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Poutine - Canada's French Fries With Attitude

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Last week, while touring Havre-aux-Maisons in Quebec Maritime's Les Isles de la Madeleine, I stopped for lunch at La Maisonnee des Iles a cute little home-y place off the main road (not difficult, as there's only one road which runs through the islands). Suzie, a native islander, who was with me, insisted I try the poutine. I speak French and was wondering if this was her Acadian way of pronouncing poutin, French for hooker. No, this was poutine, she said, pronounced poo-TIN and NOT to be confused with poutin.

Poutine is a French-Canadian specialty, basically French Fries and fresh white cheddar cheese curds smothered in gravy. I don't like gravy so I told Suzie I'd pass, but she insisted I just try it. She said it would be almost sacrilegious not to give it a shot, that poutine so popular it's even on high school cafeteria menus. Poutine is slang for mushy mess, and was invented in Warwick, Quebec (also known for producing the best cheese curds in Canada and exported throughout the country).

In 1957, a trucker named Eddy Lanaisse walked into Fernand Lachance's restaurant, Lutin Qui Rit, in Warwick. Says the trucker, "I wanted fries, but I saw cheese curds on the counter. I asked Fernand to mix them together."

Lachance said that French fries and cheese would most likely be too difficult to eat, calling the combo a "poutine," or mess. But Lanaisse loved the dish, and it soon became a hit. It contained no gravy and Lachance set the price at 35 cents. In 1964, he added thick gravy which melted the cheese, and raised the price to 60 cents.

Now, fifty years later, Poutine is an important element of Canada's unique cultural identity, so much so that when troops from Val Cartier, Quebec arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, the Army chef added poutine to the menu so the soldiers would feel more at home. You can find this Quebecois delicacy everywhere from greasy spoon diners to fast food chains. And you don't just have to settle for the original poutine. You can order Italian poutine -- served with meat sauce and cheese curds; Chicken Poutine, Beef Poutine, Poutine garnie (pepperoni, onions and pimentos), and even Chinese poutine, topped with meat and barbecue sauces.

The waitress placed a soup-sized bowl of gravy-covered French Fries in front of my place and Suzie said, "Just try it." I took a bite. I love French Fries and cheese, but I hate gravy, so there was no chance of my having to finish every bite of this artery-clogging, heart-attack-inducing calorie-laden dish (My mother insisted I eat every bite on my plate, and I still haven't learned how to stop doing that).

The gravy didn't taste like American gravy. It was as thick as molasses and very dark. The hand-cut super fresh French fries had been fried in pure lard, not vegetable or other politically correct oils. The cheese was fresh white cheddar, and the cheese curds squeaked in my teeth as I bit into them. And even though I had only planned to have one bite, I was soon looking down into an empty porcelain white bowl. If Suzie had ordered me another plate, I would have eaten that as well. I've been told there's an annual Poutine Festival with about 15,000 people who come to Maillardville, BC each year for music, singing, dancing, and 'genuine' French poutine. Hmmmm.

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