Local Food Heroes
Niagara Voices column, St Catharines Standard
When the world comes to its senses and finally appoints me Great Ruler, I will prove my intelligence by handing the reins over to people who deserve them. People with motivation, courage, creativity, drive, and kindness. People who see opportunities where the rest of us see hassles. Local small-‘a’ activists, like Ruth Anne Schriefer, and Alex Hlinyanszky.
Both are women who have built communities, who support and enhance local life, and who go beyond the obvious. Interestingly enough, both have done those things through their restaurants. As Alex says, “Food is such a simple way to relate to people; and a restaurant is a place for ideas to exist.”
Downtown St Catharines is vacant, beat-up, and big-time scary. I’ve been less frightened in New York, L.A. and Toronto than I am on St Paul Street. But wee, concentrated Alex Hlinyanszky decides to open Pan, a fresh place full of aesthetics and soul, right in the mess of it all. “I see so much potential here,” she says, “But potential can be dangerous if it’s never allowed to fulfill itself. I really feel wowed by how much of a struggle it is to get good things done around here.”
But get things done she does: Having stepped down from her position as Artistic Director of Suitcase in Point Theatre, she still directs plays with them. She is an enthusiastic member of the Downtown Revitalisation Committee, and is closely related to the Niagara Arts Council. She writes plays, loves family, and clearly has a healthy social life, all while owning, managing and cooking at Pan. Still when she talks with you, you have all of her focus.
Ruth Anne Schriefer has been around a bit longer than Alex, her strong fire kindled, not dwindled, by raising five kids (now in their mid-teens to mid-twenties) and running The Pie Plate Bakery Café. She also recently started up the, duh, Niagara-on-the-Lake farmers’ market, tired of hearing everyone say it should but couldn’t be done. “I just went ahead and did it.” That attitude has been her power, and her nemesis: She does too much, she admits, because “I’m a possibility thinker for sure. Then I get into it and realise it’s a bit harder than I thought.”
Sure it’s within walking distance of her house (where she goes to pick the basil for pizzas), but not many people would look at the core of Virgil and see much possibility. Ruth Anne turned an old Victorian house on a highway into a ray of Provençal sun replete with brimming baskets of seasonal fruit. Now the Pie Plate is a gentle success story, as well as a gathering place for locals, a source for good food and neighbourhood news.
Both of these restaurants—these community centres—are flourishing. Each has a dedicated spot for the promotion of local businesses, happenings, and artists. Ruth Anne sells copies of her mother’s books and her son’s CDs. Alex has plans to offer seminars at Pan, as well as live music. Ruth Anne is also going to re-integrate live music, and has a delightful idea for summer movie nights. Each features the work of local artists on their walls, and the Pie Plate often plays CDs produced by local musicians.
These are places that go beyond feeding you. As you Ruth Anne says, “I think you eat with more than just your eyes. You eat with your soul, and your heart.” She was referring to her idea of healthy food: Fresh peaches right from the tree, eaten with gratitude and friends—but she could just as well have been talking about the depth of nourishment these restaurants provide.
Naturally Ruth Anne and Alex source almost all of their ingredients locally. “This morning I was at two farms collecting my apples,” says the former. With a sweeping gesture somehow encompassing the entire region she says, “My whole goal is to make this life, the farmers, and the greenbelt sustainable. It’s the essence of my business and what I do.” Alex also stays local, stocking up at the St Catharines market and sourcing organics as often as possible. “This is classic food that comes from the people around you.”
Pan and the Pie Plate are places that change you slightly when you walk in the door. Your inner pace switches, your spirits shift. You can tell you’re in some kind of hub, with spokes radiating out into so many lives. At the heart of each is a benevolent and communal force, a small-‘a’ activist, a wise woman. Ruth Anne sums it up well: “You have to be who you are, and allow other people to be who they are. Real community is a hard thing; it isn’t necessarily always about harmony. But it’s like your family: There are good times and bad. You just have to watch for and collect those moments of pure joy.”