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Archive for April, 2012

Vasquez and friends hanging out in Seattle, circa 1978, photo by Bob Kondrak

Vasquez and friends hanging out in Seattle, circa 1978. Photo by Bob Kondrak

Before there was Ty Segall,Nobunny or Fe Fi Fo Fums, there were the second wave garage bands from the so-called early ’90s revival. With the exception of Detroit’s Gories, Billy Childish’s Thee Headcoats and Memphis’ Oblivians, some of the best stripped-down, dirty guitar bands from that era came from the West Coast: The Mummies, Supercharger, The Fall-Outs, Girl Trouble. And one of the most incredible of them all came out of Seattle. Not even one band, actually, since none of his ten or so bands ever lasted very long, but a guitarist with a beat up Fender amp and a classic graveyard howl: Rob Vasquez.

Kinks-type riffs, thunder drums, fast changes – Vasquez delivered the whole raw, gutter-cocktailwith his earlier bands the Nights and Days and Night Kings, all the frantic yet melodic boom, bap, boom that fans of The Stooges and MC5 want in their music. The terrible essence of these bands can be summarized with one of the most tired lines in music: how can someone who writes such amazing songs remain so tragically underappreciated? Even in Vasquez’s native Pacific Northwest, and in our era of file-sharing and music blogs, it’s shocking how few people know the guy’s name.

Nights and Days' Garbage Can 7'', one of the best Vasquez put out

Nights and Days’ Garbage Can 7”, one of the best Vasquez put out

Vasquez started playing in Seattle around 1976 with a punk band called The Feelings. According to the book Loser, they were one of the first bands in Seattle “to get into the snarly, surly attitude rock being spread in England by the Sex Pistols and the Damned. Its songs included ‘Turds of Love.’ Guitarist-singer Greg Ragan used to hang from curtains and rafters and scream his lyrics while writhing about. At one Odd Fellows [Hall] show, Ragan went into convulsions during the set and crawled to a restroom to vomit while drummer Dean Helgeson tore up his rented kit.”

When The Feelings split up, Vasquez started another band called The Look, followed by Egor, then Nights and Days, then Night Kings, Ape Lost, The Chintz Devils, Gorls, Man Tee Mans, Right On, currently Nice Smile, and in his wake he left a string of stellar 45s. Some of them, like the Gorls’ split 7-inch with the band Flathead, are quiet classics, but it’s his Night Kings and Nights and Days stuff that won him diehard fans. In Jay Hinman’s ’90s Superdope zine #5, Vasquez says the difference between these two bands is that “The Nights & Days were kind of mod-garage kind of stuff, style and music, whereas Night Kings I think are a little more of a punk offering than the Nights & Days were.” That’s as detailed a quote as you’re likely to find from him, because few fanzines, let alone glossy magazines, ever bothered to interview him. Named for the Fabulous Wailers’ song “All My Nights, All My Days,” the Nights and Days put out three 45s and some songs on a few compilations. One, called “Split,” appears on the famous 1988 Sub Pop 200 comp. Another, called “These Days,” has a chorus and melody so catchy that it always struck me as some sort of anthem. Same can be said for the more melancholic “Goes Without Saying.” Night Kings put out three 45s, two split 7’s and one LP, called Increasing Our High. It’s the sole full-length in Vasquez’s thirty-six-or-so years of playing. It came out on the Super Electro label, was never issued on CD, and it’s been the out of print since the early ’90s.

Mudhoney’s Steve Turner – one of the musicians who put Seattle on the map – started Super Electro in 1992. Turner was a Vasquez fan. In the liner notes to Mudhoney’s March to Fuzz anthology, Turner describes the influences you hear in their song “Touch Me I’m Sick:” “In retrospect,” he says, “it’s The Yardbirds’ ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ by way of The Stooges’ ‘Sick of You’. At the time I was trying for the stuttering R&B guitar of The Nights and Days.” Until Super Electro ceased operation seven years later, the label released 45s and LPs from Seattle bands such as The Kent 3, Wellwater Conspiracy, The Statics and The Fall-Outs, as well non-Northwest musicians such as Thee Headcoats, Holly Golightly and The Masonics. Although some might argue that The Kent 3 is the most underappreciated Seattle band of all time, many garage rock types would say that the Night Kings’ LP is the true cream of Super Electro’s crop.

