The first few years of my life I lived a mere four miles from the Canadian border in the Akwesasne territory in northern NY. I spoke English with a patois of pidgin Scots-Gaelic, a few words of the Northeastern Mohawk dialect, and a little French.
I went to classes on the US side of the 45th parallel and to church on the Canadian side. Other than an ongoing dispute between Canadian authorities and residents over the right to transport personal goods across the border without having duties levied1, the St. Regis reservation’s borders into the US and Canada were relatively porous in the late sixties and early seventies.
On Saturday afternoons, we would pile into cars and trucks and head to Canada for the weekly shopping. While all the grown-ups and almost grown-ups went to the grocery, the feed and seed stores, the bars, and the 5&10, we little kids all headed to a place called Buggy’s where we pooled our money to scrape up 15¢ and share enormous dishes of poutine. The larger the share you came up with, and the smaller the group that came up with it, the more poutine you got.
Poutine! Extra crispy pommes frites and cheese curds, smothered in savory brown gravy, the Holy Grail of savory foods, poutine is quite possibly the greatest dish ever invented.
One of the earliest poutine creation legends from the 1950’s tells of a man ordering take out fries who was also tempted by the bags of fresh cheese curds at the counter. He asked the restaurateur to combine them in a to go bag, to which the owner responded, “ça va faire une maudite poutine!” (“That’s going to make a damn mess!”).
The self-designated L’inventeur de la poutine, Jean-Paul Roy, was a slinger of fast food. He began serving his fries with a special gravy, calling the dish patate-sauce. He claims his customers began requesting he add fresh cheese curds, also available at the restaurant, to the concoction. Once he began selling it as a menu item, he changed the name to poutine because “fromage-patate-sauce” was too long for his waitresses to write on the orders. Roy said that the name came originally from “pouding”, a word used by earlier generations to denote a mixture of foods, which sounded like poutine when speaking. He also claims that it was also a play-on-words involving one of his cooks, named Ti-Pout. The joke in the kitchen was, “Ti-Pout makes poutine!”, and it stuck. Whether Jean-Paul Roy was the actual inventor has been challenged by many others, but he was certainly the first to sell it under its contemporary name.
Poutine is now on menus from coast to coast in Canada and is even on a few US menus. There are variations on the basic recipe as simple as adding bacon and as highbrow as truffles. There is nothing healthy about poutine. Deep fried potatoes, fresh cheese, rich gravy? No. It’s a heart attack in a takeout box. But is it worth it? Mon Dieu, yes.
1. As established by the Jay Treaty of 1794
(Photo: Joe Shlabotnik)