When I first moved to Hamilton in the fall of 2014, I’d visited the city once before, for a tour of McMaster. It was a bony, grey day in November, and most of what I remember is a confusing maze of campus parking and one-way streets. The trip culminated in an accidental voyage up the mountain, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it was my first bird’s eye view of the city I would come to love almost as much as the city where I grew up.

In the years that have followed, Hamilton truly has come to be a second home, one that has allowed me to try to be a grown up for the first time. And while so many intersections, shops and views of the city feel like places where I belong now, I still remember what they all looked like when they were new to me.

Do you know what I mean? That feeling where your surroundings look like the set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Everything seems a bit too big for itself. The angles are too sharp, the layout just abnormal enough to stick with you. Eventually those edges smooth and become familiar, but sometimes if you look closely, you can see where you used to think that corner or table or window was, superimposed on the reality of the space.

Hamilton’s unfamiliar edges were smoothed in a few ways. The first was through early — and lasting — friends I made in my first year. I went out with friends who were from out of town and wanted to explore different parts of our new home. And I became best friends with someone I met at my first meeting at the Silhouette, a person and a place that both became integral parts of my undergraduate experience.

But I also spent a lot of time alone in first year, and as an avid runner I made it a mission to map my newly expanded world. Every time I left campus for a morning run, I could feel the borders of what I knew about Hamilton expanding, and along with it, my sense of belonging. As I prepare to finish my undergraduate degree and potentially leave Hamilton, I’m left trying to link all these places together and preserve exactly how it came to feel like home.

I can’t claim to remember old school King William the way some of my older or more Hamiltonian friends do, but I do remember that the first few memorable outings I went on in Hamilton were treks to the downtown street. I went to Homegrown Hamilton with my parents after my tour of McMaster, and I later returned with a good friend to celebrate the completion of our first semester of university. Similarly, I remember figuring out how to bus downtown one night in September to make it to a show at Baltimore House. Both these Hamilton institutions disappeared over the course of my undergrad, but they remain some of my earliest familiar places in the city.

A short jaunt down James Street from King William lies one of my favourite places on earth: the Brain. My best friend and I became regulars there in second year, and it was love at first beer. I’ve written about my favourite bar and place to hang out in the Sil before, and if you know me, I’ve no doubt recommended you check it out (just maybe not for a first date). Nevertheless it bears repeating that feeling at home here made me feel at home in Hamilton unlike any other place in the city. I credit the Brain with so many relationships I have within the city, and I remain convinced that it exists outside of time. There’s probably a portal to its twin bar on the other side of the world somewhere in the basement, but that’s just a hunch.

In second year, I felt more secure in my understanding of the structure of the downtown core. I knew which buses went where (after making many mistaken trips on the 5/52 in first year and having to walk all the way to the end of north quad) and I was getting a bit tired of running the same downtown loops along King, Main and Aberdeen. I began to add the Waterfront and Princess Point Trails into my roster of routes, and during a confusing and emotionally taxing year, these quiet spots provided me with a space to breathe and take in my surroundings away from other people. I loved getting to see how the trails looked during each season, and figuring out that the Waterfront Trail was a quieter, albeit longer, route to some of my favourite parts of downtown made me feel like a bit more of an insider in the city.

After seeing the city’s northern edge, I wanted to find that bird’s eye view again, this time without my parents frantically checking a road map. One of my favourite discoveries in Hamilton was that I could literally run up the mountain via multiple staircases that clung to the side of its face. I loved scaling the metal stairs while it was still dark out and watching the city wake up below. It was — and remains — such a peaceful and rewarding start to a long day.

By the end of my second year, I could effectively navigate the city on my own, from main streets to quiet neighbourhoods to trails. And while I had people like my friends and housemates who made Hamilton feel like home, I didn’t have a place that made that same impression.

That changed when I toured the apartment I’ve now lived in for two years with two different roommates. The bright yellow front door immediately sold me, and seeing that the unit was my lucky number felt like a good omen. I remember how optimistic I felt when I crossed its threshold for the first time, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It was perfect; lots of natural light, with plenty of cozy, bright spaces and a kitchen that actually had a little bit of counter space. It was vacant at the time, but I could already see how my roommate and I were going to make it feel like home.

We signed the lease almost immediately, and in the months between the signing and moving in, I ran by the building almost every week. I learned where all the side streets went, figured out which coffee shops were closest and altered my old, favourite running routes to adapt to what would become my new start and finish point.

Over the past two years, that little apartment has smoothed unfamiliar edges in the city in a way no other place has. I cooked, like really cooked, for the first time in that kitchen. I hosted my first dinner parties there. I finally lived somewhere where I was happy to just spend time.

I could tell you about so many of my other favourite places; the otter stencil near James and Cannon, the ship-shaped play structure at the Bayfront, the always interesting area just outside Jackson Square. But Hamilton is also your city to find your way in, so go and find it.

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How should I remember these past four years?

As one of the many graduating staff members at the Silhouette, I think a lot of us are thinking and obviously writing about how to make sense of the past four or more years at McMaster and at the paper. My life has been structured around the weekly publication schedule since first year.

