O Canada! Part deux

July 6, 2012 • 4:06 am

So I’m looking for dinner in Ottawa last night and find a pub that offers food.  Famished, I order a pint and a burger, and ask for the burger to be cooked rare. (I like my beef rare, ordering it “saignant,” or “bloody,” when I’m in France.)  The waiter looks at me resolutely and says, “Sorry, sir, we can’t cook it that way. According to Ontario standards, it has to be cooked between medium and medium-well.”

MEDIUM WELL!  What barbarism, but that’s the way I had to have my burger: overcooked and dry.

What are these “Ontario standards”?  I asked the waiter whether if I crossed the bridge to Quebec (just on the other side of the river), I could get a rare burger.  “Yes, of course,” she replied.  Of course, because the French (the ancestors of Québécois) are not barbarians about food, and know how beef should be cooked.

Given that every government document and sign in this entire country has to be printed in both French and English, you’d think that every province could adopt the same government standards for cooking burgers. Canadians, what gives?

The only good burger—or steak for that matter—is one that’s cooked rare, though medium rare will suffice in a pinch.

This is NOT how it should be done:

This afternoon, after the meetings are over, a few of us, guided by the estimable Larry Moran, are going in search of the best poutine in the area.  If you don’t know what that comestible is, look it up.  And when I post about it upon my return to Chicago, I don’t want any of you telling me how unhealthy it is. That’s true, but this will be only my second taste of the stuff in my lifetime.  Other participants will include Carl Zimmer and Rosie Redfield.

Poutine: the archetypal “heart attack on a plate” (or in a styrofoam box)

107 thoughts on “O Canada! Part deux

  1. A GOOD burger of GOOD beef perhaps – some are better off being grilled down to a mere comestible platform for pickles and lettuce. I’m with you on the steak though, oh yes.

  2. Red meats are very unhealhty so instead of complaning about the way its cooked you should stop eating them all together 🙂

    1. Just about anything fun is unhealthy. If your goal is to live a dull life and die in perfect health at the age of 100 – be my guest. I would prefer to croak over at 70 having enjoyed living to the fullest!

    2. You know what will kill you? Living.

      And no, red meats aren’t very unhealthy. Just like with every other food, if you have to much of it there can be negative consequences. For example, there are typically high amounts of saturated fats, which is fine, you just have to monitor your intake. Vegetarians/vegans would have you believe red meat is worse than cigarettes, but it just isn’t even close to the truth.

    3. Every human who has breathed oxygen in the air has eventually died – or will.

      There’s actually an evolutionary angle: as a general rule, people eat what’s available, even if it doesn’t entirely agree with them. Thus we find in cultures where dairying is common, most people retain the ability to digest milk (lactose in particular) into adulthood, whereas in non-dairying cultures the production of lactase ceases in adulthood for the majority.

      Consequences: those descended from northern Europeans and the Masai in Africa can handle milk as adult, while the rest of the world gets indigestion.

      I’m not sure about India; I suspect they can’t handle lactose as adults because, though milk is an important part of Indian cuisine in the forms of ghee and paneer, inter alia, it’s been cooked or fermented, destroying the lactose.

      Implication for science fiction writers: when the chlorine-breathing aliens descend on earth to enslave the inhabitants (nothing so tender as a young girl’s buttocks), most will be killed by the atmosphere but a few will survive and the species will become oxygen breathers. So beware: don’t forget your tinfoil hats when leaving the family climatron.

      1. “Every human who has breathed oxygen in the air has eventually died – or will.”

        Not me. I’m going to be the exception.

    4. Except that when they’re cooked well they’re friggin’ delicious. Just don’t eat a steak every night and wash it down with three cheeseburgers.

  3. I think this can be traced back to that breakout of a weird E. coli strain that killed people back in the early 90’s in the US and Canada.

    I agree that rare is better. But hamburger is much riskier than steaks as grinding the meat mixes contaminants throughout the meat and gives bacteria more places to grow. This differs from steaks, where any nasty bacteria are going to be living just on the outside surfaces so that even cooking the steak extra rare will kill any nasty bugs.

