I had written a blog post about making homemade ravioli from yuntoff leftovers. All food is an expression of sensuality and sexuality, and that’s how my friend Charlie read the post. “It was kind of…erotic” he said in a Facebook IM. And then I realized that that is my problem with food in America, at least in large swathes of America: it is no longer erotic. Not even sexy.
Food here is moribund. As the dictionary says, “in terminal decline; lacking vitality or vigor.” The biggest food news in USA Today last week: the McRib Makes a Comeback. Really? The McRib? A pork patty pressed into a shape that mimics baby-back ribs (bones and all, which normally one discards rather than eating) covered in sugary nasty sauce and pressed into a white sesame seed bun. The McRib is like Frankenstein crossed with a Kardashian; a grotesque attempt to artificially synthesize the perfect piece of meat. To substitute surgery for sensuality, and hope no one knows the difference. The McRib. That’s the big story.
Nowadays I keep kosher but I have a foodographic memory and I remember the McRib. It was nice. I liked that the bun was ovular and not round; it felt ‘other’ in a sea of burgers. I was turned on by the molded pork patty, but I never sat shiva for it. I wouldn’t have signed a petition for its return. Yet, there it was on the front page of USAToday.com, in all it’s sickening sugar and white bread glory.
And what does this have to do with Shtetl?
I’m a Montrealer in exile. I am approaching over half of my life away from the sacred land of the Habs and the Expos, ob”m and R.I.P. I miss it. But I like my job and my students and my tax rate and health insurance.
But I miss Lafleurs at 2am, Mrs. Whytes with every meal, Schwartz’s before a game at the Forum ob”m, Souvlaki (anywhere) and really at anytime.
And this sexually charged ravioli made me realize that the food I miss is sexy. Obviously I need to explain because really Lafleurs’ on St.Denis is anything but sexy at 3am with a drunk rolling in his own vomit at the front door.
What’s charged about the food that I remember in Montreal is that it is made with care and swagger. It is fatty, rich, unapologetic and real. Consider the humble patates-frites. The chain restaurants in this country use frozen fries that are unceremoniously dumped into oil with one hand while the other presses down on a timer. In my memory, at Lafleurs’ the potatoes were cut in the shop, they were not peeled, or, if they were it was without much care. The fries then took a bath in a 5 gallon plastic bucket strategically placed on the floor between the fryer and the trash and filled with water. They were unscientifically cooked in batches – not once, but twice.
Imagine if McDonalds or TGI Fridays started double cooking their french fries? It doesn’t compute. Why would any company concerned with profits even consider it?
It’s true that I’m romanticizing, but it’s my memory so I’m allowed. I also think of trips to Schwartz’s with my dad. When I was a kid it still had an apostrophe. The briskets were just stored in the front window. Piled up. It was nasty and sick yummy. Unapologetic – “Hey, this is where the meat goes. Don’t like it? Go to The Main.” The waiters were unpleasant and no one cared. You got a half hot dog and a piece of liver with your steak. What? A liver?
Sexiness is about really being yourself. It’s the opposite of pornography. Sex porn and food porn are made up; they have a function, but they are always ultimately unsatisfying — because they are unreal. Deeply sexy people are utterly and totally themselves and manage to still be attractive and desirable.
Montreal food at its best is just that. It is authentic, rich, unapologetic and the way it has always been.
I suppose that this is more than a eulogy or a love letter. This is, I guess, an embracing of the Montrealer in me. The one that doesn’t say in the fast foody way that Americans do “have a nice day” to every person that passes me on the street or at work. It is an ode to honesty and clarity. A what-you-see-is-what-you-get mentality that loses a little more footing every time the media celebrates the re-release of the McRib.
Montrealers! Shtetl Residents! Eat your fatty luxuriousness and continue to thumb your nose at the rest of the continent. Embrace with love your waiter who won’t speak to you in English. Realize that honesty and the Montrealer way are bound together with eros and emes (truth).
Oh Wilensky, how I miss thee.
Rabbi Mordechai (Michael) Rackover is an avid human and a Montreal native. He now lives in Providence, RI where he serves as the Jewish Chaplain of Brown University and the Rabbi of Brown RISD Hillel. He blogs, semi-regularly, at frumfoodie.com and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter handle is @mrackover.