The first thing serious eaters do when they sit down to a meal at the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal is sniff the ssert. The mission serves 500 homeless a night, and to get through four seatings in an hour-and-a-half, the desserts go on the table before the clients come in. This means the desserts are often the first thing eaten, therefore the first thing sniffed. People who live on the street get in the habit of sniffing things they plan to put in their mouths.
They aren't the only ones.
I was sitting across from a man named Donald. He sniffed his slab of marbled chocolate-vanilla bundt cake as soon as he sat down, then began to pull the cake apart with his hands. He picked up a plastic spoon and sniffed his package of blueberry yogurt and started to spoon that down. He was in his thirties. He'd been coming to the Old Brewery shelter for dinner for two months, since arriving in Montreal from Abitibi. “I came down here to change my habits,” he said.
“Is it working?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. He hadn't worked in 22 years. He had a handmade haircut that made him look like a yeoman.
By then he'd finished his yogurt, so I gave him mine. He didn't want my cake. A bigger, older guy two seats down took it instead, and mashed it with his yogurt into a moist purple mush. There were seven tables, sixteen people per table. People ate fast, and there wasn't much talking.
Most of the food had been donated by patrons and suppliers. The main course was ravioli in a sauce manufactured by a large food company with a name anyone would recognize. The sauce was a rarely seen shade of yellow-orange. Donald didn't want his. “Some people, they don't eat meat, you know?”
I didn't tell him there was no meat in the ravioli, because at first I couldn't tell. Some kind of cheese, yes, but it had no discernible taste. This was sustenance, not a meal.
“Do you like eating together, at least?” I said. “Does food give you a sense of community?” I actually said that.
Donald looked at me the way a dog sometimes looks at its owner after the owner does or says something incomprehensible. “No, not really,” he said. “I like eating alone.” Who can blame him?
I had myself eaten alone the night before, at the end of the zinc bar at L'Express, a crowded Montreal bistro straight up St-Denis Street from the mission. The noise was exciting, a human orchestra tuning up. I had a bowl of cold gazpacho so full of taste it seemed to have been electrified, followed by spaghetti with fresh chanterelles, gold dubloons topped with tubes of sautéed green onion. I actually grunted as I sopped up the last of the oil at the bottom of my plate.
Don't misunderstand me: I'm not trying to make some easy point about plenty and its opposite. But if you spend weeks in a row eating your way across the country, you begin to think about antidotes to indulgence. You have days when you believe eating well is despicable, and deserves no attention at all. This is a depressing thought, but it took a room of homeless men to make me realize it is a stupid and indulgent one as well. The fact that the revelation happened in Quebec, the province with the longest and deepest culinary history in the country, and a lot of its best food, now makes perfect sense.
There are 30,000 people in Montreal who lack what Matthew Pearce, director general of the Old Brewery Mission, calls “a stable residence.” Between 500 and 600 are fed for free on an average night at the mission, at a cost he estimates at $3 per head. (I paid $40 for my meal at L'Express.) More people show up at the end of the month, more still in winter. Some of the men have been eating there for years.