Author’s Notebook – The Cuisine of My Ancestors

I am currently doing more research on Jean Doyon and his emigration to New France. It is a process that often ends up taking more time than I thought it would. On a recent morning, as John and I prepared a huge pot of traditional, Quebecois-style pea soup, I thought it would be fun to stray a bit from my writing outline and talk about the foods that helped create the culinary culture of the land of my Canadian ancestors. The more I thought about the time I spent in Mémère’s kitchen, the more memories of the food I remember floated up to sit on the back of my tongue.

I was a fairly chubby toddler. denise-age-2This isn’t surprising when you consider that I spent my younger years eating a lot of rich food from the kitchens of my Quebecois and German grandmothers. All that ended in 1960. When Opa died, Oma cut back on preparing the very rich, very tasty, wonderfully German meals she had always cooked for Opa. That was also the year of the “big family feud” and I didn’t see much of my father’s family after that – so the delicious, Quebecois feasts my Mémère used to prepare were no longer part of my diet – mais, je me souviens.

Like most kids, I didn’t think much about what I ate. But as an adult, a trip to Germany in the late 1980s sparked a new interest in the foods I remembered from Oma’s kitchen (it’s quite a revelation to discover that liver and onions can actually taste good!). John and I have traveled to Quebec many times over the last twenty-five years – Montreal, Quebec City, St. Georges, and the Montmorency/Chateau-Richer regions of the province. Those trips reminded me of the foods I ate at Mémère’s house. When traveling, John and I typically avoid restaurant chains and seek out the small, local restaurants where some of the best regional foods can be found. Our trip in 2015 was particularly rich in the best Quebecois food. I was surprised to find how much I connected with the flavors and textures of the food culture – the one I was weaned on as that chubby little toddler. If there is such a thing as a “food memory”, mine got a strong jolt during our last visit to Quebec.

Many of the traditional foods one associates with Québec have a very high fat content, much of it derived from the lard used in the cooking process. Back in the day of fur traders – the time when my ancestors first arrived on the shores of the St. Lawrence River – the winters were cold and modern insulation had yet to be invented. It was, therefore, necessary to insulate oneself against the cold, and fat was a great way to do that.

I did a bit of homework on the traditional foods of the region to see where they originated and how they evolved. The original settlers of New France came from France, but it didn’t take long for them to meet the natives and be introduced to the traditions of the surrounding tribes. In 1763, when the province was conquered by England, elements of English culture and food were infused into the cuisine of the area.

The most famous Québécois foods include tourtiéres (meat pies), pâté chinois (shepherd’s pie), pea soup, baked beans, creton (cold meat spread), ham and dozens of maple desserts like Grand-Péres (maple syrup dumplings) and Tire Sur La Neige (maple taffy).

The best way to explore the history of the regional food is to take a look at some of the most popular dishes that lay claim to being classic Quebecois and how they originated.  Take for instance, Cretons. rillettes-photo-by-carol-on-flikrNot to be confused with Spam, it does look a bit like the canned meat product you find on grocery shelves in the States. Actually, it is a bit like the filling of tourtiére – with a base of salted pork seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. Unlike tourtiére, it is served cold, and usually at breakfast. The idea of a pork-based paste is probably derived from rillettes, which is a similar spread that has been popular in central France for quite a while. [1] The mixture is usually served at room temperature and spread on bread or toast – a bit like pâté.  I don’t remember ever eating Cretons growing up, but I have had it in my travels in Quebec, and it is quite good.

I bet you didn’t know that one of America’s favorite barbecue side dishes, Fèves au Lard,  or baked beans, originated in Quebec – sort of. The people of Quebec would like you to believe they invented this culinary delight – but in fact, it was brought to Canada by residents of New England who migrated to Quebec during the American Revolution. Beans are a hardy crop, and easy to grow. They are also easy to dry while maintaining all of their nutritional value. Cook them up with copious amounts of lard and maple syrup and you have the dish that everyone looks forward to eating with their hot dogs and burgers on Fourth of July.

Pea Soup pea-soup-image-by-iris-on-flikr is a staple of Canadian kitchens. Over the years I have experimented with various ways of making this soup until I have come up with what I consider “My” recipe. There are as many ways to make this as their are cooks. In Quebec, it is traditionally made with dried, yellow peas (which are nearly impossible to find in South Carolina). I usually bring back a number of bags with me when I travel to Canada. Again, peas are an easy crop to grow and when dried, they will last a very long time. Indeed, in researching my early ancestors, barrels of dried beans and peas were often listed in the inventory of their “estates” when they died. Valuable stuff to an early settler. To make soup, the peas are simmered with cubed, salted pork, carrots and a bay leaf. Thick and rich, it is one of those stick-to-your-ribs, nourishing, simple, inexpensive meals that would have part of the diet of the early settlers to the St. Lawrence region of Canada.

