Sugaring Off

tire sur la neige
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As thousands of my fellow Montrealers descended on downtown decked out in all things green for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, I headed out to the countryside with a group of friends for a different ritual: one involving far less alcohol, a lot more sugar, and nary a shamrock in sight.

Our destination was Mont St-Grégoire, east of Montreal, and we were going sugaring off. The springtime celebration also known as going to a sugar shack or cabane à sucre in French involves a usually-gigantic, always maple syrup-laden meal at one of Quebec’s many maple syrup producers that gears up for visitors as the sap starts to run in the province’s abundant maple-tree forests. (We produce 71% of the world’s supply of maple syrup — not bragging, just saying. 😉 )

There are a couple of decadent homegrown rituals I usually save for when I’m with people new to Montreal or who are visiting — indulging in poutine is one of them; sugaring off is another. Today’s group brought together lifelong Montrealers with newcomers from the UK, France, Italy, and the United States.

As the all-you-can-eat feast began, I gave a heads-up to my end of the table that this was only the savoury start to the meal — the sweets were still to come, so be sure to save room. We worked our way through tureens of split-pea soup and platters of fluffy omelettes, sausages, roasted potatoes, baked beans, thick-sliced ham, pork ribs, and tourtière hand pies — pastry pockets filled with seasoned ground pork and beef. We liberally poured carafes of maple syurp over just about everything. In case that wasn’t enough, there were also fresh rolls, cretons (a seasoned pork spread), coleslaw, pickles, beets, and a chutney-like homemade ketchup. And let’s not forget the oreilles de crisse — a deep-fried pork jowl concoction someone once decided to name after Jesus Christ’s ears, I’m never quite sure why. The table groaned, and I think a few of us did too.

Next up: the desserts. Baskets of fluffy apple doughnuts arrived, with little pots of warm caramel sauce to pour over them, because what’s better than fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts than doughnuts drenched in warm caramel sauce. Platters of pets de soeurs appeared, little swirls of rich pastry filled with brown sugar. When we explained to the out-of-towners that these meant “nun’s farts” there may have been a few giggles — I can’t quite remember, as the sugar coma was starting to set in by then. The tarte au sucre (sugar pie) was a creamy thing of beauty, and I was told the pancakes were ethereal, but I couldn’t manage any. There are a few other sweet maple treats that weren’t served at this cabane — each has its specialties — we missed pouding chomeur (poor man’s pudding — a maple-syrup drenched white cake) and les grands-pères au sirop (grandfathers in syrup — dumplings boiled in maple syrup), but really, who would have had room?

After the repast it was time for one last indulgence. We hopped on the tractor and crossed the apple orchard — this farm does double duty — to the steamy maple shack where sap from the trees is boiled down. We stood in line and braved the final sweet tidbit: taffy on the snow, aka tire sur la neige, thickened maple syrup ladeled out on clean snow and twirled around popsicle sticks to make a maple lollipop like no other.

And with that final sublime taste of maple on our lips, we all headed home. To a nap for most of us, I suspect.

Pineapple Sundae

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Before my great-aunt Leba (Presner) Mayerovitch died a few years ago, she lent me some thick photo albums, in which I found some family pictures I’d never seen before. This is the story behind three of those images.

Shia Presner in front of his drugstore - pineapple sundae 10 cents

Shia Presner in front of his drugstore

My grandfather Samuel “Shia” Presner was a second-generation Canadian whose parents escaped poverty and anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland around the turn of the twentieth century, coming to Canada and settling in Montreal.

Education was the clear route to success in the new world, but despite top marks, when Shia applied to medical school at McGill, the well-regarded university in his hometown, he quickly discovered he wasn’t welcome. A “a strict quota” limited “Jewish enrolment to 10% of all students” in the Faculties of Medicine and Law. (This was not a friendly time for Jews in several parts of Canada. My father remembers being told about a prominent resort in Quebec’s Laurentians with a sign at the entrance proclaiming: “No Dogs / No Jews.”)

So Shia did the next best thing, as did many of his friends: he became a pharmacist. After graduating, and thanks to a loan from his brother-in-law, he opened a drugstore around 1936 on busy Ste-Catherine Street West in downtown Montreal, just a few doors west of Crescent. He dispensed prescriptions at the back of the narrow shop, served up chocolate sodas and malted milks at the “luncheonette” counter, and sold all manner of knick-knacks, or should I say tchotchkes. Evidently the pineapple ice cream sundae was also a big seller.

Crescent Drug Store

Crescent Drug Store, Shia Presner at far right

My grandmother Lillian (Bierbrier) Presner helped customers with cosmetic purchases in a role then called a “beautician,” which didn’t really take advantage of her Bachelor of Commerce degree. (She would put her education to use later in life, starting a mortgage company.) The store stayed open seven days a week – even though some Sundays saw only one or two customers – because Shia felt an obligation to be available, just in case someone needed some toothpaste or Aspirin or an urgent prescription filled.

After acquiring two more pharmacies around Montreal, my grandfather’s three-pack-a-day (unfiltered!) cigarette habit took its toll, and he was hit with a heart attack in 1955. He quit smoking and scaled back his work, selling his stores but still practicing pharmacy until the age of 80. He died three years later when I was 16.

Shia in his pharmacist's overcoat

Shia in his pharmacist’s overcoat

Shia, thank you for persevering in the face of ignorant and prejudiced people. I’m glad you found a profession you were proud of, even though it wasn’t your first choice. I wish I’d gotten to hear your stories directly, but am still grateful to have learned them now.

Shia, my brother Jeremy, and me

Shia, my brother Jeremy, and me

Special thanks to my dad Bob Presner for help piecing together and fact-checking the stories in this post.