Taking everyone by surprise, poutine—an unpretentious Quebecois dish originally made of fries, cheese curds and brown gravy—found its way onto the Canadian State Dinner menu organized by the White House in March 2016. Drawing on my personal relationship with poutine, this paper intends to expose how poutine has managed to enact a form of social mobility. The tasting experience of poutine is first deconstructed through its taste ‘on the tongue’ and its taste as a dynamic social process, to investigate poutine’s palatability and mainstream appeal. Through this tasting analysis, poutine emerges as a new(er) and distinct way to consume food that is increasingly adopted and adapted. A working definition of poutine as a new dish classification label in its own right (just like sandwiches, dumplings, soups, flatbreads or sushi) is proposed. The social mobility of other foods (e.g. lobster, kimchi, garlic, and sushi) is further explored, before discussing how poutine is also connected to a stigma, which weakens the agency of the Quebecois. Using the social identity theory, it appears that Quebecois youth are dismissing this ‘poutine stigma’ through a revaluing approach, which resembles a reappropriation of poutine, not necessarily linguistically (as seen with ‘black’, ‘queer’, or ‘geek’), but rather in a culinary fashion. Coupling poutine’s sociohistorical stigma and its growing Canadization (that is, the presentation, not the consumption per say, of poutine as a Canadian dish), two related situations—the ongoing process of poutine culinary appropriation and the threat of Quebecois cultural absorption by Canadians—are exposed.
Prenant plusieurs au dépourvu, la poutine—un plat québécois d’origine populaire typiquement composé de frites, de fromage en grains et de sauce brune— fut servie à la Maison-Blanche en mars 2016 à l’occasion d’un dîner d’État. Avec pour toile de fond la relation que j’entretiens avec la poutine, la présente étude s’attarde à la manière dont ce plat sans prétention a réussi un véritable tour de force en termes de mobilité sociale. L’expérience gustative de la poutine est d’abord déconstruite à travers une analyse de sa dynamique « en bouche », puis par une attention portée au goût en tant que dynamique sociale, ce qui permet d’éclaircir la palatabilité et la notoriété de ce mets. À la lumière de ces questionnements, la poutine apparaît comme une manière spécifique d’apprêter et de consommer les aliments, de plus en plus adoptée et adaptée. Je propose donc d’envisager une définition de la poutine comme nouvelle catégorie culinaire, c’est-à-dire moyen de distinguer un plat comme prototype ayant ses dérivés (tout comme le sont les sandwichs, les raviolis, les soupes, les galettes ou les sushis). Par la suite, la mobilité sociale d’autres aliments (comme le homard, le kimchi, l’ail et le sushi) est étudiée afin de recontextualiser la poutine comme outil historique de stigmatisation du peuple québécois. La théorie de l’identité sociale est ensuite introduite afin de révéler comment la jeunesse québécoise s’est réapproprié la poutine d’une manière positive et affirmative, opérant ainsi un « revirement de l’injure » (comme cela s’est vu avec les termes « black », « queer », ou « geek ») au niveau de son identité culinaire. Finalement, en juxtaposant le contexte sociohistorique de stigmatisation associé à la poutine et sa « canadianisation » grandissante (ce qui n’est en rien lié à sa consommation, mais à la présentation du mets en tant que « plat canadien »), les processus d’appropriation culinaire et de menace d’absorption de la culture québécoise au profit de celle canadienne sont exposés.
On March 10, 2016, the White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford served poutine (pronounced ) during the first State Dinner between United States President Barack Obama and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. If we set aside for a moment the classic version of poutine that consists of Quebec fries, cheese curds that often functions as a late-night beer sponge—Chef Comerford found a way to adapt the dish for the occasion and served “shavings of smoked duck and cheese curds finished with red wine gravy and served on delicate wafer fries: a one-bite canapé.”1 The White House was a radical change of setting for this dish that came from initially modest intentions, and that was typically served in rural casse-croûtes (diners), urban greasy spoons and community arenas (skating rinks) across Quebec. The event was also an unexpected instance of social mobility for a dish that was, for a significant part of its existence, a means of stigmatization used against Quebec society, and later the flagship of junk food consumption shaming of the 2000s.2 In this paper, I draw on my personal relationship with poutine to seek answers as to how this dish found its way into the White House—by deconstructing the poutine tasting experience and looking at the social mobility of foods, while also revisiting the poutine stigma through the social identity theory.
