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Mad dogs, Englishmen and poutine

I am on a mission, and I have failed.


“It’s your blood sugar,” says Kathy. “Your blood sugar plummeted and you’re having a crisis. That’s why you’ve turned into a deranged beast. Have some more water.”

A beast, you say?

And who, I ask, would not veer toward the deranged and beastly, given the circumstances?

I am slumped against a wall in Vieux Montreal. We have found some shade, but the stones on the side of the 18th century building are radiating heat like the tiles in a wood-fired pizza oven, as are the cobblestones in the street.

My snazzy Hawaiian shirt is soaked with sweat. It is 94 degrees (don’t ask me what that is, Centigrade) and the humidity is about 80 percent. There’s not a cloud in the sky.

It’s mad dogs and Englishmen time. I have English ancestors; I have become a mad dog — flummoxed, frustrated and furious.

We traveled to Montreal to check it out. It is, after all, home to the Montreal Canadiens hockey team – Les Habitants, Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge, Les Canadiens de Montréal. It is also a major food center — noted for much more than its “smoked meat” (read, pastrami) offered at a number of world-class delis. Thus, we arrived with the intent of purchasing a Montreal Canadians T-shirt, seeing a bit of art, getting a dose of history ... and eating.

Now, with all the nonsense about history and art out of the way, I’ve been on the trail of poutine. Before you hurry to your French-English, English-French dictionaries to find a translation of what seems an obscenity, let me save you the trouble.

“Poutine” is not a French term unfit for civilized discourse, one used only by drunken sailors when they make port in Hamburg, Bangkok or Amsterdam. It is the name of a famed comfort food, favored in Quebec and parts north. The classic version: a heaping mound of double-fried French fries topped with a thick and savory gravy, all that topped with cheese curds.

Poutine is the kind of food you need when the temperature hits 20 below for a week or more at a time. Or if you are a logger.

Poutine is 2 a.m. bar food, a high-carb load to pack into a gut rendered unsteady by a night of indulgence.

Poutine, in short, is my kind of stuff: spuds, sauce, cheese. An artery ripper. All the main food groups.

That’s the primary reason I am here. My mission.

Montreal is the last leg on our trip to the Northeast. First, we stopped off in Boston. Then we drove a ridiculously-priced rental car to Glens Falls in the Adirondacks where we attended a brief reunion of members of Kathy’s father’s family. Our youngest daughter, Ivy, took a look at photos from the reunion — us next to a few of Kathy’s cousins. Her comment: “You look like a couple of escapees from fat camp. It’s like you’re the Bonnie and Clyde of food, gnawing your way to safety across the border.”

Pretty much right on the money.

In Glens Falls, we jump the train to Montreal.

By car, the journey takes, maybe, 2 1/2 hours. Amtrak manages it in 6 1/2 hours

— a trip on the Satan Special, the Beastmaster’s favorite ride.

Only one thing saves the experience, and this is not only a delight, but one of those “What are the odds?” occurrences.

We step on to the train in Glens Falls. The conductor tells us we will have trouble finding two seats together. We turn left into a car and, voila, there is an empty seat with two spots. We sit and we notice a woman alone, across the aisle.

Kathy stares at her for a moment.

“Excuse me,” Kathy says to the woman. “Are you Ann?”

As the woman answers, “Yes,” I focus and realize it is Ann VanFossen, a friend and former resident of Pagosa Springs. Ann and her late husband, Dick, once lived in Pagosa and, about five years ago, moved back to the east coast, then to Montreal, where Anne now lives near her daughter. Dick once reacted to a column I wrote, disparaging Canadian cuisine. He sent me a book on the subject and that is where I discovered poutine. And poached beaver tail.

And there, on the train, is Ann. What are the odds?

Ann saves the day. She and Kathy chat all the way to Montreal and Ann suggests a Thai restaurant within walking distance of our hotel in the downtown area. In fact, three days later, we join Ann at Phaya Thai for a delightful dinner and a dose of an intriguing “Fried Fish in Spicy Sauce.”

But, now, I am stuck in Vieux Montreal, baking and goofed out. Kathy ducks into a souvenir shop and I waddle up the cobblestone street. As I turn a corner I see it through the haze: a restaurant on Rue St. Paul Est — Montreal Poutine.

