I don’t travel all that often, but when I do I try to eat something that I can’t get at home–a local specialty. Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood has never steered me wrong; in Minneapolis, for instance, it helped me find the best roast beef sandwich I’ve ever encountered. But asking those you meet is a good idea, too.
Nobody in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, could agree on what one thing I had to eat before I left. Almost nobody, in fact, had any strong opinions at all. “Cheese curd, I guess,” said one fellow. So, when I stopped for lunch during a little sightseeing trip between rehearsals, I saw them on the menu and asked for a serving. They’re deep-fried bits of cheese (imagine a solid-cheese Cheeto) served with ranch dressing. If that’s how they’re served, that’s how I’m trying them–though after a couple of bites the combination of buttermilk and cheese was dairy overload. I asked for some cocktail sauce and tried not to notice the waiter looking at me as if I’d grown an extra head. (Tomato, lemon, and horseradish were, to me, the perfect foil for the fried cheese, though to look at that combination in print makes me understand why the waiter looked at me strangely.)
This isn’t a story about Wisconsin, though. There will be lots of stories about Wisconsin, but those for other days.
When I told her about the cheese curd, she said, “Oh, poutine!” It turns out that cheese curds aren’t especially local to Wisconsin; they are part of the national dish of Canada. Poutine is a plate of french fried potatoes topped with cheese curds over which brown gravy is ladled. I have no idea who first came up with this idea, but if it was a customer at a restaurant, I suspect the waiter may have given a little eye-roll.
This isn’t a story about Canada, either. (I’m not sure that she’s ever been to Canada, and I’ve only been there a couple of times–and I’ve never ordered poutine when I was.)
It turns out that there are many versions of poutine, and plenty of them don’t involve cheese curds. I am not so closed-minded as to say I will never try the one that involves feta cheese and vinaigrette dressing, but it’s not high on my list of enthusiasm.
A particularly swanky version of poutine is served at one of her favorite restaurants. Not her favorite spot; as discussed previously, that is not a spot for a pre-theatre bite. Seeing A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters with Alan Alda and Candice Bergen–our Friday night plan–was a bit of an occasion, so we decided to go her fancy poutine spot. If our history was any indication, drinks and appetizers would be plenty for dinner.
On Wednesday, as we walked to the train station after work, we realized that it was going to be late enough that we should have dinner before boarding. But not fries, she said. “No, that’s for Friday,” I agreed. “And surely not Disco Fries,” she said. I laughed, trying to imagine fries in a white polyester suit, doing the Hustle under a mirror ball. “You know, American poutine,” she said, and I laughed all the harder her name for the American diner version of a Canadian dish.
We ended up at a diner, with an omelette and a BLT and a chocolate shake in a glass as big as her head–but not Disco Fries. Which were actually on the menu. I thought it was a very amusing coincidence until, meeting for coffee with a collaborator at a different diner, I saw Disco Fries listed there, too.
She laughed harder than I had at the thought the she had invented the name. (She maintains she isn’t that clever, though I know better.) In the Northeast, fries with cheese and gravy are called Disco Fries, though I can’t find an explanation why. Even in this regional variation no sources agree what kind of cheese or gravy is supposed to be used.
Nios’s variation is as lavish as I had been led to understand: excellent fries with shredded mozzarella and julienned strips of pepperoni, sprinkled with chopped parsley, set under a broiler to melt the cheese and crisp the pepperoni, then bathed (but not soaked) with beefy gravy that most decidedly did not come from a can. Salty, crunchy, and rich; with a little salad alongside, and very well-made cocktails, it was a perfect pre-show dinner.
I’ll try Canadian poutine when I have a chance, and I might even take her for cheese curd next time we’re in Wisconsin. Until then, when fries, cheese, and gravy meet, it will be at Nios. With no disco music.