Thursday, December 16, 2010

One thing remains the same at Christmas: the great food

Hump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

One of my favourite Christmas gifts as a kid was a large book of more than 500 pages consisting of 71 illustrated stories called The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature. I must have read and reread the stories in there a dozen times. It was a favourite of mine for years and I still have it tucked away in one of my keepsake boxes stored in the basement of my house.

There are used copies available online. In fact, one "like new" edition was going for nearly $600. A little bit crazy, if you ask me, but other used versions were going for prices much more reasonable in the $20-30 range for editions in "acceptable" condition.

Thinking about that book reminded me that there was nothing more I loved getting for Christmas than a good book, especially if it was a biography or an account of local history. Books on the history of Moncton were particularly fascinating to me when I was young. I was especially drawn in by old photos of Main Street from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and neighbourhoods that were once fields and today consist of busy streets lined by hundreds of homes.

Today, I remain quite captivated by local history books and purchase them from time to time to read - mostly before bed, which is about the only time I seem to be either not working, not online or not watching television.

One recent favourite is called Acadian Christmas Traditions written by Georges Arsenault, an extremely interesting overview of various yuletide traditions across the Acadian culture. I devoured this book in a day or two. I'd never heard of most of the traditions, including the one of children receiving a "naulet" from their godparents for Christmas - a "naulet" being a pastry in the shape of a girl or boy (depending on who was receiving it) that symbolized the Christ child.

If you're a fan of authentic Acadian cuisine, you should pick up a copy of A Taste of Acadie by Marielle Cormier-Boudreau and Melvin Gallant. If you decide to try out some of the recipes, find out where to buy salted pork fat first because it seems every second recipe in the book lists it as one of the ingredients. I've made a few recipes but decided to skip the roast porcupine. After seeing so many killed on roads, I don't exactly think of them as dinner.

Growing up, Christmas was the time of our annual chore of making poutine râpée - the large grey potato dumpling passed along to Acadians by German settlers. I say "chore" because you've really got to love them to go through the amount of work and mess to make them.

Meat pies are where holiday traditions tend to vary the most. It seems like everywhere you go, each family makes them differently. We never had "tourtière," the hamburger-based spiced meat pie. I was never fussy about it. In fact, I'd have to say that I really don't care for it.

My mother's Christmas meat pies are from the Acadian tradition on Prince Edward Island. They're called "pâté" and are shaped like a calzone (a stuffed Italian dish shaped like a half-moon). The thick biscuit-like crust is laid flat then a mixture of various types of meat and onions is placed in the middle. These meats include chicken, beef, pork, deer and rabbit - and perhaps moose if you have it. There are no vegetables and no gravy. It's a "dry" meat pie and is normally sliced and eaten cold after it's baked in the oven until golden brown.

Pâté is best with a cold glass of milk and is eaten for breakfast, lunch or supper. In fact, nothing says Christmas like that delicious meat pie from Prince Edward Island. Most readers have probably never even heard of it. I can't imagine Christmas without it.

I run a poutine râpée Facebook group with nearly 1,000 members. There are people from all over North America in the group - many of whom would give their eye teeth for a good poutine. While pockets of Acadians in New England still make them, the tradition seems to be sadly dying off outside of our area. Luckily, if you have a hankering for one this Christmas, they're easy enough to find locally, but if you find yourself somewhere else, you'd better know how to make them, otherwise you'll have to settle for looking at a photo of one on the Internet. The canned ones are long gone, too.

Christmas traditions come and go in my family. On Christmas Eve, we'd have relatives come to our home. The adults would play cards as the kids watched holiday specials on TV. They'd smoke their brains out and we'd go to bed with burning eyes waiting for Santa Claus. The next day was spent opening gifts, eating turkey and perhaps visiting relatives or having more people come to visit us.

Today, as we've grown and life circumstances have changed, we have new traditions, but one thing always seems to remain: the food. Somewhere, a relative is making poutine râpée and my mother still makes her pâté. Thank goodness. Over the years, the houses have changed. People have come and gone through marriage, death, divorce or simply moving away. But the food is the same.

I still remember my late uncle Romeo telling us not to tell his wife (my late aunt Barbara) that there was rabbit in my mother's pâté, otherwise he would not have been allowed to take any home with him. He never told her and apparently she never realized that she was eating bunnies when she bit into that delicious piece of pâté. Little white lies and delicious meat pies: that's what Christmas means to me.


Kathy Mercure said...

That's lovely Brian. I almost bought the book about Acadian traditions. This will be my second Acadian Christmas and I must say I loved it last year. It was like the big jumbled and very English Christmases that we had at our family dinners of 20 or so people, but with the Acadian's flair for laughter and music. Christmas isn't Christmas without a big group to me somehow.

I will be enjoying my mother-in-law's meat pie and seafood pie on Christmas Eve and waiting until after midnight to open our gifts. These are all experiences I never had before coming here.

So today I will go out and brave the crowds to buy Christmas Traditions. Maybe there will be one or two of my new family's traditions in there.

Joyeux Nöel to you!

Brian Cormier said...

Thanks, Kathy! Same to you!