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.
“The average age 10 years ago was 55,” Mr. Pearce told me one afternoon not long ago. “The average age now is 37.” He puts the change down to harder drugs and gaming terminals.
You get tired of these meals because you eat what they give you to eat. When I was working, I decided what I wanted to eat. Here they decide. Danny Anctil
The first dinner shift runs from 4:50 to 5:10. The men are surprisingly discerning. The food at the Old Brewery is considered better than the fare at another mission across the city, but not as good or as plentiful as it is at Accueil Bonneau, founded in 1877 and run by Montreal's grey-cloaked nuns. Accueil Bonneau serves a hot breakfast every morning and a sandwich every afternoon, but it's an hour's walk from the Old Brewery.
“All you do all day is walk to here to eat, and walk back to eat, and walk and walk and walk and walk to eat,” said Danny Anctil.
“So even if you want to do something to get a job, you can't. You can't get fat, you know. Just the energy it takes to walk, you can't get fat.”
The big security guy at the door asked him, “Bien manger?” anyway, the way he did everyone.
Mr. Anctil is 55. He has a thin face, spectacles, green flip flops, feet that are an even darker brown than the rest of him, a high-school diploma. He is completely bilingual. But he hasn't had a job for five years, ever since he split up with his wife and became depressed and started drinking heavily. He spent two of those years living on the street. As a result of the depression and the drinking, he didn't pay some tickets, and lost his licence to drive a truck, a job he held for 30 years. I'm not saying that was the whole story, but that was his version.
Ian Brown eats Canada
His luck had been better lately: with $500 a month from welfare and a $300 a month apartment, and free meals, he had enough spare cash to afford a cellphone for $23 a month. If someone needs help on a renovation job, they can leave a message.
This is one thing free meals do: they keep people from slipping more deeply into homelessness. But that doesn't stop the meals from being discouraging.
“You get tired of these meals,” Mr. Anctil said, “because you eat what they give you to eat. When I was working, I decided what I wanted to eat. Here they decide.”
Which was why, he said, “I try to go once a month and eat at Schwartz's,” Montreal's famous smoked-meat shop.
“You stand in line?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, “that's my thing.” He stuck out what little there was of his belly, and clutched it with both hands, as if it were full. Exercising a choice in what he ate made him feel like a human being again. As Duncan Hines, the restaurant reviewer who lent his name to a line of instant cakes, once said: “Nearly everyone wants at least one outstanding meal a day.”
The best smoked salmon
I met my brother in Nova Scotia for the drive up into Quebec. We ate in Halifax (the Wednesday ham and scalloped potatoes special at the Esquire Diner in Bedford); in Wolfville (sublime lobster and mussels alfredo at The Tempest, the lobster claws whole and reaching up out of the creamy perfect pasta after my self-imposed lobster fast was done); in Malpeque, PEI (fresh oysters from a patch of water we could see from our table). We kept going to Charlevoix, the terroir to the northeast of Quebec City (deer carpaccio with tomato pesto at Les Trois Canards, the lambiest lamb burger at Le Mouton Noir in La Malbaie, so called because Samuel Champlain thought the anchorage was lousy). I contemplated buying a back-seat defibrillator.
The morning of the day we left, at a deliriously friendly Malbaie café called Chez Nous (recommended, of course, by the hotel bellman – you can trust bellmen), we had the best smoked Atlantic salmon either of us remembered tasting. It was so good we got into the car and drove 10 miles to Baie-St. Paul, to the Fumoir St-Antoine. I suppose that's not much different in its way from walking across a city for a meal. The fumoir is owned by Johane Roy and Serge Garneau, who five years ago added a smoker to the old summer kitchen of their farmhouse.
They buy New Brunswick salmon with the skin removed, trim all its fat, cure it for 12 to 24 hours in a dry brine of salt and sugar and fines herbes to leach out the moisture, and then cold smoke it, 60 fillets at a time, 200 kilos a week, in a temperature-controlled fridge at 25 degrees by piping in smoke from a barely smouldering fire of (mostly) wild cherry and (some) maple wood chips. The brine is what provides the taste. The smoke leaves aroma. If I could figure out a way to get a package to Danny Anctil, I would. Would that do any good? Would it excuse my pleasure? It would give Danny some. That might help. Both of us, I mean.
I can tell you how lucky some of us are. One morning at Montreal's Atwater Market, I counted 54 different things to eat on one table. Across the aisle were calzones like giant pale ears and panzerotti fashioned from delicate phyllo stuffed with zucchini and chèvre and mushrooms and roast pimento and parmesan.
At the shop of Serge Bourcier, a condiment maker from Mercier – a shop that has been in the market for 50 years – there were lamb tourtières, and jars of spiced pears and lemon confit, and glistening mountains of jellies and jams. Upstairs at Terrines & Pâtés, Marcel Sogne (from Lorraine, near Paris) and his assistant Natalie DuClos (from the south shore of Montreal) were selling terrines made from local caribou and blueberries, local deer and pecans, bison, goose. The potted meats sat in their terrines in a cold display case like small graves. I watched Jean-Claude Bres, a retired teacher in sunglasses and a Panama hat, buy $70 worth of food for three meals for himself, his wife and some friends, if they were to come by. A chicken, a small roast of beef, a pound of very fine coffee, a slice of pâté berrichon, veal in a pastry crust. “I'm interested in pâté and food, yes,” he said in reply to my question, with a tone one might use when speaking to an imbecile, “because I like eating.” He made it sound simple.
One morning I drove to the north end of the city, to La Binerie Mont Royal, where Jocelyne Brunet and her husband Philippe operate a restaurant that's a monument to traditional Quebec cooking. Yves Beauchemin wrote about it in a novel called Le Matou. I ordered pea soup and tourtière and ragôut of meatballs and baked beans. Copies of Edward J. Massicotte's etchings of Québécois life and traditions hung from the wall.
Fèves au lard are the house specialty. There were half a dozen customers in the restaurant tucking into a breakfast plateful. The Brunets make them in a tiny dungeon under the restaurant, using the original owner's 1938 recipe and the original charcoal- and now gas-fired, three-door brick and cast-iron stove: 150 pounds at a time, cooked with lard and a secret combination of spices, for 15 hours.
“He makes 38 tons of beans a year,” Jocelyn said of her husband. I ate them plain and with maple syrup and with molasses and even with ketchup. I mashed them and ate them one by one. It felt like I was eating history, a simple but serious meal. You don't have to be hungry or even homeless to feel that way, but it helps.
Ian Brown is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.