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The Myth of Québec Traditional Cuisine at Au Pied de Cochon

  • Catherine Turgeon-Gouin

Corps de l’article

Au Pied de Cochon, with its ingredient and menu choices, decor, and overall atmosphere, is steeped in Québec tradition. From the jovial attitude and lumberjack plaid-shirt attire of its owner to the flow of maple syrup on pork cooked from nose to tail, the Montreal restaurant relishes Québec folklore. As one reads in the first pages of Au Pied de Cochon: L’Album, “Il (Martin Picard) aspire […] à évoluer dans un contexte culinaire propre au Québec,” [1] and concerns about promoting La belle province’s gastronomical culture permeate the entire book as well as Picard’s discourse. Au Pied de Cochons project uses for its basic narrative the cuisine and folklore of Québec.

Significantly, Au Pied de Cochon’s menu opts for food that is inspired by Québec’s “classics,” yet uses ingredients and includes dishes belonging to the fine dining catalogue so as to create a more bourgeois cuisine—one that “retains the heartiness and the savor of peasant cuisine, while at the same time introducing into it the subtlety and the ‘distinction’ of haute gastronomie.” [2] Alongside the insistence on the terroir aspect of the menu, L’Album asserts that the restaurant is possibly the biggest buyer of foie gras—one of the most luxurious of food products—in North America, [3] and that Martin Picard’s favorite drink is champagne.

By adding ingredients that are indicative of haute cuisine to traditional recipes, Au Pied de Cochon evinces an effort to resuscitate Québec’s cuisine in a specifically gentrified way, or, to use a more contemporary term, in a “bobo” [4] or “bourgeois-bohemian” way. “Boboality” [5] aims to “wed the bourgeois world of capitalist enterprise to the hippie values of the bohemian counterculture.” [6] So does Au Pied de Cochon: it re-appropriates Québec’s traditional culinary narrative and related customs so as to convey the perception that it is possible simultaneously to protect Québec folklore and to be progressive and competitive in an increasingly globalized world.

The manner in which Au Pied de Cochon negotiates between tradition and bohemian-bourgeois ideals actually follows the semiological model of the modern myth developed by Roland Barthes in his 1957 essay “Myth Today.” Using Barthes’ framework of myth, this present study aims to shed light on Au Pied de Cochon’s way of using Québec’s traditional cuisine to express “bobo” ideals.

Let us Compare Mythologies: Barthes’ Notion of Myth

Au Pied de Cochon expresses its new approach to Québec cuisine as a form of myth. By “myth,” Barthes means first and foremost a “type of speech” [7] and a form of expression. It is a way of telling, a “system of communication, [… a] mode of signification, [or a] form.” [8] In other words, myth is a specific type of narrative: not one particular story or message, but rather the way in which a message is conveyed.

The meaning or function of myth, however, is to support established political and social powers. John Sturrock explains Barthes’ notion of myth as “another word for the doxa, a common, unexamined assumption rooted . . . in the prevailing political [or social] order.” [9] A crucial feature of a successful myth is that it be present everywhere in society, and hence unquestioned. Though meaning is imposed onto the object, myth appears as an accepted fact, and as such, can carry a political message that goes unnoticed. The primary goal of a myth, one might say, is to act as a Trojan horse: beginning with a given lexicon—objects or notions that are familiar and have accepted meanings within a society—a myth operates by hollowing out that meaning and injecting in its place a concept that supports the ruling system. Keeping the form of the former object or notion provides an outward cloak of authenticity as well as a vessel in which the agenda of the myth-maker can be veiled.

