Of poutine and pennies

On a recent visit to Montreal, we get a flavor for what Canada giveth and what it taketh away.
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Roast beef poutine

Roast beef poutine from Vieux Port Steakhouse, Montreal.

Each of my grandparents grew up in Quebec, Canada, before moving to the mill communities of Lewiston and Auburn, Maine.

We spent Christmas Eves at my maternal grandparents’ modest home, at one end of which was my grandfather’s barbershop. Next to it was the tiny kitchen, where the French-Canadian meat pies (typically pork) known as tourtiere were baked.

We also grew up eating creton, a pork spread enjoyed on toast that is closely related to tourtiere.

But just as a firm grasp of the French language eluded me (successive grades in college: B, C, D), so had one French-Canadian dish. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that I heard of poutine.

From 2003 to 2011, Lewiston had a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. One of the concession items was poutine, which typically comprises French fries with gravy and cheese curds.

Until recently, Houlihan’s in Hershey offered poutine, under the name “disco fries.” (Poutine translates to English as “hot mess” and pronounced this way.) My son, Jack, took a particular liking to poutine, so it was on his wish list when we recently visited Montreal.

‘Burden to the economy’

For lunch at Vieux Port Steakhouse in Old Montreal, it was roast beef poutine. For dinner at the St. Hubert restaurant near the Bell Centre, we shared poutine featuring breaded and cubed chicken filets with barbecue sauce. A sandwich board outside a fast-food restaurant promoted poutine variations with smoked meat, chicken or bacon.

But if our neighbors to the North are profuse with poutine, they have become parsimonious with the penny.

The Canadian government, deriding the penny as a “burden to the economy” because it cost 1.6 cents to make each one, ceased production of them in fall 2012. The move was expected to save the government $11 million annually.

If you pay for your poutine using a credit card, your bill is settled to the penny. But if you use cash, the transaction is rounded to the nearest five-cent increment.

It’s unclear whether the United States will follow suit, considering that each American penny costs 2.4 cents to make.

But in poutine we trust. In July, Google searches for “poutine” in the United States reached an all-time monthly high. The ABC News headline: “Why you’ll soon be eating poutine.”

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