I am Franco-American, and as far as I know, all of my forbears, maternal and paternal, came from France, settled in Canada, and gradually made their way to Maine, either to farm or to work in the factories. My story is not unusual, and indeed Franco-Americans are one of the largest ethnic groups in Maine, comprising about 30 percent of the population. However, because those quiet and reserved Yankees are more dominant than they appear, they so successfully stirred Franco-Americans into the Maine melting pot that there is very little left of our culture. Indeed most people from away are shocked to learn how many Franco-Americans live in Maine.
But one Franco-American tradition has survived the Yankee meltdown, and that is tourtière, a meat pie—sometimes savory, sometimes sweet—that is traditionally served at Christmas but is available year round in many supermarkets in Maine. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls tourtière one of Canada’s national dishes. The origin of the word goes back to France, where it was a baking pan, originally with legs to set over a fire, and it was used to make a “tourte.” Gradually, the term came to mean the pie as well as the utensil, and when the French settled in Canada, they brought tourtière with them. Then, in turn, tourtière came with the French Canadians when they immigrated to Maine and to other New England states.
My mother often told stories of her extended Franco-American family, in Skowhegan, Maine, and how on Christmas Eve they would go to Midnight Mass, come home, open presents, and eat tourtière pie. By my estimate, they would be eating this rich, heavy dish at about 3:00 A.M., and I can only marvel at my relatives’ digestive fortitude. Our present-day family is made of much weaker stuff, and we eat tourtière on Christmas day, well before bedtime.
My mother, who was the maker of the Christmas tourtière, died last May. I am now the matriarch of the family, and making tourtière has become my responsibility. Last Christmas was the first time I had ever made tourtière by myself, and I was more than a little nervous, even though I like to make pies. Would mine be as good as Mom’s? After many anxious moments and a couple of trial runs using her recipe, I can proudly say that my tourtière passed the family taste test and was proclaimed a success. Phew! I felt the same relief that Mrs. Cratchit, from A Christmas Carol, felt when her husband tasted the Christmas pudding and gave it his unqualified approval.
Tourtière is essentially simmered meat enclosed in a two-crust pie. There are many, many ways of making it, and among Franco-Americans there is a hot debate about what constitutes a real tourtière, but my family has used a combination of ground pork and ground beef, spiced with thyme, sage, and onion, and then thickened with mashed potatoes. Not exactly a healthy dish, especially the ground beef, which over the past year in particular has gained a bad reputation for increasing the risk of both cancer and heart attacks. Would it be possible, I wondered, to make a healthier tourtière, one that used ground turkey rather than ground pork and beef? The main question, naturally, is what would it taste like?
I therefore decided to make two tourtières—one the usual way and the other with ground turkey. We have two friends, Bob and Kate Johnson, who are as keen about such foodie folderol as I am. They live in New Hampshire, about a two-hour drive from here, and I invited them to come sample the two different tourtières and then give their opinions.
Other than the meat substitution, I made the two pies using identical ingredients—the same amount of water, the same amount of onion, the same amount of thyme and sage, and, perhaps most important, the same amount of simmering time—an hour and a half. Then using the same pie dough recipe, I tucked the meat fillings into the crusts. Since I am the sort of cook who repeatedly tastes what she makes, I had formed a strong opinion regarding the two fillings, but I didn’t say anything, not wanting to influence anyone’s conclusion.
The big day came. Clif, our daughter Shannon, Bob, Kate, and I gathered around the dinning room table. (Mike was home sick with a cold.) The whole house had the wonderful aroma of tourtière, and we were all ready to eat. We tasted one pie; then we tasted the other. Not surprisingly, the decision was unanimous—the rightful tourtière won the contest, and it wasn’t even a close call. While the usurping turkey tourtière garnered the faint praise of being “not bad,” it just couldn’t compare with the beef and pork tourtière. Somehow, the turkey tourtière was both too bland and too spicy. It was as though the thyme and the sage just sat on top of the meat, never really becoming integrated. The pork and beef tourtière, on the other hand, had a terrific taste, smooth and spicy, yet subtle, and Bob compared it to a Bolognese sauce, without the tomatoes, of course. And herein lies the possible explanation as to why the spices reacted so differently. It’s my guess that the pork and beef simmer and break down in a way that the turkey does not, and that this breakdown is what, in part, gives tourtière its special, distinctive taste, mellow and spicy at the same time. That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Readers, any thoughts about this?
An interesting note. We had leftovers, and a few days after the great tourtière test, Clif had a piece of the turkey tourtière. He observed, “This really isn’t too bad, especially when you don’t have the real one for comparison.”
That might be the case. However, Christmas comes but once a year, and for the other 364 days most of what we eat revolves around poultry, fish, and vegetables. The turkey tourtière doesn’t even begin to compare with the traditional one, and there will be no “healthy” substitutions this Christmas. Or on any other Christmas for that matter. For us, it will be tourtière with ground pork and beef.