For Barthes, the creation of myth is a twofold process. First, there must exist a system of signs that is recognized and accepted as having at least the appearance of authenticity and historical accuracy. Only then can a second semiological system latch itself onto the first and use it to voice a message in line with the ideals already in place in the community. [10]

Because myth exists as a constant exchange between the primary and secondary semiological systems, in order to understand its work in a particular instance, one must, as Barthes puts it, “voluntarily interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning, […] focus on each separately, and apply to myth a static method of deciphering, in short, [one] must go against its own dynamics: to sum up, [one] must pass from the state of reader to that of mythologist.” [11] Such a standstill is what I shall impose on Au Pied de Cochon in the hope of determining the operation of myth within the restaurant.

The Au Pied de Cochon Myth

At Au Pied de Cochon, myth works by hijacking the narrative of Québec’s cuisine, with its ensemble of symbolic foodways, recipes, situations, and ambiences, and using it to promote “bobo” values. Québec’s culinary narrative takes new shape at Au Pied de Cochon due to the particular changes applied to traditional recipes. Every time a dish is re-appropriated, it leans towards a gentrified, bobo interpretation.

Although the term “bobo” emerges from the perhaps dated and overly economic notion of “bourgeois,” it also adds a crucial cultural component. The “bobo,” says Brooks, typically “[combines] the free-spirited, artistic rebelliousness of the bohemian beatnik or hippie with the worldly ambitions of their bourgeois corporate forefathers, the Bobo is a comfortable contortion of caring capitalism.” [12] As Xavier de la Porte remarks, the term “bobo” is useful because in one word,

il devient possible de parler de populations qui n’entrent dans aucune catégorie statistique mais partagent des comportements: vivres dans les quartiers anciennement populaires, voter plutôt à gauche, avoir un souci de l’écologie, des goûts vestimentaires et culinaires néohippie et proches du terroir. [13]

Because “bobo” puts less emphasis on income and nationality and more on behaviour, it can rally a wide variety of communities, including the intellectual and the unemployed. Boboality is a valuable concept since it allows a myth to retain an attachment to history, yet also opens up the possibility of involvement and success in a globalized world that increasingly reflects Western ideals and capitalism.

It is no surprise that Au Pied de Cochon’s mission statement asserts a “belief that the food here stacks up with the best that anyone, anywhere, has to offer,” and that the restaurant “wants to be recognized as a popular eatery, where authentic [Québec] meals can be enjoyed and choice wines savoured.” [14] At once linked to the culinary heritage of Québec and interconnected with the highest spheres of international gastronomy, [15] Au Pied de Cochon manages to be perceived as a grassroots restaurant while serving mountains of foie gras diluted in champagne. [16]

Specific Instances of Myth at Play at Au Pied de Cochon

1) Maple

One of Québec’s most representative food items is undoubtedly maple syrup. It is therefore no surprise to find it used in many ways at Au Pied de Cochon, both on the restaurant menu and in the official cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon: L’Album. Picard also owns a sugar shack restaurant that just celebrated its fourth season. [17] This sweet liquid is invested with national pride—Québec produces over 75 percent of the world’s stock. [18] Au Pied de Cochon makes full use of the ingredient in order to anchor itself in tradition and history.

At the beginning of the section dedicated to maple syrup in L’Album, the reader is reminded of maple syrup’s cultural and historical importance and of its origins in the First Nations tradition of boiling maple sap. Picard also expresses his surprise that such a Québec-specific product as maple syrup has not been better protected by government legislation since it has the potential to become the gastronomic ambassador of the nation. [19] He suggests that the product be coded with the same type of “controlled designation of origin” as French wines have established, in order to “support the work of the true artisans and celebrate a national resource.” [20]

The desire to change the maple syrup categorization system to one that supports and values both Québec’s terroir and the artisanry of the maple syrup producers aptly illustrates the concept of “Québec boboality”: on the one hand, an attachment to Québec’s land and culinary history, and on the other, the wish to ennoble and distinguish the maple syrup produced in Québec from all others. The reference to the “controlled designation of origin” system, traditionally used for wines, as a model to follow for Québec’s maple syrup industry, distinctly points to Picard’s aspiration to give Québec’s maple syrup a certain cachet and prestige. The perception of maple syrup as an artifact produced by local syrup makers would change to one where maple syrup is the result of attentive cultivation by specialized craftsmen. The insistence on the authenticity of origin of the product along with the ambition of giving maple syrup a certain standing and lustre clearly embodies Au Pied de Cochons “bobo” concept.

