When I was a child, I remember my grandparents eating gross-looking gray potato blobs they called “putsins.” My grandfather was from Maine and spoke French. I have heard a rumor that every American who shares my unusual last name was a descendant of one guy and his four horny sons. Judging that both of my paternal grandparents had over a dozen siblings each, I tend to think the rumor is true.
These “putsins” they ate were an Acadian delicacy also known as poutine râpée. They are a combination of grated and mashed potatoes with chopped salt pork in the center, which are boiled for two and a half to three hours. Yum. I mean, yuck. I guess they are served with either ketchup or with maple syrup.
As I googled around to refresh this dim childhood memory, I was stunned, STUNNED, I say, at all the people who seemed to know about this dish. And there were plenty of recipes. We were actually able to talk to my grandparents over the summer about how to make putsins (as they pronounced it) and despite the grossed out memories of my childhood, we endeavored to have a go at making our own poutine râpée.
First, you have to peel a lot of goddamned potatoes. More potatoes than you’d even need for a regular meal. Then you take a third of them, chop them up, and boil them for mashed potatoes. You take the other two thirds and you grate them. We tried a fine grate for this attempt, as we had tried to make poutine râpée a while ago and they fell apart. We thought maybe it was because the potatoes weren’t grated and amalgamated enough.
You also have to squeeze as much water out of the grated potatoes as possible. We thought this might also have been a contributor to our previous failure. All the recipes say to put the grated potatoes in a cotton cloth and squeeze the ever loving shit out of them. We did this last time. It was a lot of work, and the taters were still too wet. This time, we did as the ancient Acadians did, and used our salad spinner that we got at Bed Bath and Beyond.
Here are the shredded potatoes on the left, and the mashed potatoes on the right. We formed them into balls, and they still seemed pretty loose and incohesive. The problem we had last time was that the putsins fell apart as they boiled in the water. This had been quite a labor investment at this point and we did not want to have to order a pizza for dinner.
My mom said she remembered one of her aunts wrapping her putsins in cheese cloth to keep them from falling apart. This seemed like another elaborate step, but we were determined we would be eating putsins by any means necessary. To hedge our bets however, we also decided to bake a few of our potato balls in the oven. Not traditional, but maybe we could reinvent this dish for the 21st century. Maybe it would be a hit. Maybe we’d be famous.
Here they go in the oven.
Here they stew in the pot. They take TWO AND A HALF HOURS to boil. Holy crap. Do you ever wait that long for food? Ever? We were confident that these were going to hold together this time with the cheese cloth. We let them simmer. And we waited and we waited and we waited. And because we were thinking in regular food prep timing, we didn’t think ahead to realize it would be 9 pm by the time these things were ready.
We waited for two hours and decided to take our chances.
There they are. They have been described as “gray,” “gelatinous,” and “slimy.” We found all those things to be true. And while I never ate them as a kid, they seemed immensely familiar. I have deep heritage.
They were…well…pretty god awful, actually. They were fairly bland, as described in the various recipes we found. The potato was dense and chewy like gnocchi, but stickier. The baked ones were drier and puffier, but not much better. I was figuring the fat from the salt pork would melt a little, but no. There were still big pieces of rubbery white fat in there. We had no ketchup in the house, so we figured we could use poutine gravy, meant for the other Québécois dish that we know so well. Dave has a lifetime supply of poutine gravy packets. You know, in case the apocalypse occurs. Or Jesus comes back.
We had one or two of these and called it a night. After all that work. What a hearty people the Acadians were, taking all that labor and over two hours of cooking to somehow make meat and potatoes inedible. I didn’t think it was possible.
I still love my grandparents, though.