It’s spreading! Arm yourselves with forks and as many paper napkins as you can gather! No, it’s not anything as sinister as an invasion of killer bees, but get ready because poutine has crossed the border from Canada into the U.S. and it will certainly be making its way to your town. The question is not if, but when.

If you live in a northern border state, or an area where Canadian retirees like to winter, you may see this strange dish appear on local menus. But believe it – poutine is poised to be everywhere sooner or later. Pronounce it poo-teen or get fancy with a bit of a French Canadian twist and ask for poot-seen because this messy snack originally comes from dairy country in the province of Quebec.

I remember the first time I learned of poutine’s existence. Back in 1986, I was visiting a boyfriend in his home town, a francophone community in northern Ontario, and I spied poutine on a cafe menu. “What on earth is that?” I asked. He was amazed that I hadn’t heard of it before. It was very common in areas with a large French speaking community, but completely unknown where I was living in southern Ontario, a five hour drive from where my boyfriend lived.  He explained that it was basically french fries, cheese and gravy. My first reaction was yuck! I didn’t try any that day.

There’s more to poutine than that cursory description. There must be, otherwise why all the excitement? Start with good fries. Nice big, chunky potatoes deep fried to deep brown on the outside, while remaining soft on the inside. The minute they hit the plate, drop a generous handful of fresh cheese curds on top and drown it all in a not-too-thick, peppery, brown gravy and serve immediately. It sounds like a bit of a swamp, I know, and you will need those napkins I mentioned.

Hold the phone – what are cheese curds? It wasn’t until I was discussing poutine with a cousin in Germany last week that I discovered that the eating of cheese curds as a snack is also very regional. Outside of Quebec, Ontario and a few other adjacent areas, curds are simply part of the cheese making process and nothing more. The best curds for poutine purposes are the freshly made cheese solids from white cheddar. Ideally, they should squeak when you bite into them.

Well, I married my boyfriend and he moved to my city just outside of Toronto. It was probably a good 15 years later on before poutine was seen for sale anywhere in this part of the province. Burger King was actually one of the first chains to see the attraction and place it on their regular menu, where it remains today.  It is interesting to witness the slow southward migration of a regional dish and the mainstreaming of it, much like what happened with the hamburger and the pizza. Poutine first appeared in Quebec in the 1950s, was found in northern Ontario by the 1980s, arrived in southern Ontario around 2000 and has broken into more than a few American states now. It would appear there is no stopping poutine.

Poutine is not a health food. Poutine has been described as a “heart attack on a plate” by some, and is not meant for daily consumption I would say. There is great debate over the true meaning of the word, but legend has it that when asked to top some fried potatoes with curds and gravy, Fernand Lachance, purported inventor of said dish, complained that it would “faire une maudite poutine” – make a damn mess! Messy, salty, not dairy free, loaded with grease, so why eat it? That question can only be answered after you try it.

I took a bit of a poutine tour in my city this week. I clogged my arteries in the name of foodie science. Next week, I should probably go on a garden salad tour to achieve some balance, but for research purposes I visited three local eateries known for serving a fairly decent poutine and dug in. I took my family along with me. Funny – at the first stop I had three teenagers with me, only one at the second place and I dined alone for the last one.

We began at a newly opened chain restaurant called Smoke’s Poutinerie. If someone can open a restaurant devoted solely to poutine, you know poutine has hit the big time. Can you really serve just poutine? Sure you can, if you offer a bazillion different extra toppings for it. I got the traditional poutine with vegetarian gravy. One of my sons opted for a topping of double smoked bacon, while my older son went for chicken fajita, which comes with grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, sour cream and salsa. Calorie count unknown – didn’t dare ask!

A few days later, the younger son and I were looking for lunch again and we popped into another chain restaurant, this one a burger place with an industrial vibe, called The Works. The young fellow had a hamburger with onion rings, while I ordered just poutine, as I wasn’t very hungry. Well, joke’s on me because their poutine is simply huge! It comes in a metal bucket, for pete’s sake.  It was quite tasty, no doubt about that, much the same flavour wise as what we ate at Smoke’s. I took half of it home for later!

With all my dining partners and once eager assistants all poutined out, I headed downtown one more time, this time alone. I stopped at a brightly painted green and yellow box of a place, a chip wagon called Jerry’s Fries. Jerry’s has been there probably 20 years now, dishing out fish and chips at first and adding the poutine later. They must have mastered it because as I was waiting for my food, I encountered a French Canadian gentleman and his two little girls, who had just ordered and extra large poutine. He told me that this was his go-to poutinerie. He knew that the potatoes used by Jerry were locally grown and that the cheese curds came from Quebec. Even the teenage boy doing all the chopping and frying inside the booth was enthusiastic and informative.

I carried my overflowing cardboard box of yummy stuff a few blocks down to the waterfront and found a vacant picnic table for myself next to the sparkling lake water. The francophone man had assured me that I would like this poutine the best and, after a few bites, I began to believe he was right. I can’t quite put into words why this was the best tasting poutine I had sampled, but perhaps it was a combination of the fresh, authentic ingredients along with the small business type of care that went into the food. By strange coincidence, a few minutes after I began eating, a man on a bicycle came along and sat down on the rocks by the water and began to play a concertina. Thank you, mystery man, for the Québécois atmosphere music.

This post was contributed by our Canadian correspondent, Mary Harris

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