To push this point even further, Picard continues by appealing to Québec’s pastry chefs to use maple syrup instead of white sugar, and to create new desserts with it. Picard writes:

Il faut le décostumer [le sirop d’érable] de son habit flèché folklorique pour le faire évoluer en cuisine. C’est un défi que les cuisiniers québécois doivent relever. S’il y a une chose que je veux dire aux pâtissiers d’ici, c’est d’ ‘entailer’ leurs connaissances, de lâcher leurs bâlises, d’utiliser l’érable et de créer, sirop! C’est un peu plus cher que du sucre blanc, mais bâtir une identité, ça n’a pas de prix. [21]

Arguing that maple syrup must be disrobed of its folkloric costume in order to evolve gastronomically, Picard stresses that Québec chefs should overlook the higher cost of maple syrup relative to white sugar, since “building an identity is priceless.” [22] Here, Picard draws on the cultural and national significance of maple syrup, while making the case that it must be transformed and modernized. The existing significance of maple syrup as a folkloric emblem of Québec cuisine is distanced in order to make room for a new emblem that would come from Québec’s culinary pastry elite, namely, a more polished, refined, “bobo” emblem.

2) Pork

As the self-proclaimed “temple of lard,” [23] Au Pied de Cochon proudly serves pork “from the nose to the tail,” [24] and no investigation of the workings of myth at this restaurant could avoid addressing its use of the animal. Pork indeed holds an important place in Québec’s gastronomic history and is a key ingredient in many Québecois recipes, as Caroline Coulombe explains: “le porc sous toutes ses formes a été abondamment employé dans la cuisine québécoise.” [25] Used mostly for its lard in Nouvelle-France, [26] pork maintained the second rank as the meat most employed in Québec’s kitchens (after beef) until the mid-1900s. [27] It is therefore no surprise to find pork as the main ingredient in many iconic Québec meals, such as ragoût de pattes, tourtière, and oreilles de crises. The significance of pork is not lost on Au Pied de Cochon, which made the animal its mascot.

In order to assuage the discomfort that might be associated with the inevitable slaughter of animals for its carnivorous menu, Au Pied de Cochon developed a narrative that supports its adulation of meat. In fact, Picard goes through an elaborate apology for his use of pork, in part through the promotion of “nose to tail” eating, that seems to confirm Barthes’ assertion that myth is “speech justified in excess.” [28] To make its fabricated narrative appear natural, a myth must multiply itself, be found everywhere so as to give the illusion that it is the “state of affairs,” a “matter of fact,” and distract from the reality that it is a construction used to justify a given set of values. Au pied de cochon does just that to rationalize its allegiance to meat.

Picard begins by explaining why he opts for the use of the word ‘cochon,’ ‘pig’ instead of ‘pork’ by saying that ‘cochon’ is instantly more likeable than ‘pork,’ and is also used in many typical Québécois expressions.  [29] Also, the album and the accompanying DVD both contain sections dedicated to a visit to the Au pied de cochon’s pork supplier’s farm, La Porcherie Ardennes, where an entire tour of the all-organic pigsty is given, along with descriptive explanations of the entire raising process of the animal. An emphasis on an honorable, fair, and exemplary treatment of the pigs is underscored throughout by pinpointing, for example, that the owners of the pigsty choose to produce an all-natural pork by using only OMG-free grains that are produced on-site at their farm [30], or literally stating that they “do everything that could possibly be done for the well-being of the animals.”  [31] On the cooking side, the reiteration that the pig should be eaten in its entirety, ‘from nose to tail,’ also exhibits an ethical approach to cooking, which strengthens further the proposition that Au pied de cochon utilizes meat in a way that shows deference for the animal, and demonstrates a thoughtful and respectful attitude towards the use of its flesh.

