by A C
A trip across the border can be a journey to another planet.
“Kell johnruh duh pane voo fayil vwah?” the woman behind the Subway restaurant counter seemed to ask. I shook my head and thought to myself, what is she saying? I asked my friend, and he told me she was just asking what kind of bread I wanted. Oh, I nodded, raising my eyebrow as I stood in the Subway (which looked exactly like every other Subway in the world) in Montreal, Quebec, thinking to myself, how is it that they speak this foreign language only miles from the United State-ian border? I say United State-ian after the revelation that Canadians and Mexicans and others are mad at us for stealing the rights to use the word “American” as our nationality. They reason that we are all in America, North America or Central America, so why should people in the United States be the only ones to call themselves American? Even though I explained to my Quebecois friend that it was part of the name of our country, he still said we should just be the United States. They can be bitter about things, maybe because their weather outlooks mainly consist of snow. And more snow.
It just occurred to me that despite the massive amounts of snow, I never once saw a snowman while I was in Montreal. Maybe there is a limit to how much snow a person can take before he or she loses the desire to create replicas of Frosty, instead succumbing to less numbing pursuits, like playing cribbage and eating (though one could arguably attribute numbing effects to both cribbage and eating). As I sat on my friend’s porch and watched tiny, perfectly-formed, white-crystalline sprinkles accumulate in my coat’s crease on the inside of my left elbow, I felt the intense urge to study each snowflake before it would melt from my body heat. Sometimes I would think about making a snowman, but not making one seemed too much of a silent protest against winter in Quebec. Fun? In winter? Mentioning snowmen seemed almost taboo.
Well, anyway, for the majority of my life I thought Montreal was part of the U.S. because it had a baseball team that played other U.S. teams. Now I was riding over rivers thick with chunks of icy blocks along roads with snow-piled ditches and listening to thick French Canadian accents, wondering what to expect. Arret! The red octagons proclaimed, informing me I was in a foreign country. Entree and sortie (enter and exit) guided the lights above entrances and exits to Walmarts and IGAs and Home Depots.
Ah, well this brings us back to the Subway restaurant I was standing in, at least Subway is said the same in French, no? But wait until you get inside, eh (you pronounce this like the “ay” in day, only add a question-mark sound to the end—French Canadians don’t say eh as much as other Canadians may, so they think it’s funny). The Subway menu was entirely in French! What would you like? Dindon? Jamon? Fromage? Tomate? Turkey, ham, cheese, tomato, my friend taught me to say them in Quebecois French (for it has developed into its own dialect replete with its own aphorisms and curse words). From my experience in Quebec, I have to say food is a major part of the culture, next to the language. I found out a thousand things just from observing the food in Quebec.
Not long after I arrived in Montreal, we went to La Belle Province (which means “the beautiful province” and is also Quebec’s motto), which is a hotdog place, oddly enough. There, they had a bar where you could see all of the things you might possibly want on a hotdog, among these things were the usual mustard and ketchup, but next to these were great vats of shredded cabbage and green, very green, too green relish. I took a nice lingering look at the stuff, I assure you, and I remember thinking that I liked cabbage and cole slaw, but I had never seen anyone eat it on a hotdog. I, ever the adventure-seeker, went for it and got two hotdogs covered with cabbage and relish. After I got over my newly discovered aversion to eating cabbage with ketchup on it, I realized that, although it was strange and was another in the string of indications that I was in a foreign land, cabbage on hotdogs worked. We also got a side order of poutine.
Poutine? What’s that? Everyone seemed to pronounce it like “pooh-tseen.” I laughed when I first heard it, laughed a little too loud, I think, because the people around me got kind of serious looks on their faces. Poutine, my friend told me, was a national snack, tabarnac (a Quebecois cuss word, a shortened version of the word tabarnacle, for, probably because a majority are Catholic, their cuss words are all church-related). My face reddened like a tomate. As I tried to imagine what poutine could possibly taste like, my friend told me it was French fries smothered with brown gravy and sprinkled with plenty of fromage blanc, or curd cheese. Curd cheese is, shall we say, native to Quebec. It looks like oversized chunks of cottage cheese but it is dry and when you bite into it it tastes—and sounds—squeaky, and very good, like a bit of a hint of mozzarella only none of the same texture. So this cheese goes on top of the hot French fries and brown gravy and is not given to melting much, thus its appeal I suppose. Overall it is a warm, brown gravy, potatoey, squeaky concoction. In Quebec they sell poutine at McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King. The best and gourmet kind of poutine was to be bought at a restaurant called Benny’s (which may or may not have been a version of Denny’s, I joked, but my friend never got it).
