I am terrified of flying. Even if someone force-feeds me Valium, even if I chase it with vodka, even if I'm punched in the face before takeoff, I remain petrified. I'll always have one terribly lucid eye open, gazing ever forward into a burning, not-too-distant future that only I can see. So I often take trains. Trains are lovely.
Train meals, famously, are not. Do not be misled by the wilted chive hithered and thithered atop your salmon pinwheel. Trust me. It's airplane food with doilies. So when my pardon is begged and I am asked whether I'll be partaking of the beef or the duck or the chicken surprise, I shake my head and laugh. Thanks, I say, but I'll just have a cocktail. The attendant smiles. I smile. We all smile. I extend my plastic cup. And thus begins the concurrent journey toward a dimming of the mind that will last for three days or four hours, depending on my destination.
That's first class. In the cattle car, there are, sadly, no such options for the wanderlusty aviaphobe. Economy class, as we all know, is nothing but farts, bright lights and squished chips. If you're lucky, there are slabs of Spam between margarined slices of indestructible bread. All the money you have buys one of these "sandwiches" and a dented, lukewarm can of Coke. You always pay up in the end. By the time the grim cart-pusher makes her way to your sorry skeleton, you'll sell your soul for these items. After all, you need some cud to chew while you soberly stare at cows.
But back to my bluish green chair behind the gold curtain. Known as Via One, the fat-cat sections of Canadian trains potentially offer two pre-dinner cocktails, three glasses of wine during the meal and up to two nightcaps afterwards-all of which challenges the edict that much depends on dinner. Everything, as it turns out, hangs on a mobile speed rail, the bevy of spirits conveniently attached to Via Rail service carts. It'll cost you a pretty penny (the full adult fare for a Montreal-Toronto return ticket is $409.49) and I can only afford this voyage with a student discount and a month of bean dinners before and after. All worth it, though, to see those flat, uninspired Ontario fields through a fog of complimentary Beefeater and improperly stored Jackson-Triggs.
When I boarded, I was happy to find that I had a window seat. There, in the amber mood lighting, I downed my cocktails with aplomb. Normally, I wave away the baskets of chips and Oriental snack mix that are passed around as you wait for the train to move. This time, however. Oh, this time! The dark time. I hoarded it all, taking two of each. I inhaled one salty packet after another while the woman to my left did sitting exercises. You know, the ones you see old people demonstrating on early-morning talk shows while the host looks on with feigned interest and genuine disgust. I did my best to block her out.
Somewhere near Cornwall, the attendant came by to take our order. Oh, what would it be, I wondered. Tire-tough beef? Rubbery tortellini? Fish paella? Despairing but driven, I opted for the tortellini. "And what will you be having?" he asked of the yogic elf at my side. "Nothing," said she. I wasn't surprised. She's struck me as one of those creatures who subsists solely on wheat-germed air and thimbles of water.
When he came to offer us the appetizer tray, a plate of limp jellied things, I ate hers and mine. "Just water," she whispered, shaking her empty Evian bottle at him. Then she pulled a hemp bar from her purse. That's how it went. Every time he asked if she cared for a little of this or a little of that-a stone-cold bun (I took three), a synthetic truffle (I took six)-she said "no" and pulled a carrot, a flask of trail mix or a jackfruit from her straw bag. By the time we got to Brockville, I was too smashed to snort inwardly.
Dinner arrived circa Kingston. The attendant peeled off the tinfoil. Oh, my enemy! But by then, inebriation had deadened my palate considerably. I ate it all with bovine resignation. Pasta, even in its most Kafkaesque nightmare of itself, is, thankfully, still edible. My stuffed crescents swimming in gloop were no exception. I even ate the scared-stiff dinner rolls and the cone-shaped cappuccino slop topped with a little belch of whipped cream-I suspect it was cheesecake, but it's better not to ask-and finished myself off with Grand Marnier or Baileys on ice (I can't remember which). And when the attendant swooped through with a trayful of the aforementioned truffles, I took several.
I love the little truffle. For Via One virgins, that's a dark-chocolate cup filled with ganache dyed the colour of Easter eggs. I like the pink one (strawberry) best. If the truffle bearer is angelic enough to bring the tray around again-and she often is-I go for the yellow (banana). And that's it. A simple regimen. Discriminating yet indulgent.
When we rolled into Toronto, a great orange moon was looming above the city. The truffle angel had not come around a second time, and I had not taken this quietly. I was still hungry, though full to the brim with chocolate, gin and a sadness blacker than the comic-book night. But I did love the ride.
For more food reviews by our misanthropic eater, waltz over to her column, Absolutely Starving, on Maisonneuve.org.