    Never stopped me from eating any kind of beef as rare as I can get it.

      1. At home, there’s a simple safeguard: grind your own hamburger. While it doesn’t get daily use, my big Moulinex meat grinder is used with some regularity and in retrospect has proven not to have been a waste of money.

        Side benefit: you can grind hamburger out of meats other than beef.

        Further side benefit: a meat grinder is essential to making marzipan. A food processor won’t cut it, because it doesn’t exert any pressure, hence the oils in the almonds aren’t squeezed out. If you’re making a cake with ground almonds, you want a dry, sawdust-like texture so you grate them. But if you’re making marzipan, an oily texture is the desideratum.

        Turning to the real issue, Ontario would have done better to forbid the sale of ground meat not ground on the premises from which it’s sold. It’s the fecal contamination of huge cylinders of meat ground at the slaughterhouse that have led to the mass poisonings by E. coli.

      1. Oh, the Luddites will freak out, but when phage therapy proves effective against MRSA, as, I understand, is in the works, it may give them some pause.

        And, to any diabetic Luddites on insulin, it might be pointed out that their insulin is expressed and purified from (gasp!) bacteria.

        1. I’ll bet you’re right that people would (will remains an open question) welcome phage therapy for bacterial infections. Hell, they eat bacteria for their health. But people can get weird about their meat and veg.

  4. Since Pulp Fiction, I thought burgers can now only be ordered “bloody as hell” or “burnt to a crisp”.

    1. Hahaha! They also use the metric system in Canada, so Jerry had to order a “Royale with cheese.”

  5. Ok, a couple of things…

    Not all signs in Canada are bilingual. In fact, you will generally only find this in places like Ottawa, airports, parts of New Brunswick (which is an officially bilingual province), etc. Road signs in Quebec are in French. In most of Ontario and the western provinces, English. Federal government documents have to be available in English and French, though you may only receive one or the other.

    Now, on to the burgers. As far as I know, there are also standards like that in Quebec. In any case, it’s not all meat, just hamburger, and the reason is public health concerns due to E. coli. It’s not entirely unfounded, though you may argue that it’s greatly overblown.

    “Most notoriously, in 1993, 73 Jack in the Box locations in the Western U.S. found themselves at the centre of a massive E. coli outbreak that killed four people and sickened more than 700 others.”

    Check out:


  6. (I like my beef rare, ordering it “saignant,” or “bloody,” when I’m in France.)

    How else might one describe a really rare hamburger. Enterohemorrhagic, perhaps?

  7. Jerry, welcome to Ontario! The province was founded by a bunch of ex-Americans kicked out after siding with British in the Revolutionary war. Its foundation are based are working hard, keeping you mouth shut and acting very uptight. Have you noticed yet that you can’t buy wine or beer in a store or supermarket? Heck, their are still some places in Ontario that still have Prohibition.

    The majority of us are athiests but don’t expect us too laugh much. On the other hand, the steets are really clean and if some one bumps into you they always apologize.

    1. Are there places in Canada you can buy booze in the grocery store? Most provinces have liquor control boards (LCBO, SLGA etc) and even in provinces that do not have LCBs, there is no booze in grocery stores.

      It is also easier to send or receive goods from the US than it is in Canada. If I go to Ontario to buy wine, it is illegal for me to bring it back home, as there is a federal law against moving alcohol from one province to another without sanction from the provincial LCBs.

      1. Most places you can buy wine or bear in stores, but hard liquor is strictly in government run stores.

      2. Jolo:

        Not any more. A private member’s bill was passed a few weeks ago, and the law signed into effect last week, that allows inter-provincial transport of alcohol for personal use. (Presumably there are quantity restrictions.)

        About bloody time.

      3. …a law which we have broken several times without being aware that it existed ;-). Unlike the international border, there are no Customs posts at the Ontario/Quebec crossings (strictly speaking, Ontario residents are supposed to declare any merchandise purchased in Quebec and pay Ont sales tax on it. In practice of course, no one ever did except for things like cars that have a paper trail, and require registration for license purposes).