Released in 1992 in the midst of the grunge feeding frenzy, Increasing Our High bears only the faintest whiffs of that era. The best songs sound as timeless as the bands that seem to have inspired Vasquez, such as The Kinks and The Sonics. The Pacific Northwest had always been a hotbed of garage music, but at that time, a so-called neo-garage revival was sweeping through the global music underworld. The charge was initially led by The Gories, and although the revival spawned tons of cookie-cutter, backward-looking bands with pageboy haircuts and formulaic tunes, it also birthed now legendary bands such as The Mummies, The Trashwomen and Supercharger, bands who turned the vintage sound into something completely unique and far more inventive than simple retro posturing. It’s with the Gories and Mummies that Vasquez’s Night Kings most closely fit, albeit still loosely. Despite his obvious influences, Vasquez wasn’t drawing from the all too familiar Nuggets and Pebbles wells to scavenge paisleysounds to meticulously recreate. He was someone for whom ’60s rock riffs best fit his fury. His Night Kings songs “Black Fluid,” “Dirty Work,” “Death,” “Black and White,” “Bum” and“Complaint Dept” are frenzied, infectiously catchy,and, despite their relative simplicity, have tons more personality than most of the songs that derivative garage dress-up bands such as The Fuzztones and The Lyres produced. If Vasquez’s anger and punk root-stock weren’t enough to earn his music wide recognition, then at least these elements colored his music with enough originality to distinguish it from the garage revival pack.

Listening to Increasing Our High, your feet tap and head sways, and when the gravely lyrics rise above the distorted guitar, you start to wonder: what’s this guy so angry about? Everything. He’s pissed about money, pissed about rules. He’s pissed about women and power, peoples’ perceptions and what the world expects from him. He works shitty jobs (“Dirty Work”) for low pay and he’s mad about it, though not mad enough to quit drinking so much beer and sitting around stoned watching TV (“Bum”) to pursue a better line of work. Yet beyond the particular sources of his ire, lies an indiscriminate, almost adolescent rage. Vasquez is just pissed, period, one of those fiery guys who might have been born with a chip on their shoulder and who give you the finger simply because they can.

Nights and Day's These Days/Lookin' 7''

Nights and Day’s These Days/Lookin’ 7”

Whatever the source of his energy, Vasquez’s sole LP seems destined to remain in that fetishized subset of the underground rock canon where the “underappreciated classics” go, and not simply based on the power of his songwriting, but also on the album’s limited availability. Apparently, an early ’90s Illinois-based fanzine called Bad Vibe was going to release a Nights and Days LP, but that didn’t pan out. They might have discovered what so many people in Seattle, including promoters, record labels, musicians, even Vasquez’s own band members, already knew: that he was difficult, some said impossible, to deal with. He’s been called “a dick.” On the Right On record sleeve, he seems to acknowledge his reputation when he credits his role in the band as “Guitar and His Big Mouth.” In the end, this makes Steve Turner the only person to squeeze a whole album out of Vasquez. The rest of Vasquez’s music scattered across a slew of 7-inches with print runs ranging from 250 to 1000. Based strictly on the size-to-convenience ratio, Increasing Our High offers the ideal starting point for anyone interested in checking out this aging punk’s music. Based on the unfiltered force of the performances, though, I would suggest tracking down each 45. They’re essentially live recordings, and they are full of The Stooge’s raw power. Yes, tracking them all down will require some hunting and shipping and handling fees, and you still won’t be able to play the songs on your iPod until you digitally transfer them yourself,but most of the records are readily available for purchase online. The best takes of some of Increasing Our High’ songs appear on their respective 45s, all recorded during different sessions: “Bum” on the Bum/Ain’t No Fun 45, “Death” from the Brainwashed EP, and “Dirty Work” from the Tales from Estrus Vol. 1 compilation. The one track that doesn’t appear on the LP but which is worth hunting down no matter what is “Black Fluid,” from the Puget Power III 45 (Regal Select Records). If you like rock and roll enough to have read this far, then that song will colonize your brainstem like root rot and never let go.It’s one of the best garage-punk songs of not only the ’90s, but any era.

