Calling poutine ‘Canadian’ gives some Quebecers indigestion

Calling poutine ‘Canadian’ gives some Quebecers indigestion
This poutine au fois gras is prepared at Le Pied de Cochon, a Montreal, restaurant. The traditional dish, which was once mocked and underappreciated in Quebec, has now become an "international superstar," says one self-described “poutinologist."  (David Boily / AFP/Getty Images file photo)  

By DAN BILEFSKYThe New York Times

Wed., Dec. 20, 2017

MONTREAL—The friends from Quebec went to London’s Brick Lane food market, searching for a taste of home. But as they devoured their poutine — that gloppy, belt-bursting dish of french fries, cheddar cheese curds and gravy — something felt horribly wrong.

The dish tasted just right — so authentic that the cheese curds emitted a faint “squeak, squeak” when bitten into — the telltale sign of a proper poutine.

But the jovial chef serving them had an Ontario accent. Even more disconcerting: He was wearing the hat of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, the archrivals of the Montreal Canadiens.

“Poutine is Québécois — it is not Canadian,” said 25-year-old Zak Rosentzveig, a poutine-obsessed economist from Montreal, describing his recent visit to the food stall and adding his voice to a simmering debate over poutine’s true identity.

“Calling poutine ‘Canadian’ makes me feel very uncomfortable because Quebec has a distinct culture and history from the rest of Canada, and poutine is a strong symbol of that.”

When president Barack Obama served smoked duck poutine canapés to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House last year, he unintentionally fanned a cultural skirmish over who deserves credit for the unapologetically caloric dish.

Now, a group of patriots from the province that gave the world poutine is trying to reclaim it as its own. They insist that poutine — long mocked by anglophone Canadians as a low-grade hangover cure — is being unfairly usurped by the rest of the country.

Identity politics are no small matter in Quebec, where concerns about the encroachment of outside forces on French Canadian culture remain deeply ingrained in the province’s psyche. Even Quebec’s licence plates, which say “Je me souviens” (“I remember”), have for decades been interpreted by some — fairly or not — as a reference to the British conquest of Quebec in 1759.

Only this month, the Quebec legislature passed a resolution calling for merchants in the French-majority province to stop greeting customers with “bonjour/hi” — a hybrid expression popular in bilingual Montreal — and to say just “bonjour” instead.

Leading the movement to rebrand the beloved and starchy snack is Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, 28, a self-described “poutinologist” from Montreal who rocked the Canadian culinary world this summer after presenting an academic paper arguing that Canada had culturally appropriated a dish so quintessentially Québécois that it amounted to a theft.

In some ways, his argument is a light echo of conversations across Canada about cultural appropriation. The treachery, he observed, was akin to Britain claiming credit for haggis or Israel extolling falafel, widely enjoyed in the Arab world, as its “national snack.”

Six months later, Fabien-Ouellet has become something of a folk hero in his native Quebec, feted in dozens of newspapers and radio shows, even as he has been derided by Canadian federalists on social media as a poutine nationalist. He is now writing a book on poutine culture.

“Like Céline Dion, poutine was once mocked and underappreciated in Quebec,” he mused this week at La Banquise, a popular ice cream shop-turned-poutine restaurant in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood as the pungent smell of fried oil wafted through the air.

Dozens of 20-somethings sat hunched over heaping plates like poutine la reggae — ground beef, guacamole, diced tomatoes and hot peppers. He continued, “Now that poutine has become an international superstar, Canadians want to say it is theirs, but it is not.”

The bookish and rail-thin poutinologist, who appears not to pig out on his subject, stressed that the exaltation of poutine as one of the top 10 Canadian inventions of all time — up there with insulin and the Wonderbra — belied the fact that it was once ridiculed by Canadian elites to “tarnish Quebec culture and undermine its legitimacy of self-determination as a nation.”

After first appearing in the 1950s in rural Quebec, poutine came to be sneered at by some gastro-snobs as a late-night nosh whose name dare not be spoken in a province that has long fetishized French cuisine. Its greasy simplicity was served up at hockey arena snack bars and seen as reflecting a working-class Quebec more inclined to cheese fries than foie gras.

Later, some health officials sought to ban poutine on school cafeteria menus.

Poutine’s rags-to-riches transformation was cemented when Martin Picard, a maverick of Canadian — or shall we say Québécois — cuisine helped raise it to an art form in 2001 when he made poutine with foie gras the signature dish at his now-celebrated Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon.

The dish further went global when Chuck Hughes won an Iron Chef America contest in 2011, trouncing his rival with a plate of lobster poutine.

Today, there are poutine restaurants from Thailand and Bermuda to Liverpool, and concoctions like chicken tikka poutine and cheese cake poutine with the gravy replaced by caramel.

Still, the nagging question remains: Is poutine Québécois or Canadian?

Lesley Chesterman, the food critic at Montreal’s The Gazette, said it was a sacrilege to call poutine “Canadian,” insisting that, more often than not, poutine outside of Quebec was quite simply not poutine.

“In Vancouver they will get it all wrong — they will use mozzarella,” she said. “People say you can now get cheese curds in Saskatchewan, but it won’t be real poutine. When it crosses the border, it loses its authenticity.”

She added, “Cheese cake poutine is just plain wrong!”

Other leading poutine proponents, including Picard, countered that the Canadian embrace of poutine could be construed as a healthy sign of a country increasingly at peace with both its English- and French-speaking parts.

“It is a sign that Canada’s provinces are getting along better. It can be seen as a cultural affirmation,” he said.

Jamie Kennedy, an influential Canadian chef who brought gourmet poutine to Toronto, said accusations that Canada was pilfering poutine from Quebec gave him indigestion, given that there was no such thing as a “Canadian national dish” in multicultural Canada.

“Do we need to endlessly give credit to the Québécois for inventing it?” he asked.

Whatever its cultural provenance, its origins have more claims than there are curds in a plate of poutine.

One widespread theory is that poutine traces its roots to 1957, to a restaurant formerly known as Le Lutin Qui Rit, or The Laughing Elf, in Warwick, a small town northeast of Montreal, when a customer asked owner Fernand Lachance to add cheese curds to his fries. Lachance is said to have proclaimed that it would be a “maudite poutine,” or “a hell of a mess.”

A history of poutine on the website of La Banquise notes that other dishes made of potatoes are also called “poutines,” and it could also be derived from the English word “pudding.”

Whatever the truth, some chefs, including Hughes, the creator of the lobster poutine, said politicizing poutine gave the fatty treat far too much importance.
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