âIt’s Canada’s unofficial official dish. In fact, if they could make it look good on a flag, the days of the Maple Leaf could be numbered,â Jamie Oliver joked in a article on making the perfect poutine. As harmless as Oliver’s comment may sound, it is the perfect example of how a dish that evokes genuine feelings of heritage and culture in the Canadian province of Quebec can slowly lose its regional identity.
Whether it’s a busy late night dinner or a quiet country cafÃ©, the combination of poutine fries topped with salted fresh cheese curds and a rich meat sauce remains a simple comfort dish. and timeless. Although its humble origins can be found in the rural dairy strongholds of the Center-du-Quebec region, the dish’s popularity spread to Montreal cafes and bistros in the 1970s, striking the menus of the giants of the region. fast food restaurants like Burger King and McDonalds a decade later. , and was a national favorite in the early 1990s.
But tensions around identity are never far from the surface in Canada’s only French-speaking province, even when it comes to its most beloved culinary export. From restaurant chains across Canada to street trucks in Europe and Asia, poutine has traveled far. But rather than Quebecers fleurdelise flag, it is the symbol of the Canadian maple leaf that appears most regularly on menus alongside the dish beyond the borders of the province.
The dish should, ideally, be explicitly labeled as a Quebec dish
It is not only the iconography that confuses its identity. In 2016, US President Barack Obama served Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s poutine at the White House because “we want our Canadian friends to feel at home.” Venerable Canadian magazine Maclean’s went so far as to crown poutine, the country’s most iconic dish in a 2017 survey. Whether through bold imagery or reckless lyrics, the dish’s regional heritage is often obscured.
My first taste of poutine came from the hands of an overworked man who ran a food truck amid the relentless buzz of the lunchtime rush in downtown Toronto. A sweltering summer afternoon in Canada’s largest financial district is neither the time nor the place for poutine, but the rich melted cheese and soft, springy texture made me want more. But I also wanted to try the dish in its home province, and a few months later, I found myself braving the cold Montreal autumn winds on my way to The ice, the city’s poutine institution.
I pored over the long menu, an assortment of 30 dishes of wacky comfort food. I chose La Savoyarde, a free mountain of the standard poutine combo generously topped with bacon and onions, plus Swiss cheese and sour cream that started to slowly melt by the time it was served. It was poutine in its most flamboyant form; shamelessly indulgent and deeply satisfying.
But as I reveled in sampling the dish in one of its spiritual houses, my thoughts returned to the poutine vendors I had seen in Toronto, places that largely ignored the Quebec roots of the regional snack. I wondered if even this humble comfort food could not be spared by the identity tensions that have animated Canada for decades. Although some time has passed since the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, very tight, the linguistic and cultural divide between English and French Canada remains. Many Quebecers are not very attached to their Canadian identity, fearing that they will always be at risk of cultural absorption.
âThe dish should ideally be labeled explicitly as a Quebec and non-Canadian dish to further emphasize the cultural context to which it really belongs,â Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet wrote in his remarkable 2016 thesis, Poutine dynamics.
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And for some, any appropriation comes at the expense of Canadian gastronomy as a whole. âWe dilute Canadian cuisine if we say regional dishes are national,â said Quebec writer and food critic Lesley Chesterman. âIt is more interesting to say that a dish is Quebecois than to say that it is Canadian. Why not put the âQuebecoisâ label on something that is Quebecois? â
I wanted to dig into the origins of poutine to better understand its cultural resonance, and that meant speaking to those who live in the pastoral heart of Center-du-QuÃ©bec.
Local historian Guy Raiche de la Warwick Historical Society traces the roots of poutine to the late 1950s in Warwick, a small rural town halfway between Montreal and Quebec. âIt was created in 1957 at the CafÃ© IdÃ©al restaurant,â he explains. “A customer walked in one day and asked owner Ferdinand Lachance to give him fries and cheese curds together in a paper bag because he was in a hurry.”
Despite the unusual request, Lachance nodded by responding, “it’s going to make a damn poutine!“(” It’s gonna be a fucking mess! “).
