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Foodstuff

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

  • Kristen Merrill

Corps de l’article

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:

Depending on where the family came from, it changes how they make the tourtière. I know people in town [Newmarket, New Hampshire] whose families did not do just pork pie. It was a mixture of pork and hamburg [sic]. And my family was strictly pork pie. You didn’t mix it.

“A recent article by Susan Semenak in the Montreal Gazette, “The Genealogy of Your Tourtière,” speaks to the familial and regional specificities of recipes.

Around the holidays, you can often tell where in the province a person’s family comes from by their tourtière. That’s because recipes for the savoury meat pies with golden flaky pastry that are the centerpiece of Québécois Christmas and New Year’s réveillons vary from region to region. [1]

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:

Pork pies were a big deal. That was something you just did, it was tradition. But pork pie is really made with pork and hamburg [sic] and mashed potatoes and onions and cinnamon and cloves. It’s the cloves that give it the taste.

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.” [2]

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:

We’d have meat pies. But when I say “meats” it was always like deer or moose. It was usually game, and it was usually a game bird mixed with some ground sausage or something because you can’t do a lot with small birds. My grandfather probably brought home more than 75 percent of the meat that they ate. Deer, birds, or small game and stuff. The texture and the consistency of it was what I remember the most. And the spices were always the same.

A short history appearing alongside the Quebec Pork Pie recipe in Julian Armstrong’s 2001 cookbook, A Taste of Quebec, lends validity to Pomerleau’s remembrance of game birds as part of the tourtière. Armstrong references the folklore of the “tourte,” or passenger pigeon, commonly eaten by farmers in eastern Canada.

Food historians like to explain the name of Quebec’s meat pie, some tracing it to the French cooking utensil of the same name, others to a passenger pigeon called “tourte” or “oiseau blanc,” which was plentiful in eastern Canada into the 20th century. The birds, gamey in flavor like grouse or pheasant, were unafraid of man, Montrealer Louis Amos told me, quoting his grandfather. If farmers scattered corn on a field, a flock would come to feed and it would be possible to kill them with clubs or trap them under a net. The birds could be plucked, cleaned, and preserved in brine for winter meals, and sometimes mixed with pork, beef, and seasonings to make a tourtière. Around 1920, so his story goes, a severe storm blew the last flock of birds out to sea, never to return. “That’s the folklore,” he said. [3]

Additionally, Jean-Pierre LeMasson lends further evidence to the game bird theory in his chapter entitled “The Long History of Tourtière of Quebec’s Lac-St-Jean” from the book What’s to Eat? Entrees in Canadian Food History, wherein he references the dish as turtle dove pie. Just as Pomerleau describes, a family’s locale and relative urban or rural environment impacts the composition of its tourtière. In Quebec, hunting was more popular among people living on farmland than it was among populations of mill towns in New England during the primary migration of French-Canadians from Quebec. As the migration hit its apex in the latter half of the nineteenth century families may have adapted their original versions of tourtière – those that included game and birds – to incorporate less and less game meat, until their versions consisted solely of ground meat, readily available in the supermarket or butcher shop. This may be evidence of how a traditional Quebecois recipe changed and adapted over time to incorporate ingredients accessible to an urban population, while maintaining the core of a traditional recipe for future generations.

As Laurie indicated, it is still possible to buy premade tourtières in various local bakeries in New England. Harvey’s Bakery, a small bakery located in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, across the street from an 1870 mill building (which once housed a mill that employed hundreds of French-Canadian immigrants), advertises freshly made pork pies on its website. Harvey’s, currently celebrating its 81st birthday, is owned and operated by the Bernier and Guillemette families, who remain proudly in touch with their French-Canadian roots.

A recipe that appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Yankee magazine is a classic take on French-Canadian tourtière and serves as a good example of the pies with which many in New England are familiar. The recent publication date also indicates that subsequent generations have not lost touch with their heritage.

