Poutine is a contender for the Canadian national dish, although whether or not it can unseat Kraft Dinner (i.e., Kraft macaroni and cheese) in overall popularity is questionable. But the origins of both the dish and its name are shrouded in mystery, and its pedigree is not that long.
Poutine is a dish of French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds. Well-made poutine is both delicious and artery-hardening. Originating in Quebec, it is widely available across Canada, even being served in fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King—although many would argue that what is served in these chain restaurants does not qualify as poutine.
It has been claimed that a dish named poutine and consisting of fries and cheese curds, sans gravy, was first served in Warwick, Quebec by Fernand Lachance in 1957. Lachance allegedly added gravy to the mix in 1964. But evidence for this claim, as well as for the numerous other origin stories, is lacking. The earliest documentary evidence for the dish and its name is from 1978 in Canadian French and 1982 in English. Similar mixes of fries, gravy, and cheese have popped up from time to time in various locations, but the key differentiator in the Canadian dish is the use of cheese curds, not ordinary cheese.
The word poutine in reference to other dishes is older, though, and like the dish itself, the origin is a bit mysterious. There are two leading contenders, and one probably apocryphal origin. Quebecois have been using the word to refer to various desserts, or puddings, since at least 1810.
As a result, one line of thinking is that it is either a variant of the French pouding or a direct borrowing and alteration into Canadian French from the English pudding. The standard French pouding is itself a borrowing from pudding, which in turn is a borrowing from the Norman French bodeyn or bodin, meaning entrails or sausage. (The sausage sense is preserved in English in such dishes as blood pudding.) A direct borrowing from English, however, seems less likely as there is no explanation for a shift from the d to the t.
A second possibility is that poutine is a Quebecois term, originally meaning a mess, and then shifting in meaning as a result of its similarity to pouding or pudding. This explanation ties in with the story of its inventor being Lachance, who allegedly replied when a customer asked for fries and cheese curds, “ça va faire une maudite poutine” ("it will make a damned mess"). The problem with this explanation is there is no evidence of such a Quebecois usage meaning mess.
The Anglo-Norman Dictionary Online Edition, 2000–06, s. v. bodins, bodeins.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, December 2006, s. v. poutine, n.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, September 2007, s. v. pudding, n.
Wikipedia, 11 April 2016, s. v. Poutine.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton