Poutine: What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Let me take a moment to talk about something extremely serious for once on this blog.

Yesterday morning, a good friend shared the following tweet with me:

Now, most of you probably know that I am French Canadian. And most of you probably know that poutine is a French Canadian dish.

As someone who discovered poutine growing up–I remember tasting it for the first time when camping with my maternal grandparents when I was five and my grandfather offered me a bit of his–and has consumed all kinds of it (as recently as last weekend while in Montreal for a wedding), I told my friend who sent me the above tweet that this was typical of Americans trying to make poutine and inevitably screwing up the dish–often voluntarily so.

That is something I have been asking people when I tell them that I am French Canadian and they almost inevitably tell me that such-and-such place in town serves poutine: “Do they serve real poutine, or a fancy American version thereof?”

Poutine is a simple dish, you see. It should really only consist of three ingredients–French fries, cheese, and gravy.

Even when American restaurants do just that, they manage to screw it up. The cheese has to be fresh cheddar cheese curds (luckily, they make and sell those in Western Wisconsin, very close to where I live in the Twin Cities). The gravy has to have that unique flavor that is pretty much only found in Canada (a fish and chips joint close to my house has an almost perfect poutine… except for the awful gravy; here is what one should ideally use for their gravy).

Worse is when American restaurants completely screw up (what they irreverently call) poutine by heaping tons of unnecessary ingredients onto the dish. Foie gras on poutine? Sacrilege.* Ground meat in the gravy? Blasphemy! A French onion soup poutine? BURN THE WITCH!

This is what real poutine should look like:

Poutine

Pretty simple, eh? And no trace of foie gras or ground meat or Gruyère or any of those fancypants ingredients.

All joking aside, what I wanted to highlight is this obsession–a seemingly distinctly American obsession–to want to fancify and academicize what isn’t fancy to begin with. Much like how jazz improvisation is now taught as a major at accredited four-year colleges, food is one of those things that hipster American chefs seem to be unable to leave alone–when I lived in North Carolina, the hipster chef obsession seemed to be with making either mac and cheese or Carolina barbecue as complicated as possible.

But some things should not be tinkered with. Could it be that I am becoming a traditionalist? Maybe. I don’t know. But I certainly have a better understanding now of how, beyond the obvious rent-seeking reasons, in some regions of France and Italy, certain people want there to be a strict definition of certain food offerings. I would be only half joking if I said that maybe it’s time for an official UNESCO definition of what poutine is–and what it isn’t.

* To be fair, this is something I’ve had in Montreal at Au Pied de Cochon, but the point still stands: Even that wasn’t really poutine.

From the Comments on “Is College Worth It?”

Commenter GP writes:

Great post. Further thoughts:
1. Signalling and the sheepskin effect. It would appear that the importance of college in the US is, to a large extent, the signal given by being admitted to a selective university, and the signal given by successfully completing four years of coursework. This might explain why Goldman Sachs would hire a Harvard anthropology major.
2. I believe I read (proof needed) that the proportion of college enrollments in “soft” fields has been consistently increasing over time. Signalling aside, your major matters for employability. Not to mention basic writing and communication skills, which I found severely lacking in students at a flagship public university in the US.
3. There is indeed evidence that when you enter the job market (boom or recession) can affect your lifetime income. Getting a Master’s degree to delay job market entry until after a recession might be a good move, unless everyone reasons the same way.
4. The discussion is often framed as “yes, college at any cost” vs. “no college is ever worthwhile.” This is absurd. Cost matters, and a simple tool like Net Present Value can help get a ballpark estimate of the value of a particular college degree.
5. Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs… the media never discuss survivorship bias…

I agree with all points. I have seen many people with non-STEM degrees get jobs in investment banking or in management consulting–not necessarily because they were smarter than others, but because of where they went to college. Continue reading

PSA: p-Values are Thresholds, Not Approximations

A post by Dave Giles reminded me of something important, which I once presumed everyone knew, but which the anecdote I’m about to recount clearly illustrates should be clearly taught to students.

But first, Dave’s post. It is titled “How (Not) to Interpret that p-Value,” links to another, older post where the author lists all the metaphors for coefficients that are not significant, but whose p-value is “close enough” to 0.10 (or 0.05, if you adopt a strict view that the 10 percent significance level is not significant enough). My own preferred expression, which I am sure I have used more than once, is “borderline significant,” but the author lists hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of such metaphors, among which “a considerable trend toward significance,” “approaches but fails to achieve a customary level of statistical significance,” “barely escapes being statistically significant at the 5% risk level,” “fell just short of the traditional definition of statistical significance,” “only slightly missed the conventional threshold of significance,” and so on. Like the author says: A result that is not statistically significant is still not statistically significant, no matter how you talk about it.

p-Values are for Crossing from Above, Not Rounding Down

As for the anecdote, it goes as follows. I was once working with a coauthor and their grad student. Specifically, I was working with the grad student because my coauthor had a meeting that afternoon. The two of us were running some rough-cut regressions, taking a first stab at some data we had just received. As is often the case, we realized we had to cluster our standard errors at the relevant level. So we did that, and the coefficient of interest, which had hitherto been significant, now had a p-value of 0.102 because of the clustering.

That was when the grad student said: “Well it’s significant, but barely.” I asked the grad student to explain their reasoning, because I was curious to see what they saw that I wasn’t seeing. They then said “Well, the p-value rounds down to 0.10, right?” It was then that I had to tell the student that p-values are thresholds, not approximations, and that if a p-value is greater than 0.10, then the estimate is not significant at any of the conventional levels. Likewise, if a p-value is 0.051, the estimate is only significant at the 10 percent level, no matter how you want it to be significant at the 5 percent level. That was something which I thought was common knowledge, but which my interaction with the grad student clearly showed is not necessarily common knowledge.