Putting the French Back in Fries

In Canada, poutine is more than a fad

By / November 2015

Canada’s current culinary obsession, the poutine, rolls off the tongue like a punchline from a Pixar movie. Poutine (pronounced poo-teen or pu-tin, accomplished by puckering the lips and repeating the name of the Russian president) can actually mean “mess” in French-Canadian slang. The word has connections to English pudding. It’s an onomatopoeia that pretty much explains itself, as well as how the dish turns up on the backend of many a wisecrack.

But poutine is serious Canadian cuisine. Serious in the sense that it’s a food craze sweeping the nation. Serious as an expressly French-inspired dish, and that not simply owing to its foundation of fries. As a meal, poutine’s basic recipe includes frites ladled with brown gravy and squeaky cheese curds. Historically found in dives and pubs (known as casse-croutes across Quebec), poutine has morphed in recent years into an entirely new food group featured in the finest establishments from Vancouver to Montreal.

In circumstances that befuddle irony, I first encountered French-Canadian poutine at a New York Fries restaurant in downtown Istanbul. At the time, I didn’t know what poutine was, much less how to pronounce the word. I also could not have guessed that an eatery hailing a New York label would have originated in the Canadian backwater of Brantford, south and west of Toronto. With national startups like NY Fries and Boston Pizza, one has to wonder if the True North has a culinary complex, eh?

Photograph by Danley Shackelford

Truth is, poutine has about as much in common with the Big Apple as pizza does with Boston. As far as we know, poutine originated in or around French Quebec in the 1950s. Beyond that, all else is speculation. The newfound fame of the dish has actually blurred history, with every Quebecer village and hameau claiming the original. But that doesn’t really matter. Because Montreal is slowly emerging as the new capital of the Poutine Empire.

Montreal is to poutine what Chicago is to the humble hotdog. Elevating it, taking it up a notch, or whatever the contemporary cliché is for gentrifying the commoners’ foodstuff. Poutine, like Chicago’s dogs, is all about accoutrements. Gravy and cheese curds are standard but increasingly optional. At national fast food chains like Smoke’s Poutinerie, it’s open season for toppings. The more the better. The greasier the spoon the happier the customer.

Some have called poutine a glorified beer sponge, not far afield from American chili cheese fries. At first glance, the sloppy chow is barely better than the horrific “KFC bowls” from the last decade.

But poutine is changing. Canadian food snobbery is taking over the fried tuber. And the cross-breeding of French bistro and North American tavern has resulted in a piece de resistance for junkies and foodies alike. Every year in February, Canada now celebrates La Poutine Week. Begun in Montreal, it has now spread to Toronto, Quebec, and Ottawa, reaching even as far as Chicago, London, and Sydney.

Local restaurants submit their imaginative dishes into the annual contest, vying for best poutine of the city. Recent years have attracted not just fast food joints but first class chefs. Festival entries included frites topped with French finery such as foie gras, caviar, and truffles. There was Peking duck poutine, shawarma poutine, braised lamb curry poutine, Jamaican jerk poutine, kimchee poutine—anything you can imagine, and potentially wouldn’t want, on top of saucy fries.

Last year’s people’s choice winner in Montreal came from Dirty Dogs and was simply called “THE BOSS.” The volcanic poutine featured crispy fries doused in a duck-based sauce, Dr. Pepper chili, fresh onions, cheddar, mustard, and a red cabbage slaw. If nothing else, popular voting proved that locals still lean toward poutine’s baser pleasures.

In Toronto, poutine can be found everywhere. From sit-down swanks to walled-in holes. Sometimes entire eateries devote themselves to the dish, simple places like Poutineville or Poutini’s House of Poutine, the latter catering to the hung-over and hungry crowd. On a recent trip to Toronto I opted for Smoke’s Poutinerie, a no-collar establishment that brags about its artery-clogging offerings.

Sacks of potatoes filled the room, all with Smoke’s smiling face and thick-rimmed glasses plastered on the front. Over the stainless steel window where they take orders, the board lists 22 varieties including Hogtown, Perogie, Veggie Rainbow, and Nacho Grande. At table, spuds come out in three sizes of paper take-out boxes spilling over with gravy and squeaky curds.

It would be easy to write off poutine as a fad. But the fad doesn’t look to be fading out. Chefs and new restaurants across the country have embraced poutine as well. In 2011, Canadian Chuck Hughes beat out Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America with a plate of lobster poutine, a dish he offers at his restaurant Garde Manger in Old Montreal. His salty and luxuriously smooth lobster creates a delicate contrast to piles of bucolic potatoes served in a rustic skillet.

Poutine may not make the official menu at The Globe in Montreal, but Chef David McMillan will serve up a hearty portion of French fried potatoes with duck skin sauce and Stilton upon request. On the tariff at L’academie you can find gourmet poutine offerings featuring braised lamb, duck confit, filet mignon, even Italian sausage and pancetta. And while famous Montreal chefs like Martin Picard and Normand Laprise have yet to incorporate the peasant’s poutine on their menus, they admit to making it in the kitchen for staff and at home for family.

One would be hard-pressed to find a stovetop in all of Canada that hasn’t seen a version of this ubiquitous dish. With it, French Canadians have managed to transform an unpretentious stack of fries doused in gravy into gourmet fare and a global phenomenon.

 

Brian McKanna is a contributing editor at EthnoTraveler.

 

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