Bonus CITY recipe: Ruby Foo’s lobster
A taste of childhood from Jewish Montreal
A reflection on the recipes that monopolize our memories and inspire our imaginations. The recipe at the end is for paid subscribers only; please consider supporting us if you can!
By Isabela Vera and Emily Vera
My brother and I almost share a birthday — I was born on August 11th, 1992, and he just over three years later, on August 12th, 1995. Most of my early memories of our birthdays involve him crying.
As classically hyper-invested North American parents, my mom and dad took pains to organize blowout birthday parties for us each year. Our family was small — just the four of us in Vancouver — and so they wanted to make sure that we could invite all our friends and that they would have a good time. The parties were nothing particularly fancy or expensive, but they were ornate in terms of costumes and characters.
I remember waking up on the morning of my Harry Potter-themed eleventh birthday to a living room transformed with poster paper into Hogwarts’ Great Hall, and hysterical sobbing emanating from my brother’s bedroom. While I prepared to don my bushy black wig and crooked plastic glasses, my mom, in full dress as Minerva McGonagall, had cornered my brother with a revamped (in the sense that it now had four holes for arms and legs) potato sack and a homemade headband with two hot-glued grey ear tufts. I wasn’t sure what the fuss was about — Dobby was a very important character! I advised him to get himself together before my first guests arrived and the Sorting Hat ceremony started.
Even his own birthdays were occasions for frustrated tears. You should have thought about the fact you didn’t want to wear green tights before choosing a Peter Pan party, I hissed at him a year or two later through the bedroom door he’d barricaded himself behind, while adjusting the straps of my green Tinkerbell jumpsuit.
We’ve long since grown up and moved out, but last year we both found ourselves at home in Vancouver for birthday season — the big 3-0 for me, and his 27th. My mom, relieved of her duty to put on a British accent and wave a wand around, got to work thinking about how we could celebrate as a family. She quickly became fixated on recreating a lobster dish she had as a child at a long-shuttered Chinese restaurant in Montreal, Ruby Foo’s. In her own words:
Ruby Foo’s was an iconic Montreal restaurant open from 1962-84. For our family, it held particular significance in the mid-70s to the early 80s. It was a place we would go when we wanted something a little extra special — either for an occasion or when we just needed a treat after a long week. As soon as I would hear the words “Let’s go to Ruby Foo’s tonight” I would begin to salivate and my heart would double-beat — like one of Pavlov’s dogs, just better fed. I knew that Lobster Cantonese, our family’s favourite, would certainly be on our order list, as would another love of mine, beef & broccoli. I would peel off my jeans and toss them on the floor, slipping a flowered dress and patent shoes onto my skinny frame. The car ride itself was mundane but, like flying to any frequented destination, still provided a certain bubbly excitement of anticipation.
In my memory the tables were round but I am not sure that is accurate. Once the food was ordered we would share stories from our day or argue over big issues, even though I really had no idea what I was talking about. And then the moment would arrive when that steaming plate of pure lobster-y deliciousness would be set down on the table. Serving spoons would slide into the sauce, like a canoe going into the water from shore. A little stir of the ingredients would reveal the chopped lobster, the pea-sized pieces of pork, the slices of green onion and the sauce — oh the sauce! Conversation halted. Each bite was enjoyed and savoured until the inevitable reality: the plate was empty.
With full bellies and hearts we would head back home. Food was such a point of connection for our family of four. It has woven through our lives, and even though Ruby Foo’s is long gone and my parents are not on this earth anymore, I feel them and our shared love of good food with my own family now — and that feels as good as eating the famous lobster Cantonese itself!
Unsure if this dish really existed, I set out to trawl the depths of the internet — but it didn’t take long to come across Ruby Foo’s menu archived online.
And sure enough: it had lobster cooked Cantonese style for the grand price of $2.60, on the shortlist of Ruby Foo’s Suggestions.
The menu conjures up the exact image of the kitschy 70s decadence my mom described. Montreal’s most permed and perfumed coming together, with the drinks — the strongest ones are suggested on the menu in pull quotes — flowing and the Virginia Slims burning.
I thought of Ruby Foo’s lobster while editing Alison Wong’s CITY piece about her grandparents’ Chinese restaurant in New York City, and Chelsea Lee’s piece about her family’s helper, Jia, and her “iconic” tomato-egg stir-fry that Chelsea continues to cook today from her kitchen in London.
My mom, a secular North American Jew, grew up eating a lot of Chinese food with her even more secular parents. Chinese restaurants were a way they connected to their heritage and community without going to synagogue or keeping kosher. Lobster, of course, is one of the least kosher foods of all, and some 50 years later, this dish still looms large in her mind — much like Jia’s stir-fry continues to for Chelsea. Dishes take on a life of their own in our imaginations; they become a vessel for our memories and a stand-in for homes that we’ve long since left, ties to people who are no longer near.
I’ve lived most of my life without my maternal grandparents. My grandmother passed away before I was born, and my grandfather when I was just five years old. The few memories I do have of my grandfather feel about as far away as an economy where cocktails cost 60 cents. But when I closed my eyes to savour the first bite of our recreated Ruby Foo’s, for a brief moment, I could summon a world where they were still alive — sitting around the table with us, arms slung over my mom, reminiscing on years of themed birthday parties they hadn’t missed (remember when Ethan cried because he had to wear tights?) and enjoying a dry martini or two.