Battling the Perils of Packaging

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Costco’s packaging version of Russian nesting dolls

My resolution for 2020 is to have less. Not fewer calories and pounds, per se. Not a smaller waist but less waste.

Specifically, I want to reduce the amount of packaging that comes into, and goes out of, my house and my life. Much of it is completely unnecessary, used solely for the convenience of manufacturers, shippers and warehouses.

There is some validity to the argument that, say, a cardboard box protects against damage to many shipped goods. But it’s usually as much about display as protection. Does a bottle of single-malt Scotch need to come in a decorative box? Does an anodized flashlight need to be packed in a large cardboard and hard plastic shell that requires industrial scissors to open? Good luck if you have arthritic hands.

I ordered this (pictured) shepherd’s crook—a self-massaging device of indestructible plastic—and it arrived from Amazon in a cardboard box almost big enough to ship a bicycle.

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This self-massaging device came in an Amazon box fit for a bicycle

I love Costco, but it is a flagrant abuser of over packaging. You’d think when you’re buying in bulk it would mean less overall packaging—three normal containers in one. But no. Costco gives you the three normal containers and then stuffs them all in a cardboard box, like this yogurt package. For good measure, each yogurt container has a metallic, seal under the lid, to be stripped off and tossed away before digging into the contents.

At Christmas, I received Apple TV, a device that basically allows you to watch programs from your computer on your TV. The relatively small device came nestled in a cardboard box, with more cardboard platforms inside and strictly decorative strips of plastic around each of the components and cords. I fired off an email complaint to Apple. No reply.

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Can you spot the actual Apple device in this sea of packaging?

Apple used to be in the business of photo printing. Each Christmas, I’d order half a dozen calendars of my photos. Within a week, the calendars would arrive, in a single package but with each calendar packed in its own cardboard sleeve. I switched to Costco this year, and each calendar was wrapped in plastic. Sigh.

Until recently, consumers and companies could rationalize that all this excess packaging was recyclable. But the making of every unnecessary cardboard box requires resources and creates emissions. And we’re becoming increasingly aware of the horrors of plastic waste that China and other countries won’t accept from our civilized shores.

What to do? For one, lobby governments at all levels for regulatory changes, which will have a much bigger cumulative impact on things like single-use plastics. But I’m afraid that with excessive packaging, it may take a lot of individual efforts to move the dial.

My personal agenda includes directly contacting manufacturers and retailers. Apple may not reply to my email, but if hundreds or thousands of individuals do the same, they (and other companies) should start taking notice. Second, I’m going to start refusing to buy excessively packaged goods, whenever possible, and letting the retailer know why.

Third, I’ll be looking to reduce my own need for packaging. How? By making my own yogurt and my own popcorn. By buying unwrapped unboxed heads of lettuce. By giving up clamshells of produce.

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Just say no to this never-disintegrating styrofoam version of the restaurant doggie bag

The list is long, the temptation to shrug and carry on as usual hard to resist. But it has to start somewhere.

“There is an easy-to-understand obsceneness for me in using a bag for 10 minutes, from a store to my home, and the possibility that it will remain on the planet for a thousand years.” NYT columnist Charles Blow

“The only mode of attack is to deal with a heavy decrease in the production of plastics, as opposed to dealing with them after they’ve already been created.” Max Liboiron, Memorial University, Newfoundland

My Go-To Eats and Drinks in Calgary

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The best restaurant space in Calgary: The ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Cafe

I didn’t do many longer road trips this year. And when I did, they were firmly focused on hiking and backpacking, with road-food eats and drinks squeezed in where possible.

So instead of ending the year with my favourite new places of 2019, I’ve decided to highlight go-to spots in my hometown of Calgary. Places that I keep returning to because they are consistently good, comfortable, reasonably priced, independently owned and fairly close to where I live or frequently journey.

Breakfast Sandwich: Sunterra Market

The new Kensington Road location has a select supply of Sunterra’s usual, upscale groceries. But it’s the little, open kitchen that’s the highlight, with chefs quickly preparing grilled sandwiches and plates of pasta. The standout is the breakfast sandwich—eggs, glazed Modena ham and cheddar on a fresh-baked butter biscuit—for only $5.

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At Sunterra Market Cafe, a chef offers a sample of the glazed Modena ham that goes into the fabulous breakfast sandwich

Sunterra Market & Cafe
2536 Kensington Road N.W.
Daily 6:30 am-9 pm
403-685-1535

Coffee: Caffe Beano

Amidst all the third-wave coffee houses in Calgary, it’s an old standby I keep returning to, at least when I’m in the 17th Avenue SW neighbourhood. The Americano is full bodied (local Fratello Coffee Roasters beans) and the date bran muffin—black with molasses and impossibly moist—is the best in the city. And then there’s the colourful cast of characters who convene at the rabbit’s warren of tables every morning.

