Posted on 21 May 2014 16:32
Poutine, pronounced poot-sin or poo-teen, is a Canadian dish of deep-fried potatoes and fresh cheese curds covered with brown gravy. A Quebec specialty, it is essentially cheese fries with gravy, which you can actually get from American take-out places and other restaurants, except that the cheese is not a liquid cheese product like the kind that goes on ballpark nachos, but cheese curds instead, which don't tend to melt.
Cheese curds, sometimes called squeaky cheese after the way the chunks squeak between the teeth, are not readily available in most parts of the U.S. except in Wisconsin and other places in the Midwest. They are leftover from the making of cheddar cheese and sold widely in Canada, including in convenience stores and gas stations. Poutine originated in Quebec, specifically, and it is even sold in fast food chain restaurants like McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, A&W, Pizza Hut, Popeye's, and Harvey's, some of which extend this offering into the Midwest U.S.
In Montreal, and parts of the United States where lots of French Canadians work, poutine is subject to experimentation by haute-cuisine chefs, who add things like lobster, pork belly, duck breast, confit, foie gras, truffles, or even salmon roe. It was even a featured dish at The Inn LW12, a Canadian themed gastropub in the meatpacking district of New York, which is no longer open.
Plain and dirty poutine is enjoyed, in Quebec, at all times of day, and especially after a night of hard partying, as a reputed hangover remedy. Despite it's recent vogue and popularity, it is often considered a national joke. Still, it has long been a favorite of working men and college students, alike. 1,2,3
The word poutine in Quebec is a way to describe a mess of mushy, gross leftovers. There is a French word poutine which refers to sardines and anchovies in their larval state, but it is unlikely the origin of the Canadian term, which may have just been a corruption of pudding. 4 Poutine is not French for "a mess" as many sources claim, although this is basically what the term means in Quebec. It is probably Acadian slang of basically the same meaning.
There are several origin stories for poutine. The most popular is that poutine started in a restaurant called Café Ideal, in Warwick, Quebec, in 1957, now Lutin Qui Rit (The Laughing Elf). According to the story, the restauranteur named Fernand Lachance saw some of his customers putting cheese curds and gravy on their fries, so he put the combination on his menu. Sometimes a specific customer is named, Eddie Lainesse, who was served a dish of French fries, cheese curds, and salt and vinegar. In another version of this story, Chef Lachance was asked by a customer, perhaps the same customer, at a cheese factory to combine the potatoes and curds. In either case, Lachance is claimed to have called it "a damned mess" or, in other words maudite poutine. 1,2,3,5 According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, Lachance didn't actually add gravy to his poutine until 1964.2
Another claimant to having served the first poutine Is Jean-Paul Roy, owner of the drive-in Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, who added cheese curds to his popular menu item patate-sauce (fries and gravy) and called it Ti-Pout or Poutine. Different dates are given for this claim, such as 1958 and 1964. The restaurant now serves 19 different types of poutine. Both Warwick and Drummondville have an annual "Poutine Festival."5
However, there is also a traditional Acadian dish called poutine râpée, a potato dumpling made with pork fat which is sometimes filled with meat and is boiled alone for long periods, or added to stews. The potatoes are grated and/or mashed. Raper means to "to grate" in French and râpé(e) means "grated" (past participle). (national and regional, int. dictionary) This dish may have been derived from German settlers.6 There are other dishes as well, which use the name poutine. None of them seem to be related, though, so it appears that the poutine of fries, cheese curds, and gravy is a one-off invention.
Given the above, fries with cheese and gravy can be found in the U.K as "chips, cheese, and gravy" and along the East Coast of the U.S., as well. As elsewhere, it is common to find cheese fries, as mentioned in the first paragraph, made with liquid processed cheese, or mozzarella. The same menus may also have fries with gravy. Since, in the U.S., fries are often seen as a base for some other topping, including ever-popular chili used in chili-cheese fries, so it probably does not make any sense to assume any connection between American cheese fries and poutine, even if shredded cheese is used.
In the U.S. poutine can be found in northern Maine as fry mix.1 You may also find it on restaurant menus in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and even New York. Reportedly, the same basic dish is found in New Jersey by the unaccountable name of disco fries, using mozzarella cheese. Since most sandwich takeout shops have fries, mozzarella, and gravy, this may well have nothing to do with poutine. In Baltimore, MD, most pizza and sub places offer fries with gravy, or mozzarella. And if you want your fries with both, all you have to do is ask.
Below, enjoy the documentary video about poutine from Poutine Nation. It features commentary by Charles-Alexandre Théorêt, author of the book Maudite Poutine. Yes, it's that big a deal.
Poutine Documentary Video
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