by James LaForest
For over a month now I’ve been thinking of meat pie. Specifically, French-Canadian meat pie. The kind you make at Christmas for a midnight meal, or at New Years, depending on your family tradition. We also had it during deer season in November, which is why it’s been on my mind so long. This week I’ll dig through my old recipes and find one that suits. In my collection of family recipes I have half a dozen versions of tourtière. They all likely descend from the same original recipe that my great grandmother passed on, as they were all provided by her descendants. However, it could be that one or two of them come from another great-grandmother. It’s hard to know, but they both prepared it, as surely as they spoke French, as surely as they passed on the recipe to their daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters, and so on. And now held also by a few great-grandsons.
Passing on recipes is a sure-fire way of passing on culture from one generation to another. I can’t help but reflect on all I’ve heard and discovered about my great-grandmothers through exploring this one tradition in our family. It makes me wonder if they had ever written down the recipes themselves or knew them by heart. Were they unwritten tradition until one generation or another realized they had never had the opportunity to help grandma make her pies at Christmastime? At some point the recipes made it into handwriting, and then print, into church cookbooks, and then published in comprehensive collections of local or ethnic recipes. Its place and importance in French-Canadian culture is assured.
This is one of the ways that certain foods become emblematic of particular cultures. They become part of the storehouse of treasure that is built up over centuries among a people who have lived in a certain place. In time this people built the institutions around them, the institutions that would in turn guide them and reinforce their ethnic, cultural, and religious cohesiveness. The values of the source become the values of the communal, and in turn the communal acts upon the source. Food is one of the things in the foundation of this idea. For example, what would Judaism be without Kashrut (keeping kosher)? How can France or French culture exist without wine? Lamington cake is always on the Aussie menu!
The inheritance of cultural treasure today seems out of step with the radical, postmodern age. What is published in the pages of the conduits of “important” cultural phenomena today is more likely to be a nod to the global and exotic rather than the simple fare of Catholics of European heritage. If tourtière was ‘storified’ on NPR or in The Atlantic or the New Yorker, it would more likely be a halal version with Moroccan spices or a Chinese inspired blend, or a vegan option. The purveyors of radically altered tradition are effectively forgetting traditional ways completely with these ideas. It is ideology masked as food. Forgetting tradition or altering it beyond recognition, is the way we say that something simply doesn’t matter anymore; that what is old will not become new again, accept through lenses completely foreign to the source.
But in the midst of a pandemic, of political chaos, and social strife, observing tradition itself becomes an act of defiance. Imagine a time and place where a family gathers around, just a few or many in number. The baby Jesus has been welcomed in prayer and song. Now at home, warmth radiates from the hearth, bellies are full, sleep is delayed in favor of merriment. Midwinter darkness is overtaken by the light of redemption, the fire of culture, and the strength of family.
It is in this time and place where the treasure of tradition asserts itself most strongly. There are many forces arrayed against people who choose tradition, who choose not to live as if every new generation is an evolution against the last generation’s dinosaurs. If we are to continue to live our French-Canadian, Metis cultures, we must envision them as something our great-grandmothers would recognize, rather than reconceptualize them out of existence. There need not always be radical change to be relevant. Often in fact, most often, tradition is the most relevant thing you can have in a world that seems oblivious to its value.
Joyeux Noel, Bonne Tourtière!