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The date bran muffin at Caffe Beano is impossibly black with molasses

Caffe Beano
1613 9 Street SW
Weekdays 6 am-10 pm, weekends opens at 7 am
403-229-1232

Brunch: River Café

I usually hate weekend brunch lines, menus and prices. But I make an exception for this elegant but relaxed space, a true oasis in the middle of a downtown park, where mercifully one can make reservations. The chefs have elevated standards like bacon and eggs and French toast to an art form. It’s the place to take a visitor or friend for a special breakfast or lunch; the dinner prices are out of my league. Honourable Mention: Deane House (also owned by Sal Howell) is equally enchanting and historic but was closed for much of 2019 because of flood damage. The good news is it’s reopening in late January.

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Brunch at River Cafe is an enchanting experience

River Cafe
25 Prince’s Island Park SW
Weekend brunch 10 am-3 pm
Reservations online or at 403-261-7670

Sandwich: ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Café

The steak BLT might be the best deal in Calgary—$10 for a big sourdough baguette loaded, and I mean loaded, with tri-tip steak, provolone, bacon, lettuce, tomato and roasted garlic butter. It’s really two meals for the price of one. The real draw, though, is the most outstanding dining space in Calgary: 100 metres long, under a high wood ceiling. It’s almost a mini version of Calgary’s dazzling new downtown library.

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The steak BLT at ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Cafe is cheap and bountiful

ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Cafe
ATCO Commons Building, 5302 Forand Street SW
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm. Closed weekends

Healthy Lunch: Community Natural Foods

This little lunchroom inside the health-food store has been around long enough that I take it for granted. But the buffet-style lunch features lots of healthy, affordable options from burrito bowls to burgers, both grass fed and plant based.

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Greenery lines the dining space at Community Natural Foods

The Community Cafe at Community Natural Foods
1304 10 Avenue SW, Calgary
Weekdays 9 am-7 pm, Saturday 9 am-5 pm, Sunday 10 am-4 pm

Fast-Food Feast: Jerusalem Shawarma

After a long day of hiking or backcountry skiing, I often arrive back in the city in late afternoon or early evening, famished but with nothing in the fridge to assuage my hunger. The solution? A quick stop at my nearby Jerusalem Shawarma outlet, where a regular-size ($11), bountiful chicken shawarma wrap, loaded with veggies, garlic sauce and hummus, is ready in minutes. It may not be my top-ranked shawarma spot in the city, and it’s had some recent health issues, but it’s still quick, close and hits the spot.

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Assembling a massive beef shawarma wrap at Calgary’s Jerusalem Shawarma

Jerusalem Shawarma
480, 5255 Richmond Road SW, one of numerous Calgary locations
Daily 11 am-10 pm

Craft Brewery: Cold Garden Beverage Company

I made it a mission in 2019 to test many of the over 40 craft breweries that have sprung up in Calgary in the past couple of years. Cold Garden is definitely the coolest spot, with colourful walls, comfy couches and pooches aplenty. The beer is pretty damn fine as well, at some of the best prices in the city.

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Cold Garden Beverage Company boasts the funkiest, dog-friendly craft-beer taproom in Calgary

Cold Garden Beverage Company
1100 11 Street SE
Tuesday to Thursday 11 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 11 am-1 am, Sunday 11 am-midnight. Closed Monday
403-764-2653

Honourable Mention: Annex Ale Projects has been around less than three years but is consistently experimenting with its brews; plus its taproom is a lovely spot for hanging out. Their new Howling Fantods (8.5% alcohol) is a double IPA favourite.

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A flight of beers at Annex Ale Project

Happy Hour: National Westhills

What could be better: A great selection of local beers on tap (60 brews in all) and fine grazing, all at happy-hour prices every day of the week? National has me covered, and it’s only a five-minute drive away. My current go-to deals are a 16-ounce pint of Last Best’s Tokyo Drift IPA ($5), the two-patty Clive Burger and fries ($13) and the mesquite bacon and mushroom pizza ($9.50).

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The Happy Hour pizza and burger goes splendidly with a pint of local craft beer at National Westhills

National Westhills
180 Stewart Green, one of four Calgary locations
Daily happy hour 3 pm-6 pm
403-685-6801

Cold Beer Store: Calgary Co-op

There’s a Co-op liquor store a few blocks from my house, and like most (all?) such Co-op outlets, it’s made a concerted effort to fill the cold-beer room with an impressive selection of local craft brews. In fact, I could probably try a different beer every week for a year without repeating my pick.

 Co-op Wine Spirits Beer
4860 Richmond Road SW, one of two dozen Co-op outlets in Calgary
Daily 10 am-10 pm

Mexican Reprieve From Winter

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The charming downtown streets of Todos Santos

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A cruise ship at bay in Cabo San Lucas

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Saturday shrimp boil at Sancho’s Sports Bar in Cabo

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A rare lavender hibiscus

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Downtown Todos Santos

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Undeveloped beach south of Todos Santos

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Sunday market beside Baja Beans in Pescadero

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Sunrise at the beach in Cabo San Lucas

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Early-morning sweeping at the resort

Searching for Strong, Flavourful Mexican Beer

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Pablo, our beer guide at La Pintada in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Mexican beer still wallows where American suds once languished: weak, low-alcohol piss with no flavour or buzz, unless imbibed in quantity.

