All Power to the Poutine!

A headline in the National Post (July 10) announced, “Hot Dogs and Poutine Stage Comeback After Quebec Rink’s Fans Revolt.”

The story revolved around the town of Lac-Etchemin, Quebec, which prided itself on being the first Canadian municipality to ban “unhealthy” food from its arena. “Now, in an admission that paninis are outmatched against poutine, the town council has lifted the ban and french fries will return before the end of the month.”

You might chortle at the hubris of a Quebec town trying to ban the delicious French Canadian staple of french fries laden with cheese curds and smothered in gravy. You should applaud the victory of rebellious Canadiensagainst the Nanny State municipality. In doing so, however, it is important to realize that the attempted ban is neither humorous nor trivial. It is merely one instance of government’s creeping encroachment into what goes onto your dinner plate. In the ’80s, people protested under the slogan “Get government out of the bedroom,” meaning that the state had no proper business monitoring or punishing the consenting sexual choices of adults. Today, the protest should read “Get government out of the kitchen.”


The governmental censoring of food choice is often viewed as a trivial, or even benevolent, matter. After all, what is one french fry more or less? And the goal as stated seems well-intentioned.

There is nothing benevolent, however, about state-imposed control over one of the main ways in which human beings express themselves. Food choices are personal; they define our identity as surely as our choices in attire or reading material. “Food is love” is a hackneyed saying that conveys the basic truth that eating is about far, far more than sustaining life.

Food is an integral aspect of transmitting culture and ethnicity. From Italian pastas to Indian curries, from poutine to falafels, a rich array of dishes form a part of your family’s history and the background of who you are. Often the mere smell of a dish as you walk by a restaurant can elicit a flood of childhood memories, including how recipes or cooking techniques were passed down from one generation to the next.

Food is also a form of cultural exchange through which diverse ethnic groups can automatically appreciate each other’s heritage. The appreciation happens spontaneously, without tax funding, laws or government programs. It happens every time someone chooses a Chinese restaurant or expresses preference for a Jewish deli. During World War II, sauerkraut was widely banned in North America as “unpatriotic” because of the deep hostility toward anything German. Equally, the approval of ethnic food is a form of acceptance of a culture, or at least one significant aspect of it.

Food is also a moral choice, as every vegan knows. It is a religious choice, as Orthodox Jews will attest. Food is also a political statement, as any farmer who produces raw milk will tell you.

One of the most important functions of food choice returns to the saying “Food is love.” When a spouse or mother celebrates your birthday, it is through making “a favorite meal” or baking a cake. When a man proposes, it is over a romantic meal at an expensive restaurant. When you express sympathy at a post-funeral gathering, you do so while holding a casserole that you’ve brought over. It is commonplace for those who are emotionally distressed to seek “comfort food” that allows them to “feed themselves” when the world is not. How many women have recovered from a broken heart over tubs of ice cream?

Precisely because of its strong emotional pull and roots in culture, food choice has become one of the most important rituals in our society. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, from Halloween candy to chocolates on Valentine’s Day, food and ritual are inextricably linked.

Ultimately, food is also one of the main forms of self-control you exercise over your own body. Through these choices, you express a personal judgment on what benefits your body and/or fits your lifestyle; for some, the judgment leads to an Atkins diet, while for others, it is organic lentils. Even people who make allegedly ‘bad’ choices are expressing themselves.

The bounty and diversity of food available in every grocery store and on each passing street corner should cause joy because it demonstrates the richness of society itself — not merely in terms of prosperity, but also in terms of choice.

Thus, when government dictates what you may or may not eat, it is restricting your heritage, your religious and political choices, the control over your own body, telling you that a choice every bit as personal as freedom of speech or the art you view is not yours to make. That decision is theirs.

Why? For your own good. Even as an adult, you cannot be trusted with choosing the food that goes into your own mouth at your own expense. That’s what government experts are for.


Politically speaking, it does not matter whether the food “experts” are correct about poutine any more than their opinion on a specific work of literature should matter…at least politically speaking. You have an inalienable right to read graphic novels about a dystopian future rather than be force-fed Ibsen’s writings on dysfunctional families. You have a similar right to eat food bought at your own expense.

Nevertheless, almost all discussion of government’s censorship of food choice revolves around whether or not the claims being made are true or false. This would be a fascinating and valuable discussion if it did not always seem to end at the conclusion “There ought to be a law.” Thus, otherwise interesting discussions about the value and risks of raw milk result in farmers being arrested and driven out of business by huge fines. Otherwise interesting discussions about the calorie count or artery impact of poutine end in the banning of a cultural choice. This is akin to banning literature because a government book reviewer finds the contents to be “unhealthy.” Society should cease to have discussions that end in such conclusions.

Those who are in the “there ought not to be a law” camp often encounter the following argument: We live in a society that offers (to varying degrees) free health care. This means that taxpayers bear the consequences of providing health care to those who are reckless with their bodies through drugs, alcohol, smoking or unhealthy diets. In short, your neighbor has a vested and financial interest in what goes into your body.

This line of reasoning — rather than justifying a Nanny State or a nosy neighbor dictating your personal choices — constitutes a powerful argument against socialized medicine. If socialized medicine had been “advertised” decades ago as a government mandate to control the minutia of your daily life, then it would probably have never been implemented. If socialized medicine had announced itself as the right to usurp parental control over what to feed children, then it would have met the same “rink-revolt” that occurred in Lac-Etchemin.

Tell the government that it is not a welcomed guest in your kitchen. There is no room for bureaucrats at your dinner table.


Wendy McElroy