World poutine-eating contest in T.O. rankles Quebec
MONTREAL - One of Quebec's cultural symbols has been called everything from disgusting, to heart-attack inducing, to delectable.
But can the increasingly popular Quebecois dish known as poutine --that messy mix of french fries, sauce and cheese curds --now be considered a gooey source of Canada-wide pride?
When a gang of professional "eaters" from the United States and a handful of Canadian amateurs battle for the world poutine-eating championship, it won't go down in Montreal, Quebec City, or anywhere else in la belle province.
It will be held in, of all places, Toronto.
And due to provincial contest rules, Quebecers hoping to eat their way to the title won't be allowed to even take part.
No longer seen as just working-class grub from small-town Quebec, poutine now has fans across Canada and beyond.
The concoction has been integrated into haute cuisine and has secured niches under the bright lights of the Big Apple and Los Angeles.
"I think it shows that poutine has become a national meal," Charles-Alexandre Theoret, author of the 2007 book "Maudite poutine!" ("Damned poutine!") said of the upcoming all-you-can-eat showdown on May 22 at BMO Field in Toronto.
"It was once a Quebec meal, but now it's everywhere."
A dozen stars of Major League Eating, a circuit best known for its stomach-turning, rapid-fire hot dog eating contests, will have 10 minutes to wolf down as much poutine as they can.
"You must use a fork, so there's going to be certainly some skill involved," said Mike Antolini, a spokesman for the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
"It's going to test their capacity, but also their hand speed and technique."
The champ wins a modest sum of $750 and bragging rights.
Antolini said organizers considered poutine-serving joints in Montreal to serve the fare, but eventually chose Smoke's Poutinerie, a Toronto-based chain.
"I know that Montreal maybe feels like poutine is theirs, but we are going to be crowning a champion in Canada, and I think that's the most important thing because poutine certainly is Canadian first and foremost," he said.
Of course, that hasn't always been the case.
For years, the towns of Warwick and Drummondville have duelled over the true birthplace of poutine, but one thing has never been questioned: it's from Quebec.
Warwick claims the dish was invented by local restaurant owner Fernand LaChance in 1957, while Drummondville insists that restaurateur Jean-Paul Roy blended the first poutine in 1964.
To help cement its claim, Drummondville started holding an annual poutine festival in 2008.
Regardless of its exact origins, poutine has long had a complicated bond with Quebecers, many of whom have looked down their noses at what some have called a culinary abomination.
"It's a love-hate relationship, there are younger generations who feel fine with it, and almost make it a cool icon," said Theoret, whose book takes a historical look at poutine.
"But older generations didn't grow (up) with it and think that it's low class, low life. They're really ashamed about it."
For the poutine-eating contest, three Canadians will be selected through a sweepstakes to join the race.
In an ironic twist, Quebec laws don't allow its residents to apply.
"I don't argue with lawyers," said Smoke's Poutinerie owner Ryan Smolkin, who has five restaurants and one mobile kitchen in his growing poutine empire.
All of them are in Toronto, but he's expanding to other parts of Ontario and plans to eventually open up shops across the country and around the world.
The Ottawa native imports cheese curds from Quebec's Eastern Townships and tops his poutines with authentic chicken-based sauce.
But he said he's never tried to pretend he's a Quebecer.
"I know where the roots are, I know what it's all about and I'm trying to maintain that heritage for sure, and the Quebec influence," said Smolkin, who opened his first restaurant 15 months ago.
"I respect and want to take that heritage and culture into my brand and help spread that across the world."
With poutine's popularity spreading in the United States, he wanted to make sure the dish was "Canadianized" before an American restaurant tried to claim it.
"It's been too isolated to Quebec," he said.
"Nobody's just tried to take it big outside Quebec, so I'm trying to do that."