Can Poutine Take Over the World?

Most Canadians would have realized instantly that some of the details were off. The cheese, for example, came in thin strips in roughly the shape of Trident gum instead of the proper cloud-like blobs of curd. Nevertheless, it was poutine, sighted far from its home at a little french fry shop in the middle of a trendy Tokyo neighbourhood called Shimokitazawa.

This was the autumn of 2012. Your correspondent asked the owner how he came to know of poutine, and he responded that he had discovered the piping hot, savoury treat while learning English in British Columbia. Hence the name of the shop: Robson Fries, after a main artery in Vancouver. That's another detail a Canadian would notice: Shouldn't the name have alluded to Quebec? 

Perhaps it's time to acknowledge that poutine has long ceased to be Quebec's anyway. Gradually, over the past couple of decades, it has become a pan-Canadian food, available everywhere from chip trucks to high-end restaurants and fast-food chains. And how much longer will Canadians be able to think of it as a national indulgence, their private joke of a food? Poutine is slowly oozing outward across the globe like a grease stain on a paper bag, spreading from London to Tokyo and from Los Angeles to New York. One Ontario-based chain has made “world domination” its goal, in those very words. Fries, cheese curds and gravy is a language the world can understand, and maybe it soon will.

David Sax, a Toronto-based writer of a The Tastemakers, a book on how food trends hit it big, says poutine has the qualities it takes for a food to go global. In poutine's case, the basic formula is three simple ingredients most urbanized humans are familiar with – fries, cheese and gravy – and from there, the possible variations are endless.

"The poutine trend as we've seen in Canada, and increasingly outside of Canada as well, has long legs and has not gone away because [poutine] really is this canvas of inexpensive ingredients combined in a particular way that can go into all different directions,” Sax says.

Like most of the foods the world falls in love with, poutine has humble origins. It probably originated in the 1950s, and certainly came from a small-town Quebec casse-croûte (diner). Some say the birthplace was Le Roy Jucep in the town of Drummondville, others a now-defunct spot called L’Ideal in Warwick. Either way, the stories agree that it was a customer who came up with the idea of throwing cheese curds, a popular Quebec snack, onto a dish of fries.

Poutine has become culturally entrenched at such a rapid pace since then that Quebeckers can't even agree what the word “poutine” originally meant. Possibilities for what it signified in Quebec French half a century ago include: a deep-fried potato ball; a take on the English word “pudding,” which had come to mean a mixture of different foods; and just plain “mess.”

By the mid-1980s, poutine had seeped its way from small-town Quebec and into Montreal youth culture. Julian Armstrong, a longtime writer on the subject of Quebecois cuisine for the Montreal Gazette, says her then-teenage daughters talked her into covering their newfound favourite snack food somewhere around then. Armstrong initially resisted (“No, that's disgusting. I'm certainly not writing about that,” she recalls saying). But when her contact in the cheese business told her there had been a spike in the sale of fresh curds, she knew she had a scoop on her hands.

"It's my only story in my entire career that I broke for Quebec ahead of the French media,” recalls Armstrong, who included a short, easy-to-digest chapter on poutine in her 2014 book Made in Quebec.

The history of poutine is of no particular interest to the man who says he's poised to introduce it everywhere from Adelaide to Abu Dhabi. “When the Quebecois were fighting over who invented it, I was going to take over the world,” says Ryan Smolkin, CEO of Smoke's Poutinerie. The chain has 100 locations in Canada, a toehold in the United States, and plans to drench the rest of the planet in chicken gravy before long. The objective: 1,300 restaurants around the world by 2020.

"We're talking about global domination here, which has been the goal from Day One!” Smolkin shouts like a good-guy wrestler over the phone from his company's “global headquarters” in the cookie-cutter Toronto suburb of Ajax, Ont. Now busily opening locations in California and Nevada, Smoke's is an international entity, with Smoke – a reclusive Northern Ontario figure whom Smolkin insists is real, but everyone else assumes is a marketing figment – as its titular head.

South of the border and beyond, Smoke's signage will offer “loaded fries” as opposed to “poutine” per se. Traditional poutine will continue to form the backbone of the menu. Smolkin says there's no point in drilling Americans and other non-Canadian customers on the heritage; poutine speaks for itself.

Mini locations at campuses, arenas and so on are a focus for expansion in the domestic Canadian market. Smolkin says deals in Australia and the Middle East are coming soon, although it's worth taking these projections with un grain de fromage: he made similar predictions to Marketing magazine back in 2012.

Whether Smoke's takes over the world or not, eventually someone will introduce the steaming, salty joys of poutine to the planet beyond Canada. Or it could be many someones, as is proving the case in practice. As this globalization process unfolds, Sax predicts poutine will clash with other ingredients and culinary traditions, morphing into forms Canadians would hardly recognize. For the purists who get miffed to discover the gravy is beef instead of the “correct” chicken version, it's probably best to let go of the idea of poutine purity right now. “As things move out from their origins,” Sax says, the details “are never the same.”

IBM provided an extreme example of where the world might take poutine in the future with an exercise revealed in Toronto in early 2015. By way of a demonstrating the improvisational the power of its Watson supercomputer, a team fed it data about food combinations that people find delicious, and the computer spit out recipes that local catering companies then turned into globalized “poutines.” Examples included a Korean-Italian poutine with garlic and olives, and a “poutine” that really stretched the definition, centring around short rib and cream cheese on panko-crusted onion rings.

The problem was that none of them tasted especially good, and nor were they truly poutine. Smoke's term “loaded fries” suited them better.

In the end, the Quebec casse-croûte's gift to the world may simmer down to the basic concept of french fries loaded with sauces and fixings, especially cheese, not the specific recipe for poutine as Canadians know it. For Armstrong, that's a shame. She misses the holy trinity of fries, “sauce,” as gravy is known in Quebec, and a judicious amount of cheese curds, poured into a cylindrical container so that the gravy won't make the fries go soggy.

"It was delicious, because you'd pull a fry out and it'd have just a little bit of the melted cheese on it, like a good fondue,” she says, thinking back to the poutines she enjoyed in 1980s and '90s Montreal. “Now there seems to be a trend everywhere to put it in a flatter (container) and to bury it in gravy, so that all the crispness is pretty quickly lost. I would like to start a society for the protection of the original poutine, which was really good.”

Sax says there may be a market in the future for the original vision. We may even eventually find it branded as “artisanal.” On the whole, however, poutine is likely to be buried under the countless sauces of global iterations — just like its forebears, ramen and pizza and the taco. 

Now that poutine is out there in the world's hands, Sax says, “All bets are off.” 

Published Thursday, July 30th 2015

Header image credit: Adam McDowell



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