By exposing what it considers to be a moral and justifiable treatment of the animals, or, one could say, divulging excessively the argument explaining how and why it attends to the animals in a certain way, and by pairing that rationalization with the notion that Québecers traditionally ate and raised their porks in a very similar way (with organic food, eaten in their entirety, etc), Au pied de cochon hypnotizes its customer into thinking that such a conduct and viewpoint is not only reasonable but somehow natural. Through the repetition of its “nose to tail” mantra, testimonials of the owner and farmers, and images, Au pied de cochon makes its philosophy seem more than just ethical – it appears to be the most ubiquitous, matter-of-fact manner of approaching the carnivorous diet. From pork to pig, and from ribs and bacon to foie gras–stuffed pig’s feet, Au Pied de Cochon roots its use of this ingredient in the history of the pork industry as well as in Québec’s culinary canon, while presenting a version of the animal that is morally elevated, and corresponds to a “bobo,” neo-hippie mentality. [32]

Au Pied de Cochon’s Menu

Yet another way in which Au Pied de Cochon embeds itself in Québec foodways is by proposing revised versions of the province’s canon of traditional recipes. While most of the suggested “traditional” dishes appear in L’Album—as well as on the special holiday take-out menu—in quite typical form, dishes depart from tradition on the restaurant’s regular menu. Indeed, apart from two entrées, tongue in vinegar and oreilles de crisse, the few pies (lemon, sugar, maple and pecan), and the pouding chômeur, Au Pied de Cochons regular menu is surprisingly void of the dishes typical of the Québec culinary tradition from which it claims to draw inspiration—tourtière, pâté chinois,cretons.

What one does find on Au Pied de Cochon’s carte, however, are many dishes using less typical cuts or organs (such as brains, shank, head, or feet), beef and deer tartare, blood sausage, duck carpaccio, steak frites, and even more foie gras dishes than there are pork ones. Upon closer examination, the majority of the Au Pied de Cochon menu might be served at any high-end French bistro: tartare, blood sausage, and steak frites are iconic French meals, and brains and shank are part of the French gastronomic tradition (even if served less often today). The fact that Au Pied du Cochon is partly inspired by the international model of fine cuisine French cooking, suggests a desire to appeal to a clientele attracted to recipes from this well-established and illustrious catalogue.

By taking Au Pied de Cochon at its word and actually verifying whether its menu presents a “revitaliz[ation of] certain old Québec recipes,” [33] one sees that such a discourse perhaps serves more as an alibi for “Québec boboality” than as a culinary foundation. To invoke Québec’s traditional cuisine as Au Pied de Cochon’s guide for its own cooking functions as a justification for serving food that is in fact luxurious, elaborate, succulent, and addressed to a bon vivant connoisseur clientele. By devoting a section of L’Album to Québec’s typical recipes, adding a temporary take-out menu to sell traditional dishes during the holiday season, and putting a few entrées and desserts (themselves more marginal courses) on its carte, Au Pied de Cochon maintains enough of the substance of Québec’s typical food narrative to allow for “Québec boboality” to appear without being questioned.

In this study, I have argued that foodways and culinary narratives offer much more than anthropological and sociological data, but actually function as a semiological system, in this case, the myth. Despite the fact that Au Pied de Cochon projects a very jovial and unassuming image, and the people involved in its promotion undoubtedly harbour genuine affection for and wish to celebrate Québec’s food narrative, the restaurant is nonetheless involved in the furthering of a “bobo” ideology. The threat inherent in myth’s mechanism is not that it encourages and propagates ideologies, but rather, that it does so unnoticed—through myth, concepts such as nation, capitalism, and progress are being communicated in communities as self-evident and unquestioned. As Barthes reminds his readers, “[m]yth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” [34]

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