The Paradox of Poutine

Posted on
Sep 23, 2013
Posted in: Food

View out the train window, on the ride from Seattle to Vancouver.

The other day, I was talking to a lovely young man named Eli. We had a thoroughly engrossing conversation, which is only slightly alarming in hindsight, because I am fairly certain that Eli was born in, like, 1989, and by then I’d been on the planet for almost a decade.

People born in 1989 should still be in their teens, right? I mean, their existence began after the Reagan administration. Marty McFly is trying to return to date FOUR YEARS prior to their arrival on this earth. That’s weird, people. So with reference to the passage of time, talking to Eli was horrifying, but ignoring that, both he and the discussion he facilitated were delightful.

We were on a train, heading up to Vancouver, and Eli, being from Canada, was giving me tips on what to see and do, and where to eat. He raved about a place called Japadog.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a restaurant where they top hot dogs with high-quality Japanese food and -”

“Just gonna stop you right now, because there’s no way I’m going there.”

For the next hour or so, Eli tried to explain to me the merits of Japadog (at one point, Andy Warhol’s canon was cited as a reason I should go). I wasn’t having it. I have a problem when (out of boredom or hedonism, I assume) we start putting one food on top of another.

Can’t we keep things simple, and eat one composed dish at a time? Does everything have to be so derivative? Does the Oreo CheeseQuake Blizzard actually need to exist?

Seriously, people, I feel like we’re all in a race to see who can get diabetes faster. Japadog isn’t the biggest offender in this sphere, but my objections remain. I mean, isn’t it okay if a salad is just a salad? And not a vehicle for boneless buffalo chicken tenders?

I suspect even Xzibit, the king of derivative excess, would have a problem with this, given the state of suffering and deprivation in other parts of the world.

I’m convinced that this will lead to the downfall of our society. Screw everything else we do: the pizza burger is going to be the end of us.

I hadn’t even ventured into my other objection with food-atop-food: that the more things you mash together, the worse it gets. When I made this point to Eli, he brought up a quintessentially Canadian counterexample that I had trouble refuting.

“What about poutine?” he asked.

For a brief moment, I was rendered speechless. While our train sped on towards the Canadian border, my train of thought stopped abruptly. I was thoroughly engrossed with memories of the dish from a trip, nearly a decade ago, that Rand and I took to Montreal. Since then, it’s made its way west, to Canada’s opposite coast. I’ve even seen it on a few gastropub menus in the states, particularly in our home town of Seattle (which lies only 3 hours south of Vancouver by car, or 5 friggin hours by train, which is another story).

For the uninitiated, it sounds rather pedestrian: french fries, topped with fresh cheese curds and a generous slathering of gravy (often, but not always, it’s a veal demi-glace). But somehow, the mixture is just short of perfect. When executed correctly, the curds start to melt, just a little bit, and the fries maintain structural integrity instead of growing soggy. It is salty and rich, melted and crisp all at once.

The I-only-like-to-eat-one-food-at-a-time purist in me should be disgusted with it (after all, I’m generally horrified by chili cheese fries, which are a close conceptual relative). Maybe it’s the quality of the ingredients. Maybe it’s the fact that the dish originated in Canada – a country which known not for its excesses, but for its manners and maple trees. But poutine is … it’s …

“Poutine is a different thing entirely,” I finally said to Eli. And while this answer wasn’t really sufficient given the quality of discussion we were having, he accepted it. Because, like me, he realized poutine is an outlier. It’s not something that you can classify. It’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. After our talk, I never did visit Japan Dog, but poutine remained on my mind.

A few days later we left Vancouver and headed to Bowen Island to see some friends. One lovely afternoon we had lunch at a restaurant that we kept referring to, erroneously, as “McGillicuddy’s”. In an uncharacteristic burst of self-control, I ordered a salad, and (perhaps taking my food-atop-food rule too seriously) requested the dressing on the side. Sometimes, I hardly recognize myself.

Someone else in our group ordered poutine (“for the table,” they said, thus absolving themselves of dietary recklessness). No crystal ball is required to tell you what happened next. The poutine arrived at the table, piping hot. The fries were crisp, the gravy perfectly unctuous and not too runny. And the curds had just started to melt.

I ate most of that sucker, while everyone else watched in varying states of horror. And then I nibbled on my salad, sans dressing, because I am a pillar of restraint.

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