Near Quebec City - Much like play ing air guitar, playing the spoons is usually viewed as something that should be done in the privacy of one's home. But in Quebec, people actually "play the bones," or spoons, in public - and manage to look cool doing it.
Like its musical cousins washboard scraping and jug blowing, playing the bones is an important element of jug band music, which originated in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1900s and spread across North America to eastern Canada. Impoverished country folk would swig their booze from large earthenware jugs and produce bass notes by blowing rhythmically into the top as though it were a tuba. A fiddle or kazoo supplied the melody line, and percussion was added by clacking two soup spoons together.
I get a shot at spoon stardom when I venture into Érablière le Chemin du Roy. The sugar shack, 15 minutes from Quebec City, is one of the province's 400 maple syrup operations. After carting barrels of syrup through the snow, the early pioneers had to engage in foot stomping just to keep warm.
Dance in New France has a long history as a celebration of family and community, dating back to the 1600s. At all levels of colonial society, the fiddle was the principal instrument. In addition to the Appalachian influence, Scottish and Irish traditions merged to create a unique form of Quebecois step-dancing known as "la gigue."
Érablière le Chemin du Roy has been keeping the traditions of dance, music and food alive since 1925. In the dining room, on rough wooden-slab tables covered in red gingham, tureens of pea soup are circled by baskets of bread, pork and beans, fried pork strips and other ingredients of a traditional Quebec meal. It all gets washed down with liberal swigs of the local drink, caribou (a dubious concoction of red wine, maple syrup and vodka).
During my visit, Louis-Simon Lemieux, a ponytailed third-generation fiddle player, leaps onto the stage and soon has the fiddle howling out a Celtic barn dance. Somebody begins doing a subdued Riverdance by the door. Foot tapping becomes stomping, and a few spoons begin to clack at nearby tables.
Before long, a fury of tunes à la Ashley MacIsaac is swirling around the room. This is the cue for more impassioned spoon players to cut loose. Like sedentary participants in a Gloria Estefan conga line, they haul chairs into formation behind a seasoned pro.
"Place the handle of one spoon facing down between the index and middle finger," explains the old-timer. "Now hold the top spoon between your thumb and first finger." He demonstrates a rapid wrist movement that results in a modest clacking sound. Easy enough. Even the most rhythmically challenged of the participants manages to follow along.
As the evening progresses, we're given a demonstration of more advanced musical kitchenware techniques. The old-timer launches into a free-style swing that includes bouncing his spoons off his thigh in a one-clack beat that resounds off his outstretched hand. His talent sends novices scurrying back to their tables, leaving only the true percussionists in the ensemble. As the music becomes more frenzied, chairs are tossed aside and, like a St. Vitus dance of the spoons, the players circle the room doing la gigue.
I remain seated, but in hindsight, I realize that just a few more swigs of that caribou drink might have motivated me to join them. Then again, in the privacy of my own home I do have a full tray of cutlery waiting in the kitchen drawer.