When I was a university student, I worked part time in the university pub. No, I wasn’t a cook, or a waitress or even a bartender. I was security. (…pause for the laughter to subside) Obviously campus security at the pub wasn’t very tight at the time. Anyway, each night when we closed the pub, the staff would gather for a staff drink (or two) and then we would all head to Lino’s – the 24 hour diner – for our usual plate of poutine.
Ahh, poutine! That Canadian mixture of french fries, Cheddar cheese curds and brown sauce or gravy. It’s quite atrocious in appearance and yet it has survived and become a cornerstone of Canadian food, along with back bacon, Nanaimo bars and butter tarts. One story says that the first chef asked to combine these ingredients on a plate exclaimed “ça va faire une maudite poutine” or “that will make a damn mess”. Oh, but what a delicious mess it is!
Poutine originated in Quebec in the 1950s or 60s and strangely it has been as equally loved as despised by French Canadians. Though eaten by all and (I have to assume) thoroughly enjoyed, it has been a source of embarrassment for many Quebeçois throughout the years, for you see, the French are very proud of their cuisine, and this mess (or poutine) is certainly not haûte cuisine. There are even stories in Canadian politics of Quebeçois politicians refusing to answer the question “do you like poutine?” at press conferences, not wanting to be associated with an image of themselves with gravy covered fingers in front of a plate of melted cheese and potatoes, I suppose.
Since the 1960s, poutine has traveled and is now available all over Canada. There’s even a Poutinerie in Kingston, Ontario, where I spend much of my time (in Kingston… not at the Poutinerie!). Poutine did travel South of the border and “Disco Fries” became popular in New York in the 1970s, but they were made with grated Cheddar cheese and a milk-based gravy, rather than the squeaky cheese curds that can be found in bags at the side of convenience store registers all over Quebec and a stock-based sauce (or velouté). “Disco Fries”, however, seem to have gone the way of Disco itself, and if poutine is to be found at all in the United States, it is usually dressed up by a trendy chef – with foie gras for example.So, whenever I head back to Quebec for a visit, I’ll find myself in front of a plate of poutine at some point on my trip. This August when I was in the Charlevoix region, we made a special trip to Casse-Croûte Ginette for a plate of poutine along the St. Lawrence River. Now, even though I’m not twenty anymore, living on poutine and burning off calories by just existing, I thought I could manage une grande poutine by myself. I felt empowered and brave as I stared at the enormous styrofoam container placed in front of me, and dove in with plastic fork in hand. I guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach, however, and I admit that the poutine (or my better judgement) won in the end. I laid my fork down in surrender and walked away. But, I walked away with the tasty memory of a delicious mess. Until next time…