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  • Writer's pictureTim Ouellette

Beyond Tourtière: Discovering Franco-American Cuisine

What other recipes do we have? (More than you may know)

The kids are back in school, temperatures are dropping, and the days are getting shorter. This means that the holidays are just around the corner. Soon we’ll start reminiscing about the family gatherings, foods, and traditions we grew up with. Inevitably, this will lead to the cooking of tourtieres and, in many cases, the question of “what else?”

While tourtiere has become our signature dish for keeping traditions alive, we’re often left wondering if there are other dishes that might conjure up the same feel-good memories of our childhoods; things that filled our holiday tables. Sure, we know about things like pea soup and cretons being tied to our heritage, but we certainly didn’t live on those few foods alone.

So…“what else?” The answer may not be a list of foods we’re looking for, but a process we may enjoy far more. Chances are, many of the dishes we grew up with were from Quebec or Acadia, we simply didn’t recognize them as such. It may take some time dedicated to trying out a few recipes before the magic happens, but in the end it’s worth it. Bear with me.

Years ago, when I began to seek out all things related to my heritage, I was poking around a bookstore in Montreal trying to answer this very question. The store had a good selection of French Language cookbooks, including a few dedicated to “Traditional Quebec Cuisine.” After quite a bit of time thumbing through a few of them, hoping to spot something I might recognize, I felt a little defeated.

Sure, I was just getting started with French Lessons, but nothing looked familiar, or even uniquely Quebecois, among the pages and pages of roasts and stews I went over. Not to be deterred, I settled on Lorraine Boisvenue’s “Le Guide de la Cuisine Traditionnelle Quebecoise.” I didn’t recognize any of the recipes, but they seemed do-able, so I bought it. Into my suitcase it went, not to be seen again until I got home.

Fast forward a week or two and I was re-settled into my house in Maryland, eager to try a few recipes. I made what seemed like a pretty easy recipe- a simple pork roast. I even adapted it to the crock pot -vs- going step for step on the book. A few ingredients, some simple prep work, and in the crock pot it went. I was then free to step outside for a conversation with the neighbors.

After that conversation and a few neighborhood activities, I stepped back into the house and had a movie-like moment. The smell of that pork roast stopped me in my tracks. I was standing in Maryland, but my mind was in my grandparents’ kitchen in northern Vermont. It couldn’t have been one of my grandmother’s recipes, but it had to have had most of the same ingredients. The taste test produced the same results.

That was my first experience of this type, but not the last. The more I cooked from that book, the more of those experiences I had, and the more I realized that so many of the great meals I enjoyed as a child probably DID come from Quebec.

Besides creating an overly romantic memoir, the point is that if you’re looking for old or traditional Quebec recipes, especially around the holidays, chances are you DO know of them; you had them all the time and simply didn’t recognize them as “ours”.

Similar to my experience, we may read a recipe and not be able to differentiate it from the average dish of the time, but with some time invested in the kitchen, we may start to see patterns emerge: the dash of cloves or chopped turnip in the beef stew, the abundance of onion in the pork stuffing, the rich bouillon the roast is simmering in, the combinations of earthy thyme and savory rubbed on meats that may provide those old flavors and aromas we’re looking for.

Now the disclaimer: cooking of every style and region has evolved. The recipes we’re talking about probably don’t exist in too many places today, especially in an area like Quebec with a growing, renowned culinary reputation. Today Montreal and Quebec can boast world-famous fine dining, and areas like Ile d’Orleans and Charlevoix are leading the way in healthy, farm-to-table fare. But that shouldn’t stop us from reminiscing and reliving those great memories of our grandparents’ tables.

The holidays are indeed approaching, but there’s still plenty of time to have a few kitchen experiences. I was cautious about the naming the book I purchased; I’m not saying that’s going to be the one for everyone. It just happened to have things that turned out to be familiar to me. So go ahead and purchase a cookbook or two online, or simply google a few keywords. If you try enough recipes, you’ll probably find something that you're looking for. When you do, it’ll be a lot more satisfying than reading someone’s list online.

Happy Cooking and Happy (early) holidays.

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