One night, after a riotous round of cribbage (a Quebecois favorite), we ordered pizza. Quite frankly, it was bizarre in comparison to what I was used to in the States. We ordered a pizza called assaissonne. Assassin topping? No, it literally means, “all dressed,” or in the States, “full house.” “All dressed” makes more sense to me now than full house. The pizza appeared normal enough, but when I started eating it I noticed there were giant bologna-sized circles of maybe Canadian bacon. Where was the pepperoni? That is the pepperoni, my friend told me. Oh no, I thought. It was kind of like very tasteless salami. I definitely missed pepperoni, those tiny circles of spicy, crispy meat. Never take pepperoni for granted.
As far as Mexican food is concerned, the Quebecois know what tacos are and enjoy them, but I have to tell you, when my Canadian friend came to my house to visit, he saw the pot of brown goo blurping on the stove and muttered to himself, what in the heck is that? My mother, just around the corner, laughed. He had no idea what refried beans were, and I couldn’t find a single can of the stuff in Quebec. Furthermore, my beloved Taco Bell was nowhere to be found. Apparently the fast food restaurant refused to put a larger French sign than English sign, so was ousted. Yo quiero Taco Bell, I thought to myself sadly as I faced the fact that Quebec, like France, has certain rules in place to preserve the French language.
Some people joke about liking ketchup on everything, but I think the Quebecois have actually tried ketchup on most everything. For instance, have you ever heard of ketchup chips? If you were from the United Kingdom you might think they are French fries with ketchup pre-glopped onto them, but if you are Quebecois, you know that they are chips with a ketchup-tasting red powder on them. Imagine Lay’s Original potato chips with red dust on them, and imagine that they have a vinegary tomatoey tang to them. Those are ketchup chips. My friend’s favorite brand is called Humpty Dumpty. No kidding. Sometimes I wonder why their flag doesn’t have a plastic ketchup bottle next to the maple leaf. Another popular flavor of chips is the assaissonne flavor, or all-dressed, like the pizza. These have a combination of onion, cheese, tomato, and potato flavors. The closest to them I’ve had in the U.S. are the loaded baked potato Ruffles. What’s worse is my friend would soak already over-flavored assaissonne chips in vinegar and eat them. I am not sure if this practice is something singular to his tastes or if it’s a common Quebecois practice. I think the funniest kind of chips there were the Original flavor ones, because in Quebec they are labeled as “nature” flavor. What is the appeal in eating something called “nature chips?” To me this conjures images of fertilizer, grass, and many other non-potato flavored materials.
Now, to get these “nature” chips out of your mind, let’s discuss the sweeter side of Quebec. The Quebecois have an unprecedented love affair with the sweetest of the sweet goodies I have ever tasted. Case in point: my Quebecois friend visited me in the States, and, upon finding we had no Nutella (I will discuss later), resorted to smothering his morning toast with chocolate Betty Crocker frosting he found in our fridge. Nutella is a chocolate hazelnut spread that I have seen around in the States, but that I am almost certain did not catch on as a breakfast staple. I, for one, cannot remember ever wanting frosting in the morning. Sirop d’Erable (maple syrup) however, is a different story. I would likely never deny a morning offer of fluffy pancakes and maple syrup. If I ever move to Quebec, it may just be for the abundance of maple syrup. They have tons of red and white cans of maple syrup in every store with different grades on them. I recommend Canada number 1, clair (light). My last can of maple syrup has a recipe for maple-roasted chicken on it. I find it odd that the ingredients include ketchup, but maybe not so odd—Quebec has ketchup flavored chips, why not add a little ketchup to the maple chicken? It wouldn’t be Quebecois if it didn’t have ketchup in it somewhere, anyway.
Finally, I learned how to make my friend’s favorite food. Pate chinois, literally “Chinese paste,” is a kind of shepherd’s pie. It is composed of a layer of cooked ground beef sprinkled with corn and peas and covered with real mashed potatoes, then baked in an oven for about thirty minutes. My friend smothered it with ketchup while his family drowned it in that strange, canned, brown gravy that I suspect is the same kind they use on poutine. It was really good either way (I am not a picky eater; I only hate hominy. Oh, and I also strongly dislike the moldy, white stuff on the outside of Brie, which I discovered in Quebec one unfortunate evening).
I experienced Quebec without preconceptions—I’d read nothing about it and had no expectations—and I think that if I could go back I would not change my ignorance. A veritable Pandora’s box for unsuspecting travelers, Quebec has a defined and unique culture and is a beautiful place that is full of more surprises than I can name here; however, as my visit to Quebec and all good things conclude, I must leave you with the fact that I won’t miss the so-called “pepperoni” or the lack of refried beans, but I have developed a Quebecois’s longing for ketchup chips and poutine.
A C is a writer who now lives in Quebec.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.