I’ve wanted for a while to set down some thoughts on the Quebec dish, poutine. Rather than approach it from the standpoint of the history of the dish including the (controversial) origins of the word poutine (poutine in Quebec French), I’d like to give my own experience with the dish, given I was born and raised in Montreal and only moved away in my mid-30’s.
Need I say poutine is a mixture of french fries, a meat-based gravy, generally from chicken or beef, and white cheddar cheese curds, the kind that are slightly salty and squeak on your teeth when very fresh.
For those interested in the general history and etymology, the Wikipedia entry is an excellent place to start. The information there is accurate based on what I have read for many years elsewhere. I’ll only add here that I believe the term poutine, meaning a group of (often different) things combined, was inherited from one or more regional French expressions. For example, in parts of the south of France, a poutine is a school of small fish. This usage could not have come from Quebec; the contrary is more persuasive. In turn, I believe the French word is probably a venerable gallicised version of the English pudding.
The Quebec poutine, before the term became associated with a French fry dish, was used in different parts of Quebec to mean different foods including “poutine à la poche“, described in Lorraine Boisvenue’s Le Guide De La Cuisine Traditionnelle Québécoise” (1979, Alain Stanké Limitée). This dish is included in her “Les Poudings” section and seems a boiled pudding on English lines. English cooking did influence a certain section of Quebec cuisine; still, this does not mean IMO that the word poutine in Quebec is of direct English derivation. If it was, the regional French (in France) usages of the term to mean, in different contexts, a stew, or mess of things (in a technical sense), wouldn’t make sense.
All that said, here is my own history with the dish. In a word, when I left Quebec in 1983, I had never heard of it! As one familiar with the fast foods beloved by all sections of Quebec society such as Michigan and steamed hot dogs, but also real Quebec food such as fèves au lard, la cipaille and les cretons, I had never seen anyone eat poutine and never heard the word. Not in Montreal, not in the Laurentian Mountains, not elsewhere in the Province in my travels. This does not mean of course it didn’t exist in Quebec – it did, from the late 50’s, starting possibly in Drummondville, a town within an hour’s drive of Montreal. But Montreal didn’t know the dish including the inexpensive restaurants known as “chip wagons” or the steamed hot dog places on St Laurent Blvd. The modest “tavernes” of Quebec didn’t sell poutine either. They did offer french fries with gravy though – clearly a progenitor of poutine.
At some point, the dish migrated from country to town, but how and when exactly is still the subject of ardent discussion and even contention.
Before that migration sometime in the 80’s, I am fairly certain that even in staunchly francophone districts in Montreal, no one knew a dish called poutine. If someone did serve it, it would have been a specialty of the house, offered in one or two places only, probably borrowed from something someone saw en province. I first heard of it later in the 1980’s as something you could buy from chip wagons in Ottawa. Ottawa is close to Quebec and counts many francophones amongst its resident and working population, so many typical Quebec foods can be found there or in the Ottawa market. Finally, on returning to Montreal for visits, I noticed the dish on the menus of modest restaurants.
Only later – the last dozen years or so – did the dish vault from Quebec and Canada into the international sphere and even into la haute cuisine. This is a most unlikely fate for any Canadian food but especially one as humble as poutine. Still, there is no accounting for these things. The rise of poutine is somewhat like the ascension of Buffalo chicken wings or much earlier, the Caesar salad, the hamburger. Etc. Some things go around the world and become culinary fixtures. Others fizzle out – chicken in the basket with honey, say. But poutine and “wings” seem destined to endure.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve had poutine. The best time was the first, from an Ottawa chip wagon – it was very good of its kind. I had it once from Harvey’s, the Canadian hamburger chain – pas si bonne, in my opinion. I may have it had twice more. It’s very caloric and sinfully rich – but then so is foie gras, I guess some would say.
Originally, Quebec cuisine was a fascinating inventory of old French dishes, e.g., the wonderful tourtière, a seasoned meat pie in a crust, and old English dishes, e.g. cipaille, which I wrote about years ago in Petits Propos Culinaires, an English food journal despite the French name. Cipaille – there are different spellings – derives IMO from the English seafaring dish, “sea pie”. Later, Italian, Greek and Jewish traditions contributed other elements: pizza, bagels, smoked meat, souvlaki. And so on in a wider arc today given the multi-cultural nature of Quebec society. Poutine cannot – in my view again – be counted on a par with any of these. But it put Quebec on the map so to speak, and who can quarrel with that.
N.B. As a blog generally devoted to the study of beer and sometimes other drinks, one might wonder what I think pairs with poutine. Admitting again my relative unfamiliarity with the dish, I think soda pop is best. The dish originally was just french fries, and then fries and gravy (or fries and just the cheese curds in one account), and finally poutine as we know it. The chip wagons sold no alcohol, all the classic pops were the choice for french fries, les frites. And pop goes well with the derivative version of fries, poutine. Beer of course does too – here I’d hazard that a mainstream brew is best, not a richly hopped or malted craft beer. Quebec cider certainly goes well with fries, and possibly is best of all drinks with poutine. I suppose some would bruit sparkling wine or some kind of still wine, particularly with the kind of poutine that four star chefs work up. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what quaff goes with poutine, as long as it is wet and cold.