December 1, 2009
I found myself in Canada over the Thanksgiving holiday, so I decided to try the infamous Canadian dish of poutine. Basically, it’s French fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. The dish is so ubiquitous that even McDonald’s and Burger King sell it. Canadians so love their poutine that they even design cupcakes to look like it. (Ever seen a cupcake made to look like a hot dog? Me neither.)
Though the history of poutine is somewhat contested, one of the leading stories comes from a small restaurant in Quebec in 1957. The owner began selling fries and cheese curds in a bag as a take-out item. One day, a truck driver ordered that with a side of gravy. He then combined the two. There you have it.
I wasn’t quite in poutine country, however. I was visiting the Alberta city of Calgary, better known for its beef and stampede festival than its poutine. But I managed to find some pretty decent poutine made from authentic ingredients.
On the advice of friends I headed to The District, which boasts about 15 add-ons for its poutine, ranging from gruyere cheese to lamb and caramelized onions to a fried egg. Apparently if you get every topping on the board it would cost $78 and feed up to five people. I went for the traditional poutine—this being my first foray into traditional Canadian fare. Skinny fries covered in dark beef gravy with some cheese curds thrown in came out of the kitchen. (If you think the poutine sounds indulgent, don’t miss the bucket of bacon and maple syrup appetizer.) As I had expected, it was delicious. My Canadian boyfriend, who claims he hadn’t eaten poutine since his junior high cafeteria, enjoyed it as well.
Figuring I had to try at least two versions to feign any sort of expertise, I headed to another place to indulge in a different take on the specialty. The Palomino in downtown Calgary has the only full-sized barbecue smoker in the city, and the chefs put it to work on this and “butcher a Quebec classic.” Fries are covered with gravy and cheese curds (more generously than at The District) and then topped with pulled pork. Sure, it’s not traditional, but it was good.
The key to a good poutine, I’ve been told, is the cheese curds. Both restaurants I visited get their cheese curds from Quebec. Proper cheese curds are called “squeaky cheese” because they squeak when you bite into them. (I might have eaten the real thing, but there was no squeaking.) Substitutes on poutine are seen the same way many pizza snobs view substitutes for mozzarella.
Poutine is delicious, but horribly unhealthy—the McDonald’s version has 500 calories a pop. I don’t think I’ll be making it at home in the States, but I might indulge on my next trip to the Great White North.
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