Sunday, August 12, 2018

Poutine Does Not Have to be Hip to Be Good!

Je me souviens

Poutine is not hip . . . tragically or otherwise. I have spoken out here more than once on the subject of poutine, that often maligned traditional Québécois dish. The word "poutine" has just entered into the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary along with other food offerings such as "pho," "turducken," and "pepita." The dictionary defines poutine as "a dish of French fries covered with brown gravy and cheese curds." That really says it all! I should note that editors indicated they found no evidence of the word poutine prior to 1982. Obviously none of them are from Québec where poutine has been a traditional offering since around the end of World War II.

Poutine has now spread beyond the border of Québec, to other areas of Canada and even to the USA. I have found it on the menu in diverse locales. I know of a few places at home in Washington, DC - all well-respected establishments, including one situated on Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House - that serve a decent, authentic poutine as does a local Wonky Truck found around town. I recently learned that a new poutinerie has opened in my old stomping grounds in Tucson, Arizona. You can even find them here and there in Florida where the Canadian snowbirds spend their winters. Yet for some reason some purveyors of poutine . . . even in Québec . . . have found it necessary to add other ingredients to the holy trinity in order to make poutine their own. Not hip necessarily, but their own. Montréal’s Martin Picard serves "poutine au fois gras" at his landmark restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. I will freely admit that I have tried it there . . . and it is wonderful! But I am not sure why this is all necessary. In my humble opinion it is not poutine the way God intended it.

A few years ago a good friend sent me a clipping from a recent "Adventure & Travel" section of The Wall Street Journal; an article by Adam Leith Gollner entitled "Quebec’s Baddest Poutine." Gollner, a native Quebecker, visited a poutine festival at which several chefs had gathered to demonstrate new ways to "enhance the dish’s fundamental triumvirate." Anyone who has ever had honest-to-God authentic poutine, or who is someone who reveres it like I do, knows that poutine is just about as simple as it gets. French fried potatoes, thick beef gravy [sauce brune] . . . the thicker the better . . . and melted cheese curds; no mozzarella or pepper jack or whatever cheese you prefer . . . it has to be fresh cheese curds. That’s it. Nothing else. It doesn’t get any simpler, or better, or tastier than that. You put other crap in it and it ain’t poutine! Why would anyone in their right mind want to "enhance" it?

Still, the wider its reach, the greater the propensity to make poutine something it is not, to make it "better" by adding more ingredients and coming up with more mind-numbing ways to serve it. Again I ask you why? Potatoes, beef gravy and squeaky cheese curds that "sound like a rusty door hinge swinging open between your teeth." That is all you need. Poutine does not have to be hip to be good. Finis! So when I read in Gollner’s article about a poutine festival dedicated to new and improved ways to make and serve poutine, I naturally figured it took place in some far-flung locale like Las Vegas, or Miami Beach, or New Orleans . . . or even Shanghai. But no. It took place in Montréal of all places! Within a few miles from the original’s humble and somewhat debatable birthplace! And the winner? "Poutine a la General Tso" courtesy of an establishment called Poutineville with three locations in the Montréal area. They offer an assortment of "poutines haut de gamme" [specialty poutine] which involve tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, and various meats prepared in various ways. And all topped off with a special poutine sauce. Le blasphème de l'ordre le plus élevé! I don’t even want to think about it. To quote Gollner: "The problem with aiming to make poutine fancy is that the dish is meant to be trashy." Amen to that.

But perhaps I am in the minority. USA Today recently reported on Banters, "one of the most interesting – and schizophrenic" of the of the new "hip" restaurants and boutiques along Detroit Avenue in the recently gentrified Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side. It’s menu is focused on fancy sausages and a dozen variations of "gourmet poutines" such as rabbit pot pie poutine, chicken paprikash poutine, spätzle poutine, crème fraiche poutine, apple gastrique poutine, and seared foie gras poutine! And how about poutine featuring braised Berkshire pork shoulder, butter poached wild mushrooms, almonds and scallions, or fried pork pate and sunny side up eggs? Really?? Is all of this really necessary. I will admit that I do like the idea of a "Vladimir Poutine" featuring Ohio-raised lamb stroganoff, mushrooms and borscht gravy. Well, I like the name anyway. The article summed up saying "For poutine lovers, this may be the nation’s best slate." Well, maybe, but they just ain’t poutine folks.

No thanks to faux poutine. Give me the genuine thing any day!