pondering poutine and politics (Canadian style)

Wandering the streets of Montreal latish in the evening in search of food, I found that many places had stopped serving for the night, whilst others that I remembered from my previous trip to Montreal in July 2009 had shut for the winter and not yet reopened. Felicitously, I stumbled across Les Trois Brasseurs, a pub-bistro where the night was yet young, animated by a hockey match with the Montreal Canadiens whose French commentary was blaring from the TV screens. This establishment encompassed a large space, feeling very open, with an oval bar in the centre surrounded by bar stools, meal tables around the edge and a kitchen off to the side.

My quest was for food of any kind, but preferably authentic Québécois food. Because of this, I ordered poutine, a Quebecois specialty, which I will let Katherine Barber, “Canada’s Word Lady” (according to the jacket of her book) define:

poutine

1. a dish of french fries topped with cheese curds and a sauce, usually gravy. 2. (in Acadian cuisine) a a potato dumpling. b a pudding or pie.

(This is evidently translating Canadian for Americans. I would say poutine is “cheese and chips and gravy”, but that would confuse Canadians, who follow Americans rather than Brits on the crisps/chips/fries question.)

Ms Barber proceeds to offer an informative account of the origin of the word “poutine”

Pronounced “poo TEEN”. Acadian poutine precedes the Québécois poutine by about a century. The ultimate origin of this word beyond Canadian French is uncertain. It is probably derived from various similar words in many French dialects, and influenced by the English word “pudding”. The story behind the french fries and cheese curds concoction is that Fernand Lachance, a snack bar owner in Warwick, Quebec, when asked by a customer in 1957 to combine fries and cheese in a bag, told him it would be a “maudite poutine” (a hell of a mess), but the combination and the word stuck.

(Katherine Barber, Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language (Oxford University Press Canada, 2008), p. 116)

I hadn’t come across the Acadian sense of poutine before, so I think when English Canadians refer to “poutine” they generally mean the Québécois type, which is available across Canada, but is perhaps done better in Quebec. Describing poutine to English people, it either just sounds bizarre, or what we would call “plebby” (expressing a tacky downmarket kind of taste). However, this is not the case in Quebec, at least if you order poutine at a more classy establishment. Poutine can come in different flavours, with different accompaniments, in more gourmet versions and more rough and ready varieties. I had poutine with bits of chicken, which was very flavoursome, and my meal was topped off nicely by the Trois Brasseurs dessert deal of cheesecake, chocolate mousse and coffee.

Yesterday I had a limited time to retrieve my luggage from the hotel and get to the train station, so was in search of fast food. I had hoped to find food with some character, but not finding much which fit the bill and was open on a Sunday afternoon, I capitulated and called into Burger King. My conscience was salved, however, when I spotted that I could have a Burger King “trio authentique sandwich au poulet avec poutine”. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of this poutine, as my camera had run out of battery, but it came in a plastic box, with the very Burger King-looking chicken sandwich wrapped separately. Still, at least this is an instance of an attempt on Burger King’s part at adaptation to local cultures and flavours. Though “sandwich” is a conspicuously English word, it is used widely in France as well as Quebec. At least it’s more “authentique” Québécois than “un whopper”.

I wondered whether this might be a symbolic representation of Canada’s project of integrating Anglophone and Francophone culture, and subsequently many other cultures too, a project which produces both appetising blends of cultural flavours and some incongruities which sit uneasily together.

I did manage to have a very tasty smoked meat sandwich, a Montreal speciality, during my stay. In other news, the Canadian government fell, as widely expected. On Friday the opposition parties passed a vote of no confidence in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and on Saturday the prime minister went to the Governor General to request the dissolution of parliament in advance of an election on May 2nd. This will be the fourth election in seven years, which seems a little ridiculous, though the political situation in the UK was similar back in the 1970s.

I haven’t got totally up to speed on Canadian politics, but I gather this is a consequence of Harper leading a minority government, where the Conservatives have more MPs than anyone else but not an absolute majority of the seats, so the opposition parties can outvote the government if they come together. My impression is that a majority of voters support parties to the left, but the fact that there are more left wing than right wing parties in Canada splits the anti-Conservative vote such that the Conservatives still get the biggest number of MPs. One wildcard in Canadian politics is the Bloc Québécois, who want Quebec to be an independent country (not dissimilar to the Scottish National Party). Since the Bloc stands only in Quebec, there is no way they can form a government on the federal level, but my impression is that they can take enough non-Conservative votes to let the Conservatives win (though I’m not sure if I’ve got that quite right), and they even formed the official opposition at one part.

One might be tempted to adopt Monsieur Lachance’s phrase, and call the current state of Canadian politics a “maudite poutine”. However, since the literal meaning of “maudite” is “accursed”, I hope that this is not the case.

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