Over a year ago (November 14, 2007), Marianne White from the CanWest News Service, published a piece entitled “The Curd Degree.” In it, she interviews Charles-Alexandre Theoret, the author of a book entitled “Maudite Poutine!” (rough English translation: Damned Poutine). The book, which seems to be only available in French, follows the emergence and growing popularity of the iconic Quebec dish of fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. All the while, its author posits that how the dish has been viewed reflects Quebec and its relationship with the rest of Canada.
For instance, poutine was once described as “fat lumberjack food.” Today, the dish is recognized internationally and is even served in New York. There, it has been described as “a staple from Quebec, embarrassing, but adored.” Theoret further states in his interview that “as poutine stature grows…the emblematic junk food could succeed where no Canadian politicians have — bringing together the two solitudes.”
Perhaps to test Theoret’s theory, the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC commissioned a picture of famed French explorer Samuel de Champlain, holding a plate of poutine, to advertise its annual (2008) Canada Day party. The result: quite a few feathers were ruffled by the advertisement, some belonging to a French-language rights group that demanded the ambassador’s resignation. According to cbc, the image was intended to “play” on Quebec City’s 400th anniversary. It was also featured on a website, which is why the image can still be found on the Internet.
The following month, from August 29 to 30, the residents of Drummandville, Quebec dedicated an entire festival to poutine. The town of 67 000 claims to originate the dish. Accordingly, restaurateur Jean-Paul Roy invented poutine in 1964 for his diner, Le Roy Jucep, which still stands today. The Canadian Press estimates that approximately 1500 servings of poutine were served during the first day of the festival, most being of the classic variety. Further, at $23, the most expensive preparation from the festival was a variation of Chef Martin Picard’s legendary foie-gras poutine, which still graces the menu at his Montreal restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon.
According to Theoret’s book, poutine originated in 1957 in Warwick, Quebec. There, restauranteur Fernand Lachance remarked to a customer on an order, “Ca va te faire un maudite poutine” (rough English translation: It’s gonna make a helluva mess). The order mixed fries and cheese curds together in the same bag. Lachance added gravy as an after thought to keep the fries warm. The customer enjoyed his “mess.” Poutine was born. Unfortunately, Lachance’s restaurant, Lutin Qui Rit, eventually closed, so there is no monument to mark poutine’s birth.
The coverage of the Drummandville festival also higlights that poutine, as a dish, has evolved several regional specificities. Restaurants in the Drummondville region add pureed tomato to their gravy for acidity and sweetness. Restaurants in Montreal use a chicken velouté. Additional variations have also appeared that go beyond adjusting the classic recipe.
- Poutine Itallienne – Substitutes marinara sauce for the traditional gravy
- Poutine Bourguinonne – Adds ground beef and fried onions to the traditional gravy
- Poutine BBQ – Substitutes heated BBQ sauce for the traditional gravy
- Poutine Mole – Substitutes a Oaxacan black mole sauce for the traditional gravy
- Disco Fries – Substitutes shredded cheddar cheese for cheddar cheese curds
With so many variations, a website dedicated to the Montreal poutine, decidedly establishes the fundamental characteristics of poutine: “a heap of crispy French fries topped by a handful of cheddar (cheese) curds, and a chicken (sometimes veal) based sauce.” It further states that great fries do not make a great poutine. Instead, it is the combination of “curds and sauce” that make poutine a “trascendent culinary experience.” The cheese curds need to be fresh. They need to squeak when eaten. The sauce is best if it comes powdered from a pouch, labeled St. Hubert. This is because St. Hubert brand sauce packs contain thickened chicken-stock, seasoned with pepper and onions, in other words chicken velouté.
Personally, I feel that a good poutine could benefit from good fries. Take for instance the fries under the fois-gras poutine at Au Pied De Cochon (above). The fries look Belgian. That is, they seem to have been double fried to produce an extremely crisp exterior, while maintaining a tender interior.
Now that the history and political science lessons are over, it’s time to put the characteristics to test:
Cheese curds, check! Freshly made fries, sorta check! These fries are from frozen. I’m pretty sure that potatoes do not naturally come pre-cut or covered in frost from a plastic bag. Also, because the Franx Supreme in my building’s food court specializes in hot dogs and hamburgers, I doubt the gravy is fresh, so…Instant gravy, check! While it was a little salty for my liking, this is poutine.
Cheese curds, zilch! Freshly made fries, check! Instant gravy, zilch! Cheese fries, brick or otherwise, are not poutine.
Cheese curds, nope! Freshly made fries, sorta! These are not strictly potato fries. Instant gravy, notta! While this is not poutine, I think I just found an unhealthy dessert that I want to try making at home…