That still seems to be the case south of the Rio Grande, where shelves are brimming with bottles of Pacifico, Corona, Dos Equis and Modelo. All containing thin, indistinguishable liquid, the only merits of which are “cold” and “wet”. Best guzzled, not sipped and considered.

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A typical thin, flavourless Mexican beer

Can you imagine squeezing a wedge of lime into a bottle of unfiltered west-coast ale to lend it some flavour? Didn’t think so.

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The label was more colourful than the contents

Thus on a recent early-winter sojourn to the resort community of Cabo San Lucas, I made it a mission to find some good Mexican craft beer. Well, more of a quest than a mission, as by the time the daily beer thirst hit, it was rather hot to be roaming the dusty streets of downtown, where any craft beer was to be found.

But I was in luck, mostly because of a newfound friend, who had done most of the scouting for me. It turns out that arguably the best beer hall in Cabo was only 10 minutes away from our resort, via a mostly shaded, narrow sidewalk and a quick final dash across a busy street.

Our destination, La Pintada, has some good food, featuring thin-crust, stone-oven pizza, grilled fish and Mexican dishes like my flavourful organic chicken mole enchiladas. But the real draw was a list of some 10 craft beers on tap at the restaurant bar, called Ramuri.

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The stone-oven pizza was mighty fine

Some were from Baja Brewing, a few blocks away. But the highlights were pints of IPA from further afield; great, complex stuff, especially on a two-for-one happy-hour deal.

One was Perro Del Mar, a pungent, unfiltered beer (7% alcohol, 80 IBU) from Cerveceria Wendlandt, a brewery way up north in Ensenada. Another, Lycan Lupus (5.7%), from Fauna Brewery in Mexicali.

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But we were here for the craft beer, including this excellent Perro Del Mar IPA

We topped things off with a shared bottle of potent Astillero—an Imperial IPA, from Agua Mala in Ensenada, weighing in at 7.1%. We then staggered home in the late-afternoon heat for a siesta.

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A list of the beers on tap and in bottles

La Pintada
Corner of Camino Real and Boulevard Lazaro Cardenas, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Daily 1 pm-10 pm, except closed Monday

The Queen of Empanadas

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Hot from the oven goodness at Calgary’s Empanada Queen

How do you find overlooked, out-of-the-way dining gems? Sometimes just by paying attention and asking questions.

For instance, I was recently checking out newly opened Outcast Brewing, itself in an incongruous industrial location in southeast Calgary. I noticed, at an adjacent table, a pizza box containing a mess of gorgeously browned baked goods.

“Where did you get those?” I asked, knowing Outcast doesn’t have a kitchen. “At Empanada Queen,” the guy replied. “It’s only about a block away.”

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Empanada Queen is a hole-in-the-wall operation in southeast Calgary

So with a fine pint of Best-ish 2.0 IPA sloshing around my empty stomach, I headed over to the Queen, in a little, equally out-of-the-way industrial location.

I ordered a couple of empanadas—a ground beef/sliced egg and a chicken chimichurri, each a nice-sized snack at only $4.25. It took seven minutes in the oven to reheat one, giving me time to sit at a table and watch a small crew of women filling, folding and crimping these Chilean beauties.

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Making the empanadas from scratch

They came out hot, flaky and tasty. I was happy once again to trust in serendipity.

Tip: At home, reheat in the oven, not the microwave;the latter toughens the pastry.

Note: You can also find the Queen’s empanadas at nearby Born Colorado Brewing‘s taproom

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A case full of empanadas to take home

Empanada Queen
4412 Manilla Road SE, Calgary
Monday and Wednesday to Friday 9:30 am-6:30 pm, Tuesday 10 am-6:30 pm, Saturday 10 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
403-235-0686

At Calgary’s River Cafe, Bacon and Eggs is an Art Form

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Perfection in bacon and eggs at Calgary’s divine River Cafe

Bacon and eggs. Pretty much every morning eatery serves this, and there’s usually nothing to get excited about, as long as the eggs and bacon are cooked to the customer’s liking.

So when bacon and eggs are elevated to an art form, as they are at sublime River Café in Calgary’s downtown Prince’s Island Park, it’s worth noting, and applauding.

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A team of chefs at work

Offered only during weekend brunch, their “fresh farm eggs any style” would scarcely merit your attention alongside more alluring options like brioche French toast or smoked salmon and wild rice cakes. But it’s the painstaking attention to quality and detail that makes this dish exceptional.

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Brioche French toast is another delightful choice

I don’t know if the eggs are organic and free range, but they are perfectly cooked over easy. Overall, perhaps the least notable item on the plate.

You really start to take notice at the bacon: thin slices of house-cured Berkshire maple bacon. Please don’t ruin this by ordering it overly crispy.

Then there’s a pocket of brightly coloured, honey-dressed fingerling potatoes, a massive leap above your typical hash browns. The obligatory toast is yet another step up—wood-grilled sourdough rye.

When each ingredient is this well thought out, and executed by River Café’s small team of chefs, $17 almost seems a bargain for bacon and eggs.

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River Cafe is in a delightful park setting in Calgary’s downtown core

River Cafe
25 Prince’s Island Park, Calgary
Weekend brunch 10 am-3 pm
Reservations online or at 403-261-7670