The lyrics go:

First thing’s a double in the morning

When that one’s gone another’s coming

It goes on and on for hours

Untill I think I’ve got the power

Power climbing up the walls and grinding down

I can’t sit still, can’t hang around

My blood’s not red anymore

Black fluid oozing out my pores

One cause of Vasquez’s relative obscurity lies not in the quality of his music, but in its limited availability: maybe 90% of his recorded output, from thirty-six-plus years of playing, has never appeared on CD, only vinyl. And except for his new band’s, Nice Smile’s, 2010 seven-inch single, Building/Mans To Short, all of that vinyl is out of print. No iTunes downloads, no last.fm or Bandcamp sampling. You can’t even find that Nice Smile record at Silver Platters, Sonic Boom or Everyday Music in Seattle. I tried. Vasquez and the band aren’t in the stores’ databases. When I called each store in the summer of 2011, I listed a few of his other bands in hopes of sparking some faint recollection. Each clerk responded with a variation of the same reply: No, never heard of him. “Usually in these cases,” the clerk at Sonic Boom said, “I direct people to the artist’s website.” That’s another problem.

Nice Smile’s Myspace page is so Spartan and sporadically updated that it hardly qualifies as a web presence. Where the first thing most bands do nowadays is start a Bandcamp and Facebook page, seed certain music blogs with sample tracks, and sell their songs online, Vasquez’s music seems as inaccessible as it was in the pre-mp3 era. The issue of its invisibility is less the result of a disinterested public and more the result of his apathetic approach to self-promotion. From Gorls to The Chintz Devils to Right On, he’s never heavily promoted any of his bands.

I did some cyber-sleuthing last summer and managed to dig up Vasquez’s email address. His attitude might best be summarized by what he wrote me in an email: “shows, eh, nothin really planned out. not really aggressive about that kinda stuff, so we dont really play out much.” His small but dedicated group of fans hails him as an underground artist, and he is in the sense that he’s never been on a major label, never played outside the West Coast, and he drew many of his own record sleeves. But if he’s underground in the cool, respectable, punk rock sense of the term, it’s not because mainstream America has continually ignored his advances. He’s underground because he doesn’t make his music or himself that available. In our era of social-networking and transparent self-promotion, most people know that audiences don’t come to you. You have to get music into people’s hands, play out and blanket the web to let them know you exist. This is particularly regrettable since Nice Smile songs such as “My World,” “Dark Thud” and “The Show,” as with much of Vasquez’s previous music, are too powerful to let wallow away on some Myspace page’s embedded player, unavailable for purchase. It’s not like people aren’t interested.

Gorls’ Bongo Beat 7”, a spilt single with the band Flathead

Europeans sell his 45s on Discogs for up to 20+ Euros a pop. On music blogs such as Detailed Twang, guys describe the Nights and Days’ Garbage Can single as “one of the great records of the 80s to boot, and an all-time second-wave-of-garage landmark.” On message boards such as Terminal Boredom, fans write gushing accounts of Vasquez’s talent like “The live Right On stuff he used to have up on the MySpace page for his former page for his former bands just SLAYS – too bad that’ll never see the light of day,” and they trade and sell records: “Need a Nice Smile 7”! Have a spare Ape Lost.” The Hospitals’ guitarist and singer, Adam Stonehouse, credits Vasquez as his primary inspiration for playing music. When The Gories played Seattle in September, 2010, their second guitarist Dan Kroha wore a Night Kings shirt. “I often tell people that if we’d heard ‘Garbage Can,’ the Gories would never have formed,” Mick Collins told me over Twitter, “that’s what we wanted to sound like.” Even the Seattle Weekly gave a brief but resounding nod in their 2008 “Grunge 101” article: “Seattle might not know it, but Rob Vasquez is a goddamn rock-and-roll genius: His ’80s band, the Nights and Days, were hugely underrated, and his turn-of-the-decade band, the Night Kings, were just as good. The Night Kings played garage rock (not grunge at all) minus any and all lame revival shtick.” Imagine how many more people would share that enthusiasm if they could only find his music. Although some people might view Vasquez’s indifference as part of his punk rock mythos or DIY aesthetic, for me, it’s difficult not to see it as the most unfortunate thing a musician of his ability can do to themselves: not get heard.

