The Varied History Of Poutine, Canada's Unofficial National Food

Can you name the three signature ingredients used to make poutine? You definitely can if you're Canadian. Not only is poutine — which features French fries, cheese curds, and gravy — a quintessentially Canadian food, but unofficially at least, it has achieved national dish status. Need proof? Chatelaine recently polled Canadians on the country's most "iconic" food item, and poutine easily finished first, beating out maple syrup.

Poutine's rise to national prominence isn't just confirmed by polls but by the dish's ubiquity on menus around Canada. What started as a regional specialty in Quebec in the 1950s, per Chatelaine, has long since outgrown its regional roots. Indeed, poutineries — restaurants dedicated to poutine — are now found nationwide. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, poutine has also become a staple on fast food and fine dining menus. The first recorded instance of the latter, of course, was the famed foie gras poutine introduced by acclaimed chef Martin Picard in 2001. The New York Times dubbed it "nouvelle poutine."

Of course, poutine has also engendered controversy. As The Canadian Encyclopedia notes, many in French-speaking Quebec dispute its status as a classic Canadian food. In their eyes, it was born in Quebec and belongs solely to that province. Then there's the issue of its birth. It's not uncommon for distinguished dishes to have competing origin stories, but poutine is especially rich in this regard.

Untangling poutine's origins

Although poutine has plenty of origin stories, the two most commonly told iterations both trace back to Quebec in the late 50s and early 60s. The first involves Fernand Lachance, owner and cook at Le Lutin Qui Rit restaurant in the town of Warwick, Quebec. According to The New York Times, it was Lachance who first shook up potatoes and cheese curds in a bag. When he opened the bag, he proclaimed the resultant melted cheese mixture was a "poutine," a slang word for "mess" in Quebecois French.

The Spruce Eats notes a different version, in which Lachance made the primitive poutine for a truck driver, whose brethren helped to spread the dish's reputation far and wide. Of course, one ingredient noticeably absent in the Lachance tale is gravy. Chatelaine claims that Lachance later added gravy to keep the dish warm. 

But the critical addition of gravy is also attributed to Jean-Paul Roy. Roy claims he invented poutine at Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, Quebec, in 1964, per The Canadian Encyclopedia. Roy was apparently topping French fries with his own sauce dating back to 1958 (a possible origin of gravy in the dish) but didn't begin adding cheese curds until 1964, after seeing several customers add their own.

There may never be an answer on who officially invented poutine, but one thing is for certain — it is a uniquely delicious dish, and we have Quebec to thank for it.