WOONSOCKET – If dynamites and family style chicken are the high-flying signature foods of the Blackstone Valley, poutine must be their under-the-radar cousin.
But don't underestimate that unassuming French-Canadian concoction of french fries, curd cheese and gravy. It's fightin' food.
Just ask Phil Giguere. He's the Muhammad Ali of poutine.
The proprietor and head chef of Adeline's Speakeasy Kitchen Bar in Cumberland, Giguere has won the Museum of Work & Culture's poutine cookoff for the last three years in a row, and it's time to defend his title. This year there are seven restaurants from Woonsocket to Warren in the mix – more than ever – but Giguere has a simple strategy for beating them into the poutine canvas: Play fresh.
“We hand-cut the fries,” he says. “Everything we do in the restaurant is fresh. I won three years in a row. Why would I change it?”
And if Giguere is the Ali of poutine, that must make Anne Conway its Don King. This is the fifth year the director of Museum of Work & Culture has been been promoting Battle Poutine, officially known as the Poutine Indulgence & Competition. And it's the second in a row the museum has been forced to pivot for coronavirus.
Normally, the event is staged on the grounds of the Market Square museum like a good old-fashioned food festival. The players prep their unique recipes and patrons sample the offerings on the spot before voting on their favorites.
After selling nearly 300 tickets last year, however, the museum was forced to cancel on short notice due to the pandemic. But MOWC persuaded the competitors to let patrons swap their tickets for a taste of poutine at their restaurants.
With a year of social distancing in the rear-view, Conway had hoped the festivities might get back to normal this season. Alas, it wasn't meant to be.
“A year later here we are again, still dealing with the restrictions that COVID has brought on,” she says. “So what we decided to do was to offer a real poutine passport.”
For $15, the passport will let patrons sample poutine at each of the seven participating restaurants, beginning on March 15. In addition to Adeline's, the roster includes Bywater in Warren; Ciro’s Tavern in Woonsocket; Durk’s Bar-B-Que in Providence; Friskie Fries in Johnston and Providence; KG Kitchen Bar in Providence; and Ming’s Asian Street Food in Pawtucket.
Did you say Ming's Asian Street Food?
It doesn't sound French-Canadian, but the entry of the Far East into a festival with culinary roots in Quebec is a perfect illustration of what poutine is all about.
It's not just French-Canadian comfort food, it's flexible and adaptable – a pliable culinary canvas that chefs all around the world have been shading with their unique cultural colors for some time.
As for Ming's, they're calling their version of poutine “pho-tine,” borrowing a syllable from the national broth-and-noodle dish of Viet Nam, “pho.”
“Everybody's got a different spin,” says Conway. “I've had duck poutine. I've had poutine with hot dogs in it. I've even had poutine with fois gras in it.”
JUST LIKE dynamites and family style chicken, poutine, not surprisingly, has an origin story. Actually it has several. And it turns out poutine was fighting food long before MOWC turned up the heat the kitchen.
There is fairly broad agreement that the dish got started in rural Quebec in the 1950s and it has since become a popular centerpiece in many of the region's outdoor food festivals and fairs, according to Marie Josee, Quebec's attachée to the United States for education and culture. It's become so popular that the Quebecois hamlets of Drummondville and Warwick are engaged in a running rivalry about which of them deserves bragging rights as ground zero for the invention of poutine.
“It's a funny fight,” Josee during a phone interview from Boston. “Not a big fight.”
But poutine is not all about war. Sometimes it's a tool of international diplomacy: When former Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife dined with President Barack Obama at the White House in 2016 – the meal of choice was an upscale version of poutine, according to Josee.
The Montreal-based restaurant la Banquise has dozens of different poutine-inspired dishes on the menu and has done some exhaustive research on the subject, concluding that the original might have gotten launched in restaurants in any of several towns near Victoriaville, including the two mentioned by Josee. There's a tradition of dairy farming in the area, so some surmise that's how the cheese got mixed up with the fries and gravy.
And the cheese is absolutely the most important part of the dish, says Conway. To qualify as authentic poutine – the French word for pudding, which it possibly resembles – the treat has be prepared with the correct variety. That means cheddar curd. It may not be the easiest thing to find on the supermarket shelf, but it's available at Wright's Dairy Farm in North Smithfield, one of the sponsors of the poutine-fest.
“There's only three ingredients and they better be right,” advises Conway.
Conway certainly isn't going to get into a fight with Josee on the cheese issue.
“She's right,” says the attachée.
But it's not just about the taste of the cheese, it's the texture. Josee says the cheese has to make the right sound when you gnash on a mouthful of poutine, or it's not a good poutine.
“When you put it in your mouth, you can hear the 'squeech, squeech, squeech,'” she says, improvising her best sound effects. “It's a little strange, but it's true.”
Like pizza, there are signs that poutine is breaking the culture barrier to conquer America in ways that exceed its indigenous heritage.
Poutine champ Giguere sees it first-hand.
Before his first victory in the museum's poutine cook-off, Adeline's never had the dish on the menu. He entered the contest as a way to get Adeline's name in circulation.
“I didn't know much about it,” he says. “But I am from Woonsocket and I am French. I knew it was a Canadian thing. I did some research and got my head around it.”
After the contest, though, folks started coming to Adeline's and asking for poutine. Now it's a permanent feature on the menu.
For MOWC, poutine is such a big deal that the restaurant cookoff plays a starring role in its annual Salute to Spring, the festival that caps its fundraising cycle. This year's salute takes place April 11, which is when the winners of the poutine contest will be announced during an event that will be livestreamed on Facebook. Pre-Covid, the live salutes always showcased musical performances, too, and so will the virtual version, featuring
Mélisande, a group that specializes in updating traditional French-Canadian tunes.
Tickets are available online at the website shopmowc.com.
“I wish it were like prior to Covid where it would be in the museum – I feel like it reaches more people,” says Giguere. “But I am looking forward to it.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo