Poutine [poo-teen] (French: ‘a mess’) is a typical Canadian dish (originally from Quebec), made with french fries, topped with brown gravy (meat stock based) and cheese curds (solid parts of soured milk).

Poutine is sold by fast food chains, in small ‘greasy spoon’ type diners (commonly known as ‘cantines’ or ‘casse-croûtes’ in Quebec) and pubs, as well as by roadside chip wagons (commonly known as ‘cabanes à patates,’ literally meaning ‘potato shacks’). International chains like McDonald’s and KFC sell mass-produced poutine in Canada.

The dish originated in rural Quebec in the late 1950s. Several Québécois communities claim to be the birthplace of poutine, including Drummondville (by Jean-Paul Roy in 1964), Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu,and Victoriaville. One often-cited tale is that of Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that poutine was invented there in 1957; Lachance is said to have exclaimed, ‘ça va faire une maudite poutine’ (‘it will make a damn mess’), hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer. Over time the dish’s popularity spread mainly across the province (and later throughout Canada), often served in small town restaurants, bars, as well as being quite popular in ski resorts.

While the exact provenance of the word ‘poutine’ is uncertain, some of its meanings undoubtedly result at least in part from the influence of the English word ‘pudding.’ Among its various culinary senses, that of ‘a dessert made from flour or bread crumbs’ most clearly shows this influence; the word ‘pouding,’ borrowed from the English pudding, is in fact a synonym in this sense. The pejorative meaning ‘fat person’ of poutine (used especially in speaking of a woman) is believed to derive from the English pudding ‘a person or thing resembling a pudding’ or ‘stout, thick-set person.’

The ‘Dictionnaire historique’ mentions the possibility that the form ‘poutine’ is simply a gallicization of the word ‘pudding.’ However, it considers it more likely that it was inherited from regional languages spoken in France, and that some of its meanings resulted from the later influence of the similar-sounding English word ‘pudding.’ It cites the Provençal forms ‘poutingo’ (‘bad stew’) and ‘poutité’ (‘hodgepodge’ or ‘crushed fruit or foods’); and ‘poutringo’ (‘mixture of various things’) in Languedocien.

The gravy used to make poutine is generally a light and thin chicken, veal, or turkey gravy, mildly spiced with a hint of pepper, or a sauce brune which is a combination of beef and chicken stock, a variant originating in Quebec. The gravy should be thin enough to easily filter down into the mass of fries and cheese curds. These sauces typically also contain vinegar or a sour flavoring to balance the richness of the cheese and fries. Traditional poutine sauces (mélange à sauce poutine) are sold in Quebec, Ontario, and Maritime grocery stores in jars or cans and in powdered mix packets. Heavy beef or pork-based brown gravies are rarely used. To maintain the texture of the fries, the cheese curd and gravy are added immediately prior to serving the dish. The hot gravy is usually poured over the cold cheese curds, so that the cheese is warmed without completely melting. It is important to control the temperature, timing and the order in which the ingredients are added, so as to obtain the right food textures which is an essential part of the experience of eating poutine.

There are many variations of poutine. Some restaurants offer poutine with such additions as chicken, bacon, or Montreal-style smoked meat. Some such restaurants even boast a dozen or more variations of poutine. For instance, more upscale poutine with three-pepper sauce, Merguez sausage, foie gras or even caviar and truffle can be found. Some variations eliminate the cheese, but most francophone Quebecers would call such a dish a ‘frite sauce’ (‘french fries with sauce’) rather than poutine. Shawinigan and some other regions have Patate-sauce-choux where shredded raw cabbage replaces cheese. Fast food combination meals in Canada often have the option of getting french fries ‘poutinized’ by adding cheese curds (or shredded cheese in the Prairies and Western Canada) and gravy.

Outside Canada, poutine is found in northern border regions of the United States such as New England, the Pacific Northwest and the Upper Midwest. These regions offer further variations of the basic dish. Cheeses other than fresh curds are commonly used (most commonly mozzarella cheese), along with beef, brown or turkey gravy. In the county culture especially, a mixed fry can also come with cooked ground beef on top and is referred to as a hamburger mix, though this is less popular than a regular mix.

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