The menu is posted outside the joint. I scan the options. There’s the old standard, but there are a number variations on the theme: Italian, smoked meat and chicken. The menu includes photos of some of the options. Long, oval plates are piled four inches high with spuds. The gravies and sauces slosh over the edges of the plates. Hunks o’cheese curds cascade down the sides of the spud mountains.

I have stumbled onto Poutine Central. Poutine Valhalla. Ground Zero on Planet Poutine. Ask poutine aficionados and they will no doubt say there are much better places to go for the concoction, but this baby seems the peak of the mountain, given my precarious mental state.

A shady looking character emerges from the restaurant entry — the poutine barker.

“Ehhh, mon ami. You like the poutine, no?”

“Well, yes. Who, in his right mind, wouldn’t?”

“Heh heh. Oui, mais certainment. Come, come. The best poutine, it is here. For you.” He winks and tugs at my arm, pulling me toward the door. It reminds me of the old days in Times Square where guys dressed in threadbare dress pants and open-collar silk shirts grabbed naive pedestrians and forcefully guided them into Ernie’s Pleasure World.

This is poutine. I have found it.

I am hungry

I assess my situation.

Poutine … just inside the door. Kathy, in the souvenir shop around the corner. I can feast on poutine but I will lose Kathy. She’ll search for me for a few minutes then huff away to our hotel in a distant part of the city, planning her revenge. I see myself bloated with double-fried potatoes, meats, gravies of all nations, cheese curds and wine, staggering out of Poutine Valhalla, the sun long set, no idea of the direction to take to the subway, no idea which subway to take to the hotel, a total boob Frenchwise …

If I pick the poutine, I’ll die in an alleyway in Vieux Montreal, never to see Kathy, my daughters, my grandkids again.

I have a decision to make.

It takes awhile.

Finally, I come to my senses, free myself from the barker’s grip and return to the souvenir shop. Kathy and I slog on in the oven of ancient Montreal. I am seeing double and the top of my head feels like the surface of the sun. Kathy is determined to take a boat tour of the harbor, so I go along. We sit out on the deck, In the sun, and the heat.

I hallucinate. Poutine … at Au Pied de Cochon, with foie gras. Merguez poutine at La Banquise. Seafood poutine at Garde Manger. Ma’am Bolduc, for Poutine Bourguignonne.

I grow more and more addled, and beastly. I growl at everyone, at any suggestion Kathy makes.

“Drink some more water,” she says as she leads me to the subway and takes me by the arm to guide me to the train.

There is no poutine to be found in the neighborhood surrounding our hotel.

But, what we find is better yet, given the establishment offers food in harmony with heat exhaustion and low blood sugar: we locate a spectacular, and spectacularly good Indian/Pakistani buffet.

The smell from the restaurant wafts out to the sidewalk and lures us inside. The place is packed, primarily with folks of Indian and Pakistani heritage, many of them Muslim, judging by the dress. A promising sign.

And the omen proves true. The food choices are remarkable in number and quality.

And they serve beer. Cold beer. From the looks of it, those of us of the non-Muslim persuasion are all of one mind regarding the delightful link between zippy fare and cold brew.

Two dishes stand out: lamb saag and an eggplant melange.

Lamb saag is a braised lamb and spinach dish. Cubes of lamb (leg of lamb is ideal) are browned then mixed with cooked onions, garlic and spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, et al) some tomato and a bit of stock or water, then braised for a couple hours. Spinach and garam masala are added, the mix cooked down to a thick consistency. It’s great on basmati rice.

The eggplant dish is simple. Roast an eggplant, cool and peel. Chop the eggplant, then mash. Add sauteed onions and garlic, turmeric, coriander, some minced jalapenos, a bit of red chile powder, some chopped tomatoes, cilantro leaves and a healthy dose of garam masala or curry powder. A touch of water goes in, the mix goes on the stove to thicken. A bit of salt, and that’s all she wrote.

“See,” Kathy says as we leave the restaurant, me a changed man, “all you needed was some food to bring your blood sugar up to snuff and everything is fine, isn’t it?”

I avoid an argument by saying “Yes.”

I am thinking about a trip to Montreal next summer, ostensibly so Kathy and I can attend the International Jazz Festival.

We’ll wear our Fat Camp Escapee T-shirts. We’ll call Ann and make another trip to Phaya Thai..

And I will not fail a second time. We will, I promise, find the best poutine in all of Quebec.