Meat and Mordecai: A Montreal Journey

Meat and Mordecai: A Montreal Journey

Meat and Mordecai: A Montreal Journey
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 10 2003 2:35 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Montreal.

The modest skyline of Montreal beckons
The modest skyline of Montreal beckons

Few cities make me happier than Montreal. You heard me right, friend. Montreal. That's in Canada, eh? Sure it is. But forget what you may know about the sport of curling. And please forget (if not forgive) the musical stylings of Celine Dion and Corey Hart. If any city will exceed your expectations, and maybe, just maybe, fulfill your urban dreams, it is this one. Get your passport ready and price those waterproof boots. Montreal is a keeper.

As the plane from New York swoops over the Adirondacks and over the gray expanse of the St. Lawrence River headed for that snowy bastion of Francophone civilization and frighteningly good pâté, I start to feel giddy and warm, almost nostalgic, as if I have had a real Montreal life behind me. It could have happened. My family emigrated from Leningrad, U.S.S.R., in the late 1970s and settled in New York, but quite a few friends and relatives went to Canada, and some to Montreal. One such fellow, already late in his years, made himself a snug little home in a government-subsidized apartment (mmm, state-sponsored socialism), and when my parents and I paid him a visit, we were quickly impressed by Montreal's relative gentleness and sanity, the European ease that belied the typical skyline of unlovely North American skyscrapers.

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As a teenager, I almost attended the famed McGill University in Montreal, but although my degree is American, I venture north to the city of my faux alma mater as often as I can. Last year, I took 11 of my best friends up here to celebrate my 30th birthday, the lot of us gorging on mountains of oysters, bowls of feve au lard (literally beans with lard, a Quebecois masterpiece), and shockingly underpriced 30-year-old-port. The year before last, my girlfriend Millys and I took in a white New Year's staying at the stately new Hotel St. Paul, enjoying immense loft-sized quarters whose size made me feel both small and royal, a veritable Napoleon of the Great North.

Every great city deserves a great bard, and Montreal certainly has one in Mordecai Richler. Although he never achieved the popularity of, say, Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, fellow funny Jewish novelists, Richler's brand of irreverent, scorched-earth, painfully precise humor deserves admission into the pantheon of the world's best satiric literature. Much beloved in his native Canada, he has also been adopted by Italian readers in whose country the term "Richleriano" is a hip way of saying "politically incorrect," and where his passing in 2001 was widely mourned.

Richler's characters are typically horny, brazen, loud-mouthed, second- and third- generation Jewish immigrants whose male imperatives involve women, smoked meat, and booze, sometimes in that order, sometimes in reverse, and sometimes in bizarre permutations thereof. That our heart goes out to these anti-heroes is a sign of Richler's consummate skill, a deep understanding of the craft of irony, which involves not merely poking fun at his characters, but making them as tragic as they are funny. You may have read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,or seen the 1974 movie based on the novel that (along with American Graffiti) introduced Richard Dreyfuss to the big screen. Duddy Kravitz, a lovable opportunist with big dreams (and even bigger moral handicaps) comes of age in 1940s Montreal, concocting a number of get-rich-fairly-quick schemes that will make him a landowner, because in his old zeyda's(grandfather's) words, "A man without land is nothing." Throughout the hilarious proceedings, Jewish Montreal comes to life with all its schmaltz and glory, a tale of well-spiced brisket and pretty (and willing) French Canadian vixens, an ode to youthful ambition and self-delusion that is almost without parallel.

Shortly before his death, Richler published Barney's Version,a fitting end to a long and brilliant career and possibly the best book he had ever written. It is the tale of one Barney Panofsky, a lovable vulgarian who wreaks havoc across Montreal (Toronto doesn't fare so well either) by means of his viper tongue, his serial adultery, his hysterically low-brow TV company—Totally Unnecessary Productions—and a penchant for the meatier, smokier, single-malt side of life. At one point, the aging Barney, troubled by his bowels, bladder, breath, and everything in between, decides to reform his life: "And I resolved yet again," writes Richler in Barney's voice, "to cut back on Montecristos, medium-fats on rye, single malts, that delicious beef-marrow hors d'oeuvre they serve at L'Express [actually veal], XO cognac, marbled rib steaks at Moishe's, caffeine, and everything else that was bad for me." (If you did not understand some of these terms, fear not; all will be explained.)

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Barney's death by the end of the book (he didn't quite follow through on his health regimen) has given me my own resolve: to eat, smoke, and drink the way Barney Panofsky would have wanted me to. Or die trying. Starting today, and for the next five days, the photographer John Canning and I will trek through contemporary Montreal filling ourselves with salt and fat, inhaling and exhaling, sampling Scotches, Highlands and Lowlands. When faced with the challenges of modern gluttony, we will ask ourselves the question "What would Barney Panofsky have done?" And as we tread along Richlerian footsteps, Montreal in all her subtle beauty will reveal herself to us, and we will take note of the best she has to offer us.

***

I land in Montreal in the late afternoon. Weather: cold as always, but lacking the kind of wind that turns you sideways in the depth of winter. Mont Royal comes into view and then the clutch of skyscrapers that form downtown. There is no enigma of arrival here, the uneasy sensation that I get from an unsettled city like Moscow or a gray bean-counting center like Frankfurt, only the joy of seeing a familiar old friend again. I check into the Hotel Gault, an elegant new boutique hotel in Old Montreal, and then it's off to L'Express for a late lunch. John and I hail a cab and head to the Plateau, considered one of the trendiest neighborhoods of North America. The Plateau and the surrounding neighborhoods were once home to waves of immigrants, including the Jewish Duddy Kravitzes that poured in from Eastern Europe.

L'Express is a casual French bistro, charming and full of light, a favorite standby for what often seems like half the residents of Montreal. We follow Barney's example, indulging in an os a moelle gros sel, the bone marrow with coarse salt appetizer. A plate of bones topped with tiny circular cabbage leaves is presented before us. Rich, buttery pieces of veal marrow are plucked from within each bone, placed on toasted bread, sprinkled liberally with coarse salt, and topped with the diminutive cabbage leaf. Placed in the mouth, the sensation is ethereal, the chewy marrow contradicting the crispiness of the salt, the mind reeling with the pleasure of eating the very essence of the animal. It is almost a little obscene. But after I nearly weep with pleasure, we decide to carry on with the wonderful rilettes L'Express, a smooth pate of duck and chicken that is the perfect way to come off a bone marrow high.

Only it's not possible to end just there, so why not share a boudin blanc, a white veal-pork sausage that comes with an astonishing apple-gravy-laden potato puree. "I've never had bangers and mash this tasty," John tells me. My God, he's right. And for dessert there's biscotti matched with a glass of vinsanto, the sweet late-harvest wine. A tow-headed little kid in round glasses walks by us, a Quebecois Harry Potter. The expression on his little face (as well as on his father's broad physiognomy) is one of dulled yet happy satiation. I know exactly how he feels. Welcome to L'Express. Welcome to Montreal.

Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a New York Times "Notable Book" for 2002 and winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and many other publications.