From those slapdash beginnings, the combination of French fries with the famous cheese of the region became a success. “We have a lot of cheeses here. It started a bit like that because everyone came to the restaurant when the cheese would be the freshest,” said Marie-HÃ©lÃ¨ne BeauprÃ© of Center-du-Quebec Tourism. “So at 5:00 p.m. everyone was going to a restaurant just to have the freshest cheese and the freshest fries together.” The addition of the sauce came a few years later, and it didn’t take long for poutine to find its way into cafes and snack bars in Montreal and Quebec City.
But while poutine can now be found dressed with kimchi, seaweed and even foie gras, during those early years, it was seen as working class junk food and, at times, a matter of shame. The origins of his name, which translates to “mess” in English, might give some idea of ââwhy. In Poutine Dynamics, Fabien-Ouellet explains how âfor older generations, the very subject of poutine consumption is often avoided and the dish itself discouraged, often considered an embarrassing culinary inventionâ.
Even given the dish’s national popularity, for some the dish still has the power to evoke painful memories of a time when Quebec was viewed as culturally backward by the rest of Canada. Mocked and ridiculed for such a simple food, a stigma existed around poutine that was difficult to shake.
âI think some people might not have been happy to be associated with poutine at first, but now it’s in our roots and part of our culture,â said Annie Barsalou, co-owner of The ice. For her, the reasons for its nationwide popularity aren’t complicated: “I think people like poutine just because it’s heartwarming.”
It was always the go-to junk food that no self-respecting parent would ever make at home
Reflecting on his own childhood in Quebec, Montreal chef, restaurateur and television host Chuck Hughes said: âGrowing up, poutine was like a reward. It was always the go-to junk food that no self-respecting parent would ever make at home. It was definitely a guilty pleasure. “
Hughes put aside any unease he had about the dish when he introduced it to international audiences over a decade ago. In 2009, Hughes entered the Iron Chef America TV Cooking Contest, serving up a playful lobster poutine to the judges. Rather than guilt, he presented the Quebec dish with pride.
âIt wasn’t necessarily meant to impress, but rather it was a dish that represents my culture, my people and where I’m from,â said Hughes. “It was like a ‘nod’ to the people back home watching the show.”
While Hughes’ haute cuisine version is not a typical poutine, this appearance on American television may have been the first time many Americans have heard of the dish. Over the next decade, poutine’s popularity soared. It is now known in the United States, throughout Europe and even in some cities in Asia.
However, from the streets of Prague at the market hall Berlin, it is often the maple leaf that flies the flag of Quebec’s most famous culinary export. And while spreading the joy of poutine and vibrantly adapting it isn’t a bad thing, explicitly labeling it with images like the Canadian flag rather than the Quebec flag gives credit to accusations of cultural appropriation and “Canadianization”.
But not all global poutine suppliers feel the need to label their product with Canadian red and white.
âWe missed the poutine and no one else here was really doing it,â said Graham Gartside-Bernier, co-owner of the Blue Caribou Snack Bar in Manchester, United Kingdom. Gartside-Bernier and his Quebec partner Vincent moved from Canada to Graham’s native UK and created Blue Caribou in 2016 with the aim of bringing real Quebec flavors to a British audience. With their stand adorned with the blue and white of the fleurdelisÃ© and a menu featuring the names of their dishes in French, there is no ambiguity about what or where the Caribou Bleu is.
From the flag in the logo to their Quebec maple syrup, Gartside-Bernier wants to remain as faithful as possible to the origins of poutine. âEverything we do has marked Quebec everywhere. We try to use the true flavors of Quebec and infuse part of the history and culture into what we do.
With styles and toppings ranging from smoked pastrami to hot Buffalo chicken draped in blue cheese, Quebec comfort food has found a new market in Manchester. âWe have our devout customers,â Gartside-Bernier said, âbut we also have people who are introduced to it for the first time and it’s almost like their minds are blown away because they can’t figure out why something. so simple thing three ingredients – it’s so good. ”
As I discovered with my own first bite, the unique texture of poutine’s melted cheese curd is simple yet alluring. But it’s also fleeting; a moment in time to savor and move on. Questions of identity and ownership of the soul of poutine persist, however.
Culinary roots is a BBC Travel series connected to rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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