My Relationship with Poutine
Like many other Quebecois millennials, my upbringing was marked by a poutine ‘prohibition’. Halfway through high-school, around 2004, poutine was withdrawn from my cafeteria’s daily menu to be offered only on Thursdays. The nutritional arguments that supported this measure by my school’s administration are compelling, and can be summarized by the following two words: salt and fat.3 The cafeteria’s restriction transformed Thursday’s 11:55am lunch bell into a starting gun, signaling the start of the weekly sprint to the cafeteria to order poutine. Students used excuses to leave class early and found secret shortcuts so they could be first in line. Luckily for the hundreds of student sprinters, word eventually spread that the nearby skating rink was also serving poutine. Poutine was not only served at the rink daily, but it was also, in my opinion, a far superior poutine, mainly because of the crispier fries. This trick of getting poutine from another vendor lasted for some time, until Quebec’s community rinks had to abide by the virage santé that occurred around 2000 (i.e. Quebec’s decision to implement healthier eating and food habits).4 Now that I am in my mid-twenties, my relation with poutine is unhindered and the dish has become my sought-after late-night meal that I crave after I’ve had a few beers. In other words, just like many other millennial Montrealers, poutine has become my ‘drunk food.’ However, if I go camping with my friends, we always make sure to stop along the way to experience new poutineries (places serving primarily poutine, but that may also serve other menu items). As such, I have always described my appetite for poutine as being context-dependent, shifting from an urban-nighttime meal to a rural-daylight snack. But what exactly explains the attracting, somewhat addictive effect of poutine—a dish many find unappealing at first sight, only to embrace it after they’ve had a bite?
Poutine’s Mainstream Appeal: Social and Dynamic
Poutine is a social dish; it is meant to be eaten with others, although in some instances, the act of eating poutine alone is accompanied by a sense of shaming. Poutine sociability is commonly taken as far as ordering the largest available poutine size (e.g. small, medium, large) and asking to have two, three or four forks so that everyone can have their own bite of poutine to eat. When I eat poutine with my friends, we always talk about how the quality of the poutine fares in relation to other restaurants’ or poutineries, or whether this version is better or worse than the last time we had the dish at the same restaurant. These discussions that animate our meals emerge because, as it will be discussed in the following sections, poutine is a dynamic dish, and this ‘dynamicity’ is what makes the dish intriguing, exciting and mouth-watering.
The dynamic aspects of poutine are found in every bite. Robert J. Hyde and Steven A. Witherly suggest that “the most highly palatable foods are likely to have higher levels of dynamic contrast (moment-to-moment sensory contrast from the ever-changing properties of foods manipulated in the mouth).”5 The sensory contrast they refer to relies heavily on texture, but temperature, viscosity and irritation (from spices, acids, or carbonation) are also cited factors. Think of how unappealing a warm and soggy bowl of cereal is—that is, they argue, mainly because of its low dynamic contrast. In their article, ice cream, cold carbonated beverages and melted cheese on pizza are used to detail the type of foods that have a high level of dynamic contrast. “Obviously they have never sampled poutine,” as was once said in another context.
