This Town Claims To Have Invented Poutine
Canada’s most recognizable culinary creation is slowly becoming known—and riffed on—across the globe but its origins remain shrouded in mystery.
Photo via Flickr user LWYang
To the poutine purist, variations like chicken tikka, goat, and Italian poutines are an unwelcome aberration of one of the most simple and perfect food combinations ever: fries, squeaky cheese curds (never shredded), and heavy brown gravy.
In the province of Quebec, there are very few origin myths as hotly contested as the creation of the mighty poutine. In some small towns, the issue is as meaningful as hockey allegiances or politics. And while Canada's most recognizable culinary creation is slowly becoming known—and riffed on—across the globe, its provenance remains shrouded in mystery.
But that hasn't stopped a Quebec town from re-appropriating the poutine's history for its own benefit in a recent tourism ad starring local personality Frédéric Bastien Forrest. Drummondville, a city of 72,000 inhabitants, 100 kilometers northeast of Montreal, is now taking its crusade global.
"Every day, big ideas are born here in Drummondville," Bastien Forrest says in the ad. "Ideas which have reached around the world. Don't believe me? Just follow me."
Bastien Forrest then embarks on an epic voyage to New York City, Panama City, and Tokyo, telling everyone along the way that poutine was "born" in Drummondville. While poutine may be a great excuse for travelling abroad and preaching the Drummondville gospel, it does little to get to the bottom of things.
The truth is that Quebec towns like Drummondville, Victoriaville, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, and Warwick all claim to have been the birthplace of the iconic dish. The only thing we know for sure is that poutine was not an urban or Montreal creation, and that it emerged in rural Quebec, where dairy farms and cheese curds abound.
The most widely accepted story is that of a Montreal businessman asking for fries and cheese in a takeout bag at the Lutin Qui Rit restaurant in Warwick, Quebec. Owner Fernand Lachance reportedly told him "Ça va faire une maudite poutine!" ("it will make a damn mess!"). Gravy would have been added later, according to this version.
But, like Robert Johnson's legendary encounter with the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi, a good story doesn't mean that it actually happened. In fact, even the origins of the word "poutine" are unknown. Whether it's a variation on the English word "pudding," or slang for "damn mess" is also unclear, there are at least 15 different known uses of the word.
MUNCHIES spoke with Renée Brousseau, the current general manager of Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, the restaurant which claims to be the originator of poutine.
"Jean-Paul Roy invented the poutine. After working a few years in Montreal he ended up in Drummondville and founded Le Roy Jucep. They were making poutines before, but in 1964 they started writing 'poutine' on their order pads. It means mess, and one of the cooks' names was 'Ti-Pout' so they started calling it 'poutine.' Before that, nobody called it 'poutine.'"
For Brousseau, this is as close as we're going to get to any kind of empirical evidence. "And the original staff were as convinced, as much as many other restaurants and casse-croutes are, that they had invented the word. Is there any scientific evidence of who invented the word? I don't think so. I don't think that anybody would be able to prove that."
Like burritos, lobster rolls, and General Tso's chicken, poutine occupies that pantheon of once-humble dishes (with nebulous origins) that get are constantly deconstructed and reshaped into more "gourmet" varieties. Poutine's moment of glory may have been when it was used by Montreal chef Chuck Hughes to defeat Iron Chef Bobby Flay
While Drummondville's ballsy poutine ad may reignite ancient arguments, at least it's a reminder that there was a time before ironic, postmodern poutines. It's also a reminder that this debate about the origins of the dish will probably never be solved.
"We're convinced that we invented, just like others are convinced that they invented it." Brousseau says. "But we've trademarked the word. Is that absolute proof? No. But if that's what you're looking for, you're never going to find it!"