I made a trip to New York earlier this month, which reminded of a story I have always kept close to my heart. It is a story of youth, of adventure, of growing up and, most of all, of fries.
The young boy is only 10 years old, and this is the first time he leaves the country. Sure, there was that one year when he lived in France at six months old, or that summer vacation in Ogunquit, Maine, but he was always with his family. This time, he is not.
Still, that’s not totally true, as his dad is also making the trip. However, he is not traveling with his dad in the bus and so, that doesn’t count. For all he knows, he is on his own. And loving it. The young boy is traveling with his hockey team for a tournament in Boston. He doesn’t know it yet, but the team will win most of its games, regain confidence and momentum for the rest of the season and eventually win the league championship. But before all of that, he is stuck on this bus for a few more hours. Though for now, the bus has stopped so that the team can enjoy a meal.
This is all new to him. Traveling. Hockey — it’s his first season of playing organized hockey. English — the young boy, all 4’8″ and 82 lbs. of his, was born and raised a French Canadian. This is all a lot to take in, but it’s about to get worse. He’s about to make his first order in an American restaurant. At a McDonald’s, perhaps, but in English.
His turn is fast approaching. There’s the team captain at the counter, then his defensive partner and he’ll be after him. He starts rehearsing his order, but in his head only. When he talks soon enough, everybody will know he’s French; he doesn’t want to give them a sneak peek. ‘Don’t mess up,’ he tells himself. Oh, he could have asked his coaches to order for him when they offered it. His turn is next. But, no one asked the coaches for help and so, he didn’t. ‘Keep it simple. And short, especially.’
It’s his turn now and, thankfully, the lady at the cashier can see that the young boy with the freckles on his face and the curly red hair is shy.
“I’ll take a Coke. And french fries. Please.”
Barely a minute after, the coke and a stack of regular fries are on his tray. Just like he ordered it. Yet, the young boy doesn’t understand why the lady didn’t give him a poutine to go with his soft drink. That is what he wanted, but he doesn’t say anything. He’s only 10 and doesn’t pretend that he knows anything in the world. ‘Maybe poutine means something else than french fries in English,’ he tells himself.
Fries, gravy and cheese. Simple but not simplistic, poutine originated from rural Quebec sometime in the last 50 or 60 years. It is in Drummondville, at Le Roy Jucep, that the poutine was first sold on a restaurant menu. Many different stories exist as to who might have invented the poutine, but the mystery remains whole still today. The only certain thing is that we are all indebted to the inventor, because this great meal is now a staple of the full treatment in La belle province. Poutine is good at any time of the day or night except before 11 a.m. perhaps — but really, what is good to eat at that time except for breakfast traditions such as eggs, cereal, toasts or maybe cheese? The Québécois love their poutine enough that they’ll try just about any variation imaginable, something that is not lost on Montréal’s La Banquise. They only wish that you do not touch the three main ingredients. All the rest is fair game.
Not much has changed since that day when I made my first order at an American McDonald’s in early 1996. Poutine is still just as good and Americans are still as oblivious to it, now, as they’ve ever been. As far as I’m concerned, it is a damn shame that a meal seemingly so American can be so un-American at the same time. Whoever manages to successfully implement poutine in the United States will probably earn himself a boatload of money. If not him, then someone else will manage to appropriate it for himself and then make a boatload of money — isn’t that what they call the American dream?
Then again, perhaps it is best to be like the United States, where the poutine remains a foreign concept, than like the rest of Canada, where the poutine is just fool’s gold because the execution lacks so mightily.