Garbage Can 7'' insert. Art by Vasquez

Garbage Can 7” insert. Art by Vasquez

Hopefully, this might be changing a little. In the summer of 2010, Nice Smile opened for the legendary Gories on a short West Coast tour from Seattle to San Diego. They released the aforementioned 45. In 2008 they included a song on Funhouse Comp Thing II, a double CD put out by the longtime Seattle club The Funhouse. Vasquez told me he wants to eventually record a Nice Smile LP. Other than that, they still don’t have any local shows booked, and their Myspace page lists no news of upcoming releases. As Vasquez put it in an email: “you gotta realize were kinda bums at this whole mess. but ya, we’ll get some wax out again but we have no label and ive never fished.”

Unlike Rob’s previous efforts, Nice Smile is a duo. Interestingly, it’s The Statics’ first drummer, Donnie Hilstad, who now plays in it. He also played drums on Gorls’ two releases, Bongo Beat and the Tracie 45. Besides the two-piece format, what also distinguishes the band is Donnie’s drumming. One part Philly Joe Jones, one part Russell Quan, he stomps out big beats, crashes cymbals and pounds the floor-tom, conjuring a thunderstorm when the mood calls for it. But he also has a jazz drummer’s sensibility, that flexible, intuitive sense of timing, as well as quick snare rolls and gentle taps of the ride. That lighter touch perfectly fits the moody shifts and soft bridges of the song “The Show” (an old Chintz Devils tune). And it adds a distinctive texture to the loose, dark, almost deconstructivist “Muse” and “Mans To Short” (a revived Pissed Off Zombies song), giving Nice Smile a different, varied flavor than the more rocking four-four and punk beat Night Kings.

Hilstad. Image lifted from band's Myspace page.

Hilstad. Image lifted from band’s Myspace page.

Judging from his new music, Vasquez seems to have mellowed a bit. One thing that has not changed is Vasquez’s signature guitar tone and playing. You’d recognize it anywhere. Dave Crider of Estrus Records once called it “shit-o-phonic,” a description Rob dislikes. RV’s gravely, tortured howl is still intact too, still front-and-center. One of the things that’s so interesting about listening to Nice Smile is that, no matter how “modern” some of it is, most of it still sounds like Night Kings and Nights and Days. When the opening riff of “The Show” kicks in, it sounds like it could have been written by 1988 or 1992 Vasquez. Same with guitar on “My World” and “Dark Thud.” That’s because Rob builds his songs from timeless materials. Straight rock and roll does not age. Beneath the sonic adulterations of effects pedals, keyboards and buried, echoey Sic Alps type mixes — all of which I love – melody and mood also matter. Vasquez has always delivered those. If his new songs could be mistaken for “old” songs, it’s not because they’ve aged poorly or feel out of sync with the so-called times; it’s because they’re vintage. Timeless. As evergreen as “Strychnine.” Nice Smile proves that Vasquez hasn’t failed to evolve; he’s simply stayed true to his favorite sound, which is, at its heart — whether under the name garage, under whatever name you want — the sound of pure rock and roll.

All of which is to say, hopefully we’ll get a Nice Smile LP soon.

Seatte show flyer, lifted from the band’s Myspace page

There are apparently a bunch of unissued songs lying around. Someone in Germany was supposed to, or may still be planning to, release some lost Night Kings tunes on a Night Kings compilation. Vasquez’s short-lived band The Pissed Off Zombies recorded an album’s worth of songs; the kick ass Bay Area record label Hook or Crook was going to release it but, for some reason, it fell through. There’s still that unreleased Nights and Days LP, and that live soundboard Right On recording, and there’s all those incredible Nice Smile songs on Myspace. Rob and Donnie made what he called a short “cheap mic set up” recording at rehearsal last summer that he was going to send me, but Rob ultimately wasn’t happy with the sound. In 2007, the band was selling two different CD-Rs at Seattle Nice Smile shows, simple homemade things with hand-written covers. It’s the closest thing to a Nice Smile album that exists. I’ve never been able to track down copies.