        Last I checked, you could buy beer and maybe wine at any old depanneur (translation: corner store selling staples like bread, milk…well, beer is a staple, isn’t it?) in Gatineau. And I don’t just mean mega-brewery swill — we’re talking Unibroue stuff.

    2. Yes they were the United Empire Loyalists. To this day their is still the Canadian counterpart to the “Daughters of the American Revolution” which is called the “Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire” (IODE). My mother-in-law used to belong to it.

      With regard the Quebecois being gourmands remember Habitant translates as peasant and their food does tend a bit that way even good stuff tortiere. Their cheeeses are really good as good as a lot of the best French cheeses while in Ontario though we produce great aged cheddar most of the rest are workmanlike copies of Italian cheese.

      Our Ontario wine is a lot better than anything produced in Quebec, part because we are use a lot of French noble grape varietals, but also sometimes our French cross hybrids can be excpetional particularily Vidal which is grossly underestimated even by Ontarians. You can by wine in most big supermarkets which usually have a wine store from one of the bigger wineries. Best buy on a wiery visit to the Niagara peninsula.

      I nearly forgot, yes poutine is great thnks Quebecers and also for Montreal smoked meat, but that is Canadian Jewish.

  8. Part of the tradeoff for socialized medicine are laws limiting stupid risks. If my taxes pay for your health care, I don’t want you eating raw hamburgers, riding a bike without a helmet, etc. I think that this is a fair trade off of rights and responsibilities.

  9. This happened to me in BC. Easy to blame the government for regulating people’s diet. Better to blame them for failing to regulate a dangerous and incompetent food production industry and passing the burden on to consumers.

    Nebraska boy talking here: Good ground beef should not taste dry cooked medium and properly. But most restaurants use really shitty beef, especially for ground. I would never order rare ground beef in a restaurant I was unfamiliar with. Preferably the restaurant should grind it themselves.

  10. Welcome to Ottawa!

    Smoke’s is good, at Dalhousie and Rideau.

    Sasha’s is a fantastic evening outdoor vendor on York, sandwiched between a restaurant called Kinki and the Dominion Tavern.

    Murray Street Charcuterie is an Ottawa highlight, fantastic, rustic but upscale country fare. Including their poutine:
    Hand-cut spatzle, shredded duck leg confit,
    beast gravy, fresh cheese curds.

    Enjoy your visit!

    1. Proper spatzle are not cut. They’re dripped from a spatzle maker. Which, as it happens, can be easily bought at nearly any decent kitchen gadget place. Spatzle batter (not dough) is quite a loose concoction. You can drip it from a spoon into the simmering water, too.

      [Sez he, clutching his thrift shop spatzle maker to his chest.]

      If they’re cutting their spatzle on Murray Street, then they’re not selling spatzle.

      1. I’m not so sure. I think there are two kinds of spaetzle. The kind that you and I are familiar with, dropped with a spaetzle press (I love mine! Got it at a restaurant supply house), but I have been to Czech places and ordered spaetzle, and it is a short, cut, egg noodle.

    2. “Including their poutine:
      Hand-cut spatzle, shredded duck leg confit,
      beast gravy, fresh cheese curds.”

      Damn. Could you put a double order in stasis and ship it south to Redneckville FL for me?

  11. My husband and I were in Austria in 2005, having dinner in what I recall was an “average” restaurant. I say “average” since I can’t remember anything else about it except for this story unlike some of the better meals we had (such as a 7-course meal at the Schloss Durnstein overlooking the Danube). There was an English couple (based on their accent) sitting at the next table. I listened as the wife ordered a steak (don’t remember the cut) and when the waiter asked her how whe would like it cooked, she said “well done”. Without skipping a beat the waiter replied, “How about I just serve you my boot”? My husband almost spit his water across the table at me. We worked to contain our laughter. I believe the woman was extremely embarrased and said, in what i remember to be a rather meek, almost apologetic voice, “Rare?” whereupon the waiter said “Very good maam.” LOL

    1. Thanks for the laugh. Great story, great waiter.

      Several years ago I was in Chicago at a trade show. I went for dinner at a very nice steakhouse with our GM and some customers. One of the customers ordered the most expensive steak on the menu, and asked for it well done. You could see the waiter wince but in the land of “the customer is always right,” he didn’t say anything. And since he was our customer I wasn’t about to call him out, either.

