This appeared in the Toronto Star food section in November, 2008.
Dear readers, you read it here first.
The all-Canadian culinary controversy about the origin of poutine that has simmered, and occasionally boiled over into a food fight, for several decades has been resolved thanks to yours truly and a trusty team of helpers.
Any poutine pilgrimage worth its salt has to begin in Bois-Francs: the bucolic, verdant countryside dotted with dairy farms, villages and small towns an hour or two’s drive north-east of Montreal.
It’s a recent, gloriously sunny fall day and the sleuthing foray in question involves four people: my bilingual brother and filmmaker Eric and two francophones – his girlfriend Claire and camera-woman friend MarieJosee.
Our mission – one in keeping with the title “Food Sleuth” emblazoned on my new business card – is to solve the debate over where, when and by whom poutine, Quebec’s famous roadside fast food concoction, was invented.
We have three destinations: Le Roy Jucep in the town of Drummondville, still alive, hopping and billed on its web site, menu and awning as “Plus que l’inventeur de la poutine” (“More than the inventor of poutine.”)
Next is a vintage diner located on the small highway that runs through the tiny town of Victoriaville. Max Poutine is a humble eatery that makes no claim to have invented poutine but is a must-visit since its menu boasts more than 50 versions of this popular dish.
Our third stop is Warwick, touted by many as the first place to serve poutine in 1957 at a café then called L’Ideal and later re-named Le Lutin Qui Rit (The Laughing Elf). Sadly, this restaurant is no more, its location now a charity shop for children’s clothes on the quaint village’s main street.
Also sadly, both claimants to poutine invention are no more. The owner of Drummondville’s Le Roy Jucep, Jean-Paul Roy, died a year ago and Fernand Lachance, proprietor of the defunct Warwick café, passed away in 2004. But we have clues, witnesses and evidence that are key ingredients in what turns out to be a successful search with a surprising result.
At its most basic and in its original version, poutine is simply this: hot french fries topped with cheese curds then doused in gravy, referred to in these parts where little English is spoken as “la sauce.”
At Le Roy Jucep, our source is the affable, chatty and bilingual Daniel Leblanc: long-time manager and now owner of this spacious, bustling establishment that was Quebec’s first curb-side diner and takes up almost a block.
With its big parking lot, large patio and vintage diner interior, this spot is known for its excellent burgers, hot dogs and other traditional fast-food fare – but especially for poutine.
Hungry and prepped for poutine, we order the day’s special: Trio de degustation, a poutine tasting trio, for $9.99.
One is your basic and perfect rendition. Piping hot, crispy home-made fries on which magnificent local white cheese curds have gently melted, all soaked with a delectably light but flavourful gravy made, says Leblanc, from Roy’s original recipe.
The second is a veggie version: the above three key ingredients plus chunks of tender-crisp green peppers, onion and tomato.
The last is a superb Oktoberfest poutine in which slices of grilled sausage are added to the mandatory three-ingredient mix.
Leblanc tells me how a customer accidentally invented poutine one busy Saturday in the late 1950s.
“It was a gentleman from Montreal,” he explains. “He had the newspaper in one hand and was eating fries with gravy with the other. There was a gallon container of cheese curds on the counter and he asked the waitress to add some curds to his dish of food.”
The creation only appeared on the menu as poutine in 1964 after the owner gathered his staff together and asked them to come up with a name for what had been a popular item for several years.
“Somebody said it should be called poutine,” he says. “Poutine was slang for the English word “pudding” which our grandmothers used for food that was a mixture of things all put together.”
Leblanc is adamant that Warwick’s claim to poutine creation is false. “I have newspapers that prove we were serving it in the 1950s,” he continues. “What Fernand Lachance made in 1957 was not poutine – it was just fries with cheese curds.”
At Max Poutine, we’re tucking into a couple of versions including the house special. The poutine Special Max is divine: your basic poutine crowned with thin slivers of sautéed beef plus chopped green peppers, tomato, celery and onion.
As we leave, Claire chats with an elderly man seated at the horseshoe counter. It seems he knows Eddy Lanaisse, reputedly the inventor and first man to eat poutine at Lachance’s Warwick café. He hands us a napkin with Lanaisse’s phone number scribbled on it.
We feel compelled to eat poutine in Warwick, our last stop. At a large cheese shop, milk bar – and, natch, poutine emporium – on the edge of town, we try poutine Galvaude. Rough translation: knock-out poutine. The addition of unappetizing sliced chicken and canned peas is our first poutine disappointment.
We head home, napkin in hand, to phone Lanaisse at his Warwick home.
Our outing is especially timely as, in recent years, poutine has soared from its humble roots as a three-ingredient fast food concoction to huge popularity with high-end chefs as a chi-chi menu item.
Martin Picard at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal adds seared foie gras to his poutine. In Toronto, chefs Jamie Kennedy and Mark McEwan grace their poutine with braised lamb and lobster sauce respectively to this Quebecois creation.
At Rare, near Montreal’s Jean Talon market, tiny fried gnocchi are sprinkled with cheese curds, then soaked in veal jus for a unique Italian version of this delicious dish.
Back in Montreal, I and my brother’s francophone neighbour Etienne phone Lanaisse to get to the bottom of this Warwick/Drummondville debate.
Lanaisse claims to have been the first man to eat poutine. However, he admits that his version, eaten in 1957 in that Warwick café, was simply french fries topped with cheese curds – and no sauce. He says he has witnesses and evidence.
However, the clear winner – and you read it here first – is Le Roy Jucep, that Drummondville eatery where you can chow down on the original poutine any time, complete with mandatory sauce, and especially at the second annual poutine festival to be held at the end of August in 2009.
You can make a cheater’s poutine at home by using frozen French fries, cheese curds and storebought gravy – there’s even a version of poutine sauce made by St. Hubert sold in some supermarkets but I prefer the method below.
Braising meat – it could be beef, lamb or even chicken – produces a delicious sauce and spares you the hassle of making sauce from scratch.
Just pull the braised meat into shreds with your hands. Pot roast, stew, brisket, braised lamb shanks and moist roast chicken all work well.
The fries and sauce must be piping hot before assembling this tasty dish. If the cheese curds are large, you can chop or even coarsely shred them.
A handful of hot French fries
A handful of good-quality white cheese curds, in smallish pieces
Braised meat, shredded, with its sauce
Place fries in bowl or on plate. Sprinkle with cheese curds, then with meat. Pour sauce on top. Eat at once.
Makes 1 serving.