When I first started going to Abu Elias, a halal butcher shop and lunch counter in the north end of Montreal, I didn't realize I'd be making a new friend.
Lebanese acquaintances had described the place as being "like Beirut – exactly." They warned me about the parking lot (double and triple parking is encouraged), and raved about the charcoal-grilled meat sandwiches. They were right. Pretty soon, I was making regular treks up to Saint Laurent's Little Lebanon for a kefta fix.
One time, I meandered over to the meat department, where the butcher was offering complimentary tastes of kibbe nayyeh – raw ground beef mixed with cumin, mint, olive oil and crunchy spherules of bulgur.
It was the best steak tartare I'd ever had: supremely fresh, an epiphany of seasonings, with pitch-perfect texture from that cracked wheat. The smiling, round-faced butcher then handed me a piece of cervelle on baguette. The thin segment of lamb brain looked like a cross-section of cauliflower floret. I closed my eyes and bit into it – creamy, almost eggy, profoundly mysterious. As I chewed, he extolled the libidinal virtues of eating brain: "It makes you into bulldozer," he said, grinning.
I knew that Julia Child considered a relationship with a good butcher to be essential. "Get to know him," she counselled. "Make him your friend." I'd never before met a butcher worth befriending.
I suspected she must be right, though. Friendships have often broadened my culinary horizons, from the first homemade hot-and-sour soup I ever tried to the mindblowing Pakistani meals I had at my best friend's home as a teenager. Sharing food is a hallowed way for different cultures to connect.
The Lebanese-Canadian writer Rawi Hage has disputed the received notion that Montreal is made up of two solitudes, contending that its many disparate cultural communities make it more of a "multitude of solitudes." How can we bridge these solitudes? "Through food," Hage says.
That's precisely what happened to me at Abu Elias. The butcher's name was Bilal Mustapha. He was a few years older than me, and it turned out we'd gone to the same university. Despite our different backgrounds – him a Lebanese émigré, me a Quebec-born Celto-Hungarian – we clicked immediately.
After the kibbe and the brains came the sandwich I'd ordered: grilled sujuk sausage with potent white garlic paste called toum and crisp slivers of Levantine pickles. "It's my favourite," Bilal confided. The whole package, on charred pita bread, detonated with incommensurably powerful depths of flavour. (Another friend of mine describes it as a sandwich that actually eats your mouth more than you eat it.)
On subsequent visits, Bilal always made sure I discovered something new. He showed me how to marinate veal liver so that it can be barbecued perfectly. He explained how to properly cook makanak in pomegranate molasses. One of my favourite discoveries was their Friday lunch special: a hearty soul-food dish of fibrous moloukhia greens with spiced rice and noodles in a lemony chicken broth. I'd never tried it before, but it felt like something I grew up eating. Friendship can have that effect.
I suppose I selfishly thought that Julia Child's dictum meant I would just get particularly marbled pieces of faux-filet, but it was more nuanced than that. When I bought a lamb shoulder, he checked to see how I planned on preparing it. Just a classic braise, I replied, nothing special. Bilal asked if I wanted to do it the way his family does it. Definitely, I answered. He rubbed the meat with a spice paste, wrapped it in foil, and told me to put it in a covered pot with a couple of inches of water and cook it slowly for hours. The results were incredible.
"So," he asked me, the next time I was in, "how was it, habibi?"
At home, I looked it up. Habibi: an Arabic word meaning "friend."
If I didn't yet realize that we'd gone beyond the usual butcher-client relationship, I did on my next visit, when – after Bilal gently cleaved open the back of a roasted lamb's skull and handed me a steaming spoonful of brains – he asked me if I had any plans on Saturday night. He would be singing, he said, at a feast lasting from midnight until dawn.
"I sing classical Arabic songs on Saturday nights at dance parties," he explained. "Will you come?"
