Hamilton continues to astonish me. It’s a closed and mysterious city that doesn’t reveal its secrets easily to tourists or outsiders. But like the waterfalls which are invisible to anyone casually driving through, there are hidden gems that will make your heart sing, if you keep your eyes open, stop and look and pay attention.
I discovered one of those gems the other day. Driving swiftly down what appeared to be a forlorn stretch of Barton Street, I was surprised by a well-preserved, beautiful old building with elegant lettering on the door, set in the midst of blocks of boarded up storefronts. The signage on the door announced the 541 Eatery and Exchange. I couldn’t stop then, but was curious and needed to do some research.
Here’s what I found out from the website: The 541 Eatery and Exchange is a restaurant offering fresh, homemade meals, coffee and baked goods in the heart of downtown Hamilton. It is also a place of exchange, in that the proceeds from the food sales and the space is dedicated “to facilitate educational community initiatives such as a homework club, a youth employment program and other skills training opportunities.”
Affordable, nutritious and family friendly food is served daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or patrons can opt for just coffee, desserts, muffins, etc. The food is not donated. It is bought, preferably from local suppliers. Two paid chefs work in the kitchen and prepare delicious looking items such as French toast, omelets, grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken and rice soup, roast chicken and pork loin. I talked to Carolyn Vaughan, one of the chefs, (the other chef is Ed Datta) who noted that the breakfasts are exceptionally popular, as well as the chili, which can be vegan or with meat. Vaughan says that they seem to cater to a lot of people who have food sensitivities and there are lots of vegan, gluten free and vegetarian items on the menu.
One of the singular aspects of the Eatery is the button jar that stands on the counter. The prices of the food are amazingly affordable and this makes it possible for many to add a few dollars to their bill to buy buttons for the button jar. This is a way of “paying it forward”, since the buttons can be used to purchase food for someone who is just a little bit short of cash that day. The point is, a really good restaurant, with food at a price that people in the community can afford to pay for.
The handsome brick structure stands on the corner of Barton and Westinghouse, a “Red zone”, with one of the highest poverty rates in Hamilton. The building is owned by architect Drew Hauser and the Eatery rents the main floor and basement. Originally built in 1907 as The Bank of British North America, the building later became a Bank of Montreal and it retains its air of graceful classicism.
Sue Carr, Executive Director of the Eatery says that the then abandoned building was one of the few that was big enough for their plans. It required about nine months to a year of renovations, during which approximately 100 volunteers donated their “sweat equity” to knock out the wall at the back of the building, construct a new commercial kitchen and do all of the wiring, plumbing, doors and windows. The final result is a space filled with light and energy, food and plants, gleaming wood and roughly textured exposed brick.
The Exchange part of the project is just getting organized, says Carr. It has become a collaborative effort with organizations such as Amity and Goodwill who will be setting up job searching programs, a school mentoring project and — piano lessons! The space is used by singles, moms, children, students, whole families, people of all incomes, a total mix across the social spectrum The Eatery and Exchange is about feeding people but it is nothing like a soup kitchen, a food bank or a cafeteria. It is a place for dreaming dreams and planning how to achieve them. It is about empowering people. It is designed to be a catalyst for change.
Here’s a recipe from Chef Carolyn Vaughan:
541 Quinoa Tabbouleh
from Chef Carolyn Vaughan, 541 Eatery and Exchange
1 cup quinoa, soaked for 20 minutes and rinsed well
1/2 tsp salt for quinoa cooking water
1 1/4 cup water
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
black pepper and salt to taste (approx 1/2 tsp each)
1 cucumber, seeded and diced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1) Cook drained quinoa in 1 1/4 cup water and 1/2 tsp salt. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered tightly for 10 minutes. Pour onto a sheet pan and let cool, separating the grains of quinoa.
2) Whisk together, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. Set aside, this is the dressing.
3) Combine all chopped vegetables and quinoa in a large bowl. Pour dressing over salad and mix well. Chill until serving — at least one hour.
Serves 6 to 8.
And — for something completely different. Here’s a great way to use those colorful peppers that are in season in all of the markets right now.
Three Pepper Salad
from Lucy Waverman’s “Seasonal Canadian Cookbook”
2 red peppers
2 green peppers
2 yellow pepper
one red onion
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp dried oregano
2/3 cup olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1) Cut the pepper in half, remove the cores and seeds. Slice into thin strips. Cut the onion in half, slice thinly.
2) Mix together in a bowl.
3) In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard and oregano Slowly whisk in the olive. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the pepper mixture and marinate for 1 hour before serving.
So pretty — and of course, you could use orange peppers, as well.