TO HALVAH AND HALVAH NOT
It’s Pedestrian Sunday in Toronto’s Kensington Market and my feet hurt. One of the most walk-able and multicultural neighborhoods in the city, it is also a mecca of diversity. The architectural landscape of the market reflects its history; rambling Victorian structures, antiquated synagogues, tired, modest, dwellings. In the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants moved to the area along Kensington Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood. Many converted the ground floor of their home to retail shops, sparking high density, urban housing. Offering items specifically geared to the needs of their community, extended families lived in the apartments above their businesses. Goods for sale often spilled out into the street as merchants competed with pushcart and street vendors.
Over time, the Jewish population migrated north, opening the door to Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, and African Canadian merchants. Today, the history of the former Jewish market resonates in every pickle barrel, wheel of cheese, butcher, baker, green grocer, and fishmonger. On most days, I could wander the Market for hours, but not today. Today, my feet remind me I am on a mission.
Dodging the classical violinists and the blue grass banjos, I zig-zag through a casual parade of tourists attired in a rainbow of summer pastels. On the corner, someone is trying to repair a broken flip-flop. The air is thick with fried churros and artisan coffee. I make a beeline for Global Cheese, a cheese shop with the tagline, “When It Comes to Cheese, We Speak Your Language.” In addition to cheese, Global also speaks fluent halvah, a honey of a romance language.
My travel companions are slightly skeptical of my halvah mission, but I am undeterred. I step towards the rear of the store, to a counter dedicated strictly to the sesame and honey confection. Attired in a pristine white chef’s jacket and armed with a serious knife is a man I can only describe as a Halvah Butcher. He stands proudly behind a glass window, overseeing wheels and wedges of vanilla, pistachio, and chocolate marble. He slices a whisper thin sample from each of the offerings, ceremoniously handing them across the counter. In the mingling of honey and sesame, chocolate and pistachio, I can taste cultural history. Halvah Butcher is patient, holding up his hand to indicate he is in no rush.
I am torn between the pistachio and the marble, but leaning towards the vanilla for practical purposes. This halvah is destined for a recipe and it’s probably better to keep things simple. “I’ll have a small slice of this,” I point to the vanilla, and “maybe a little more of this,” I point to the marble. Halvah Butcher waits, nodding, anticipating my next move. “And this, a good slice of this please, the pistachio.”
Halvah Butcher’s eyes sparkle as he reaches for his knife. With the finesse of a surgeon, he cajoles each wheel, slicing off just the right amount, weighing each piece on his digital scale, gift-wrapping each portion in crinkly parchment. I express my concern about the heat, wondering if the halvah will benefit from refrigeration.. “No, no,” Halvah Butcher assures me. “It is just sesame and honey. That is all. It will be fine.” With one final twinkle, Halvah Butcher winks. “Sesame and honey. That is all.” His words echo in my head. Heading out into the fray of the market, I clutch the yellow plastic bag emblazoned with the words Global Cheese, protectively.
On Tuesday morning, approaching Canadian security at the Billy Bishop Airport, I hoist my carry-on bag onto the conveyer belt and place my phone alongside a lime green sweater I borrowed from my Torontonian sister. Midway through the bag scanner, there is a beeping sound. I repeat Halvah Butcher’s words in my head, like a mantra. “Sesame and honey. Sesame and honey.” My bag is opened, and under the scrutiny of Toronto officials, I watch as they shift their eyes from computer screen to carry-on.
"Any food in here?” the security official asks politely. “Just a bagel,” I indicate, pointing to a brown paper bag. My cheeks are blushing pink, then crimson. “Two bagels, actually.” The official is neither impressed nor concerned by the bagels. “Anything else?” he asks, raising one eyebrow. Adjacent to the bagels is an insulated bag, wedged between my running gear and rain slicker. Inside the insulated bag, is a yellow bag from Global Cheese. I hold my breath and repeat my mantra, “Sesame and honey. Sesame and honey.” The woman scrutinizing the computer screen in front of her keeps pointing. My greatest halvah fears are about to be realized. The security official indicates the bagel bag once more and asks, “Anything else?” Before I can form the words, he waves me on. Ohhhh. Canada.
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