Poutine a Canadian icon celebrating 60 years of global delight

Sylvan Charlebois, Troy Media

A deep dive into the rich history and cultural significance of poutine for Quebec and Canada

Sylvain Charlebois, Troy Media

Poutine, that deliciously indulgent combination of cheese curds, fries, and gravy, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. While many attribute its creation to Jean-Claude Roy in Drummondville in 1964, the true origins of poutine can be traced back to Fernand Lachance and his wife Germaine in Warwick, Quebec.

It was at their restaurant, L’Idéal (later Le Lutin qui Rit), where the word “poutine” first appeared on a menu in 1957. At that time, Quebec was under the influence of Maurice Duplessis (premier from 1936 until his death in 1959, except for the war years of 1940–44) and the Catholic Church.

Interestingly, the original poutine didn’t include gravy, as Fernand wasn’t a fan. It wasn’t until around 1962 that Germaine added her sauce as a side dish, completing the iconic trio of ingredients. However, in 1964, Roy, a professional saucier, was the first to combine all three main ingredients: cheese curds, gravy, and fries. This historical account is detailed in my book Poutine Nation, released in 2021.

The dish’s popularity grew rapidly, with chip trucks spreading it across rural Quebec. In 1972, Ashton Leblond, the founder of the Ashton restaurants, further popularized poutine in the Quebec City region, emphasizing the importance of Quebec’s cheese curds in the dish.

Today, poutine can be found on menus worldwide, from Washington to Shanghai, forever associated with Quebec and Canadian cuisine. Despite its global popularity, poutine has yet to receive the recognition it deserves on the international stage. UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has been declaring intangible cultural heritage since 2003, including dishes like Neapolitan pizza, French baguette, and Chinese traditional tea. Canada, however, has not signed this convention, meaning no Canadian dish is currently on UNESCO’s list.

Canada has the opportunity to change this by becoming a signatory to the convention and nominating poutine as the first Canadian dish to be declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Poutine’s journey from a humble rural Quebec dish to a global culinary icon is a testament to its cultural significance, deserving of recognition on the world stage.

Poutine’s success story is one of resilience and adaptation. It has evolved over the years, with variations that include toppings like pulled pork, foie gras, and even lobster. Despite these modern twists, the core elements of poutine remain unchanged, a testament to its enduring appeal.

Part of what makes poutine so special is its ability to bring people together. Whether you’re enjoying it at a roadside chip truck in rural Quebec or a trendy restaurant in a cosmopolitan city, poutine has a way of creating a sense of shared experience. It’s a dish that transcends borders and cultures, bringing a little piece of Quebec and Canada wherever it goes. Yes, it may be disgustingly unhealthy, but it is indeed iconic.

In addition to its cultural significance, poutine is also economically important. It has become a symbol of Canadian identity, attracting tourists from around the world who want to experience this iconic dish firsthand. In Quebec, poutine is not just a dish; it’s an industry supporting cheese curd producers, potato farmers, and restaurateurs across the province.

As we celebrate poutine’s 60th anniversary, let’s not just enjoy this delicious dish but also reflect on its cultural and economic impact. Let’s recognize poutine for what it is: a true Canadian success story and a culinary masterpiece that deserves its place among the world’s most beloved dishes.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.