In Canada, poutine is the woodstove of foods — the counterpoint to winter — there for us, hot and salty, in the darkness and the cold. When we can’t escape to tropical beaches, there is always poutine — french fries with a sea of warm gravy and melted cheese.
But today, under my fishing shanty, there’s barely 11 inches of ice — less than half the ice cover that I’ve come to expect in a typical winter. I’m worried because this mild season — one of the warmest on record for Eastern Canada — is killing my craving for cheese curds, gravy, and fries.
Let’s face it: It’s just not a poutine winter.
Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, the world’s largest skating rink, didn’t even open this season, the first time ever since it started hosting skaters in 1971. And the thin ice on the Rideau Skateway is representative of all the untold stories of this lost winter: the quiet disappointment in so many backyard rinks and on ski slopes and in ice shanties across Canada this season.
It’s less the poutine that I missed this year, but winter itself. California may have been buried under feet of snow, but that’s not what I’ve been seeing outside my ice-shanty window.
Make no mistake: What’s bad for poutine sales is bad for the planet. We should fear a warming world of rising seas and stronger storms, droughts, wildfires, and bomb cyclones, because poutine is not so much a food as it is the culminating event of a day spent embracing the cold. It’s winter in a bowl — the perfect ending to a moonlit snowshoe or pond hockey party. More than the poutine, it’s those experiences that most of us will miss when, one day, we look back on the years when we still had winter.
The best poutine is found in the rink-side concessions and food trucks on ski hills, lodges along snowmobile trails, and crock pots in kitchens all over Canada. You can’t love poutine in the summer or in the south. It’s calorie-dense survival food for the darkest days of winter, those subzero stretches that make us dream of fat and salt and warmth.
There is nothing quite like coming in from the cold — with frosted eyebrows and a pair of skates, laces knotted and slung over a shoulder, or off the mountain with skis in hand — and being handed a hot bowl, grateful for its warmth as your toes thaw out and those curds melt like little glaciers, the gravy level in your cup rising slowly, lapping at the shoreline of hand-cut fries.
But not this winter. At the local hockey rink, I passed on the poutine, and not once this year did I make the short drive from my house to my local poutinery, Leblanc Patate. That’s because this winter there was no sustained plunge in temperatures, no long dark nights where the cold seeped deep into my core — the type of cold that makes me dream of hot brown gravy over a base layer of carbs.
So I’ve only had one poutine this winter — that’s it — shared with my wife in Moose Creek, Ontario, after a day of forest skating, a day warm enough that we decided to just share one small order. That day we didn’t even fight over the last gooey bits. Or scrape the gravy from the sides of the container. We just weren’t that cold.
I miss being cold. So, yes, I guess I may have missed poutine this year, but not as much as I’ll miss a world without winter.
George Rogers is a writer and teacher who lives in Northern New York, just a few miles south of Quebec.