Far from a gourmet taste experience, classic poutine (French fries, cheese curds, and gravy) is a typical, late-night, post-alcoholic-binge indulgence. Up there with Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwiches, halal pizza slices, or $2.00 chow mein after a late night prowl along St Laurent boulevard, poutine somehow manages to suppress any and all desire to regurgitate those Jaeger-Bombs you probably shouldn’t have had. The possible inventor, Fernand Lachance, is rumored to have replied “ça va faire une maudite poutine” (it will make a damn mess) when asked to put cheese curds on a customer’s French fries in 1957.
Even he seemed to think it was a bad idea.
Today, poutine is desperate to be so much more than a bowl of grease to facilitate the absorption of alcohol. Montreal’s annual “Poutine Week”– I mean, “Semaine de la Poutine“– featured 30 poutine joints, pubs, burger bars, and local restaurants, including several oriental style eateries, each with their own version of poutine on the menu for 10$ a plate (the week-long event also included a poutine eating contest but that’s just gross). This festival celebrates “a damn mess” and the 50+ year legacy of Quebec’s most egregious error.
Before we continue, here is a breakdown of what exactly goes into creating this heart attack in a bowl:
French Fries: ideally crispy and hot, more often than not nightmarishly soggy and either lukewarm or burn-the-taste-buds-off-your-tongue scorching, French fries form the base of poutine. A typical meal will feature a generous portion of French fries, though often woefully salty, in a cardboard box. Fear the grease; cardboard can only support itself for so long.
Gravy: painfully gooey or notoriously thin and tasteless, poutine gravy remains a mystery to poutine lovers. What really goes into the gloopy brown stuff that tastes suspiciously like salt and MSG? Not to mention that poutine joints have a tough time agreeing on how much sauce to put on the fries; too much and you’ll be wanting some fries with your gravy. Too little, and you’ll be chewing on dry French fries wondering what happened to your poutine. And let’s not forget the ultimate question: gravy on top or underneath the cheese curds?
Cheese Curds: Melted cheese is always delicious so if the gravy goes on top of the cheese curds, you’re stuck with a soggy, disgusting looking mess, but you’ll also be basking in the glory of melted cheddar. However, the cheese curds (a typically Quebecois thing– they should actually squeak if they are as fresh as poutine joints claim) are the breath of fresh air in an otherwise unappetizing puddle of brown. They don’t taste like much, but they’re chewy and all around pretty wonderful.
Although poutine has yet to achieve its desired status as a gourmet taste-splosion (with the exception of that lovely wild mushroom and whiskey poutine our Managing editor found at a gastropub in St-Jerome), it is well on its way to having its own political career, given our province’s panache for embarrassing incidents. Whether it’s the Parti Quebecois vying for more stringent language policies, or finding ourselves on the national stage for blatantly disregarding laws of basic human rights with our charter of secularization, we have no shortage of pickles to be in at any given moment. And Quebec’s ooey-gooey, salty, soggy, brown, unappetizing provincial dish is pretty embarrassing.
Canadians are so embarrassed about poutine that, in 2000, Rick Mercer felt the need to drag presidential candidate George W. Bush down into the gravy puddle when he mentioned Prime Minister Jean “Poutine’s” positive feedback for Bush’s campaign. The joke was on them as Bush responded, “He understands I want to make sure our relationship with our most important neighbor to the north of us is strong and we’ll work closely together.”
Quebecers were in stitches after this blunder and, to add insult to injury, Washington Post columnist Al Kamen, who called the prank “a bit unfair”, didn’t seem to get the joke either, thinking that Mercer was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Oh, the puns.
But it was this fantastic faux-pas that spurred a change in the diets of our friends to the south. Poutine, a traditionally Quebecois staple, suddenly made its way onto the American radar. In 2007, following its 50th anniversary, Poutine was featured in a New York Times article that promoted the dish at Inn LW12 in New York where it is served with spiced pork belly, a twist not uncommon to those of us here in Quebec. In the midst of the political circus here in Quebec where a minority separatist government attempts to divide the population (again), poutine would serve to unite a population at war with one another over the secularization of government workers and officials. Unfortunately, not even the marriage of fries and gravy and 50 years of unholy messes could escape the roving eye of the United States and their quest for ever-fattening food. As elections draw ever closer in Quebec, poutine has lost its place in Quebec society. Even Quebecers are turning up their noses at fries and gravy and its affiliation with the US.
Despite its questionable origins and shady past, poutine remained a symbol of Fierté Quebecois for over 50 years, until its usurpation by our neighbours to the south. Before, it was a symbol of pride and a testament to Quebec cuisine. Now it is mass produced at the local Harvey’s in Soho.