When you think of Canadian foods, visions of back bacon, maple syrup, and Tim Horton’s coffee likely spring to mind. But one of the Great White North’s most iconic culinary offerings is actually the Quebecois dish known as “poutine.” Yes, this taste-bud tantalizing, artery-clogging delicacy is a favourite north of the 49th parallel. It is, after all, as Canadian as the beaver, the hockey puck, and the loonie, eh?
Yes, France is celebrated for its baguettes, escargots, crepes, frogs’ legs, and what “Introducing La Fournette’s Authentic French Macaron” describes as the delicious rainbow colored, cream-filled cookies known as “macarons.” Canada’s francophone population also boasts several iconic foods–tourtiere, pate chinois, and pea soup, to name a few–but it’s most famous offering is, indeed, poutine. So what exactly is this thing that the Canucks call “poutine?”
If you looked at the image of a plate of poutine and thought “blick! That’s a disgusting looking mess,” you are probably not alone. It’s name does come from the English word for “pudding” and was used to describe any concoction that was the result of lumping oddly matched ingredients together. Poutine is not meant to be pretty. But, behind its bland browns and awkward shapes lurks a scrumptious surprise.
The traditional poutine consists of three ingredients–a generous heap of fresh-cut fries and a liberal handful (or two) of Quebec’s famous white cheese curds, all lovingly smothered in a unique dark gravy sauce. And, rumor has it that the dish tastes best when served in a Styrofoam bowl. “Poutine 101” attributes this to the fact that it likely traps the heat, keeping it warm and melting the curds.
Some have tried to “improvise” with shredded cheddar or mozzarella. And others have substituted the hearty French fry for a meager shoe-string variety with mushy results. Quite simply put, you cannot improve upon perfection–and the perfect poutine is the traditional French Canadian variety.
Ironically, this seemingly simple dish boasts a rather complicated and controversial history. While several Quebec towns and cities claim to be the location in which poutine was born, the two major contenders are Warwick and Drummondville.
In Warwick, the story is that Le Lutin Qui Rit, a now defunct restaurant once operated by Fernand LaChance, always had a supply of fresh bags of curds on the counter. One day in 1957, a customer by the name of Eddy Lanaisse asked LaChance to mix some of the curds into his fries. The combination would go on to become a hit at the restaurant. Lachance, however, would not add gravy until 1964.
The Drummondville eatery, Le Roy Jucep, owned by Jean-Paul Roy, holds a registered trademark stating that it is the originator of poutine as we know it today. According to Roy, he was the first one to add sauce to the potato and curd concoction. Again, his claim also stems back to 1964.
No matter who started the craze, poutine lovers all owe a debt of gratitude to the Bois-Francs region of Quebec–the official home of the first cheese curd. An interesting side note is that the French term for cheese curd is crottes de fromage, which translates to “cheese droppings.” Mm. Droppings.
The transition from being a dish associated with lowly commoners–and, subsequently snubbed by many French Canadians–to the nationally celebrated fare that it is today was not without significant hiccups. According to “The Evolution of Poutine,” in 1991, both the Quebec Premier, Robert Bourassa, and the leader of the Parti-Quebecois, Jacques Pariseau, both refused to respond to a CBC reporter when they asked them if they liked poutine. They even declined to respond to calls to their office on the matter. Apparently, admitting a fondness for this humble dish would be akin to committing political suicide.
Poutine received another ribbing in the year 2000, when Canadian comedian, Rick Mercer, posed as a reporter and asked then-U.S. Presidential Candidate, George W. Bush, how he responded to an endorsement from Canadian Prime Minister, “Jean Poutine.” Bush went on to lavish Prime Minister Poutine with praise, stating that he “appreciated his strong statement” and the fact that he understand Bush’s belief in free trade. Ironically, then-Prime Minister Jean “Chretien” is a native Quebecois and, likely, indulges in an occasional plate–or Styrofoam bowl–of poutine, himself.
Despite its humble beginnings, poutine has become a hit from Vancouver Island to the Maritime provinces and all places in between. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and a host of other fast food chains have added their own variations to their menus, but nothing beats the original. To this day, the best places to find a bowl of poutine cooked to perfection are in Quebec, itself, just across the river in Ottawa and, oddly enough, in the British Columbia town of Maillardville.
And if you don’t want to sound like a tourist, be sure to pronounce it the right way and boldly say “peu-tin” and not “poo-teen.”
So, the next time you are in the Great White North, sidle up to a fry truck and order yourself a poutine. And discover that you can’t always judge a dish by the way it looks.
Where is the best poutine that you have ever tasted?
Kimberley Laws is a regular contributor to HowDoYou.com and the author of two blogs, The Embiggens Project and Searching for Barry Weiss. A "Jill of all trades," she is a High School English Teacher and Certified Career Counselor with a background in makeup artistry, retail banking, and graphic design. She is also a scrapbooking, PEZ-collecting, car enthusiast who loves travelling and New York City.
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