Sunday, 13 January 2019


La Belle Province

Ann and I are preparing for another trip to my old Montreal home. Although my appetite is not what it was, when I think about Montreal, I think about food. Studies have shown that the food I think about, the food I miss, hot dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and steak-and-pepperoni subs, cause heart attacks and cancer; crusty sweat levels of sodium and  nuclear reactor heavy water processing, they say. There are well-meaning approximations of these delicacies to be found across Canada but nothing tastes like home.

Food has been on my mind for a couple of other reasons as well but not because I’m hungry. Since the odious vulgarian south of 49 absurdly insisted on renegotiating NAFTA into CAMUS or USMC or whatever, the last family dairy farmer in this country has been angry over the erosion of his subsidized artificial market. Additionally, news stories concerning the federal government’s efforts to update the pantry-dusty Canada Food Guide have amused me. The tempest swirling in an orange juice carton constitutes the dilemma of political rule: How important is the well-being of the many as opposed to the commercial interests of a select few?

(I’m reminded of a point-of-purchase Coca-Cola campaign I had the misfortune to be involved with a number of years ago. The target demographic was Latinos in California. The message was blatantly bad advice: Coca-Cola with breakfast!)

I booked a two-room apartment for Ann and me on Mackay, across the street from Concordia University’s massive, brutalist Henry F. Hall Building. I wondered if we’d be staying in the old journalism faculty, a three-storey greystone where I’d spent so much time as a student. My old turf. Once the digital confirmations were transmitted I began to have second thoughts as I scanned them. Once I read them through I was in a panic.

I would have to download an app and re-input all of the information I’d already provided. When we arrived at the address in the freezing dark weighed down by luggage I would be e-mailed a pass code. The pass code in turn would facilitate a virtual check-in. After that I supposed I’d need a 3-D printer to make a key for the unit. It was all a bit too James Bond. Anyway, I don’t own a cell phone; I exist beyond the fringe. I cancelled our reservation.

(An unhappy memory played a role in my decision. A few years ago I booked us into an industrial loft south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral: fabulous price, an even better location. Trouble was the key was awaiting collection five city blocks away – which is nothing provided you’re not humping suitcases uphill after a long and irritating day of travel. You don’t even want to speculate on what aircraft cabin pressure does to my gut. Perhaps the balloon effect is related to my diet.)

So I booked Ann and me into something resembling a proper hotel located at the corner of Sherbrooke and Peel. I realized we’d be proximate to gourmand glory, La Belle Province.  The long, narrow restaurant faces Dominion Square and is situated between two storefronts I remember fondly, the Rymark Tavern and Murray’s Sport Shop. They no longer exist. La Belle Province is the type of place where the guys in t-shirts and jeans behind the counter and its sneeze-guard assemble your order with their bare hands, no dainty plastic gloves allowed. The d├ęcor is bleu, blanc et rouge, Montreal hockey laundry. The seats are hard. The translucent napkins are crammed into metal dispensers; they come out five at a time should you manage to hold a grip on a fold.

La Belle Province serves up my three preferred food groups under one roof:  hot dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and subs. There was no such emporium when I moved away nearly 30 years ago. Back then each specialty required a trip to an exclusive destination.

My friends and I used to attend Montreal Manic indoor soccer games, human pinball, at the Montreal Forum mainly because of the venue’s concession stands’ toasted hot dogs. The limited entertainment value of the nascent and ultimately failed sport was entirely secondary. Even the misguided vendors who shilled salmonella at the Olympic Stadium during Expos baseball games tried to copy Forum hot dogs. I’ve never been a swift study myself but, goddamn, serving up a decent hot dog isn’t quantum physics unless of course they don’t exist as handy, hand-held malnutrition in a parallel universe.

Smoked meat sandwiches were a fussier proposition because the competing delicatessens used their own seasoning formulas. This is the way WE did it in the old country. Should you ever wish to start a fight in Montreal, skip ideology and language and opine instead on the texture and moistness of a particular establishment’s smoked meat. Then again, the argument may be as tired as day-old rye bread because some of the classic joints are no longer in business and the survivors have changed hands, gone corporate.

Mike’s was the sub shop that created the ‘Co-star’ for delivery from modest premises, a toasted foot-long steak-and-pepperoni sandwich layered with Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato slices, and drizzled with Italian dressing. Initially the only competition was the cheap micro-waved ingredients purveyed by Mr. Submarine. I believe the Mike’s chain was spooked by the incursion of Subway. Its management’s grandiose counter strategy of emulating the successful formula of western Canada’s Boston Pizza which offers patrons a licensed, casual sit-down atmosphere was too much, too fast, too soon and hence a headlong dive into expansion, corner-cutting mediocrity and shuttered locations. A trade mark registered signature dish will prevent a neighbourhood pizza parlour from lifting the name but not replicating it and selling it for less.

And so, hello, bonjour, La Belle Province. I’ll be dropping in for a bite. Or three. But not everything all at once. I’m thinking breakfast, lunch and dinner? Or maybe three successive days.

Copies of my latest novel The Garage Sailor are still available and ready to ship. Get aboard at

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