Aug 05 2011

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.

16 comments so far

16 Comments on “Jack Kerouac and Poutine”

  1. Martineon 05 Aug 2011 at 11:29 am

    I’m working class French Canadian (and quite younger than Jack Kerouac) and I can tell you that poutine didn’t show up in casse-croûtes around the province until the late 70s-80s. I don’t mean to say that it was invented in the 80s, but it didn’t spread across the province until the late 70s-80s.

    And as far as Kerouac’s “québécitude” goes: there’s a good amount of scholars in the province of Québec who strongly believe that he identified very closely with his French Canadian roots, though mostly through language:
    http://canlit.ca/acql.php?article=1

    Still, it doesn’t mean that he could have gotten nostalgic about poutine.

  2. Kate M.on 05 Aug 2011 at 11:30 am

    I agree with you. Poutine took awhile to get even to Montreal. I am willing to swear there was no poutine in the casse-croûtes at Expo 67, for example. Nobody talked about poutine in my high school in the 1970s.

    I just did a Google news archive search and the word does not crop up in the modern sense till the mid-1980s. (Before that there are a couple of mentions of “poutine râpée”, a dumpling type of thing from New Brunswick that bears little resemblance to poutine de nos jours.) But it’s become implanted in people’s false memories. Ruth Reichl wrote in Gourmet about her time here at school in the early 1960s and described seeing people eating poutine, which is just not possible either.

  3. Alison Cumminson 05 Aug 2011 at 11:30 am

    Alternate hypothesis: he said something like “reminds me of when X used to put cheese and gravy on his fries” which modern scholars fall upon with happy cries of “poutine!”

    It might not have been called poutine until Drummondville, but that doesn’t mean nobody ate it.

    Have you copied Dr Sprenger on this post?

  4. vieux banditon 05 Aug 2011 at 11:49 am

    My question is what in a “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” can remind anyone of poutine? The… cheese? I don’t see the connection. (I’m no Kerouac expert either but I bet I’ve eaten more poutines than him!)

    (Medium-rare burger sounds like an unpleasant way to get sick to me in any case…)

  5. Blorkon 05 Aug 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Prof. Sprenger has been alerted via Twitter. I’m hoping she’ll weigh in. On Twitter she said she’s looking for a printed reference.

    Again, I want to emphasize that we could all be wrong. My post is not based on research — or at least not citable research. Just a gut feeling based on a lifetime of fascination with stuff like this.

    Vieux bandit, there’s that (nothing in that burger description that seems poutiney). BTW, med-rare burgers are fine as long as the meat has been handled correctly and is freshly-ground. (Fancy a bit of boeuf tartare, anyone?)

  6. vieux banditon 05 Aug 2011 at 12:37 pm

    I guess back then, sure, people could trust meat and butchers; I wouldn’t unless I saw the hunk of meat being ground (or preferably ground it myself). (But pressing on a burger to see blood dripping cuts my appetite completely.)

    My gut feeling agrees with yours. And as fond as I am of printed references (shall we say… infinitely?)… I have to point our that a whole lot of bullshit has gotten published as well over the years ;-)

  7. Martineon 05 Aug 2011 at 3:16 pm

    All references I see about “crottes de fromage” seem to agree that they did not appear before the 60s.
    http://squeakycheese.ca/about1f.html

    And I declare that no poutine is a poutine unless the cheese used is made of crottes de fromage.

    And with all this, I’m really craving one right now!

  8. Michaelon 05 Aug 2011 at 4:27 pm

    I had exactly the same thought as you when I saw this in my Twitter stream: “the timeline makes his love of poutine” impossible.

    Now – if it were all about his love of cretons or something – totally believable.

  9. frabjous2001on 07 Aug 2011 at 11:58 pm

    I grew up in Quebec and I never heard about poutine until I read an article in the Gazette criticizing the Quebec gov’t for pushing this artery clogging aberration (deep fried potatoes, cheese curds and gravy) because it was a way to market Quebec cheese. This was the late 70s early 80s as I remember. Before that, select casse-croutes across Montreal offered frites avec sauce. In fact, if I remember correctly, cheese was only added to the menu d’hôte at Decarie Hot Dog in the the 90s. Admittedly, Decarie Hot Dog is way out in Ville St Laurent and therefore a bit burbby, but still sells some of the best hot-dog seamés à Montreal.