Clearly the time has come for a Vasquez retrospective. Unfortunately,  if he’s as difficult to deal with as some people say, then the only person able to release such a compilation might be Vasquez himself.

Vasquez playing bass in The Look, Seattle, circa 1978. Photo by Bob Kondrak

Vasquez playing bass in The Look, Seattle, circa 1978. Photo by Bob Kondrak

On September 6, 2011, Mark Yarm published the book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. I read it and loved it, and it left me thinking about my ’90s youth, the music that spilled out of old Seattle, and also, about Vasquez. I spun a bunch of his records and thought about how his music seemed to have so much potential for wider appreciation, if not on the scale of his Seattle contemporaries, then at least an appeal wide enough to have elevated him beyond the status of “tragically overlooked local legend.” But there are those musicians who just want to write music and be left alone. They enjoy the creative process for its own intrinsic rewards and don’t want to perform publically, or make money from their art, or even involve themselves in the commercial aspects of being in a band. You have to respect that. Touring, booking, dealing with club owners, record labels and royalties – from all reports, it sounds grating. Maybe Vasquez is that type of musician. Or maybe he was self-sabotaging. Maybe he just needed a little outside push to get him going, or maybe he pushed too many people away. It’s all speculation, yet the record is indisputable: during the early ’90s, while fellow Northwesterners such as Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden appeared on innumerable magazine covers, released albums on major labels and graduated to the large concert stages and world tours that defined their mid-90s careers, Vasquez remained in Seattle, playing the occasional local venue, pressing small runs of seven-inches, and working odd jobs. Which is where he remains today: as talented as ever, and just as invisible.

In 2010, Soundgarden reunited. Rolling Stone and Spin covered it. They played the Conan O’Brien Show.

In 2010, Nice Smile played Betsy’s Radar Hair and Records, a split salon and record store, in Seattle. No one wrote about it.

I’m writing this in the hope that others will hear him.

*  *  *

Bonus feature: Here’s some rare footage of Vasquez playing live. Although this is Vasquez’s band Nice Smile, they’re playing a Pissed Off Zombies song called “Garbage,” never officially released. Video shot 9/11/10 in Seattle at a club called Neumos, at the end of the Gories tour:

And here’s some more live footage of Nice Smile. They’re playing the song “Think You’re On Top of the World” by Vasquez’s band Right On, another song that was never officially released. This vid is composed of still photos from a January 15, 2011 show at Radar Hair and Records in Seattle:

Also, some DLs of 45s here and there, there and over here. No matter what you do, track down the Nights and Days’ song “These Days.”

And some info on rock and roll photographer Bob Kondrak.

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It seems an exaggeration to call butter tarts the dessert for which Canada is known, since no American I know has ever heard of a butter tart, yet butter tarts are one of the few foods to which Canada can lay full claim.

No offense to Canadians, but their country isn’t known for its cuisine. They admit it themselves. People don’t go around saying “I’m really craving some Canadian.” As a nation of immigrants, Canada holds within its 3,854,085 square miles a staggering diversity of cooking traditions, from Haitian to Ethiopian, French to Korean, and it is full of incredible food. As Salman Rushdie once told me at a literary event: the best Punjabi food outside of the subcontinent is in Vancouver, BC. Compared to countries like India, France or Vietnam, though, Canada just has few culinary inventions to its name. Yes, Canada invented the Persian, an oval-shaped bun topped with a sweet, pink frosting made from strawberries or raspberries, which is available almost exclusively in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Vancouver Island’s small port town of Nanaimo has its namesake Nanaimo Bar, a bar cookie composed of rich butter icing sandwiched between layers of chocolate and wafer crumbs. (The bars are so delicious, many Starbucks even sell them.) Canada arguably invented the donut hole, which their nationwide donut chain Tim Hortons branded the “Timbit” (‘bit’ being an acronym for “big in taste”). Canada also created the Yukon gold potato, peameal bacon (back bacon, brined and coated in fine cornmeal, named for the old habit of rolling it in a meal of dried, ground peas), pemmican (you’ve seen it in westerns), poutine (arg, chest pains), and the tourtière (Quebec’s savory tart). Despite the name and my desire to say otherwise, Canadian bacon isn’t Canadian. It’s simply the moniker used in the US for a type of brined back bacon and smoked ham. Butter tarts are the most widely known of Canada’s culinary creations, a quintessential dessert so popular that it might warrant the title of “truly national confection.” Which is the point: even Canada’s most popular dessert remains relatively unknown outside of their country.

