Don't pooh-pooh poutine...until you've tried it

The Big Cheese, 738 17th Avenue, SW.  If you're gonna do it, this is a great place to taste your first poutine.  Go for the original on your first outing; after that, the sky, apparently, is the limit.

It’s always seemed to me that Americans make a much bigger deal of their national day than Canadians do.

Let’s face it—July 4th is one of the biggest holidays on the American calendar, even here in Canada. At least it was to me for many, many years.  That’s because I worked for the State Department for almost half the time I’ve been here…and of course, the 4th of July party was our biggest event of the year, months in the planning to host hundreds of guests from all over western Canada.

Some people think the party is just for Americans, and while many who are in attendance claim their citizenship from the other side of the border, the vast majority of guests are local friends and business contacts.

Here’s a little trivia: in the early 1900’s so many expat Americans came to this part of the city as they settled, it became known as American Hill. I guess it’s fitting that I’ve chosen to rent here for the summer.

So in all the hustle and bustle of getting ready to host a party for 500 of our closest friends, it seemed, at least to me at that time, that Canada Day went almost unnoticed.  July 1 meant three days’ left to get everything in order for the Fourth.

That was before, along with my American citizenship, I became Canadian as well.  Yes, I am Americanadian (I saw that on a t-shirt once, on my first trip to Banff—should have bought it).

I’ve only been a Canadian for a few years (it would have been odd for me to take out citizenship with another country while working for my own government, don’t you think?), and it seems I was away for the most recent Canada Days in which I could have joined in the celebration, so I haven’t really had the chance to absorb what Canada Day is all about.

This year is special, and it feels extraordinary, as it is the 150th  anniversary of the day on which Canada was officially founded. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, Canada has been around a lot longer than that—especially when you consider the people who were here first—the Indigenous Peoples—and we as a country seem to be taking the first difficult and necessary steps to acknowledge all that has happened in the past, and to make changes to be sure we don’t repeat our mistakes.  But the constitution that brought all of Canada together was signed 150 years ago.

So, seeing as it was Canada Day—just a couple of days ago, I couldn’t think of a better day to celebrate living in Canada and toasting the National holiday.

And this one is really special. You see, Canadians tend not to be as vocal when it comes to celebrating their nation as their neighbours to the south.  It’s more of a quiet pride, but in recent months, there’s a sense that Canada is on the right track (when it comes to health care and taking care of our most vulnerable, and welcoming people from all over the world—especially those who need us most.  That’s all I’ll say on that.).

So I wasn’t terribly surprised to find, as I headed down to Fort Calgary, several thousand people gathered to hear music, line up for a free pancake breakfast (for anyone not from Calgary, the first half of July is overloaded with free pancake breakfasts; a staple of the Stampede—which starts at the end of the week), and to take part in a very ambitious project to create the largest living Canadian flag ever.

Happy Canada Day! If you squint you might see me at the top corner of the right side of the leaf...kidding. But I was there and I was waving!  Photo courtesy of Enmax.

We came close, although I heard Winnipeg had us beat by a few hundred people.

Now, I had been thinking for a time—since I started writing this blog, at least--about where I would go to eat today,

One word came to mind: POUTINE. Truly a Canadian delicacy.

Perhaps I can be excused for not having ever had poutine; it does come from French Canada after all and I have never lived in that part of the country.  That said, I’ve been in Quebec half a dozen times at least, and it’s not like one can’t find the alluring and somewhat curious (to a New Yorker) mixture of French fries, gravy and cheese curds at any food court (at least one stall always has it, I guess). But to live here half my life—more than half my life—and never have it….?

Today was the day.

I headed to the Big Cheese, just a few blocks from the apartment (which is good, because I was tired and hot and sunburned and had no idea what amount of food I was about to eat).

The Big Cheese is a little shop, with a counter for ordering and a dozen small tables; it’s a long room and the kitchen is behind the front counter, up a couple of steps, so you can see the guys while they work (it was all guys on this day).  Not terribly busy—I’m guessing people were still downtown at festivities; as I left there was a bit of a line to order so I suspect my timing was good.

Poutine has come a long way since its creation in the 50's (I'm sure people will argue that it's been around longer than that); there are a range of possible flavours 
that combine different ethnic foods, there are vegetarian versions, and then there are some I suggest wouldn’t qualify as “real poutine”. 

Big Cheese has some of these combos, but for a newbie, the only way to go is with the traditional, so I order one up, to stay.

What to drink with that? Yikes, it’s almost as bad as trying to choose at Tubby Dog (but not quite).  

The friendly lady behind the counter suggest cream or cherry or pineapple soda; I opt for the cherry.

And before I know it, my poutine is laid before me.  

Tucked into a small container, I see French fries absolutely covered in brown gravy, with little white nuggets of cheese curds studded across the top.

If you don’t know what a cheese curd is: it’s a solid but soft chunk of curdled milk—yes I know this sounds gross, but cottage cheese is cheese curds, only smaller. These are about the size of a marble but more irregularly shaped, and they're much firmer than cottage cheese.

They squeak when you bite them. At least good cheese curds do.

And these squeaked, that’s for sure.

My first bite, and I grabbed a little of all three ingredients: not bad.  Lighter than I thought it would be; kind of reminiscent of a roast beef dinner, minus the meat.  The gravy was super flavourful (note to self: if I have this again, I think I will ask for just a little less gravy), but not heavy, and the whole thing made me think of a baked potato with cheese on top. 

The fries are clearly important too; they need to be crisp but not overcooked.  And they need to stay (relatively) crisp until you get to the bottom.

And get to the bottom I did.  I ate the whole thing.  I didn’t feel terribly full; I was even able to comfortably waddle back to the apartment for a mid-afternoon siesta.  But it’s a good thing I ordered the regular size.

Would I have it again?  Sure, I suppose. Would I recommend everyone try it, at least once? 

Absolutely, and the Big Cheese is a good place to start.

Happy Canada Day!  Happy 4th of July!


  1. Now you're ready for more extravagent versions (I love poutine with curry gravy or pulled pork). And what a fitting way to celebrate Canada Day....there's just one thing....the beverage you consumed WITH your poutine is most definitely not 'soda' in this part of the world. You should know by now that it is 'pop', and from the Pop Shoppe no less. A Calgarian pop company that used to do home deliveries when I was a kid!

  2. I so enjoyed meeting you (and our two hour chat) as we waited in line for the living flag. I'm glad that the poutine was worth trying out. All the best in your 17x17x17 adventure... and beyond! Canada is lucky to have you.

    1. Thank you--you and Rachel were wonderful--and so much fun! Love that you've stopped to read a bit of my adventures--know that you are always welcome to join in...send me an email (see the first post for link) and I can add you to my bcc "here's where I'm going next" list--it's not always food; in fact, Milky Way Nights are taking place later this month at the Rothney (down your way)--but you'll have to send me a note because I got your email wrong--it kicked back. Thanks again!

    2. Actually, just realized it might also be you who replied, Shelley!


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