The inclusion of cinnamon and cloves in savoury dishes is common in French-Canadian cuisine, and it is those spices that give the tourtière its distinct taste, regardless of the meat used. According to a December 2011 story on National Public Radio (NPR), the use of these unusual spices in traditional tourtière has a long history. No matter the meats used, or the presence or absence of potato, the spices remain a constant. Most recipes contain at least some combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. According to National Public Radio, the use of these particular spices goes back to medieval times when the pies were served alongside sweets, rather than as stand-alone savoury dishes. [4]

Still available at a variety of restaurants around New England (such as the 101-year-old Morin’s in Attleboro, Massachusetts), tourtière remains a very important link in the culinary tradition of New England French-Canadians and continues to grace the holiday tables of those of French-Canadian descent.

Related to tourtière is a chilled pork spread known as cretons. While the dish is traditionally served on toast as a French-Canadian breakfast staple, it has transitioned in later years to a holiday foodstuff because of the time required for its preparation. It is possible to buy cretons in some specialty stores in New England, but like Elaine Laurie’s aversion to store-bought tourtière, most people prefer their family recipe.

This “potted pork,” as Julian Armstrong calls it, is a “traditional country pâté” that “should mature for at least two days in the refrigerator.” [5] Carole Smart, who still makes cretons during the holiday season, spoke about her affinity for the dish:

It’s the spices that are there, and you can taste them. If you don’t like cloves, cretons is a hard thing to eat. [My daughters-in-law] are not fond of it, but my boys grew up with it. And that’s a labor of love. That’s something that I learned from my mémère. And if you ask me how to make it ... I got the recipe from her. We had to figure out that it’s maybe a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of cloves. Because she taught us how to measure it with the thumb and the first finger versus the thumb and the baby finger, not with a recipe. But I make it more at Christmas because I’m home at Christmas. And like [my friend] who doesn’t have time to do that stuff but who grew up on it and loves it, I always make sure that she gets some. And my sister, her kids love it, they don’t make it. So I give them each one. My dad, I keep him going. So I sort of took over that role. But it’s definitely a labour of love. And now I have so many people that I make it for. And I like to keep it in the freezer. You don’t do that in the summer. You know, you’re boiling meat for hours on end, and then you’ve got to grind it, and then you’ve got to simmer it for hours and hours. It’s not hard to do; it just takes time. And so you’ve got to be home. You can’t be off wandering. So I tend to do it mostly at Christmas. I put them in containers, and I freeze them so we can have them and enjoy it. My sons tend to walk in the house, and they’ll smell it and say, “It smells like Christmas.” I grew up with it. It’s a favourite.

Smart’s comments about “taking over that role” as the family’s designated cretons-maker speak volumes about the importance the dish holds for her and her family. While it would be easier to either purchase the product ready-made in stores or not make it at all, Smart puts great importance on the tradition inherent in the dish and continues to make it for friends and family every year. It is crucial to her that her cretons provide a taste of heritage for her father, sister, and friend, even though they do not have the time to make it themselves. In this way, Smart has become her own living embodiment of French-Canadian culinary history and is exercising her cultural agency by continually making this traditional dish. Armstrong’s example of this classic recipe in A Taste of Quebec confirms Smart’s description of the time needed to make the dish.

Monique B. Belisle’s recipe in Cooking Yankee with a French Accent uses slight variations, including the addition of breadcrumbs and the substitution of allspice for cinnamon and cloves, but, overall, the process is similar. [6] Both Belisle’s and Armstrong’s recipes underscore the importance of patience in the cooking process. Either recipe results in a highly spiced, cold pork pâté familiar to many French-Canadians of both Quebec and New England.

Even in today’s increasingly fast-paced world, it is telling that these time-consuming dishes are still prepared among New England’s French-Canadian inhabitants. While many of these dishes may not have initially been considered particularly celebratory or heritage-inspired, it is clear that the ingredients used and the evolution of these recipes are distinctly French-Canadian and the preparation and enjoyment of these dishes are a crucial link to a proud past and a celebrated heritage.

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