A brief compendium of potatoes, gravy and cheese curds.
These days you can find poutine at some of the finest restaurants all over the world. Even though it has been a significant francophone and Quebecois cultural dish since the late 1950s, finding the simple fast food dish outside of Canada or even the province of Quebec was a difficult feat until the 90s and 2000s.
In fact, from the 50s until the late 60s, poutines were really only available at “casse-croûtes,” or greasy spoon diners, road-side stands, cantines and hockey arenas in central, rural Quebec.
Yet these days, high brow and low brow poutines are on offer to all kinds of diners nation-wide and internationally – from Germany to Monaco to Vietnam. You can get poutines at many dining establishments in different cities around the US, Europe and China.
They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as simple as four-dollar cardboard boxes of gooey fries at Lafleurs. Or they can go up to $20 to $30 gourmet plates on higher end Montreal and Toronto menus.
In fact, the most expensive poutine to be sold in Canada was a nearly $450 excessive surf and turf version for a special 2018 event in Toronto before the launch of the Crazy Rich Asians film.
It was made by Smoke’s Poutinerie with the help of some of the actors of the film in attendance. This mega poutine included: lobster, wagyu steak, truffle oil, orchids, caviar and gold flakes, to name a few “crazy rich” ingredients. It was a one-time offer and not part of the Smoke’s Poutinerie regular menu.
But if you crave the simple poutines of yesteryear, you can still sample its roots from one of the humble central Quebec casse-croûtes that claim to be the first poutine makers.
There are actually a few restaurants that claim to be the individual originators of the dish. Each of these spots are in central Quebec, where the special ingredient – cheese curds, also known as “squeaky cheese”- is still manufactured at various factories.
In Warwick, Le Lutin Qui Rit (which translates to The Laughing Elf and was previously called Le Café Idéal, or, in English, The Ideal Café) is one of those. But that restaurant no longer exists and the original owner died in 2004. Since then, the location has become a charity shop.
Drummondville’s Le Roy Jucep (named after the founder whose last name was Roy and died in 2007) and Princeville’s La Petite Vache (translates to The Little Cow) also vie for that originator title.
In fact, Le Roy Jucep calls itself the creator of the poutine in its marketing and on its website. It is still in operation and it even has a certificate from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office on display to prove its status as the poutine inventor.
Still, there has been much debate about the true inventor of poutine. It seems, however, that the creation of poutine came about not in one big bang but in incremental stages.
One thing there is a consensus on, though, is that the name most likely refers to the messy nature of the fries, gravy and cheese curd mixture.
Poutine was a mid-century Quebecois slang for “mess,” probably derived from the English word “pudding.”
According to poutine lore, Le Lutin Qui Rit’s Fernand Lachance was the first to name the dish in Warwick. At the time, the place was called Le Café Idéale.
He is said to have exclaimed, “Ca va faire une maudite poutine!” when a regular customer named Eddy Lainesse asked him to add cheese curds to his brown paper bag of fries in 1957. The quote translates to: “It will make a damn mess!” in English.
The word ‘poutine’ was originally used as Quebecois slang to describe something that is messy well before it became the name for the province’s favourite dish. The dish that started as just french fries and melting cheese curds but was called a “poutine” soon became listed on the restaurant’s menu.
By 1962, Lachance added gravy to his poutine concoction to keep the fries and cheese warm. In order to better contain the new comfort food “mess,” the restaurant switched from serving it in a paper bag to serving it on a plate.
These days most Quebec casse-croûtes serve their poutines in little cardboard boxes, that contain the mess even better than a plate.
Around the same time that Lainesse was dining on proto-poutines in Warwick, the owner of Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, Jean-Paul Roy, was already serving fries with gravy to his customers. Some of them would ask for a side order of cheese to go with it.
In 1958, he officially combined the two and then added “fromage-patate-sauce” to his menu in 1964. That translates to “cheese-potato-sauce.”
But eventually, the name started to feel too long to him, so he renamed it to “poutine” which was a reference to a cook who went by the nickname “Ti-Pout.”
However, there is also a third contender for poutine inventor. La Petite Vache, founded in 1966 in Princeville by Henri Provencher also claims to have been the first poutine maker. It is now called Restaurant Princesse, after the cheese curd manufacturers that brought it poutine notoriety.
When it opened in the 60s, La Petite Vache would sell cheese curds at the counter from Fromagerie Princesse, a cheese manufacturer adjacent to the restaurant, since Princesse had no other shops or vending points at the time. The restaurant noticed that customers would mix the cheese curds with their fries, so the combination of the two was added to the menu within the first year of the restaurant’s operations.
In 2010, an owner of La Petite Vache, Max Sevigny, said that the original name for the cheese and french fry dish was “50-50,” since it was 50 per cent cheese and 50 per cent fries. When gravy and cheese were later added to the fries it was titled “Mixte,” which is French for “Mixed.”
There are even vintage local newspaper clippings that state Princeville’s La Petite Vache was the originator of the poutine, even though the restaurant opened a couple years after the other two restaurants claim they had poutines on their menus.
From there, poutines spread out from the rural small towns of Central Quebec which historically had an abundance of cheese factories and into Quebec’s capital city in 1969. That was when a snack bar food truck brought the dish to Quebec City urbanites and to tourists. It took off across Quebec and Ontario at that time.
Soon, poutine would be available in different trendy phases in other American cities, such as the era of “disco fries” in New Jersey. They were made with cheddar shreds instead of curds. By the 90s, poutines were all over Canada, in fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King, as well as appearing on occasional international menus.
As it grew, the ingredients morphed, usually based on the geographical region or the culture of the vendor.
There are now many variations of the poutine dish, such as: Italian poutine, latke poutine, gnocchi poutine, fish poutine, vegan poutine, Irish poutine, La Galvaude (a Gaspésie take on the dish with chicken and peas), nacho poutine and even Russian poutines called “Raspoutine.”
And it all, allegedly, started with small-town legends like Eddy Lainesse asking for cheese curds in his fry bag, or a chef named Ti-Pout. And generic names like “patate-sauce-fromage,” “50-50” and “mixte” at small drive-in diners in rural areas.
Although Warwick is situated almost exactly between Drummondville and Princeville, a drive from Drummondville to Warwick today is about 45 minutes. From Warwick to Princeville the drive is about 20 minutes. Someone with a poutine craving could drive to all three in just over an hour.
So, was there really just one inventor of poutine? Or was the real inventor a public that knew what it wanted before it was available in a combined form in its own paper bag – a public demanding their fried potatoes, gravy and cheese curds even if they would have to put the pieces together themselves?
Perhaps the poutine was invented by all the curious Eddy Lainesses of the region.
Maybe the combination of french fries, gravy and cheese in the dairy-rich, gravy loving, small, rural towns of central Quebec was a necessary, unstoppable force – something like culinary and cultural destiny.
If so, then poutine is a product of the people.
That could explain its deep cultural significance to the folks of Quebec who grew up with the squitch-squitch of curd cheese and a connection to “sauce-brune” gravy like it is blood in their veins.
It represents more than just a heavy comfort food. Poutine is a reflection of a region, the people of a place or places. So to many, poutine no longer means “mess” or “pudding” – or even “fromage-patate-sauce.” It means home.