Poutine: Quebec’s Comfort Food
French fries sprinkled with cheese curds and covered with rich brown gravy. Is there a mortal whose mouth is not watering at the thought of that? If there is, then perhaps close this page and spend some time with the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall, widely acclaimed as the world’s worst versifier.
Spuds are the foundation of the dish, but not just any spud. Jamie Oliver’s crew suggests using Maris Piper taters. Jolly good.
Where the blazes are we supposed to find them if we don’t live in the United Kingdom where they are grown in profusion? Not to mention the international incidents that might arise out of the inclusion of an English ingredient in a French-inspired dish. “Aux barricades mes amis.”
Through the wizardry of the Internet, we discover that the humble Russet is a good substitute.
Then come the cheese curds. If it is your misfortune to not live in rural Quebec, as it is mine, then you are going to have to settle for less than perfection. Poutine authentique demands fresh curds from a nearby fromagerie. They are mildly and subtlety flavoured and they squeak against your teeth when you bite into them. Bellissima! Oh sorry, that’s Italian.
The finishing touch is the gravy. This must not be made from a dry powder that comes out of a packet. If it does, I will never speak to you again. Everybody has a grandmother, and every grandmother had her own recipe for killer gravy. So, that’s where you start.
Who Invented Poutine?
There seem to be as many claimants to the invention of poutine as there are establishments that serve it.
First, let’s check in at the Le Roy Jucep restaurant in Drummondville, Quebec, about two-and-a-half hours east of Montreal. There’s a plaque on the wall of that eatery that confers on it the right to call itself the place where poutine was invented.
The plaque comes from no less an authority than the Canadian Intellectual Property Office in Ottawa. But there's more to it than that. It seems Le Roy Jucep simply applied for a registered trademark as the originator of poutine before anybody else thought of the idea.
The story goes that Jean-Paul Roy created poutine in the mid-1950s. So, that settles it. No it doesn’t.
We don’t have to go far to find another pretender to the poutine crown; just another 45 minutes to the east to Warwick. A restaurant there, Le Lutin qui rit (the Laughing Leprechaun), says full poutine credit goes to owner Fernand Lachance.
The story is that in 1957, a customer asked him to toss some cheese curds onto his French fries. Other diners thought that sounded yummy, so they started ordering it. Then, there were a few grumpy folk who said the dish was getting cold too quickly. Chef Lachance’s solution was to add a dollop of hot brown gravy.
There are plenty of other towns claiming to be the birthplace of poutine, although Saint Louis du Ha!Ha! is not among them. However, that fine municipality has its own claim to fame. It was recognized in the 2018 Guinness Book of World Records as the only community on the planet with two exclamation marks in its name.
Now, that's something to build a marketing campaign around.
Where Does the Name Come From?
There’s about as much debate over the name of poutine as there is about its provenance.
The Dictionnaire historique du français québécois says there are at least 15 different meanings for the word poutine. Many are derogatory and refer to someone carrying extra poundage.
A frequently quoted derivation comes from Chef Lachance, who is reported to have been unimpressed with his creation. He told his customer that the “Ça va faire une maudite poutine,” “That’s going to make a damn mess.”
Another theory is that the inventor was a man of diminutive stature who carried the nickname of “Ti-Pout”—meaning short guy. Somehow, the syllables got flipped around and ended up as poutine.
Some say, poutine is a corruption of the English word “pudding.” But that seems highly unlikely.
Poutine migrated out of Quebec in the 1980s and is found everywhere in Canada. It has conquered the taste buds of Americans and Europeans alike. In September 2014, The Guardian in the United Kingdom called it “Posh chips and gravy” and “the perfect hangover cure.”
Eventually, the fast food chains caught wind of the phenomenon. McDonald’s, Burger King, A&W, and others serve it. Their offerings are universally awful in comparison to the real thing.
Foodies started messing about with the simple dish by adding such exotica as lobster, foie gras, and truffles. Not incidentally, this enabled restaurants to jack prices up to wallet-emptying levels and put a wonderful peasant food out of reach of peasants.
C'mon guys. Poutine is meant to be eaten out of cardboard, Styrofoam, or aluminum containers with a plastic fork. Stop up-marketing the thing.
Even in Quebec, adulteration has taken place The historic la Banquise restaurant in Montreal makes an Italian version with Bolognese sauce instead of gravy. Quelle horreur.
But there’s worse. Brace yourself. In 2013, the Jones Soda people introduced poutine-flavoured pop. Thank whatever deity you worship this was only a limited-edition. Reviews took on an it-tastes-as-gross-as-it-sounds sort of tone.
People have been tarred and feathered for committing less serious culinary crimes.
According to The Toronto Star in 2013, the annual sales of poutine in Canada were worth $79 million.
In 2014, a restaurant in Brandon, Manitoba claimed bragging rights to making the world’s biggest poutine, weighing in at 1,949 pounds. The proud folk of Quebec could not let that insult to their honour stand. The Planète Poutine restaurant in Trois-Rivières cooked up a monster poutine in June 2015. Audrey Tremblay of le Nouvelliste reported the beast involved “nearly 7,000 potatoes, about 2,000 pounds of cheese curds, about 17,600 ounces of sauce, and one hundred volunteers. The volunteers, you understand, were not part of the dish, they just helped make it.
In 2017, the magazine Chatelaine asked 1,500 Canadians “what’s your favourite iconic Canadian food?” And, the winner is? The envelope please. Poutine was picked by 21 percent of those polled.
There’s butter chicken poutine, prawn piri piri poutine, poutine pizza, pulled pork putine, and a poutine donut. Oh somebody shoot me.
- “Peak Poutine: How the Messy Trio of Fries, Curds, and Gravy Became Canada’s Favourite Food.” Laura Jeha, Chatelaine, June 14, 2017.
- “Poutine on the Side: A Father and Son Rediscover Each Other on a Québécois Culinary Journey.” Justin Giovannetti, Globe and Mail, December 29, 2017.
- “Poutine: the Posh Chips and Gravy Taking Over the World.” Rebecca Nicholson, The Guardian, September 7, 2014.
- “10 Things you Probably Didn’t Know About Poutine.” Sara Laux, Cottage Life, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor