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Poutine Facts, History, and Cultural Importance in Canada

Poutine is a delicious mess made from French fries, cheese curds, and gravy.

Poutine is a delicious mess made from French fries, cheese curds, and gravy.

Canadian Comfort Food

Poutine is a tasty meal made of French fries covered with fresh cheese curds and a thick, brown gravy. It originated in the province of Quebec but has become a popular food throughout Canada.

For some people, poutine is the ultimate comfort food. The meal looks like a big mess, but it tastes delicious. It's traditionally associated with diners, fast food restaurants, pubs, sports stadiums, and food vendor trucks. It's not generally thought of as a component of fine dining. There have been some efforts to change this image, though.

Poutine first appeared in Quebec in the 1950s. The identity of the person who created it and the derivation of its name are both controversial. Although many people outside of Quebec pronounce poutine as "poo-teen", the correct pronunciation—at least in Quebec—is "poo-tin".

Poutine that I bought in Vancouver at the fair at the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition)

Poutine that I bought in Vancouver at the fair at the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition)

Poutine's popularity is growing. McDonald's now sells it across the country instead of just in Quebec. Other restaurants outside of Quebec have also added poutine to their menu, including many where I live. The meal can be an enjoyable part of a special event or a meeting with friends.

How to Make Poutine

Making authentic poutine is not simply a matter of getting some French fries (or chips), adding some cheese, and then pouring gravy on top. There are certain requirements for each of the three components in the meal.

  • The French fries should be moderately thick. They should also be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
  • The cheese must be in the form of curds and should be fresh. The curds must soften when covered by hot gravy without completely melting.
  • The gravy must be brown, rich, and flavourful. It must also have the right consistency. It mustn't be watery, but it must be thin enough to travel through the gaps between the French fries.
  • The cheese curds and hot gravy must be added just before the poutine is served.

In some places, canned or dehydrated poutine gravy or sauce can be bought in stores. Since I've never tried these, I don't know how good they are, but some people say they like them. They could be useful for someone making poutine at home. There may be at least one advantage to making one's own poutine. I always love the flavour of the dish, but I find some versions too salty.

Poutine with lots of cheese curds

Poutine with lots of cheese curds

Cheese Curd Facts and Importance

Cheese curds are lumps of coagulated milk protein that form when an acid or rennet is added to milk. The liquid left when the curds have separated is called whey. Curd formation is the first stage in making cheese. Unlike the final product, however, curds aren't aged and have a mild taste.

Cheese curds are sold in both an uncoloured and a coloured form. Uncoloured curds are popular in Quebec. This popularity probably contributed to the creation of poutine in that province.

Texture of Cheese Curd

Fresh cheese curds have a rubbery or springy texture. Very fresh curds produce a squeaking sound every time they're bitten. Cheese curds are sometimes given the alternate name of squeaky cheese due to this interesting effect. The elasticity of the protein fibres in the curd is thought to be responsible for the squeak.

A Possible Substitution

If it's impossible to get cheese curds for making poutine at home, chunks of mozzarella cheese can be used as a substitute. The recipe will no longer be authentic, though. Mozzarella cheese often forms a stringy mass when it melts, which is definitely not an authentic feature of poutine. The addition of the cheese may create a delicious meal, however.

Recipe Variations

Poutine has spread to parts of the United States and Britain. Variations in the recipe have appeared, although the name "poutine" has been retained. This is very annoying for some food purists. To them, a dish isn't poutine unless it contains the traditional ingredients.

A version of poutine known as New Jersey Poutine or Disco Fries is sold in New Jersey and New York City. The dish is made with steak fries covered with melted mozzarella cheese and gravy. Steak fries are thicker than typical French fries. Some of the other variations that have appeared are shown below. A creative cook can probably come up with many more.

  • Unpeeled potatoes are used to make the French fries.
  • Sweet potato fries are used instead of potato fries.
  • Different types of cheese are placed on top of the fries.
  • Bolognese sauce or another sauce is used instead of gravy.
  • Meats such as bacon, sausage, chicken, turkey, hamburger, or lobster are added as a topping.
  • Chopped onion is mixed with the meats.
  • Peas or other vegetables are added.
  • Bacon and maple syrup are used as a topping.
  • A variety of herbs are sprinkled on the poutine.
Poutine was created in the Canadian province of Quebec, which is shown in red in the map.

Poutine was created in the Canadian province of Quebec, which is shown in red in the map.

History of Poutine

Although it's generally agreed that poutine originated in Quebec in the late 1950s, the details are up for debate. Even the origin of the name is uncertain. I describe two widely-published stories about the first appearance of poutine below.

The most popular tale involves a man named Ferdinand Lachance, who ran a restaurant. Eddy Lanaisse was a regular visitor to the restaurant. One day in around 1957, Lanaisse asked Lachance to put cheese curds on his order of French fries. Lachance reportedly said "Ça va faire une maudite poutine", which means "That's going to make a damn mess".

Another popular story is related to a restaurant called Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, Quebec, which still exists today. The restaurant's website advertises its establishment as "l'inventeur de la poutine". The story says that in about 1964 Jean-Paul Roy saw some of his customers putting cheese curds on their French fries and gravy. This gave him the idea of creating the mixture himself and offering it for sale.

Poutine is popular in many parts of Canada today. Some people object to it being called a "Canadian" dish because it originated as part of Quebec's culture. Quebec has a strong sense of its own identity.

A Major League Eating Contest

Yes, there is such a thing as a major league eating contest. The idea is to eat as much of a particular food as possible within the shortest amount of time. The contests can be stomach churning to watch and are often regarded as a public display of gluttony. They are popular, though.

World Records

The eighth annual World Poutine Eating Championship was held in Toronto on October 14th, 2017. To our national shame, an American won the contest. Carmen Cincotti of New Jersey won the professional division by devouring 20.25 pounds of poutine in ten minutes. He doesn't hold the poutine-eating world record, however. Joey Chestnut, also an American, claimed the record in 2013 by eating an amazing 25.5 pounds of poutine in ten minutes.

Chestnut won the competition again in 2018 by eating 17.5 pounds of poutine in ten minutes. He was the winner yet again in 2019 when he ate 29 pounds of poutine and established another world record. A special socially-distanced event happened in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. A winner either wasn’t chosen or wasn’t publicized. Unfortunately, I've found no evidence of a 2021 event. Perhaps it will return in its full glory as the pandemic fades.

Supporting Charities

The sight of people trying to eat lots of gooey poutine as fast as possible doesn't sound very attractive to me. Neither does its effects on the eaters. Still, the contest has at least one important benefit. $50,000 from the proceeds of the 2017 event were given to a charity. The event raises funds for charity every year. This statement applies to the special 2020 event as well as the earlier ones.

They came, they gorged, they regurgitated....all for a good cause.

— Toronto Star (with reference to the World Poutine Eating Championship)

French fries or chips are a basic ingredient of poutine.

French fries or chips are a basic ingredient of poutine.

Rick Mercer's Jean Poutine Prank

Jean Chrétien was prime minister of Canada from 1993 to 2003. Rick Mercer is a Canadian comedian and political satirist. In 2000, Mercer was the star of a TV series called "This Hour Has 22 Minutes". The series contained regular segments in which Mercer interviewed Americans to see how much they knew—or more often didn't know—about Canadian politics.

In one of his shows, Mercer posed as a reporter and approached some American politicians. He asked a question in which he referred to Prime Minister Jean Poutine. One of the politicians was a presidential candidate (George W. Bush) who soon became the president. He responded pleasantly to Mercer but didn't realize that there was an error in the prime minister's name. The incident made news headlines in both Canada and the United States.

Is a Healthy Version of Poutine Possible?

If someone was really determined, they could make a healthy dish that vaguely resembled poutine (fries baked with no oil, non-fat cheese, a gravy or sauce containing no salt). This might be good for a regular meal. Some restaurants in my area sell the product with a vegetarian gravy, which could be a useful option for drizzling over homemade poutine.

Authentic poutine has a lot of taste and enjoyment to offer, especially for a social or special event. Substitutes could also be delicious, depending on their ingredients and texture. The interesting and traditional "mess" is often very flavourful as well as fun to eat.


© 2014 Linda Crampton