Let’s get this pronunciation thing right out of the way, shall we?

My tongue wants to call the stuff POO-tin, as if I’m addressing the Russian president. Others, meanwhile, insist that it’s POO-teen, which to me just sounds filthy.

Is anybody right? Is everybody wrong?

Time to find an expert.

“The first part is phonetically correct: ‘poo,’ as in Poo Bear,” says Lewiston’s Lionel Roy, my new source for the pronunciation of French food items. “Now say the word ‘tss,’ like air escaping a tire. Yup, that’s right. Now incorporate the first part and add ‘in.’ OK, now say the word: ‘poo-tss-in.’ Come on now, follow directions and try again. All right my boy, just like a real Frenchman.”

Got it? Good. Let’s move on because I’m starving.

The ‘mess’ called poutine

It’s a simple dish of french fries, gravy and curd cheese, and in Canada you can get it anywhere. Going to a hockey game? Order up a plate of poutine at the concession stand? Winter Carnival in Quebec? Poutine on every block. Can’t wait until you get there? No problem. Across Maine’s northern border, poutine can be found in all the major food chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, not to mention every mom-and-pop greasy spoon that wants to stay in business.

Poutine originated in Quebec in the 1850s, if you believe the lore, when a man named Fernand Lachance cried: “Ca va faire une maudite poutine!” when asked to put curd cheese on french fries. The exclamation translates to “It will make a damn mess!” and when you see your first plate of this fattening snack, you will understand Mr. Lachance’s distress.

“It’s not pretty,” observes Susan Dufour of Lewiston, “but it sure is delish.”

Poutine may be ubiquitous in Canada, but here in the U.S., it’s still going through an adjustment period, unless you happen to live in Wisconsin or Minnesota where it caught on fast. A main difference between Canadian poutine and that sold in Maine is the cheese – while curds are widely available north of the border, they are not so plentiful here in the states. The result is that just about everybody who prepares poutine here resorts to using mozzarella instead of cheese curds.

“The American stuff,” Dufour insists, “is crap.”

Ah, a purist. Nothing wrong with that. For some, poutine is either done one way or it should not be done at all. The fries must be hand cut and very fresh. They must be fried in pure lard. The gravy must be just right. And the cheese, well, that needs to be fresh white cheddar cheese curds.

Get all that right, and you still might fetch a thumbs-down – there are those who assert that poutine only tastes good in French Quebec or Maillardville, a French-speaking community in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Yup. No others need apply.

We found that most people are at least willing to keep an open mind.

“I love poutine,” says Anita Austin of Sabattus. “The first time I had it was at Ashton’s in St. George. Whenever we go to Quebec we make that our first stop along the way. As for having it around here, I make my own. My husband will fry the French fries and I make the gravy. It’s pretty good, but the cheese curds sold locally are not as good as the curds you can get in Canada.

“Occasionally when I see it on a menu in a restaurant I get all excited, until the wait staff informs me that the cheese is shredded,” Austin says. “My worse experience was at a restaurant in South Portland by the mall. The waiter assured me that cheese curds were what they used for poutine. What I got was a pile of fries with minimal gravy and a blob of melted cheese. I told him those were not cheese curds. He once again assured me they were. So I asked him how it was prepared. His reply was that the cheese was fried. Yup, he didn’t have a clue about what he was talking about. So my search for a restaurant that can serve a good poutine continues on.”

The devotion to Canadian poutine is pretty intense. But the more I spoke with people across the Lewiston area, the more I learned that some were perfectly happy to accept the substitute cheese if it meant getting poutine whenever they had a hankering. The alternative, after all, is going without.

Sounds like a dirty word

At Corner Variety in Lewiston, Larry Dyer learned about that hankering right away after he bought the store 14 years ago. Located at Lincoln and Chestnut streets, the store sits in an area that was populated almost exclusively by the French.

“A little old lady came in and asked for poutine,” Dyer says. “I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought she was talking dirty to me. I decided I better learn how to make it. I was doing business in Little Canada, after all.”

Dyer learned how to make the dish and he’s been serving it at his store ever since, mostly for hungry customers, but also for himself. And it was out of Dyer’s oven that I got my first taste of this dish that’s everywhere in Canada, but only here and there down here.

My first impression? Love at first bite.

For me it’s the simplicity of it. There are no complex flavors to baffle the tongue and no weird textures sneaking up on you. Poutine is french fries and gravy, for God’s sake, with cheese to give it gooey goodness and bacon bits – an option for the maverick eater – to provide a little extra snap.

I got three helpings of poutine at Corner Variety and had I not been cornered by colleagues, I would’ve eaten them all myself. Instead, I passed it around, making sure the poutine connoisseurs among us got a few forks of it. One of these was photographer Amber Waterman, who usually gets her poutine fix at Winter Carnival in Quebec. Amber was standing in the middle of the newsroom, fork in hand and making a series of satisfied noises like everyone else who had crowded around the food.

