Poutine at the Penrose

I briefly relived my Québécois experience the other day by stopping at the Penrose, a pub in my New York neighborhood, for an order of poutine, shown here.

An order of poutine from the Penrose.

For those not familiar with it, poutine is a gooey dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Its origins are uncertain, but according to Maclean’s, in 1957 a patron at the restaurant Le Lutin Qui Rit (The Laughing Elf) in Warwick, near Montreal, requested that cheese curds be added to his order of fries (Jeha). The kitchen obliged, and when the restaurant owner, Fernand Lachance, took a look at the resulting concoction, he referred to it in Québécois slang as a poutine, or a “mess” (Hutchinson).

But there was still no gravy. One source says that Lachance added it later to keep the dish warm (Jeha) while another says that the restaurateur Jean-Paul Roy created the three-ingredient version in 1964 when he noticed customers at his restaurant, Le Roy Jucep, in Drummondville, Quebec, asking for cheese curds to accompany a plate of fries and gravy already on the menu (Hutchinson).

When I was in Quebec, I sampled the dish (no photo of the food, alas) at a fast-food joint known for it: Chez Ashton.

The front of Chez Ashton.

According to the chain’s Web site, Ashton Leblond opened a rolling snack cart in 1969 and started offering poutine in 1972.  The success of the dish allowed him to trade in his cart for a restaurant in 1976. Today there are twenty-four locations in the Quebec region (“Qui Nous Sommes”), and McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants in the province offer poutine as well (Hutchinson).

There are high-end poutines too, including one with foie gras that is served at Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal (Jeha). And every February there is La Poutine Week, when restaurants compete to create the most original version (“Frequent Asked Questions”).

A New York Times article notes that former president Barack Obama unintentionally set off a cultural debate about whether poutine is French Canadian or Québécois when he served smoked duck poutine canapés to the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a the White House in 2016 (Bilefsky). Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, a staunch defender of poutine’s Québécois origins, wrote an academic paper, “Poutine Dynamics,” about the controversy. He notes that the dish has been traditionally used to denigrate the Québécois for their consumption of junk food, but over time, its status evolved. Not only are there now high-end versions like the one served at Au Pied de Cochon, there are also international versions with pulled pork, miso gravy, and kimchi.  As the dish rose in esteem, people started labeling it “Canadian.” That’s a problem, says Fabien-Ouellet: “Consumers of the dish must understand that [poutine] has been used as a form of stigma against a minority group that is still at risk of cultural absorption. Therefore, the dish should be, ideally, labelled explicitly as a Quebecois dish and not a Canadian one to further underscore the cultural context to which it actually belongs.”

A Québécois dish, for sure. And also délicieux!

Works Cited

Bilefsky, Dan. “Calling Poutine ‘Canadian’ Gives Some in Quebec Indigestion.” The New York Times, 19 Dec. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/19/world/canada/quebec-poutine.html.

Fabien-Ouellet, Nicolas. “Poutine Dynamics.” Cuizine, 22 Dec. 2016. Érudit,  http://www.erudit.org/en/journals/cuizine/2016-v7-n2-cuizine02881/1038479ar/.

“Frequently Asked Questions.” La Poutine Week, 2020, http://www.lapoutineweek.com/faq.

Hutchinson, Sean. “A Brief History of Poutine.” Mental Floss, 1 July 2017,
http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/57508/brief-history-poutine.

Jeha, Laura. “The History of Poutine: How It Became Our Most Iconic Dish.” Maclean’s 18 June 2017, http://www.macleans.ca/society/the-history-of-poutine-how-it-became-our-most-iconic-dish/.

“Qui Nous Sommes.” Chez Ashton, 2019,https://chezashton.ca/qui-nous-sommes/.

Jean-Paul Riopelle

Fans of American abstract art are likely familiar with Joan Mitchell. The painter is profiled along with several other women artists in Mary Gabriel’s recent book Ninth Street Women (Szalai). But how many of these fans are familiar with the French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mitchell’s longtime romantic partner? Probably not many, since, as an article in Hyperallergic notes, Canadian hockey players are a lot better known than Canadian artists, even in Canada (Dunne).

My séjour in Quebec gave me the opportunity to learn about this artist and to see his work at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec.

Riopelle was born in Montreal, in 1923, and died in 2002. He was influenced by the French poet André Breton and the European surrealist movement (“Jean-Paul Riopelle Metamporphoses“). Although his early work resembled that of Jackson Pollock, he later developed his own style, “using palette knives to build up thick, patchy surfaces in saturated colors, creating effects suggestive of stained glass and mosaics” (“Jean-Paul Riopelle, 78”).

Here are a couple of the works I saw in Quebec:

Riopelle lived with Mitchell from 1955 to 1979 (“Jean-Paul Riopelle, 78”). Mitchell died in 1992, and upon hearing of her death, Riopelle began work on the mural Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg (Wall text), shown here:

According to the wall text, “Anecdote has it that the title of the work derives from their years together. Riopelle, referencing Rosa Bonheur, a 19th century virtuoso animal artist, nicknamed Mitchell his ‘Rosa Malheur.’ Rosa Luxemburg is first and foremost the name of a German Communist Party activist whose famous coded prison letters Riopelle knew.” The museum Web site explains that the painting is more than forty meters long and consists of thirty paintings (“Jean-Paul Riopelle ‘Tribute'”).

In a recent review of an exhibit of Mitchell’s and Riopelle’s work, Joseph Nechvatal remarks, “Riopelle paints the way spiders secrete their webs. . . . Particularly with ‘15 Horsepower Citroën,’ Riopelle conveys a dazzling, stuttering, speckled visual complexity that is never far, in my mind, from the sputtering of machines.” You can judge for yourself here:

Jean-Paul Riopelle; Quinze Chevaux Citroen (15 Horsepower Citroen); 1952; Acquavella Galleries, http://www.acquavellagalleries.com/exhibitions/riopelle.

Works Cited

Dunne, Carey. “More Than Half of Canadians Can’t Name a Single Canadian Artist.” Hyperallergic, 1 July 2016, hyperallergic.com/306805/more-than-half-of-canadians-cant-name-a-single-canadian-artist/.

“Jean-Paul Riopelle Metamorphoses.” Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec, http://www.mnbaq.org/en/exhibition/jean-paul-riopelle-1203. Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.

“Jean-Paul Riopelle, 78, Artist Inspired by the Surrealists.” The New York Times, 24 Mar. 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/24/nyregion/jean-paul-riopelle-78-artist-inspired-by-the-surrealists.html.

“Jean-Paul Riopelle ‘Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg.'” Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec, http://www.mnbaq.org/en/exhibition/jean-paul-riopelle-1213. Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.

Nechvatal, Joseph. “The Passions and Posthumanism of Two Abstract Expressionists.” Hyperallergic, 2 Jan. 2019, hyperallergic.com/477832/the-passions-and-posthumanism-of-two-abstract-expressionists/.

Szalai, Jennifer. “Ninth Street Women Shines a Welcome New Light on New York’s Postwar Art Scene.” The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/books/review-ninth-street-women-mary-gabriel-lee-krasner-elaine-de-kooning-joan-mitchell.html.

Wall text for Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, by Jean-Paul Riopelle. Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec.

Kamouraska, by Anne Hébert

New York has a French bookstore, but it doesn’t stock many books by Québécois authors, so when I was in Quebec this summer, I spent a lot of time at the bookstore Pantoute—Québécois for the French expression pas du tout (not at all).

Sign in front of the Pantoute bookstore on Rue Saint-Jean in Quebec

Among the novels I brought back with me is Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, published in 1970.

Cover of Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska. Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/Kamouraska-French-Anne-HBert/dp/2757803999.

Hébert was born in Quebec City in 1916 and died in Montreal in 2000. She worked for Radio-Canada and wrote poetry, publishing her first collection of poems in 1942 (“Anne Hébert” [Canadian Encyclopedia]).

She moved to Paris as an adult, but all her novels take place in the Quebec countryside and are “psychological examinations of violence, rebellion, and the quest for personal freedom” (“Anne Hébert” [Encyclopaedia Britannica]).

A descendant of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and an ancestor of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Kamouraska is set in the early nineteenth century and tells the story of Elisabeth Rolland, born Elisabeth Aulnières. When the novel opens, we learn that Madame Rolland’s husband is dying, and his imminent death brings back for Elisabeth memories of her first marriage—to Antoine Tassy, the squire of Kamouraska, a womanizer who sexually abuses Elisabeth. Elisabeth falls in love with an American doctor, George Nelson, and together they plot to kill Antoine, who was a schoolmate of George’s. They are helped by a servant, Aurélie Caron. Elisabeth is acquitted of the crime thanks to the lies of her aunts. George, meanwhile, escapes to Vermont.

