I can’t remember the first time I ate poutine, but it wasn’t at 4 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t pass out in the cab afterward. I grew up eating the iconic Quebecois dish of fries, gravy and cheese curds. My dad would take my brother and me for rare junk-food runs and poutine always went with all-dressed “steamies” (steamed hot dogs topped with mustard, onions and slaw). Since those days, poutine has become the food world’s punchline. Reduced to the lowly descriptor of “drunk food,” it seems to be taken seriously only when gussied up with fancy ingredients like foie gras or lobster. Degrading, if you ask me. Like a dog wearing a tutu.
At the White House earlier this month, bromantically involved state leaders Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau flashed hot-dad smiles while their guests nibbled “poutine canapés”: nests of wafer fries with shaved smoked duck and red wine gravy. Really? Why even call it a poutine at that point? I’ll tell you why: because it’s funny. The non-news was picked up by NPR, The Washington Post and every major food blog this side of Plattsburgh. Everyone gets a chuckle out of the dish that provided caloric fortification to mid-century French-Canadian peasants in the bitter winter cold. Hilarious.
The joke has spread beyond the U.S. border. In February La Poutine Week was held, an event that started in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto, but restaurants as far as Australia now take part. Think they’re doing it to pay tribute to my farmer ancestors? Not likely.
So just how did poutine spread across the globe like an off-color joke? It started long before the foodie craze took hold. As an English teacher in Seoul in the late 1990s, I saw the dish alongside Jamaican jerk chicken at an “international restaurant.” (It was introduced to all New York Fries locations in Korea around that time, which may have had something to do with it.) Soon after, living in London, I witnessed some of the worst-behaved Canadians in history losing their minds at the Maple Leaf Bar in Covent Garden for Canada Day. They jumped on cars, peed in alleys and, yes, barfed up poutine on the sidewalk outside. I’m pretty sure they were mostly from Ontario.
Poutine’s most commonly cited origin story tells of the dish’s birth in central Quebec, where cheesemaking towns abound, in the 1950s. In the working-class Quebecois slang known as joual, the word translates as “a mess.” Several towns and restaurateurs throughout the ’50s and ’60s claimed to have invented poutine, but like so many recipes, it probably evolved over time. It spread from the countryside to Montreal and Quebec City in the’70s and ’80s, and regional variations were born across the province (Gaspésie’s la galvaude is topped with chicken and canned peas).
McDonald’s put McPoutine on the menu throughout Quebec in the 1990s. Made with its addictive, if pale and reedy, fries, it certainly caught people’s attention, but poutine without thick, grease-browned patates frites is hardly poutine. In 2013, the chain rolled out its version of poutine nationwide across Canada. Most recently, the fast-food giant introduced a smoked-meat poutine, a quintessentially Montreal variation, and took the local cred up another notch by naming it after a hockey player for the hometown Montreal Canadiens. Go Habs Go!
Meanwhile, French-Canadians traveled and lived abroad, taking poutine with them. Foreigners visited Quebec and discovered the dish, only to take it home. The rest of Canada (aka English Canada) appropriated poutine, much to the scorn of pure laine (literally “pure wool”) Quebecois. Eventually, chefs discovered it.
Martin Picard and his temple to Quebec peasant food, Au Pied de Cochon, helped drive the dish’s shift from fast food to hipster haute cuisine. The Montreal restaurant has become a mecca for traveling chefs and a necessary pilgrimage for any foodie visiting the city. Picard’s poutine is topped with foie gras, out of whimsy and a good dose of fuck-you to epicurean types who looked down their noses at traditional Quebecois food. Then came the recession and the elevation of comfort food to gourmet status across America. Poutine started showing up on menus in L.A., New York and beyond.
In recent years, the word was inducted into the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Whether we like it or not, it’s here to stay. And by here, I mean everywhere. It belongs to the world now. Admittedly, it’s hard for some of us who grew up on it to swallow. It can feel like this piece of our heritage, this beautiful gift we’ve given the world, has been mishandled. Before you throw oxtail on some fries and call it poutine or decide it would be cute if the fries were waffled instead of straight cut, you’d better be sure to have the cred to back it up. Like, you also do a killer classic poutine too, or you’ve eaten enough of them to know how good a curd is by its squeak against your teeth. And don’t get me started on using mozzarella or other melting cheeses. There’s a special place in hell for cooks who do that.
In Quebec, the connection to poutine runs deep. I’m not going to say we have gravy coursing through our veins or cry cheese-curd tears, but we care. We fucking care. We hostie-de-câlice-de-tabarnak care. (That’s French-Canadian cursing, in case you couldn’t figure it out.) We care that our food is done right and that people don’t just eat it ironically. At least give it a try before funneling a pint or smoking a bowl, for god’s sake.