The Storykeepers Project #43: A Scholar Comes to Town

A Scholar Comes to Town
by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project

Genot Picor’s latest folkstory, generously shared by him on Voyageur Heritage, delves into the Christian celebration of Chandeleur, or Candlemas: the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Once widely celebrated among French Canadians, as throughout the Christian world, one of the traditions of Chandeleur is the making and eating of crêpes, a recurring theme during the pre-Lenten period. But Genot takes the story further, reflecting on elements of community life that can be seen as emanating directly from basic Christian teachings and basic manners.

Woman making crêpes. Source: Le Réseau de diffusion des Archives du Québec.

Parishioners gathered in the small community center of St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church after Mass for a pancake breakfast. The date was Saturday, February 2, 1935, and the celebratory holiday Mass observed on this day was known as “Chandeleur,” or “Candlemas,” as it is sometimes called. Coffee percolated, Canadian bacon and pancakes sizzled. The assembled parishioners were a-buzz with excitement. It was not every day that a noted scholar came to the little village above the straits, much less to a church socia

Professor Antoine Guiscard Ph.D. from Niagara University, Department of History was in town to visit relatives. He was also a personal friend of Fr. Jacques La Forest, one of the parish priests. Fr. La Forest invited Professor Guiscard to speak on the history and traditions of Chandeleur.

After breakfast had concluded, the scent of bacon and fresh coffee still hung in the air. Following a brief introduction by Fr. La Forest, people settled back in their rickety wooden chairs as Professor Guiscard stepped up to the podium.

“I would like to thank you all for your gracious hospitality. A special ‘thank you’ goes out to those who took the time and energy to make such a delightful breakfast,” said the professor.

A simple and polite round of applause followed the professor’s dutiful recognition. The cooks smiled and bowed their heads in appreciation.

“Well,” continued Professor Guiscard, “the subject of my discussion today is the history and traditions of ‘Chandeleur.’ The feast day commemorates the presentation of Jesus Christ to the Elders of the temple and the ritual purification of the Virgin Mary after the birth of Jesus. The long-held belief that a ‘light has come into the world’ is the preeminent theme attached to this celebration.”

“I recall toddling home from Mass with my family for a delicious pancake breakfast made by my grandmother. The pancake, along with other foods has long been traditional fare associated with Chandeleur here in North Am….”

“WRONG!” an irritating voice shouted out from a corner of the room. The vocal timbre was akin to the sound of ground glass in a mixing bowl.

“Pardon?” replied Professor Guiscard, only to have the word repeated again, and this time with an admonishment.

“WRONG! Pancakes are not traditional, it should be crêpes, and the crêpes should be eaten in the evening. You’re giving people the wrong information!” the scornful voice proclaimed.

A gasp rose up from those in attendance. All present turned to gaze upon who might be the socially offensive party. It was none other than Mrs. Damiana Boisvert-Maingauche.

Mrs. Damiana Boisvert-Maingauche was a school teacher and the self-appointed editor-in-chief of an obscure historical society publication. Damiana possessed an unquenchable desire to elevate herself above all others whom she did not regard as her equal. Forever the teacher and never the student, she stated on more than one occasion that she was “without peers” in the knowledge and study of French cultural history and genealogy. Some said her haughtiness was fueled by her claim that she was descended from French royalty, which is why she hyphenated her last name.

Trusting first and foremost in her own research, Mrs. Boisvert-Maingauche believed her academic preeminence was unmatched, and she bore a particular disdain for academic scholars. In her small corner of the world, she only published aspiring contributors to the Historical Gazette if such contributions were peppered with effusive compliments and generous citations to her own research and publications.

Professor Guiscard had been rattled by her interruption. The good professor took a moment to regain his composure as he thumbed through his notes.

“Very well then,” he said. “Let us concede that the culinary focus of my presentation will be on the crêpe so that we might continue.”

“Now wait a minute, Fr. La Forest asked us to make pancakes,” countered Mrs. Allor, who was one of the cooks. “He didn’t ask us to make crêpes. Fr. La Forest knows the difference between a pancake and a crêpe and I’m sure he is familiar with the traditions of Chandeleur. We can make more pancakes in less time on the kitchen’s flat-top grill then we can make crêpes. Making crêpes requires a special pan.”

“Well then, all those who were involved with the planning of this event have forfeited historical accuracy for the sake of personal convenience. The issue could have easily been set straight had any one of you sought out my counsel and expertise,” replied Mrs. Boisvert-Maingauche.

Mrs. Allor was indignant.

