March 10, 2009

Canadian Specialty: Poutine

One Canadian specialty I haven't had in a while is Poutine. You can get it from a few places in town...but it's generally not as good as I remember Harvey's to be. Here's a little snippet from the CBC back when Poutine was just becoming popular:

Oh Canada, we stand on guard for … poutine?

By Adam Day

There is a secret Canadians whisper to each other when no foreigners are in the room. It is a fledgling secret, passed on like a rumour. But it represents nothing less than the emergence of a distinctly Canadian culture.

They are whispering: "Hey, dude, I’m hungry, let’s go have some poutine."

Not so long ago it was pretty difficult to define Canada’s national identity. Suggested definitions were usually based on exclusions, trying to reveal what we are by listing what we’re not.

Central to this type of definition was the inevitable claim that we are not American, combined sometimes with vague assertions about how pleasant we all are to each other, even the people we don’t like very much.

The core of this inability to positively define ourselves was a lack of concrete cultural artifacts. Food, for example, plays a key role in defining a nation’s culture. Can you imagine Italy without pasta and pizza, India without curry or China without chicken balls?

Fear not. Canada now can join the old and well-established cultures of the world. It has poutine – a unique dish made of French fries, cheese and gravy that evolved in Canada as a response to the cultural and environmental qualities of Canadian life.

The father of poutine is a Quebecois named Fernand Lachance. Now 80, Lachance first had his great idea in 1957 at his small restaurant in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. At first he was offering only fries and cheese curds mixed together in a plastic bag as a take-out specialty. Then one day, a local truck driver placed an order for the messy specialty and a side of gravy. Once Lachance gave him the order, the truck driver dumped the gravy into the bag, sat down at a table, cut the bag open and began to eat. Poutine was born.

The word poutine comes originally from la poutina of Southern France, which was derived from the English word pudding. The word first appeared in Canada in Acadian cuisine, where a dish of mashed potatoes, pork and spiced sauce is called poutines rapees. Roughly translated, the word poutine means "stuff stuck in a mess of other stuff which is also quite saucy."

Today poutine is available in some of Canada finest restaurants. The Ritz-Carlton constructs its poutine out of goat cheese, rendered duck skin and Yukon gold potatoes. One serving costs $24.

During the past few years, poutine has even become available in Canada from large multi-national outlets like McDonalds and Burger King.

Charlene Lo of Weber Shandrick Worldwide, the public relations company representing McDonalds Canada, says the chain is constantly searching for "specialty dishes" to introduce into national markets.

"With poutine, McDonalds did a market test in Quebec lasting nearly 10 years. Once that was determined to be successful, the decision to carry the product nationally rests with the individual franchise," Lo says.

Poutine has been picked up by franchises all across the nation. And why not, it’s a hit.

McDonalds franchises in Kamloops began selling poutine in September 2001. Anna Meyers, assistant manager of the Aberdeen McDonalds, can’t believe how well it’s selling.

"People love it, since it’s gotten cold we’re going through two pots of gravy a day," said Meyers. "At first people were a little reluctant, but now, for some customers, we have to use a special carton to give them larger portions. The regular size just isn’t big enough. … I haven’t seen anything like that with our other products."

The secret to assembling a high-level poutine? "Make sure your gravy is hot and your cheese curds are thawed, that’s the secret to making it right," Meyers says.

Still, not everyone is a poutine fan. Stephanie Koch, who works at the McDonalds in Valleyview, thinks poutine is both foreign and repellant.

"It’s gross," Koch says. "I don’t know why people eat it. It’s so fatty."

She’s right about the fatty part. According to one scale, a medium-size serving of poutine can contain more than 20 grams of fat and 450 calories. Over the course of several servings, those stats are going to add up to a lot of extra insulation, which is useful when you live in a place where the temperature drops to -30 Celsius in the winter.

Having a national identity based on nothing more than a shared dislike of the United States and being pleasant never really did seem like a solid plan. But now, thanks to Quebecois visionary and national hero Fernand Lachance, we have the first tangible (and edible) evidence of our emerging national identity.

And, as a bonus unique to cultures in advanced free market economies, the new icon of our nationality is available for eat-in or take-out.

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