have a taste of each. The scones were wonderful, I was so so proud of Harriet, and we all three had a very good time. I think we might keep this kid around


January 20, 2013

Some Great Idea by Edward Keenan

some-great-ideaFor the sake of full disclosure, I’ll inform you that I actually appear as a character in Edward Keenan’s new book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto.  Keenan, a Senior Editor at The Grid, writes in his book about how the Rob Ford spectacle has galvinized a whole segment of the population to take an interest in city politics, of this effect on his own career: “…before, my regular readership consisted largely of insiders at city hall, and political activists. Since Ford was elected, tens of thousands of readers click through online to soak up anything I write about the mayor.” And that’s me, one of tens of thousands. (I’m the one waving.) I didn’t even vote in the 2006 municipal election, the only election I’ve ever sat out since I came of age, but I remember being busy that day, not seeing the point. That election result seemed inevitable, but since Rob Ford took office in October 2010, nothing is inevitable anymore. It suddenly seems worth paying attention to what’s going on around us.

I think I’d be compelled to pick up any book whose author acknowledges that his thinking about Toronto has been influenced by Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto. Amy has since become a dear friend, but we’d only met in passing when I fell in love with her book back in 2010, marvelling at how markedly she demonstrates that a city is constructed of stories as much as concrete and steel. Keenan takes this as the premise for his book, whose opening line is, “I have this notion that cities are just a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Near to the end of the book, he writes, “The answers, then, are in the process, just as the themes and lessons of any story lie not in its conclusion but in the unfolding of the plot.” So there you have it: plot. This is not some dry polemic. There is movement here; we get somewhere. Which is exactly what you would expect from a book with a subway on its cover.

Some Great Idea is the history of Toronto since amalgamation in 1998, the story of mayors Lastman, Miller and Ford. Though Keenan emphasizes that Toronto has always resisted being defined by its leadership, so the story goes beyond these three figures. Which isn’t to say that the city hasn’t been marked by personalities, and Keenan selects William Lyon Mackenzie, RC Harris (who was apparently very different from the figure Ondaatje portrayed him as), and Jane Jacobs as three individuals who resisted convention, rebelled against the system and helped to shape the city we live in today.

It’s also the story of Keenan’s own engagement with civic life, in the last ten years in particular (and in this way, Some Great Idea is a nice companion to Samantha Bernstein’s memoir Here We Are Among the Living which documents this same period in Toronto). He’s been in a privileged place, telling urban stories at a time when an awareness of urbanism had taken hold of the city like never before: this was the birth of Trampoline Hall,  Spacing magazine, Richard Florida, the Dufferin Grove Park pizza oven, and Keenan ties these factors all together as the story of this place. It’s his place, where he lived in an industrial loft with the woman who is now his wife, where his children were born, where he and his wife became homeowners. It’s a story too that is more complicated than the personas of the men in power suggest–there was a great deal of progressiveness in the city under Mel Lastman thanks to figures on council like Jack Layton; David Miller’s legacy was far more positive than most of us remember; Rob Ford’s “leadership” has engaged Torontonians like nothing before.

Keenan shows that Toronto too is a much larger place than the downtown core highlighted in most civic discussions. He gives the example of Woburn, a neighbourhood within this supposed “city of neighbourhoods”. Except that Woburn isn’t a neighbourhood at all, but it’s the name given to the area where Keenan spent his teen years, near Markham and Lawrence in Scarborough. He has it stand for the inner-suburbs in general. It’s an area that grew up entirely differently than the downtown neighbourhoods, with different interests and priorities, whose populations no longer live the lifestyles the area was so rigidly planned for. You have to understand a neighbourhood like this, its strengths and weaknesses, in order to understand how Rob Ford was elected into office, to understand why someone who lives in that part of the city might see themselves as as taxpayer before citizen, if they even define as citizen at all.

The book’s title is taken from a quotation by Benjamin Disraeli: “A great city whose image dwells in the memory of man, is the type of some great idea.” The peculiarity of this diction, the vagueness of “some” great idea unspecified points to the book’s one weakness, a kind of muddled conception of itself and its purpose. I longed for Keenan to grasp his narrative with more confidence, for less journalistic objectivity. It wasn’t always clear where the story was going, but then Keenan himself was the one who wrote that unfolding not conclusion is the very point. And I will take it.

Because I learned so much about Toronto from this book, its history and its present. Keenan posits diversity as the city’s great strength, and goes on to define a city’s “diversity” as being about so much more than the ethnic backgrounds of its people. He closes with his theory of a city as something ever in the process of being born–“Inventing Toronto”, then, in addition to imagining it. The city as a story each of us is telling every time we stroll, cycle or drive down one of its streets.

Other Toronto links:

Harriet’s Big City Alphabet

-My review of Rosemary Aubert’s Firebrand, “Loving the mayor is a bit like that.”