      What a waste.

  12. I can’t believe people still eat rare burgers. Very unsafe for reasons that several ppl have already commented on. Fully cooked ground beef tastes just fine.

    1. They probably eat rare burgers for the same reasons that they still go skiing, swim in the sea, ride motorbikes, play football, walk across the street etc, etc. All of these things can get you killed but usually don’t. We all weigh up risks on a daily basis and balance them against the benefits of pursuing any particular course of action (even if we don’t necessarily do it concsiously).
      It is facile to believe that life can be risk free so we have to strike a balance between being ludicrously incautious and cripplingly risk-averse. For many people, myself included, eating a rare burger or steak falls comfortably within these extremes.

      1. …which is fine as a personal choice, made in your own kitchen. Governments, OTOH, prefer not to have largish numbers of people suddenly stricken with (possibly-fatal) illness due to some systematic failure in the food preparation industry. Hence, certain requirements being placed on restaurants that don’t apply at home (whether the risk analysis justifies this particular reg, I personally wouldn’t know).

        1. You’ve inferred quite a bit from my post that i feel is misguided. Eating rare ground beef (i made no mention of steak) comes with risks. Fully cooking the beef mitigates most of the risks without giving up too much so it seems clear to me what the reasonable approach is…

    1. On Canada Day, my girlfriend and I went to The Works in Westboro (because The Table was closed).

      My fajita burger was drowning in melted cheese. Fantastically good!

      And the sweet-potato fries were totally addictive — in the best way possible.

      1. Their stacks of onion rings are pretty good too.

        If your looking for a decent place to eat, there is a tuckers marketplace not too far from the convention center. Most of their food is pretty good

  13. In defense of Canada, I should point out that in every one of our provinces hamburger must be cooked to a certain temperature,(the actual figure escapes me), in order to kill the e-coli strains. Steak, of course, is a different matter and can be as rare as yoo like. When your waiter told you that by crossing the river into Quebec you could purchase a rare, or sagnant hamburger, he lied. Sorry.

  14. If you do venture into Quebec, don’t announce the bit about Quebecois being just the like the French. They get touchy about that, much like, for example, Australians don’t like being told their accent sounds like a British accent, a statement so full of wrong it’s hard to know where to begin.

    Yes, they speak French in Quebec. But it’s different enough from the language spoken in France to require many native-French-speaking immigrants to take language classes in “street Quebecois” in order to understand people in day-to-day interactions.

    Having said all that, I am very jealous. Not only are many of my friends at the Evolution meeting in Ottawa, but 4 great on-line writers (I will avoid the term “bloggers”) are getting together for dinner! Somebody please provide a transcript of that conversation.

    1. I know. My institution lacks the travel support this year or I’d be in Ottawa myself. Two years ago in Portland, I did get to ride the MAX train back from lunch with Carl Zimmer, though. LOL.

    2. When I was a grad student a fellow chemistry grad student, a francophone from Quebec, was told by a French exchange student that he could not speak French properly.

      My was he mad. “Who is she to tell me I can’t speak my own language properly?”

      1. HAA-ha!

        I worked for a while in an office where there was the need to contact non-English speaking customers by telephone. We specifically employed staff who could communicate in the various languages we needed to service for exactly that purpose.

        On a certain occasion we needed to contact a Quebecois customer, so a well-spoken Francophone was elected to do the job. After she had been on the telephone for a few minutes, the customer rudely blurted out, “Where on earth did you learn to speak French?” She crisply and politely replied, “Paris.”

