Canada’s Greatest Invention: Poutine

In 2007, the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a special mini-series counting down the top fifty Canadian inventions. The CBC asked Canadians to vote on which invention they thought the greatest. Following innovations such as insulin and the pacemaker, the ubiquitous Quebecois dish, poutine, received the tenth highest number of votes. Poutine beat out such other inventions like the programming language Java and the electron microscope. Throughout Canada, one can find this dish served in any number of restaurants—one would almost be remiss to not have some variety of it on their menu in Quebec. Poutine serves as a point of pride for many Canadians

Poutine comes in a great number of varieties—indeed, its versatility in part accounts for its popularity. At the most basic level, it consists of three ingredients: French fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds. One can find poutine in this form almost anywhere. Restaurants, street vendors, sports stadiums, etc. all hawk this fare year-round. In this form, the key to good poutine is in the gravy. Gravy, according to most whom I spoke with, can turn mediocre French fries into a delight; bad gravy can ruin even the best gourmet fries. The simplicity of the recipe and the ingredients also allows for a number of different takes on the dish: one restaurant in Montreal allows its guests to customize the type of French fries, the type of cheese, gravy, and add a variety of different meats, vegetables, and other toppings.

As many explanations for the etymology of the term “poutine” exist as do varieties of poutine one can find in Montreal. Other dishes called “poutine” have existed in Canada, especially in Quebec and the French-speaking parts of the Maritime Provinces, since the early nineteenth century. It remains unclear how the term became associated with the dish today. Some credit the English-word “pudding,” in a number of connotations, as the origin of “poutine.” One person with whom I spoke suggested that it arose from the English phrase “put it in.” According to that story, the birth of the dish poutine arose from a restaurateur’s attempt to rid himself of several leftover food items by “putting them all in” a single dish and serving it. Other sources, however, note the similarity of the word to various food-related words in historical regional dialects of French. The term then could have come across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century with settlers who came from various parts of France.

No matter the origins of the name, poutine remains a tremendously popular dish in Quebec, and has recently began to spread throughout the world. Part of its popularity comes from the simplicity the recipe. The ease with which one can modify it to give it different flavors make it a versatile addition to any meal. The ingredients themselves—the French fries, the gravy, and the cheese curds—can be catered to please the palate of a high-brow gastronome or satisfy the late night hunger of a poor college student. This, along with the pride of origin, has made poutine a cherished dish in Quebec and Canada.

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