Like Madame Bovary and Alias Grace, the novel is based on a true story. Like Madame Bovary, it is the story of an unhappy marriage. Like Alias Grace, the narrative switches between first person and third person. But whereas in Alias Grace first person and third person are used to distinguish the narratives of different characters (first person for Grace, a servant accused of murdering her employer, and third person for the doctor who tries to help Grace remember her past), in Kamouraska, first person and third person alternate within chapters, even within paragraphs: third person situates the reader in Elisabeth’s bodily present while first person invites the reader into Elisabeth’s mind—into her memories, reveries, and nightmares. Here, in Norman Shapiro’s translation, is the opening of the novel:

The summer went by from beginning to end. Madame Rolland didn’t leave her home on Rue du Parloir. It was very fair, very warm. But neither Madame Rolland nor the children went to the country that summer.

Her husband was going to die, and she felt a great calm. He was just slipping away, ever so gently, hardly suffering at all, and with such admirable good taste. And Madame Rolland waited, dutiful and above reproach. If she felt a pang in her heart from time to time, it was only that now and again this waiting seemed about to assume distressing proportions. That peaceful sense of being free, ready for anything—that feeling that surged through her, down to her very fingertips—couldn’t bode any good. . . .

I should have left Quebec. Gone away from here. All alone in this barren, empty July. There’s no one I know left in town. I go out, and people stare at me like some strange beast.

Scholars have examined the novel from various perspectives, including as an example of “Canadian gothic” (Davidson 245), as a story about a “working-class intruder” (Rimstead 3), and as a narrative about an Anglophone “outsider” (Boudreau 309). I find Douglas Boudreau’s analysis of the Anglophone “outsider,” the character George Nelson, particularly intriguing. Nelson came to Canada with his family as a child because his father was a Loyalist who did not want his children living in the United States after the American Revolution. Boudreau, who uses the term Anglais (literally a person from England) to refer to any English-speaking character, notes that in Quebec literature “[t]he Anglais is a reminder of the colonial presence that has affected Quebec history and culture since the British Conquest of New France, and this perhaps is why the Anglais represents the consummate outsider in Québécois literature. Alien by language, culture, and often religion, this character also represents the traditional oppressor of the French-Canadian people” (309). As an Anglaise in Boudreau’s sense, I look forward to reading more Québécois literature and learning about a culture that is not much studied in the United States.

The novel was made into a film, directed by Claude Jutra, in 1973. I would love to see it, but it’s hard to find here in the US.

Works Cited

“Anne Hébert.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 8 Jan. 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/anne-hebert.

“Anne Hébert.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 28 July 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Anne-Hebert.

Boudreau, Douglas L. “Anglophone Presence in the Early Novels of Anne Hébert.” The French Review, vol. 74, no. 2, Dec. 2000, pp. 308–18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/398725.

Davidson, Arnold E. “Canadian Gothic and Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, summer 1981, pp. 243–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26280678.

Hébert, Anne. Kamouraska. Éditions du Seuil, 1970.

Rimstead, Roxanne. “Working-Class Intruders: Female Domestics in Kamouraska and Alias Grace.” Canadian Literature, no. 175, winter 2002, pp. 44–55. EBSCO, connection.ebscohost.com/c/literary-criticism/9680897/working-class-intruders-female-domestics-kamouraska-alias-grace.

Shapiro, Norman, translator. Kamouraska. By Anne Hébert, House of Anansi, 2012.

New France

When you study French in France, you learn about Charlemagne, the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc, the Bourbon dynasty, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution, Versailles, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

When you study French in Quebec, you learn about the explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, as well as the Alqonquins, the Montagnais, and the Iroquois. You learn about the King’s Daughters, the fur trade, the French and Indian War, the conquest of New France by the British, General James Wolfe, and General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

US readers may remember learning about Champlain in a high school American history class—in a unit on explorers. But whereas Champlain is just one explorer among many in the history of the United States, he is revered in the province of Quebec as the founder of New France. This photo shows a statue of Champlain on the Terrace Dufferin in Quebec. The statue is by Paul Chevré , a survivor of the Titanic (Mathieu).

Statue of Samuel de Champlain. Pixabay, pixabay.com/photos/samuel-de-champlain-quebec-founder-1750690.

I read about Champlain recently in David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream and also in a novel that centers on the mystery of Champlain’s death: Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny. Penny writes murder mysteries that are set in the province of Quebec and feature the detective Armand Gamache. Bury Your Dead is set in Quebec City. In the novel, the body of Augustin Renaud is found in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, the first scholarly society in Canada. Renaud had been obsessively pursuing the location of Champlain’s remains, which have never been found.

