Friday, June 08, 2007

Meet Doc Ersatz and -- Quelle Poutine!

I'm launching another loooong interview tomorrow, this one with an old, dear friend from my own pre-Kubert School college days. Tim Viereck aka Doc Ersatz will be a touchstone throughout June via a multi-part interview I'll be juxtaposing with the CCS artist/graduate/student interviews and MoCCA previews.

Tim has done -- a lot of stuff. He's a grand and entertaining fellow who has traveled the globe and enjoyed multiple careers, and he also happens to be among the key amigos from Johnson State College who launched my cartooning career. Tim put up the dough for printing Abyss #1 in 1976, and that's where it all began for me in comics.

By way of introduction, I thought it appropo to completely ravage and ruin your Friday with a reading of the one article I've written for Doc's long-running Edacien World Journal. That the one and only culinary article I've ever scribed in my checkered writing career should be motivated by utter disgust and revulsion rather than delight should come as a surprise to no one.

(This reprint here was also prompted, in part, by a short conversation outside of CCS last night around midnight -- here ya go, Sean!)

Now, about The Edacien World Journal...

This oddest and rarest of all food and festive zines will be explained in Doc's upcoming interview, and quite early on, I promise you. Suffice to say the EWJ celebrates the culinary life in all its extremes, revolving as it does around the glorious St. Edacious and all things Edacien, for which you should all be thankful, amen.

This serves neither as a fair introduction to Doc, or the interviews, or to poutine, but there you have it.

Or, should I say, "Here. Have it."

Quelle Poutine!

You must first know that I am among the afflicted who loathe wet bread -- always have, always will.

With no conscious memory of when or how this tactile prejudice branded my being, nor any reason to necessarily associate it with my Catholic upbringing, in polar opposition to my irrational love of all things repellent and grotesque to what passes for normal folks in this culture, this conundrum only occasionally upsets my applecart in day-to-day living. Wet bread is pretty easy to avoid, and easily disposed of in any case.

Whenever I travel north of my Vermont home, however, I am confronted by what seems to be a national dish of Quebec that in-and-of-itself concisely embodies this inner conflict, the rift between my gag-reflex and the unnatural allure of all that should be unholy.

Its moniker blazes from all manner of hand-painted roadside signage and in-city buffet windows, its visage gleams from functional folk artist enamel-paint renditions designed to tease hungry highway gutterballs into drive-in eateries and shines like a slavered beacon from the fashion-art fotofood of Montreal menus. It is now a staple of Quebec McDonald's -- and how often does this most debased American institution import regional cuisine into its lineup of prefab food substances? -- which was in and of itself a revelation.

It is the Eraserhead of fast foods, shimmering like a Jerzy Kosinski paragraph on a plate, simultaneously provoking the reptile-brain response of salivation and the fishhook closing of the throat. With the dip of a ladle, it transforms the most common of fried foods into the most vile of gravied dishes, a miraculous wedding of the steadfast and the vomitous.

I sing and wail, of course, of Poutine.

Poutine is, in short, gravy on french fries. So noxious was my experience with this concoction that I failed to notice that cheese curds are also semi-melted betwixt gravy and fries -- though it may be that I had sampled the 'more ordinary' strain of poutine, sans cheese, which I understand is optional.

Mayhaps the poutine I have been exposed to used substandard cheese, or I incorrectly presumed the whitish lumps 'tween gravy and soggy fries were clots of fat, but have since been corrected by those in the know (to whom the cheese is very important). In the best of all worlds, this cheese curd is what is known in some quarters as 'Farmer Cheese,' a sort of virginous curd freshly skimmed and endowed with the unusual quality of making a wee, pathetic, heartbreaking sound when one bites into it -- like a petite shaved rodent.

Mind you, this only enhances the Lynchian aspects of the dish (remember the Harkonian snack 'squood' in Lynch's Dune? When Henry punctured his infant at the end of Eraserhead, it could have been poutine that gushed from within that quivering cavitied fetal torso).