In each bite, the crispiness of the fries compounded with the sound-texture ‘squeakiness’ of the room-temperature cheese curds are both gently melted down by the thick and hot gravy, which in turn makes the flavours merge and evolve. How does this drastic mix and deliberate evolution in textures, temperatures, viscosities and flavours not make poutine the epitome of dynamic-contrast? The dynamic-contrast model would explain why poutine aficionados are highly cognizant of eating at the right pace and keeping the correct cheese-per-bite ratio, either in their personal or shared poutine. That is, to not to be left eating a low dynamic contrast cold potatoes and gravy paste (which would be analogous to eating the warm and soggy cereal bowl). Dynamic contrast theory brings to light why traits of a superior poutine are the long-lasting crispiness of the fries, and the freshness of the cheese curds, which can be assessed by the cheese’s sound-texture ‘squeakiness’.6 Topped with a thick and hot gravy that fuses flavours and textures from the three ingredients, the disparate ingredients are turned into a unified dish that is high in dynamic-contrast which —maybe to surprise— makes the poutine experience, not only pleasurable, but often memorable.
The dynamic aspect of poutine also lies in the fluctuations of its gastronomic experience—i.e., in its tasting. As posited by Leong-Salobir et al. (who based themselves on the Mann et al. experiment): “taste not only exists on the tongue but is a dynamic social process that encompasses production, consumption, and reproduction.”7,8 Let me first isolate taste ‘on the tongue.’ Some foods provide a standardized culinary experience. Hot-dogs, for example, seem—regardless of the ingredients, methods, or individual cook—to always give your tongue what was somewhat expected in terms of taste. On the contrary, the poutine taste ‘on the tongue’ is subjected to high fluctuations from one poutinerie to another: a whole array of different oils (vegetable to animal) can be used to deep-fry the potatoes; the cheese curds’ freshness and origin are subjected to variation; and every place has its own ‘secret’ recipe for its in-house gravy. In other words, each poutinerie offers a truly unique and distinctive poutine. Further, the poutine experience frequently varies from time to time, even if it is consumed at the same poutinerie. This is because it is common practice among the youth to eat their late-night poutine under the influence of alcohol or drugs, where the idea of social experience related to the act of tasting comes into question. From this practice of ‘eating under the influence’ often emerge myths about how this place or that place serves the tastiest poutine. Such bias expressed in the social sharing of poutine recalls—in addition to producing over-hyped poutinerie recommendations—makes one return to a poutinerie with great expectations, only to regrettably admit: “wasn’t that poutine better last time?” To me, these sensory (the uniqueness in ‘taste on the tongue’ of each poutinerie) and social (the regular taste mythification) dynamics that arise during the tasting experience explain my friends and I constant quest for novel poutineries, and why poutine eaters are constantly commenting, evaluating, comparing, and debating about the poutines they are sharing. These dynamics make the poutine tasting experience intriguing and unpredictable, and consequently highly attractive.
Poutine: A New Dish Classification?
The dynamic dimensions of poutine constitute my tentative explanation of why the odd combination of fries, cheese curds and brown gravy is gaining more and more popularity outside its birthplace…even by people that once ridiculed the dish and used it as a way to mock Quebec society (a point that will be addressed more thoroughly momentarily). Since the early 2000s, poutine has been offered as a dish people can order in Montreal’s higher-end restaurants (for example the foie gras poutine featured on the Au Pied de Cochon menu9), and has been served by Quebecois in other unexpected places across the world.10 Today poutine is a celebrated dish in annual poutine festivals held in places like Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago or New Hampshire. Interestingly, these poutine festivals, as well as the two located within Quebec, showcase the dynamic dimensions of poutine tasting, as each of them features a competition to find the best poutine of the year.