  15. I had this happen to me once in Wisconsin back in the late 1980s. I don’t know if they’ve changed their health codes since then.

    I don’t like burgers rare because ground beef is more likely to have come into contact with the animals intestines where the nasty microorganisms live.

    Steak, however, I like medium rare.

  16. >>And when I post about it upon my return to Chicago, I don’t want any of you telling me how unhealthy it is.

    Mr. Coyne, as a Quebecois who cannot stand the taste and reek of poutine, may I recommend, instead, a meal at The Table?

    1230 Wellington Street West, 613-729-5973.

    The Table serves vegetarian food that would fill the strictest carnivore with culinary ecstacy. For my girlfriend and me, it is *the* restaurant in Ottawa.

    You might want to call in advance: it’s popular, and might be crowded. But if you can make it there, tell them a local sent you. 🙂

  17. In Russia (which you could almost see from Canada on a clear day) we don’t say Poutine, we just say Vladimir Vladimirovitch.
    Or Vova for short, if we’re friends. Which we aren’t.

    1. Yes, but does Vladimir Vladimirovitch give you a heart attack and leave terrible stains on your plate…?

  18. Welcome to my old hometown! Let me know if you are going to be in Vancouver this summer (my current home).

    If you like Italian, I would highly recommend “Mamma Teresa’s” restaurant – you’ll note the endorsements by many local politicians and other visiting dignitaries in the entrance. For desserts, find a “Swiss Pastries” outlet.

    I’m not sure if they are still around (haven’t kept up on Ottawa cuisine), but despite the odd name, “Cafe Henri Berger” (sp?) was also popular for taking visiting VIP’s, and Kardish had nice smoked meat sandwiches.

  19. I’ll be the lone voice of the guy who likes beef cooked well. I always figured, if you’re going to cook something, you might as well finish the job. Then again, I would never in a million years occur to me to legislate that preference onto anyone else.

  20. One of the fastest ways to kill my appetite is to serve my food in a styrofoam box. I hope you all would pardon my food container snobbery, but where I grew up, most takeaway food comes wrapped in banana leaves, which are not only more environmentally-friendly, but also are more presentable and impart subtle fragrance to the food.

    It wasn’t until I moved to a foreign country that I encountered with styrofoam box for the first time. It’s been twelve years, and I still haven’t overcome my dislike, which has intensified instead.

    1. I must admit that a carne asada burro or a Sonoran hotdog (with its required accompaniment, a roasted guero pepper) might be more appealing wrapped in a banana leaf than presented in the usual styrofoam “boat”. But there’s nothing environmentally friendly about banana leaves in the desert. We’d have to settle for cornhusks or roasted de-thorned maguey leaves. Meanwhile, I’ll accept the styrofoam rather than give up on good Mexican caretta food!

  21. Your trust in the food-handling procedures leading from the grinder to the restaurant far exceed mine. I don’t suppose the restaurant grinds their own meat, do they?

    I prefer my steaks medium-rare, but I prefer burgers cooked throughout, because I also prefer to reduce my risk of illness.

  22. Sorry, too many comments to read them all to see whether this has already been posted …

    In your shoes I might have been tempted to say, “In that case, I will hie myself over the state line to civilisation,” and make my way over the river to find an appropriate location that treats my beef with respect.

    More than once I’ve turned around and left a restaurant because of similar heavy-handed fascistic encounters: from wedding-suited bouncers telling me to take my hat off before entering the premises to waiters telling me I’m not allowed to have a double portion of pork chops. For every restaurant who treats its clientele like children, there are plenty that treat them like adults.

  23. My darling put a plug in for the local game – aboriginal establishments (esp across the river). I took a look around online for something in Ottawa proper, and found the Sweetgrass.


    I notice in the comments that someone ended up with a burger that was too rare for her tastes (she was pregnant) — and it may be that this was permitted because the meat could’ve been bison (or elk).

