By Joe Yachimec
At the small-town high school where I was first introduced to the poutine, it was something only the jocks would eat. Being the mentally segregated, high school clique-conscious young man that I was, I tried it once and then rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s along with girls, sports, beer, and fun.
Well, the poutine marched on without me, irrespective of time, gravity, evolution, biology, nutrition and low-fat dieting. In fact, the poutine recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. I’d say “happy birthday,” but I think the dish consisting of fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds would be above such mortal things by now. The poutine just is. It demands respect — and it gets it, too. Even from food critics.
“I love poutine, especially when the curds are really squeaky,” says Amy Pataki, Ryerson grad and restaurant critic for the Toronto Star. “That’s how I first had it in Quebec City 20 years ago, during a pub crawl.” Ahh, youth.
Fifty years is a long time, especially for something so obviously unhealthy. For it to survive in today’s greentard eco-soy environment so . . . healthily, its tenacity impressed me. Also, I hadn’t eaten a plate of poutine for six years. It was time to begin anew. To do that I had to go back to the dish’s origins in the small Quebec town of Warwick where, in 1957, restaurateur Fernand Lachance poured curdled cheese into a bag of fries at the request of a trucker and exclaimed, “Ça va faire une maudite poutine!” (It will make one hell of a mess!). I called Claude Desrochers, the mayor of Warwick, Que., to give me the dish about . . . the dish.
“Bonjour?” said a man’s voice.
“Er, hi, I’m looking for Monsieur Desrochers?” I said. Heh, “Monsieur.” Good one, Joe. Show them that you know how to play their game.
“. . . Oui?”
“Er, is this . . . Monsieur Desrochers?” I say.
“. . . Oui?”
Fuck, this guy doesn’t speak English, does he? Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, nous sommes, says my brain, choking on jagged bits of Grade 9 French.
“Er, je suis . . . une . . . un . . . journalist du Toronto?”
“. . . Oui?”
“Um . . . je . . . am doing . . . une article? Du poutine?”
“. . . Oui?”
I hung up and, in a clear breach of my journalistic integrity, I asked my friend, a French Immersion graduate, to ask Desrochers my questions. As it turns out:
Desrochers neither knows nor cares about the poutine despite the CBC calling it Canada’s 10th best invention (basketball was ranked 21st). He also doesn’t eat poutines. Until I called him, he had forgotten that the poutine saw its abiogenesis in his town. He has neither a monument nor memento in mind to honour the passing of poutine’s creator, Fernand Lachance, despite promising one in a 2004 New York Times article.
Tabernac. And this man dares to call himself a mayor? Enough talking. The Internet told me where good a poutine could be found in Toronto so I wrote the addresses down on my arm and fumed into the cold January sunshine.
Closest to campus was a chain outlet of New York Fries, which is buried deep in the sterile gut of the Eaton Centre food court. The place is done up in that particular brand of mall architecture that makes everything look like a giant bathroom.
The word “poutine” doesn’t sound that appetizing, either. It has the “poo” sound right in there. It’s also close to the French word “putain,” which when roughly translated, means “cunt.” I meditated on this, and ordered a small poutine.
The snaggletoothed fryboy leaned back on the counter and passed Frygirl a sheaf of sweating fries. Frygirl applied cheese curds — which are like innocent, nubile cheese — with an ice cream scoop, and pumped six shots of brown gravy into the mess.
It was crunchy, salty, gravyful and filling, though I started to feel a little ill halfway through. Phantom grease collected on my lips and the feeling remained even after I wiped it off. Stringy cobwebs of melted curd wafted themselves onto my chin and stuck there.
I wondered if people would see me staggering glassy eyed around Toronto with gravy in the corners of my mouth and know exactly what I was up to. “Ah,” they’d say. “It is poutine’s 50th anniversary, isn’t it?”
Next on the arm-list was Mr. Tasty Fries, a blue chip truck parked outside city hall covered in retro-optimistic “Let’s all go to the lobby” illustrations. My heart bobbed on an even keel of gravy. There was sweat pooling under my eyes. All was not well.
I held the cardboard tureen of poutine with my freezing hands as the wind tore through my “Magazines Canada” garbage giveaway toque, watching the people skate around the rink in Nathan Phillips Square.
“Damn, I feel really fucking Canadian right now,” I said through frostbitten lips. I tried to write down some notes but the ink was frozen in my pen. Then I tossed a fry onto the sidewalk, causing a small riot among the obese pigeons.
There was a pain in my side as I dressed for work at the Ram in the Rye, which also served the greasy concoction. My vision swirled and tilted violently. Colours blurred. There was gravy in the back of my throat.
Fernand Lachance (Father Poutine) appeared before my watering eyes. He was a portly man with a white mustache and a ghost tail below his belt instead of legs — like Casper, only fat and French Canadian.
“Er, bonjour. Monsieur Lachance?” I said. “Oui,” he said. Je suis, tu est, il est, elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils onts, elles onts, said my brain. “Tu . . . est . . . le — la . . . le . . . invent — eur . . . du Poutine?”
“. . . Oui? Avez-vous su le maire de warwick ne construit pas ma statue? Je suis plus célèbre que le basketball!”