Whether you’re drunk, high, or just a Montrealer, poutine is one thing everyone around the city can agree on. Regardless of if you have it at La Belle Province or Au Pied de Cochon, the appeal of the dish is difficult to deny.
Although every week in Montreal feels like a celebration of the holy trinity of ingredients that is poutine, a special event will be coming in the next few days: the week-long, city-wide festival known as La Poutine Week. Although past iterations of the event have limited restaurants to offering their poutines at a certain price, this year’s tagline is “Out of This World Poutines,” and chefs are being encouraged to serve up the wildest varieties of the dish they can imagine.
As innovative and decadent as people have gotten with poutine in recent years, the dish initially came from humbler origins. People have different ideas of when and where poutine began, but most seem to agree that it started in Quebec, sometime around the late 1950s or early 1960s.
According to Charles Lambert, president of Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, credit belongs to the founder of the restaurant, Jean-Paul Roy. As Lambert’s story goes, Roy was the first one to come up with the idea of combining fries, curds, and gravy. After waitresses at Le Roy Jucep grew tired of having to write the names of the three ingredients every time a customer ordered the dish, it was dubbed with its now iconic moniker in honour of a chef in the kitchen who went by the nickname “Ti-Pout.” The restaurant began using the term "poutine" once it moved to its current location, meaning that the first instance of the combination being marketed as we now know it dates to about 1965.
As charming as this tale is, it’s not the only origin story associated with the dish. Marysabel Garrido, kitchen manager at the legendary Montreal institution La Banquise, agrees on poutine’s Quebecois origins, but she believes that it began in Warwick in 1958. According to her, a hungry customer wanted to order fries and cheese together in a bag in order to shake them up and melt the cheese. The man who sold it to him said that it would be a “poutine” (French slang for “a mess,” roughly), and a culinary icon was born.
La Poutine Week founder Na’eem Adam has a less concrete view of poutine’s background. “I’m sure it started in someone’s home,” he said. “I don’t have proof of that, but that’s what sounds normal to me.”
Photo cred – La Poutine Week
Moving forward without forgetting the past
No matter where poutine started, the dish has undeniably come a long way since its initial conception. Still, many chefs around the city aim to keep it as close to its roots as possible. Deniz Hadjiev, former president of Montreal Pool Room, takes pride in his restaurant’s adherence to tradition. The beloved late-night spot hasn’t changed their recipe in over 30 years, and he believes in the power of their continuity. “It’s an old-fashioned sauce that’s continued to work for years and years of serving it in the restaurant,” said Hadjiev. “I’m very confident with the original recipe. It’s affordable for anybody to have a good poutine, and not to expect anything more than that.”
As Adam notes, the budget consciousness at Pool Room honours poutine’s roots. “Price definitely affects culture, in many ways,” he explained. “If you look at the comfort foods that came out of many different cultures and places, it was always geared around people not having enough money, or these were the leftovers, or things like that.”
Even in the hallowed halls of poutine trailblazers La Banquise, where they’re famous for such offerings as La Taquise (poutine topped with guacamole, sour cream, and tomatoes), tradition continues to reign supreme. Despite the restaurant’s acclaim around the city for their innovations, their best-selling dish continues to be their unadorned poutine, appropriately titled “La Classique.” “I believe in tradition,” said Garrido. “There is a certain limit to where you can modify a recipe before it starts losing its real, traditional essence…There’s a lot of people who love the variety of our menu, but what always prevails is the people that come in and want their classic poutine, the real poutine. We can add more stuff to the menu, but the people who really know their poutine will always go for a classic.”
Le Roy Jucep modified their recipe recently, but only in the interest of making their poutine taste even more authentic. After Lambert purchased the restaurant in 2011, a hand-made cookbook turned up which contained a different gravy recipe than the one which his chefs had been using at the time. In an effort to serve the most traditional dish possible, Lambert implemented the new (old) recipe in the kitchen, and the change was wildly successful. Waitresses who had been working at the restaurant for over 20 years said that it tasted more like Roy’s original creation, and customers agreed with their approval. Although Lambert didn’t publicize the modification, clients reacted positively to the gravy’s spicier and less sweet flavour.
The Cultural Importance
The victory of historical convention at Le Roy Jucep speaks to the dish’s significance as a symbol of Quebecois pride and heritage. As Adam sees it, poutine is inextricably linked with the province’s culture. “The tradition is strong,” he said. “There’s this melting pot of people; there’s different backgrounds and ethnicities that are just coming together. You see that translated to these dishes. It’s getting its evolution, but its core is never changing. Its core is always an homage to Quebec.”
The linkage between the dish and the province is commonly understood by locals and foreigners alike. Hadjiev notes the spike in the popularity of poutine at Pool Room whenever lots of tourists come to town. “You always feel like it’s a dish that tourists order,” he said. “Whoever comes from outside of the city has heard of poutine, and they come here and they want to try it.”
There aren't many better places at which they could choose to try it than the hugely popular chain Frite Alors. There, as co-owner Martin Charbonneau explains, they rigorously select Quebecois potatoes, which come from a variety also grown in Belgium. Once picked, the intensive preparation process involves cooking the potatoes in beef grease until they turn a certain colour, putting them in the fridge, and then cooking them again. “Most people know Frite Alors, they know what they eat,” said Charbonneau. “It’s all the same taste, the same quality.”
Still, no matter where the potatoes come from, all of the poutine connoisseurs I spoke with agree that it’s attention to detail that makes a great poutine what it is. Over at Le Roy Jucep, freshness continues to be a crucial factor in the culinary process. They strive for “fresh everything,” Lambert said. Adam emphasized the importance of the “squish factor” in the cheese, the preparation of the fries, and the addition of “a lot of love” to the sauce.
Thanks to the efforts of these hard-working aficionados, poutine continues to be an inescapable part of the culture throughout Montreal and Quebec. “It’s simple, and it’s hard not to like,” said Lambert. “It’s not like some other dishes which some people like and some people don’t. Some don’t eat poutine because they don’t want to gain ten pounds a month, but they won’t eat it because it doesn’t taste good.”
As Lambert says, and La Poutine Week will soon enforce, everyone loves poutine.