How many bars were there in St. Marys in 1860, when our town was roughly half the size it is today?
I don’t want to spoil you with the answer, because this particular seminar offered by the St. Marys Museum — titled “Set’em Up, Barkeep!” — is proving curiously popular. I attended the first presentation last week, and due to its popularity, it is being offered two more times. The two encore presentations are undoubtedly a first for the Museum, and it’s very telling that one of the encores was added before the first seminar even occurred.
While Ken Telfer’s entertaining seminar focused on hotels and stagecoach travel in addition to taverns and saloons, I suspect that most attendees are intrigued by the latter (these seminars are usually a sell-out — at approximately 20 people — due to the devotion of the Friends of the St. Marys Museum). It’s not because there is a drinking problem in town, but a bar problem.
Let me jump to a different night out. Not one specific evening, but a few I’ve experienced recently. Maybe it’s Little Red’s, prior to any public event downtown or the Creamery on trivia night. Perhaps it’s the Golf Course, when live music is offered, or the Sunset or Wildstone, when they have special evenings. They’re packed with happy customers, not necessarily there to drink, although this does lubricate the fun that flows. You never know who you might see, or meet; these surprise run-ins can and do still happen in a small town.
There have been rumblings of a lack of nightlife in town since the closing of the Merchant House over a year ago. It’s admittedly not everyone’s pint of Guinness, but there is a portion of the population that does stay in their street clothes past 9 p.m., itching for something to do other than television, the Internet, or staying at home, period.
Bars are, admittedly, a sensitive issue. We’ve had the rare problem: vandalism, service to minors, and the occasional fight. Judging by Ken’s excellent presentation, however, we’re collectively handling alcohol much better than in St. Marys’ “wild west” days. (When was the last time anyone was tarred and feathered in this town? Sign up for the seminar and find out!) Overconsumption can happen anywhere; at least at a public house, trained staff and other patrons can help manage its effects.
But there are other problems that deserve focus. Driving — to Stratford, to London — to enjoy a drink with friends becomes stressful considering the stigma that drinking and driving rightfully has. Designated drivers, RIDE checks; it’s too much trouble for a casual gathering. A lack of local nightlife isn’t specifically a “young people’s problem” — but it does make the choice to move away much easier when our streets regularly roll up at dark and there’s the proverbial nothing to do on a Friday night.
So — we stay home. Local businesses aren’t supported. We don’t get away from our screens. We don’t meet old friends and make new ones. We don’t (responsibly) enjoy a brisk walk home. The next generation says there’s nothing to do in a small town, and we all feel a little lonelier.
It’s ignorant to suggest the onus is on watering hole owners to stay open until last call. There’s been many a night when these establishments are empty, and it’s unfair to demand this kind of drain on owners’ bottom lines. But — as I hinted above — if some kind of rotating “late night” schedule could be agreed upon and well publicized, we could all enjoy a night out without much risk. Social media is great for this, as is that small-town word of mouth.
After all, if an educational seminar on bars in this town can stay open late for extra rounds, there must be quite a few of us ready to step up to the bar and whet our whistle.
If you’re not the tavern type, booze as an ingredient has never been more popular. Fondue is a fun addition to a winter weekend meal.
Beer Cheese Fondue
1 cup pilsner-style beer
1 lb/455 g Gruyère cheese, shredded
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Pinch of paprika
Fine sea salt, such as fleur de sel
Bring beer to a boil over medium-high heat in a fondue pot or a medium heavy saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the beer is gently simmering.
Toss cheese with cornstarch in a medium bowl. Add mixture to the beer, one large handful at a time, stirring each in a figure-eight pattern until completely melted. Stir in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and paprika, and season with salt. Serve immediately with soft pretzels, sliced German sausages, pickled garden vegetables, and roasted Brussels sprouts.