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Jack Knox: The combo burger, poutine and the diversity that binds us

The combo burger is a Vancouver Island specialty: a hamburger with a grilled hot dog wiener added.

For those who need to ask: a combo burger is just like any other burger, but with the addition of a hot dog wiener, sliced lengthwise and grilled.

Except it isn’t just any other burger, is it? Islanders of a certain vintage talk about the combo in the reverential tones that the Milanese reserve for a perfect risotto, or New ­Yorkers for a classic bagel with a schmear.

This comes up now because of a recent column in which I compared the game of lacrosse to the combo burger — a regional, not national, delicacy.

Apparently the reference proved puzzling to many, which in retrospect wasn’t surprising. Those of us who were raised elsewhere, or in another era, are unlikely to be familiar with a dish that has yet to gain fame in the same manner as other regional fare such as Montreal smoked meat, or Philly ­cheesesteak, or Newfoundland’s seal flipper pie.

Indeed, even here on the Island it takes a bit of hunting to find a traditional combo. When you do discover one, it’s usually at an older, no-frills independent eatery where the menu was set in stone around the same time as the Ten Commandments.

You can get combos at Port Alberni’s J&L Drive-In — the last place on Vancouver Island with old-style car hops — which opened way back in 1969. That was one year after George’s Food Bar in Courtenay. Dick’s Fish and Chips in Campbell River sells combo burgers, too. Ditto for the Bimo Burger Stand on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt, where owner Andy Sum said they’re popular.

Who orders them? “Workers,” said Sum, extending his elbows and lifting his shoulders to mime a skookum dude. “Everybody,” they said at Dick’s. Maybe an older crowd, reported J&L’s.

A grey-haired demographic makes sense. To them, the burger tastes like their long-ago youth, of a time when they could pull into the drive-in (not drive-thru) in a car with an AM radio and a back seat big enough for their parents to worry about. Later generations don’t ­necessarily have the same associations with time and place, as the advent of fast food megachains meant your McBurger tasted the same whether it was gobbled in Gander or Guelph or Gibsons.

It’s still possible to find regional variations in dishes. In her book Chop Suey Nation, Globe and Mail food writer (and former Times Colonist intern) Ann Hui documented a 2016 cross-country road trip in which she poked into the small-town restaurants that serve Canada’s version of Chinese food, discovering local quirks along the way. In Glendon, Alta., customers of Ukrainian descent were served “Chinese pierogis.” In Timmins, Ont., Chinese food cames with a side of toast. In Newfoundland, chow mein is traditionally made with thinly sliced cabbage, reflecting how hard it once was to find egg noodles there.

Mostly, though, it’s no longer easy to tell where you are simply by picking up a fork and taking a bite of whatever the locals serve you. When Mathieu Lott first began making poutine at Esquimalt’s La Belle Patate in 2008, there was a stampede from the nearby naval base, Quebecers desperate for a dish that was still a rarity on this end of the map. Fast-forward 14 years and Victorians can buy poutine everywhere from Wendy’s to the Empress. And sailors aren’t the only ones lined up at La Belle Patate, which now serves 18 varieties.

Sometimes people are wary about restaurants’ ability to do justice to foods associated with somewhere else ­— though they can be pleasantly surprised. The TC once published a letter from a reader who felt compelled to write that he had not only broken one of life’s cardinal rules (“Never, ever eat chicken fried steak outside of Texas in a place that doesn’t have a juke box”) at My Chosen Café but had devoured a meal so delicious that the woman he described as his current soul-mate for life accused him of “making noises which are usually associated with reproduction.”

That adaptability, that ­diversity, is one of the good things about Canada itself. We might not have a lot of foods that are strictly our own (the CBC once identified the butter tart and Nanaimo bar as two of the only confections born in the Great White North) but we have the best of the rest of the world at our fingertips. This is now a nation of many flavours. Lucky us.