The Problematic Politics of Poutine

Poutine has been gaining popularity over the past few years, not just in Canada but in the United States, too. In Quebec, there are some poutine rumblings – and not of the stomach – that caught the attention of The New York Times, resulting in this recent article about the culturally charged dish.

For years the Quebecois have remained stalwart as their unique dish was mocked, and now that it is growing more popular, are called to defend it against cultural appropriation by Canada.

In case you missed it, poutine is a dish that originated in Quebec and consists of french fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. We wrote about its similarity to “disco fries,” a New Jersey diner staple, in this poutine blog post, and also made our own version with duck fat fries (highly recommended!). Good to know: both poutine and disco fries are considered ideal choices for late-night dining after a few drinks.

In our original blog post on the subject, we did the unforgivable and described poutine as Canadian. We apologize for our insensitivity on this subject (at least we said it was from Quebec).

Our duck fat fries with cheese curds and gravy (not quite thick enough).

No longer will that mistake be made, thanks to the scholarly work of a young Quebecois named Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, which explores the history of poutine, and its adoption by the wider world.

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 Quebecois 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.”

– Dan Bilefsky, “Calling Poutine ‘Canadian’ Gives Some in Quebec Indigestion,” The New York Times

In the introduction to Fabien-Oullet’s study, he describes the White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford serving poutine for the first state dinner in March 2016 with Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. Of course, hers was an adaptation of the dish, described as “shavings of smoked duck and cheese curds finished with red wine gravy and served on delicate wafer fries: a one-bite canapé.” Sounds pretty tasty to us.

To Fabien-Oullet it was an indication that the popularization of poutine had gone too far, and its origins were being lost.

You can read his entire poutine paper here.

Cultural appropriation via t-shirt, on Wikipedia. Photo by Erik LeBrun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The famous foie gras poutine that Martin Picard makes at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal is what seems to have launched poutine into popular consciousness. It inspired chefs to push the boundaries of what could be done with this humble and beloved dish. Poutine has been spotted with curry sauce instead of gravy, with lobster and oxtail, duck confit, brisket, and egg on top (poutine for brunch!). There’s a whole world of food to put on french fries.

foie gras poutine flickr
Foie Gras Poutine at Au Pied de Cochon,  Photo: Corey on Flickr

“It is now clear that poutine has long transcended its classical state of fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy to become a dish of elastic meaning,” says Fabien-Oullet. But he warns that “consumers of the dish must understand that it has been used as a form of stigma against a minority group that is still at risk of cultural absorption. Therefore, the dish should be, ideally, labeled explicitly as a Quebecois dish and not a Canadian one to further underscore the cultural context to which it actually belongs.”

Now that we all know better, let’s be more respectful when we talk about poutine, that fantastic comfort food from Quebec.

Featured image: Poutine in a pool room in Montreal. Photo: Guilhem Vellut

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Cordelia. says:

    Great post, I really like how you saw 2 seemingly separate things being linked!

  2. Suzanne Douglass says:

    I’d love to make this but, a;as, I have no source for cheese curds. Any suggestions for a reasonable facsimile?

  3. D'Artagnan says:

    This is a good question! Cheese curds should be eaten within 24 hours of being made for best flavor and squeakiness. That makes them tricky to find unless you are live in dairy country or have a good cheesemonger locally. There are some cheese outfits selling curds online, like this one:
    The alternative would be to make your own, as outlined on this site:
    Good luck, and let us know if you score some and make poutine.

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