DURING the 2000 presidential campaign, the candidate from Texas fielded a question from Canada: “Prime Minister Jean Poutine said you look like the man who should lead the free world into the 21st century. What do you think about that?”
When George W. Bush pledged to “work closely together” with Mr. Poutine, Montrealers fell off their chairs laughing. It wasn’t so much that the Canadian leader was, in fact, Jean Chrétien, but that the “reporter” — Rick Mercer, a television comedian — had invoked the city’s emblematic, problematic, comedic junk food dish: poutine.
A gloppy, caloric layering of French fries, fresh cheese curds (a byproduct of Cheddar making) and gravy, poutine goes deep into the Quebequois psyche. Somehow, Quebec’s rural roots, its split identity (Acadian farmers or Gallic gourmets?) and its earthy sense of humor are all embodied by its unofficial dish.
This may be one reason that until now poutine has not traveled well. True, it was on the menu for years at Shopsin’s, the quirky West Village restaurant that closed this year, but so was nearly every other known foodstuff. But recently, it has materialized in a handful of cities across the United States. In New York City, it is on the menu at three highly divergent establishments, and this time it shows signs of taking hold.
Andy Bennett, the chef at the Inn LW12 in the meatpacking district, recalled his reaction on being told (by the Canadian faction of the inn’s owners) that poutine must be served. “I said, you’ve got to be kidding me. Then I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get away from it.”
Mr. Bennett, however, was converted. “You have to embrace these things,” he said. “Now it’s our biggest selling item by a long stretch.”
“I think it’s going to be across the city soon,” he said. “It’s going to stick without a doubt.”
Mr. Bennett’s choice of words was apt. Poutine is an extreme stick-to-your-ribs concoction, whose name is said to derive from Quebequois slang. According to the dominant creation myth, in 1957 a restaurateur named Fernand Lachance, when asked by a customer to combine fries and cheese curds, said it would make “une maudite poutine” — an unholy mess. (And this was pre-gravy. Another restaurateur, Jean-Paul Roy of Le Roy Jucep, claims to have first served fries with gravy and curds in 1964.)
Since Mr. Lachance’s death three years ago, poutine’s de facto spokesman has been Bob Rutledge, creator of the Web site MontrealPoutine.com. Mr. Rutledge, a professor of astrophysics at McGill University specializing in neutron stars, black holes and gamma ray bursts, first heard of poutine on moving to Montreal in 2004. He was instantly smitten.
“When I started asking about it, I got one of two responses,” he said. “It was either: ‘Oh here’s my favorite poutine place; you must go...’, or else it was: ‘Oh my God, why do you want to eat that stuff?’ It’s a veritable food phenomenon; half the people are embarrassed it exists.”
Siobhan O’Connor, a journalist who moved to New York from Montreal five years ago, has a different view. “The only people who don’t like poutine are people on a diet,” she said. “It’s the first thing you want when you go back, a real late-night post-drinking thing.”
Ms. O’Connor recently sampled the new batch of New York poutines. The classic version at Sheep Station, an Australian gastropub on the western edge of Park Slope, initially struck her as too dry. But, on discovering that the Quebequois chef, Martine Lafond, had secreted further curds and gravy under crisp, hot fries, she warmed to it, declaring the gravy authentically peppery, salty and meaty, and the curds as fresh as could be expected so far from home.
At Pommes Frites, an East Village storefront that traffics in Belgian fries but now has a sideline in their Canadian cousins, neither the rubbery, yellowish curds nor the lukewarm, flavorless sauce met with Ms. O’Connor’s approval. But Mr. Bennett’s four varieties at the Inn LW12 did, despite distinctly unorthodox stylings.
“I’d come back here just for this,” she declared of the plate with five-spice gravy and chewy strips of pork belly, though she found the Stilton cheese in the rich, toothsome braised beef with red wine version to be overload and the herby marinara sauce on the tomato version — called Italienne back home — disappointing. Though somewhat overshadowed by its glitzy sisters, the classic, too, more than passed muster.
Ms. O’Connor explained that poutine really belonged to the French speakers — her Irish-Montrealer mother, for instance, had never tried it — until “around 2000, when people started messing with it: green peppercorns, Gruyère, truffle oil...”
According to Professor Rutledge, variations on the theme are fine. “They strike me as creative and interesting so I give bonus points,” he said. He is, however, from Southern California. The average Montrealer seems to be more of a purist.
The chef Martin Picard, one of Montreal’s most high-profile culinary figures, embraces poutine at his restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. “That dish becomes an international passport,” he declared. “It’s not haute gastronomie, but it permits Quebec to get more interest from the rest of the world.”
Mr. Picard said he occasionally offers classic poutine as a “clin d’oeil” — a wink — to Quebequois cuisine, but his version with foie gras is what everyone remembers. For this, the regular poutine sauce — a thick, highly seasoned chicken velouté, which Mr. Picard enhances with pork stock — is enriched by foie gras and egg yolks. The dish is crowned with a four-ounce slab of seared goose liver.Whether Montreal’s embarrassing but adored junk food does take root in New York, it may never attain the status it achieved earlier this year when the CBC revealed the results of a viewer poll on the greatest Canadian inventions of all time. Granted, poutine came in only at No. 10. But it beat, among other things, the electron microscope, the BlackBerry, the paint roller and the caulking gun, lacrosse, plexiglass, radio voice transmission and basketball.
(It's worth checking out the photos in the original article.)
Poutine used to be considered embarrassing to the local French-Canadian population, known for excellent high-cuisine. Considered a low, rural food, it was thought to lack that cosmopolitan verve. But, with the rise of low-food popularity internationally, and the great interest of travelling gourmands in local recipes and low-foods, poutine has risen in local, as well as international interest. Nonetheless, the history of the embarrassment helps explain the difficulty in finding a good poutine, and why many people outside of Quebec have never heard of it.
Why would anyone consider eating poutine to be embarrassing? We don't know for sure, but it may stem from its association with the cheddar curds. In the eastern townships where poutine was invented (Warwick, Drummondville), it seems to have happened there due to the ready availability of these daily-fresh, briny curds, which people buy in small bags and snack on, like Doritos. It seems that some consider this to be a bit of a back-water habit - perhaps not unlike snacking on fried pork rinds in the American South. Take a back-water eating habit, and meld it together with a starchy plate of fried potatoes and a sauce, and, somehow the association rubs off.