Eat the stuff and it’s suddenly easy to understand why you can’t swing a hockey stick in Canada without hitting a plate full of poutine.

Canadian McDonald’s only started dishing out the stuff this year. They did so, according to company spokespeople, because so many customers requested it. Right now, there isn’t the same demand in the U.S., so poutine may never appear between the Big Macs and McRibs.

The reaction to McDonald’s new menu item in Canada, predictably, was mixed. In message boards across the Internet, some customers simply said thank you. Others went on vicious tirades about how badly the fast-food giant was preparing the beloved dish. Others went off about how unhealthy the dish is, accusing Mickey D’s of clogging arteries across Canada, as if everything else on the menu was bean sprouts and tofu.

The squeakier the cheese the better!

That’s the Internet for you. In the real world, those who have tried poutine tend to universally like it. Likewise, they all seem to have an opinion on who makes “the best poutine in the world,” and they will fight you bare-handed if you disagree.

“Best poutine I have had,” says Ron Morin of Lewiston, “was the hockey rink in Drummondville (in Quebec Province) and a close second is Dunn’s (restaurant) in Montreal. The other 20 or so places I have tried north of the border were all quite good. The squeakier the cheese the better!”

“Best poutine this side of the Canadian border,” declares L-A’s Jennifer Gendron Carleton, “is at Duckfat in the Old Port, off India Street. Trust me.”

At Schemengees in Lewiston, you can get a plate of poutine for $6.99. On their menu, it is listed between potato skins and beer-battered onion rings. At Legends Sports Bar and Grill in Auburn, poutine is listed for $6.49, right after hand-cut french fries.

Both of those restaurants serve their poutine with mozzarella instead of cheese curd. So does the Corner Variety, where I was initiated into the poutine cult. That simple switch of ingredient was nothing but delicious to me. To the purists – and to a Los Angeles Times food writer – it’s pure apostasy.

“The cheese on poutine needs to be in the form of curds,” writes LA Times food blogger Jenn Harris, “or you can’t call it poutine.”

I can’t imagine what she would think of the bacon bits I had on mine.

A writer from the Toronto Star, after McDonald’s started serving poutine, was more forgiving.

“When it’s good, it’s really good,” writes staff reporter Michele Henry. “When it’s bad — well, it’s still pretty good.”

What in the heck are cheese curds?

“Cheese curds are the fresh curds of cheese, often cheddar. Their flavor is mild with about the same firmness as cheese, but have a springy or rubbery texture. Fresh curds squeak against the teeth when bitten into, which some would say is their defining characteristic. The American variety are usually yellow or orange in color, like most American cheddar cheese. Other varieties, such as the Quebecois and the New York varieties, are roughly the same color as white cheddar cheese.

“After 12 hours, even under refrigeration, they have lost much of their fresh characteristics, particularly the ‘squeak.’ Room temperature, rather than refrigeration, may preserve the flavor and the ‘squeak.’

“You can freeze cheese curds for up to 4 months; be aware you will loose the squeak and freshness when eaten after freezing.”

Source: New England Cheese Making, cheesemaking.com

How to pronounce ‘poutine’ in proper Quebec fashion

Nel Roy of Lewiston wrote the following tutorial to writer Mark LaFlamme, which we offer here to, as Nel says, help you avoid embarrassment.

“I know you’re pronouncing the word as ‘Poo-Teen,’ right?

“WRONG! If your were to go to Canada and ask for poutine using this pronunciation, the person taking your order would laugh so hard they might even pee themselves right there in front of you . . . after which they would probably say ‘Vous n’etes pas d’ici, eh?’ which means ‘Not from around here are ya, eh?’ And so I offer you this phonetic assistance so as to properly pronounce the word “poutine,” to help you avoid any delay in your order and avoid humiliating embarrassment in front of a lot of people.

“The first part is phonetically correct: ‘poo,’ as in Poo Bear; the second part will take a little longer to explain but will be worthwhile, as you will never be made fun of in public, and also it will allow you to laugh hysterically at ‘those people.’ Now say the word ‘tss,’ like air escaping a tire. Yup that’s right. Now incorporate the first part and add ‘in.’ OK, now say the word ‘poo-tss-in.’ Come on now, follow directions and try again. . . . Now, when you ask for it, say it right and you’ll be treated like a brother Frenchman. And, when you answer the phone you can also say, ‘Allo, statue?’ Or give directions like, ‘OK, go ahead, back up.’

“Please pass this along to your readers so they too, can avoid any ridicule that may scar them for life.

“God bless, good luck, todaloo and au revoir mon ami.”

Nel Roy

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