The smell of fries hit me when I turned on Sparks Street. I sniffed the air again and looked around—was I standing by a hot dog cart? Was the wind carrying the smell from the McDonald’s on Bank Street? No, this wasn’t the salty scent of fast food fries but the aroma of homemade, uneven potato wedges and oil.
Unless you are walking in an ethnic neighbourhood like Chinatown or Little India, Canada isn’t a country where noticeable food smells float in the air—except maybe burnt coffee a few metres from Tim Hortons and the like. North American food is too standardized for tantalizing smells and Canada isn’t the best destination for street food. The average Canadian is more likely to eat a cold sandwich in front of the computer than to sample mysterious delicacies from a street cart that has never been approved by the Ottawa Public Health. Long after the food-truck fever swept across the US, Ottawa still had a very restrictive street food vending policy and no new permit was issued, so the city was doomed to munch on hot dogs, sausages and chips. Bylaws were eventually relaxed a few years ago and food trucks popped up all over Ottawa. However, I still can’t call what they offer “street food”—typical fares are too elaborate and expensive.
I continued on Sparks. Once I hit Bank Street, the mystery deepened: the smell of fries was stronger and Sparks Street was packed, which absolutely never happens.
Mystery was solved once I spotted the sign: Poutine Fest. Made sense. Only the promise of an artery-clogging lunchbox can draw people to Sparks Street, the pedestrian street that should be fun and lively but constantly fails to be.
For those who aren’t familiar with poutine, here is the recipe of Quebec’s junk food contribution to Canadian cuisine: French fries topped with cheese curds covered with a light-brown gravy—a messy mix best eaten directly from the carton box with a fork.
It was one of the first days we had “spring” weather in Ottawa and the lunch crowd came en masse. The queue at each food truck was as impressive as the skills displayed to eat poutine standing up without staining ties and skirts.
There were unique poutine combinations, including lobster poutine, shawarma poutine, fajita poutine and even “Thai” poutine with curry and spring rolls. I wasn’t tempted, though. I’ve never tried poutine and I’m perfectly okay with “missing out” on it—I don’t find the texture particularly appealing.
For three blocks, I observed the three steps of Poutine Fest: queuing, ordering and eating. Then I went home and took a shower… because I smelled of fries.