What is on full display in these pictures is the gastronomic innovations now involved when crafting poutine. While it is the charismatic foie gras poutine that is likely to be remembered as the spark that ignited cooks’ and chefs’ curiosity regarding the dish’s culinary potential,9 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. Menus are now featuring breakfast poutines with roasted potatoes, cheese curds, frankfurters, eggs and hollandaise sauce. Pierogi poutines, substituting pierogi for fries. Curry poutine, substituting the gravy with a curry sauce. Iced poutine, replacing the fries with chocolate wafers, the cheese curds with marshmallows and caramel popcorn, and the gravy with caramel syrup, all of it atop with vanilla soft-serve ice cream. Just like a California Roll is now presented as a sushi, these dishes are now presented as ‘legitimate’ versions of poutine, even if they have been significantly adapted from the original poutine ‘model’. While some see the elasticity in poutine's definition as bastardization,11 I will make the claim that poutine is not bastardized, but instead, through its worldwide adoption and adaptation, is emerging as a new type of dish classification in its own right. Just like sandwiches, dumplings, soups, and flatbreads are, or what sushi has arguably become, poutine is yet another label to classify how food is prepared, assembled, construed and consumed. Here is my working definition of poutine as its own dish classification:
Poutine: Minimum of three elements: (i) the crispy element (originally fries), (ii) the dairy element (originally cheese curds), and (iii) the liaising element (originally brown gravy). When served, each element has to be from different textures and temperatures, with the proper ratio so that all of them can be found in each bite throughout the course of the meal. The aim is to sustain the highest level of dynamic contrast possible per bite and over the course of the whole poutine tasting experience.
Social Mobility of Foods
Clearly, poutine has been following the same trend as other foods that went from being food items with a connotation of shame, be it to shame a culture or a personal identity, to being highly sought by foodies and then by the masses. For example, before becoming a regional delicacy of the Maritimes, lobster was used as an agricultural fertilizer, and its consumption was seen as a shame, signaling that a family had nothing else to eat.12 The same pattern was found with kimchi: now globally considered as a super-food with a lofty culinary status, it used to be the repugnant and malodorous Korean ‘rotten’ condiment linked to poverty and embarrassment, a source of shame and self-contempt for Koreans.13 Even garlic was once a way to make Italian immigrants coming to the United States—pejoratively titled garlic-eaters—feel lower class, backward, and unsophisticated.14 Today, Italian cuisine is highly desired by US-Americans.15 Also recall how, despite its current incontestable prestigious haute cuisine status, Japanese sushi was an object of derision, ridicule and disdain.16 In similar fashion, poutine has been used by many as a stigma and mocking stereotype of Quebecois society particularly by Anglo-Canadians and people from France (as documented by Charles-Alexandre Théorêt in Maudite poutine!). 17 The stigma was also replicated by the many Quebecois who felt embarrassed and disidentified with the dish.17 Poutine’s shame-to-praise path is ironically exposed by this caricature published a few months before the 1995 Quebec referendum that asked Quebecois if they wanted to become a sovereign state.
The caricature renders how poutine has been used at times to tarnish Quebec culture and undermine its legitimacy of self-determination as a nation, and in their analysis, Théorêt goes as far as titling the drawing: L’appel de la race poutine (the call for the poutine race).18 In 2015, twenty years after the publication of the caricature, Ottawa—the symbolic fort of the 1995 ‘no campaign’ objecting to Quebec independence—held the first edition of its very own annual poutine festival: the Ottawa PoutineFest.19
In The Ethnic Restaurateur, Krishnendu Ray theorizes the ‘global hierarchy of taste.’20 Ray posits that the hierarchy of taste—for example people’s willingness to pay more for Japanese than Chinese food—is not linked to the food per say, but rather to the economic and cultural capitals associated to a particular group. The Japanese are associated as being part of a prestigious economic power, while the Chinese are seen as poor people, part of an economy built around creating cheap and crappy stuff.20 Maybe the rise in poutine consumption beyond its borders is a sign that the Quebec society is getting recognition, and that the Quebecois have successfully stopped being considered as ’hewers of wood and drawers of water’21 by others. It is hard to tell whether this represents a shift in Quebec’s economic and cultural capital flows, or people’s realization that poutine is an exceptional food tasting experience. One aspect, however, is undeniable: the Quebecois celebration of poutine is a new phenomenon. The Drummondville poutine festival is not even 10 years old, and the Montreal one is less than 5 years old. And this affirmation on part of Quebec poutine eaters has likely been facilitated by other people’s adoption of the dish, as exemplified by the history of other shaming foods.
