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Tourtière and Cretons: Celebratory French-Canadian Meat Dishes in Today’s New England[Record]

  • Kristen Merrill

To anyone of French-Canadian descent growing up in the former mill towns of New England, the sight of pork pie at the Christmas table is likely something you’ve never questioned. But as with most traditional and iconic foods, this dish has a long history. A common Christmas dish, the classic tourtière varies by region and area of origin. Some recipes include potatoes and onions as well as ground meat, while others contain only meat and spices. What meats are used also varies; some families use ground pork only, while others combine meats or game. Such recipes are a great source of cultural pride, even in today’s New England. Elaine Laurie, 60, spoke about her family’s tourtière: “We had pork pies. I used to make it every year because that was traditional. Sometimes you can still buy them but they usually have potato in them and mine, that I grew up on, was just meat in there.” Laurie could easily buy tourtière in local bakeries, but she chooses not to because the commercially available versions do not use the same recipe she grew up with. This sort of prideful adherence to a family’s specific recipe is common among French-Canadian cooks who maintain their family’s culinary traditions throughout generations. Like Laurie, Carole Smart, 59, maintains her family’s distinct recipe for tourtière. Smart’s version uses pork only, and she points out that the way a family makes its tourtière today is likely the way it has always made it, making the recipe itself a family tradition and a heritage touchstone: “A recent article by Susan Semenak in the Montreal Gazette, “The Genealogy of Your Tourtière,” speaks to the familial and regional specificities of recipes. Smart’s family, who lived in the Champagne and Normandy regions of France before receiving a land allotment from King Louis XIV in a near feudal setup along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, adheres strictly to a “pork only” version of tourtière, likely harkening back to these roots. Suzanne Merrill, 60, also grew up eating tourtière every Christmas and still celebrates Christmas Eve with one made by a family friend, but the version familiar to Suzanne uses both ground pork and beef as well as mashed potatoes: Merrill’s (née Grenier) family traces its roots to Victoriaville, Quebec, roughly 160 kilometres northeast of Montreal. Merrill’s family recipe uses the version common in Montreal, which, according to Semenak, “is more of a classic, low-slung pie made with ground pork or a combination of pork and beef.” Merrill’s mother-in-law, Hermine (née Allard) Merrill, also of French-Canadian descent, spent many a summer in New Hampshire making tourtières and freezing them for her son and daughter-in-law to enjoy with their children at Christmas, when Hermine and her husband were in Florida. In this way, the Christmas tradition of French-Canadian tourtière is passed down from grandmother to mother to grandchildren, who grow up eating the dish, even if it is not shared with all the generations at once. The pie serves as a generational through-line, celebratory and personal and imbued with a deep sense of family history. This version of taste and sense memory is a common method of passing down a family’s and culture’s gastronomic heritage. Also familiar with the tradition of tourtière is Eric Pomerleau, 32. Pomerleau’s family hails from the mill towns of Rumford and Mexico in western Maine and has spent decades working in the Boise Cascade paper mills in the region and hunting for game. (add period) As such, the tourtière Pomerleau remembers is different from the tourtières found in coastal New Hampshire: …