Served dashing hot, this mutant food might be digestible, proffering a sensory collision of just-crisped deep-fried potato slices garnished with fresh hot turkey gravy and the virgin cheese curds at the brink of osmosis -- but my encounters with poutine in a variety of eateries inevitably delivered an at-best lukewarm snot-like evocation of my wet-bread phobia writ large and sometimes steaming.

(Speaking of steaming, the cheese element only makes this more spew-worthy to me, due to a childhood trauma involving my younger sister, a plate of macaroni-and-cheese, and her wolfing down a plate of the damned stuff with such feral ferocity that she immediately flashed it back into her plate, still steaming hot and seemingly untouched. What would St. Edacious have done? Being a mere mortal, I came away only with an aversion for mac-and-cheese.)

In that dreamlike best-of-all-worlds, freshly-fried hand-cut pommes frites are a delight; hotplate/steamed/microwaved warmup fries are already treading unpalatable flaccidity as a stand-alone side.

The addition of day-old gravy and semi-melted curds invariably tips the dish into spudspew territory, looking and smelling for all the world like canine upchuck. Much like our own current President, poutine has somehow achieved the remarkable feat of being the most visible of Quebec staples and yet evidently the most despised by its own citizenry. I could not find a single Canadian resident willing to praise poutine:
embarrassment, disgust, and quiet despair were the most frequent responses, as if this were the national dish Ilsa (that most beloved of Canadian exports alongside Molson Ale, for those of us who frequented the drive-ins in the 1970s) served to tortured souls at Abu Ghraib.

When I tentatively asked ye fearless Edacien editor if he might have some contacts willing to confirm the spelling of the word and its legacy, and a Canadian willing to uphold the legacy of this most Canadian of dishes, the no-doubt sound-of-mind-and-appetite Edacien soul Francoise (bonjour, Francoise!) was quick to distance himself from the topic amid careful articulation of his own revulsion:

"It is the most barbarian food, heavy and ugly, that you can imagine. I tasted it once and have never tried again. Just seeing it repulse me. The name 'Poutine' is a transformation of the word 'Pudding.' Poutine originally means in French Canadian some situation or dish made of heterogeneous things, or a very tangled situation. 'Quelle poutine' could be sometimes translated as 'what a mess'."

Francoise went on to bemoan the export of the dish:

"I read in the newspaper that they sell it also in Michigan and that it is becoming very popular there. One more disaster in the Western fast food." Ah, but Francoise, that is Michigan. Mayhaps Michael Moore will yet mount a documentary on poutine's glorious legacy?

In researching this piece, it was curious how emphatically my contacts in Montreal distanced themselves from the subject. My old friend Gabriel wrote (setting himself apart from the many who did not respond), as if I were asking about some sort of rectal parasite. "About Poutine," he said, "you're out of luck since I am not a fan of that particular 'delicacy'." Nuff said, Gabriel, but he then added, "But my girlfriend is ... But she is from Drummondville (which claims to be the birthplace of said dish)," making both poutine and Drummondville somehow pejoratives with a single deft stroke of the keyboard. Indeed, and who am I to argue?

Still, it is rumored that for some, poutine is a point of pride (again, I hear the same about President Bush, but I've yet to find any American who admits to that viewpoint). I couldn't find a soul in Canada to defend the dish, but I am hardly a Washington Post journalist. Perhaps I should contact William Shatner.

No, I've stomached quite enough for this diversionary article.