“For someone who objects to pancakes, you sure ate enough and you didn’t even drop a dime in the donation jar! You never once volunteered to help in the kitchen. The entire parish, including you, knew for weeks in advance that we would be serving pancakes. Où pensais-tu que tu mangerais, au Grand Hôtel? (Where did you think you would be dining, at the Grand Hotel)?”

A chuckle rose up from the French speakers who were in attendance.

“I think we can all agree that the shape of a pancake and a crêpe is circular in design. The circular shape bears particular significance,” emphasized Professor Guiscard, “since it represents the return of the sun, or as I said earlier, a ‘light coming into the world.’ It is of no coincidence then, that February 2nd is half-way between the winter solstice and spring equinox.”

“Our forebears in France believed if the bear emerged from his cave at this time of the year and saw his shadow…assuming that the sky was clear, he would return to his den to hibernate for another forty days. Hibernation would insure the ground would not be too soggy for the spring planting should the rains come early. A cloudy sky meant a rainy spring…..”

“The bear emerging from its lair is a regional belief!” interrupted Mrs. Boisvert-Maingauche. “There are people in different parts of France who believe the wolf or the otter to be the harbinger of spring. German speaking persons say it’s the badger. The Americans rely on the groundhog for their predictions.”

“Yes, I see…”replied Professor Guiscard as Damiana pressed on.

“I find it amusing that the Irish wager on the comings and goings of the hedgehog! And how peculiar that must be, considering how infinitely smaller in size is the hedgehog compared to the bear. I’d guess the diminutive creature is completely unaware of its own shadow.”

Professor Guiscard cleared his throat before he attempted to respond.

“I’d like to proceed if you would be so kind to allow me….”

“Perhaps you are familiar with my own extensive body of published research. I took the liberty of sending my most recent article entitled “The History and Traditions of Chandeleur” to your attention at the university where you are gainfully employed. I published the article myself in the Historical Gazette in advance of your arrival. My hope was that you would review and cite my research to correct any and all historical errors that might be presented in your lecture.”

“I was not made aware of any such publication,” said Professor Guiscard.

“I happen to have several editions of the Historical Gazette in my possession back at my home. I’d be happy to retrieve the article so that you might provide future audiences with accurate historical information,” she proposed.

“I will take your offer into consideration Madame,” said the professor. “May I continue?”

“Please do,” said Damiana.

Professor Guiscard was incensed. He decided to avoid discussing the long-held Chandeleur tradition of flipping crêpes or quoting quaint sayings. Surely a discussion about condiments would be safe enough.

“How might one enjoy pancakes or crêpes on this day?” asked the professor rhetorically.

“Not pancakes,” Damiana sternly reminded. “Just crêpes!”

“Pardon?” asked the professor. “Oh yes, quite right…just crêpes. Depending on what you have left in your pantry from the prior year, confectioners’ sugar, fruit preserves, honey or maple syrup make for delectable condiments….”

“Oh no!” scolded Mrs. Boisvert-Maingauche. This time, she rose to her feet. “French people never, and I repeat NEVER have maple syrup with their crêpes!”

A collective groan arose from the attendees.

“Fine! Madame, I would very much like to address your concerns. If it’s not too much trouble, would you be willing to fetch your article and return with it in hand? We can compare notes line by line in collaboration at this very podium so that today’s lecture might provide our guests with an accurate historical dissertation.”

Damiana was suddenly flattered, albeit a bit stunned by the professor’s proposal. Those in attendance were clearly perturbed. They feared they could be in the social hall the entire afternoon! Professor Guiscard raised his hand slightly and gently nodded his head to calm their apprehensions.

“Why yes!” she cooed. Her persistency had paid off!

She draped her coat with the faux-fur collar over her shoulders and fumbled her way through the maze of circular tables. Professor Guiscard escorted her to the exit and politely opened the door for her to pass. Damiana thanked him for his courtesy. He remained at his post until she was out of sight.

The door closed, followed by a brassy “click” and a “swoosh.” Professor Guiscard had locked the door and lowered the shade! An uproarious cheer filled the room. Sometime later, when Damiana proudly returned with her article, his deceptive ruse soon became clear. She knocked on the locked door a few times, and when no one answered, she begrudgingly walked away, gnashing her teeth and kicking at the crusty snow. Her expulsion had been intentional.

“If we’re lucky, maybe she’ll see her shadow and disappear for another six weeks,” whispered Mrs. Allor.

Professor Guiscard resumed his lecture without interruption. Damiana never forgave the insult and forever questioned his credibility. People in the little village above the straits spoke of the incident for years to come. It was the only time in recent memory anyone could recall someone being barred from attending a church social because of bad manners!

“A Scholar Comes to Town” as told by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor from “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told Me” © Genot Picor, 2018.  Published at Voyageur Heritage with Permission.

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