A few years ago, The New York Times did a story on a real-life Augustin Renaud: René Lévesque. The article notes that people like Lévesque have been searching for Champlain’s remains since the nineteenth century. For Lévesque, as well as for the fictional Renaud, the discovery would bolster support for French language and culture in a country dominated by Anglophones. Lévesque remarks that “[f]inding Champlain would spur a move to go back to our language and culture. . . . It would be an opportunity to talk about another way of living based upon the traditions and morals of the past” (qtd. in Krauss).

So how did Champlain come to be the founding father of Quebec?

The Web site of the Canadian Museum of History notes that Champlain was born in Brouage, in western France, around 1570 and got interested in navigation in his youth. He traveled extensively in North and South America in the early seventeenth century (“Explorers”). As I learned in Fischer’s biography, Champlain learned from the Spanish what not to do when trying to set up a colony. In the chapter “A Spy in New Spain,” Fischer explains that Champlain “was appalled by the treatment [the native people of Mexico] received from Spanish conquerors.” His experience “turned his thoughts to another idea of empire, where Indians and Europeans could live together in a different spirit.”

Champlain had the chance to try out his ideas around 1602, when he was invited to join an expedition to find a place to set up a factory in New France, where France had a thriving fur trade. He founded the future Quebec City in 1608 (“Explorers”). He succeeded in no small part because he aimed to have good relations with the native peoples, and once the colony was set up, “[m]any incentives were offered to encourage the French to emigrate and settle in the St. Lawrence Valley” (Lacoursière ).

This interactive map shows Champlain’s many voyages (“Samuel de Champlain Interactive Map”).

Champlain was an expert cartographer. Below is one of his maps of New France, from 1612.

Champlain, Samuel de; Carte Geographique de La Novvelle Franse; National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/many-voices-exhibition/unsettling-continent-1492%E2%80%931776/new-france. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

Works Cited

“The Explorers.” Virtual Museum of New France, Canadian Museum of History / Musée Canadien de l’histoire, http://www.historymuseum.ca/virtual-museum-of-new-france/the-explorers/samuel-de-champlain-1604-1616. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

Fischer, David Hackett. Champlain’s Dream. E-book, Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Krauss, Clifford. “Quebec Journal: No Rest for You, Champlain: The Hunt Goes On.” The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/08/world/quebec-journal-no-rest-for-you-champlain-the-hunt-goes-on.html.

Lacoursière, Jacques. A People’s History of Quebec. Translated and adapted by Robin Philpot, e-book, Baraka Books, 2009.

Mathieu, Jacques. “New France.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 4 Mar. 2015, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/new-france.

Penny, Louise. Bury Your Dead. E-book, St. Martin’s, 2011.

“Samuel de Champlain Interactive Map.” The Mariners Museum and Park, 2019, exploration.marinersmuseum.org/event/samuel-de-champlain-interactive-map.

École Québec Monde

I’ve been studying French since middle school. I went to France for the first time, with my parents, when I was in high school. I got a kick out of ordering in French in restaurants and using French in the hotel. There were mistakes, of course. Like the time we ordered “douze escargots pour tout le monde” (12 snails for everyone) and received twelve snails each. After that we quickly learned the word partager (to share). Another time, we wanted housekeeping to leave the curtains closed in our hotel room during the day and left a note that read, “Fermez les drapeaux, s’il vous plait” (Close the flags, please). We eventually realized the word we were looking for was not drapeaux but rideaux. Housekeeping surely got a good chuckle.

In college I double-majored in English and French and spent a semester studying in Montpellier, France. Later, while studying comparative literature in graduate school, I spent nine months doing research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Nevertheless, I’ve never quite mastered the French language. My college and graduate courses were focused on reading, so although I have a large vocabulary and a decent accent from spending a lot of time with French friends in France, there are certain grammatical structures I’ve never quite got the hang of, especially when I speak.

Hence my decision to spend two weeks studying advanced French in Quebec—much closer than France, a shorter plane trip, no jet lag, and less expensive, thanks to the exchange rate. But more important, I had always associated the French language with the history and culture of France. What would it be like to study French elsewhere? I wondered.

I found École Québec Monde through an Internet search.

It’s located in Quebec’s lower town, in the Saint-Roch district, about a fifteen-minute walk from the monastery, which is in the upper town. On the map, the monastery is in the pink section, next to the hospital, marked “H.” The school is in the middle of the yellow section, on the Rue Saint-Joseph.