  10. Frankon 09 Aug 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I’m willing to propose these theories playing devil’s advocate (or counter-advocate in this case).

    First as you point out, a 140 character tweet allows a very limited amount of elaboration as you point out. So the original tweet could have been abbreviated due to the constraints. Though it sound like Dr. Sprenger stood by the original content.

    The second theory is as Alison suggests, it is possible he or his parents had experienced what is now known as poutine or a version of it before it became popular at casse-croutes. If it had been made for him by his parents, that would create enough time for nostalgia. An early different version of it would also explain why a cheeseburger on an English muffin does not mimic what we consider modern poutine. Maybe you could try making such a dish and see if you feel it mimics modern poutine.

    The third theory is that ‘nostalgia’ may not have needed to take years to happen. For example, he could have made a visit to Quebec somewhere near Drummondville. A long lost relative made this interesting dish for him while he was there that he absolutely loves and associates with his Quebec heritage. A year later while he is back home pining about his trip, he makes this muffin cheeseburger that reminds of the ‘poutine’ he had.

    Just looking for a feasible explanation.

  11. Blorkon 10 Aug 2011 at 9:33 am

    Excellent counter-theories, Frank!

  12. The Sales Guyon 11 Aug 2011 at 10:39 am

    I agree with Martine that the poutine as we know it, has been around only since sometimes in the late 70′s, early 80′s. But the word poutine has been used for probably a century or even more. It is simply the “québécisation” of the word pudding. Growing up in the 50′s, my grandmother was making poutine au pain, poutine chômeur, etc. and by extension every recipe that involved throwing unusual stuff together, became a “poutine”.

    The guy that claimed to have invented poutine, I am not sure if it is the one from Drummondville or Victoriaville, said that when he presented his mix of French fries, crottes de fromage and sauce to a customer. The guy said: “that is quite a poutine…” and the name stuck. So whatever Jack remembered as poutine, could have been something similar to “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions”.

    You should have asked me first.

  13. Blorkon 11 Aug 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Sales Guy, between Frank’s counter theories and yours, I’m beginning to doubt my position. But then, that was the whole point of this blog post — to discuss the matter. I hope Audrey Sprenger is able to find the reference she said she was looking for and pops in to cite it.

  14. vieux banditon 12 Aug 2011 at 9:37 am

    I hope so too. I’m very curious now!

    (I’ve never heard anyone say “poutine au pain” or “poutine chomeur”, but I’m younger than The Sales Guy, I guess. It’s always been pouding around me, and it can’t be mistaken for poutine, as it’s pronounced more “poodzing” than “pootsin”!)

  15. The Sales Guyon 16 Aug 2011 at 4:24 pm

    VB, so what you are saying is that cenne and cent, toune and tune, binne and bean, baloune and balloon, malle and mail, etc. cannot be mistaken for the same word, because they are not pronounced exactly the same way?

    Yes, I know it is mail that comes from malle, but you see the point.

  16. vieux banditon 17 Aug 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I’m saying that *I for one* have never heard “poutine” and “pouding” be pronounced (or used — since pouding is a sweet dish and poutine is not) in a way that could lead to confusion, even though I grew up in a very rural area where accents are quite thick (and change from village to village). However, I’ve noticed a huge change (some would say improvement) in pronunciation (and general use of language, I’d say) over the past 30 years (having left the village where I grew up for 27 years and now having moved back), and I have a feeling that the spread of radio and TV has been a factor in that trend (electricity only got here in 1952) as it has in the loss/decreased use of some regionalisms and regional accents. So I assume that, say 40 years ago, pronunciation was looser than it was 30 years ago, just like it was looser 30 years ago than 20 years ago, etc. I didn’t mean to imply confusion was impossible (didn’t express myself properly when I wrote “can’t be mistaken” — should have written “what I’ve always heard could not be mistaken”), just that I’ve never witnessed that possibility ;-)