In March 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ate poutine at the White House. Not because he smuggled some in from his home province of Quebec, but because White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford decided to elevate a pile of fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy to diplomatic banquet food level.
Barack Obama made sure to point out that poutine was served because "We want our Canadian friends to feel at home." In many ways, it was a triumphant moment for low-brow food, but for University of Vermont graduate student Nicholas Fabien-Ouellet, something didn't feel quite right. Despite this moment of validation, Fabien-Ouellet felt that a dish with very deep roots in Quebec was suddenly being passed off as Canadian.
This realization set Fabien-Ouellet on an exploration that culminated into a research paper entitled "Poutine Dynamics," published in the journal CuiZine, which argues that poutine is undergoing the process of cultural appropriation. As illustrated by Barack Obama's hospitality, poutine has become a de facto Canadian dish, frequently referred to as Canada's "national dish."
Why is this problematic? Mainly, Fabien-Ouellet argues, because poutine is not Canadian, it's Québécois. That might seem like a nitpicky distinction to someone attending a diplomatic soirée, but, in Canada, poutine taps into very real cultural and linguistic tension.
"The first thing I want to emphasize is that when we talk about cultural appropriation of poutine, it's not when people cook, eat, or adapt to poutine outside of Quebec's borders," Fabien-Ouellet says. "It's really about how it's labeled. Labeling it as a Canadian dish when it's in fact a Québécois dish is cultural appropriation."
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The term "cultural appropriation" has been thrown around a lot lately, but for the sake of his research, Fabien-Ouellet says it can be "broadly defined as a majority group takes elements from the minority or marginalized group in a way that is problematic for that group. That's a broad, one-sentence definition."
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In order to understand the subtle mechanisms by which poutine would have been assimilated by Canadian culture, we have to go back to the social and historical context of Quebec and Canada when poutine was created: an era that is hard for a lot of young Canadians to wrap their minds around.
"Poutine first emerged in rural Quebec in the 1950s and for most of its existence, poutine was mocked and ridiculed; there was some shame attached to it. Quebec society was also shamed for its consumption—there was a poutine stigma attached to Quebec society through poutine, and that existed for most of the history of poutine. Then, it became the stigma of junk food consumption in the 90s and it was banned from hockey rinks and high schools.
"Quebec society, for most of its existence, was looked at as backwards and as a cheap labour market within Canada. So when we look at social capital, that low social capital was conducive to ridiculing Quebec culture and not being curious about it. But as that capital increases, people start becoming curious about the culture."
He gives the example of other cultures once stigmatized, then embraced, citing an article called "How French-Canadians became White Folks, or doing things with race in Quebec."
Fabien-Ouellet adds, "This article looks at race not as a skin colour, but as a social class. Like Jews, Southern Italian immigrants, or Irish people, Québécois people were not considered 'white' for a large parts of their existence. There are records of this, like Quebecers being told, 'Speak white' instead of 'Speak English and not French' It's important to contextualize this relationship between Quebec and Canada for a Unites States audience."
In order to contextualize, Fabien-Ouellet offers the examples of Japanese cuisine being treated as dirty or scary during WWII, only to become the power lunch food of the 80s and beyond. Similarly, he says, kimchi and garlic—respectively—were used to mock and stereotype Korean and Italian immigrants as smelling bad. Same with lobster being poverty food in Maritime Canada.
Now, these foods are considered "delicacies," much like what happened when chefs began embracing poutine's gastronomic potential. Martin Picard's foie gras poutine and Chuck Hughes' lobster poutine became destination dishes for American tourists and the rest of Canada.
In fact, Chuck Hughes famously defeated Iron Chef Bobby Flay with a little help from his lobster poutine. Hughes essentially repeated Fabien-Ouellet's thesis in a 2011 interview with Toronto Life. "How can you not love poutine? My only concern is that over the past few years poutine has become known as a Canadian dish, and it's totally NOT a Canadian dish. It's Québécois!"
With all of this outside attention, Fabien-Ouellet says, poutine became a Canadian dish something he calls "problematic" for Quebecers because the dish was once stigmatized by the very dominant group now taking credit for it. "Canadization is done by everyone, not just Canadians. It's food writers in the US or chefs in the UK. But slowly, Quebec culture gets absorbed and diluted as Canadian."
Still, he's not against chain restaurants "adapting" and "adopting" the dish anywhere in the world, as long as Quebec is given credit. Which is exactly what Smoke's Poutinerie, an Ontario-based poutine chain does. We spoke to Ryan Smolkin, the founder and CEO of Smokes, a company whose goal is to bring the authentic Quebec classic to the rest of the world.
Smoke's currently has 150 locations across North America and is aiming for 1,300 worldwide, so the issue of appropriation is one that Smolkin is not unfamiliar with.
"There's no disputing where poutine came from," Smolkin says. "It's from Quebec. We give Quebec the cred and we're proud to say it comes from Quebec. We get all our sauces and cheese curds from Quebec. I found this whole subject interesting because when it comes to cultural appropriation, it's like, dudes, there's nothing we could do more for that culture and promoting it and taking it to the world!"
But he also knows that poutine is a particularly touchy subject for Quebecers. "Think of anything else that's Canadian, no one's getting hung up on which tree was tapped first for maple syrup… it's Canadian!"
Smolkin says that while poutine's origin myth is still hotly debated within Quebec, he has focused on the opportunity to push the dish far beyond the Canadian border. "The US doesn't always know that it's from Quebec. But we're educating them about it and what makes it Québécois and Canadian. That's something to be proud of, but it's not something you should keep to yourself. You should share it with the world!"
During our conversation, Ryan Smolkin made sure to plug a new Smoke's poutine—topped peameal bacon, double-smoked bacon, and maple syrup—commemorating Canada's 150th birthday, at which point he began loudly singing Canada's national anthem.
And as for Fabien-Ouellet's article, it has caused somewhat of a shit storm in Canadian media, but a positive one, as far as he is concerned.
"It's a good sign. The concept of cultural appropriation has been diminished and some people have said that's it's a stupid concept. But we always have to contextualize. There are huge consequences to not listening to the demands of minority or marginalized groups. What's wonderful about food: we can talk about these issues with a lighter tone."