Field Notes: Fort McMurray A night at the Podollan

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If you’re from Victoria, living by a mantra of “If that chicken breast isn’t local, organic, and artisan, I’m out of here,” then the culinary cuisine in Fort McMurray would have you on the first flight home. But then again, most people already are.
My health takes a beating every time I head up there. And so, dreading another steak at Earls, my colleague Peter and I decided to drive around one night in the hopes we could find something that was, well, not Earls.
A couple of trips up and down Franklin Avenue gave us little hope. Moxie’s, Original Joe’s — it was all the same. And then we saw the Podollan, a tall, historical-looking hotel that had a smattering of bikers smoking on its restaurant patio. We shared a look that said, “We’re eating here tonight.”
We settled for a high table with unevenly balanced chairs and a view of a television obstructed by a column. Kimmie, our server, arrived ten minutes later, wearing a short denim skirt, teased black hair, and a low-cut tank-top advertising a pet food store. All she was missing was the smacking of gum in her mouth.
I asked her what she would recommend. She said in a monotone, deadpan voice, “I don’t know. I don’t eat here.” On hearing this ringing endorsement, I ordered the safest bet on the menu: Spaghetti and Meatballs. At its worst, you can’t get it wrong. Even if it comes from a can it will always taste like tomato sauce and pasta accompanied by what is supposedly ground beef. Secretly, I was hoping for a can of Chef Boyardee. Peter, on the other hand, ordered the Beef Dip.
Our food came surprisingly fast, which buoyed my Chef Boyardee hopes—which unfortunately it wasn’t. Kimmie slammed our plates down without comment and marched over to a table of bickering young men wearing construction helmets, their tape measures curiously splayed out on the table as if part of some masculine ritual.
It seems like everyone in Fort McMurray’s restaurants is miserable to one another, only meeting the minimum requirements for civility; it’s a way of doing business. When it comes to restaurant servers, their language has evolved to the point where the tried and true “Fuck off” has morphed into the more cordial “Hon.” Phrases such as “Be right back, Hon!” and “You need some ketchup, Hon?” translate into, “Fuck off, Asshole.” It’s a surprisingly convenient arrangement that allows both sides more time to concentrate on the important things, such as their apathy.
After dinner I tried to find the washroom, but got lost. Luckily, I saw Kimmie hunched over on a bar stool plowing through a stack of pull-tabs, so I asked her where it was. “Straight through the doors by the ATM, Hon.”
Fort McMurray, ironically, has banned the use of the plastic bag. So, to continue in its twisted attempt at appearing like an ethically forward community, it also employs a line of what might be the most violently aggressive hand-drying machines on the market. I’ve always hated these kinds of machines for their failure to do the one thing they’re designed to do: evaporate water. I might be the guy working on environmental issues, but just give me three sheets of paper towel, and lay off the 8,000 kilowatts of high-pressured hot air that would lose a battle against a tear.
As I left the bathroom, I saw Peter making his way up to the bar to pay for the meal. He struggled with the beer-soaked Interac machine he was handed and it took several swipes to get the card to take. I stood by patiently, watching a server rim a Caesar with her tongue as she put it on her tray to deliver to a customer.
I looked over at Peter and saw the bar manager, a thin girl with a yellow coil keychain wrapped around her upper right arm. She was sweating, agitated, barking out orders to anyone who would listen. I recognized her from high school but I chose not to say anything. She was here because she had to be. Doing her time, not wanting to be noticed, and thinking to herself, like everyone else, “I don’t eat here.”

 

 

words by William Farrant, photo by Ilijc Albanese

 

originally published in analogue magazine’s May 2014 issue