Euell Gibbons Meets French Canadian Cuisine

— by Cindy Pomerleau

Tourtière or 'New Years Meatpie'. Photo by James LaForest.

Tourtière or ‘New Years Meatpie’. Photo by James LaForest.

My husband is of French Canadian origin and grew up in a bilingual household. Though my French is strictly high-school French, I have my own French Canadian roots – my maternal grandfather was French Canadian, and I am still trying to track down his mother’s (possibly Native American) ancestry.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I devoted some time and effort to learning more about our French Canadian heritage (a laborious task in those pre-internet days). I was particularly interested in French Canadian cuisine, and in fact a couple of old Jehane Benoît cookbooks still grace my bookshelves. I was also working as a freelance writer at the time and drafted but for some reason never submitted an article on the topic.

In the interim, I have become a vegetarian and moved on to a different kind of cooking. But in the spirit of “never too late!” I here present a few old favorites for your delectation, along with an excerpt from the narrative I wrote to accompany them. These recipes have all been kitchen-tested, though not for nearly forty years!

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book-gibbonsI once found myself (long story) in the position of having to prepare a meal for Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus and many other books. What do you cook for a well-known expert on edible wild plants? I wasn’t about to gather acorns and pluck day lilies from my back yard in an attempt to compete with him in his own arena. On the other hand, I wished to spare him yet another variation on the usual dinner party theme. This was a man, after all, who specialized in the esoteric, at least in matters culinary.

I finally settled on French Canadian food – tourtière with all the fixin’s. It turned out to be a happy choice. He professed great delight, and the gusto with which he helped himself to seconds and thirds inclined me to absolve him of mere politeness. Like others before him, Gibbons discovered that French Canadian cooking, far from being just a half-baked version of French culinary art, is a distinctive and interesting cuisine in its own right.

Most French Canadians hailed originally from northwestern France – Normandy and Brittany – and their cuisine is in part an offshoot of French provincial cooking, adapted to take advantage of the largesse of the North American countryside. (Probably no one has made more varied and imaginative use of maple products, for example, than the French Canadians.)

Pork is a menu mainstay, but if such lumberjack’s fare seems too heavy as a steady diet, you’ll find many delectable ways to prepare seafood and poultry as well. French Canadian cooking relies on subtle and delicate flavoring, so add spices with a light hand. Savory, little used in American cookery, is essential to the success of many French Canadian dishes.

Soupe aux pois (Habitant pea soup)

Habitant pea soup, thick and hearty enough to serve as a main course, must be made with whole yellow peas to be authentic. These are harder to come by than split peas, so if you find a source, stock up. Serve with crusty French bread.

1 lb. (about 2 ½ cups) dried whole yellow peas
¼ lb. salt pork, chopped, or ¼ lb. Canadian bacon, cut up
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove minced garlic
1 teaspoon savory
½ teaspoon mint
¼ teaspoon thyme
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
dash ground allspice
salt and pepper to taste
soaking water, plus enough additional water to make 2 qts.
1 tablespoon butter

Clean and pick over peas, soak overnight. Place all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 3-4 hours, until creamy. Adjust seasonings. Add butter just before serving.

Poulet normand (Normandy-style chicken)

A delicious and unusual way to prepare chicken.

1 cut up chicken
2 medium onions, chopped
1 clove minced garlic
2 stalks celery, chopped
¼ cup oil
4 potatoes, sliced into thick pieces
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup apple cider or apple juice
¼ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon basil
salt and pepper to taste

Brown chicken in oil and remove from pan. Saute onions, garlic, and celery. Stir in flour until well blended. Add cider, wine, and seasonings, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Add chicken and potatoes, cover, and simmer 1-1 ¼ hours.

Tourtière (ground pork pie)

Tourtière, named for the pottery casserole or tourte in which it was originally baked, is traditional Christmas fare. It has been said that there are as many recipes for tourtière as there are cooks. Some recipes call for ground beef or veal as well as pork, others include potato or bread crumbs. My husband longingly recalled his beloved Mémère’s tourtière, but between the language barrier and her pinch-of-this, dash-of-that cooking style, I was unable to extract a recipe from her in the few short months I knew her. Here is the version I finally settled on – the one I served up to Euell Gibbons. Tourtière, by the way, freezes beautifully, so your holiday pies can be prepared a month or so in advance and reheated. Some cooks claim that this treatment actually improves the flavor. Tourtière may also be served cold.

1 clove garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 lb. ground pork
½ lb. ground beef
1 large potato, peeled and cooked
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon savory
salt, pepper
pastry for double-crust pie
1 egg

Saute onion, garlic, and celery in butter until golden brown. Add meat and continue cooking, stirring frequently to break up meat. Add spices and water to cover. Simmer slowly for several hours, adding more water when necessary. Mash in potato and place in double-crust pie. Prick top crust with fork and brush with beaten egg thinned with a little water. Bake for 10 minutes at 425°, reduce heat to 350°, and bake for another 40 minutes.

Tarte au sirop d’erable (maple syrup pie)

There are many different maple syrup pies, both single and double crust, with either a clear or a creme filling. This one, among the simplest, dates from colonial times. Use Canadian syrup if you can—it’s guaranteed free of lead contamination. Don’t try this recipe with Aunt Jemima’s!

pastry for double-crust pie
1 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup water
3 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
½ cup chopped walnuts

Boil syrup and water for 5 minutes. Add cornstarch mixture, stirring constantly until filling thickens and becomes transparent. Add butter and chopped nuts and allow to cool. Pour into pie shell, add top crust, prick with fork, and bake at 400° for 30 minutes.

Cindy Pomerleau is a Research Professor Emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, where she conducted research on smoking and nicotine addiction. She is the author of Life after Cigarettes.

Copyright © 2014 Cindy Pomerleau. No duplication without permission.

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