Lessons learned from the Canadian poutine caper

The headline said it all: “Hot dogs and poutine stage comeback after Quebec rink’s fans revolt.”

The story revolved around the town of Lac-Etchemin, Quebec, which prided itself on being the first Canadian municipality to ban ‘unhealthy’ food from its arena. “Now, in an admission that paninis are outmatched against poutine, the town council has lifted the ban and French fries will return before the end of the month,” the story read.

You might chortle at the hubris of a Quebec town trying to ban the delicious French Canadian staple of French fries laden with cheese curds, smothered in gravy. You should, rather, applaud the victory of rebellious Canadiens against the Nanny State municipality. In doing so, however, it is important to realize that the attempted ban is neither humorous nor trivial. It is merely one instance of government’s creeping encroachment into what goes onto your dinner plate.

People once protested that the government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, meaning that the state had no proper business monitoring or punishing the consenting sexual choices of adults. It is now time to update the slogan to read “Governments have no business in the kitchens of the nation.”

The governmental censoring of food choice is often viewed as a trivial matter, even a benevolent one. After all, what is one French fry more or less? And the goal, as stated, seems well-intentioned.

There is nothing benevolent, however, about state imposed control over one of the main ways in which human beings express themselves. Food choices are personal; they define our identity as surely as our choices in attire or reading material.

From Italian pastas to Indian curries, from poutine to falafels, a rich array of dishes form a part of your family’s history and the background of who you are.

Food is also a form of cultural exchange, through which diverse ethnic groups can automatically appreciate each other’s heritage. The appreciation happens spontaneously, without tax-funding, laws or government programs. It happens every time someone chooses a Chinese restaurant or expresses preference for a Jewish deli.

Precisely because of its strong emotional pull and roots in culture, food choice has become one of the most important rituals in our society. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, from Halloween candy to chocolates on Valentine’s Day, food and ritual are inextricably linked.

Thus, when government dictates what you may or may not eat, it is restricting your heritage, your religious and political choices, ultimately, control over your own body. It is telling you that a choice every bit as personal as freedom of speech or the art you view is not yours to make.

Why? Of course, it is for your own good. Even as an adult, you cannot be trusted with choosing the food that goes into your own mouth at your own expense.

Politically-speaking, it does not matter whether the food ‘experts’ are correct about poutine any more than their opinion on a specific work of literature should matter. You have an inalienable right to read graphic novels about a dystopian future rather than be force-fed Ibsen’s writings on dysfunctional families. You have a similar right to eat food bought at your own expense.

Nevertheless, almost all discussion of government’s censorship of food choice revolves around whether or not the claims being made are true or false, ultimately leading to the conclusion “there ought to be a law.” It is for this reason that discussions about the value and risks of raw milk result in farmers being arrested and driven out of business by huge fines and that the calorie-count or artery-impact of poutine end in the banning of a cultural choice.

It is time to tell the government that it is not a welcomed guest in our kitchens. There is no room for bureaucrats at our dinner table.

Wendy McElroy is Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.