Then there is tourtiére tourtiere or, what was simply called in our house, meat pie. In its simplest form, it is seasoned beef served in a pie crust. Meat pies are a quintessential British dish and it was likely first brought to Canada by French settlers that had spent some time in the American colonies. Tourtiére became a staple of the Quebecois cuisine after the United Kingdom took over Canada in 1763. Once again, this dish will change dramatically depending on who is doing the cooking – but it is definitely a dish I remember from my childhood.

There is a great deal of controversy over the “correct” way to make tourtiére. The meat is either pork, veal or beef, or more likely, a combination of all three (my choice). The spices used depends on who is doing the cooking and how bland or spicy you want the filling. The big debate is over whether or not to include potatoes in the filling. After my dad died and I reconnected with my aunt, she and I spent a lot of time in her kitchen together. Her tourtiére was fabulous – and didn’t include potatoes. On one visit to Quebec I spent some time with my father’s cousin’s wife, Jeanette, and her daughter, Isabelle. Jeanette made her tourtiére with potatoes. To be honest, I like it better without the potatoes, but that is because I grew up eating it that way. I tend to agree with Tante Ida that the potatoes sour a bit and add a strange flavor to the pie.

Tourtiére will be different depending on whose family table you are sitting at while enjoying it. It is rather like Italian “gravy”. Everyone has their own, special way of creating the dish their family has grown to love and expect. During my last visit to Quebec I was surprised that I never found tourtiére on the menu in any restaurant we tried. I questioned many a waiter or waitress on why none of the small, local restaurants served this quintessential Quebecois dish and the answer was always the same – they just didn’t want to compete with anyone’s Mémère!

Known as Shepherd’s Pie in Scotland, hachis parmentier in France and Pâté Chinois pate-chinoisin French Canada, the simple and delicious concoction of ground beef, corn and mashed potatoes has become a family menu staple all over the world. There are various stories about where it originated and how it insinuated itself into the culinary culture of Quebec. For those of you who are not knowledgeable in French, chinois means Chinese. Pâté Chinois literally translates to Chinese Dough – which leads one to believe there might be some Chinese origin to this dish. Some believe that the dish was adapted from shepherd’s pie by Chinese workers during the building of the Canadian railway during the late 19th century – creating a lighter version of the traditional cottage pie by replacing the gravy with creamed corn. A Université du Québec à Montréal  sociology professor, Jean-Pierre Lemasson, an expert in gastronomy and society, has dedicated countless hours of research to learning more about the Quebecois gastronomic favorite. He even wrote a book about it entitled, Le Mystère insondable du pâté chinois (The Inscrutable Mystery of Pâté Chinois), and in spite of his extensive research, has still not found a definitive answer to where this dish originated. 

Pie, or some variation, is a culinary staple in many cultures. Placing fillings, either savory or sweet, between, inside, or wrapped in flaky crusts, is found in many European cultures. The French have the “short” pastry down to a science. Just bite into a fresh croissant made the old fashioned way with real butter and you will see what I mean. And they are easy. Crusts and fillings can be made ahead, refrigerated until needed, and assembled and baked quickly. My mother couldn’t make a pie crust to save her soul. Which made conquering the process a challenge I refused to be beaten by. I don’t make a bad crust – but have to admit that Pillsbury does a great job of providing a very good, ready to use, substitute when I am just too busy to make my own.

tarte-au-sucreThe two pies that were most notable in Mémère’s house when I was small were blueberry (a favorite of my Aunt Ida who managed to so endear John to her version that he took her berry picking so she could have a long-term supply of the very best berries in her freezer) and Tarte au Sucre (Sugar Pie).

I have been living in the Charleston, South Carolina area for over a decade and there is a local favorite here that is called Chess Pie (or ‘Jess Pie). It is very similar to Tarte au Sucre in it’s main ingredients, flavor and texture. But Tarte au Sucre is VERY French in its origins – Normandy and Pitou – both centers of immigration to New France.  

Then we have Poutine poutin-photo-by-joe-shlabotnik. This is not a dish I grew up with, nor do I remember ever eating it outside of Quebec. On one of our visits to Canada, I decided to give it a try. It is not my favorite dish, in spite of the fact that I love all the ingredients (French fries, gravy, and cheese). But it is a marvelous example of the blending of the many cultures that settled New France. The potatoes came from Ireland and England (although the French undoubtedly got the the whole “fry” thing down to a science). The brown sauce is a unique French-Canadian take on gravy. The use of cheese curds is a French-English contribution – cheddar cheese coming from England and the curd concept developed by French settlers. There are no better masters at experimenting with cheese-making than the French. I think this dish is an acquired taste and not one that I am particularly fond of.