November 25, 2012

Kissing in the Annex

July 17, 2012

Downtown kids

We do a lot of documenting and celebrating urban family life here at Pickle Me This, usually through a literary lens. Our family is quite passionate about engaging with the city, which is why we’ve been re-enacting Allan Moak’s A Big City Alphabet for the past year and a half. See also recent post Great City Picture Books and last year’s On urban picture books and concepts of home. We love the city so much that we don’t just live here–we read here too.

Last week, it was suggested that downtown Toronto is not an appropriate place for families, for children to grow up. I don’t actually think the suggestion pertained to leafy residential streets like mine, but we’re still downtown, don’t have a lick of sod (though the front garden is amazing), and we’re removed from the ground. And it’s a good life, with so many opportunities for every-day adventures. Clearly, other parents agree, which is why the Downtown Kids tumblr is such a delight to read. A compilation of letters from people who are raising kids all over the city, the site is a celebration of neighbourhoods, of city parks, storekeepers who know your name, and wonderful things like free-range pianos, museums, ferry-boats and community gardens.

Instead of writing off certain areas for family life, I do wonder how much better off we’d all be if we worked to make sure that everywhere was an appropriate place for kids to grow. I don’t think the kids would be alone in benefitting.

July 4, 2012

The City's Sublime

If ever there was a centre to my personal geography, I suspect that the Toronto Islands would be it. My grandparents used to take me there– I remember the day they bought me a $13 day-pass to the Centreville amusement park, and it felt like being handed a key to the world. I’ve rode that ferry with at least 3 different boyfriends, which is particularly significant when you note how few boyfriends I’ve ever had in total. The Islands were key to my development as a feminist, as a person— I remember the liberation of fleeing the city on my bicycle to read Mrs. Dalloway on a south-facing beach, and how no one in the whole world knew where I was. Later that same summer, I swam naked at Hanlan’s Point and felt more powerful and fabulous than I had ever felt in my life.

I spent my 26th birthday on Ward’s Island, with friends who braved a 90 minute-long wait at the ferry docks because I didn’t have a phone so they couldn’t call to cancel once they wait had got ridiculous. We had dinner at the Rectory Cafe on our 3rd anniversary, and it was really the most tremendous thing, to jump on a ferry boat after work, such an extraordinary way to spend a Wednesday. We’ve taken out of town guests there, had picnics with friends, partaken many times in Wards Island ice cream, played frisbee, rode our bikes, once lost a three-legged race at a company picnic (against children), and shivered and swam in the lake.

We’ve gone every year at least once since Harriet was born, though our visit last weekend was the first one in which she was old enough to appreciate island goodness. We all love the ferry boats, which we know best from Allan Moak’s Big City ABC (I being for Island Ferry, of course). We spent our morning at Centreville, whose day-pass hasn’t been $13 for many years, but is still great value and we had a wonderful time riding the carousel, log flume, tea-cups, train, swan-boats and antique cars. Harriet couldn’t quite fathom that she’d entered a world in which she was permitted to drive.

After, we had our picnic on the banks of the lagoon, bread and cheese and fresh strawberries, then took a trek over to the Franklin Children’s Garden where Harriet had a fabulous time spotting the characters she knows from the Franklin books, watering the plants in the garden plots, and tracing her way along the snail trail. Then it was time for splash-padding and sand-digging, and re-applying our sunscreen. As the day got long, we took a long walk along the boardwalk to the Rectory Cafe for dinner. And when we were finished, we approached the Ward’s Island docks just as the boat was arriving which we boarded so it could take us home, exhausted but revelling in the goodness of a perfect day.

“Neither entirely land or water, but containing elements of both, the Toronto Islands are a fitting site for memorial rituals because their fluctuating sands reflect the fleeting passage of life, buffeted by storms of fortune and bracketed by the permeable border between here and the hereafter… Without mountains to serve as an urban muse, the islands have become the city’s sublime. Visiting the islands, valuing them, Torontonians experience something truly akin to transcendence.” –Amy Lavender Harris, Imagining Toronto

June 5, 2012

Library Owl

While I am quite familiar with the griffin and the lion flanking the entrance to the Lillian H. Smith Library, it was only today that I discovered the owl. It’s on the front of the building toward the west end, sort of hidden behind a sign on the sidewalk and I’d never noticed it before as I charged along the sidewalk, stroller in hand, hurrying home in time for lunch and nap-time. But Harriet has taken to walking, and as a result, our routes along the sidewalk have become much more meandering. Which is kind of annoying, but how brilliant when it yields a treasure. I have no doubt that wandering with Harriet will improve my city sight.

And just when I thought the Lillian H. Smith Library couldn’t be any more wonderful…

More: Joan Bodger and the Lillian H. Smith Library (see final paragraphs)

Catherine Raine visits the Lillian H. Smith Library

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