When it comes to poutine, three things are certain: it was invented in Québec, it’s best made with fresh cheese curds and it’s undeniably delicious. What’s less clear is who first made it, and when.
The very history of this palate-pleasing, artery-clogging French Canadian masterpiece is a hot mess, peppered with colourful characters and laced with a distracting array of secret sauces and gooey melted cheese curds.
Two Québec restaurants in the region south of Trois-Rivieres claim to be first to serve up the now-iconic dish. Café Ideal, later re-named Le Lutin Qui Rit (The Laughing Elf), has the earliest claim. Story has it, the Warwick, Qué. café was serving poutine — or something quite like it — as early as 1957. But detractors suggest that even if Café Ideal served it first, their piping hot bag of fries and fresh cheese curds was missing a key ingredient — the gravy, known in Québec as ‘sauce brune.’
The more widely accepted claim to serving all three key ingredients together comes from Drummondville’s Le Roy Jucep, once owned by the late Jean-Paul Roy. Le Roy Jucep holds the trademark as “l’inventeur de la poutine” but just like their menu, which offers 23 options for cheesy, sauce-smothered fries, their origin story comes in several flavours. Some say it was an out-of-town customer who first asked his waitress to toss fresh cheese curds — widely available in the dairy-rich region — onto his plate of fries and gravy. Others claim the culinary ménage a trois was a frequent off-menu request from the diner’s regulars – so frequent that Roy decided to make it an official menu option around 1965 or 1967.
“Whoever’s the first human to put cheese, gravy and fries on a plate, we’ll never know for sure,” says Charles Lambert, Le Roy Jucep’s third owner and current protector of the diner’s secret sauce recipe. “[But] the first restaurant to write the letters P-O-U-T-I-N-E on a menu is for sure Le Roy Jucep. And that represented fries, cheese curds and gravy.”
According to Lambert, in the mid-60’s wait staff grew tired of writing “fries, cheese curds and gravy” each time a customer ordered the increasingly popular dish, and decided it needed a name. Lambert has a few ideas for how the now famous moniker came to be. “Poutine” was regional slang for “pudding,” and another way of saying “mix” or “mess” — both appropriate adjectives. Moreover, one of Le Roy Jucep’s cooks went by the nickname “Ti-Pout,” so “poutine” was a name that honoured both the dish and its maker.
Café Ideal’s name story is a similar, albeit saltier tale. Popular history has it that when Eddy Lanaisse, reportedly the first customer to ask for cheese curds with his fries, made his request, owner Fernand Lachance exclaimed, “Ça va te faire une maudite poutine!” or “That will make a damned mess!”
On that point, at least, we have accord: poutine is a mess, but damned if it isn’t delicious.
Can’t get enough poutine? Try these delicious 9 Fun Facts About Poutine.