Coffee, in particular black coffee in lidless styrofoam cups, will always remind me of public schools and funeral homes. Stale pastries—which I’ll admit, I kind of love, despite them being a bit gross—make me think of motels. Some foods remind you of places; that’s just that way it is. And poutine, well, that’s country roads off Highway 400, back home in Ontario.
Everyone will tell you where to get the best poutine. Unless they tell you to get it from a side-of-the road chip truck, they’re wrong. What’s more, the best poutine comes from Ontario and not Montreal. Being an Ontario native I must, of course, say this, but nonetheless it is actually true.
Poutine is made with just three things: French fries, gravy, and cheese curds. If you don’t know what cheese curds are, don’t worry—they’re delicious. Good poutine comes in a brown cardboard tray. It’s served with a totally useless wooden spork. And, it’s not fancy.
We used to have this cottage, my family that is. It was a beautiful wooden cabin that my grandparents built, up near the Crow River. Back in the good days it was where we’d go on weekends during the summer and for Thanksgiving.
It took about two hours to drive there from our house in Toronto. Once you were there, it took about an hour to drive anywhere worth going. You learned early on to really like driving. Now I’ll admit, looking at field after field of corn, soy, and tobacco, is majestic. But, it gets dull in a hurry. It was all worth it though, for the chip trucks.
They’re a thing of roadside, small town loveliness. Metal, or metal-paneled, trailers with a big window, a counter, and a small table out front. The table had all the condiments, which were, and only ever were: salt, pepper, white vinegar, and malt vinegar. Didn’t matter which truck you went to, the vinegars were always in spray bottles, like Windex bottles—hell, they might’ve been Windex bottles.
There wasn’t any menu either. You had three options: medium fries, large fries, and poutine, so no one ever saw any sense in writing it out. And it wasn’t as if the prices really varied. A large fries was somewhere in the ballpark of five or six bucks, medium was cheaper. Poutine was about the same price, maybe fifty cents more.
The potatoes were chipped and fried there, in the truck. Most these trucks had a huge French fry chipper riveted to a wall inside. They’re quite extraordinary, these chippers. If you’ve never seen one, it’s this big metal thing with sharp grate on the end, and a lever. Stick a potato in and pull the lever down, the spud goes through the grate and you got fries.
As for the potatoes themselves, it wasn't about which potato is the starchiest or which potato was for the best for frying. You got whichever potato the farmer down the road was growing that year. And let's be honest with ourselves, you take a potato—any ol’ potato—and you cut it up, fry it, and add some cheese and gravy (or salt and malt vinegar, whatever you're into), and it’s gonna be delicious.
We don't go to the cottage anymore. Family doesn't get along so well as we did once. I can get decent poutine at a lot of places in Toronto. It’s even pretty fancy now: Hand-Cut Double-Fried Ontario Local Potatoes, With Duck-Fat And Bourbon Gravy, Wild Thyme, Organic Cheese Curds… It’s all just spuds and gravy. Makes a great drunk food. Real satisfying and salty.
It’s nice to have that memory; of those trucks and eating with the family, sitting on the hood of my mum’s old Toyota parked alongside one of those trucks. Some foods will always remind you of a place. It's like music that way, I suppose. Bad coffee, public schools and funeral homes. Stale doughnuts, the classiest of dingy motels. Spicy beef patties and coco bread, being fifteen and loitering at the subway station. Poutine, the old country lane way stations of my childhood.