During the orientation, I take a written and oral test and then go on a guided tour of the neighborhood with the other recent arrivals. Every Monday, new students start at the school, so each week I have different students in my class. The first week I’m grouped with a diplomat from Ottowa, who is preparing to move to Paris for four years; a retired accountant from Massachusetts, whose son moved to Quebec a few years ago; and a retired couple from Toronto. The instructor is a young woman from Quebec who teaches primary school during the year.

Le Monastère

Le Monastère des Augustines–a monastery converted into a hotel, museum, and wellness center–is an unusual place to stay. As the Web site of the Monastère explains, “On August 1, 1639, three sisters from the Augustinian order” came to Quebec and set up “North America’s first hospital north of Mexico” (“Authentic and Original Concept”). They came from Dieppe, France, and the hospital they founded in 1644 was called the Hôtel-Dieu (“Heritage”). This hospital is still right next door.

In 1962, the sisters transferred management of the hospital to the government and, more recently, because the number of novices was declining, took on a renovation project to convert the monastery for other uses (“Heritage”). In 2015, after a multiyear renovation, the sisters, who still live on the property, began welcoming hotel guests (Wachter). The hotel includes a museum featuring artifacts, many of them medical objects, from the sisters’ collection and a program of wellness activities such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. As I learned during my guided tour of the museum, caregivers of patients at the Hôtel Dieu can stay at the monastery at a reduced rate.

The site renovation followed the principles of sustainable development described in the sisters’ mission statement (“Sustainable Development”). The original buildings were preserved, and modern parts added. The monastery’s striking main entrance off the Rue des Remparts showcases this mix of the old and the new.

The monastery also features authentic and contemporary hotel rooms. The authentic rooms, while more modern than nuns’ cells, strive to give guests a taste of monastery life. These rooms, on the third floor, are small and simple, and guests share toilets and showers located in the hall. The contemporary rooms, on the fourth floor, are like those in modern hotels, with en suite bathrooms, but—in keeping with the monastery’s aim of creating a world apart—there are no TVs or phones. WiFi is available, but guests are encouraged to déconnecter.

I chose a contemporary room, which came with a huge bed and a lovely desk, perfect for doing my French homework.

Works Cited

“Authentic and Original Concept in the Heart of Old Quebec.” Le Monastère des Augustines, 2014, https://monastere.ca/concept.

“Heritage.” Ville de Québec, 2019, http://www.ville.quebec.qc.ca/en/citoyens/patrimoine/quartiers/vieux_quebec/interet/monastere_des_augustines_et_hotel_dieu_de_quebec.aspx.

“Sustainable Development.” Le Monastère des Augustines, 2014, https://monastere.ca/en/pages/about/development.

Wachter, Dana. “High End Healing Hotel in Quebec Carries Legacy of Augustinian Sisters.” Global Sisters Report, National Catholic Reporter, 30 Nov. 2017, http://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/ministry/high-end-healing-hotel-quebec-carries-legacy-augustinian-sisters-50356.

Silence

Silence. It’s an unusual way to begin two weeks of French language study in Quebec. But I’m staying at the Monastère des Augustines, and breakfast (what the French call le petit dejeuner and the Québecois simply dejeuner) is served in silence–well, almost. The servers ask in a whisper if I want coffee and what my room number is (quatre cent quarante-quatre, or 444). The idea is to get a taste for the way the nuns, who still live there, take their meals.

Breakfast is a buffet of mostly healthy items: a casserole dish filled with frittata, another brimming with chopped potatoes, zucchini, broccoli, and carrots. There’s a pot of quinoa and a plate of waffles, with Canadian maple syrup bien sûr. Several kinds of fruit are on offer: cantaloupe and honeydew, strawberries and blueberries, watermelon and kiwi, blood orange. We have a choice of yogurt: vanilla or nature. There are several kinds of nuts, dried fruit, homemade bread with jam and clarified vegan butter.

Each morning I sit at a table with my back to the wall so that I can look out the window across the room. The dining room faces a parking lot, but there are trees in the distance, and occasionally I catch a glimpse of a nun walking toward the side garden.

The hotel guests are generally good at observing the ritual of silence. Only once did I see a server provide a gentle reminder. It’s easy of course for those of us traveling alone. I write in my journal sometimes or review my homework or read a few pages of a Québécois novel. And text my husband “Bonjour.” The monastery encourages us to disconnect, but WiFi is available: it’s the twenty-first century after all.