And so it was that, shortly after midnight on a recent Saturday, I followed Bilal's directions and ended up on the north shore of Montreal in an as-yet-ungentrified part of Laval called Chomedey. The setting was a mall-sized restaurant called Lordia. When I'd searched "Restaurant Lordia" online, the first thing that came up was a site called superpartyfactory.com. I could hear pounding rhythms as I approached the doors. The whole building seemed to be thrumming.
Inside, the immense, chandeliered hall was filled with clouds of perfumed shisha smoke. A live orchestra played upbeat, trancy Lebanese music. Hundreds of people were dancing in circles. Every table was covered in dishes of mezze. The waiters, wearing fezes, white robes and gold-trimmed satin vests, had long, Dali-esque mustaches formed into sharp, sabre-like points. They ferried trays of food to tables of ladies in gala attire and men in tight-fitting pants. As a waiter led me to my spot, a female reveller in a slinky gold dress trilled by, shaking a plastic bag full of pita breads in the air.
A carafe of cloudy arak materialized in front of me. I stared around in happy disbelief that such a gathering even exists, revelling in the sensory overload until Bilal arrived a few minutes later.
"It's the mayhem you feel in Beirut," Bilal beamed, gesturing at the throbbing dance floor. It truly was a superpartyfactory in there.
Pretty soon our table was drowning in fluffy piles of hummus, salty cheese cigars, giant vine leaves, labneh, basterma, tabouleh, balila, foul madamas and mouhammarra. Small bowls of tangy, cinnamon-laced offal sausages were placed down next to plates of rubbery snails in tahini. As new as many of the flavours were to me, one of them tasted so familiar it took me a moment to place it. It was a little silver platter covered in ground meat. It came with diced onions, chopped tomatoes and grated white and yellow cheese. I couldn't figure out what to do with the toppings until I realized how they'd flavoured the meat: Old El Paso taco seasoning!
There were no taco shells, but pita bread worked just as well. Old El Paso must have been something the Lebanese families here had discovered, just as my family had discovered it in these same suburban grocery stores when I was growing up.
It was also a lovely reminder that, regardless of background, we all live in the same place now, a place defined by its multiculturalism. As the Parti Québécois readies its latest anti-ethnocultural measures, let's remember that diversity is what makes us who we are. Here in Quebec, as in the rest of Canada, pluralism needs to be protected – and celebrated, as the Lebanese partygoers chowing down on Old El Paso knew.
If the culinary breakthrough of the night was that Leb-xican moment, my personal highlight was watching Bilal perform – strutting through the crowd, dancing with groups of pretty women, smoking and singing in rainbow showers of LED party lights. Bilal, the singing butcher! He had such a soulful, beautiful voice. Standing there in the audience, admiring his performance, I wondered whether Julia Child had something this special in mind when she'd written those words about becoming friends with your butcher.
Want to befriend a butcher? These ethically minded shops are a good starting point.
Sanagan's Meat Locker
This heritage-minded meat locker in Toronto's Kensington Market offers the highest-possible quality in ethically farmed meats to an aesthetically inclined clientele; sanagansmeatlocker.com
Harkness & Co.
All the products at Vancouver's Harkness & Co. are sourced from local farmers who share their commitment to an "ethical philosophy." Cuts of meat are broken down in-house, from the entire carcass. They also offer instructional classes on hog butchering and sausage-making; vancouverbutcher.com
In June, Montreal's unceasingly excellent Mile End nose-to-tail restaurant Lawrence upped its commitment to ethical dining by opening a shop that features respectfully raised meat from small, independent Quebec producers; boucherielawrence.com
Pasture to Plate
This storefront on Vancouver's Commercial Drive focuses on biodynamically farmed, organic meats sourced from its own Rafter 25 Ranch in the Chilcotin Valley, in the B.C. interior; pasturetoplate.ca
The Healthy Butcher
With its three locations – downtown Toronto, midtown Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. – the Healthy Butcher provides an alternative to "antibiotic-stuffed, water-injected, assembly-line cut, pre-packaged meat;" thehealthybutcher.com
Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Doubleday Canada). Follow him on Twitter @adamgollner.