This isn’t meant to disparage Canada, the world’s second largest country by square mile, and one of its friendliest. It’s only to say that butter tarts are a domestic staple rather than an export. You won’t find them in bakery cases in San Francisco, say, or for sale on American convenience store shelves. If industrial mass production is one easy if depressing sign of an item’s popularity, then the absence of a Hostess brand butter tart is proof of their relative obscurity. Culturally relative, that is. Despite their obscurity in the States, the tarts are widely available north of the 49th parallel.

Like most things, this confection has an interesting history. As a 2006 Ottawa Citizen article reports, “The butter tart was a staple of pioneer cooking. According to Toronto food writer Marion Kane, one of the earliest recipes dates back to 1915. There are a few theories on the origin of the butter tart. Some believe the butter tart is related to the pecan pie brought to Canada by American slaves. It’s also similar to Quebec’s sugar pie.” A 2010 Toronto Sun article goes further: “Toronto culinary historian Mary Williamson, serious collector of historic cookbooks and butter tart sleuth thinks not, and has revealed a very plausible link to Border Tarts from southern Scotland, origin of many 19th century immigrants. The Border Tart filling often contains dried fruit, sugar, eggs and butter – all ingredients our largely rural population would have handy, most from their own farms. She has also sourced the first written reference in a 1900 cookbook compiled by The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. The recipe was labelled (sic) simply, ‘A filling for tarts’.”

Although its name sounds like a euphemism for a young, sassy, creamy-skinned vixen, a butter tart is precisely what it suggests. Take a pie. Shrink it to tart-size. Make it of butter, sugar, salt, vanilla and eggs. Beyond this there is great debate: should it contain corn syrup or maple syrup? Raisins or no raisins? Be runny or firm? How firm should the crust be? Like so many beloved staples and entrenched traditions, controversy surrounds the tart issue like some sort of rigid, overcooked crust, causing a culinary rift and me to mix metaphors. Then there’s the issue of flair. Some people drizzle tarts with caramel. Some add walnuts, pecans or currants, even chocolate chips and dates. Others who we might call “purists” like their tarts unadulterated – simple, not plain – so that the natural flavors stand out. This, they say, is the only truly Canadian tart.

Contrary to what some might consider “traditional,” history suggests that the original version included raisons. “The tart’s history has been traced back to the arrival of the filles de marier in the mid-1600s,” writes Toronto Star Food Editor Susan Sampson. “To fill their tarts, these imported brides from France had to make do with what they found in their new larders: maple syrup or sugar, farm-fresh butter and dried fruit (read raisins).”

But that was then and this is now. Our larders overflow with options, and no one uses the term larder anymore. People can toss in whatever they want – bacon bits or squid tentacles, even. This wealth of options has only fueled the debate about proper tarts. “Butter tarts have two critical components,” says The Ottawa Citizen. “The pastry must be flaky and perfect, while the filling should be brimming with flavour without being overly sweet.” Ah, not so fast! This isn’t rock identification. There’s no easy classification of the definitive tart. As fun as it is to debate, you can’t, as they say, argue taste. And by that I don’t mean, “I have taste, and you do not.” I mean that good flavor, like music and scent, is too subjective to define.

What is clear is this: the filling must contain butter and sugar, but not so much that it becomes cloyingly sweet. You can add a little cream if you like, but just a little. Many people like adding some maple syrup, not only for the taste, but because it adds a distinctly Canadian touch, the idea being that if you want to have some national pride, pouring in a little sap from the national tree is the least you can do. Anyway, white sugar is so pedestrian.

No matter which side of divide you fall on, nuts are a divisive issue. Reporting from a 2007 tart contest, Susan Sampson of the Toronto Star says, “Peering at one entry with pecans poking through the filling, a judge peevishly complains: ‘But that’s a pecan tart! It’s not a butter tart!’”

