Poutine:

The Historical Art of the Canadian Classic

The Poutine, pronounced “poo-tin” and not “poo-teen,” originated in the 1950s and would arise as a delicious Canadian culinary invention. Although it is argued when this french fry extravaganza was created and by whom, it is undoubted that this twentieth-century recipe would become a significant hit and extend worldwide. The traditional Poutine, known for being both a snack and meal, is made of only a few simple ingredients: fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Although initially a meal on the Quebec food scene, this mouth-watering meal has become a part of culinary life for many. The most famous tale involves Ferdinand Lachance, who ran a restaurant. Eddy Lanaisse was a regular visitor to the restaurant. One day in around 1957, Lanaisse asked Lachance to put cheese curds on his order of French fries. Lachance reportedly said, “Ça va faire une maudite poutine,” which means, “That is going to make a damn mess,” and that is how the name originated (Crampton, 2014). This paper will discuss the origination of ingredients and recipes, the technological involvement, as well as the social context of the dish. 

Origin of the Ingredients

It is essential to dive back into the beginning of what poutine consists of; the three simple ingredients combined to make this tasty recipe had to come from somewhere, so let us begin there. French fries are the base of poutine and the originating point of the dish. First sold from vendors in the streets of Paris, France, in the 1780s, the “pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches (potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings)” were thought to be introduced to America by Thomas Jefferson during this decade (Rupp, 2021, para. 4-5). The fried potato began to rise in popularity in the 1900s, the century that poutine would also be created. Cheese curds are the second main ingredient of poutine. While the history of cheese dates back centuries, the exact date of the invention of cheese curds has yet to be discovered. “Cheese curds are created early in the cheesemaking process where cheesemakers combine milk, rennet, and a starter to separate solid curds from the liquid whey” (Staff, 2022, para. 10). We can then assume that cheese curd origin can trace back just as far as the curation of cheese to begin. 

Figure 1

1987 Caricature About Poutine

Note. Fabien-Ouellet, N., 2017, image regarding the beautiful mess that a poutine is. 

Cheese curds are the second main ingredient of poutine. While the history of cheese dates back centuries, the exact date of the invention of cheese curds has yet to be discovered. In saying this, “Cheese curds are created early in the cheesemaking process where cheesemakers combine milk, rennet, and a starter to separate solid curds from the liquid whey” (Staff, 2022, para. 10). We can then assume that cheese curd origin can trace back just as far as the curation of cheese. They can also be seen in recipes in times of Ancient Rome, so it is evident that the origin of this form of cheese as a common ingredient has been around for a long time (Probst, 2021, para. 9). 

The final key ingredient of the recipe is gravy. As another French recipe, gravy can be found in many medieval cookbooks and recipes. As pictured in Figure 2, chef John Nott’s Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1726) displays a traditional gravy recipe where the sauce came directly from roasted beef. The product would further develop from the patented idea of powdered products in 1882 by Philip Thorne. The efficiency of the powder, as well as avoiding having to cook and curate meat products into a sauce, led to the creation of gravy in this way. The product would rise in popularity in the 1950s, coincidentally around the same time as the creation of poutine (Madrigal, 2010, para. 7-10). 

Social Context

Considering the development of the poutine was purely unintentional, it is still vital that the social aspect of the 1950s be considered in how the dish came about. Life in the 1900s was very different from now. A significant aspect of food production at this time revolved around farming and growing crops. Considering Canada’s “idealistic attitude towards farming,” it can be implied that the foods derived from such crops could also be idealized (Wengel, n.d., p. 1). In an article from Watson (2021), it is mentioned that “the fries honor the humble potato that grows so well in parts of Quebec” (para. 5). Combining the culture of farming in Canada with the appreciation for the potato, using the crop in a dish makes sense. Furthermore, “cheese curds were so widely available because French-Canadians kept up the cheese-making traditions of France long after the initial settlers established Nouvelle France” (Watson, 2021, para. 5). Once again, the historical ties from France to Quebec are recognized, and represent the social and cultural symbols of food for the French. In their separate ways, the ingredients paid homage to the roots of the cultures of the province that started long ago and have continued since. 

Figure 2

John Nott’s 1726 Gravy Recipe

Note. Nott, J., 1724, screenshot image of gravy recipe located in Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary

As mentioned before, hot fries are known for being of French tradition. Originating in France, this snack also represents French culture that continued to be enjoyed even after French settlement in Canada. With this said, Quebec, a dominantly French province of Canada, would undoubtedly adopt the same traditions. Furthermore, the location is known for its cold winters, where any warm treat would delight consumers. The hot fries and the warm gravy sauce poured on top can contribute to this cultural factor, where hot treats would be delightful during the cold seasons in Quebec.

