I remember thinking, when I first tried poutine during my decidedly Canadian childhood, that poutine was so good it didn’t seem like something that should be legal.
Though once verifying its legal status, it was love at first taste. Poutine, it must be noted, originated in Quebec, but it’s hard to imagine anyone dish having a greater cultural impact on the country than poutine.
I remember my summers of youth, where any road trip in any direction could justify a stop at a roadside chip truck for poutine. I also recall, though perhaps with a little less clarity, the late-night visits I’d make to Bubba’s Poutine in Kingston, Ontario during my university days. Quite frankly, if there’s a better dish to indulge in after a night out, I have yet to find it.
Now, if your past wasn’t quite as inundated with poutine as mine, let’s talk about the composition of classic poutine. The core of poutine involves fries, cheese curds and gravy – that’s it. Different establishments swear by the inclusion of double-fried fries, a certain type of gravy, or size or preference of cheese curds but, at its heart, poutine is three ingredients, then a lot of preference, passion, and debate.
The history of poutine
Classic French Canadian poutine — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / LauriPatterson
As with any good coming-of-age story, poutine’s rise to fame started with humble beginnings.
Many argue that the first version of poutine was created in 1957 by Fernand Lachance in Warwick, Quebec at his establishment, Café Ideal (renamed Lu Lutin Qui Rit at a later date). Monsieur Lachance added cheese curds to fries at the request of a customer and famously exclaimed, “ça va te faire une maudite poutine!” That translates to “that will make a damned mess!”
While it can’t be completely verified, many say the etymology of this dish being known as “poutine,” which translates literally to “mess” started with that very sentence. So, where does the gravy come into play? Well, the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, in 1963, “when customers complained that the fries grew cold too quickly on the plate, he (Lachance) doused the fries and curds with gravy to keep them warm.”
Jean-Paul Roy, the owner of Le Roy Jucep, claimed that he was actually the first to serve up the magical trifecta in 1964, after frequent requests from customers. So, it’s hard to know which restaurant first served poutine in the Centre-du-Québec region, but, for what it’s worth, the official patent for poutine by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, does indeed hang within Roy’s restaurant to this day.
Yet, others claim the crown belongs to La Petite Vache in Princeville, Quebec, who reportedly created a “mixte” or mixture of fries and cheese, and later added gravy. The restaurant, however, doesn’t appear to have opened its doors until 1966.
The rise of poutine
Poutine was kept a rural Quebec delicacy for quite some time, but when the word got out, the allure spread both nationally and internationally. At first, this seemingly simple dish was stigmatized as something for the lower classes, but the provincial and national pride rose to a point where the stigma was no longer relevant or recognized.
In fact, in 2007, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a mini-series called The Greatest Canadian Invention, and the people of Canada voted poutine as the ninth greatest invention in the country’s history, ahead of standard time, radio voice transmission, the java programming language, and basketball.
In the past, I’ve attended poutine festivals across Canada, and the sheer creativity that people are bringing to poutine is both incredibly exciting for food fanatics and potentially alarming for cardiologists. I had a lobster bisque poutine at Sparks Street Poutine Fest in Ottawa that still makes me salivate. To put it in perspective, there were over forty different variations of poutine at last year’s Montreal Poutinefest, including a General Tao poutine.
If you’re looking for the proverbial creme da la creme of poutine, Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon offers a foie gras poutine that sells for about twenty dollars, but many feels are worth every single cent.
However, if you’re not a purported poutine expert, you really ought to start with the classic, as it was meant to be eaten. My advice would be to head straight for Montreal’s La Banquise, which is open 24 hours and needs to be, based on how long the line is sometimes. They’ve got the classic, but also thirty other varieties if you’re feeling adventurous. Chez Claudette, also in Montreal, is another late-night greasy spoon which is very unassuming but does poutine the right way.
You can find quality poutine outside of Quebec to be sure, but it’s worth tracking this story and these flavors to their origin in Canada’s belle Provence (beautiful province). When you do take the plunge, just make sure you’ve got full-bodied cheese curds on your poutine, as grated cheese is blasphemous, to say the least.
Canadians are relatively confused about what our cuisine consists of, so having poutine gives us a strange sense of national pride. Sure, it’s simple, and the ingredient list wouldn’t take up but half a post-it note but, as they say, sometimes, simplicity is perfection.