Poutine at the Penrose

I briefly relived my Québécois experience the other day by stopping at the Penrose, a pub in my New York neighborhood, for an order of poutine, shown here.

An order of poutine from the Penrose.

For those not familiar with it, poutine is a gooey dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Its origins are uncertain, but according to Maclean’s, in 1957 a patron at the restaurant Le Lutin Qui Rit (The Laughing Elf) in Warwick, near Montreal, requested that cheese curds be added to his order of fries (Jeha). The kitchen obliged, and when the restaurant owner, Fernand Lachance, took a look at the resulting concoction, he referred to it in Québécois slang as a poutine, or a “mess” (Hutchinson).

But there was still no gravy. One source says that Lachance added it later to keep the dish warm (Jeha) while another says that the restaurateur Jean-Paul Roy created the three-ingredient version in 1964 when he noticed customers at his restaurant, Le Roy Jucep, in Drummondville, Quebec, asking for cheese curds to accompany a plate of fries and gravy already on the menu (Hutchinson).

When I was in Quebec, I sampled the dish (no photo of the food, alas) at a fast-food joint known for it: Chez Ashton.

The front of Chez Ashton.

According to the chain’s Web site, Ashton Leblond opened a rolling snack cart in 1969 and started offering poutine in 1972.  The success of the dish allowed him to trade in his cart for a restaurant in 1976. Today there are twenty-four locations in the Quebec region (“Qui Nous Sommes”), and McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants in the province offer poutine as well (Hutchinson).

There are high-end poutines too, including one with foie gras that is served at Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal (Jeha). And every February there is La Poutine Week, when restaurants compete to create the most original version (“Frequent Asked Questions”).

A New York Times article notes that former president Barack Obama unintentionally set off a cultural debate about whether poutine is French Canadian or Québécois when he served smoked duck poutine canapés to the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a the White House in 2016 (Bilefsky). Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, a staunch defender of poutine’s Québécois origins, wrote an academic paper, “Poutine Dynamics,” about the controversy. He notes that the dish has been traditionally used to denigrate the Québécois for their consumption of junk food, but over time, its status evolved. Not only are there now high-end versions like the one served at Au Pied de Cochon, there are also international versions with pulled pork, miso gravy, and kimchi.  As the dish rose in esteem, people started labeling it “Canadian.” That’s a problem, says Fabien-Ouellet: “Consumers of the dish must understand that [poutine] has been used as a form of stigma against a minority group that is still at risk of cultural absorption. Therefore, the dish should be, ideally, labelled explicitly as a Quebecois dish and not a Canadian one to further underscore the cultural context to which it actually belongs.”

A Québécois dish, for sure. And also délicieux!

Works Cited

Bilefsky, Dan. “Calling Poutine ‘Canadian’ Gives Some in Quebec Indigestion.” The New York Times, 19 Dec. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/19/world/canada/quebec-poutine.html.

Fabien-Ouellet, Nicolas. “Poutine Dynamics.” Cuizine, 22 Dec. 2016. Érudit,  http://www.erudit.org/en/journals/cuizine/2016-v7-n2-cuizine02881/1038479ar/.

“Frequently Asked Questions.” La Poutine Week, 2020, http://www.lapoutineweek.com/faq.

Hutchinson, Sean. “A Brief History of Poutine.” Mental Floss, 1 July 2017,
http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/57508/brief-history-poutine.

Jeha, Laura. “The History of Poutine: How It Became Our Most Iconic Dish.” Maclean’s 18 June 2017, http://www.macleans.ca/society/the-history-of-poutine-how-it-became-our-most-iconic-dish/.

“Qui Nous Sommes.” Chez Ashton, 2019,https://chezashton.ca/qui-nous-sommes/.

Published by Jen Rappaport

Jen Rappaport is a writer, an editor, a translator, and a Web site manager in New York. She majored in English and French in college and specialized in comparative literature in graduate school. Having studied French in Paris and the South of France, she is now attempting to improve her knowledge of the language in francophone regions around the world.

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