Monday July 1 was Canada Day, and I realized it’s been a few years since I wrote a ‘distinctly Canadian’ post. It’s time I did, because somebody needs to defend the honour of our national animal (again).
Apparently our own esteemed Canadian, June Callwood, once said, “The beaver, which has come to represent Canada as the eagle does the United States and the lion Britain, is a flat-tailed, slow-witted, toothy rodent known to bite off its own testicles or to stand under its own falling trees.”
When I read that, I was crushed. (Although not as severely as our dumb beavers, I guess.) I had defended the beaver’s noble image back in 2011. Surely there was some mistake. Could I still be proud of our Canadian icon?
So your intrepid reporter delved deeply into the matter. (Okay, fine; I spent a couple of minutes searching the internet.) And it turns out that beavers do not, in fact, bite off their own testicles. Whew.
That little fable started in ancient times. They believed that if a beaver was cornered by hunters attempting to kill it for its castoreum (the gooey musk which the ancients incorrectly believed came from its testicles), the beaver would bite off its own testicles and throw them to the hunters, thereby escaping with its life. The legend went on to say that if pursued by a subsequent batch of hunters, the crafty beaver would scurry to a high place and lift its leg to display its nutless status.
On to ‘modern’ times (the 17th century). That’s when Sir Thomas Browne noted that a) Castoreum comes from the beaver’s anal glands, not its testicles; and b) Beavers don’t even have external testicles – they’re inside its body, so it’d be kinda tricky to bite them off.
Ha. So once again the noble beaver rises above a scurrilous attack on its reputation. (Although apparently beavers do occasionally get crushed by their own falling trees; but I’m gonna give our plucky little rodents a pass on that one. Even professional lumberjacks sometimes have accidents. It’s not stupidity; it’s just bad luck.)
And while I’m on my soapbox defending Canadian icons, I also want to address poutine. First: We Anglophones usually say ‘poo-TEEN’; but the correct pronunciation is rendered with a Québécois accent, which softens the ‘t’ to a sibilant ‘th’ and accents both syllables equally: ‘pou-thsinn’.
But pronunciation doesn’t matter as much as authenticity. I’ve run across some horrible bastardizations of the dish, and I want to make sure no innocent reader of mine believes that mess is actually poutine.
Check out the top right photo in this Wikipedia article. That’s how poutine should look. It’s NOT heavy opaque gravy poured over grated mozzarella — that’s cheese-fries-with-gravy. Real poutine has clear savory sauce and nice big cheese curds that are so fresh they squeak when you chew them. Don’t be fooled by poor imitations!
So that’s my community service for Canada Day. Now, let’s have some poutine, and bring on the beaver jokes!