A gourmet meal calls for gourmet toothpicks
What does the average Toronto household spend more on, bourbon-flavoured toothpicks or cufflink polishing? If you picked either, welcome to the diamond life. Welcome to my kitchen, where I’m shucking oysters as fast as I can, which is not very fast.
Sometimes I put people together at the dinner table — five doctors, five zoologists, five window washers — and it’s clear to them what they all have in common. Other times it’s a guessing game, a motley crew of characters with only a tangential relation to the main topic or guest.
We’re standing around the island in my kitchen. There’s Hilary Doyle the television writer, Ennis Esmer the actor, Heather Payne the entrepreneur, Fred Murrell the orthodontist and Peter Smith, maker of fancy toothpicks.
Smith brought 40 oysters, ice, lemons and shallot vinaigrette, to get us started. While shucking the second oyster, he digs the short blade into his finger.
“I didn’t think, how do you open these things?” said Smith, wrapping a band-aid around his finger before I took over the remaining 38.
So I’m furiously digging my tiny blade into the shells, trying to clear the way for my first course.
Worse, I forgot that when you put together men who don’t know each other they talk about sports. For 10 minutes I hear about Bo Jackson, the guy from the sneaker commercials.
On the penultimate oyster, I cut my own finger. The blood flow is minimal. But by the time I staunch it, we’re an hour past dinner’s start time.
The last of the summer corn has been sitting on the stove this whole time, ready to be roasted. I slam it under the broiler with chili, butter and lime. Once we’ve all had some, bits are caught in my teeth, like tiny raincoats washed up against a rocky beach.
It’s not as bad as it would have been a year ago, when I started my Invisalign treatment with Dr. Murrell. Even so, I’m ready for a toothpick.
“I’m a man with corn in my teeth,” I tell Smith, whose brand of elite toothpicks, Daneson, come in flavours, all natural — lemon, “cinnamint,” salted birch, mint, single malt and bourbon. “What’s going to complement that?”
“A toothpick will,” says Smith, not wanting to be my wooden stick sommelier.
“Or floss,” adds my orthodontist.
“It’s a two-part point,” adds Esmer. “I have corn in my teeth and I want everyone to think that I think that I’m better than they are.”
Well, I always want people to think that I’m better than them. That’s why I make a big show of wiping down equipment at the gym. But right now I have utilitarian needs.
“We never talk about the explicit use,” says Smith. “It’s something that complements a meal. It’s not about having stuff in your teeth. San Pellegrino doesn’t sell itself as being like, ‘Drink water so that you’re not dehydrated.’”
Daneson is meant to be a luxury item, not a tool. Esmer suggests that these are the smoking jacket of toothpicks.
Reminding him that toothpicks are self-descriptive, I implore Smith to pick one for me.
“Lemon,” he relents. “Or cinnamon.”
Esmer makes a production of handing me a toothpick. He lifts up one of the honey-coloured glass vials, twists the thimble-sized cork away from the thin strip of label, reading, “white birch bathed in Islay single malt scotch whiskey, 12 count.” Draping the jar over his forearm like a game show hostess, he shakes it until a single toothpick wiggles free, burnt tip out.
The small stick of polished wood is the offspring of a birch log. On a conveyor belt in a U.S. factory, a lathe removed the bark, then another cut it into ribbons. The ribbons were fed through a machine like a receipt, chopped into sticks, sanded, dried and polished.
“You know in high school when they showed you photos of a factory where raw materials are coming in one end and out the other comes finished stuff?” says Smith. “It’s that kind of factory.”
He tried to manufacture them in Canada but found factories uninterested in producing his small batches.
“Nothing, except the labels and myself, are Canadian.”
He’s particular about how his product is perceived, proud that they’re carried in stores such as Monocle, Colette and Dean & DeLuca.
“We get a lot of shops that have too much novelty stuff going on. And we’ll say no to those guys.”
He looks pale during dinner when I make explicit that our meal is made up of foods that get stuck in your teeth.
We move from corn to poppy seeds — sautéed zucchini with poppy seeds, in cumin yogurt — to sesame seeds — beef and broccoli tartare, with a Szechuan and sesame dressing — all foods I usually won’t eat around people, for fear of having something stuck in my teeth. That was half the reason for getting my teeth fixed, the constant dread that a string of rapini stalk is lodged in my mouth, visible to all. Not every member of society respects the rule that you’re supposed to tell someone when they’ve got food stuck in their teeth.
But everyone at the table tells me that I’m being neurotic, that they don’t share this phobia. Except for Payne, whose neurosis runs deeper than mine.
“I actually have a texture problem with wood,” she says. “We have some wood cutlery at the office. It’s eco-friendly. I can’t even think about using it.”
I thought that the fear of having food in your teeth was universal. But the next week I’m on stage at the Bloor Cinema for a screening of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The whole crowd has just inhaled a cloud of pot and popcorn so I take the opportunity to conduct an informal survey. A show of hands reveals that nearly everyone has popcorn stuck in their teeth. When I ask how many people are bothered by this, almost no one puts up their hand.
Ok, so it’s just me.
BROCCOLI & BEEF TARTARE
Note to readers who frequently complain that things are too salty: use less soy or fish sauce.
1 tbsp (15 mL) lime juice
2 tsp (10 mL) soy sauce
2 tsp (10 mL) fish sauce
2 tsp (10 mL) brown sugar
1 tsp (5 mL) grated ginger
1 Thai chili, minced
1 tsp (5 mL) Szechuan peppercorns, crushed
2 tsp (10 mL) sesame oil
1head broccoli, just the tips
1 lb (450 g) beef tenderloin
2 tbsp (30 mL) sesame seeds, toasted
4 rice cakes, cracked into small pieces
4 scallions, finely sliced
4 egg yolks (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, make dressing by whisking together lime juice, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, chili, peppercorns and sesame oil.
Chop the tops of the broccoli florets (save the rest for another dish) into pea-sized bits. Slice the beef the same size.
Add broccoli and beef to mixing bowl with half of the sesame seeds. Mix and taste. Adjust with more soy sauce or salt as needed.
Place in bowls with cracked rice cakes. Garnish with scallions and remaining sesame seeds.
Read More: Toothpicks Making Machine