    If I was there, I’d go for some goose or duck… I hope it’s still there:
    The Sweetgrass
    108 Murray St.
    Tel: (613) 562-3683

  24. If you can’t get the burger the way you want it, then why not order something else? Was that nondescript burger thingie the only thing on the menu?

  25. Jerry, next time you’re in The Netherlands, ask your host(s) to get you a ‘broodje tartaar’ (bun with ground high quality beef).
    Have it with raw onions, salt and pepper.

    They won’t ask you how you want it cooked .. simply because they won’t cook it! It’s just raw meat .. doesn’t get any more rare than that!
    And .. it’s good!


    (Of course, we eat our herring raw too!)

    1. My mother and grandmother, when preparing meat loaf, would roll some of the raw ground beef in some of the onions as a snack for the cook. I thought it was gross then; now, as a bacteriologist…

      1. Oh come on – a gamma battery will get rid of those microbes and you can have the stuff raw. Cooking certainly doesn’t get rid of the bugs, it only kills them – and I doubt there’s a noticeable difference between cooked dead bugs and raw dead bugs.

            1. Yep, I partly mis-read his. But it’s the phage that causes the pathogenicity of that coli strain (which the lab down the hall refers to as the “hamburger phage”). Will a gamma dose inactivate the phage? I don’t know.

  26. I just want to say that I am Canadian, from Calgary Alberta and that it would be just silly to base any sort of judgement about Canadian steak burger etc from an experience in Ontario. I eat blue rare steaks, and the best beef you’llget is from Alberta. Come here and then you’ll know what Canadian beef should be like 🙂

      1. Yup, that’s basically it – ground beef is the thing at issue. My understanding is that E-coli lives close to the surface and gets moved all around during the grinding/mixing process. A steak seared properly shouldn’t be a problem. I’m from Calgary as well but the best beef I’ve ever had was Kosher rib steaks from United Kosher in Ottawa of all places – not sure where the animal was raised. The butchers at United Kosher age their meet way longer than what you get in the average grocery store.

  27. That burger makes me sad. The only way that would taste okay is if was seasoned very well and had some awesome cheese. Booo Canada! (kidding)

  28. Poutine? Bah, give me a Cassoulet Toulousain any day.

    If you insist on Canada having uniform burger laws, you’re begging for the overcooked stuff. Quebec may still have bleeding burgers onlt because they don’t care to make burger laws. I’m betting that the molecular gastronomers are laughing at how the burger is cooked in either case.

  29. Sorry but, if you are actually going to eat poutine on purpose (not accidentally, in a darkened hole-in-the-wall, right?), you have lost all credibility as a food critic!

  30. When it’s smokin’ it’s cookin’
    when it’s black it’s done!

    I was taught that the benzopyrenes in charred meat is what made grilled meat so good. Same components in cigarette smoke.

  31. …but that’s the way I had to have my burger: overcooked and dry.

    That’s why Mr. Heinz sells so much ketchup.

  32. Slightly off-topic, but I’m guessing that I’m not the only one here who, when they first heard the lean finely textured beef story thought, “Man, what a great idea.” For making hamburgers, I favor mixing a little Soy Vay into 93% lean ground beef. I just know that stuff’s cut with LFTB. Hopefully, the pink slime crap won’t make it hard to get.

  33. My first experience in South America was in Peru. There one orders a rare steak by requesting “crudo”. In Venezuela, my friends corrected me. Crudo means raw, what I wanted was “rojo”. I understand, in Paris, Fillet American is raw hamburger.

  34. Poutine is a french-canadian invention. It is very unhealthy but vey good at 3 am when you are drunk.

    As for your post concerning Canada, you have to know that in french Canada (Quebec), politicians don’t talk about religion here because it would sound irrelevant.

    And rare meat and good stinky creamy cheese are common in that part of the country.

  35. I’ll eat a steak slightly rare, but hamburger meat? No way. Too many opportunities for it to be contaminated.

  36. i recently changed from being a vegetarian to being an omnivore… and i can say that i find no greater joy than a rare slab of meat. Duck is my favorite… and if you ever get the chance, try duck in Sashimi form.

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