Canada 2017

How much of a poutine purist are you?

Chicken pot poutine. Spaghetti sauce instead of gravy. As global chefs mess with the classic formula, we review the messy history of the Québécois dish.

Our American neighbours are messing with the formula — but they're not the first.

The classic poutine — crisp fries, hot gravy and fresh cheese curds — has become a national icon. (Olya Krasavina/La Poutine Week)

Ever heard of chicken pot poutine? Or poutine topped with spaghetti and chili?

Canadian expat Spencer Buell has seen both spinoffs and many others in Boston. He worries local restaurants are taking the Québécois classic in a "disturbing direction."

"Just because it has gravy injected in it or just because gravy is an ingredient that's included in a dish doesn't make it poutine," Buell said in an interview with CBC Radio. "I think it's time for someone to set the record straight."

Sounds fair. Only trouble is: the record wasn't straight to begin with. 

As the world develops a taste for poutine, let's review what we know about our own national favourite.

The meaning's a bit of a mess

How could anyone have imagined that the simple combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy would capture the imaginations and taste buds of food lovers as far away as Dublin, Singapore and Quito? 

Buell worries that the word poutine has come to mean "just a pile of stuff with other stuff on it" — but the real etymology of "poutine" is as opaque as its gravy.

The Gallows serves poutine with chilli and spaghetti, while Boston Chops offers a 'poutine-style' twice-baked potato. (@thegallowsboston, @BostonChops/Instagram )

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the term is Québécois slang for "mess" — as in, "When I shove this poutine in my face, it's going to make a mess." The dictionary also says its first known use came in 1982, decades after the dish was created.

However, dictionaries such as the Dictionnaire historique du français québécois — an authoritative source on Québécois and Acadian French — seem to indicate at least a dozen other meanings.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the term is Québécois slang for "mess"

For example, another popular suggestion is that "poutine" is an Anglicism for "pudding," a term used in local dialects to describe not a dessert, but a mish-mash of whatever food items are available.

Poutine's history is contested, too

Who invented poutine? That's like asking who invented rock 'n' roll — ask a dozen people and you'll get a dozen answers.

Some of the most oft-repeated claimants are Le Roy Jucep, in Drummondville, Que., and Café L'Idéal (later renamed as Le Lutin Qui Rit) in nearby Warwick.

If we can't agree on where it came from, at least we can agree this dish — known then as poutine or otherwise — first surfaced sometime in the late 1950s or early '60s. It's reported to have first appeared as "poutine" on diner menus about 20 years after that.

Who invented poutine? That's like asking who invented rock 'n' roll.

Another popular origin story tells of a diner who asked a waitress to add cheese curds to his fries and gravy. Could the story have started so simply?

People love to mess with the formula — even in Quebec

La Banquise tops one poutine dish with guacamole, sour cream and sliced tomatoes. (Emily Lee)

In Quebec's poutine tradition, grated cheese is a cardinal sin. Don't try it, not even at home.

Real poutine, in its purest form, is characterized by a thinner, chicken stock-based gravy and cheese — but not just any cheese. Cheese curds. The biggest, most squeakiest possible, please.​

Boston chefs aren't the first to mess that formula. 

Hot takes on the classic poutine are almost as old as the dish itself, including one of the oldest known modifications: Italian-style poutine, where spaghetti sauce is substituted for the gravy.

Realpoutine, in its purest form, is characterized by a thinner, chicken stock-based gravy and cheese — but not just any cheese...

In New Jersey and New York, "disco fries" — also known as cheese fries — are fries and grated mozzarella covered with thick, sometimes beef-based, gravy.

Even in its home province, poutine has been pushed to its limits. 

The world's largest poutine was made in 2015 in Trois-Rivières, Que., weighing in at 3,800 pounds. More than 8,000 people got to sample the pulled-pork poutine.

Size aside, ingredients have run the range in la belle province. 

La Banquise is a popular 24-hour Montreal poutine joint that makes about 30 different variations, including la Hot-Dog (classic poutine and cut-up hot dogs), l'Abreuvoir (classic poutine and cut-up Pogos aka corn dogs) and la Taquise (guacamole, sour cream and tomatoes on a classic poutine).

Further insanity is available during Poutine Week, a relatively recent week-long celebration of Canada's most famous dish. It began in Montreal and has since spread to elsewhere in Quebec, Toronto and beyond.

The Shawarmaz gives poutine a Middle Eastern twist. (Olya Krasavina/La Poutine Week)

During Poutine Week, restaurateurs — including ones who don't normally serve poutine — are invited to dream up the craziest poutine-based concoction they can come up with and serve it at an affordable price point. Diners chow down, rate the poutines on an app and elect a winner.

Some of the recent fan favourites include Shawarmaz, a Middle Eastern-inspired plate featuring garlic potatoes, shish taouk, fried onions, sesame seeds and pita chips; a Thai take including braised beef and a curry sauce; and a heart-stopping classic poutine topped with four-cheese mac 'n' cheese and fried bacon.

For those of us who enjoy a classic poutine without the bells and whistles, though, there's still no substitute for a late-night, post-bar, cheese-topped indulgence.

We're watching you, Boston.