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Watchwords: 2 Chow and our appetite for nicknames

Noodles with peanut sauce are a late-night favourite at Chez Mein. The dish is affectionately known as 2 Chow.
JOHN MORSTAD / Montreal Gazette files

So it’s very late at night (or very early in the morning), and you’ve drunk a few beers, and now you’re hungry. How to deal with that growling stomach? You could scarf down a slice of pizza. You could shovel poutine into your mouth. Or, in downtown Montreal, you have another option. This is not a restaurant column, and I’m not vouching for the quality of the dining experience. I merely want to observe that in English-speaking Montreal, a unique phrase has arisen, one familiar to countless students and former students: “2 Chow.”

“As crazy as it might be to outsiders,” wrote Max Bledstein on the Mtlblog website in 2015, “it’s hard to imagine nightlife on St. Laurent without 2 Chow.” Bledstein generously described the dish as “a mess of warm noodles topped with a heaping pile of deliciously gooey peanut butter sauce.” The “chow” comes from “chow mein,” or fried noodles, a staple of North America’s version of Chinese cuisine. The 2 comes from $2 — the ridiculously low price that revellers on the Main pay for the joy of consuming a perfect specimen of “drunk food.”

Yes, that’s an expression. The Huffington Post once ran an article headlined “The 26 Best Drunk Foods from Across America.” None of them provides what you’d call balanced nutrition. But I’m sure they taste astonishing, especially after serious amounts of alcohol. Rural Quebec gave poutine to a hungry world. Perhaps Montreal is destined to offer the world 2 Chow — although when Chez Mein (the hole-in-the-wall restaurant most famous for serving the product) finally raises its prices, will the name of the dish turn into 3 Chow or 4 Chow?

Speakers of many languages are fond of abbreviating official names. I’m told that among the young and the sleepless who like to consume two-dollar chow mein, the fast-food chain La Belle Province is usually called Belle Pro. On a Quebec website, Les Populaires, I found an article headlined “La Pout’ de McDo” – the poutine served at McDonald’s, that is. To shorten a name is to engage in an affectionate or mildly subversive act of language play, and if people outside the know don’t always understand, so much the better.

It’s not just thirsty Montreal students who abbreviate names, it’s also hockey fans across the continent. In conversation, and even in print, the Ottawa Senators become the Sens, and the Nashville Predators turn into the Preds. I suspect one reason why the nickname “Habs” has remained popular among fans of le Club de Hockey Canadien is that it would be unthinkable to speak of the Cans. For the same reason, the Vancouver Canucks often turn into the Nucks. As for the Tampa Bay Lightning, their singular, two-syllable name would be difficult to shorten — and so the team is informally called the Bolts.

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