Thursday, September 18, 2014
Last updated: 4 hours ago

Food with Tyler McRobbie: The hot mess and success of poutine

Photo Stephanie Xu/The Ubyssey

Photo Stephanie Xu/The Ubyssey

It’s no secret that the idea of “Canadian cuisine” is elusive. As a nation, we’re known for our diversity of cultures, and as a result, our palette is a palimpsest of tastes from all over the world. But ask someone for a real, authentic Canadian meal and they might draw a blank. We’re a relatively new country, so our own recipe book is still forming.

Despite this, Canada has managed to contribute a few dishes of importance to the modern epicurean zeitgeist. One in particular is enjoying a recent wave of popularity, both at home and abroad. It’s been adopted on the menus of several fast-food chains and gourmet restaurants. On March 9, an entire festival will be held in Vancouver in its honour. It’s one of Canada’s unhealthiest, squeakiest, most delicious exports: poutine.

The origins of poutine are somewhat unclear. It is credited to somewhere in rural Québec, but that’s the closest approximation on the record. To this day, many rural townships squabble over who is the rightful inventor of poutine. However, it is generally accepted that poutine came into existence sometime between the 1950s and 1960s. What can be agreed on, at the very least, is that poutine is much more than the sum of its parts: crispy fries, hot gravy and fresh cheese curds.

Today, poutine is now almost as ubiquitous as the French fry itself. It has been added to the menus of McDonald’s, A&W, KFC and Burger King. But don’t expect the authentic taste from fast-food chains like these. Poutine is at its best in its natural setting: greasy-spoon diners (or casse-croûtes, as they’re called in Québec). After all, the word “poutine” is French slang for “hot mess.”

For an authentic option close to UBC, try Zako’s Deli at 500 West Broadway. The small is large, and the large is painful, but this family-style diner offers an experience that can’t be recreated by mass-produced fast-food poutine.

In March, the 2013 Festival de la Poutine de Vancouver — the third annual festival, running for one day only — features the best of French-Canadian culture in music, entertainment and food. Try pushing your boundaries at the experimental poutine bar, which is open from noon until late and features a bevy of unexpected toppings. But remember, the key to enjoying poutine is moderation: it’s a slippery slope towards stomach cramps, meat sweats and high blood pressure. No wonder they call it a hot mess.