Monday, March 19, 2007

Oh, fudge: The “law of numbers” meets Quebec sugar shacks

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the wonderful Quebec tradition of sugar shacks, from Wikipedia we offer you this succinct description. A sugar shack... small cabin or shack where sap collected from sugar maple trees is boiled into maple syrup.

Most sugar houses also offer reception halls and outdoor activities open to the general public. Many of these activities include sleigh-riding, tours of the grounds and eating maple taffee made in house and often in front of the clientel.
The reception halls cater to large groups offering many varied dishes complimented by Maple Syrup. These dishes range from ham, bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, pork rinds, pancakes and many other breakfast type dishes.
And, nowadays, they cater to muslim prayers as well.

Echoing recent stories about banning pork in the soups to be served to France's homeless, comes a pair of stories to raise the hair on the backs of any pur laine Quebecois and Quebecoise.
[translated from the original french by myself, or maybe I should say that this is a "reasonable accomodation" to the orginal French articles; if any gourmands readers can help me arrive at a more accurate translation for the meals cited below, it will be appreciated...]

First, a tale of demographics and "the law of numbers" that sounds like it's straight out of Mark Steyn's America Alone:

The owner of a sugar shack in Mont-Saint-Grégoire, in Montérégie, put an end to a party by a group of customers in order to allow muslims to do their prayers on the dance floor.

The country singer Sylvain Boily, alias Danny Boy, underwent a very bad day last Sunday on March 11 at the Érablière in Sous-Bois.

Reunited with about 20 friends and parents, he claims he was asked to leave the sugar shack’s dance hall when a group of around 50 muslims installed themselves in order to pray.


“We were asked to leave the hall and to stop playing music. The group of muslims then went to their knees and began praying”, claims Mr. Boily.

He and his family had barely entered the dance hall to party. “My aunt was playing the accordion. Someone asked her to stop”, says the singer.

Offended, he decided to leave the sugar shack with his family instead of waiting for the muslim prayer to come to an end, twenty minutes later.

“It had been years since I had last been to the sugar shack. My intention had been to stay all night. I didn’t even have the time to give out all the gifts for my family”, he said.

Law of numbers

According to the owner of l'Érablière au Sous-Bois, Sylvain Boily is complaining about nothing. “It is our decision to stop the music in the dance hall in order to allow the muslims to pray”, explained Roch Gladu. He acted as he did because the group of muslims were more numerous than the family of Mr Boily. There was 260 of them and a quarter of them expressed the wish to pray.
“There were no other people besides Mr Boily and his family in the room. It’s the law of numbers”, said Mr. Gladu.

“I have never seen a room empty so fast, assures Sylvain Boily however. This is a Quebecois sugar shack. The people come here to have fun. My family is not racist. But they believed that all should be permitted them.” [translation note: I can't tell from the context of the article whether he is referring to his family here, or to the muslim clientele]

Understanding with the boss

Astrolabe, an organization that plans cultural and sporting activities for muslims, claims that they did not realize that a customer left in a huff because of their prayers.
“I was watching the children during the prayer, I did not see anyone getting angry”, says Astrolabe president Adel Larabi.

For him, a visit to a sugar shack is a good way to make known this activity and its typically Quebec foods to the members of his group.

The latter had made arrangements with the sugar shack’s owner in order to have a private space for prayer after dinner.

“The dining room was too crowded, Mr Gladu therefore proposed we use the dance hall. He stopped the music at prayer time, which barely lasted ten minutes”, he said.

The group had also asked for changes in the menu in order not to have any pork. Nonetheless, only the meals served to this group had been modified.

Pea and ham soup without ham

Reasonable accommodations, one finds them everywhere. They have now won over sugar shacks, very symbol of Quebecois traditions: one of them has retired ham from the legendary pea soup in order to accommodate muslims, who are forbidden from eating pork.

Ham in maple syrup, deep fried smoked pork jowls [“oreilles de Christ”], beans and lard [“fèves au lard”]… pork plays an integral part of the traditional menu of the sugar shack.

Yet now due to increasing demands from muslim groups, the menu is being adapted to accommodate the believers who must not eat pork.

At the sugar shack Le pain de sucre [sugar bread] in Saint-Jean-sur_Richelieu, they have taken ham out of the classic pea soup in order to offer a more complete menu to the numerous muslims who come to sink their teeth into syrup.

“Yes, we have many muslims, families, that come to discover the shack and who come to realize when they get the menu that they can’t eat anything, or children who come with their schools. So I took out the ham from the soup in order to accommodate them”, confirmed chef Constantino.

According to him, the fact of taking out the ham from the pea soup does not deprive anything from Quebecois, who themselves may eat pork.

Unchanged taste

“This does nothing to change the taste of the soup, so it changes nothing for us and it allows us to have a more complete menu”, he adds.

The ham is taken out of the soup for everyone, but for the rest, the menu is adapted only for groups that request it, by notably replacing ham with chicken nuggets, assures the sugar shacks manager, Johanne Cadieux.

For Sebastien and his little family, patrons of Pain de sucre, the “traditional” experience of sugar shacks was greatly changed this month when they told him that there would no longer be any grease in the beans and grease.

“The waitress told us this casually, saying that it was a case of reasonable accommodations and that it cost too much to make too batches of beans”, says the Saint-Jean resident.

Frankly, I found it a bit insulting to hear this at a sugar shack, a place that is typically Quebecois.
Chef Constantino, for his part, swears that they always make two pots, a big one with grease and a smaller one without grease.

“I would be very surprised if we served beans without grease to customers who are not muslim. If it is called beans and grease it’s because there is grease in it!”

[UPDATE: more details on the sugar shack story here]

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