It’s nearly Christmas and there are so many a special memories associated with the season. My husband and I became engaged during the holidays many years ago, while enjoying a beautiful snowy escape in Old Quebec with its culinary traditions like tourtière. So our holiday feast always features the French-Canadian meat pies.
Tourtière is a traditional part of winter celebrations in Quebec –Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. There are lots of recipes out there for the meat pies with regional Quebec variations. Mine will include both ground pork and ground beef cooked with finely minced onions and ground potatoes, salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. The mixture is first cooked together, any fat rendered is skimmed off, and then the mixture is placed in a pastry crust to bake. It is delicious!
Tourtière is also a Blackstone River Valley tradition. In the 19th century, many immigrants from French-speaking Canada came to work in the plethora of textile mills along the Blackstone River and its tributaries. The Civil War had depleted the labor pool in New England and these motivated immigrants were welcome.
According to Run of the Mill and other books on the culture of mill towns, the French-Canadians were the first and most important group in post-Civil War migrations. The newcomers were mostly from Quebec farms that had been subdivided for each subsequent generations until there was no more land to support those coming of age. In the 1870s, Woonsocket was more than 40% French-Canadian. Within a decade, seven out of ten citizens in Manville were French-Canadian. It is estimated that nearly one-third of Quebec province immigrated to New England by 1900 and most of them went to work in the river powerhouses that produced textiles.
French-Canadians were the first group to keep themselves segregated by language and religion. They settled into their own villages within predominantly English-speaking Protestant communities. As subsequent immigrants from Quebec followed the first wave into the towns, they were drawn to the centers of French-Canadian culture that had developed, making such enclaves flourish. They protected their traditions from dilution by the existing populace. They built their own Catholic churches, published French language newspapers and developed social benefit organizations like Societe St. Jean Baptiste whose slogan was “Our religion, Our language, Our customs.” (For more information, visit the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket.)
And, of course, they made tourtière. The wonderful meat pies are still part of the French Canadian Festival in September in Woonsocket and they can be found ready for a hungry family at local butchers and grocers.