Poutine: awesome or awful?

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Last month we brought in two experts to debate the merits of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. One in favour (Max Fawcett, former editor of Alberta Oil magazine) and one opposed (Kai Nagata of the Dogwood Initiative), they gave their individual takes on this polarizing issue.

When I saw these two debating about a similarly divisive issue on Facebook not long after we published that first piece, I figured we at V.I.A. have a moral responsibility to provide a forum for them once again. This vitally important issue is poutine. Is it totally amazing or does it totally suck? Below are Max and Kai’s arguments for and against this dish.

vancouver-poutine

Max Fawcett (@MaxFawcett) argues against poutine:

When I defended the Kinder Morgan pipeline on this website a few weeks ago, I was sure I’d get some hate mail. But this time, I’m not leaving anything to chance. That’s because I’m here to take a position on something that’s even more precious to many Canadians than the environment, climate change, or aboriginal rights: poutine. And that position, friends, is simple: poutine is gross, and we need to stop treating it like it’s some sort of cultural and culinary achievement.

This is blasphemy in the cult of the curd that we seem to be building in Canada. Poutine has transcended its proper status as a late-night indulgence on par with a shawarma or slice of greasy pizza and become, somehow, a dish that we’re proud of as Canadians. The proliferation of poutine has also inspired increasingly ludicrous riffs on its basic formula. From poutine pizza (redundant and derivative) to fois gras poutine (a waste of perfectly good foie gras) to dessert poutine (just flat-out wrong), there are cooks everywhere who are trying to trade on poutine’s popularity. But if we’re looking for a national dish, we can do so, so much better than a messy combination of fried potatoes, gravy, and cheese curds. Poutine is something that would speak to the Guy Fieris of the world — and are those the people we really want to be talking to?

This isn’t culinary snobbery, by the way. I’m not above comfort food, and I don’t think it involves beluga caviar and gravlax. I’ve probably eaten a metric tonne of Kraft Dinner in my life, after all. If you want to eat poutine in the comfort of your own home — or, your own hangover? Knock yourself out. But don’t pretend that it’s part of the cultural fabric of this country, or that we need a poutine shop on every corner. The federal legalization of marijuana will do enough to make the world think we’ve collectively regressed into a nation of stoned twenty year old tree planters. Let’s not give them anything else to work with.

This isn’t about some sort of latent dislike of Quebec on my part, either. There are lots of perfectly wonderful things that Quebec has given this country, be it the sense of style that appears to be a birthright for Montrealers, the studied indifference to English Canada’s Protestant work ethic, or even — and maybe especially — the low-level hostility towards Torontonians that sits just beneath almost every Quebecker’s otherwise placid surface. Even their political scandals have a certain quality that ours lack in the rest of the country. I mean, it’s hard to imagine Ralph Goodale getting caught leaving important government documents around his Hells Angels-affiliated girlfriend — much less him bouncing back to become a leadership candidate a few years later. But the fact that a province that used to be famous for its steaming piles of delicious smoked meat is now known as ground-zero for the spread of poutine doesn’t reflect well on Quebec.

I know that this is a completely futile argument. Arguing against gravy, carbs, and cheese is a bit like telling people to stop enjoying their oxygen so much. But I still think that we, as a nation, can do better than poutine. Let’s put it back in its proper place, as a form of carnal sustenance rather than cultural significance. Let’s stop encouraging high-end chefs from turning out increasingly perverted interpretations on its basic recipe, and low-end fast-food chains (McPoutine, anyone?) from bastardizing it as only they can. And most of all, let’s get back to talking up this country’s true national dish: Kraft Dinner. If we’re lucky, we might even be able to convince Kraft to go back to using the artificial preservatives and synthetic colours that made it great in the first place.

Max Fawcett is the former Editor-In-Chief of Vancouver Magazine, the former editor of Alberta Oil, and a freelance magazine writer. He was born and raised in False Creek, and still thinks it’s the best neighourhood in the city.

Kai Nagata (@KaiNagata) argues in favour of poutine:

When Max agreed to debate me about poutine I headed to La Belle Patate on Davie for the all-you-can-eat deal, as a warrior might pray at the temple before battle. There they brought me plate after plate piled with crisp, thick-cut french fries and squeaky cheese curds – dressed with an assortment of smoked, cured and fried meats, mushrooms, grilled onions and green peppers – all of it swimming in thick, shiny brown gravy. Mmmm, gravy.

What I’m saying is that for $19.50 I ate at least 3,000 delicious, life-giving calories and (in a winter when Vancouverites are anxious about the availability of salt) 3,500 milligrams of sodium, an essential nutrient. My first argument in favour of poutine is purely economic: I just exceeded my recommended daily intake of pretty much everything, all for the cost of a fancy cocktail.

That brings me to the second thing I love about poutine, which is how it brings together working class people from both sides of the language divide. Poutine is a giant French “fuck you” to the Canada Food Guide, and we Anglos secretly love it. Like double doubles, hating the Maple Leafs and sleeping with people from the opposite side of the Ottawa river, poutine glues Canadians together.

I spent my early 20s in Quebec, where I ate roughly my own weight in curds, fries ‘n’ gravy each year. Unlike in Vancouver, poutine there is not some kind of novelty food – it’s a survival mechanism. This time of year the Chez Ashton chain offers a temperature discount: at -13, you save 13 per cent. At -30, you get 30 per cent off. Poutine is cold-weather fuel, comfort food and hangover cure all in one. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or midnight snack. Don’t laugh. We could learn a thing or two.

Poutine-loving Saguenay, Quebec is the happiest city in the country, according to Statistics Canada. Number two on the life satisfaction index is Trois-Rivières. You know what the LEAST HAPPY city in Canada is? That’s right, Vancouver. Granted, British Columbians still hold a six-month edge over Quebecers when it comes to life expectancy – but if you spend that time eating salad and hating yourself, is it really worth it?

Poutine may not be organic or gluten-free, but at least the ingredients are sustainable. Long after açai berries are a distant memory and the last tuna has been auctioned off, local Canadian farmers will be cranking out potatoes, milk, and whatever that sauce brune is made of.

In these uncertain times, do you really need to be stressing over your diet? No, you need a cheap, filling pile of hot fat and carbs that will release a big wave of dopamine and get you through winter with a smile on your face. Whether you’re fighting a shovel-wielding mob over a pile of free salt, paying off a million-dollar mortgage or watching Donald Trump be sworn in as the leader of the free world, I guarantee you’ll feel better with a belly full of poutine.

Kai Nagata works as the Communications Director at Dogwood Initiative. He lives in East Van, not far from where his family first arrived in 1900.