Poutine: Quebec’s Gravy-Laden Gift to the Drunk

After a night of partying, nothing soothes the soul like the French-Canadian delicacy of french fries, cheese curds and gravy. In the latest "Eating in Bars," Talia Ralph explains why poutine is so right when you're out of your right mind.

There is a slow montage that plays in my head every so often, one that taunts, haunts and nags at me. It’s the facial expressions most Americans make when I first explain poutine to them.

Poutine (pronounced: poo-teen) is a French-Canadian delicacy consisting of french fries topped with fresh, squeaky cheese curds and hot gravy. Why this trio solicits such disgust from a citizenry who will eagerly eat questionably sourced street vendor hot dogs and KFC Double Downs has always confused me … and I’ve been interacting with Americans for a very long time.

I have, however, been interacting with poutine far longer, and it is with poutine that my loyalties lie. I grew up in Montreal and there are few things that have kept me warmer or saner over the last 25 years than poutine. (Meatball subs are a close second, but that’s another column, for another time.) It is the perfect fortifying winter meal, especially after a long morning of skiing or winter hiking or just getting around in sub-zero temperatures. The only situation in which poutine is more satisfying is when you’re cold and drunk.

Poutine is at once crispy, salty, gooey, and chewy. It calls to mind the emotional warmth of Thanksgiving and the giddy nervousness of fast food first dates, all tied together with half-melted cheese. It fills that small void you feel after you eat a grilled cheese or a slice of pizza—like there’s something more out there for you, but you don’t know quite what—with potato and animal fat. It’s a goddamn stroke of Canadian genius.

In Montreal, where nights kick off late (it’s not uncommon for the party to START at midnight), La Banquise—a 24-hour poutine mecca which offers over 30 riffs on the classic—is the natural final destination. There are a range of late-night options, though, from the greasy-spoon chain La Belle Province (which has a glitzed-up location in the heart of downtown, not far from the infamous strip club and bachelor party standard Super Sexe) to the homey, artsy Patati Patata, where the health-minded can get a side of salad with their poutine.

There is something about being drunk that allows us to both gloss over unsettling details (Why is this cheese I’m eating squeaky?) and experience the physicality of food in a way that our sober selves can’t always.

The dish has foggy roots; its history is tough to taste for certain, even in an, ahem, heightened state. Most scholars place its origins in the 1950s in rural Quebec, at a restaurant in the town of Warwick called Le Lutin Qui Rit (“The Laughing Imp”). I like to imagine Eddy Lanaise, the client who first requested that cheese curds be mixed with his fries, giggling to himself impishly about his brilliance. In fact, he tells the story much more simply:

“I wanted fries, but I saw cheese curds on the counter. I asked Fernand [LaChance, the owner] to mix them together.”

Spoken like a true drunk eater, and given like a truly kind restaurateur.

The name “poutine” is reportedly pulled from LaChance’s reply to this insane yet brilliant request: “Ça va faire une maudite poutine.” (“That’s going to make a damn big mess.”)

Complicating matters, the trademark for the dish belongs not to LaChance but to Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, Quebec, who patented the combination of gravy, cheese and fries in 1964. Still others say that Princeville’s Le P’tite Vache (“The Little Cow”) created poutine as a way to use excess cheese curds from the nearby dairy, La Princesse, in a show of sustainability that other drunk foods would do best to emulate.

I’m not here to argue about the precise date and location of poutine’s birth, however: I’m here to argue for its legitimacy and its respect. I’m here to guard against the imposters who think they can just pile anything they want on top of fries and call it poutine—while loaded fries are always an excellent idea, taking poutine’s name in vain is blasphemous at worst and factually incorrect at best. Mostly, I’m here to rail against those expressions of grossed-out-ness I’ve been putting up with since I started telling U.S. citizens what I’ve been eating as comfort food my entire life.

I wish I could take everyone who raises their eyebrows about poutine to Chien Chaud (“Hot Dog,” and yes, this is the best restaurant name of all time), a little casse-croute (“French-Canadian diner with a serious to-go game”) down the street from my high school in Montreal West that sadly is no more. My $20 weekly allowance bought me 3.5 poutines, which meant I was eating the stuff for lunch more days than not, usually perched on top of a cement wall next door, flanked by my friends. Poutine at Chien Chaud was a wonderful if not brief taste of freedom—from obligations, from rules—much the same feeling achieved as an adult on a late-night, drunken poutine binge.

There is something about being drunk that allows us to both gloss over unsettling details (Why is this cheese I’m eating squeaky?) and experience the physicality of food in a way that our sober selves can’t always. I once worked for a culinary company that hosted intimate cooking workshops in immigrant cooks’ homes throughout New York City, and I was privy to the beta testing of all the classes—which means I was eating a whole lot of mindblowing, home-cooked international meals. One night, I got a bit buzzed with my then-boyfriend and remembered I had leftover Indian food from the day’s workshop in my fridge. I split it between two bowls (because I’m a generous soul) and microwaved it.I could have sworn as I ate that meal that I could taste every layer of spice and simmer; it was like I was consuming the history of the woman who made it.

Poutine has a similar layeredness—an edible geology of crisped fries and half-melted cheese, still-hot gravy snaking through both—that, like a sloppy bowl of tikka masala zapped after too many Old-Fashioneds, is best experienced slightly out of your right mind.