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Ian Brown Eats Canada

A gourmet at the shelter Add to ...

“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.

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