Poutine is now part of the cultural appropriation debate — one academic studying food trends has suggested that the rest of Canada is trying to claim the fundamentally Québécois dish for itself.
The National Post ran an interview with Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet (republished in the Montreal Gazette), a Montrealer studying Canada’s culinary identity at the University of Vermont, ahead of a major conference in Toronto this week.
Some will surely roll their eyes at academic discussions of poutine, but he makes a good point. Up until about a decade ago, nobody wanted to claim poutine — after its mid-twentieth century invention, Fabien Ouellet says some saw it as “an embarrassing culinary invention that evokes an old complex of Quebec people’s inferiority.” Basically, it was seen as an eyeroll-worthy food of backwoods Quebec.
As time went on, the negative image shifted, but poutine still drew derision, for being a junky calorie-bomb. Fabien Ouellet told that National Post that poutine’s reputation was salvaged relatively recently, by younger Quebecers seeing “the prohibited ‘junk food’ that has long been used to bash our culture [as] our pride.” Since then, it’s slid into being a part of Canadian food culture and more generally, the country’s “national identity”.
It might be a little bit of a semantic argument, but there’s evidence for it — Smoke’s Poutinerie has become an international poutine chain since opening in Toronto in 2008, “inspired” by big-name Montreal diner La Banquise. It has expanded substantially into the USA, where it’s often billed as a “Canadian” chain — but interestingly, Smoke’s has almost no connection to Quebec. The company is headquartered in suburban Toronto, and its Quebec locations (except for one in touristy Mont Tremblant) failed and closed — Quebecers apparently wanted little to do with such a rest-of-Canada take on their dish, and the Montreal Gazette even called it “poutine for the rest of Canada”. (It doesn’t help that common wisdom is that the best poutines come from diner-like casse-croûtes, not chains).
Yes, Quebec is part of Canada, ergo poutine is technically Canadian. But here’s a comparison — you wouldn’t say that gumbo, a dish from Louisiana, belongs as much to Maine or California as it does to Louisiana. Just like poutine, it’s a regional specialty and it would be a little lazy to just call it “American food”.