This is the biggest poutine festival outside of Quebec. Timothy Beaulieu, who organizes the event with the Franco-American Centre in Manchester, is expecting 1,100 people to attend the sixth edition hosted in Merrimack, an hour north of Boston. An impressive figure for the United States, but one that pales in comparison with the celebrations held on the other side of the border. On the Old Port of Montreal in 2019, some 100,000 foodies took part in Le Grand Poutinefest – the largest poutine festival in the world!
But poutine has not always been so popular. Formed of a mountain of fries and cheese curds that squeak between the teeth (so-called “squeaky cheese”), all topped with a hearty helping of gravy, this strange concoction created in Quebec in the 1950s was long the subject of mockery. Urbanites would look down upon this rural culinary cousin, criticizing its lack of elegance and sophistication. Yet over the years, poutine has won over la Belle Province – and the rest of the globe with it.
The dish is now a symbol of Quebecer culture and served in local cafes and food counters, known as casse-croûtes, hockey stadiums, and fast-food restaurants. Burger King added it to its menu in 2011, followed two years later by McDonald’s. It has also been found in gourmet eateries (poutine with lobster, poutine with pork confit and foie gras sauce), at the White House for a 2016 state dinner between Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, and even abroad. Paris has at least five poutineries, including La Maison de la Poutine, which won the 2020 title of World’s Best Poutine.
A Cultural Symbol
Poutine’s reputation now stretches beyond the Canadian borders, but it remains a distinctly Quebecer specialty, according to the younger generations, who view the term “Canadian poutine” as a form of heresy. The saucy dish has become a symbol of identity and pride. “It’s our culture,” says Timothy Beaulieu, whose family originally came from Montpellier before arriving in New France in 1635 and moving to the United States in the early 20th century. “And we’re still here!”
Between 1840 and 1930, it is estimated that a million Francophones moved from the rural regions of Quebec to work in the industrial cities of New England – the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in North America. The Beaulieus left Saint-Clément, a small village near the St. Lawrence estuary, and settled in Beverly, Massachusetts, where they worked in a shoe factory and spoke French and English at home.
Timothy, 40, is the third generation of immigrants to the United States, and his grandfather helped him discover his Francophone roots. Today, he takes French classes three to four times a week with a tutor via the Rype language-learning app, and travels to Quebec as often as possible. This is where he discovered poutine, in a bar on Rue Sainte-Catherine, the main shopping artery in Montreal. “Poutine is everywhere over there; it’s like pizza or chicken wings in the United States! The French-Canadians in New England had to experience it!”
Inspired by a similar festival in Chicago that has since ended, the first edition of the New Hampshire PoutineFest took place in Manchester in 2016. The event caused a stir on social media, tickets sold out in four days, and some 1,500 “poutiniacs” – a contraction of “poutine” and “maniac” – poured into the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, home of the local Fisher Cats baseball team. “Not all the attendees were French-Canadian,” says Timothy Beaulieu. “But it was a chance to teach them about our history and our culture.”
However, poutine postdates the arrival of large swathes of Quebecers in the United States, says David Vermette, the author of a book about this wave of immigration. The dish is neither “traditional,” nor “foundational to the culture.” But it has been adopted as a uniting symbol by the diaspora, just like the song “Gens du Pays,” the province’s unofficial anthem, and the Fleurdelisé, featuring four white lilies on a blue background, which was adopted as the official Quebec flag in 1950.
This same flag will be flying at the festival, according to Timothy Beaulieu, and the province’s delegation in Boston is among the sponsors. What’s more, fifteen students from the French Club at the University of New Hampshire will be on hand to welcome any Francophones. Hungry visitors can choose from ten local poutine stands serving a wide range of recipes, including classic poutine, poutine with eggs, and poutine with bacon and maple syrup. The most popular restaurant will win a belt inspired by those worn by wrestlers and boxers. It seems that nothing is too much when it comes to celebrating “this Québecois treasure!”