By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
MONTREAL, April 21 - Poutine, Quebec's favorite fatty fast-food concoction, is like a voluptuous mistress. It is loved passionately in a province where eating is virtually an art form, but in public it is often acknowledged only with embarrassment. Recently, however, the shame has been ebbing.
Quebec's signature dish, made of fried potatoes covered with melted cheddar cheese curds and gravy, is slowly spreading beyond Canada and winning fans as far away as New York City and Florida. But the really big culinary news is that poutine is becoming haute cuisine.
Martin Picard, the owner of the popular bistro Au Pied de Cochon, known by local critics as the enfant terrible of the Montreal food scene, has begun adding foie gras to the dish. He has also reinvented poutine sauce with a blend of pork stock, egg yolks, still more foie gras and a touch of cream for texture.
For Mr. Picard, poutine is a cultural statement whose time has come for the proud people of Quebec. Their history had been marked by cultural disruptions, including an 18th-century British conquest, various protests against church and state and, most recently, an elaborate struggle to carve out and preserve their cultural identity within the confines of English-dominant Canada.
"People are just beginning to be proud to eat poutine and understand it is about becoming more confident in ourselves," said Mr. Picard, an ebullient 37-year-old chef whose specialty is southern French cooking. "We've had this inferiority complex, but we have grown up the last 10 or 20 years."
Mr. Picard's wild head of hair and scruffy beard mark him as an iconoclast. But his nouvelle poutine is what is really revolutionary. Before he reinvented it, poutine was the mainstay of bowling alleys, greasy spoons and late-night bars.
Still, chefs at some of Montreal's finest restaurants are known to prepare it, but only behind the closed doors of their kitchens to feed their staff members. They would not be caught dead putting the dish on their menus. Intellectuals swear they have never tried it, though some have been known to be too embarrassed to admit they eat it.
A few years ago, chefs here started experimenting to make the dish socially acceptable by introducing duck stock into the sauce and replacing the fries with baked potatoes. But that effort never caught on.
"People were ashamed to say, 'I want to go to a restaurant to eat poutine,' " said Mr. Picard recently in an interview at his restaurant. "You'd eat it at 3 in the morning when you are drunk or after a party. I didn't like the hypocrisy."
But since Mr. Picard first put it on his menu along with standards like confit de canard and crème brûlée in November 2001, popular demand has spiraled to the point where he now sells 30 to 40 plates of poutine a night.
Montreal food critics have embraced the experiment, if somewhat fitfully.
"Did you know a foie gras poutine exists and that the plate is delicious?" wrote a critic in the Montreal daily La Presse. "We met that weird creature recently at Au Pied de Cochon."
Québécois food is French, of course, although many dishes have sprung up here that are firmly rooted in Canada. There is tourtière, a spicy layered meat pie popular at Christmas, and ragout de pattes de cochon, a stew of pigs' feet, pork meatballs and potatoes, also popular in winter. But nothing matches poutine in popularity, particularly among the working class.
The origin of poutine is the subject of debate. But food commentators say the dish was probably invented in 1957 in the Quebec dairy town of Warwick.
As Warwick residents tell it, poutine was first cooked by Fernand Lachance, a quiet churchgoing man who with his wife ran a restaurant called Le Lutin Qui Rit, or the Laughing Elf. Mr. Lachance was actually not much of a cook, his friends say, but he successfully sold fried potatoes and cheese curds separately in paper bags. One day, a man came in and asked that he mix the potatoes and cheese in one bag.
Mr. Lachance prepared the concoction and shook the bag up until the warmth of the fries melted the cheese. When he opened the bag, as legend goes, he exclaimed, "this is a poutine," roughly translated in local slang as "a mess." A local cheese-factory owner came by the restaurant soon after, and when he tasted the dish, he immediately recognized it as a way to increase his sales. He spread the word to restaurants across southeastern Quebec.
The dish began appearing across the province, and today is even served in Burger King and McDonald's restaurants in Quebec. Numerous variations of the dish have emerged, including an Italian version, using ketchup or spaghetti sauce.
People in Quebec concede that the high fat content of poutine could be a health hazard, but Mr. Lachance's family and friends note that he ate the dish at least once a week until he died in February at the age of 86.
"He looked good and he was fit till the end," noted Claude Desrochers, the mayor of Warwick, who is now considering an appropriate way for the town to memorialize Mr. Lachance and his creation.
As for Mr. Picard, he has bigger thoughts about poutine than its calorie count.
"When you go to a restaurant for a salad, you have a problem," he said with a stern look. "I just love foie gras. I think I was born with a foie gras in place of a liver. And when you eat poutine, it makes you happy.