March 16, 2019 3 min to read
Poutine and Watermelons? Is there any link to racism?
Category : Attacks on Québec
Right now, Poutine is popular around the world as one of the best export of “Canadian” cuisine, but many Québécois are angry that Poutine is being called Canadian. Why is that?
First, let’s talk about Watermelons. After the emancipation in the United States (in the 1860s) many recently freed slaves began growing (and eating) watermelons and made it, in a way, a “symbol of their freedom”.
However, it didn’t take long for racists to use watermelons as a racist token: African Americans were depicted as being lazy watermelon eaters. Here is a quote from Wikipedia:
The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and work-shy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.
The watermelon wasn’t racist in itself, but it was used a tool to ridicule African Americans.
Poutine was invented in Québec in the 1950s or 1960s. It has a conflicted history with 3 towns in Québec (Drummondville, Warwick or Princeville) claiming the creation of the poutine, but it is clear that it comes from a rural town in Québec or another. Which exact town and which exact year is disputed, but not the general working class origin which mostly revolve around a regular of an eatery asking for this odd meal and giving it a funny name. Details vary, the general origin doesn’t.
Quickly, as poutine became popular, it became a symbol of derision of French-Canadians in Québec.
Again, from wikipedia:
The dish was long mocked as a culinary invention and even used as a means of stigmatization used against the Quebec society to reduce its legitimacy.
In the rest of Canada, English-Canadian laughed at the simple dish which despite being a meal, doesn’t (typically) contain any meat. It was a symbol of the lack of culture and sophistication of Québec French-Canadians. It was often used in a punchline, like:
“An Ontario, a BC and a Quebec death row inmates each ask for their last meal. The Ontario guy asks for filet mignon with a lemon pie, the BC guy asks for a lobster meal with Nanaimo bars, the Quebec guy asks for poutine”
That’s the joke. That’s the punchline: that for your last meal, you are supposed to ask for the best meal you can dream of and the Québécois only wanted some poutine. Disclaimer, this unfunny joke is mine, not an original one but I had read similar ones in the past meant to ridicule us.
At some point in the 1990s or early 2000s however, poutine began being popular around the world and slowly, other countries began adopting the poutine as an exotic dish like many Chinese or Japanese (or Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, etc…) dish entered common culture.
However, in addition to colonizing the world, the poutine also colonized the rest of Canada which began seeing it as a symbol of Canadian cuisine and that’s where the problem is.
Very few Québécois complain when other Québec delicacies become known as being Canadian, but the poutine, because of its “racist” usage up until recently. I put racist in quote, because racism is rejection of people on their race, not on their culture…
The feeling is that it’s hypocritical for English Canadians to use the poutine to ridicule the Québec French-Speakers for decades for inviting and enjoying .. and then claim its origin with pride once it becomes popular around the world.
This is why we have reddits like https://www.reddit.com/r/PoutineIsQuebecois/ (which is a tongue in cheek reddit… ) with meme like:
Poutine picture by Yuri Long from Arlington, VA, USA