The paper has also helped me realize some of most important passions: writing and food. I realize that even when I leave here, I want to continue to write about the stories behind the food in this city: the restaurants, cafes, candy shops, bakeries and convenience stores.

The truth is that I’m just getting started in food writing. There’s too much technique and history to learn in and out of the kitchen before I can really call myself a food writer.

For now, and for the last time, I can only share my story with decent writing, good food and better friends.

Bubble tea

Contrary to its sugary content, this milk tea dessert drink marked a period of growing up, and it was one of the first ways I started to explore my city through food.

Ever since I was a child, bubble tea was the “downtown treat”. Bubble tea shops were no- where to be found in the suburbs of the Hamilton mountain. When my parents and I had to stop by Jackson Square or the Farmers’ Market, we would stop by the Japanese candy and bubble tea shop, Doremi, which has since moved to Westdale as Kuma’s Candy. By my early teens, I had the freedom to bus downtown with a couple of friends. Often the sole reason for these trips were to enjoy the summer weather with a bubble tea from D’s Café.

Doremi may have moved to Westdale, and D’s is still a bit too high school to revisit, but in a clichéd, full-circle moment, there is a new bubble tea store that opened in Jackson Square this year: Justeas. While there is no shortage of these places throughout downtown, I think Justeas may legitimately be my favourite. Their golden tapioca pearls, and the best damn taro I’ve ever had helps, but really, it just feels good to still be that kid that’s found a reason to be excited about a trip to Jackson Square once in a while.

Big Dinner with a best friend — the Burnt Tongue

I met the first, and best friend I made at McMaster through the Silhouette. Rachel and I were both volunteer News writers, and she was pretty sure I hated her until I invited her to get coffee and work on a philosophy paper at Democracy (a move that was so cliché Hamilton hipster-wannabe that I still kind of cringe about it.)

Nonetheless that move kind of marked a safe way of getting to know each other: go out, get food and drink at a new place. I got to show some of my favourite places, and learn about new ones along the way, and she would eventually return the favour when she took me around her favourite spots in Toronto.

By second year we were close, and we both knew that we were both going through an extremely difficult semester. I felt incredibly lonely, and one day, to kind of kill time and to take a break from campus food, I bussed downtown during a heavy snowstorm, bundled up and miserably walking down James Street until I got into the Burnt Tongue.

I realize that even when I leave here, I want to continue to write about the stories behind the food in this city: the restaurants, cafes, candy shops, bakeries and convenience stores.

I ordered a large butternut squash soup with apple and a bun for the side. I sat myself at the bench outlooking the snow. It was sweet, hearty and cozy. It reminded me of the soup that I would only ever get when some extended family members brought it to Thanksgiving dinner, and it was maybe this memory that reminded me that this meal needed to be shared.

I later wrote an article about the business in the paper, but Rachel and I made a regular habit of coming to the Burnt Tongue just before my Thursday night classes. This tradition partially inspired the creation of our Culinary Class Acts section, which has since included nearly every restaurant that we have regularly visited as part of our own Big Dinner, and even staff dinner outings.

By third year, Thursday night dinners together turned to Tuesdays, as a means of getting us out of The Silhouette office at a reasonable time. The principle though has always been the same: no matter how good or bad the week’s been, we always made time to share a meal together.

Pokeh + Golden Brown

The moment that I knew that there was something in me that wanted to pursue food writing was after writing one of the features in second year. After fumbling in the role for some time, I finally put out a piece that I felt wholly satisfied with: a double feature showcasing the Farmers’ Market’s Pokeh bar, and the Barton Street Korean take-out restaurant Golden Brown.

Pokeh’s Hawaiian seafood rice bowls was the first stand of its kind in Canada. Salar’s farmers market experiment was a resounding success, and that summer, Poke restaurants were popping up all over Toronto.

We were one of the first publications to write about them. That was a proud moment, but more importantly, I think the reason why I come back to this piece so often is that it also highlighted a potentially role we could play in the community. Our food articles did well. We could cover emerging restaurants in the city, while still paying mind to our student audience. There was an active conversation behind every piece of food writing that you read in the past two years.

But there is really one reason why I keep going back to this article.

Golden Brown closed just a few months after the piece was published.

We could cover emerging restaurants in the city, while still paying mind to our student audience. There was an active conversation behind every piece of food writing that you read in the past two years.

Julia and her son, Jake, were the two loveliest restaurant owners I’ve ever met. Their space reflected that, with every detail painstakingly decorated and crafted by the owner. Jars of homemade kimchi lined the walls. It was take-out place, but for those who chose to seat at the one table in the room, it really made you feel as though you were invited into someone’s home. I really wish that some of the friends that I’ve made since then could have tasted that sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken on top of a perfect bed of white rice. I didn’t know it could be done, but Julia perfected white rice and I wish my friends today could have had just one more bulgogi gimbob.

I miss them dearly, but I am forever grateful that Julia shared her story with us, and indirectly showed how much love and passion I can have for trying to tell these stories. I am happy to have had a job that let me share these stories and make friends that helped make these articles possible every single week.

Everything that the Silhouette has given me: a passion for writing, a greater love for this city, these amazing friends and four years of fond memories with them — I will choose to remember it through the food we ate and the people that I lucky enough to share it with.

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