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A Brief History of Poutine

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Walk down a street after a hard night of drinking in Montréal and you’d be hard-pressed not seeing someone gorging themselves on poutine, a high-calorie classic staple of Québécois casse-croûtes—or “greasy spoon”—cuisine.

Just what is poutine, you ask? The delicious Canadian dish is comprised of a holy-hoser trinity of ingredients: French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Try some yourself and you’ll be hooked. It’s become so popular that it’s readily available at certain restaurants in the U.S. (Lucky New Yorkers can get their hands on some traditional poutine at Brooklyn restaurant Mile End.) Otherwise, the dish has become so ubiquitous in its home province that even McDonald’s and Burger King sell it as a side.

Much like the debate in the U.S. about the origins of the hamburger, poutine has similarly unclear beginnings. The most widespread claim for inventing poutine comes from the small dairy-farming town of Warwick, Québec, where, in 1957, a customer asked restaurateur Fernand Lachance to throw cheese curds and French fries—items the owner sold separately at his restaurant L’Idéal (later renamed Le lutin qui rit, or “The Laughing Elf”)—together in one bag because the customer was in a rush. Legend has it when Lachance peered into the bag after the two ingredients were mixed together, he remarked, “This is a ‘poutine,’” using the joual—or Québécois slang—for a "mess.”

Noticeably absent from Lachance’s cobbled-together recipe is the gravy ingredient, which was added to the mix in 1964 when a restaurant-owner in nearby Drummondville, Quebec named Jean-Paul Roy noticed a few of his diners ordering a side of cheese curds to add to the patented gravy sauce and fries dish at his restaurant, Le Roy Jucep. Roy soon added the three-ingredient item on his menu and the rest is delicious, gravy-soaked history.

Eventually, poutine spread across the province and throughout Canada—with different combinations added to the fries, curds, and gravy recipe—but the original remains the most recognized and honored. It even initially made its way to the United States by way of New Jersey, where an altered recipe known as “Disco Fries” substitutes shredded cheddar or mozzarella cheese for the Canadian curds.

But if you ever find yourself in Montréal and have a hankering for greasy food, be sure to order it correctly. Anglophones usually pronounce the word as “poo-teen,” but if you want to pass for a real Québécois, it’s pronounced “poo-tin.”  

This story originally ran in 2013.

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This Just In
The Honey Smacks In Your Pantry May Be Contaminated With Salmonella
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.

Salmonella, a bacterial food-borne illness often associated with raw eggs and undercooked chicken, has been linked recently to a popular children's cereal. According to Snopes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging consumers to avoid Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, citing the brand as the likely cause of the Salmonella outbreak spreading across the U.S.

Since early March, 73 people in 31 states have contracted the virus. Salmonella clears up in most people on its own, but in some cases it can lead to hospitalization or even death. Twenty-four victims have been admitted to hospitals so far, with no reported deaths. Of the 39 patients who were questioned, 30 of them remembered eating cold cereal and 14 of them specifically cited Honey Smacks.

In response to the outbreak, the Kellogg Company has recalled its 15.3-ounce and 23-ounce boxes of Honey Smacks printed with any "best if used by" date between June 14, 2018 and June 14, 2019 (recalled boxes are labeled on the bottom with the UPC codes 3800039103 or 3800014810). The CDC recommends that you take even greater precautions by throwing out or returning any Honey Smacks you have at home, regardless of package size, "best by" date, or whether your family has eaten from the box previously without getting sick.

Symptoms of Salmonella include diarrhea, fever, headache, and abdominal pain, and usually appear 12 hours to three days after the contaminated food is ingested. If you or someone in your household is showing signs of the infection, ask a doctor about how to best treat it.

[h/t Snopes]

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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