The ‘Canadization’ of Poutine
On July 1, 2016, The Sporkful, a popular US food podcast hosted by Dan Pashman, wished happy Canada Day to their loyal Canadian listeners by posting on social media a picture of…poutine!22 On the website of famed UK chef Jamie Oliver, a 2014 recipe entry details how to make the perfect poutine: “[Poutine] is the unofficial official dish of Canada. In fact, if they could make it look good on a flag, the maple leaf’s days might be numbered.”23 In a 2015 article from the BBC titled Why is Canadian English unique? we read: “poutine, Nanaimo bars, and butter tarts […] three of Canada’s great culinary gifts to the world if the world would but accept them.”24 While grocery shopping last week, I saw a new potato chip flavour offered by a company marketed worldwide: bacon poutine seasoned chips, with the subtitle ‘inspired by Canada’ with the word Canada written in big bold letters. And here is how the Ottawa PoutineFest, established in 2015, presents itself on its website: “we are the world of poutine festival celebrating the comfort food of Canadians.”19 So, should poutine now be presented as Quebecois or Canadian? As Quebec was recognized as a distinct nation by the Government of Canada in 200625, it would follow that Quebec’s and Canada’s culinary identities be seen distinct and conflation between the two, avoided.
Cultural Appropriation of Poutine
In Maudite Poutine!, Théorêt explains that the exact origin of poutine is still disputed and controversial, but on one fact there is consensus: the dish emerged in the late 1950s in the Centre-du-Québec area, where a large number of fromageries (milk plants that also produce cheese, including the cheese curds used for poutine) are located.26 Théorêt further details how poutine has become omnipresent in Quebec society, not only in its foodways, but in its overall culture and art, becoming part of Quebec’s national identity.27 In 2007, the newspaper Le Devoir surveyed Quebecois to vote for Quebec’s national dish.28 Surprisingly, Le Devoir explicitly specified that poutine could not be proposed as the national dish because it originated in restaurants instead of coming from familial origins, but also due to the fact that poutine is rarely cooked at home. Paté chinois, a layered dish of ground beef, canned corn and mashed potatoes, was elected.29 Desjardins posits how these dishes are both symbols of Quebecois culture, that equally, but differently, ‘translate’ discourses on Quebec’s identity; the paté chinois being linked to family, hospitality and conviviality, and poutine to festivities, youth and cultural pride.30 Théorêt specifies that for older generations, the very subject of poutine consumption is often avoided31 and the dish itself depricated32, as it is often seen as an embarrassing culinary invention that evokes an old complex of Quebec people’s inferiority. But today, Quebec youth are embracing the symbol and making it an object of pride33,34.
Analyzed through the social identity theory developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner35 it is clear that the first Quebecois generations to live through poutine were using individual strategies such as concealing and disidentifying when dealing with the poutine stigma. It also arises that the youth are instead opting for a group-based strategy of social creativity, in an attempt to alter the value of poutine assigned by others to their advantage, although it is still unclear if such a revaluing process is made in a concerted and planned manner. Revaluing poutine as a symbol of cultural pride to diffuse the stigma seems similar to the reappropriation of poutine by youth. Maybe not a linguistic reappropriation, as it was performed by other stigmatized groups with labels like ‘black,’ ‘queer,’ or ’geek,’36 but rather a reappropriation in a culinary fashion. “Poutine, the prohibited ‘junk food’ that has long been used to bash our culture is now our pride,” Quebec youth seem to claim. The recent omnipresent association of poutine as a Canadian dish is likely to amplify such reapproriation claims. The seminal work Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, of Arjun Appadurai helps to explain why:
“The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization […] But it is worth noticing that for the people of Irian Jaya, Indonesianization may be more worrisome than Americanization, as Japanization may be for Koreans, Indianization for Sri Lankans, Vietnamization for the Cambodians, Russianization for the people of Soviet Armenia and the Baltic Republics. Such a list of alternative fears to Americanization could be greatly expanded, but it is not a shapeless inventory: for polities of smaller scale, there is always a fear of cultural absorption by polities of larger scale, especially those that are near by.”37
The rather unexpected (because of its sociohistorical connotation of shaming), but nonetheless on-going, rebranding of poutine as Canadian has incorporated poutine into Canada’s banal nationalism38 process—to the point that Canadians voted poutine as one of the “top-ten Canadian inventions of all time.”39 This Canadization of poutine (appropriation into Canadian food culture expression and construction of national identity) is likely to be performed at the expense of the Quebecois minority. Such a process has been seen with many foods—acutely with the falafel, which was appropriated from the Arab-Palestinian food culture and reinterpreted as Israel’s national snack40; or, similarly, in the case of the Turkification of Kurdish restaurants in the UK41. Examples like these contextualize the Quebecois fear of Canadization: the fear of cultural absorption by the nearby majority group that has long attempted to assimilate the minority,42 in this case by using poutine as an object of stigmatization to further weaken the agency of the Quebecois minority. This fear is likely to be what triggered Quebec youth to undertake the process of reappropriating poutine.
