Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Marilu Henner

The most exciting thing I ate in Montreal was probably a piece of celery. Not smoked meat, not poutine, not that pickle--just a piece of celery. I stopped in the student center at McGill to grab a quick lunch, and seeing that the first floor cafe had a special advertising two salads for five canadollars, I decided that the rice salad and the bean salad seemed like just what I needed to get through another two hours and twenty minutes of talks this afternoon. The rice salad was just fine, but the bean salad was studded with these little thin pieces of celery that popped perfectly against the beans. It might have been one of the first times that I recognized the that celery had a distinct taste--a little bland, definitely, but also a little herbal, and a great counterpoint to any kind of earthy bean or meat. I will have to start buying more of that, especially as summer arrives and I want to make more and more cold bean salads. Celery. Who knew? Previously it had always been my "Why does this even exist?" vegetable.

So with that piece of celery to cleanse my palate and my colon this afternoon, it was totally okay that I went to Au Pied de Cochon: The Pig and Duck Fat Restaurant for dinner, right? I wanted to try some poutine, I wanted to see a little bit of Montreal, and for a while I've wanted to try eating alone at the bar of a restaurant. This particular restaurant had an "exemplary poutine" according to the internet, was about a mile and a half from my dorm (including a lovely path through a park), and had bar seating overlooking the kitchen. Plus it was 9:45 and my colleague/roommate Tom had just eaten a piece of cheesecake and fallen asleep. It seemed like every single molecule in the world was chanting "pig's foot, pig's foot."

Now I admit that the menu looks a little pricey but as long as you avoid the entire section dedicated to foie gras it actually has the potential to be quite a bargain. I ordered three separate dishes and got out for $27, which is pretty excellent considering that I also had a beer, and that two of the three dishes I ordered were each larger than entire meals that I eat at home. I was, in fact, a little nervous after ordering three dishes, but my server assured me that I had selected an appropriate amount of food and made an excellent choice with the salad. Good, because if there's one thing that I've learned today, it's that salads can be really inspiring.

So the salad turned out to contain no celery. Rather, it comprised a few tangles of spring greens on top of which sat a patty of disarticulated, reformed, deep-fried pied de cochon, a relish of some cooked tomatoes and peppers, some mustard in the shape of a script "M" (standing for either "Montreal" or "my last name"), and, of course, just to make sure there was a sufficient amount of pork present, three strips of bacon crumbled over the top. Well, duh, of course that's an excellent choice for a salad.

But it didn't quite serve its intended purpose as a lighter counterpoint to the poutine that I had ordered. All in all, the combination of pork, bacon, fries, deep brown gravy, and cheese curds got to be a little too much, and I left maybe a third of each dish uneaten. In fact, now that I reflect on it, all three things I ordered had a deep-fried component and a component made of pure animal fat. Whew, good thing I had that celery this afternoon. Also, good thing that an impossibly friendly Canadian server came by and asked me if I was done with my food just as I had ceased to eat out of hunger or pleasure and begun to eat simply because there was food in front of me, like one of those neurological test subjects with a severed corpus callosum who can no longer associate satiety with the action of eating.

And how was the poutine? You know what? I really don't think I like poutine that much. I like the idea of poutine--fries with gravy and cheese. I like each of those things individually and like most of them in combination with each other. I dig that. But all of them together? The cheese gets a little chewy, the fries get a little soggy, the gravy gets a little clumpy. It's like each element is served under conditions that will capture it at its worst possible texture, and then arranged together in a way that is unattractive by default. Seriously, have you ever seen an appetizing picture of poutine? I can't say that I didn't like the flavors, but I can't say that it's the world's greatest culinary invention, either, or even Canada's.

Celery, on the other hand...

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