Right now I’m in the part of Canada that has the best food: Quebec. And I’m in the part of Quebec that has the best food: Charlevoix. Québécois food is not precious, pretentious, status-hungry; it’s plain old enjoyable, but deeply, caringly so. Starch, fat, salt, sugar, and alcohol are your friends.
Quebec’s most widely popular culinary invention is also one of its most basic and demotic: poutine. It’s a Canadian classic, like Nanaimo bars (which are from the other side of the country, true), but easier to make. It’s not originally from Charlevoix – it’s apparently from the Montreal area. But you can get it in any pub in the country now, and quite a few other places too. Especially cafeterias at ski hills. It’s absolutely the classic ski fuel.
We didn’t have poutine in Alberta when I was a kid – it was invented in Quebec in the 1950s or ’60s, but didn’t start to catch on across the country until the later ’80s – but we had something that was two-thirds there. When I would go skiing, my lunch pretty much always involved French fries with gravy. Gravy is a classic on French fries in Canada, though fast food chains from America don’t seem to know that. Actually, Americans don’t seem to understand gravy on French fries in general: when I was in grad school in the Boston area, I tried asking for gravy on my fries once and they looked at me like I was a green man from Mars who had stepped off a flying saucer and asked where I could find the narcotics. I found this a bit gobsmacking, since gravy and fries are both such American standards. But I digress. (Some Americans have come close to the discovery with a thing called “disco fries.” Disco? They just need some very.)
So anyway, as soon as everyone in Anglo-Canada heard what they were doing with fries and gravy in Quebec, they all said, “Yeah!” What were they doing? Adding cheese curds. Cheese is a big thing in Quebec – actually, the best cheeses I’ve ever had have been from Quebec, and I’ve had a lot of different cheeses – and cheese curds are very popular. You can get them in bags next to the cash register in a chain grocery store. (I know; I saw them in a Metro in La Malbaie just this afternoon.) Curds are handy lumps, so you don’t even have to shred the cheese (though I have seen that version of poutine too, in pubs in Anglo-Canada). It may sound like a bit of an unholy mess – according to one story, that’s actually where it got its name; poutine is supposedly Quebec slang for a mess (there are other purported etymologies, including some relating it to pudding, which fail to account for the d/t alteration) – but actually so what? It’s delicious.
And, as I mentioned, perfect if you’ve been doing physical activity outside in cold weather. So when we went in for lunch today after a morning of skiing in –15˚C at Le Massif here in Charlevoix, you know what I was going to have.
Would you believe that in the cafeteria at a ski area in Quebec food central they don’t have poutine?
Maybe it’s because it was early season and they didn’t see it as worthwhile to fire up the chip fryer. It really wasn’t busy there. But daaaaaaamn. And, let me tell you, one of the joys of ordering poutine in Quebec is hearing them say the word in a Québécois accent. At Mont-Tremblant, I dined out longer on the [pu ˈtsɪən] than I did on the poutine itself.
So obviously I was pouting. We had to have some for supper. And we did, in the lobby bar here at the Manoir Richelieu, made the right way, and very satisfying. A good poutine will always leave a good taste in your mouth.
Is there a bad poutine? There is if you get into politics. Actually, there are two bad political poutines. (Word just wanted to change poutines to poutiness. Which, with one letter, change from a thing to its absence – or a reaction thereto.) The first is Vladimir Poutine. This is not a joke; this is how you transliterate Путин in French – and you get a more accurate pronunciation than the Bush-style “poot’n.” It just happens that a crypto-Soviet satrap shares a name with the ultimate Franco-Canadian basse cuisine. Just imagine if the president of Italy were called Giorgio Pizza and you get an idea.
In Canada, there’s another political reference with a bad taste: Pierre Poutine. This is the (obviously) fake name to which a phone number was registered that was used in what is now called the Robocall scandal. Voters in several ridings who were likely to vote against the Conservatives received robocalls (pre-recorded computerized phone calls) giving them false information about their polling station. The name Pierre Poutine is easily perceived as a snotty slap at Quebec (and parties more popular with it) by a party associated with western Canada and anti-Quebec attitudes. Which just added further bad optics to an illegal activity.
I have to assume that anyone who is fluent in French also has a taste of another off-colour word when they have the taste of poutine in their mouth: putaine, a negative-toned word for ‘prostitute’ that’s often used as an expletive. The vowels are not the same but they are similar. I’m not sure how that affects the tone of the word in French. But it doesn’t seem to hurt the popularity of the dish.
There are a lot of variations on poutine now. There’s a restaurant in Montreal called La Banquise that has more than 30 types of poutine (mostly relying on added ingredients). I’ve eaten there. It’s good. So are many, though not all, of the precious artisanal variations available in Toronto.
But there’s just one word poutine. And you cannot say it accurately to the Quebec French accent while staying within English phonotactics. So shut up and eat.