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My toes are wet, frozen and numb beneath salt-stained black boots lined in worn faux fur. The pain is punishing, but I look way up at my father in his galoshes and marvel that he isn’t complaining – he never does. We are waiting in line, and I feel lucky because behind me the line wraps itself around the corner. My father and I have arrived early, but not early enough, at Pâtisserie Belge on Park Avenue to pick up a box of croissants for Christmas morning.
There are other bakeries – we live in Montreal after all – where food comes before religion and politics. Many years later, in a restaurant renowned for its lobster sandwiches, a good friend will even close her eyes, stop chewing and sigh, “Sometimes Anna, food is even better than sex.” There is a bakery in the centre of our town, there is one in the Van Horne mall and even our local grocery store has started making croissants. But they are too small at the first, too heavy at the second and the grocery store uses margarine, which is the first ingredient that paves the way to hell. My father has taught me that it is only “the Europeans who truly understand how to use butter” and so, he spends all his weeknights marking exams so that early on Saturday we can leave when it’s still dark to join others who live, cherish and honour what it means to eat well.
Every time the door opens, the smells of fresh bread, chocolate and butter gush and blanket the throng of people inching their way closer. We strike up a conversation with a couple who are here for foie gras, tourtière and a chocolate log. It will be at least 15 years before I taste foie gras and understand the invisible cult that worships a food that is unethical in its production but sinfully divine. “Chaque année,” they say, and we nod and answer, “nous aussi.” They are smoking short cigarettes and I turn around and pretend to blow smoke – years later, I will take up this habit and, like foie gras, I will give it up but dabble in it secretly, when nobody is looking, questioning or judging. The door opens, and all I see and feel are an armful of baguettes that brush my face as the happy customer leaves with his or her staple for the weekend.
Finally, we step in. There are long glass cases filled with petite pâtisseries, cheeses in light, medium and dark hues of yellow, all manner of terrine and tortes and there is the log, and there are the tourtières and there in the special section is the foie gras. But we move along to the cash when my father gives his order number and we are handed one white cardboard box that I know is filled with a dozen croissants, crisp and flaky on the outside, buttery and tender on the inside. My father pays and we step back out into the bitter cold that Montreal does so well.
The croissants are only the first stop on our list. Next, we are at the bakery on Saint Laurent, where we buy white bread. It doesn’t occur to me why we wouldn’t have bought the bread at Patisserie Belgue – the Saint Laurent bakery is where we always buy this particular bread that we use specifically for toast. Across the street is Old Europe, where we buy cheese and cold cuts. By now, my boots are soaked, my toes are frozen, but I love this dance from shop to bakery to shop. We choose our cheeses, our cold cuts and once again wait in line to pay for our groceries. By the time we get to the car, I am frozen solid and my father obliges me with the promise of hot bagels. Of course, we have to go to St-Viateur because even though I can’t really taste the difference between the competitors, my father assures me that these are the best. I don’t argue as I chew the hot bagel that even now I can only describe as sublime. Our last stop is for coffee on Laurier Avenue. My parents have their own recipe: one-third Colombian, one-third Kenyan and one-third Nicaraguan – beans of course; coffee tastes better freshly ground.
In between then and now, I lived in Europe with my own family, where I hope I taught my children the value of seeking out the irresistible croissant, the perfect cheese, the essential coffee grinder – and that warm and waterproof boots will make them happier people. My feet are still permanently frozen for four months of the year even though I have discovered rubber and down insoles. But, this is the small price I pay for the rituals I look forward to: finding the perfect cheese in our neighborhood shop, buying only the one brand of coffee I will grind and drink and insisting that the Christmas trees from the same farmer we always go to, are much, much nicer than any others.
I am often back in Montreal, where my children are studying, and it thrills me to rediscover my city through their eyes. My son will go out of his way for a particular Portuguese chicken dinner, my daughter knows where to find the best handcrafted marshmallows, and they both appreciate waiting for their parents to treat them to the only steak-frites worth eating in the city. Looking back, I realize that one of the worthiest lessons my father taught me is to never complain when you are standing in line for the best croissants.
Anna C. Rumin lives in Ottawa.