smells like poutine spirit: montréal’s place in french north america


Forget waterboarding.  For someone who is trying to avoid carbohydrates, being in a city full of Poutine is quite torturous.  I know the name sounds strikingly X-rated, but for those of you unfamiliar with it, here is your wiki lesson for the day:

In the basic recipe for Poutine, French fries are topped with fresh cheese curds, and covered with brown gravy or sauce. The French fries are of medium thickness, and fried so that the inside stays soft, while the outside is crunchy [how can this not be good?]. The gravy used is generally a light chicken, veal or turkey gravy, mildly spiced with a hint of pepper, or a sauce brune which is a combination of beef and chicken stock, originating in Québec.  Fresh cheese curds [not more than a day old or so they say] are used. To maintain the texture of the fries, the cheese curd and gravy is added immediately prior to serving the dish. 

Poutine originated in Québec in the late 1950s and it can now be found everywhere in Canada.  Sorry, disco fries, you were not the first of your kind.  Poutine is ubiquitous, and it took all of the discipline of a size sixteen bridezilla hoping to squeeze into her size four Vera Wang wedding gown for me not to order it every time I saw it.  The combination of angst, longing and anger associated with not eating Poutine during my stay got me to thinking about the nexus of cultural milieus, and what Montreal represents vis a vis the legacy of the French in North America.  What, am I the only one?

I like Montréal.  As far as North American cities go, I’d put it right up there with New York.  The city maintains the tension that many cities now lack – that is, the tension between the ultra-cultural and the ultra-sleazy.  It is this tension that makes for an edgy, interesting city, full of opportunities for daytime and nighttime diversions.  Being a major French-speaking city in North America, it also serves as a direct link to European culture, and if things had gone just a little bit differently in 1759, perhaps more of North America would be speaking French right now.

A year after the Jamestown colony was founded in Virginia by the British in 1607, the French founded what would become Québec City and New France.  By the mid eighteenth century the French and the British were at each other’s throats regarding territory in what is now Canada, and this power struggle was fierce and constant.  As part of the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France, the Battle of Québec [also known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham] scored a decisive victory for the British in 1759, and thereafter led to the melting away of New France, the establishment of Canada, the Louisiana Purchase, and the general use of English in North America. [Pour mes amis français et franco-canadiens: je suis sûr que les Britanniques étaient les trompeurs.  Je n’ai pas encore la preuve, mais je suis certain que je la trouverai!].

Thanks to New France and for the United States Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase [which represents 23% of the current U.S. territory], many cities in the English-speaking United States and Canada still bear French names: Baton Rouge, Des Moines, Detroit, Grande Prairie [Alberta], etc.  However, no one will ever call any of these cities an oasis of European culture among a cultural wasteland of Walmarts, GAPs, Starbucks and Zellers.  Montréal is such an oasis.  Perhaps if Detroit would rebrand itself as a French city the economy would pick up.  Or conversely maybe there would just be more strikes, smelly cheese and Jerry Lewis movies.

Montréal concurrently represents the New France that was lost to history and what would have been in an alternate reality, and it represents the legacy of the events of the eighteenth century.  More recently, those seeking to reclaim a French-speaking independent nation have formed a few political factions, namely the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois.  These two parties advocate for the protection of the French language in Quebec, sovereignty for the province of Quebec and ultimately, secession from Canada.  While referendums on sovereignty have been held, they have not been successful.

The story of French speaking North America is far from over, as evidenced in the recent resurgence of political movements dedicated to the sovereignty of Québec.  As the politics of the twenty-first century defines itself, it remains to be seen what lies in store for the legacy of New France. 

Until then, in the spirit of the subject, I’ll have an order of Poutine please.