You really can make everything old, new again!
We all have them, old recipe cards, notebooks, maybe even pages torn out of women’s magazines from the 1950s. Whatever the form, the stash of old recipes are family treasures, the splotched and wrinkled jewels of our lives in our kitchens. However, we are sometimes disappointed when we make them, especially if the food fashion of today does not mesh with that of the Depression era.
I love to swap things out, change things up, and add the modern touch to an old standby. Sometimes, I use time savers, other times, I just don’t like a particular ingredient, or what is available today is more suited to my tastes! An example is my Aunt Mary’s Cod Cakes. I love them, and they are a time machine for me. But, the salted cod was an ingredient of necessity; it was cheap, and had a forever shelf life. I still make them the original way, sometimes, but I also like making them on the spur of the moment using fresh cod. Incidentally, fresh cod and salt cod are not much difference in price today!
When I catch a whiff of cinnamon or cloves, my mind drifts to my mother’s kitchen and the French Canadian food traditions that shaped how I learned to cook.
The story of my grandparents’ families is shared with hundreds of thousands who immigrated from French Quebec to work in the mills and farms in New England in the decades before and after 1900. My grandmother, Dolora Martel, “Mémé,” was only four
when she arrived. Alfred LaFlamme, my grandfather, “Pépé, was born in this country, son of a day laborer. They raised 10 children and eventually settled in the Brattleboro area, where I probably have more cousins than I can count.
They brought their food stories with them, a cuisine that evolved from French roots, modified by the climate of Quebec and New England: lots of pork, wild game, hearty stews and soups, corn in every form, yeast breads, pickles, apple and berry everything, custards, fruit galettes and sweet maple pies. Every scrap of food they hunted, raised, or gathered was used, nothing wasted.
Spices in sweet and savory dishes included cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg, liberally used, along with maple and molasses. Meals were slow-cooked, hearty, full of carbohydrates and fat. It fed large families and hard workers who burned every calorie. What wasn’t served up fresh was cured, salted, canned, dried, smoked, and pickled to preserve for the rest of the year.
Of course, one of the reasons many of these dishes survive is because they are pure comfort food and taste really good! I learned to cook them the way my mother did, by watching someone else. Often, there was no written recipe, just a technique, so the passing on of this information was an intimate experience that created memories as well as skill.
Many of the special dishes were tied to Catholic religious holidays. Bountiful Christmas Eve feasts are what those food memories are made of, and two recipes in particular stand out: a rich, savory meat pie called “tourtière,” and the beautifully elaborate “Bûche de Noël” a rolled sponge cake, sprinkled with brandy, and decorated as a Yule log with chocolate frosting, meringue “mushrooms,” piped holly leaves, and cinnamon candy berries.
I make both of these dishes most years, but, of course, I have added my own little twists to the original. My mother made the Bûche de Noël filled with homemade blackberry jam, but I like it with a dark chocolate Ganache or whipped cream, neither of which would have passed her frugal-kitchen test.
The tourtière was made with ground meat, pork or pork and beef, with potatoes and cracker crumbs, baked in a flaky lard pastry. It was served dripping with brown gravy. Every family had their own version and spice mix, and sometimes more than one – our larger family has three or four, including one with cheddar cheese on top!
The preparation of the meat pie is a bit peculiar; you boil the meat for nearly an hour! This changes the texture and extracts all the fat, allowing you to leave only what you want in the final dish. The ground pork included less important pieces of the pig, another way to make use of all scraps, even for holiday food. The dish was sometimes made with a meat-and-cracker filling, no vegetables.
You can use any type of ground meat, including turkey and chicken, just don’t mention it to one of the old guard! I created a version using soy sausage and a gluten-free crust, topped off with wild mushroom gravy that pleases everyone from meat eaters to vegetarians. My niece Keri loves this one!
But, make no mistake, it is still Mémé tourtiere!
Other favorites from my family’s kitchens include pea soup with salt pork; a spicy pate called creton, which also featured the boiled, spiced pork; Indian cornmeal pudding with lots of molasses and spices, baked in the ever-present cast-iron frying pan; my aunt’s salt-cod cakes; buckwheat crêpes, filled sweet or savory (my own grandchildren are becoming experts at making these); maple boiled dumplings; mincemeat desserts; and maple sugar pies, an extremely sweet treat made with both maple and brown sugar sprinkled with nuts and raisins. My teeth ache thinking of that one!
Dumplings simmered in maple syrup? Not as sweet as you might expect since the poaching syrup is cut in half with water. It was used as a simple dessert or side dish to pork. My mother also loved to fry bacon in maple syrup as well. She’d be right on top of the food trend today.
Mom and I made a ritual of making the mincemeat each fall from fresh apples, the last of the green tomatoes raided from the garden, raisins, warm spices, and deer suet. You either love it or hate it. When the suet was not available, she switched to store-bought, and when I stopped eating meat, we swapped it out for tofu; with so much going on in the pot, there was virtually no change in texture or taste!
These are memory dishes, and while I rarely make them, when I do, I enjoy both the ritual and the sense of connection. I also like how wonderful the house smells as many of them are slow cooked and fragrant!
Family food tells the bigger family history, and offers a sense of connection with the generations. Along the way, the recipes evolve, the essence of the original enhanced to reflect the time we live in.
They remain “The old family recipes,” and if we’re really lucky, we get to cook them in grandmother’s cast-iron frying pan!