Poutine as served in Québec is a fast food, consisting of French fries, covered with cheese curds, then thick, dark gravy. The cheese and gravy form a gooey mass, while the fries underneath stay crunchy. The dish is served in styrofoam dishes and eaten with plastic forks. It has to be eaten as soon as it's made; the texture isn't as good if reheated.
Poutine is made and sold by fast food chains nationally throughout Quebec; you won't get it in fancy restaurants. Many aficionados even say that street vendors make the best poutine, better than the fast-food restaurant chains. You can also get it even at a few places in Florida, in places where high concentrations of Québecois spend the winter.
Purists say the fries should actually be what the Brits would call "chips" -- thick, chunky potato wedges, and not frozen ones at that, either, but freshly cut and fried on the spot, preferably in lard, and dished up when still piping hot.
The cheese curds used are white cheddar ones, which in consistency are somewhat like a cross between American-class mozzarella, and white cheddar. The cheese curds should be so fresh that they squeak as you bite into them, and feel with every bite as though they are cleaning your teeth. If the curds are old, they will just be rubbery, instead. The curds should not smell cheesy. They are put on top of the fries as is, and will only partially melt from the heat of the assembled dish.
Tinned Poutine Sauce
© Denzil Green
You don't usually put ketchup on top, though some English-speakers do.
Many Poutine variations are now being offered. In Rimouski, Québec, a version is made that includes mayonnaise as well. If it's with Bolognese sauce instead of gravy, it's called Italian poutine. With just fries and gravy (no cheese), it is not poutine, but called "patates-sauce" instead. With chicken and peas added, it's called "galvaude." Gourmet Poutines are made using Camembert or blue cheese instead of the cheese curds. Some adventurous chefs have begun causing a stir by serving poutine in their bistros, with foie gras on it, and instead of just gravy, a sauce with cream, meat stock and egg york in it. There are also vegetarian versions.
Some people feel that Poutine is Québec's national dish. It is, however, so similar to dishes served elsewhere in North America, and in the UK, such as Gravy Fries, Cheese Fries and Disco Fries, that it's hard not to look on it as a "fusion food" from surrounding English areas. Both Gravy Fries and Cheese Fries, served in America, predate Poutine by several decades. In many diners in the north-eastern American states near to Québec, you'll see on menus plain fries, cheese fries or gravy fries. Poutine differs from Disco Fries, which some Americans look on as "ghetto food", in the cheese being used: with Poutine, it has to be white cheddar cheese curds.
Some Canadians try to culturally appropriate Poutine and say it is a Canadian dish, which is amusingly roughly similar to saying pizza is a Canadian dish: availability of pizza in Canada or Australia makes it no less Italian in everyone's minds. Leaving aside the fact that such Canadians never specify which Poutine they are talking about -- the relatively recent Québecois version or one of the centuries-old Acadian ones -- the fact is, though, that Poutine is really not known all that well by most ordinary people in Canada, aside from those who frequent certain fast food chains. Some fast-food marketers have put it on their menus and attempted to portray it as a national dish, as it has a relatively large profit margin for what is essentially French Fries. The dish has spilled somewhat over the Quebec border into the Canadian province of Ontario, but that border area is sparsely populated and not representative of the rest of the province, let alone the country. The town of Maillardville, British Columbia, holds a Poutine Festival every year, but such recognition of it outside Quebec is the exception rather than the rule. In fact, in Western Canada, a favourite way to get French Fries is as "all-dressed" fries, with Parmesan cheese, gravy, ketchup, vinegar, salt and pepper. But whether it be made 3 or 3,000 miles outside the border, Quebeckers dismiss all Poutine made outside Québec as "dégueulass" (disgusting.)
Despite people's joking health reservations about the dish -- that the only thing missing is a spoonful of lard on top -- Poutine remains a prized food after a night of heavy drinking or clubbing. And perhaps it looks better at that time of night: even the most ardent fan will admit that it is very hard to photograph Poutine to make it look as good as it tastes.
