I’m a simple man, with simple needs and simple pleasures. Like food. I like food, but because I’m a simple man, I don’t need a gourmet dinner to be happy. After all, I grew up on Finnish lihapiirakka, a deep-fried pie with ground meat and rice inside. (Add ketchup and mustard).
When our family moved from Helsinki to Joensuu, a rural university town in Eastern Finland, one of my biggest fears was that there wouldn’t be a good burger joint in Joensuu. It may sound weird now, but back then, there were no McDonald’s restaurants in Helsinki, and there was just one “real American” burger place in town.
It was a Carrols. And we went there on Sundays.
It was a friend of Dad’s who had found the place. It didn’t take much finding, though, as it was right on the main street that cuts through the entire city, and just a few blocks from the Helsinki big arena which we visited twice a week to see the local teams play, but he was the one who told Dad about it.
“They have real American hamburgers,” he had said. “With sesame seed buns. It’s the real deal.”
I fell in love with the place on my first visit. My parents fell in love with my falling in love with it so we went back, and I always got a regular burger – no cheese, no pickles, please – with an order of fries and a strawberry milkshake. Well, not always. Sometimes Dad would jokingly dare me to have another burger. And I would – as a joke – eat it.
We didn’t go there every Sunday, and it wasn’t a religious experience, but every visit sure was a special event. We walked into that fast food restaurant proudly, happy, and ready to eat. We’d get a good table, and we’d eat our burgers and talk about stuff.
So when we moved to Joensuu, Dad was there on his own for a couple of months while Mom and I stayed in Helsinki until the end of May so I could finish school. He had gone apartment hunting, he had started at his new job, he’d got involved with the local hockey club, and he had also scouted for good burger joints.
When the family was back together again, he was happy to report that he had found one.
“It’s a little off, on the other side of the river, and it’s not a Carrols, but it’s pretty good,” he said, as we drove across the bridge to try out, what I was hoping was, our new burger place.
Al Capone – that was the name of the place – was no Carrols. The buns didn’t have sesame seeds on them, and the fries weren’t as golden as at Carrols. But it was a pretty good place, and we did go back there many times. It was so good that when Al Capone, the owner whose real name I never learned, moved his place to our side of the river, into downtown, and turned it into a pizzeria, I was bummed for a while.
But we followed Al Capone into town, and became pizza lovers.
Food is a great social medium. Food brings us together, food takes you to other places, and food can take you back home when you’re far away. My mother still tells a story about a family friend who went on vacation to Greece and brought his own (Finnish) sausages with him to the beach. As a cautionary tale, but still.
Getting a taste of Canada, his home, was probably in Terry’s mind, too, when he one day told my mother that he’d like to cook something for us. My Mom, who surely wasn’t used to see her kid cooking, was happy to see the Canadian exchange student take such initiative, and she gladly let him take over the kitchen.
The only thing I had ever cooked was eggs so I was more than a little curious to see what Terry would do. I was wildly impressed by this Canadian renaissance man.
And he didn’t disappoint me. Or us.
His simply took some toast, cheese, and ham, and got to work. Well, it wasn’t “simply”, because like magic, he combined those ingredients into something I had never seen in my life. Sure, we had had warm sandwiches before, but this was something else. And it was from Canada!
Terry called his masterpiece a “grilled cheese sandwich”.
We all sat down, and traveled to Saskatchewan, Canada with Terry. I believe we ate that delicious, foreign dish with fork and knife.