FORT KENT, Maine — Sooner or later, anyone who bicycles long distances on a regular basis gets asked the same question by non-cyclists: Why do you ride?
In response, we recite statistics on the positive relationships between activity levels and fitness; we wax poetic on viewing the world while rolling along on two wheels; heck, we’ll even spout off an impromptu haiku if the mood strikes us.
The world from a bike
Trees, land fly by in the wind
My spokes are shiny
But maybe it’s time I come clean. Sure, I ride for all the above reasons. But, at the very core, what drives me to don colorful cycling clothes and pedal for miles at a time can be summed up in one gooey, cheesy, deep-fried word: poutine.
Given that, according to online calorie calculator myfitnesspal.com, the average 30-french fry serving of poutine contains nearly 1,000 calories with 54 grams of fat and 3,776 grams of sodium, the only way I can enjoy a heaping plate of gravy-coated guilt-free goodness is after a bike ride.
Of course, I’d need to ride nearly 25 miles to burn enough calories to earn that plate of poutine, but it’s totally worth it.
I have no idea who first thought it would be a good idea to combine french fries, cheese curds and gravy into one delectable dish oozing calories and fat, but he or she should get some sort of international prize.
Accepted culinary lore traces the origins of poutine to Quebec, where, legend has it, a restaurant patron in the 1960s requested the cook toss a handful of fresh cheese curds on his fries and then cover it in hot gravy.
The cook allegedly responded using the local vernacular for mess and said, “ca va faire une maudite poutine” [“it will make a damn mess”]. The rest is gastronomic history.
True or not, there is no denying that Quebec is the epicenter for the poutine movement. But the dish has gained popularity over the years across Canada and more recently has made inroads into mainstream dining in this country.
My introduction to poutine — also is known as “fry mix” or, out west, “a godfather” — came at the old Fort Kent Hotel more than three decades ago.
It was love at first bite.
Since then I have been engaged in a sort of ongoing comparative poutine research project and take the opportunity to order and try it whenever it is available in my travels.
While the study remains ongoing, there are several conclusions to be drawn.
No. 1: There is really no such thing as bad poutine. In fact, the worst poutine is often better than the best available steamed vegetable option.
That is not to say, however, that some variations on the poutine theme are not better than others.
For example, I am not a huge fan of the darker gravies favored by some restaurants. I prefer the lighter chicken- or turkey-based sauces.
Likewise, while any cheese will do in a poutine pinch, I remain a purist and prefer the fresh cheese curds that squeak when you bite down on them over grated mozzarella or cheddar cheeses.
Which brings me to my second observation: Poutine is not static. It has evolved over the years and — dare I say it? — has become trendy, with more and more high-end restaurants offering their own unique spin on the Quebecois dish and entire episodes of foodie shows on the Food Network devoted to it.
If I had any doubts about this, they were quelled when my best high school friend, Marjie, and I traveled to Las Vegas last year and went to supper at The Public House.
There, on the menu, was poutine with duck confit, cheese curd and stout gravy. For an extra $2.50 you could add a fried egg, because, you know, poutine on its own is just not enough of a meal.
But what is it about a plateful of fries, curds and gravy that is so darn good? A dish, if left to sit too long, goes from warm, gooey goodness to a cold, gelatinous solid.
“It’s the ultimate comfort food,” Samantha Berry, executive chef at Inn of Acadia in Madawaska, said. “You can take pretty much anything and put it together with it, and all of a sudden you have something great.”
Berry is putting her poutine where her mouth is by offering a special “poutine of the week” on her regular menu and her creativity knows no bounds.
“So far, the most popular is the Thanksgiving poutine,” she said. “It’s turkey, gravy, stuffing and curds on french fries. It’s really delightful.”
Berry also has used the traditional poutine base of french fries, curds and gravy in combination with other toppings to create a chicken alfredo poutine, a fajita poutine and a lobster newburg poutine. There’s even a breakfast poutine with white sausage gravy, bacon and a fried egg.
This week, her special is steak au poivre poutine, with brandy peppercorn gravy over grilled steak, fries and curds.
“It really has taken off across the country and is being adapted to all sorts of foods,” Berry said. “I don’t know who first jumped on that gravy train, but now it seems everyone is finding things people love and turning it into poutine.”
At the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Global Spectrum and Ovations Food Services came up with a truly daunting take on poutine with the Penobscot Poundah, a half-pound bacon burger topped with poutine.
My sources tell me there are numerous other places around The County where the poutine will never disappoint, from Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash to Rosette’s in Frenchville to Grammy’s in Linneus.
In a pinch, you can do what my mushing friend Elizabeth Strobridge does and make your own by pouring a jar of gravy over cheese curds on top of cooked fries and putting the whole mess/poutine under the broiler for several minutes.
But I am not so sure about another recipe I saw online that called for Velveeta cheese and Miracle Whip in lieu of the curds and gravy. That just seems wrong.
Clearly, I have only begun to scratch the surface of all that is poutine. Which is why it will remain the best incentive to hop on my bike to burn off those calories and, when the mood strikes, spout an impromptu haiku.
Poutine on my plate
Fries, curds, gravy piled so high
So far to ride now
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.