Get to know Montreal's steamés hot dog culture and where to have them, according to 'Hotdog Furcoat'

If illustrator Allister Lee is going to draw his globetrotting, fashionable weiner in all the top spots, we are there for that tour.

Illustrator Allister Lee draws his worldly, chic frank in all the top spots and we’re so there for that tour.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

I had my first steamé last summer, wellll into my adult life and on what may have been my seventh visit to Montreal. When travelling there or anywhere, I plan my food experiences first, my art experiences second.

Which has me asking myself how I've managed to miss out on both the steamé and Hotdog Furcoat for so long.

I might blame the pace of life and having to sleep at least a few hours while still somehow staying abreast of melodramatic purple and sporty pink (you have your news cycle, I have mine). I can blame it on having too much iconic, only-in-Montreal food to consume when I'm there as it is — and I do my best, I will get in my bagels and then backtrack to the Jean Talon Market, I'll eat entirely too much smoked meat before dinner before post-night out poutine, I know what needs to be done.

Alas. Here we are.

If you too are yet unacquainted with steamés or HDFC, don't feel bad. It's never too late to welcome beautiful things to your life.

What are you talking about?

To fully appreciate the latter, let's get you acquainted with the steamé first. Remember the plain ol' hotdog on a bun from "hot dog day!" at school, your neighbourhood block party, or maybe every-other lunch from childhood? That's the steamé (or steamy in English), except you ate them boiled, microwaved or on a stick over a bonfire. And steamés? Oui. Steamed. While they are a thing in Quebec, they have not been a thing in Quebec forever.

I feel a history lesson coming. But it's about hotdogs, so...

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

When Toronto-based illustrator, Allister Lee, reached out about his "exhibition of work that explores the nostalgic world of Montreal steamé hotdog culture through a character called Hotdog Furcoat", I thought, YES. I definitely want this individual to teach me more about Montreal's steamé culture. Hotdog Furcoat, that is.

When visiting places to create his illustrated series, like one that features Chinatowns of the world or another that's an homage to the standard black marker, Lee researches old businesses, old stationery stores, and much more. And then he researches old diners where he can eat after all of that exploring. "I know these places are not for long in the landscape, and are rapidly shuttering. So I want to visit them and take in every detail while I can," he told us.

"I have the same genuine interest in Montreal steamé culture, probably for similar reasons — I love all those old haunts listed above; nostalgia and respect for these old mom and pop businesses."

So... steamé school is in session.

What's your understanding of the history of the steamé?

The steamé as a regionalization of the hotdog is connected to the opening of a neighbourhood butcher store in Quebec City by Alphonse Lafleur* in 1912.

The Lafleur family produced and distributed hotdogs across the province and soon the hotdog became a popular working-class staple in diners and casse-croutes.

Montreal Pool Room is credited with introducing the all-dressed steamé with coleslaw and chopped onions, when it opened in 1921.

*Hot tip from my Montreal born-and-raised editor: You're probably never more than 5 minutes from a Lafleur or La Belle Province when in the city, should you need a steamé STAT.

Is there a right way to dress it and eat it? Is there a wrong way, time or place?

I like the classic: mustard and coleslaw but don't like chopped onions so I skip that. So it's not really traditional all-dressed. I guess it would be an almost-dressed.

I'm not too judgmental on way, time, or place of eating a steamé. When you get a snack attack for steamé and patates, go for it!

Side note, Lesters is a thing people in Montreal have been keeping to themselves too.

Why do you think the steamé has stood the test of time and is not subject to wild spins on it, like say, poutine is?

I'll romanticize things by saying that it's only truly a steamé and only truly poutine, when served up at a historic mom + pop setting in La Belle Province.

Anything else, and everywhere else, you're just eating hotdogs and french fries, and sometimes with a wild spin on it.

The steamé is a regional classic and doesn't need improvement. Classics never go out of style.

Why do you think the steamé has not seen the widespread popularity, that say, poutine has?

Hotdogs are part of the fast food trinity with hamburgers and fries.

Fries are at the top of the fast food chain. If you serve fries, you can serve poutine!

Hotdogs are the underdog.  

That's just how it is.

What about that hotdog in a fur coat.

So… why a hotdog, why a fur coat?

Hotdog Furcoat is a character that I've been doodling since 2003 — just joie-de-vivre breezy drawings about a stylish lady Hotdog travelling the world.

I never really gave her too much of a background narrative until I started researching and preparing the exhibition for Montreal last year.

As I continued to do research, it made sense for the character to be from Montreal and connected to the city's steamé culture and history. I guess the fur coat is a visual indicator of a time + place when this piece of clothing was in vogue and suggested luxury.

The work of Herge with Tintin is my biggest inspiration toward character development model for Hotdog Furcoat. He was able to portray these versions of exotic worldwide locations, for the most part, without setting foot in any of the locations — by just working from reference and research.

Take us through Hotdog Furcoat's picks — what's special about each.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Decarie: Long-standing family-run landmark. Genuinely good people. I like the counter seating and swivel stool setup on raised platform.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Montreal Pool Room: The credited birthplace of the steamé. Familiar haunt for many throughout the years.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Moe's Casse-Croute: Enjoyed a 60-year run near the old Montreal Forum, as a 24-hour spot. That's a lot of steamés!

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Orange Julep: Nostalgia driven destination spot along the highway. Weekend car shows cultivated a scene from the 1950s onwards. Roller skating carhops were a thing at one point. Happy days.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Pierrette Patates: A true Verdun beauty. 24 hour spot for a while. Classic backlit menu board is pretty nice.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Paul Patates: Father and son operation; the Roys are hard-working neighbourhood legends and have done an amazing job at keeping contemporary standards rooted in tradition.

(Illustration: Allister Lee)

Chien-Chaud Victoire: Low-key neighbourhood staple that (has) served for generations. I thought the old, hand-painted sign was really charming: Le Meilleur Chien Chaud en Ville.

Beyond print, HDFC has only been spotted on a silk scarf. Do you have plans to keep her in a high(er) fashion strata?

J'Adore Hotdog Furcoat was inspired by the J'Adore Dior campaign. The L'Amour Toujours silk scarf was inspired by Hermès body of work. While I'm definitely playing to luxury inspiration, the space between the idea of Hotdog — working-class accessibility — and Furcoat — aspirational luxury — is where I feel comfortable creating for now.

I'd love to make Hotdog Furcoat stationery. And a Hotdog Furcoat cafe. Accessibility with tones of perceived luxury and quirk. Hotdog trench coat for Burberry? Sure why not. Their last 2 seasons are pretty illustration heavy.

We see HDFC is somewhat of a globe-trotter. Thoughts on, with her as an ambassador, whether steamé will take off worldwide and what that will do to steamé culture?

I'm just having fun with my first exhibition of Hotdog Furcoat in Montreal while continuing to develop the aesthetic and narrative of the character.

I'm focused on working with Montreal-based people to make more Hotdog Furcoat-related projects in the year ahead. There are so many amazing talented creatives in the city and Hotdog Furcoat is my conduit for civic collaboration.

As I continue to share these projects with people around the world, hopefully the character, the city, and the steamé get further recognition.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Allister Lee is a Toronto-based illustrator. His "J'adore Hotdog Furcoat" exhibition runs from May 18 - May 31, 2018, at The Letter Bet in Montreal.


Yasmin Seneviratne is a producer at CBC Life and the creator of Le Sauce Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @yasminseneviratne for things that make her happy and on Twitter @yasminATlesauce for things that make her real mad.