06 November 2010

“That’s Not Poutine!”: Observations on Culinary Authenticity and the Exaltation of Drunk Food

Poutine is very popular in Boston right now, a fact I noted in Stuff Magazine last summer in its trendspotting Hot Issue, with my award for Hot Canadian Import: “…one of the world's great cheap drunk-foods, the mighty poutine (pronounced poo-TEEN*). Quebec City tipplers know no night is complete without hitting some seedy, fluorescent-lit casse-croûte or dumpy food truck after last call for a $5 plate of French fries drenched in gravy and tooth-squeaking cheese curds. Bostonians being more discriminating than the average Québécois**, we sometimes like our poutine fancy, as at Pops (560 Tremont Street, Boston, 617.695.1250), where it's topped with short-rib gravy and house-made sausages of rabbit, duck, and wild boar***, and at Harvest (44 Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617.868.2255), where it comes with chicken velouté and bacon. But the moment's hottest poutine purveyor is undoubtedly The Gallows (1395 Washington Street, Boston, 617.425.0200), which, in true gastropub fashion, labors hard over every humble ingredient and does it four ways: classic (in a dark-chicken or vegetarian-friendly mushroom gravy), topped with local produce, topped with foie gras, and the daily changing ‘out of control’ version (sample toppings: sweetbreads, lardons, English peas, and spring onions). That's a platter even a sober person could love.

A recent discussion on Chowhound’s Boston board digs deeper into the current poutine phenomenon. I observe there that I enjoy poutine to a point -- the point where I think, "Are gravy fries really such a great idea?" Isn’t crispness part of the fry ideal? Shouldn’t we prefer fries that are sauced on the side instead of in the kitchen, which is necessarily going to make them a bit soggy before they hit the table? But the larger question centers on that ancient food-nerd hobbyhorse: is Restaurant X’s version of Dish Y authentic?

I noted that The Gallows' fries are good, its gravies and optional deluxe add-ons excellent. The bone of contention for most poutine lovers is The Gallows' choice of cheese, which though house-made is more like soft, fresh mozzarella than the fromage beaucronne of the canonical version beloved in Quebec: firm cheddar curds, made fresh every day, that literally squeak on your teeth. Very few restaurants in Boston use cheese curds in their poutine -- Eat at Jumbo's in Somerville and All-Star Sandwich Bar in Inman Square are reportedly two exceptions -- and no one is making their own. Also, technically, the sauce should be a velouté – stock thickened with blond roux to achieve a velvety texture -- not just any old gravy, but I think the use of squeaky curds remains the shibboleth for poutine traditionalists.

Some folks further argue that gussying up poutine with fancy ingredients and charging more than $5 immediately takes it out of the realm of drunk food and makes it something else altogether, something – cue menacing music -- inauthentic. My own feeling is that there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking humble food upscale, replacing mediocre ingredients with quality ingredients, piling on luxury elements, and so on. Canadians themselves have long been dressing up poutine with a dizzying array of add-ons. And Americans didn’t invent $23 poutine au foie gras, either: that was the brainchild of hallowed Montreal snout-to-tail institution Au Pied de Cochon.

Nowadays, every rough-and-ready dish that was first served at a food truck, carnival stand, or greasy spoon eventually gets a genteel makeover, as anyone who's debated the relative merits of Boston's many $20 hamburgers should understand. It's a process that is ripe for derision as pretentious, ridiculous, as evidenced by the jeers and incredulity that greeted the $16 hot dog at Barbara Lynch's The Butcher Shop. The same people who don't blink at paying $8 for a cask-conditioned ale scoff at the $11 pork dumplings at Myers + Chang, saying, "I could get those in Chinatown for $3." Ken Oringer still gets grief in some quarters for his $4 tacos at La Verdad.

But applying that general aesthetic, in this case to modest tavern fare, is in fact what gastropubs like The Gallows, Russell House Tavern, and Garden at The Cellar are all about. I believe the quality of such dishes, wrapped as they are with good drinks, convivial service and cool atmosphere, more than justifies their prices, despite their inglorious origins. Foie gras poutine sounds crazy, except for the fact that the path from the street cart to the white tablecloth is a well-trodden one.

I also believe that despite its relative youth – most sources agree that poutine first emerged sometime in the 1950s – there is a genuine canon or tradition associated with poutine, a classic recipe, any variance from which will offend purists. (I’ve gotten an earful on the depravity of American poutines from a Québécois in-law of mine.) So I think it's perfectly germane to note a widely-held set of expectations about a dish from the regional or ethnic group that originated or popularized it. I have no problem with chefs breaking from a canon -- our food world would be pretty sad if this never happened -- but I think it's important to understand the tradition as a reference point. Maybe nobody cares that spaghetti and meatballs isn't often served in Italy, but it doesn't help your credibility in a discussion to pretend this isn't so, or to market your version as "just like they do in the Old Country".

Some observers object to discussing poutine seriously in the first place: “It’s just drunk food, after all”, and it is true that a lot of poutine in Quebec gets consumed at about 3am after a night in the bars. Or they dismiss it as “peasant food”: potatoes and gravy and primitive cheese, cheap and unsophisticated. I dislike the pejorative use of these terms: "drunk food" and "peasant food" should be non-judgmental. "Cucina povera", for instance, has positive connotations of applying thrift and creativity to a limited larder in straitened circumstances. Drunk food doesn't say to me, "food for the undiscriminating", but does imply inexpensive, salty/fatty/starchy, and available late. There's good drunk food and bad --think of the varying quality of all-night diners -- and yes, some purveyors are getting away with something because their patrons don't care so much. But I don't consider it necessarily a slur on the food itself. The pad kee mao (“drunken noodles”) at Allston’s S&I Thai is a plate of wonderment, even if one etymology of its name suggests drunk food.

So as Bostonians continue to climb aboard the poutine bandwagon, I will note that: a) there is indeed a canonical version of this dish, and very few restaurants around here serve it; b) there should be as much room for carefully-considered and passionate appreciation of so-called drunk foods and other lowborn fare as for haute cuisine****; and c) chefs in Boston shouldn’t be dismissed for wanting to dress poutine in fancy clothes and take it uptown. In other words, in food, as in life, it helps your appreciation of things to have clear-eyed knowledge of exactly where you came from, but that shouldn’t stop you from moving forward, setting a high standard of quality even for your more humble pursuits, and maybe spinning off in some crazy directions once in a while.


* I have since learned that this Anglicized pronunciation is wrongedty-wrong-wrong. The proper Quebec French pronunciation is more like "poo-tin", with both syllables about equally stressed.

** This is pure pandering to my readers.

*** The excellent riff on poutine served at Pops is currently listed on its menu as "grilled sausage trio".

**** I have a floor for this, e.g., I don't think mega-chain dreck like McDonald's McRib or the KFC Double Down merits serious consideration, what my friend Robert Nadeau calls "the connoisseurship of teenagers." No offense, kids, but I remember what I ate in those days.