“The best butter tart I ever made,” says Sampson, “from a recipe by Canadian cooking icon Kate Aitken, was modest and pristine. She didn’t even believe in adding raisins. I’ll argue that the ideal tart has a fairly thick, shortbread-like shell. It tastes rich, but not greasy. It’s crumbly, but doesn’t fall apart at first bite. The filling has a buttery essence and a hint of maple for Canadian flair. It’s soft but not sloppy, sweet but not cloying. It’s covered by a slight crust that gives way as your teeth invade.”

The gist is that people love these things. They were the favorite treat of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, in the late 1800s. In 1999, the Canadian band Len released a catchy pop confection called “Steal My Sunshine.” Over a sample at the beginning of the song, bandmates Matt and Tim discuss lead singer Marc’s glum mood and the need to cheer him up. Tim says, “What do you, uh, suppose we should do?” Matt: “Well, does he like butter tarts?” The line endeared many Canadians to the song. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to the passage. Its motto: “The best quotation from anything in the history of ever.”

            Like most dorks, all this information got me hungry for food and more information, so I went seeking tarts. I couldn’t find a single one. I live in Portland, Oregon, a foodie town of legendary proportions. People sell ceviche out of old school buses here. Numerous food carts sell vegan phō. Even though my city sits some three hundred miles south of the international border, I couldn’t find Canada’s national dessert at any local bakery. In the absence of the real thing, I emailed my longtime friend Dayna in Toronto. She’s a flight attendant for Air Canada and has traveled all over her country. What did she think of these beloved tarts? Did she have a favorite place that I could get them in Vancouver? “They are indeed a staple in every Canadian’s house, especially over the holidays,” she said. “I don’t think there is a special spot for them, they are just everywhere.” She buys them for her boyfriend at the supermarche but doesn’t like them herself. They’re too sweet. “My Mom used to make them for the holidays and I’d convince her to make me a special batch. Scrap the butter filling for jam instead. I was spoiled with special treatment which is why I didn’t really love them like I’m supposed to maybe.” Since I couldn’t just pop up to Canada to find some tarts. I had to make some myself.

I am not a skilled baker. Worse, I’m a bachelor. Unsupervised, better equipped at reheating leftovers than creating something as fragile and sophisticated as a tart, I failed to replicate the flavors of the butter tarts I’d read about in the Toronto Star’s article “The art of the tart.” The recipe I used was from a group of sixth-graders. It won first place in a contest. The paper described it as having “a full-flavoured, buttery filling that is neither firm nor runny, in pie bald plain and chocolate pastry shells that are difficult to reproduce.” It’ll say.

My plan to mold a pre-made pie crust into smaller pieces to fit into muffin tins failed. Naturally, the dough tore when I tried to shape it. Why did I think that would work? Left with pie crust shreds, I abandoned that idea and baked the entire thing as a pie – a butter pie – which required a longer baking time since the contents’ dimensions changed. I’d already screwed up the filling. The recipe specified using table syrup that contained 15% maple syrup. When I ran out of the corn syrup I bought bulk at a natural grocer, I substituted half a cup more maple, which threw everything else out of whack and left maple syrup pooled at the bottom of the pan, encasing the pastry in an amber-colored gel. Then I ran out of brown sugar, so I added more granulated white in its place. After an hour in the oven at 375 degrees, my pie was cloyingly sweet. I ate half of a slice and nodded off while reading forty minutes later, from the sugar buzz.

My failed experiment

Failure tastes so sweet

Despite its effect on my pancreas and blood sugar levels, I loved the taste. I didn’t want to. It was so unhealthy, just sugar and fat, but I kept coming back to it throughout the day. I’d open the fridge, peel back the foil I’d draped over the pan, and fork a few bites. Three days later, it was gone, my state’s sole supply, evaporated like so much water in a drought.

For those who are interested, or want to attempt their own tarte experiments, Saveur printed a butter tart recipe in Issue 41, 2000: http://backissues.com/issue/Saveur-March-2000 and here: http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Canadian-Buttertarts

Also, here’s another recipe at the BBC Good Food Magazine: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1837/canadian-butter-tarts

And here’s a vegan recipe for all you vegans or people who, like me, don’t want to die soon of butter-saturation: http://niranjana.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/how-it-all-vegan-by-tanya-barnard-and-sarah-kramer/

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