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Sandwiches and Family
Most people think of sandwiches as fairly innocuous things which, at lunchtime, materialize out of nowhere and then retreat to the less active recesses of our consciousness for the next 24 hours. I think it’s safe to say that for most people, sandwiches have a day-to-day profile in our lives equivalent to that of, say, buttons or bedroom slippers: they’re always there, doing what they do, and we never pay any special interest to them unless they go missing. Last Saturday, as a volunteer on the Sasquatch Stomper 200 km, something had the potential to go very wrong for me, and it had everything to do with sandwiches.
It is important that we, as members of the BC Randonneurs, patronize the businesses that we use as controls, and it is particularly important that we do so when the business is family owned-and-operated. In the case of Saturday’s Sasquatch Stomper where the Opening and Closing Controls were at the Caffe Calabria on Commercial Drive, the stake for me was a personal one and therefore particularly high. You see, I have been a regular patron of the Cafe Calabria for 25 years and going there has become something of a ritual for me. Once a week, usually a Monday or Tuesday, I pick up the Globe and Mail, and head to the Calabria for lunch. Regardless of the food and coffee, how can one resist the papier-mâché reproductions of statues by Michaelangelo not to mention the Dean Martin tunes?
I love Commercial Drive. It’s where I’ve lived for a quarter century, and where my son grew up. It’s the one place in this city where more people gather to watch World Cup soccer than the Stanley Cup finals. It was, and to a large degree still is, the part of the city called, ‘Little Italy’. Among the remaining establishments along Commercial Drive that remind us of the area’s Italian heritage is the Caffé Calabria, a family-owned business headed by Frank Sr., and his sons Frank, Vince, and Nick. If you enter their establishment and buy something, you are treated very well, like one of the family. If, however, you spend more than a few minutes seated at a table without approaching the counter to buy so much as a bottle of water, Frank and sons leave no doubt in the interloper’s mind that they’d like you to leave. Should you have the audacity to attempt eating food bought at another establishment, cross yourself and say twelve Hail Mary’s so that your soul will survive the ensuing ordeal. As long as you play by the rules laid down by Frank and his sons, you are treated like a loved and respected member of the family; But if you play by your own rules, may God have mercy on you.
The food at the Calabria is what you’d expect at an Italian café: a variety of processed meats and cheeses on focaccia bread, followed by various biscotti and pastries, topped off with any of several flavours of ice cream, and all washed down with dark, rich coffee. As healthy as the so-called ‘Mediterranean Diet’ may be, the Calabria leans more toward gastronomic stimulation than health-consciousness. In fact, Vince once tried to kill me with a sandwich. It came about like this: after some routine medical tests, my doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and advised me to cut back on red meat and generally avoid fatty foods. Being skeptical of the medical profession as a whole and my 29-year-old doctor in particular, I went straight to the Caffé Calabria and told Vince to make me a sandwich that would cause cardiac arrest and kill me on the spot. Well, Vince did his best, and though the sandwich did not result in my death I can tell you that it was stacked so high with Italian deli meats, that hiding underneath it all was a small group of animal rights activists. In between the last layer of gooey mozzarella and focaccia bread were three people carrying placards. One was dressed in a cow costume, one as a chicken, and the other dressed as a box of Special K (which makes no sense). If you don’t believe me, check the National Enquirer for Jan 15, 2012, page 32: “PETA Prosciutto Protest”, right next to the article about Bigfoot fathering a love child with Kate Middleton.
The week before the Sasquatch Stomper, I'd approached Frank (not to be confused with Frank Sr, his father) about having the Calabria be the start / finish control for the ride, and he said, "We'd love to have you!" So, I felt that we’d be welcome and I felt pleased that I could bring some extra business to an establishment that has been a consistent part of my life since the late 1980s.
The Calabria opens at 6 AM seven days a week, and Tracy Barrill and I arrived at that hour, ordered a café latte each, and proceeded to organize our drill to get the riders signed up as they arrived. In an hour’s time, 32 riders arrived, registered, and were sent off into the early morning darkness. Prior to departure, they bought a total of three coffees between them.
Let me repeat that: Thirty-two riders bought three coffees.
Frank said, "You know, I'm not getting a warm and fuzzy feeling about this bunch of people." I apologized to him for the lack of business, reassured him that the riders would be hungry when they got back, and then ordered my second latte of the day and an apple pastry. Tracy had to take off to staff a control and before going he, too, ordered a second coffee and an apple pastry.
When I returned to the Calabria at 2 PM to staff the closing control, I ordered my third latte of the day and a turkey sandwich. Keith Fraser came in about twenty minutes later, and I suggested to him that the sandwiches are very good here. He didn’t go for a sandwich, but did order an oatmeal raisin cooked and washed it down with a cappuccino. If you’ve not seen the oatmeal raisin cookies they sell at the Calabria, they’re about the same diameter as a 700c wheel. Nigel Press soon followed, and he got the sandwich ball rolling. The next seven riders in a row ordered sandwiches, coffees, cold drinks, and the occasional ice cream. After that, I lost track of how much food was ordered, but I knew that the Calabria’s taking a risk on hosting a BC Randonneur’s control was going to pay off nicely for them. In fact, after about two-thirds of the riders were in, Frank was giving me free coffees, he was so pleased with all the business.
On the Monday following the ride, I was walking up the street mid-afternoon and ran into Frank just as he was heading home after having worked all day. He gave me his trade mark big smile, shook my hand, and said we could come back anytime. I told him I was much relieved to hear that, and that after the riders had bought only three coffees at the start I’d been a bit nervous. Frank laughed and said, “Even if it hadn’t worked out, we’d still be happy to have you back.” Family is like that.
March 23, 2012