Last Morsel—My Family’s French Canadian Kitchen
A petite vegetable farm in Saint Armand shares lessons in profitability.
Written onNovember 15 , 2016
Whenever I catch a whiff of cinnamon or cloves, my mind drifts to my mother’s kitchen and the French Canadian food traditions that shaped how I learned to cook.
The story of my grandparents’ families is shared with hundreds of thousands who immigrated from French Québec to work in the mills and farms of New England in the decades before and after 1900. My grandmother, Dolora Martel, or “Mémé,” was only 4 when she arrived from St. Francois, Ile d’Orléans, Québec. Alfred LaFlamme, my grandfather, “Pépé” was born in this country, son of a day laborer who hailed from that same village in Québec. They raised 10 children and eventually settled in the Brattleboro area, where I probably have more cousins than I can count.
They brought their food stories with them, a cuisine that evolved from French roots, modified by the climate of Québec and New England: lots of pork, wild game, hearty stews and soups, corn in every form, yeast breads, pickles, apple-and-berry everything, custards, fruit galettes, and sweet maple pies. Every scrap of food they hunted, raised, or gathered was used—nothing wasted.
Spices in sweet and savory dishes included cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg, liberally used, along with maple and molasses. Meals were slow-cooked, hearty, full of carbohydrates and fat. They fed large families and hard workers who burned every calorie. What wasn’t served up fresh was cured, salted, canned, dried, smoked, or pickled, to preserve for the rest of the year.
Many of the special dishes were tied to Catholic religious holidays. Bountiful Christmas Eve feasts are what my food memories are made of, and two recipes in particular stand out: a rich, savory meat pie called “tourtière” and the beautifully elaborate “Bûche de Noël”, a rolled sponge cake sprinkled with brandy and decorated as a Yule log with chocolate frosting, meringue “mushrooms,” piped holly leaves, and cinnamon candy berries.
The tourtière was made with ground meat, pork, or pork and beef, with potatoes and cracker crumbs, baked in a flaky lard pastry. It was served dripping with brown gravy. Every family had their own version and spice mix, and sometimes more than one—our larger family has three or four versions, including one with cheddar cheese on top!
The preparation of the meat pie is a bit peculiar: you boil the meat for nearly an hour. This changes the texture and extracts all the fat, allowing you to leave only what you want in the final dish. In my family, the ground pork included less important pieces of the pig—another way to make use of all scraps, even for holiday food. The dish was sometimes made with a meat-and-cracker filling, no vegetables.
You can use any type of ground meat, including turkey and chicken, just don’t mention that to one of the old guard! I created a version using soy sausage and a gluten-free crust, topped off with wild mushroom gravy that pleases everyone from meat eaters to vegetarians. My niece Keri loves this one. But make no mistake, it is still Mémé’s tourtière!.
Other favorites from my family’s kitchens include pea soup with salt pork; a spicy páte called creton, which also featured the boiled, spiced pork; Indian cornmeal pudding with lots of molasses and spices, baked in the ever-present cast-iron frying pan; my aunt’s salt-cod cakes; buckwheat crêpes, filled sweet or savory (my own grandchildren are becoming experts at making these); maple-boiled dumplings; mincemeat desserts; and maple sugar pies, an extremely sweet treat made with both maple and brown sugar and sprinkled with nuts and raisins. My teeth ache thinking of that one!
And dumplings simmered in maple syrup? Not as sweet as you might expect, since the poaching syrup is cut in half with water. The dumplings were used as a simple dessert or side dish to pork. My mother also loved to fry bacon in maple syrup as well. She’d be right on top of the food trend today.
Family food tells family history, and offers a sense of connection with the generations. Along the way, the recipes evolve, the essence of the originals enhanced to reflect the times we live in. But they remain “the old family recipes,” and if we’re really lucky, we get to cook them in grandmother’s cast-iron frying pan.