Why This Academic Thinks Poutine Is ‘Cultural Appropriation’

Did English Canada steal Quebec’s provincial dish for itself?

May 30 2017, 10:41pm

Image via University of Vermont

Poutine has a controversial origin story. The fight has mostly centered around two Quebec restaurants—"Le Roy Jucep" in Drummondville and "Le Lutin qui rit" in Warwick, who both claim to have invented the unattractive-yet-delicious combination of cheese curds, fries and gravy. But regardless of who you believe, the fact remains that poutine is unmistakably Québécois.

But the dish has evolved quite a bit since its humble beginnings and has now found its way into white table-clothed restaurants around the world, served on real plates and sprinkled with truffle shavings, lobster bits or anything else chefs can think of to get you to spend more than $15.

For some, poutine's progress from provincial dish to internationally recognized Canadian icon is political. In an academic article titled "Poutine Dynamics" Montrealer Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet argues that the chip shack staple was long used to deride working class Québécois people, and that English Canadians' branding of poutine as a de facto national dish amounts to cultural appropriation.

We called him to get more insight into his research after a recent National Post profile caused a bit of an uproar across the country.

VICE: Why poutine, what attracted you to the subject?
Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet: I study at the University of Vermont and when people there find out that I'm from Montreal, they often talk to me about poutine. In parallel, poutine was also served at the White House during the first state dinner between Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, and that event caught my eye. I was curious to know how this dish—which had for so long been consumed mainly by working class Quebecers—had ended up there.

Tell me more about poutine's reputation when it was first invented in the 1950s? It wasn't really White House worthy then, was it?
For most of its existence, poutine was used to stigmatize Quebec society. In the article, I explore what's behind this, the social mobility of food. A good example of this concept, which helps us contextualize poutine in Quebec or within Canada, is how the Japanese were perceived during the Second World War. They were seen as these bloodthirsty monsters. We imprisoned them, people here were not interested in their culture. Sushi was perceived as something dangerous, a culinary oddity to avoid at all costs.

Today, Japanese people are perceived as successful, as good business people, and with the recognition of their culture they gain this "social capital," this criteria that makes it possible to evaluate how a culture is perceived by others, and we're now willing to spend loads of money eating in Japanese restaurants. But to bring this all back to poutine, the social capital of Quebecers was pretty low until very recently. We'd been perceived as these waterboys, there's this whole history with Canada and Quebec... As Quebec succeeded in gaining recognition and social capital, however, its culture became more appreciated. So that kind of pushed poutine into a new realm, shedding that stigma and shame. Now people have adopted it and adapt it in all these creative ways.

Has poutine kind of been reinvented?
Yeah, in the early 2000s, poutine was adopted by all these great chefs who made it classier. It was suddenly served in famous restaurants, Pied de Cochon's foie gras poutine being the example we hear all the time. Then there's also a chef who won a reality cooking show with a lobster poutine. All of this has helped popularize poutine with people who might otherwise have considered it a working class meal.

But then there was also this shaming. Poutine became the flagship junk food item: When Quebec media spoke about unhealthy diets the story was often accompanied by a photo of poutine, and there was this notion that people who ate it weren't taking care of themselves. Not so long ago, people disassociated themselves from poutine, they didn't want anyone to know they were eating it and felt it was shameful. But now young people have made it something worthy of consuming with pride.

With this research, I wanted to talk about the Canadianization of poutine, the fact that now that this stigma is no longer attached to poutine, many groups are starting to adapt it to their culture, and they're basically saying "well this is a good Canadian dish" and that's where it's problematic, it's appropriation.

The appropriation comes from the claim that it's a "Canadian" dish rather than a Québécois dish. I mean, anyone can eat poutine, anyone can modify it, adapt it as they wish. But contextualize it, understand that its origin is Québécois and not Canadian.

One comment you seem to be getting a lot is that Quebec is still in Canada...
Yeah, people get defensive and argue that Quebec is in Canada, which is true, but are these the same people who say that Quebec culture is [the same as] Canadian culture? I think there are quite a few people in Quebec who would disagree with this idea.

Gastronomy is a huge part of a culture's identity. My article is not about what defines Quebec culture or Quebec society, but it does question the definition of "Canadian" culture. If in 150 years of confederation, Canada's culinary identity is mostly based on the appropriation of Quebec cuisine, I find that problematic. It's appropriation because it's Canada's dominant culture appropriating a minority group's culture.

In Canada right now, we're talking a lot about cultural appropriation in an Indigenous context, with First Nations are demanding more respect and recognition of their traditions. Quebec francophones are a minority culture, but do you think talking about the cultural appropriation of poutine may diminish the importance of this debate?
That's not my goal at all. My article does not seek to define Quebec culture, that's a topic I'll leave to others. What I want to do is look at how Canadian culture has evolved in 150 years. In fact, I'd be curious to hear what the First Nations have to say about the fact that many of their traditions and foods are also considered 'Canadian.' But I can't speak for them.

I think adapting and modifying poutine is wonderful. The Italian poutine, the Greek poutine, the falafel poutine, these are all beautiful examples of intercultural mixtures. I'm not saying I want to keep the poutine in its classical and fixed state, I am really in favour of its evolution. Eat it, adapt it, but know that calling it a Canadian dish is problematic. This threatens Quebecois society, much like calling the Kurds Turkish or saying the Uighurs are actually Chinese. All minority nations are threatened by cultural absorption.

There's been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in a context of art, fashion and literature, but the debate surrounding the food is a little more vague. What are the main criteria or issues, in your opinion?
White people can open an Indian restaurant as long as it's done with respect. But we should ask Indian people how they feel about it. You always have to put things in context, and if the minority group says it's problematic, I think we need to take responsibility, listen and take action. If you open a restaurant and you say it's Mexican food, but it's burritos and tex-mex, that can be problematic. If you are really interested in a culture and you make a great effort to understand the culture, that's better. For me, culture can be learned, but it has to be shared, it is in the field of cultural hybridity. Food can ignore political boundaries, but in sharing there is a notion of reciprocity: If the minority group says that it is not reciprocal, then it can become appropriation.

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