After that, Lachance started offering cheese curds on top of fries for 35 cents. Customers would dress it up with ketchup. The gravy idea came later in 1964, when he realized that the hot gravy would help to melt the cheese more. So he added gravy, and hiked the price to 60 cents. Lachance's wife Germaine made the gravy. It was actually more of a barbeque sauce, whose ingredients included brown sugar, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.
Other towns in Québec such as Drummondville and Victoriaville also claim to be its home. In Drummondville, Jean-Paul Roy (1932 - ) , owner of Roy le Jucep restaurant, claims to have invented Poutine together with his wife Fernande in 1964. They first owned a restaurant called "Le Roi de la patate". In 1964, they opened a new restaurant called "Roy le Jucep". At first, they sold just "patates-sauce" -- gravy and fries. The gravy was served on the side in a little cup, because the fries were in a cardboard box that would have got soggy. The cheese curds were in a bag, just another item on the menu. Then some customers came in, and asked for them mixed into their patates-sauce, as they were eating in their car, and space on their laps would have been limited. More customers asked for the combination, so they put it on the menu as an official menu item. Jean-Paul and Fernande called it just "fromage, patate, sauce". They decided eventually to call it "Poutine" because pudding (the real meaning of "Poutine"; see Language Notes below) could really be anything you wanted to call pudding. As well, Poutine ended up being a reverse play on the name of one of their cooks at the time, a man named "Ti-Pout" (pronounced tee-pooh.) So, "tee-pooh" made the "pooh-teen". Roy sold the restaurant in 1985 at the age of 53. The restaurant is still in business today (2007.)
Some Acadians say the Québecois version was in fact invented in New Brunswick, at a take-out restaurant near Parlee Beach in Shediac, New Brunswick, and that the idea was taken back to Québec by tourists.
Poutine was used as the name for other dishes long before it was applied to this one.
Poutine is referred to in 1812 in a listing of household goods in a Québec will as being something you would cook in a mould: "deux moules à poutins & une passoire". In 1916, there is a reference by Hector Berthelot in his "Montréal: le bon vieux temps" to "poutine glissante", the Acadian dish. In the 1930s, Poutine was used as a direct translation of the English word pudding (in the North American sense, not the general British sense of "dessert"). Rice pudding was called "poutine au riz". In 1971, Louise Lavoie in her "La cuisine chez nos grands-mères" gives a recipe for "poutine à vapeur" (steamed pudding), and throughout the 1970s, Poutine was still used in the sense of something you would have for dessert: "Je vais vous faire de la poutine pour dessert." (I am going to make some poutine for dessert.)
Only by 1980 do you start to see the word used in the sense it is now, that of cheese fries with gravy:
"Quand j't'allé au restaurant, y m'ont servi une poutine dégeulasse; les patates frites étaient pas cuitent, la sauce était claire comme de l'eau pis l'fromage avait l'goût de moisi." (When I went to the restaurant, they served me a disgusting poutine: the fries weren't cooked, the sauce was as clear as water, and the cheese tasted like mildew.) (Cited in: Fournier, Serge, et Poirier, Étienne, (dir.), 1973- x: Corpus du Centre d'études de linguistique de la Mauricie, Shawinigan.)
But the old usage of Poutine referring to a sweet dessert dish was still prevalent in 1980: "Quand ma tante des États-Unis à venait, on disait d'la pouding, mais sinon c'tait toujours de la poutine." (When my aunt came from the states to visit, we said "pouding", but it was still just poutine." (Ibid.)
Today, when you hear poutine in Québec, you can generally assume it is the cheese fries with gravy. But if the word is used in the context of dessert, or is qualified such as "aux raisins", then it will be another dish entirely.
Poutine was also used colloquially in Québec to mean "a mess."
The word itself has an amusing history. It comes from an old French word, "boudin", which English borrowed and transformed into "pudding." Along the way, French borrowed the word back, transforming it into "poutine".
Larousse Gastronomique (1988, English version, page 842) gives another version; it says that "poutine" comes from the Provençal word "poutina", meaning "porridge". In any event, both "boudin" and "poutina" would both no doubt be descendants of a common ancestor word.