Movie director Kevin Smith was in Toronto a while ago for a speaking engagement and asked passersby about Canadian cuisine. The conversation turned to poutine, the dish of fries and cheese curds topped off with gravy, a concoction whose association with Quebec is either an honour for or a slur against the people of that province. On hearing it described, he said the Americans have much the same dish -- fries, cheese, gravy -- and call it "disco fries."
Sure enough, the phrase has entered the vernacular in New York and thereabouts. John Devore wrote in the New York Sun on Nov. 17 that the makers of past James Bond films, "in a manic effort to provide as much cheap flavour as possible, drowned the franchise in a tidal wave of nacho cheese and gravy, turning Bond into a big-screen version of disco fries." Although there are infinite variations, Canada's poutine traditionally has cheddar curds and chicken gravy on thick-cut home fries, while New York's disco fries have shredded cheddar or mozzarella and beef gravy on French fries. Prue Salasky, writing in the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va., called disco fries "a pale imitation" of poutine.
Poutine, The Globe and Mail's Tu Thanh Ha wrote in 1997, originated in 1957 when trucker Eddy Lainesse visited Fernand Lachance's Café Idéal (later Lutin Qui Rit, the Laughing Gnome) in Warwick, Que. Lainesse asked Lachance to mix some cheese curds in with his fries. Lachance responded with a line that the website montrealpoutine.com gives as, "Ç a va faire une maudite poutine" -- "That's going to make a damned mess," poutine being derived from the English "pudding" and suggesting a great muddle. Another claim to the invention of poutine came from Jean-Paul Roy, owner of the restaurant Roy le Jucep in Drummondville, Que., who said that people in 1964 were mixing cheese curds with his special concoction of fries and gravy. By the late 1970s, montrealpoutine.com says, poutine had made its way to the discos of New York; hence the name disco fries.
Elsewhere on the food front, a box of whole-wheat Triscuit crackers purchased a year ago bore a message on the package front, in big letters and with tenuous capitalization, that the tasty little squares contained "50% Less salt than original Triscuit crackers." A box of the same crackers bought last week advertised in big letters, with hardier capitalization, that they contained "62% Less Sodium than Original Triscuit crackers." You might assume from this that the sodium content had decreased, but you would assume incorrectly. In each box, the amount of sodium in a subset of four crackers (18 grams) was listed as 45 grams.
Now, it's possible that the amount of salt in an original Triscuit (the full-salt variety) has risen, thereby increasing the percentage difference between it and the lower-salt Triscuit. This is hard to imagine, since the regular cracker already contains so much salt that if you dropped one in the bathtub you could walk across the surface of the water.
At any rate, I called the customer-service line for Kraft Canada Inc.'s Christie Brown & Co., which makes the crackers. The polite voice at the other end could offer no help, but did read out a paragraph on the value of salt in preserving meat, and suggested that perhaps the salt discrepancy between the Triscuit blurbs was the result of "rounding." The notion of rounding off 50 per cent to 62 per cent is novel enough that I figured it qualified as playing with words, and justified its inclusion in Word Play.