You could call this an “Out of the mouths of babes” story. Or, more accurately, an “Into the mouths of babes” story.
You see, it was my 20-something sons who got me to try poutine. They had discovered this Canadian creation at Whistler Mountain, B.C., then at Salt House in San Francisco. They both raved about the glories of the mishmash of French fries, fresh cheese curds and brown gravy. They marveled at how it was always served in an enormous portion.
For years, I've listened and wondered where the hell I went wrong in raising these kids. I mean, really. What could possibly be appealing about a huge load of soggy French fries trapped in (barely)edible sludge.
But last fall, I decided to give poutine a chance when I was in Montreal, said to be its birthplace. (Technically the dish is thought to have been invented in either Warwick or Drummondville, small Quebec towns not far from Montreal.)
I was lucky enough to be guided in my exploration by Julian Armstrong, the former food editor of the Montreal Gazette and a close friend of mine for decades.
Julian was quick to defend the dish, saying that it was pretty darn delicious when it first became popular sometime in the 1960s.
“It came in an individual small soup bowl type of styrofoam container. This allowed the freshly fried fries to stand up in the bowl, with very fresh cheese curds dropped into the bottom where they could start to melt. Over this went a little chicken gravy. You raised a fry and it would have a slight amount of melted cheese dripping from it, as if you had dipped it in a good cheese fondue. The gravy was only a garnish,” she explained.
However, more recently, when she and a photographer were looking for poutine to photograph for her book on Montreal street food, she had a rude awakening.
“I found the arrival of a low, wide Styrofoam container and a super-abundance of gravy. The look? Dog’s dinner. What hath the popularity of this simple dish done to it?”
I opted to taste my first poutine at a popular food truck parked by Montreal's Convention Center. There were about 20 people clustered around the truck, waiting to order or pick up. Everybody was very jovial. This was clearly not just lunch but a cherished ritual. I was excited.
I stuck with the basic poutine, made at this truck with braised beef cheeks, which were very tasty. The cheese curds were OK; a little chewy and with minimal cheese flavor (cheese curds don’t normally have a lot of flavor anyway). But, oh, my, the poor French fries. When I finally rescued one from the gooey gravy sea, it was long past resuscitation.
My first poutine was likely to be my last.
But, for those of you who think you can, indeed, polish a meatball, there are poutine variations including Greek, with feta cheese and gyro meat; Italian, with spaghetti and tomato sauce; and New Jersey poutine with mozzarella.
Armstrong also tells me that Montreal's hot-shot chefs pride themselves on their “designer” versions: Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon adds duck foie gras (below). David McMillan of Joe Beef fries his potatoes in duck fat and adds Stilton cheese. Chuck Hughes of Garde Manger adds lobster.
Moreover, each winter during Poutine Week, the chefs at some 30 Montreal restaurants try to outdo each other with the likes of poutine with lamb shanks, flower petals, fried eggs, Hollandaise sauce, roasted root vegetables and wild mushrooms.
Not a bottle of ketchup in sight.