Ric Tile boasts that he is the state's foremost "poutine-ologist," and he's probably right. Honestly, how many Vermonters dedicate themselves to studying and savoring poutine, the Canadian junk-food staple, made from French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds? Tile - a 45-year-old DJ who seems blissfully unconcerned about heart disease - can't get enough of the stuff. "To some people like me," he says, "it's like manna."
A hearty dish most appealing during the winter months, poutine - pronounced "poo-tsin" in Quebec, "poo-teen" in the States - is popular with drinkers eager to soak up the alcohol in their stomachs after a night on the town. Fernand Lachance, a restaurateur in the small, rural town of Warwick, Quebec, introduced it in 1957. Today our northern neighbors can find it almost anywhere in their great nation; it's even on the menu at Canadian McDonald's.
But poutine is not so easy to find in Vermont, and Tile wants to change that. Last December, the Pennsylvania native, who moved here from Miami in May 2003, started a whimsical poutine promotion on his radio show on The Point. Nearly every weekday morning between 5 and 10, Tile reviews his list of local poutine purveyors, and offers to plug any restaurant that adds it to the menu. On weekends, he scours the state, sampling various recipes. Last week, I joined him and tried a few orders myself, an adventure that turned out to be not nearly as gross as it sounds.
Our first stop was Sean & Nora's. Tile and I met at the Montpelier radio station on Thursday night, and the DJ drove me to the Barre restaurant, explaining his fascination with this fatty food along the way. Though we'd never met, listening to him talk in the car was an oddly familiar experience.
"I've been on the poutine trail for, like, three months," Tile began. He said it all started on one of his trips to Quebec to watch junior- and senior-league hockey - no NHL this season. Unable to speak French, at the concession stands he ordered only what he felt comfortable pronouncing, namely "biere" and "poutine." After a while he grew fond of the fried dish, and wondered why more Vermont restaurants, such as Nectar's and Al's French Frys, haven't picked it up.
Tile figures Quebec and Vermont are destined to secede and join forces. "Then we'll be Verbec, or Quemont," he reasoned half-seriously. "You'd think we'd be serving their national dish all over."
Amazingly, Tile's campaign seems to be working: Several restaurants have responded to his plea, including Sean & Nora's. When we got there, the hostess immediately recognized the paunchy, balding DJ. Hey, that's how he describes himself on The Point website - though to be fair, it doesn't mention his stylish specs or his mischievous charm. The hostess pointed to the new menu, listing a side of poutine for $4.50. We ordered one to share.
Tile also got a Diet Pepsi. "I am training to run a leg of the marathon," he quipped.
While we waited for our food, Tile opened a manila folder he calls his "Vermont poutine file." In addition to keeping track of his travels, it contains evidence that his listeners love poutine, too. He pulled out a listener-submitted photo of an Ottawa street fair, featuring a vendor's stand called "The Poutine Machine."
He also produced some email tips. One Springfield correspondent invited Tile to stop by. "Yo, Ric," he wrote, "we got the poutine right here in downtown Springfield, VT, so sniff us out with that old poutine finder and head on down to see us. We'll keep the fryer on."
Finally, Tile handed me a list of the 12 nearby poutineries he's found so far, all but one in Vermont. The other is The Spa, just across the border in West Stewartstown, New Hampshire. "They serve nine different varieties," he said, a note of awe in his voice. In addition to the original recipe, The Spa also makes pepperoni, hotdog and popcorn chicken poutine.
Frankly, my gut reaction to this news was: yuck. I have just recently begun eating meat again after being a vegetarian for eight years and, while I can stomach the occasional turkey or chicken sandwich, meat is not something I really relish.
So I was surprised, and a little sheepish, when I tasted my first mouthful of Sean & Nora's poutine; I immediately wished I'd ordered my own portion. It was delicious. The fries were thick and crisp, the chicken gravy savory, and the authentic cheese curds delightfully stringy. I had to break several long strands that followed the fries from my plate. Across the table, Tile took his first bite. "Oh," he murmured. "This is brilliant."
Chef Rich Lechner stopped by our table to check on us. We raved about the poutine. He confessed it wasn't that hard to make. "It's pretty straightforward," Lechner said. "It's not a lot of foo-foo."
Afterwards, we headed up the winding Mountain Road to the Fireside Tavern in Stowe, and arrived just before closing time. A few ruddy skiers lingered at the bar. Tile and I plopped down at a four-person table and ordered our poutine, along with a side of baked hazelnut-encrusted goat cheese.
Sadly, this particular poutine paled by comparison. The thick steak fries seemed mushy, and the cheese lacked that peppy stringiness. The menu said cheddar was used instead of curds. "Americans aren't necessarily excited when they see cheese curds on the menu," Tile explained.
Our next stops, scheduled for Saturday morning, were Gigi's Deli in Stowe and Trillium Cafe in Hinesburg, which shares a building with Green River Chocolates. Because of a snowstorm, I missed out on Gigi's. Tile sampled chef/owner Joey Buttendorf's new Vermont Poutine Country Omelet - a plate of eggs, roasted potatoes, sausage gravy and cheese. He devoured it, Tile reported.
Thankfully, Elizabeth Sengle, chef/owner of Trillium Cafe, tried a different approach. She was the first chef to incorporate poutine at Tile's suggestion. Sengle had heard him on the radio early one December morning and called immediately, promising to add poutine to her menu.
She remembered Tile asking her incredulously, "Do you know what's in poutine?" She didn't. Sengle Googled it and was shocked. After all, Trillium is an all-vegetarian cafe.
"I was horrified," Sengle confided, eyes wide. "It's everything we don't do here." Undeterred, she created her own recipe - red-jacket potatoes from Lewis Creek Farm, roasted with sweet potatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and paprika, and topped with Cabot's seriously sharp cheddar and a tangy tamari-based sauce. "Voila, poutine!" she said.
Sure enough, Sengle's creative concoction was a hit. It's been on the menu for months and still sells well. It's extremely tasty, though carnivores might miss the little morsels of fat and gristle in the gravy.
Tile defended Trillium's inclusion on his list, saying that if other restaurants want to be on it, they have to show some effort. "You can get anybody to throw cheese and gravy on fries," he observed, "but it's got to be something [separate that] people can really order. It's got to be a dish they take pride in."