Welcome to our new series, Iconic Canadian Food! You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don't know its past? Gabby Peyton will be sharing the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes to celebrate the country's 150th birthday this year. And she starts with that most identifiable of Canadian dishes, poutine.
There’s no poutine on airs (see what I did there?) when it comes to the diaspora of Canadian dishes: poutine is the most well known dish around the world. From high-end iterations in Montreal restaurants to messy plates in mall food courts, the delicious mess of fries and cheese curds smothered in gravy is everywhere. It even made its way to the Canadian State Dinner at the White House in March 2016.
If you’re Canadian, you love poutine (whether you’re ashamed to admit it or not), and if you’re visiting Quebec you want to try it. But did you know the diner owner who first served poutine thought it was a disastrous mishmash?
Poutine is so ingrained in popular culture it’s hard to imagine a Canada without it. In 2007, commentators including Margaret Atwood and Chris Hadfield were grouped together on the CBC TV show The Greatest Canadian Invention. Poutine ranked tenth, above the ski-doo, the goalie mask and the microscope. The dish feels like an ooey-gooey old friend who’s always been there. But in fact, it was only invented in the late 1950s and didn’t appear in Montreal until the 1980s.
The Key to Poutine
The gluttonous trifecta of ingredients is key: crispy French fries, savoury gravy (usually made from turkey, veal or chicken) and fresh, squeaky cheese curds. Not just any type of cheese — it has to be fresh curds. Forget what you’ve heard about the similarities between New Jersey’s “disco fries” and poutine. Ignore the mozzarella and find yourself some curds!
It’s the squeak of the curds that helps to define how truly Canadian this dish is. The essential component to poutine is actually a byproduct of cheddar cheese and the area where it was invented has a very cheesy history. Cheesemaking in Quebec has been going on since French settlers arrived in the early 1600s, and was heavily influenced by the English loyalists and their cheddar cheese after the American Revolutionary War. After pasteurization was invented, cheese production exploded in Quebec and by the end of the First World War, Canadian cheddar was being shipped off to England.
The freshness of the curds is also an important part of the creation of poutine. Because of a boom in cheese production, there was a surplus of curds, which were commonly sold in snack bars at the front cash (basically people ate them like potato chips; who can blame them?).
Who Invented Poutine?
For a dish this iconic, there’s more than one claim to its invention. There are two more common creation myths surrounding this deliciously lardaceous dish. The most commonly known is set in the town of Warwick, a community two hours northeast of Montreal.
Picture this: it’s 1957 at the Café Ideal (later renamed Le Lutin Qui Rit). Loyal customer Eddy Lainesse says, “Why not toss some of those curds on top of my fries?”. Fries were served in a paper bag at the time, leading owner Fernand Lachance to utter the famous phrase: "Ça va faire une maudite poutine” (“That's going to make a damn mess.”).
Little did he know that, once people started complaining about their curd-covered fries getting cold, he would add ladles of gravy to the dish in order to keep them warm. Poutine was born. No doubt Lachance was worried about the state of his tables after diners finished their food. Seven years later, he began serving it up on a plate to avoid making such a mess. (A menu from Le Lutin Qui Rit states the cost of a poutine in 1957 was 35 cents.)
The other origin story takes place in Drummondville, a town not too far from Warwick. Jean-Paul Roy lays claim to the invention of poutine in 1964 at his restaurant Le Roy Jucep, which is still open today. This restaurant states they were the first to put the dish on their menu. Le Roy Jucep has gone so far as to trademark the term: a plaque from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office hangs near the front door.
The story goes that waitresses complained about constantly writing out “fries-cheese curds-gravy” on their notepads once the dish became popular. One of the cooks was nicknamed ‘Ti-pout’ and naming the dish poutine was homage to him.
How Poutine Took Canada by Storm
Poutine was being served in Quebec City at the Ashton Snack bar by 1969 (it’s still open today) and hit the big time in Montreal by 1983. From there, a few Burger Kings in Quebec jumped on the poutine bandwagon in 1987, with McDonalds following suit in 1990. But it didn’t start selling it across the country until 2013. Smokes Poutinerie opened in 2008, crossed the country (and Canadian waistlines) and is now a world-wide phenomenon.
Many high-end restaurants across Canada have adopted the heart-attack trio; Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal places foie gras atop their poutine. There are restaurants in the United States devoted to poutine and dozens of spots in Britain sell the anti-diet dish. Montreal hosts Poutine Week every year and there are even World Poutine Eating Championships.
Poutine is only half as old as Canada, but has quickly become one of its most iconic dishes: this unequivocally Quebecois dish has gone from snack bar accident to iconic Canadiana in only 70 years.
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The History of Poutine: From Snack Bar Mess to Iconic Canadiana was written by Gabby Peyton. Gabby is a Toronto-based Newfoundlander who blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She's a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.