The first poutines were invented in Quebec, and there are many, unconfirmed claims to have invented the poutine which date from the late 50s through the 1970s in the Victoriaville area, about 1 hour out of Montreal.
The earliest date associated with its invention is 1957, which is when restaurantuer Fernand LaChance of Warwick claims that a take-out customer at his restaurant Lutin Qui Rit, requested french fries, cheese in a bag, to which the restaurantuer responded: "ça va faire une maudite poutine" (That's going to make a damn mess"). In his 2005 obituary, CTV.ca quoted Eddy Lanaisse as that original customer: "I wanted fries, but I saw cheese curds on the counter. I asked Fernand to mix them together.". LaChance's restaurant eventually closed, and so there exists no present day monument to this earliest claim.
Adding sauce to the cheese to curds/fries mixture was a later innovation. The owner of restaurant Roy le Jucep (1050 boul. St. Joseph, Drummondville Quebec; website ), Jean-Paul Roy, also claims the title of "The Inventor of Poutine", dating his claim in 1964. Jucep's claim stems from having made a potato sauce, which he was slathering on fries sold in his restaurant. He also sold bags of cheddar cheese curds - which are sold widely in the region, bought as a handy, portable snack - which he noticed customers were adding to his fries and sauce. Soon after, he made the combination a regular menu item. (See Reviews for a review of Roy le Jucep poutine).
By the late 1970s, poutine had made its way to New York and New Jersey, where it is often sold as an "off menu" item in a modified form -- 'disco fries'. This concoction is french fries, a beef gravy, and shredded, usually cheddar, cheese. The cheese melts completely, mixes in with the gravy, and the dish is a mess, and a delicious one enjoyed by late-night partiers of the disco crowds in the days before low-fat, Atkins and smart drinks.
The cheese used in a classic poutine is not simply a cheddar cheddar, but cheddar cheese curds, which come in finger-tipped sized hunks, with a briny taste, not unlike that you'll find in cottage cheese.
Like burritos, poutines are found with a wide range of styles, both in high-end and low-end restaurants, as well as at home. Quebec natives can be heard to exclaim "That's not poutine!" in response to the many variants which have popped up. But, as with any cuisine too good (and too easy) to keep a lid on, poutine has found many different expressions.
Within Montreal, one can find "Poutine Italianne", using a marianara sauce. Occasionally, one comes across a poutine in which an actual gravy (using a roux from flour and drippings, combined with milk or cream) is unapologetically used instead of the classic sauce. At-home chefs regularly whip up a poutine with bottled BBQ sauce for a quick bite for the kids (or themselves).
It's historically unclear what kind of sauce is the basis for classic poutine. The poutine served at "Le Roy Jucep", which claims to have invented the poutine sauce, is a sweet-sour tomato-based mixture, which will not be unfamiliar to those who have had Chef Boy-ar-dee Spagghetti-Os. The origins are obscured somewhat by the fact that Quebec natives strongly prefer an "instant" kind made by the chain restaurant St. Hubert, available in packages at grocery stores. Simple comparisons around the city of Montreal town make it appear that the classic sauce is a chicken-based velouté which should not be confused with a "gravy", the important difference being that stock is used as the base in a velouté, while milk or cream is used in gravy. And, nonetheless, gravy is used in the aforementioned 'disco fries', a poutine derivative. However, simply counting up the sauces as they are made today, the vast majority of Montreal restaurants employ the chicken-based velouté, with variations around town. Today, delicious poutines are made with a wide range of sauces, including marianara, black mole, and Parisienne (or, Allemande) sauce.
The Embarrassment of Poutine
Poutine used to be considered embarrassing to the local French-Canadian population, known for excellent high-cuisine. Considered a low, rural food, it was thought to lack that cosmopolitan verve. But, with the rise of low-food popularity internationally, and the great interest of travelling gourmands in local recipes and low-foods, poutine has risen in local, as well as international interest. Nonetheless, the history of the embarrassment helps explain the difficulty in finding a good poutine, and why many people outside of Quebec have never heard of it.
In a November 1991 CBC report on poutine, Canada's largest broadcaster asked, on-camera, the Quebec premier Robert Bourassa if he liked poutine. He immediately walked away from the podium, "I'm sorry, I have to go, I have a really important meeting." His office refused to answer the question in follow-up calls. The same question to the opposition Parti-Quebecois leader Jacques Pariseau got the exact same response: he refused to answer, either directly on-camera, or in calls to his office.
Usually, to get a politician to refuse to answer a question requires finding a mistress somewhere. There can be no doubt that poutine was considered such a low food, it was embarrassing to be known to like it. But, it was also so common in Quebec, that to deny having even had it would have been laughably unbelievable.
Why would anyone consider eating poutine to be embarrassing? We don't know for sure, but it may stem from its association with the cheddar curds. In the eastern townships where poutine was invented (Warwick, Drummondville), it seems to have happened there due to the ready availability of these daily-fresh, briny curds, which people buy in small bags and snack on, like Doritos. It seems that some consider this to be a bit of a back-water habit - perhaps not unlike snacking on fried pork rinds in the American South. Take a back-water eating habit, and meld it together with a starchy plate of fried potatoes and a sauce, and, somehow the association rubs off.
Which is too bad for some. The history of low-food developing into fantastic cuisine is rich: lobsters, cassoulet, burritos, okra -- all of these were once down-market items, but whose flavor potential overcame their birth-station, and are now internationally favored.
Oh man, my mouth is watering already...