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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2011

Packing it on with poutine


When in Rome, as they say, do as the Romans do. And when in Canada?

Eat like a Canadian.

A recent vacation to Our Neighbor To The North reminded me once again of how lovely Canadian gardens are, how friendly are the people, and how bizarre a play is Titus Andronicus (it was a play-watching trip). Naturally, while we were there we endeavored to sample some of the fine cuisine for which the country is not particularly well known, aside from Tim Hortons’ doughnuts.

Much of the Canadian diet resembles the English diet, which makes sense considering the countries’ close relationship. In Canada you find meat pies, fish and chips, and some delicious curries (you’ll also find hamburgers, pizza, and meatloaf, which reflects their close relationship to the United States too). One American dish you will not find at all is fresh-brewed iced tea, which strikes me as a serious cultural deficiency requiring immediate rectification and perhaps a treaty of some sort.

Make all the jokes you want to about Canadian food being any other country’s food that is then covered in maple syrup and/or Canadian bacon, but there is one food that is truly Canadian: Poutine.

When in Canada, as they say. So I tried it.

Poutine is french fries that are topped with cheese curds and doused in brown gravy. Invented in Quebec in the 1950s, it has spread across Canada and now, for better or worse, is pretty much the country’s national dish.

Poutine was largely unknown in the United States until two years ago when Calvin Trillin wrote a piece on it in the New Yorker. In that story he noted that people who are not Canadian and who hear a description of the dish are “likely to think that it sounds, well, disgusting.” And then he quoted Canadian columnist and author Roy MacGregor, who tried it for the first time and found it “surprisingly inoffensive.”

So here’s the thing: I tried it for the first time too and I found it much better than surprisingly inoffensive. I’d have to say it is surprisingly delicious.

Our waiter brought our plate out on a front loader and eased it down onto the table. Seriously, there had to have been more than a pound of poutine on our platter Perhaps we were just hungry e_SEmD but my wife and I consumed far more of the poutine than we should. The only reason we left any on the plate at all is that we were fully aware of just how many calories we were consuming.

Fried potatoes, cheese curds, and gravy. The arteries slam shut just contemplating it. The only redeeming factor is that our plate had fewer cheese curds than we were anticipating. Actually, I sort of wanted more.

The cheese curds found in poutine are not quite the curds that you eat in cottage cheese. To quote Mr. Trillin one more time, he called it “cheddar before the taste is added.” In other words, you have all the fat of cheese, but little of the flavor. And the curds in poutine are supposed to squeak when you eat them, but ours didn’t, which might have been one reason we enjoyed it so much.

Poutine has the reputation of being a great food for eating late at night after one has been carousing, and is therefore said to be favored by young people. I am not young and I’d had nothing to drink, but I couldn’t stop eating the stuff. Actually, I had a glass of beer with the poutine and the combination was as beautifully balanced as cabernet sauvignon with a grilled steak.

Fried potatoes, cheese curds, and gravy. It’s the ultimate junk food.

“Never again,” said my wife, who enjoyed the dish as much as I did. But she knows how many calories it has, and she also knows how many Weight Watchers’ points are associated with even a small serving (19, which is apparently a lot of Weight Watchers’ points).

Never again? Maybe. But Canada is only an hour away.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

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