It's time for some real talk, America.
We are BLOWING IT at poutine. In Canada, this transcendent dish is served at every possible opportunity — restaurants, bars, truck stops, diners, doesn't matter. In America it's still treated like a culinary novelty. The few stateside restaurants that have attempted to make poutine can't seem to get it right. This is downright tragic.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you're part of the problem. Let's fix that, at least.
Classic poutine has three basic ingredients:
1. French Fries
Thick-cut potatoes, fried and salted. These are one of most basic and most popular foods in America. This should be no problem.
2. Brown Gravy
Again, nothing too fancy. Just light and thin brown gravy, made from beef, turkey, pork, chicken, or mushroom stock, served SUPER hot.
3. Cheese Curds
This one's a little further off the grid. Cheese curds are somewhat rubbery, squeaky little pieces of cheese (actually, they're milk solids created when cheesemakers intentionally curdle milk — using an enzyme or bacteria — causing it coagulate; so they're almost cheese).
When poutine is made properly, the gravy should be hot enough to melt the cheese curds and make the fries soggy. What you're left with is an awesomely goopy, gravy-licous, hot potato mess. For people who enjoy a night of drinking, poutine works perfectly as a calorie-rich after-bar snack — or the most ideal hangover food in human history. You don't have to be a drunk to enjoy it. You do, however, have to be unconcerned with eating more than 1500 calories in a single, carb-heavy cholesterol-soaked meal. And if you're a real American, you shouldn't be.
Sounds good, right?
1. America treats poutine like it's a side dish or an appetizer. WRONG.
Poutine is a goddamn MEAL. A "small' should be huge and a "regular" should be borderline offensive. Here's a picture of my friend Jesse shocked at the size of the "regular" poutine at Maamm Bolduc in Montreal (which serves one of the best poutines in the world).
That's not to say you can't have poutine on the side, but it should still be horrifically large. Poutine is supposed to be heavy; it was designed to get you through the long Quebec winter. This is decidedly NOT an amuse bouche. Not a snack. Not a tasting portion. Poutine is a star.
2. America treats poutine like it's for special occasions. WRONG.
Poutine is proletariat food. It should be cheap, because it's cheap to make. It belongs in truck stops and bar-and-grills and diners. In Montreal, you can get a cheap poutine at literally every restaurant and any bar with a kitchen. Most ethnic restaurants served it — and that's without adding any fusion flavor nonsense. Ordering poutine as a side with a dim sum brunch may sound crazy, but don't knock it till you try it. In a pinch, you could even get a completely passable poutine at McDonald's.
3. America tries to "improve" upon poutine. WRONG.
Over the last decade, American chefs have experimented with adding poutine to their menus. Which would be great, IF we proved we could serve a proper straight-up plate of fries-curds-and-brown-gravy first. Unfortunately, these cooks and chefs somehow have got it into their minds that they have to fix what isn't broken. And we, the poutine-starved masses of America, are left with dishes that are inauthentic at best and, at worst, total f*cking blasphemy.
Imagine if the only tacos you could get in your town were fusion-ifed, gringo-tacos; kelp-and-duck-chorizo tacos or tandori-chicken-in-collard-wrap tacos. Most people like a weird taco every once in a while, but that's because we have regular access to the real thing. If inauthentic tacos were all you could ever get, there would be a nationwide uprising until chefs stopped screwing around.
Well, that's the living hell that we're currently experiencing with poutine. Take a look at some of the worst offenders:
The offense: Oxtail Gravy Poutine
The offender: Animal, Los Angeles, CA
Oxtail gravy is actually delicious. But they're using cheddar instead of cheese curds. AS IF WE WOULD'T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE.
The offense: Oxtail poutine
The offender: Wayfare Tavern, San Francisco, CA
Apparently, celebrity chef Tyler Florence just doesn't understand poutine. This poutine doesn't have ANY gravy, just jus au veal. Not cool. How's the cheese supposed to melt with only a tiny bit of veal juice, Tyler? How's the whole dish supposed to turn into a goopy french fry stew if there aren't cups of boiling hot liquid, huh? Huh? Where's Wallace, String?!?!
The offense: Waffle Fry Poutine
The offender: Frank, Austin, TX
Not the worst offender on the list, but not ok.
The offense: Cheddar-crusted poutine
The offender: Skillet food cart, Seattle
There's nothing wrong with cheese fries BUT THEY'RE NOT POUTINE AND WE SHOULDN'T CALL THEM THAT. Canadians would be up in arms over this blatant affront to their culture if they, you know, weren't Canadian.
The offense: Head Cheese and Fig Poutine
The offender: Barrelhouse Flat, Chicago, IL
If any town in America were to truly understand poutine, you'd think it'd be Chicago. BUT INSTEAD THEY PUT FIGS IN THERE. GOOD GOD.
To be clear, adding ingredients to poutine can be okay — IF you've earned it.
The above poutine from La Banquise in Montreal has bacon, grilled onions and peppers. It is great. But we American are not READY to add or take away any of the three main ingredients. We are trying to enter a cheat code to get ahead to the most advance levels of poutine, and when we get there, we fail.
There's nothing empirically wrong with experimental poutine.
Pictured above is the foie gras poutine from Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. Martin Picard, the maniac Quebecois chef of that establishment, gets to mess with the poutine formula because brown gravy courses through his veins. American chefs do not, because they probably only had authentic poutine once in their lives, most likely at Au Pied de Cochon, and thought the dish would make a novel addition to the menu at their (New) American bistro. Poutine is NOT a novelty, goddammit.
(As a side note, if you ever find yourself stuck in Canada watching cable TV, try to find Picard's Canadian Food Channel Show, Wild Man Kitchen. I once saw an episode where he killed a dear with a bow and arrow, then turned the dear into sausage, cooked the sausage and then melted cheese on top of the sausage with a blowtorch. They don't distribute it down here because Picard's English is absolute garbage. Here's a clip to him trying to kill Anthony Bourdain with food. The poutine is @ 5:37.)
So how can America step up its poutine game?
In short, we need a lot more normal poutines and a lot less foodie poutines. Some cities are doing better than others. Portland's thriving food cart scene has some decent poutines (however, I find the existence of "vegan cheese curds" unsettling). I also hear that New York also has handful of solid offerings. But other cities are desperately lagging (LA's poutines are absolutely the worst). We just need more. In a perfect world, any restaurant in America that serves french fries would also have steaming-hot brown gravy and cheese curds on hand.
I know this country has a lot of problems on its hands — the deficit, unemployment, income disparity at an all-time high, etc. But maybe it's time that all of us, from our leaders in Washington to the media to everyday citizens, took a stand on an issue we can actually resolve: the epic shortage of quality poutine. Once that's fixed, everything else should fall into place.
CORRECTIONS: The brown gravy used for poutine can be made with many kinds of stock including pork and chicken. An earlier version of this item specified only beef, turkey, or mushroom stock. Cheese curds are solids formed when milk is intentionally coagulated using enzymes during the cheesemaking process. An earlier version of this item defined curds only as squeaky, rubbery little pieces of cheese. (4/8/13)