Modern Poutine and Its Influence Today

As for poutine in modern times, what is it like now? Often shared and enjoyed amongst a group as a snack or go-to meal for one, this dish has become a delicacy. However, eating poutine alone is accompanied by a sense of shaming in the eyes of some. In his work, Fabien-Ouellet (2017) shares that poutine is a social dish; it is meant to be eaten with others. Poutine sociability is commonly taken as far as ordering the largest available poutine size (e.g., small, medium, large) and asking to have two, three, or four forks so that everyone can have their bite of poutine to eat. In his writing on his perspective of the dish, another example of the way poutine is enjoyed now comes from D’Imperio (2015), who says, “After long nights of carousing the bars with my college friends, we would usually end up at a diner or truck stop to top off the night with some good solid comfort food” (p. 100). Over time, it is clear that poutine is a meal that is very socially oriented and enjoyed. 

When poutine is eaten with friends, they talk about how the quality of the poutine fares to other restaurants or poutineries or whether this version is better or worse than the last time it was had at the same restaurant. These discussions that animate our meals emerge because, as discussed in the following sections, poutine is a dynamic dish, and this ‘dynamicity’ makes the dish intriguing, exciting, and mouth-watering (Fabien-Ouellet, 2017, p. 30). Moreover, many variations are seen today, whether in fast food menus or poutine-devoted restaurants, the ingredients used, and so much more. Examples of this could include substituting regular french fries with sweet potato fries, using variations of types of cheese, adding meat toppings, and so on (Crampton, 2014). 

Figure 3

Traditional Quebec Poutine

Note. Stock photograph from Julie Deshales, image of a classic poutine. 

Conclusion

Overall, the poutine is a masterpiece put together from simple ingredients from centuries ago. The culinary triumph of Quebec is one that, although made by accident, is recognized as an essential Canadian staple appreciated by many. The French origin of the ingredients ties to the location and significance of poutine as a Quebec dish. Even though it was initially considered a mess, the poutine is the perfect example of a meal that ties together different areas of our French world—the communities of people who indulge in such a delight. From the 1950s to now, poutine is truly a Canadian classic. 

References

Crampton, L. (2014, October 8). Poutine facts, history, and cultural importance in Canada.  Delishably. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://delishably.com/world-cuisine/Poutine-in-Culture-and-History-Traditional-Canadian-Food

D’Imperio, C. (2015). Poutine Malone. In A Taste of Upstate new york: The people and the stories behind 40 food favorites (pp. 100–104). JSTOR. 

Fabien-Ouellet, N. (2017). Poutine, mezcal and hard cider: The making of culinary identities in North America. ProQuest. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1804&=&context=graddis&=&sei-redir=1&referer=https%253A%252F%252Fscholar.google.ca%252Fscholar%253Fhl%253Den%2526as_sdt%253D0%25252C5%2526q%253Dhistory%252Bof%252Bpoutine%2526btnG%253D#search=%22history%20poutine%22.

Madrigal, A. C. (2010, November 24). It’s all gravy: The Industrial History of a Thanksgiving favorite. The Atlantic. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/11/its-all-gravy-the-industrial-history-of-a-thanksgiving-favorite/66915/

Nott, J. (1724). The cooks and confectioners dictionary: Or, the accomplish’d Housewife’s companionGoogle Books. Printed for C. Rivington. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=w_dAAQAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=IA1&dq=Cooks+and+Confectioners+Dictionary&ots=5c50Yuk_xK&sig=oOVQbHR6hu0P7I71pwTHh5Ez2ls#v=onepage&q=gravy&f=false.

Probst, S. (2021, October 15). A midwesterner demystifies everything you need to know about cheese curds. Thrillist. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/everything-you-need-to-know-about-cheese-curds

Rupp, R. (2021, May 3). Are French fries truly French? Culture. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/are-french-fries-truly-french

Staff, W. C. (2022, October 12). Why do cheese curds squeak? Wisconsin Cheese. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.wisconsincheese.com/the-cheese-life/article/147/squeak-freak 

Watson, M. (2021, July 27). What is poutine? The Spruce Eats. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-poutine-2215514 

Wengel, K. (n.d.). What life was like back in the 1900s in Canada – heritage sask. Heritagesask.ca. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://heritagesask.ca/pub/virtual-projects/KayleeWengel-VirtualHeritageFairProject-127.pdf

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