Updated: Aug 23, 2022
I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. I haven’t willingly slathered anything with gravy in years—perhaps decades. But we were in Canada and I felt like the last American in the northern United States who had never sampled it. When in Rome, right?
Andy and I had to make a quick trip into British Columbia to pick up some parts for Walter, our trusty travel rig-to-be. For all the talk about the United States being the greatest country in the world and the land of opportunity and all that jazz, this trip marked the second time we had to cross our northern border for overlanding gear not available in the United States.
I only had two days off from work and it was a six hour trip each way for what would be less than a half hour of actual business—not the most efficient way to save on international shipping costs, but pleasant, nonetheless. We drove up one morning, spent the afternoon exploring and hiking, went out to a nice dinner at The Heid Out and spent the night at a cheap motel in Cranbrook. The next morning, we picked up some donut holes, aka “Timbits” at Tim Horton’s in honor of my Canadian Uncle Ed, then did a little more exploring and hiking along the Kootenay and St. Mary’s Rivers, under the protective wall of Mount Fisher and the surrounding peaks which were still showing off their white winter coats. By late afternoon, hungry from hiking and anxious for Andy’s dealer (nothing nefarious, just the truck parts guy) to arrive in Cranbrook so we could start the long drive back home, we decided to check out the restaurant we had missed the night before—Fire Hall Kitchen & Tap.
The menu was large. Maybe we were just hungry, but everything looked delicious. We scanned our early dinner category options: Shareables, Salads, Noodles, Burgers, Not Burgers (yes, it truly listed Not Burgers as one category), and Poutine. There were six varieties of poutine available: The Classic, Pulled Pork, Pickle, Chef’s Salad, Vegan Taco, and something called Bluetine (I think it has something to do with blue cheese).
Andy and I eat a fairly healthful diet these days—lots of vegetables, some seafood and occasional chicken, lentils, black beans, and other legumes. We don’t consume much American junk food or things that have been highly processed or frozen. We do treat ourselves to occasional splurges (like that morning’s Timbits), but on the whole, we eat well. It is not a hardship. We like eating food that is colorful, flavorful, and attractive, food that leaves us feeling pleasantly satisfied and nourished, rather than just overstuffed for no good reason.
I have no idea, then, what possessed me to blurt out, “I think I am going to have poutine.” Andy’s eyebrows shot up over the top of his menu. “I have never had it,” I explained, “and well, we are in Canada, and I just feel it is important that, at least once in my life, I eat poutine in Canada.” The closest thing to poutine we had sampled in the past was the carne asada fries at Aiberto’s taco shop when we lived in Salem, Oregon.
He agreed with my reasoning and set his sights on the same.
Andy opted for the pulled pork poutine, something he might well have enjoyed in our past life of indulging in rich and heavy foods we may very well regret. It was reminiscent, in fact, of one of the years we followed The Woodworking Show around the nation and chose, as a minor subplot to our travels, to sample whatever places the locals recommended as the best BBQ in each city. We didn’t eat BBQ for a very long time after that tour. It is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing, we learned. Now, years later, he was apparently ready to consume pulled pork again. I, on the other hand, chose the classic poutine, feeling that I somehow wasn’t entitled to a variation on the theme until I had a point of reference.
Our plates arrived piled high with an enormous mound of french fries as the base. Andy’s fries were layered, like a plate of nachos, with pulled pork, cheese curds, and barbeque sauce. My plate was just straight-up french fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy. Of all the gravies I don’t eat, brown gravy is my least favorite. What was I thinking? I had to admit, though, it was delicious.
No, really; it was delicious.
Both of us tried to stifle our embarrassing little moans of satisfaction, but they slipped out again and again. The heavy, starchy carb fest was delicious after our day of hiking uphill and down. We had learned by experience that day that Canadians aren’t nearly as addicted to those cute little switchbacks we favor in the United States as a way to climb a steep hill. The trails we had hiked that day just went straight up to the overlook points—the shortest distance between two points and all that geometry nonsense. It seemed to me the trailhead signs could have at least issued a standard Canadian “sorry” about the steep grades we would encounter. Nope. That poutine hit the spot.
About halfway through our respective servings, however, the flavors began to run together into a carby monotone mush. Fries, cheese, gravy. Fries, cheese, gravy. Fries, gravy. Gravy. Gravy. Oof. The moans of pleasure became groans of misery. I couldn’t finish. Between the poutine and the beer (we were at a well-respected tap house, after all), I had replenished the calories expended on the trails, and then some. And then some more. We definitely could have split an order.
But we are preparing for a life of travel. It is important to us to sample the local fare; indulge; even occasionally overindulge, right? How else would we have learned that, even after a few hours of hiking, a single plate of poutine split between the two of us, perhaps accompanied by side salads, would be perfectly sufficient? We had to learn it by experience.
Probably my favorite musical artist of all time is a fellow who goes by the name Charlie Peacock. He has a song on his brilliant Secret of Time album entitled “Experience.” I am fairly certain it refers to things much more significant than a Canadian plate full of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy, but the lyrics of the chorus apply here, too, as they remind us, in no uncertain terms:
We can only possess what we experience
Truth, to be understood, must be lived . . .
There is a difference, a qualitative difference,
Between what I know as a fact and what I know as truth,
It stands as a great divide to separate my thinking
From when I'm thinking foolishly to when I've understood . . .
If there be no sympathy there can be no understanding,
You must surrender to the truth to really understand it . . .
We can only possess what we experience
Well, now I possess the truth that poutine is indeed a wonderful thing. If I may be so bold to suggest it, poutine is best shared with your best friend, after a hike straight up to a beautiful overlook, when the Canadian Rockies are covered in snow in all their Spring glory. When in Rome, eh?