To me, poutine managed to find its way into the White House mainly because of its character as a highly dynamic dish, specifically with regard to the tasting experience described in the previous sections. These dynamic characteristics are responsible for making poutine so intriguing, exciting and so highly palatable. In addition to its dynamic characteristics, it is likely that poutine’s mainstream appeal, or even the hype surrounding the dish, was supported by a heightened perception of Quebec economic and cultural capital by others, which—as was discussed regarding the social mobility of other foods—contributed to ‘freeing’ poutine from the connotation of shaming. With the example of poutine in the White House, one is left wondering where the humble dish might be served next. I would not be surprised if the State Dinner of March 10, 2016 is remembered as the event that gave poutine its legitimacy on a worldscale as a distinct dish classification and way of consuming seemingly disparate ingredients.
Unfortunately, the downside to the popularization of poutine, especially in State affairs such as the White House dinner, may only serve in further ‘Canadianizing’ poutine. To mitigate this fact, it is important not only to aim for the highest level of dynamic contrast in taste when creating poutine as a dish (a responsibility that would fall upon the shoulders of chefs), but also to sociohistorically contextualize the dish. 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, labelled explicitly as a Quebecois dish and not a Canadian one to further underscore the cultural context to which it actually belongs.
I would like to thank Amy Trubek, Teresa Mares and David Conner for their guidance in writing this article; Wes Dunn and Shannon Esrich for their help in the edition. I also want to acknowledge the financial support received from the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC).
Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet is a master’s candidate in Food Systems (University of Vermont). He has led numerous mobilizing projects related to food access and urban agriculture in Montreal. Formally educated as an engineer and agrologist (McGill), he is currently researching food, place and identity in the context of globalization. Poutine Dynamics is the first of three research projects on the topic. The other two are Mezcal, Hybrid Authentication (under review), and one about Vermont hard cider (in preparation).
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- 2. Charles-Alexandre Théorêt, Maudite Poutine!: L’Histoire Approximative d’un Plat Populaire (Montreal: Héliotrope, 2007), 76-107.
- 3. For a 250-milliliter portion, poutine contains 380 kilocalories, 26 grams of fat (9.9 grams of saturated fats), 40 milligrams of cholesterol, 755 milligrams of sodium and 1 gram of sugar: Health Canada, “Nutrient Value of Some Common Foods,” accessed August 20, 2016, http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/alt_formats/pdf/nutrition/fiche-nutri-data/nvscf-vnqau-fra.pdf.
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Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet est à la maîtrise (Systèmes agroalimentaires) à l’Université du Vermont. Il a mené de nombreux projets liés à l’accès alimentaire et à l’agriculture urbaine à Montréal. Formé en ingénierie et en agronomie (McGill), Nicolas s’intéresse à la nourriture, le territoire, et l’identité dans le contexte de la mondialisation. L’article Poutine Dynamics est le premier article d’une série de trois textes portant sur ces enjeux. Les deux autres sont Mezcal, Hybrid Authentication (en évaluation), et un portant sur le cidre du Vermont (en cours de rédaction).