The invention of Poutine is claimed by Warwick, Quebec. The ice cream sundae was created in Ithaca, NY. Frog Legs are a uniquely French delicacy. These are universal truths, right? Actually, the origins of these dishes are all in hot dispute. At least four Quebec communities say they invented poutine and several U.S. locations claim they invented the ice cream sundae. Finally, evidence of the first cooked frog legs was found in England. Mon Dieu!
There is intense community pride in inventing a culinary dish, especially if it becomes iconic for a country. After all, food is as representative of a culture and its people as music, architecture, and historical objects. UNESCO, which is a branch of the United Nations is primarily known for designating World Heritage sites, also compiles a list of intangible heritage, which they define as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” Culinary traditions are considered a type of intangible heritage, and listed foods range Northern Croatian gingerbread to broader categories such as the Mediterranean diet and Mexican cuisine.
Poutine—French fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce—has become an iconic Canadian dish. In a 2007 CBC/Radio-Canada viewer survey of the greatest Canadian inventions of all time, poutine was ranked number ten, beating the electron microscope, the BlackBerry, and the paint roller, among other items. The province of Quebec gained prestige as the birthplace of one of their nation’s iconic dishes. Obviously there is a lot at stake for the place that invented it, not only in terms of local pride but also marketing power and potential big business. Unfortunately the restaurateur who invented poutine is in dispute.
Some dish disputes are intense, albeit good natured. The ice cream sundae has several claimants for its birthplace; the top two contenders are Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Ithaca, New York. These cities are fighting a “Sundae War.” In 2006, the Ithaca Visitors Bureau offered free sundaes on Sundays for the month of July. The Two Rivers City Council responded with a “resolution formally challenging the city of Ithaca, New York’s claim to be birthplace of the ice cream sundae.” They also encouraged Two Rivers residents to send postcards to Ithaca’s mayor—postcards with a photo of the Two Rivers historical marker that relates the history of the birth of the sundae in a rhyme:
“Ice cream sundaes are sweet …and they give you the shivers.
Just remember they started right here in Two Rivers!”
Ithaca responded with its own historical plaque and declared victory by providing the oldest written advertisement for an ice cream sundae.
Note that being the birthplace of a culinary dish is not always desirable. The English have mocked the French for hundreds of years for eating frog legs, derisively calling them “Frogs” and “frog eaters.”
So there was shock and disbelief across England when archeologists found the burnt leg of a toad at a site in Amesbury dating from 6250BC to 7600BC. This is the earliest evidence of a cooked toad or frog leg, predating evidence in France by a full eight millennia.
As long as people invent new culinary dishes that may become icons of their cities, states, and countries, the importance of their birthplaces cannot be underestimated. And for those places of invention already in dispute, they can take comfort in diners enjoying their iconic dishes and debating which place prepares it best (another debate entirely). Bon appetite!
The History of the Nineteenth Century in Caricature by Arthur Bartlett Maurice and Frederic Taber Cooper, pg 91