Cultural appropriation is like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. A white sorority girl dressed as Slutty Pocahontas for Halloween? Cultural appropriation. Canada claiming poutine as a sort of national dish? That’s thornier.
The New York Times this week published a glimpse at the roiling cultural argument taking in place in America’s Hat over the origins of poutine. Some residents of Quebec feel the decadent dish of French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds is a uniquely Quebecois invention, not Canadian. Researcher Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet argues for this position, even publishing a paper in Cuizine the Journal of Canadian Food Cultures that argues for a relationship between “the ongoing process of poutine culinary appropriation and the threat of Quebecois cultural absorption by Canadians.”
Like any family spat, there is context, back story, and a deep-seated grudge at play. Residents of Quebec often feel their cultural heritage is under siege from pan-Canadian forces, and have taken steps to preserve their French-Canadian heritage as separate and apart from larger Canadian culture. So when President Obama last year served Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smoked duck poutine canapés at a White House dinner, it touched a gravy-slathered nerve.
It is difficult to protect intellectual property when it comes to food, especially a dish that’s become as globally beloved as poutine, so the battle being fought here is really one of cultural recognition. But good luck with that. Poutine has been so bastardized around the world—exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C—as to be almost entirely separate from its working-class Quebecois origins.
For example: In New Jersey, as the tweet above so graphically illustrates, there exists a combination of French fries, gravy, and cheese known as disco fries. (I will cop to ingesting these at diners on a semiregular basis as a teenager.) I was completely oblivious to disco fries’ distant relation to poutine; I thought the starch/gravy/cheese trifecta was probably a universal medium for late-night snacks and hangover cures. Wisconsin could also stake a claim as one of the world’s great poutine-loving lands.
Which is all to say that perhaps at issue here is the word poutine iteslf. Call all other gravy-cheese train wrecks by another name—disco fries, The I Wish I Knew How To Quit You Special™—and leave poutine for the dish served within the boundaries of Quebec. Did I just argue for a sort of Poutine D.O.C.? Must be the gravy talking.