On Eating “Canadian”
My first few years in Canada were widely focused on adopting new cultural traditions. My parents and I wanted to feel as “Canadian” as possible, taking every opportunity to rake autumn leaves (whether or not they were ours), drink warm beverages at Tim Hortons, and even venture out to the woods for a poorly planned camping trip. We had no idea August nights could be so cold!
One of my favourite traditions, which lasted for several years while I lived in Ottawa, was attending the annual Christmas potluck brunch of the family of one of my father’s coworkers. They welcomed us into their home each year to share in their own set of Christmas rituals, since we could no longer celebrate the holiday with our own extended family. The unique thing about this family’s brunch was that it was themed after a different country’s cuisine each year, from Morocco to Germany to Peru. Everyone would bring a dish that might be typically served for either breakfast or lunch in the chosen country. And without fail, there would always be a fresh debate about what we might have brought had we finally decided to choose Canada, (which we never did).
My parents and I wondered for years what “Canadian” food was and where we could find it. Souvenir shops in Ottawa offered all kinds of decorative or wearable pieces of Canadian culture, but the only edible items were all conceptualized around one simple ingredient: maple syrup. These Christmas brunch debates often ended with the easy-to-agree-upon “flapjacks and maple syrup” hypothesis. Yet when I visited the houses of my Canadian schoolmates, I could only observe them eating Italian, American, or Mexican food. It wasn’t until I moved to Quebec that I found a well preserved tradition of classic “Canadian” food easily available for consumption.
My first year in university was the first time I tried poutine, smoked meat sandwiches, and “Montreal” bagels. My second year included a field trip to a sugar shack, which involved a multiple-course typical “Quebecois meal”, not just the frozen maple syrup on a stick I had heard so much about. There was a buffet of pancakes, pea soup, creton spread, baked beans, pork rinds, tourtieres, maple-glazed meats, local artisan cheeses, sugar tarts, and the supremely traditional pouding chômeur.
These discoveries shifted my perspective on the old Canadian food debate. Could these Quebecois dishes be considered suitable for the big C label? Or would this be an unfair appropriation of Quebecois culture? Most of the time, my Montreal friends conclude that all Canadian food is an appropriation of another culture, because the only recipes that can be considered truly original belonged to cultures that were forced to don the name Canadian. The wild game cuisine of First Nations and Inuit tribes that were served at Expo ’67 may not have represented the majority of this country’s palate, but it was indeed the most authentic representation of “traditional” food.
Recently I went on Google to search for something I hadn’t looked up in a while: “Canadian Food”. When you browse through the Image results, you get a casserole here, a fast food item there, a Timmies donut (or two), and an overwhelming amount of both professional and amateur photography of poutine. The fries/gravy/cheese curds late-night guilt-packed snack sensation has been spreading in recent years. It can now be found in restaurants all over the world, including the UK, China, Australia, Vietnam, and more.
Every time an out-of-towner asks for a local Montreal experience, poutine will inetivably surface in the day’s outings. First impressions of this ultra-greasy, clearly calorie-laden concoction don’t usually result in the most photogenic expression on any traveler’s face. But the deep fryer aroma is enough to entice them, and the squeaky freshness of local Quebec cheese curds are enough to win them over.
As the nearly permanent lineup outside its doors still indicates, a lot of locals are fond of La Banquise as the city’s go-to destination for “proper” poutine. Patrons are spoiled for choice as far as variations, with over 30 spin-offs on the classic fries-gravy-curds mix. Of course, every small town will claim their casse-croûte has the BEST poutine, but there are only 3 requirements to make a top-of-the-line duplication: fresh fries (not frozen), fresh cheese curds (not mozarella), and fresh homemade gravy (not instant).
It was at La Banquise that I first noticed the flexibility of poutine. This key qualifier is precisely what helped such a simple, cheap dish become international sensation. It can adapt to different regions with culinary influences from different immigrant populations.
In a 2009 New Yorker article titled Funny Food, American journalist Calvin Trillin gave Canada a much-needed vote of confidence in its cuisine. Poutine might indeed be the most appropriate national dish “for a country that prides itself on lumpy multiculturalism”. It’s not a very old recipe, but Canada is not a very old country. It’s not a recipe that frowns upon “non-traditional” garnishes (like hot dogs, guacamole, bacon, etc), just as Canada is welcoming to the cultural influences of new immigrants.
Perhaps the family that invited us over every Christmas might have thought to put Canada on the potluck’s themed menu had this “local” delicacy gotten its current cultural status way back then. My parents and I would have brought a Cuban-style poutine, garnished with picadillo and sweet fried plantains.