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Quebec diner drops poutine from the menu - the word, not the dish - to denounce Putin

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In 2003, there were Freedom Fries. In 2022, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at least one Quebec restaurant has come up with its own way of denouncing Vladimir Putin -- though cutting his name out of the local lexicon is much harder than it seems.

The diner Le Roy Jucep, in the small city of Drummondville, announced on Facebook on Friday that it was calling itself "the inventor of the fries-cheese-gravy."

The dish is, of course, poutine, Quebec's most famous comfort food, and Le Roy Jucep claims to have invented it in the 1950s. The spot is famous enough that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even stopped there once on Quebec's national holiday and filmed a video paying homage to poutine.

But that word also happens to be the French translation for Putin's name. Invariably, in France, Quebec and other French-speaking places, the Russian president is written as "Vladimir Poutine."

"Dear clients," the restaurant wrote in an online post on Friday. "Tonight the Jucep team decided to temporarily retire the word P***tine from its trademark in order to express, in its own way, its profound dismay over the situation in Ukraine."

It later took down the post, telling media it had received hateful phone calls and was nervous, but its Facebook page still describes it as the "inventor of the fries-cheese-gravy."

On Saturday, the restaurant's staff wrote an update, saying they'd learned of a message of thanks given by a Ukrainian, speaking on Radio-Canada television, who had learned of the gesture.

"Very touching to learn that our tiny message of support has been sent from Drummondville all the way to Ukraine!" the restaurant wrote.

"If we could make someone smile there, that's already a win! We are with you from the bottom of our hearts."

The restaurant's owner couldn't be reached for comment about how long they plan to avoid saying the name of their signature dish or what kind of threats they've gotten in response.

The word's strange double meaning goes a long way back, and it has its roots in avoiding an even more awkward choice of word.

If written as "Putin" in French, Putin's name is spoken in a way that sounds very close to "putain," which is one of the most common French curse words.

So French-speakers, at some point around Putin's rise to power in 1999, instead decided to be diplomatic. People "embraced phony phonetics, unanimously choosing to mispronounce the name of the president of Russia," as the New York Times' language columnist wrote in 2005.

"Poutine" is not otherwise a word in French, aside from referring to the Quebecois fat-saturated food. Historians of the specialty, including those at Le Roy Jucep, seem to agree that it came from the English word "pudding," with Quebecers or Acadians using that word to describe any dish that was a hot mishmash, but pronouncing it more like "poudine."

At some point, likely at Le Roy Jucep but possibly at a few other contenders for the food's inventor, the word came to mean exclusively fries with cheese curds and gravy. 

The contrast between the self-serious Russian president and his downmarket culinary namesake in Quebec hasn't been lost in the past two decades, inspiring more than a few puns and jokes, usually at Putin's expense.

In 2018, a young Russian couple started a food truck in their own country serving poutine, calling it the "Poutinerie." A few people objected to their "making fun of the president," one of the founders told The Canadian Press, but it was "only a minority."

In Montreal, there was even an entire restaurant downtown for a few years called "Vladimir Poutine," which had a theme of dictators and autocrats -- it also had a "Trump burger" as well as a signature poutine dish, according to Vice News, which described the restaurant's "faux Russian-red regalia."

Now that it's clear what a force for destruction the autocratic president has become, however, the joke is no longer funny to most Quebecers. 

"Beautiful gesture of support," wrote one man on Facebook to Le Roy Jucep, part of a flood of hundreds of people commenting to thank the restaurant.

"To all those who said: it doesn't do anything -- empathy and solidarity is not nothing," a woman added.

One man agreed, but saw it slightly differently, he said.

"Nice initiative, but as far as I am concerned," he wrote, "it's rather something over there in Russia that's not worthy of having this name."

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