Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Canadian dish that's found a home in Oakland -- and that's no joke

Poutine / At Beauty's, French fries with cheese curds and
mushroom gravy ... What's not to love?

As a punch line, poutine has a lot going for it, wrote the American humorist Calvin Trillin, in a 2009 New Yorker article, "Canadian Journal: Letter from Montréal." He pondered the question: "Is a national joke becoming a national dish?"

You see, Trillin mused that "Canadians' fondness for poutine is often the basis of the punch line, since an outlander who hears a description of poutine in its basic form -- French fries with cheese curds and brown gravy -- is likely to think that it sounds, well, disgusting."

While poutine (pronounced poo-TIN rather than the commonly heard poo-TEEN) was invented in rural Quebec in the late 1950s, in recent years it's seen a rapid widening of its range. Canadian franchise restaurants like Tim Horton's and Harvey's routinely serve poutine on its menu, and even Burger King, the global chain of hamburger fast food restaurants headquartered in Miami, has included it in Anglophone provinces and in the northern-most United States.

According to Wikipedia, the legend of poutine's origin dates back to 1957. "One often-cited tale is that of (restauranteur) Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that poutine was invented there in 1957; Lachance is said to have exclaimed 'ça va faire une maudite poutine' (it will make a damn mess) when asked to put a handful of curds on some french fries, hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer. Over time the dish's popularity spread mainly across the province (and later throughout Canada), often served in small town restaurants, bars, as well as being quite popular in ski resorts."

I had my first taste of poutine at a Tim Hortons restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. While it's an acquired taste -- so, too, is liver -- I was game and wanted to expand my culinary borders, if not my waistline. And, I wanted to feel Canadian.

Fast forward to this month, where I had my most recent taste of poutine. This time, it was memorable. Not lost or ironic was this: I enjoyed my delicious dish of poutine for lunch on a recent Saturday at Beauty's Bagel Bakery in Oakland, Calif., where the signature menu item is a Montréal-style wood-fired bagel. For the uninitiated, a Montréal-style bagel is hand-rolled, boiled in honey water and baked in a wood-fired oven. The result is a bagel that's texturally soft with a crunchy crust as well as a slight sweetness and just a hint of smoke. Varieties include: sesame, poppy, onion, salt, whole wheat, plain and everything. At Beauty's, they're baked in small batches and served fresh and warm, too. 

So, I thought to myself: What better way to complement one taste of Montréal (in this case a free-range egg and cheddar breakfast omelet sandwich served on a Beauty's Montréal-style whole wheat bagel) than with another -- albeit dubious -- Montréal staple, poutine? It was only later after talking with one of Beauty's owners, chief bagel baker Blake Joffe, who stopped by our table in desire of feedback for his newest culinary creation, that I found out poutine had been added to the menu just the day before.

At Beauty's, their beloved Quebecois dish is served with mushroom gravy, which may be the key to its taste and success. Joffe's attitude and that of his partner and co-owner, Amy Remsen, as expressed on Beauty's Facebook page the day poutine debuted, is simple and straightforward: "What's not to love?" 

Indeed, and love their poutine I did.

The mushroom gravy Joffe created made a wonderful fondue for the thick, hand-cut French fries. As for the the white cheddar cheese curds, they simply added to the pleasure of the dish. There was enough poutine smothered on the platter to share community-style with my two dining companions.

Which brings us back to Calvin Trillin. "Poutine might be an appropriate dish for a country that prides itself on lumpy multiculturalism," he says. "So what if it's also a punch line?"

I couldn't agree more. So what?

We have much to learn from the Canadians, and from a local bagel bakery which embraces their cuisine. Bon appetit!

Learn more than you ever wanted to know about poutine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poutine

To read more of Calvin Trillin's New Yorker article about poutine: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/23/091123fa_fact_trillin

Photograph of Beauty's Bagel Shop poutine by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013. 

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