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How CanCon Created The Guess Who

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Geographically-speaking, Canada is the second-largest country in the world by total area, after Russia. But its overall population is just a little less than the state of California, which has historically meant, among other things, that its musicians were fighting a losing battle when it came to radio airplay against the powerhouses of the U.S. and the U.K. Radio stations across Canada played the Beatles and the Beach Boys and had little room on their playlists for local bands trying to break out. So in 1968, the so-called “Canadian Content” law was enacted, which (at that time) required every radio station to dedicate 25 percent of each broadcast hour to Canadian content. “Content” had a broad definition—the law considered a song that was composed in whole or in part by a Canadian, or that was recorded in a Canadian studio or was produced by a Canadian citizen, to fit the bill.

One band that benefited from the new law was Chad Allen and the Expressions, a Manitoba-based group that had been pounding the pavement since 1962. In 1965 they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over” under the pseudonym “Guess Who?” in hopes that the mysterious name would coax DJs to play the song and invite listeners to identify the band. Instead, the song became a Canadian Number One with the artist listed as “The Guess Who.” The band officially changed their name and, thanks to CanCon, received their first significant North American airplay in 1970 with “American Woman.”

The now-classic guitar riff that opens the song came about strictly by accident; the band was playing at a curling rink in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1970 when Randy Bachman broke a guitar string. He didn’t have a spare guitar, so he knelt in front of the piano trying to subtly play keys and tune the lower strings of his guitar. As he played a repeating riff on the lowest two strings, the audience ceased chattering and began to pay attention. The drummer and bass guitarist joined in the impromptu jam and then Bachman called out to vocalist Burton Cummings, “Sing something!” Cummings sat down at the piano, joined in the abbreviated melody, and for whatever reason started singing “American woman, stay away from me….”

Two weeks later, the group had completed the tune and recorded it. It went to Number One both in Canada and the U.S. At the time, the band was ambivalent about the song’s success, feeling that if it was a law that it had to be played, well, would the single have sold so well on its own merit? Some 30-plus years later, both Cummings and Bachman have acknowledged that still hearing “American Woman,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “These Eyes,” and other songs in their catalog in regular rotation on classic rock stations around the world assures them that their music does indeed have staying power.

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Food
A Brief History of Poutine
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Walk down a street after a hard night of drinking in Montréal and you’d be hard-pressed not seeing someone gorging themselves on poutine, a high-calorie classic staple of Québécois casse-croûtes—or “greasy spoon”—cuisine.

Just what is poutine, you ask? The delicious Canadian dish is comprised of a holy-hoser trinity of ingredients: French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Try some yourself and you’ll be hooked. It’s become so popular that it’s readily available at certain restaurants in the U.S. (Lucky New Yorkers can get their hands on some traditional poutine at Brooklyn restaurant Mile End.) Otherwise, the dish has become so ubiquitous in its home province that even McDonald’s and Burger King sell it as a side.

Much like the debate in the U.S. about the origins of the hamburger, poutine has similarly unclear beginnings. The most widespread claim for inventing poutine comes from the small dairy-farming town of Warwick, Québec, where, in 1957, a customer asked restaurateur Fernand Lachance to throw cheese curds and French fries—items the owner sold separately at his restaurant L’Idéal (later renamed Le lutin qui rit, or “The Laughing Elf”)—together in one bag because the customer was in a rush. Legend has it when Lachance peered into the bag after the two ingredients were mixed together, he remarked, “This is a ‘poutine,’” using the joual—or Québécois slang—for a "mess.”

Noticeably absent from Lachance’s cobbled-together recipe is the gravy ingredient, which was added to the mix in 1964 when a restaurant-owner in nearby Drummondville, Quebec named Jean-Paul Roy noticed a few of his diners ordering a side of cheese curds to add to the patented gravy sauce and fries dish at his restaurant, Le Roy Jucep. Roy soon added the three-ingredient item on his menu and the rest is delicious, gravy-soaked history.

Eventually, poutine spread across the province and throughout Canada—with different combinations added to the fries, curds, and gravy recipe—but the original remains the most recognized and honored. It even initially made its way to the United States by way of New Jersey, where an altered recipe known as “Disco Fries” substitutes shredded cheddar or mozzarella cheese for the Canadian curds.

But if you ever find yourself in Montréal and have a hankering for greasy food, be sure to order it correctly. Anglophones usually pronounce the word as “poo-teen,” but if you want to pass for a real Québécois, it’s pronounced “poo-tin.”  

This story originally ran in 2013.

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language
15 Colorful Canadian Slang Terms
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Americans looking to take a trip across their country's northern border might find themselves bewildered by some Canadian turns of phrase. It is, after all, a place where people go out for a rip to the beer store and plunk down their loonies to pick up a two-four. Pretty confusing, eh? But fear not. For all you keeners who want to learn how to speak like a Canuck, here’s a handy chart to help you master Canadian slang, courtesy of Expedia.ca.

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