When I moved to Canada from New Mexico in January, 1979, it seemed like an exotic, foreign country. Montreal still seems like an exotic, foreign country to me but at least I remember what je me souviens means... or at least I think I do. Other than the rest of Quebec and outport Newfoundland, I'm not sure I could have landed in a more foreign or more exotic place than Montreal. If I'd have moved to, say, Calgary, it would have been like visiting Texas, only colder and less well armed.
Montreal had a certain je ne sais quoi, whatever that means, that was part old-world, part high fashion and largely inaccessible to me since I didn't even understand what little French I can butcher after reading Corn Flakes boxes for the past 31 years. Sitting in taverns and brasseries, riding the Metro, wandering the frigid streets of Old Town, it all sounded so sophisticated, even though people might have been discussing their haemorrhoids for all I knew.
The taverns of downtown Montreal were my favourite haunts, Toe Blake's in particular. There was a cloistered similarity about them: large, unadorned, windowless rooms with wooden bistro tables and chairs, a TV or two mounted high in the corners, and a close similarity in both clientele and ritual. The servers all seemed to be ex-hockey players of a vintage, the vintage of small salaries, no pensions and no real future. They were big men, past their athletic prime, most with noses demonstrating the reasons helmets and faceguards have received such universal acceptance in hockey.
Dressed uniformly in white shirts, black trousers and leather change aprons, they'd lumber up to your table, grunt a cursory salutation and ask, "What brand?" The meaning of the question was universally understood to require one of three answers: Labatt's, O'Keefe or Molson, those being the only three choices of beverage other than coffee. A few minutes later, they'd lumber back with a tray full of quart bottles, place two in front of you and move on. Two quarts was the standard order and no one was pussy enough to protest, "Oh I only wanted a pint of beer."
Tavern menus were a time capsule. Pigs knuckles, corned beef and cabbage, meatloaf, tortiere, hot roast beef sandwiches. Real food. Guy food. Ex-hockey player food. No quiche.
And no barbecue.
Alas, for all its worldliness, for all its multiculturalism, for all its fantastic ethnic neighbourhoods and eateries, Montreal was a town sans barbecue. This seemed like a startling oversight for a transplanted southwesterner who grew up thinking barbecue was one of the major food groups. When I inquired about barbecue, people would ask, vacantly, "You mean burgers on the grill?" Ah, no. "Oh, you mean like St. Hubert's or Swiss Chalet."