My mother wasn’t much of a cook. It was difficult cooking for my father as onions, garlic and spices were banned from any food that passed his lips. She spent most of her married life preparing very bland food – as that was the only thing my dad would eat. To her credit, after my parents divorced, my mom found some joy in cooking foods that actually smelled and tasted good! I imagine that a lot of the things my father refused to eat snuck into Mémère’s meat pies. I can’t imagine them tasting so good without the benefit of onions and spices.

A few things that came out of Mémère’s kitchen have stuck with me over the years. She sometimes made Grand-Péres grand-peres which were gooey and sweet and were usually eaten right out of the pan. I think she only made them when her grandchildren were going to be around. Mémère also made donuts – the heavy, cake variety that were deep fried. I particularly liked the plain ones (and to this day, my favorite donut is a cake donut), but I wasn’t very fond of the ones with chocolate frosting. Mémère would melt baking chocolate for the frosting, but didn’t put sugar in it – so it was VERY bitter. Looking back, considering that Mémère came from a culinary culture that poured maple syrup over everything that wasn’t moving, I am amazed she didn’t sweeten her chocolate frosting. To this day, I will never choose the donut with chocolate frosting.

Mémère had her own, special take on Tire Sur La Neige tire-sure-la-neige-wikipedia-jaime-walker-4x3that allowed us to have this yummy treat anytime during the year. It was simply referred to as “tire” in Mémère’s house. No need to wait for Spring sugaring season and fresh snow. Someone in the family was always traveling to Canada and would return with lots and lots of cans of local maple syrup. can_of_quebec_maple_syrup On our last trip to Quebec, John and I managed to purchase 8 or 9 cans – each one less expensive than the one before. It became a game to try and find and purchase the least expensive cans of maple syrup. Mémère would remove the top from a can, replacing it with aluminum foil, and stick the can in her freezer. The maple syrup never froze solid, but it did obtain just the right viscosity to enable Mémère to stick a teaspoon into the amber syrup and swirl it around to create a cold, sweet maple lollipop. I have very vivid memories of standing in front of Mémère’s refrigerator in the house on Seymour Street in Hartford, Connecticut, waiting with my cousins Lynn and Linda for  to reward our patience.

Not surprisingly, the Québecois will look for any excuse to season their dishes with copious amounts of maple syrup! I grew up looking forward to my Mémère’s versions of Grand-Péres and Tire Sur La Neige. Tourtiére was almost a staple in our home when I was growing up – and although we didn’t spend any time visiting with Mémère or most of my dad’s side of the family, she would often send a meat pie home with my dad. It was a treat!

For any of you who are interested in trying some of these dishes yourself – and can’t get to Quebec anytime soon, I have started assembling an online cookbook of these recipes. You can access it using this link to Cliptomize where you can download the recipes as a PDF file. I plan to add to this cookbook as I remember and write about my family recipes and the foods that are part of our heritage. If there is something you would like to add, send it to me with a short story about why you remember it and why it should be part of our family tree cookbook.


Notes:

[1] Rillettes is a meat paste, similar to pate. It is usually made from pork, that is cubed, chopped, heavily salted, and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to shred.  It is then cooked in enough of the fat to create a paste.

Photo credits:

Cretons – photo by Carol on Flickr
Pea Soup – photo by Iris on Flickr
Poutin – photo of Joe Shabotnik on Flickr

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3 thoughts on “Author’s Notebook – The Cuisine of My Ancestors

  1. Another one that I remember growing up in Canada that originates in Quebec is Buche de Noel. It is a cake that is cooked in a 11″x17″ cookie sheet, cooled, and then a cream filling is spread over the cooled cake. It is then rolled up jelly-roll style. You then ice it with brown icing to simulate a log. Some people add an extension to the rolled log to look like a limb. This was always a favorite to make at Christmas time in my Tex-Mex family growing up in Calgary!

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  2. Believe it or not, I have never had Buche de Noel. It wasn’t a Christmas classic in our house – lots of pie, but no cake! Thanks so much for keeping up with the story of my family and taking the time to comment. Hope to see you soon!

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    1. Hi Denise! I love your blog – of course it may be because I love to eat and try new things. We have a french restaurant close by that I will visit and see if they have any of your dishes mentioned here. It will be great fun. Thank you so much for allowing me to read your blog. Priscilla

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