Poutine Dynamics [English]

I am thrilled to share with you my first food studies paper titled Poutine Dynamics. I could not help but to start my graduate studies by writing a paper about my home dish. Poutine Dynamics was published in the 7.2 edition of CuiZine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures a peer-reviewed and open access journal hosted by McGill University (click here to read the full article). The present blog post provides a summary of my article, and intends to disseminate Poutine Dynamics findings to a broader audience. [Cliquez ici pour accéder à la version française de ce résumé].

To add some perspectives to the conclusions of my paper, I suggest reading three news articles from the past few weeks. First, this CBC article that renders the Canadian view of poutine, in which one can read: “Poutine is a Canadian staple […] Poutine became a point of pride, and then it spread across the country and we thought ‘Hey, in Canadian fashion, we can dump stuff on top of this’ […] poutine is a perfect symbol for the country it’s come to represent […] It’s like this weird staple dish that you can dress up in regional colours. What’s more Canadian than that?” Second, this Ricochet article about why so many Quebecois do not identify themselves as Canadians: “The Durham Report, the Quebec Patriots, ‘Speak White,’ the Meech Lake Accord. Quebecers have many reasons to scoff at tone-deaf declarations that Canadians are one big, happy family.” The third one is a Quebec-bashing article published in the Washington Post that exposes the anti-Quebec sentiment still present in Canada today: “…the exaggerated deference the province gets from Ottawa as a ‘distinct society’ and ‘nation-within-a-nation,’ and its various French-supremacist language and assimilation laws, which [English Canadians] blame for creating a place that’s inhospitable, arrogant and, yes, noticeably more racist than the Canadian norm.” For anyone not familiar with the history of the Quebec society, these articles provide a quick primer to fully grasp the conclusions of Poutine Dynamics.

In Poutine Dynamics, I dive back into the different symbols poutine has been associated with, from its inception in late 1950s rural Quebec, to when it was served at the White House for the first State Diner between Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau. In this first article, I use food to rethink the Canadian identity concept, which is omnipresent in the current celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Through poutine, I expose how the Canadian culinary identity is constructed and construed by means of cultural appropriation processes.

Poutine Dynamics is a reminder that for most of its existence, poutine has been used as a means of stigmatization used against the Quebec society to reduce its legitimacy. While the first generations that suffered from the poutine stigma opted to disidentify with the dish, Quebec youth has recently been operating a reappropriation of poutine to positively revalue the dish as a symbol of Quebecois cultural pride. Today, the dish is celebrated in many annual poutine festivals in Quebec, Canada, and in the United States.

Collage of poutine Canadization examples. Upper left: The Sporkful happy Canada Day post on Facebook. Upper right: poutine flavored chips with a Canadian branding. Lower one: Smoke’s poutinerie labeling poutine “the Iconic Canadian dish.”

Central to my study is the phenomenon of the “Canadization” of poutine. The content of the CBC article previously cited is an example of this Canadization. This Canadization phenomenon is driven by poutine enthusiasts outside Quebec borders—from Jamie Oliver in the UK, to Dan Pashman in the USA, to the organization behind the Ottawa Poutinefest, just to name a few—, who have been labeling poutine as “a typical Canadian dish,” instead of Quebecois dish. I want to emphasize that the Canadization of poutine is not linked to its preparation or consumption outside Quebec borders per say, but strictly to its presentation as a Canadian dish instead of Quebecois dish. By coupling poutine’s sociohistorical stigma and its growing Canadization, I expose two related situations: (1) the ongoing process of cultural appropriation, and (2) the threat of Quebecois cultural absorption by Canadians. I draw on Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization written by Arjun Appadurai to illustrate why labeling poutine a Canadian dish instead of Quebecois is problematic for the Quebec society. For Appadurai the central problem of globalization is the tension between the homogenization and heterogenization of cultures. He warns that for policies (or nations) of a smaller scale there is always a threat of cultural absorption from policies (or nations) of a larger scale, especially neighboring ones: Indianization for Sri Lankans, Vietnamization for the Cambodians, … Canadianization for Quebecois. So, whoever and wherever you are, adapt, serve and eat poutine as much as you want, but know that presenting it as a Canadian dish constitutes a threat to the Quebec society. In short, Poutine Dynamics suggests that the assimilation policies that used to threaten the Quebec society are actually still ongoing today, but in the subtle form of cultural appropriation processes.

A few poutines featured in the 2017 Poutine Week festival.

For foodies, a whole section of the article is dedicated to the exploration of the many ways poutine is now crafted in Quebec and elsewhere. From this culinary exploration, poutine emerges as a new(er) and distinct way to consume food that is increasingly adopted and adapted. Instead of considering the different poutine adaptations as a form of bastardization, I suggest to view poutine as a new dish classification in its own right…just like sandwiches, dumplings, soups, flatbreads, and arguably like sushi has become. For example, the dumplings classification regroups the many types of dough wrapped around a filling: ravioli, pierogi, or the many dumplings served in dim sum restaurants, among others. Similarly, poutine now takes multiple forms: from the breakfast poutine (served with roasted potatoes, cheese curds, frankfurters, eggs and hollandaise sauce), to the butter chicken poutine, the lobster poutine, or the dessert poutine (made of ice cream, waffles, marshmallows, caramel pop corn topped with salted caramel). All so different, but at the same time sharing so much in common with the classical poutine state of fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. I use the common aspects of the many poutine adaptations to define poutine as a new culinary concept used to arrange different ingredients together in a unified dish. Below is my working definition of poutine as its own dish classification. The definition is based upon the principle of dynamic contrasts, which is the moment-to-moment sensory contrast from the ever-changing properties of foods manipulated in the mouth. The sensory contrast relies heavily on texture, but other important factors include temperature, viscosity and irritation (from spices, acids, or carbonation).

Poutine: Poutine is a Quebecois dish composed of a minimum of three elements: (i) the crispy element (originally fries), (ii) the dairy element (originally cheese curds), and (iii) the liaising element (originally brown gravy). When served, each main element has to be from different textures and temperatures, with the proper ratio so that all of them can be found in each bite throughout the course of the meal. The aim is to sustain the highest level of dynamic contrast possible per bite and over the course of the whole poutine tasting experience.

To conclude this first blog post, I would like to express my most sincere condolences to the Sainte-Foy Muslim community. I grew-up in Sainte-Foy. That is where I started perfecting my poutine palate, often sharing poutines with my Muslims friends at a restaurant named Chez Ashton that is located nearby the targeted mosque. Next time you crave a poutine I invite you to try a Shawarma poutine, a Shish Taouk poutine, or a Falafel poutine. By doing so, you’ll taste how diversity makes poutine, and the whole Quebec society, richer.

Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet
University of Vermont
MS Food Systems (Candidate)

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