Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Eggplant or RHUBARB?

20 years has transformed my self-image into Manitoba's hardiest plant

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Precisely half my life ago, when I was 20 years old, I went for a job interview that didn't turn out too well.

It was the summer of 1990. I had a couple of months to blow between the end of a spring university course and the resumption of school in September. It was the first summer in my own apartment and I wanted to enjoy that freedom instead of heading back to work at a summer camp in Lake of the Woods.

Since I still needed a job, I flipped through the classifieds. I had no skills whatsoever and no experience beyond a bit of journalism. I was also moody, obnoxious, sarcastic and walked around with a chip on my shoulder the size of a FIFA-regulation soccer pitch.

I was -- and remain -- unemployable in any field other than journalism. But that didn't stop me from walking into a Smith Street building and sitting down for an interview to work at something called East Side Mario's.

The middle-aged woman who interviewed me -- she was probably younger than I am now -- explained the concept of East Side Mario's. It was going to be a slice of New York's Little Italy, she said.

Since I had no interest in New York, Italian-American food or anything other than Sonic Youth and Tanqueray gin at the time, I did my best to feign some form of interest.

The interviewer looked at my application and noted I had no experience doing anything. I'm pretty sure I rolled my eyes and mumbled something about my grade point average being pretty high.

My interviewer said I might be able to clear tables, if I removed my earrings and wore the polyester uniform I would have to purchase from East Side Mario's. She told me my haircut was unusual but acceptable for my position.

I'm pretty sure I mumbled something about my right to wear my hair and earrings any way I wanted. I couldn't stand her, she couldn't stand me, but the interview continued to lurch toward its conclusion.

At the very end of the corporate script, it was time for her to ask the requisite "fun," personality-testing question.

"If you could be any fruit or vegetable, what fruit or vegetable would you be?" she asked.

I already knew I was not getting a job at East Side Mario's. I'm pretty sure I knew I was too snotty to get any job. I knew I had no choice but to go back to the summer camp and work in its kitchen for $100 a week, plus room and board.

But I still answered the Barbara Walters question.

"An eggplant," I said. "I think I'd like to be an eggplant."

"That's interesting," said the interviewer, appearing vaguely interested for the first time. "Why an eggplant?"

"Because eggplant gets bitter when it isn't cooked just right," I said.

I did not get the job. I went back to work at the summer camp and enjoyed myself. I never did get a real job outside of journalism.

But East Side Mario's succeeded without me, at least for a couple of years. The Smith Street location closed and became The Storm, a short-lived attempt at a fusion restaurant. The Storm then became Gio's, the city's most popular gay and lesbian bar.

Today, there do not appear be any East Side Mario's locations anywhere in Manitoba. But according to the restaurant chain's website, Mario still exists in every other Canadian province.

I do not believe I cursed this non-existent Italian-American. But 20 years after my obnoxious interview, I realize the error of my ways.

I should have said I wanted to be rhubarb, not eggplant. Rhubarb is way more Manitoban. And rhubarb is way more who I am.

The leaves are toxic but the stalks are delicious, when you handle them right and treat them with a dollop of sugar or honey.

They're among the first edible things to emerge from the ground during a Manitoban spring and they continue to thrive all summer.

My yard is full of rhubarb I did not plant. The stuff keeps spreading without any attention. Rhubarb is hardy, resilient and quite possibly emblematic of the self-sufficiency of most people in this hardscrabble province.

Saturday, at the opening of the St. Norbert Farmers' Market, rhubarb was the only local "fruit" for sale, even though it is, of course, a vegetable. The mere sight of the red stalks makes people happy.

And it's damn easy to turn into food. Here's a recipe, Mario be damned:

 

Rhubarb sauce

Fresh rhubarb

Water

Honey or sugar

 

Cut rhubarb stalks into chunks and place in a saucepan on low heat. Add a few tablespoons of water, cover and simmer until soft, stirring occasionally. Add sugar or honey to taste and allow to cool. Serve as you would applesauce.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2010 A4

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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