This one’s for you, I thought, as I lifted the beer to the ceiling. All around me glasses and bottles returned to the table and a moment of silence fell upon the ten of us, crammed into a corner in a booth built of dark wood.
Someone made a joke. We laughed. And the evening rocked back into its congenial nature, amidst the raucous Thursday evening crowd at the Old Toad, a pub in Rochester, New York, that my late uncle had loved.
As America, the daughter of my uncle’s good friend Marty Naparsteck, reminded us, if he’d been there he would have insisted on seeing the brew-master.
But he wasn’t there. It was only us, his friends and family, gathered together to celebrate his life and his writing and the truly creative character he was.
Rochester, New York, where he’d once lived, was the setting. At first, I didn’t realize how fitting this would be. I’ve never been to Rochester, but I’ve heard about it, mainly from my uncle, who’d launch into legends of the best brewpubs and infamous eats in the city he once called home.
Going there was like edging ourselves into his stories. And when we arrived, the garbage plate was the first detail we took on.
“We want one,” my mom and I told Marty, who organized the evening’s gathering. Soon we were winding through downtown Rochester, past museums and lovely buildings from another century, to pull into the back parking lot of a former train station, the home of Nick Tahou Hots.
I think we interrupted a drug deal.
Let’s make this clear. I am not a snob. In my lifetime I’ve brought home furniture found on the street, spent a few weeks living out of my car and a good nine months eating dumpster-dove food (that experience ending up as an essay in the Globe and Mail). But even in the face of my continuing pittance of an income, I must somehow be settling into some kind of middle-class contentment because the experience of the garbage plate was, even for me, a slightly disturbing event.
I mean, who knew the plate was actually garbage?
Okay, I’m likely being a bit harsh, but let it be known that this landmark restaurant that’s been serving its famous concoction since the 1930s and has earned a solid following of college kids and people like my uncle who are magnetically drawn to the quirky, is not for vegetarians. Or, for that matter, anyone the least bit concerned about what they’re putting inside their stomachs.
It’s also a phenomenon.
The garbage plate – described aptly by Marty as a kind-of church-basement lunch, where you pile your paper plate full and then sit down to tackle it – has earned such fame that it is oft-imitated in Rochester, even spawning a luxe version served at a fancy restaurant and dubbed the plate de refuse, with antelope meat in place of the hamburgers and hots served at Nick’s.
The hamburgers and hots (hot dogs without the buns: who knew?) is the way to go. They sit on top of three side-orders – beans, macaroni salad and french-fries, in our case and, uh, probably most cases – and the whole thing is then smothered in a spicy meat sauce. Sound good?
Don’t answer. That is a rhetorical question.
It seems I have to agree with another friend of my uncle’s who eagerly attended the garbage plate palace only to lean back in the booth, lay down his plastic fork and announce that this was a one-time deal.
The Old Toad was a bit more to my liking. Owned by a professor at the London School of Economics, the bar is serviced by visiting students who all talk in lovely British accents, giving the clientelle the feeling of being settled into some rowdy London pub, a fight about to break out, the wooden walls creaking with centuries of age.
It was here, amidst our banter about reenactments and writing and other places my uncle loved, that I had a near-religious experience he would surely have approved of. Alarmed by the seven-page beer menu, I turned my indecisive self to the blackboards listing the beers on tap and chose, on instinct and pretty much because of the name, a living ale called Blue Point Hoptical Illusion.
Fresh, fruity and cool, it was lit by the buzz of ongoing fermentation and lay on my tongue like nectar. This was the best beer I’ve ever had.
From garbage to gold in one day. My uncle was right: Rochester has a lot to offer.