"Let's go up north for a few days…" is how my Canadian holidays invariably end up. Normally it's summer and we drive up from Toronto to Muskoka or Georgian Bay where we spend weeks mucking about on boats and lying around on sun-drenched docks. This, however, is not summer and "the north" has become a very different place. I write this ensconced in a wooden cabin five hours north of Toronto and outside it's a balmy -17C.
I am up here with my wife and kids and her twin brother and his family. They live in Costa Rica and my wife's brother was very keen that his kids have a Canadian winter experience. At first they were bewitched, diving into snowdrifts and chucking themselves down steep slopes on makeshift toboggans. But pretty soon they were back in the cabin looking decidedly freaked out by not being able to feel their fingers and worried that their hair was about to snap off.
It's bitterly cold here; walk five minutes and any exposed part of your face starts to go numb. There is good news, however, as every mile or so we see a sign that indicates the current level of forest fire danger. The needle rather pointlessly points to "very low".
A Swiss family owns our cabin, and they run a restaurant nearby to which we retire every evening for resuscitative glasses of schnapps amid the abundant collection of decorative cowbells from "the old country". It was here I spotted the challenge on the wall: a three-pound schnitzel, stuffed with ham and heavy cheese, that the Swiss chef challenged anyone to finish. Successful participants get a T-shirt proclaiming you a "Lord of the Schnitzel" and a photograph on the wall of fame. There were not many photos and a blackboard gleefully noted the number of failures (112).
This sort of thing would not normally excite me, but my whole family has recently become addicted to a TV show called Man v Food, in which the rather affable American presenter travels around North America taking on the multifarious eating challenges that seem to be so popular on this continent. The show is curiously addictive, mostly for the sheer shock value of seeing just how much Americans, in particular, pile on to their plates in eateries. Even in Canada, we are constantly faced with leaving over half of what is brought to our table and have started to order one meal for two in an attempt to combat the waste. It's as if the entire continent has come out of some devastating famine and wants to prove that everything is all right now.
Much to my children's delight, I accepted the schnitzel challenge. The monster, like a small, bread-crumbed baby, was brought to our table and I waded into battle. Even the old me would have struggled, but I have been fasting on every other day for five months now and my eating powers are seriously diminished. I managed about a third of the beast before throwing in the towel. They cheered up when the heart attack on a plate was handed over to the table and they all tucked in with gusto. The wall of shame now stands at 113.