I have, however, found a passionate poutine evangelist on the Green Mountain side of the border, one willing and I daresay eager to go on the record in defense of the dish. Roderick Bates notes that poutine has made tentative inroads into our fair state, points north of St. Johnsbury; I take him at his word. But more importantly, Rick rhapsodizes like a true Edacien, though he be not one:

"I love the stuff....I think that the fact it may be the most heart-stopping compound ever to be passed off as food that makes it so attractive to me. That, and that it combines salt and fat in great quantities -- a sound basis for any cuisine. Poutine is a great food in the same way that so many wonderful foods are great -- it is a simple idea, elevated to greatness by good preparation. French onion soup is high cuisine, but it's just stinky old onions in a beef broth with a little cheese and some soggy bread (uh-oh). Cassoulet is just baked beans, but the sausage and duck and the time put into the cooking make it a religious experience.

"Similarly, poutine elevates french fries high above the McDonald's red paper packet with ketchup squirted in. Properly done, with fresh cut potatoes hot and crisp, with brand new farmer cheese curds so fresh they squeak when you bite them, and with a good brown gravy poured over, poutine is the real thing. It is a wonderful smelling, wonderful tasting comfort food.

Sure, it has peasant origins, but so does cassoulet.

The point is that good food transcends its origins.

And poutine is good food."

When I argued the point with Rick over a couple of days, he retorted, "if you're three calories away from extinction, all that stuff is great!" Hell, if I'm three calories away from extinction, week-old rainwashed flyspecked crowpecked roadkill would do, too, the more maggots the merrier.

But Rick would have none of it! "Okay, let's push the 'four food groups' idea a little," he shot back to me. "And yeah, I know there are more than three food groups; I'm talking about the Four Survival Food Groups -- fats, sugars, water and salt. And okay, salt isn't really a food group but it is an essential, as is water. As I said earlier, these are the ones that matter when you are three calories away from extinction -- stuffing your hand into a hive and sucking down a bunch of honey will instantly bring you back. Fatty foods will give you extra calories to store away in case there's no more food for another week. Starches don't give you the instant buzz that honey does, but they convert to sugars and keep the engine running for quite a while.

"These are the primal urges that draw us to poutine, the molecular level voices from the swamps of a million years ago, where two celled organisms grabbed the good stuff and lived.

Actually, primal swamp mire pretty well sums up my experience with poutine. But again, Rick would have none of that, either.

How to improve on the dish? Rick's full of ideas. "Actually, about the only thing that could be done to improve poutine would be to build it on a solid base of vanilla ice cream. That would get the instant sugar rush, and would, given the heat differential, encourage wolfing down the whole thing while its components were still distinct, which would help to recreate the feeding frenzy aspect of the survival food experience."

O-Kay, thus poutine could be the ideal appetizer-and-dessert-in-one. Voila, I have ensured poutine's advocate divine had his say, despite my own strong, well-founded opinions.

But let me leave the final word for one who knows best. Francoise -- remember that most reasonable fellow Francoise? -- concluded his missive to ye Edacien Editor with a bittersweet blend of bewilderment and despair, "It is also amazing that many people here in Quebec are very proud of the Quebecoise origin of the Poutine. We have Celine and we have the Poutine. We have McGill and the highest income tax bill. Please save St. Edacious of tasting the Poutine. Let him taste our 'tourtière' and our 'Giblotte' and even a well done 'pâté chinois' but please forget the poutine."

We can only hope this testimonial spares our fellow Edaciens -- but I suspect it will only prompt curiosity, create an appetite for the exotic and out-of-reach, and prompt an Edacien side dish of the most glorious poutine imaginable.

In fact, ye editor has already proved that's all I've accomplished (after admonishing me for my initial draft lacking the lactic lumps). He now craves the damned stuff.

Alas, I have failed you all.

Quelle poutine!

[Stephen R. Bissette used to delineate the adventures of a swamp potato for a subsidiary of Time-Warner, for which he won critical acclaim and international awards, even in Canada. He now lives, writes, and works in southern Vermont, but has somehow missed every Edacien gathering since 1990, which has become a stubborn point of pride. However, he owes his career in comics to ye Edacien Editor, who for the well-timed 1975 investment of a mere $200 changed the world. Thus, Bissette owes ye Editor forever. Such is life.]

Have a great Friday, one and all...

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