French fries, gravy, and cheese curds: Poutinefest in Ottawa

Poutine and Pepsi.  Photo: James Morgan

Poutine with white gravy and Pepsi. Photo: James Morgan

The Ottawa Poutinefest is on until Sunday at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of City Hall, celebrating that famous French-Canadian dish, which in its most basic form is French fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds. Several trucks and trailers serving poutine are set up, many of them mobile units owned by popular French fry and poutine stands from the surrounding area.

There are many variations on poutine from its humble classic version. Walking through the festival, I saw varieties with chunks of bacon, sausage, and Montreal smoked meat added. There was lobster poutine, butter chicken poutine, and bacon double cheeseburger poutine too.

“Never tasted really good poutine until I moved to Quebec”

I mostly grew up in southwestern Ontario and never tasted really good poutine until I moved to Quebec. I’m most certainly wrong, but I’m biased towards poutine with origins in La Belle Province as it is sometimes called. So, at Poutinefest, I chose to buy my lunch from the Gaga Patates trailer. Their permanent location is just a few blocks away from my place in Gatineau. Instead of the usual brown gravy, I chose the white gravy. It isn’t white gravy like what usually gets put on southern dishes like country fried steak, it’s more like chicken stew gravy, with some mild herbs and spices added. I’m no expert on “food pairing” as culinary connoisseurs call it, but Pepsi is the perfect beverage to have with poutine.

Ottawa Poutinefest.  Photo: James Morgan

Ottawa Poutinefest. Photo: James Morgan

Poutine: Quebec slang for “mess”

Like with any good thing, several people and communities claim to be inventors of poutine. The most accepted story goes back to 1957 in Warwick, Quebec, a small town north of Sherbrooke. A customer named Eddy Lainesse asked snack bar owner Fernand Lachance to mix cheese curds in with his order of fries. Lachance reportedly answered in French; “That will make a damned mess!” Poutine is a Quebec slang French word for mess. The combination got popular though, and Lachance was serving his early poutine in paper bags. Customers were adding ketchup and vinegar and leaving a real mess on snack bar tables. In 1963, Lachance started serving poutine on plates to prevent that. Customers complained though that their food was going cold too fast, so he started covering the poutine with gravy to keep it warm. A snack bar owner in Drummondville Quebec also claimed to have invented poutine, only he called his early version patate sauce—or “sauce potatoes.” Patate is the Quebec slang word for the spuds. Rarely is pomme de terre ever used in conversation. There’s a right way to say the word poutine, too. It’s poot-in, not poo-teen, and certainly not like “Putin.”

There are some really bad improvisations on poutine around, too. I had a bad experience at a greasy spoon in Montreal once where they used processed mozzarella instead of cheddar cheese curds. That’s a culinary crime in my opinion. McDonald’s and Burger King have both tried selling poutine as well.

On the other end of the scale of taste, some of the gourmet varieties are quite expensive. At Poutinefest, it was typical to see some of them selling for $20 or more. I even heard recently of a poutine buffet being offered for guests late in the evening at a wedding reception. Whether it’s gourmet, or the classic version served in a paper bag from a neighborhood stand, poutine is a big part of Quebec’s and Canada’s food culture.

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