Poutine has been one of Canada’s favorite comfort foods for more than half a century, yet it’s only recently found its way onto American menus.
By Chris Burnett
Aug 18 2016
Poutine from the Portsmouth Catering Company at NH PoutineFest
Having spent a majority of the last four years living in Montreal, Canada, I like to think that I’m fairly well-acquainted with poutine. After all, the province of Quebec is its birthplace, and Montreal alone is home to hundreds of restaurants that feature it on their menus. I’ve spent many a late night and many an early morning feasting on this mélange of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds — from the sad-looking attempt found in my college cafeteria, to the gourmet, meat-topped masterpiece served at a real Québécois restaurant. Needless to say, I’ve probably eaten more poutine than my doctor would approve of.
In spite of all that, the “extensive research” that I conducted on the dish during my time in Canada doesn’t mean I can call myself a poutine expert. My inability to say poutine the way a French Canadian would is just one of the things that gives me away as a greenhorn right from the start. In Quebec French, poutine is pronounced poo-TSIN, whereas you’ll typically hear either poo-TEEN or poo-TIN in English. As long as you don’t pronounce it POO-tin, Canadians will know you’re talking about the food (and not the Russian president).
Poutine can trace its origins back to 1950s Quebec, though several restaurants claim to have invented it, meaning the exact location of its creation is contested. How the dish got its name is also a mystery, but there are a number of theories that seem to hold water.
According to the Dictionnaire historique du français québécois (Historical Dictionary of Quebec French), the word poutine could be a borrowing from one or more of the regional languages of France, in which similar words mean things like “hodgepodge,” “crushed food,” or “a mixture of various things.” A second theory states that poutine comes from the English word pudding, and yet another possibility is that the word is simply a mix of Québécois slang.
After encountering the messy concoction in real life, it’s easy to see why any of these proposed origins would suit it well.
Although poutine doesn’t win any awards in the “Healthiest Foods” category, it does deserve honorable mentions for its simplicity and taste. In its most basic form, poutine consists of only three ingredients: French fries, gravy, and cheese curds.
Don’t be fooled, though, as there is a method to poutine’s madness. Ideally, the fries are cooked until they’re golden brown, but not overly crispy and dry. The gravy is traditionally poultry- or veal-based and should be thick enough to not make your fries soggy, but thin enough to reach the majority of the dish. As for the cheese curds, they should be as fresh as possible and shouldn’t be more than half-melted when the dish is served. The mark of a true poutine cheese curd is the “squeak” it makes when you bite through it, which is the source of one of its other popular names, squeaky cheese.
Of course, the above only applies to your basic, traditional poutine, and many more exotic variations can also be found. One Montreal poutinerie, La Banquise, offers more than 30 varieties — from breakfast poutine, featuring fried eggs and bacon, to taco poutine, topped with guacamole and sour cream. Many restaurants dress their poutines with a variety of meats, such as hot dogs, pulled pork, or smoked meat, and in 2011, a Montreal chef even won Iron Chef America with his lobster-themed version.
Since its creation decades ago, poutine has become a culinary sensation in Canada and even fast food giants like McDonald’s and A&W have started to offer the dish. In recent years, it’s jumped the border, spreading to areas like the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and New England. You can now find traditional poutines, as well as American innovations, at a number of restaurants, pubs, and food trucks throughout these regions.
In New England, poutine’s rising popularity shouldn’t come as a total surprise. The influence that French Canadian culture has had on the region is quite large and there are many Americans with French Canadian ancestry living here today. According to the 2000 Census, the six New England states have greater percentages of these French Canadian descendants than any other states in the Union (aside from Louisiana). One in four Mainers has French ancestry and more than a fifth of both Vermonters and New Hampshirites can say the same. Glance at any New England telephone book and you’ll see several Gagnons, Levesques, and Tremblays — all of whom probably have French Canadian roots.
This year, poutine-mania grew so strong in New England that it culminated in a poutine festival, which occurred this June in Manchester, New Hampshire. NH PoutineFest was put on by the Franco-American Centre of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, and was held not only in honor of poutine, but also of Franco-American Heritage Day, which celebrates Americans with French Canadian roots.
The festival featured a selection of restaurants from Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire that each offered their own unique takes on poutine. The restaurants were competing for the honor of “Best Poutine of the Fest” and the winner of that title would also receive the Ceinture de Championnat (Championship Belt).
NH PoutineFest took place at the Fisher Cats’ stadium and ran concurrently to one of the team’s home games. The game itself was given a Québécois spin through the use of French music and announcements, and the Canadian national anthem was sung in French at the game’s start. Throughout the park, many fans could be seen wearing their Montreal Expos hats or otherwise Canada-themed clothing.
This was the festival’s inaugural event, so a few logistical issues (like long lines and disorganization) were apparent. That being said, the idea behind the festival has potential and the problems that did occur should be easy enough to solve before any future iterations. And, based on the large turnout, the desire to celebrate poutine and French Canadian culture is certainly strong in the area.
The ten restaurants that took part in the festival are true poutine professionals! There were quite a few different types available — from traditional poutine that stuck to the basics (but did them very well), to the more exotic, featuring toppings like duck confit or bits of bacon.
In the end, the four esteemed judges of the festival awarded the Championship Belt and the title of “Best Poutine” to Vulgar Display of Poutine, a food truck based out of Lowell, Massachusetts.
If you find yourself in Canada, or even in certain areas of the U.S., look for poutine on the menu and give this Québécois classic a try. Keep in mind that it’s a dish designed to keep a hockey-playing Canuck full on a cold winter’s day, so it might be best to skip that afternoon snack if you know you’ll be digging into a poutine later on!
Have you ever tried poutine? What’s your favorite variation?