I nestled into the vinyl side booth of Chez Vachon (pronounced shay vuh-shawn) during the lunchtime shift on a recent Friday morning. Although it was early June in New Hampshire, a cold drizzle had driven my appetite towards the heavy fare offered by this French-Canadian diner on the west side of Manchester.
I had returned to Chez Vachon for poutine, a Quebecuois dish seldom served in the United States. Well-known as a late night food on the streets of the Montreal club scene, it is an unhealthy helping of crisped french fries, soft cheese curds and thick, brown gravy. Until a scattering of trendy spots in New York City began offering it earlier this year as high-priced comfort food ($18 poutine can be found at the LW12 gastropub in Manhattan), Chez Vachon was known as the southernmost outpost where poutine (pronounced puts-in) was regularly served.
Chez Vachon is a throwback to a time when French was the predominant language spoken in the western neighborhoods of Manchester, NH. A former mill town, the largest city in the Granite State attracted thousands of industrial workers from French-speaking Quebec in the early 20th century. Today, only vestigial reminders of a francophone society populate this part of the city. Bank ATM’s west of the Merrimack River display instructions in both French and English. Fraternal organizations such as Club Canadian offer activities for older residents. And Chez Vachon serves up Quebecuois fare worthy of any diner dotting the Saint Lawrence.
As I flipped over the yellow, paper menu my eyes scanned the wood paneling of the sparsely-populated restaurant. Although it was noon, Chez Vachon was slowly winding towards its 2:00 p.m. closing time. Serving a largely blue-collared crowd, most regulars frequent the diner in the early morning hours. The central feature of the lunchtime rush, if a rush at all, was the set of retirees familiar by first name to the wait staff. It was with this generation, on past visits to the restaurant, that I would occasionally hear French creep out from a corner booth.
I immediately ordered a slice of salmon pie, another traditional Quebecuois dish, as the waitress poured coffee into my ceramic mug and filled my red, plastic tumbler with ice water. I asked for additional time as a more complicated choice awaited in selecting exactly which poutine to choose from. Featuring kielbasa, spaghetti and even hot dog poutine, the menu of Chez Vachon was creative.
Like the turf wars over the American cheeseburger, conflicting restaurants in Quebec lay rival claims as the original home to the dish. While the source of its creation is unclear, most food historians place the development of the recipe within Quebec sometime in the 1950’s. Today, poutine is served at restaurants throughout Quebec and in parts of Ontario. No longer confined to greasy spoons, it can be found at fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, hockey arenas and even food stalls lining the winter sidewalks of Montreal nightclubs.
Traditional poutine starts with a bed of french fries and adds a layer of soft, cheese curds. The concoction is then topped with a heavy smothering of brown gravy which should be thick enough to keep a fork standing up. Purists insist that proper poutine should maintain the crispy integrity of the fries while melting the curds into a perfect state which exists somewhere between solid and soupy.
All poutine begins with this basic recipe. However, variations quickly expand at the whim of individual chefs. Few mentions of Chez Vachon escape the telling of how enthralled then-candidate Bill Clinton became with the cheeseburger poutine offered by the diner. That 1992 episode cemented the greasy spoon as a stop for presidential aspirants (indeed, I witnessed one waitress start her shift by exclaiming “Joey Pants just signed my shirt!” in reference to Soprano‘s star Joe Pantoliano who was in town to witness the Democratic presidential debate).
Poutine can best be appreciated as a comfort food during a cold winter. Delivering a heavy, high-caloric warmth, it is not a light meal. My waitress made sure to wrap up the remainder when I was able to only eat half of the regular (small) serving of poutine at Chez Vachon. As the small serving still overwhelmed my 10″ plate, I groaned when I thought of what must pass as the large size (which could be purchased for $1.50 more).
With a simple recipe, poutine can be made at home – at least theoretically. While thousands of Canadian kitchens routinely concoct their own variations with success, Americans can best experience the intricate balance of texture and spices by leaving the cooking to Canucks.
It is unknown if any restaurant in Washington, D.C. currently serves the dish (Montreal Poutine, a website devoted to the dish, only lists five restaurants in the states where it is known that poutine is currently served). However, lack of access to this high-fat, high-calorie, high-carbohydrate creation may be a blessing. As such a heavy dish, perhaps poutine is best enjoyed as only an occasional travel treat.
136 Kelley St
Manchester, NH 03102
Selections include: Plain ($5.95), Vegetarian ($6.95) along with Cheeseburger, Hot Dog, Italian Sausage, Spaghetti, Turkey, Kielbasa, Sirloin Steak Tips and Bacon ($7.95).
The Inn LW12
7 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10014
(at W. 12th in the Meat Packing District)
Selections include: Tomato ($12), Spiced Pork Belly ($17) and Braised Beef Stilton in a Red Wine Sauce ($18)
Chez Ashton (the original of the Quebecuois chain)
54 Cote du Palais
Quebec City, QC G1R 4H8
Selections include: Sausuge, Ground Beef and Vegetable (peas). Price of poutine drops with the temperature (-30 degrees celsius equals a 30% discount).