What can you possibly add to the trinity of gravy, cheese curd and French fried potato? Start with butter chicken, wieners, foie gras. Swap the potato for cassava, the cheese curd for haloumi. If you gaze long enough into the mottled abyss, you just might find the bare rippling pectorals of Russia’s President.
Let’s spare each other the clogged artery jokes and the pretense that this grosses us out. We’ll skip the one true poutine lecture too. You can get a $23 bowl of poutine foie gras at Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal. You slip into it with a pint of house blonde and a plate of venison tongue braised in light tarragon saliva—because you can’t simply cannonball into this kind of thing. The trick is to sit at the long wood bar, practically inside the frantic little Cochon kitchen, and watch the apotheosis unfold. The cheese curds are three times the size of the biggest curd you’ve ever seen, arranged like kindling at the bottom of the plate, a teepee of freshly cut dark brown chips raised over top. Then two wood-grilled slabs of foie gras are nonchalantly added. Gravy’s poured. Then drippings from a pheasant that happened to be slowly roasting in the oven. The chef nudges the plate towards you, nodding his head a couple of times as if he too is still shocked that something so gluttonous could have come from the mind of a moral human being. After taking a bite, Anthony Bourdain called it the equivalent of “driving down Hollywood Boulevard naked, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a White Castle hamburger in one hand, having sex with two hookers while listening to ZZ Top.” You can’t really pay the poutine a better compliment, except to maybe add a Slayer gesture with whatever hand is free. This will, in fact, be the only time you smile while eating poutine. Nobody smiles when eating poutine. Like French Onion Soup, it is a dish for contemplation. By nature of the layering, the consistency changes with each bite—the aesthetics, the texture, the squeakiness of the cheese curd, the disparate pockets of heat—it takes concentration to keep up with a meal that evolves at the same time it disappears. At its centre, the crisp jacket of the chips unzip under the burden of scolding sauces; the curd is almost stringy here—more squidgy than squeaky—and the overall consistency is of a thick pudding, which incidentally is where we get the word poutine.
Who can say exactly why poutine was born into the guilty-before-proven-delicious realm reserved for delicacies like haggis and chicken fried Mars bars? There is something ever so vaguely euphemistic about the two sounds, poo and teen uttered in that order. Try it with a straight face, and you’ll appreciate just what Rick Mercer pulled off during the 2000 presidential primaries, sealing poutine’s connotation forever. In what is without question the greatest single moment in CBC’s history, Mercer nails down the utter absurdity of our two country’s two most absurd politicians, informing George W. Bush that “Canadian Prime Minister Jean Poutine” had endorsed the Republican as the man to lead the free world into the 21st century. Bush didn’t bat an eye, stating, on camera, how much he appreciated Prime Minister Poutine’s strong statement.
In Montreal you can eat poutine at any hour, and the more obscene the hour the better. You can eat it at McDonalds or Burger King, which I don’t recommend. You can eat it when you are blind drunk at just about every pizza shop and shawarma kiosk on the Plateau. Its quintessential backdrop is a pool hall where it neutralizes the cigarette smoke and foul regional Molson product. You can—and must—eat it at greasy diners and local chains, La Belle Province being the best example. Like Cochon, the Belles also have an open kitchen, and (ideally) a cigarettes dangles from the chef’s mouth as he prepares a 16oz Styrofoam bowl. Try La Italienne—the bastardizations inevitably taste better than La Classique—it is five bucks on the button, and its meaty tomato sauce and herby bouquet immediately turn your psyche to the Greek islands where tavernas insist on heaping a pile of English chips beside an otherwise good moussaka. You can eat poutine alongside just about anything you order, particularly at the trendier breakfast spots, where hash browns are now obsolete. At Chez Claudette there are nine versions of poutine alone. Try the ninth, the Toute Garnie. The fries go on the bottom, the curd insulated from gravy by a layer of fried onions, peppers, canned mushrooms, chopped wiener—and on the very top a healthy spoonful of frozen peas that somehow stayed firm until the last bite. Once your appetite is properly stimulated, it’s time for butter chicken poutine. It’s time for taco poutine. It’s time to push poutine through all the realms of our Small World. At Montreal’s acclaimed restaurant Toqué!, chef Normand Laprise used to make a version for his staff with goat cheese. Elsewhere, chefs use blue cheese, stilton, buffalo-milk boccocini, they’ll top it with smoked meat, capers or salsa. It’s served in Portugese places and Haitian places. Yams, squash, taro—even plantains—are replacing the potato. The St. Hubert packet gravy lends itself to vegetarians. In short, Montreal poutine has become a distinguishing metaphor of the ever more distinct urban Quebecois melting pot. An ungainly mix that gets better with each ingredient.
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“With continued requests for these past flavours and calls to keep coming out with more, we decided to create this new, unique flavour as a nod to our Canadian heritage. With a nice balance of rich, savory gravy over a starchy potato base, and accented with those fatty, cheesy notes you expect in a plate of poutine, we believe we’ve developed the perfect liquid version of this undisputedly Canadian delicacy.”