Poutine, the greasy, cheesy comfort food that Quebecers are so proud of, is being culturally appropriated by Canadians, according to Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, a master’s student at the University of Vermont.
In his master’s thesis, Poutine Dynamics, the 27-year-old says it is incorrectly being presented as a “Canadian,” and not a “Québécois” dish.
“It is wonderful that poutine is adapted at every culture, but it should be labelled as a Québécois dish,” he argued.
“In this instance, we’re not talking about an adaptation of a Canadian poutine as a Greek poutine or an Italian poutine. We’re talking about labelling the dish as being Canadian.”
Fabien-Ouellet said he was curious to know why the “unpretentious Québécois dish … found its way onto the Canadian State Dinner menu organized by the White House in March 2016.”
“For most of its existence, the dish was mocked. The older generations don’t want to be associated with it and society was mocked through poutine,” he said, adding that when he was younger, the greasy dish was considered bad as it was junk food.
Poutine is believed to have originated in rural Quebec in the late 1950s, with several communities claiming to be the birthplace of poutine, including Drummondville and Victoriaville.
“Poutine was once considered a disastrous culinary intervention,” Fabien-Ouellet told Global News.
“Poutine has been used at times to tarnish Quebec culture and undermine its legitimacy of self-determination.”
“Quebec was seen as backward and cheap labour, there was no intention to appreciate the culture.”
What is cultural appropriation?
In his thesis, Fabien-Ouellet defines it “a majority group that takes an element of a culture of a minority group and claims it to be their own.”
“I didn’t really know that I would do something about poutine at first, but when I arrived in Burlington, other students, professors and everyone in town were talking to me about poutine,” he told Global News.
The food systems graduate student points out poutine has come a long way since its days of being served in rural diners, urban greasy spoons and community skating arenas, but cultural appropriation, he argues, should never be mistaken for inspiration or adaptation.
“It’s not about when people eat, cook or adapt the dish, it’s when it’s labelled as a Canadian dish, not a Québécois dish,” he said.
Na’eem Adam, founder of La Poutine Week, says it’s not necessarily wrong to say “Canadian poutine.”
“There’s Canadian poutine and there’s Quebec poutine, that’s for sure,” he told Global News.
“Canadian poutine has replacement cheese, it won’t necessarily have the authentic fries, the gravy won’t be traditional. By no means are any of them authentic Quebec poutine.”
Adam admits, for him, there’s one main distinction between Canadian and Quebec poutine: it’s not as good.
“I get pissed off in Toronto or wherever when they call their poutine ‘Quebec poutine’ and it’s obviously not,” he said, pointing out that the dish is now prominent enough that people should know which province it comes from.
Fabien-Ouellet is quick to point out that his thesis has nothing to do with English and French or Quebec versus Canada.
“People who are saying Quebec is in Canada are correct, but should we then stop talking about Quebec culture and talk only about Canadian culture? I think that’s a slippery slope,” he told Global News.
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“Food is a big element of culture. It should come with recognition. There isn’t that due recognition. Calling it Canadian instead of Québécois is problematic.”
“This idea of Quebec is in Canada, so why should we care, is the absorbing of Quebec culture in Canada,” said Fabien-Ouellet.
“If poutine is a big iconic element of the Canadian gastronomy, then maybe there are some issues there we should talk that.”