On Fancy Comfort Food

I always feel conflicted about the current trend towards restaurants serving upscale versions of comfort food. On the one hand, because I believe so strongly in food being about care and social connection and because this is just what I love to eat, I am a a diehard devotee of comfort food. These are the kinds of foods that connect us to our families, our cultural heritages, and each other. And so I am thrilled that when I go out for dinner, I increasingly have the option to indulge in this kind of eating. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the commodification of traditionally “peasant” foods, which are re-appropriated and marked up to become acceptable to our yuppy palates. I hate the pretension of some of these efforts, and I am not sure they always do justice to the cultural traditions they claim to represent. They often seem like expensive versions of food that are tastier, and more satisfying, when I make them at home. Additionally, I wonder why we need fancy restaurants to rehabilitate these foods for us. In this post, I talked about rediscovering head cheese in one of Montreal’s nicer restaurants. It was absolutely amazing and I have no objection to a nice restaurant serving a delicious food that they’ve done super well–in fact, I am obviously glad that they’re perpetuating an often maligned form of charcuterie–but I kind of hated myself for only trying it within a fine dining context. And I hate that culturally, we increasingly talk about what used to be the food of the poor like it is exotic and mysterious. It makes me feel like Marie Antoinette playing in my peasant village or something.

(And of course, all of this reclaiming of “poor people food” is happening while very real issues related to actual poor people’s access to food are a huge social problem. And a problem that the very same “foodies”, while savouring their/our gorgonzola mac and cheese, tend to treat patronizingly as being about laziness, negligence and ignorance, rather than, you know, poverty. But this is a rant for another time.)

How can we honour these foods, and genuinely love and enjoy them, without fetishizing them? I don’t know, but this has been on my mind ever since we visited the Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre this weekend. For the non-Montrealers, Au Pied de Cochon and its accompanying cabane  à sucre, are the creations of Montreal’s prodigal chef, Martin Picard. The former has been one of the most talked about restaurants in the city ever since it opened a little over five years ago. I first heard about it in the context of one of the restaurant’s most well-known dishes, its foie gras poutine, and I was instantly annoyed; I thought it sounded gimmicky and stupid, and a bastardization of a food that is meant to be cheap and simple. I came around, though, once I actually ate there, and understood what Picard was trying to do. Rather than simply trying to make “fancy” versions of local dishes, Picard has made it his mission to do justice to québécois foods such that they are recognized and taken as seriously as the French classics that have for so long dominated local fine dining. There is this fine line between bastardizing local dishes like pouding chômeur (literally “unemployed person’s pudding”) and doing justice to them that epitomizes my ambivalence with the fancy comfort food trend that I discuss above. And somehow Picard, who bathes half of his food in local foie gras that he miraculously manages to present totally unpretentiously, really pulls off the latter. I am not quite sure how he does it, but I think a large part of it is the genuine love and affection for these culinary traditions that pours out of the food his restaurants serve. They do not feel like a re-appropration; they feel like a love letter. While his restaurants are pricy, they are oddly good value given the generosity of the dishes and their richness (bringing home doggie bags is pretty much the only way to survive one of his meals). Despite the upscale nature of what he’s doing, the food is profoundly satisfying and comforting, as it should be. And it is absolutely delicious.

The cabane à sucre is the latest effort in Picard’s mission to pay hommage to québécois cuisine. For those not in the know, going to the cabane à sucre, or sugar shack, is an awesome springtime tradition in Québec; around the time they tap the trees for maple syrup, folks head out of town for their first breath of fresh air after a long winter, and generally eat a disgustingly rich meal of a dozen different kinds of pork/ham/lard, as well as pancakes and eggs, all bathed in maple syrup. This meal is usually finished off with tire, which involves one’s kindly host pouring lines of hot maple syrup into a trough of snow, which you then pick up and wrap around a popsicle stick and savour as it hardens. Trips to the cabane à sucre usually happen in big groups and often end in square dancing, or in another local “tradition” of sorts, crappy 80s disco music (a remnant of failed attempts to make the cabane à sucre “hip”). This is the stuff of extreme food nostalgia when you’ve grown up here, and so, as we headed out to Martin Picard’s version of the venerated institution, I was, again, skeptical. Cabanes à sucre are not meant to be fine dining experiences, I protested!

But it was so, so, so good. And once again, you had this space that certainly reinvented and fancified traditional québécois foods, but it was still so hearty, and so generous, and kind of sloppy and indulgent and food coma-inducing, that it worked. It still felt like a cabane à sucre, albeit a clearly unorthodox one, and I think I loved the food there even more than what I’ve eaten at the Montreal restaurant. My one complaint is that I do wish the cabane was able to offer the larger experience that one generally enjoys at a traditional cabane à sucre–such as walking trails in the surrounding areas, or dancing–but otherwise it did real justice to my food memories, and was absolutely delicious to boot. I won’t bother “reviewing” the meal further as there are a million reviews of the place floating around the internet. I’ll just finish by posting photos of the ridiculously indulgent meal that we enjoyed there (and that we enjoyed the next night, too, as we had enough leftovers that all six of us were able to take plenty home!). Sadly, probably my favourite dish of the night is not pictured–probably because I was too busy gorging myself on it–which was this amazing salad of arugula, cubes of ham, cubes of cheddar, walnuts and a dijon dressing topped in the lightest, crispiest oreilles de crisse (literally “Christ’s ears”) I have even eaten. I swear I could eat that salad every day, although it probably would not be a good idea.