Tater tot poutine, and the comforts we take for granted.
Adapted from: the quintessential Québécois dish.
Since the pandemic started, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of comfort: where it comes from, how it’s formed, the different shapes that it takes. It seems as though an invisible switch was flipped overnight sometime in March; all of a sudden, we were all making comfort foods. We learned to make sourdough. We baked banana bread. We got really good at pasta sauce.
The instinct to gravitate towards the things that comfort us comes as no surprise during this, the most uncomfortable year of our lives. Most of us are home, but we don’t feel at home. So we look for that same feeling—that of a weighted blanket which simultaneously relieves you of your own burdens—elsewhere. And the first place we look is food, because it’s where we’ve always looked. Plus, we have a lot more time on our hands.
But what makes a dish a comforting one? It’s a concept that feels, like the nostalgia it is predicated upon, crystal clear yet shapeless at once. Merriam-Webster defines it as food prepared in a traditional style, having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal. Elsewhere, the definition is stretched to include, typically any with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content. The whole thing comes with a huge asterisk. If sentimentality is at play, how do you explain being comforted by something you’ve never had before? How can something that soothes your soul also fill you with shame?
Comfort food as poverty food
There’s an underlying quality of comfort food that people seem reluctant to include in its definition, which is that it’s essentially poverty food, rebranded. At their core, comfort foods are dishes founded on inexpensive ingredients and kitchen scraps, seen through the lens of someone for whom it is not the only financially viable option.
Consider this list of peasant foods—how many of them have you ordered on UberEats?
Consider the essay “Rice is at the Intersection of Poverty and Comfort” and the example given by the writer: like most comfort foods, oxtail stew over rice “is a remnant of colonized food culture: the leftovers given to slaves, the garbage despised and disposed of by elites.”
Consider this illuminating mac and cheese study conducted in 2008, which found that Kraft Dinner—a dish so many of us consider comfort food—represents the opposite for low-income, food-insecure households. For these families, KD is often seen as a last resort, consumed without the milk and butter that give it its sense of comfort.
Poutine’s upward mobility
Today’s recipe, a variation on poutine, also falls into this category of reappropriated poverty foods. Before Montreal’s restaurateurs started ladling duck gravy over it and adorning it with foie gras, poutine was seen as a humble snack food from rural Quebec, served at diners and roadside chip trucks. It was a symbol of Quebecois working-class culture and carried a certain degree of social shame. According to writer Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, “Poutine has been used by many as a stigma and mocking stereotype of Quebecois society, particularly by Anglo-Canadians and people from France. The stigma was also replicated by the many Quebecois who felt embarrassed and disidentified with the dish.”
But then the chefs got their hands on it. These days we see poutine served with just about everything, from kimchi to lobster (ironically, two ingredients that have gone through rebrands of their own, as Fabien-Ouellet pointed out in his piece). Like mac and cheese, poutine has graduated from poverty food to comfort food, and from a working-class Quebecois staple to a revered icon of “Canadian” cuisine found on menus around the world. (The Quebecois are not happy about this, for the record—to them, it is a form of cultural effacement and appropriation.)
The privilege of comfort
The more I think about it, the more I believe that an essential part of comfort food is the privilege to call it such: That we can find comfort in the small act of choosing what to eat in that moment. That we have the choice at all. Privilege, too, is something that I’m thinking about a lot this pandemic, especially while writing about food at a time when food insecurity is on the rise everywhere. I am immensely lucky to be able to make the recipes that I want to make, to follow the whims of my appetite, and to write about them because I want to, not because someone is paying me to.
That said, if you have enjoyed this newsletter and want to support me for this work in some way, I would love it if you made a donation to your local food bank this Giving Tuesday. 🥰
Tater Tot ‘Tine
Inspired by tales of a friend-of-a-dear-friend’s famous tater tot breakfast casserole, which seemed like a genius idea.
Squeaky cheese curds (mozzarella is not an acceptable substitute)
Poutine gravy* (recipe en français)
Bake the tater tots. While they’re getting crisp, make the gravy and bacon. Break bacon into small pieces. Chop your green onions finely.
Keep the gravy hot until all of your ingredients are assembled, then ladle over your tater mountain generously. Top with fried egg.
*A thing I learned while making this is that the “sauce brune” (brown sauce) I love usually consists of 2 parts beef broth and 1 part chicken broth. I had previously made both broths and was storing them in my fridge, so they went into the gravy. Suffice to say, dear reader, that my sense of accomplishment on this one was unrivaled.
In hindsight, poutine for breakfast was a bit much. I found myself wishing for a hangover so as to better appreciate the greasy-gut feeling that stayed with me all day. Nevertheless, I relish the memory fondly!
Tell me about the things that have brought you comfort,