It’s a bit past 3am and I’m sitting with a few friends in the Nouveau Palais, a 24-hour diner just around the corner from my apartment. It’s a classic Quebec casse-croûte with plastic booths and wood-panelled walls, a décor so timeless that, when the restaurant was damaged by fire a few years ago, its interior was painfully reconstructed to look just as it did before.
As we sit down, the waitress, a squat woman with a broad chest, narrow waist and constant frown, hands us our menus. Her skin is always tanned a deep orangey brown, even in the depths of winter, and her mood tends to swing from guardedly friendly to frighteningly surly with only the slightest provocation.
“I hate her so much,” mutters one of my friends, who grew up a few blocks away from the restaurant. She likes to annoy the waitress with snide remarks and passive-aggressive questions.
“Once I asked her how often she went to the tanning salon and she freaked out. She was like, ‘Tu penses-tu que j’ai le temps pour ça?’ But it’s so obvious!”
I open up the menu, a small book of photocopied paper, and try to decide what to get. My choices include all of the casse-croûte standards: hamburgers, poutine, souvlaki, fried rice, pizza, spaghetti and, of course, pizza-ghetti, that unbeatable combo of soggy pizza and overcooked pasta served side-by-side.
Against my better judgement, I choose the poutine, a dish created in a rural diner sometime around 1957. Since then, it has spread throughout Quebec and even beyond it, most recently finding its way into upscale kitchens in New York, Toronto and Calgary. In “Maudite poutine!” a new book by Charles-Alexandre Théorêt, a political scientist, the iconic dish of fries, gravy and cheese curds, whose name is slang for “a mess,” is used to represent Quebec’s history and culture.
I would expand on Théorêt’s premise: more than just poutine, the entire oeuvre of dishes on casse-croûte menus is a testament to the layers of cultural influences in Quebec. There’s the dubious, globalized ground meat of hamburgers and hot dogs; the utterly inexplicable pâté chinois, a variation of shepherd’s pie with a name whose origins are unknown; and souvlaki, introduced by Greek immigrants in the 1950s.
In fact, casse-croûtes themselves are microcosms of Quebec, or at least Montreal. They are culturally diverse melting pots, bringing together unhealthy food from around the world, served by French-Canadian women, cooked by South Asian men and devoured by a broad spectrum of people who enjoy the fine things in life, like steamed hot dogs.
And, of course, poutine. My large bowl, steaming hot and glistening with grease, arrived on my table just a few minutes after I ordered it. I dug in.
Another version of this article was published in Maisonneuve‘s Spring 2008 edition.
Tags: Diners, Montreal