“You can not move to Quebec and refuse to try Poutine,” my new friend Angela insisted. We were the only two Americans in the graduate English program at Concordia University in Montreal. Angela was enrolled in the creative writing track while I was still insisting that I preferred the literature concentration that allowed me to write about other people’s writing. After the first day of new student orientation, which was nothing more than a series of endless meetings designed to overwhelm us with thesis details and comprehensive exam anxiety, we had gathered in the student center for the mixed discipline “getting to know you” assembly. And for the free food.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Angela and I stood side by side at the crudités platter, a future writer of novels and a future writer about novels whose only connection was our love of words and our citizenship. Under ordinary circumstances, the fact that it was September 18th wouldn’t have been all that significant. But since it was 2001, I immediately recognized in Angela a kindred, artificial composure as we attempted to navigate a world so removed from the disarming vulnerability of the past week.
“Je m’appelle Heather,” I smiled, determined to use four years of high school French for something other than dirty jokes and impressive “Café au lait venti, s’il vous plait” Starbucks orders.
“Angela,” she replied. “Sorry, but I can’t do the French thing. My high school only offered Spanish and Italian.”
“Well that’s a bummer. I was hoping to use my French here. Maybe even polish it a bit. I knew this was an English speaking school but I thought I’d be able to immerse myself …”
“You want cultural immersion? Then you have to eat this. Period.” Angela balanced a soggy paper plate on the outstretched palm of her right hand while she swept her left hand through the air with a Vanna White flick of the wrist. “This stuff is Quebec,” she insisted as she raised the plate to her nose and inhaled.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What is it,” she echoed, as if I was still speaking French.
“Yeah. It just looks so … messy.”
“Wait. For real? You’ve never seen Poutine?”
“No way! So that’s Poutine!”
“Oh. My . God. Poutine was invented in this city in like, the 1950s or something. And the “messy” part is how it actually got its name when some random guy went into a restaurant and ordered French fries and cheese curds.” She stopped to pop a sauce-soaked lump into her mouth. “Anyway, when the guy told the waiter to toss the fries and curds into the same bag, the waiter responded in French with something like ‘That's going to make a damn mess.’ Have you seriously never heard this story?"
“Ca va faire une maudite poutine!” I exclaimed.
“’ Poutine’ is French for ‘mess.’ I explained. And “Ca va faire une maudite poutine” actually means ‘That's going to make a damn mess.’ I’ve heard the phrase before, I just didn’t realize it had anything to do with how this stuff got its name.”
“Whatever,” Angela shrugged, shoving her plate toward me. “This stuff is artery-clogging and messy and wonderful all at the same time. Come on.”
“I don’t know …” I hesitated. Even though I finally felt like I was in recovery from the anorexia and bulimia that had dominated the past fifteen years of my life, I hadn’t planned on introducing normal food to my repertoire so soon. I also knew that my years of fat-free, sugar-free, low-carb veganism had produced the bland palate and fragile digestive system that required a rigid dietary schedule of carefully portioned organic foods. Yet even though I was nervous about exchanging the familiar strawberries and apple slices and baby carrots lining the perimeter of the buffet table for even a single bite of the extravagance heaped on Angela’s plate, I was dying to taste the freedom she held out to me.
As I stood thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen if I slid a forkful of foreign flavors into my mouth, I realized that the worst had already happened. At almost thirty years of age, I had walked away from my marriage, enrolled in graduate school, and taken out more education loans than I could ever hope to repay with a Master’s degree in English. Worse still, after spending six hours at the Canadian/American border the day before with nothing but a student Visa and a class schedule to legitimize me, I had managed to convince the border patrol that I had no weapons, no drugs, and no connections to the terrorists who had just blown my country apart. Eventually, with sufficient hesitation and no eye contact, a heavily armed guard in a bullet-proof vest had ushered me into Canada with a wave of his black leather glove. And I had simply driven forward while my country receded in the rearview mirror, along with my chances of ever going back.
“Ok,” I said, nodding at Angela’s plate as if I hadn’t lapsed into another of the flashbacks that had haunted me all week. “Just a taste, though. I’m not used to this kind of stuff.”
“And what kind of stuff would that be? Fabulous food? Cultural treasures? Once-in-a-lifetime experiences?”
“Well, then, this’ll make you grow as a person in more ways than one,” she laughed, smacking her thick thighs. I echoed her laugh as I looked down at the greasy film clinging to the French fry tips, their thin bodies buried under the mahogany sauce pooling in the plate’s scalloped edges. Certainly, I knew enough about Poutine to know that the standard 3-ingredient Velouté sauce of chicken stock, flour, and butter – what we call “gravy” in America – was the essential ingredient. But Angela explained that the sauce was also Poutine’s most distinguishing feature, since replacing Velouté with Marinara turned a basic Poutine into Poutine Itallienne, while adding ground beef and fried onions to Velouté elevated regular old Poutine to Poutine Bourgennione.
“But this…” she began, pausing to watch me pluck a fry and pinch its ends together so I could cradle the sauce as I brought it to my lips, “… this is Poutine Mole.”
“Meaning?” I asked, as I tilted my head back and filled my mouth with the answer to my own question.
Chocolate! For a moment, everything I hungered for went silent.
As surprised as I was to find my favorite flavor nestled among all the warm, spicy softness suddenly sliding down my throat, I was even more surprised by the concealed cheese curd I had unknowingly scooped with the sauce. Its wonderfully firm sweetness was the perfect complement to the prism of flavors settling on my tongue, one at a time – Garlic. Almonds. Cinnamon. Onions. Corn – each one tucked deep inside the essence of the smoked peppers and chocolate. I closed my eyes and held the moment behind my teeth until the last residual snap of cinnamon finally started to fade.
“ I like the Mole version best because it’s the closest I’m ever gonna get to Spanish food around here,” Angela explained.
“A Quebec food with a Spanish twist,” I chuckled.
“Exactly. We both win. It has a little Spanish for me, a little French for you, and a little chocolate for … well, for us. For America.”
I wondered what my family and friends were doing back home while I stood on a college campus in the middle of Montreal violating my own dietary rules. I knew they were all glued to CNN, watching instant replays and hoping for the terror alert to drop to orange. I knew they were talking about the fear, the destruction, the proof that there really was no safe place. The only thing I didn’t know, the only thing I wanted to know, was who those pilots were. I wondered what they were thinking a week ago as they flew into our Towers. I wondered if they were thinking about their families. Or our families. I wondered if they were thinking about pain, or dying, or whether there was an afterlife. I wondered if I was giving them too much credit for thinking about anything. Perhaps all they were thinking, as they aimed their planes at the 93rd floor of a foreign building in a foreign land, was “Ca va faire une maudite poutine.”