Many of those from the French-Canadian side of my family, the Dupuis and Gallants, I suppose, could be called 'Acadians' but hailed from the Shediac, Bouctouche, Memramcook, and Grande-Digue, towns of New Brunswick outside of Moncton. (Go to MAPQUEST if you’d like a Map of the area).
As an aside, the English and the French-Canadians were at odds ever since the French-Indian Wars which were fought some years before our own Revolutionary War. At one point, the English invaded Canada and, specifically, Nova Scotia, and sent all the French-Canadians called Acadians into exile. Some fled to New Brunswick. Most embarked on ships headed for the Louisiana Territory (still French territory) where these Acadians over time became known as Cajuns.
Like the Irish, the potato was the food staple of our people. Unlike Ireland, though, there was no potato famine in New Brunswick. So, the potato was king and many recipes evolved, especially Poutines and Rappée pie (recipes to follow).
I'm writing this story to preserve a couple of the great New Brunswick culinary dishes that should rate at least a 3 star Michelin if admitted to this classification.
I should first describe both dishes. The most popular is Rappée pie and the easier to make. Poutines, however, require an advanced science degree as well as American Culinary Institute experience. Oh, I almost forgot. There’s another term I’ve got to explain for these recipes and that is "RAPURE" which is simply finely grated potato that has been squeezed in a linen or other strong cloth to remove varying degrees of water; 80% for Poutines and as much as possible for Rappée pie.
My mother made these dishes mainly during Lent. I now make both of these dishes the weekend before Mardi Gras.
To say that my mother was anal about making Poutines and Rappée pie would be to diminish the process. Rather, she treated it like a religious liturgy. The three culinary saints in our circle were Pépéres (grandfather’s) 2nd wife (he buried the first one after having fathered 12 kids) whom we called Aunt Dolly and then there was the queen of Rappée pie: Annette Amirault. And, lest we forget, there was the Dupuis family culinary artist who proved that not only does an army travel on its stomach but so does the general staff where Uncle Charley’s cooking prowess ended up getting him a full bird’s colonel rank without the benefit of a college education.
These formed the chef triumvirate Ma called upon for advice on making these dishes.
So, here we are at my first memories of making these delicacies at 12 years old. Ma had consulted with the above mentioned god and goddesses of Poutines and Rappée pie. The time was 1956 and my dad is 2 years dead. With the insurance money, dad had insisted that Ma move out of the West Lynn area to East Lynn (a bit safer). He told her to keep the three-decker apartment building they owned until it became too much of a headache.
Anyhow, it was the beginning of Lent and Ma announced she was going to make Poutines and Rappée pie; the surprise was that I was to provide the muscle.
Again, from the advice of the above mentioned, Ma always insisted upon PEI (Prince Edward Island) potatoes. No other potato, not even state of Maine potatoes, (probably the same as P.E.I.) would do. Her attachment to P.E.I. survives in me to this day.
The next ingredient was salt pork. Ma insisted that the salt pork have some meat in it (called brisket) for the Poutines. Myself, I prefer pure salt pork, as used in Boston baked beans. I always found that the brisket was tough and added nothing to the flavor.
I remember my father, when I was younger, saying that Poutines are an acquired taste like Scotch. It took him years to get used to "dirty snowballs" as he called them because of their shape and color – they were gray - more of which later. Rappée pie, however, because of its flavor and because it was baked rather than boiled, was more appealing to the non-initiated than Poutines. Now that memory serves me, the only time I remember Poutines and Rappée pie not being gray was later in the 1950s when Mrs. Martel (St. Jean-Baptiste’s school cafeteria head chef made it). They were more an off shade of white. Which brings us to the second of Ma’s rules: never peel, grate, and cook the same day. Rather, you must peel, grate and squeeze out the water on day one and assemble and cook on day two.
In case I didn’t mention it, I’ll underline it again. The making of Poutines and Rappée pie is labor-intensive. Please allow me to describe the process Ma employed when I was 12 and then we’ll discuss my "improvements". First of all, she had to make enough to feed armies and that meant 20 pounds of potatoes. So, we’ll start with Rappee pie. Ma would purchase the P.E.I. potatoes and a fowl for the stock for Rappée pie. For those of you who never heard of fowl, it is nothing but an older chicken. You can’t really grill, roast, or fry a fowl; the only way to cook it is to simmer and stew it until tender. Why bother? Because a fowl has twice the flavor of any chicken. Anyhow, after stewing the fowl, Ma would take the meat from it and then do something that made us (me, Joe, Dave, and Marianne) salivate. She’d take all of the skin off the fowl, place it salted on a cookie sheet, and roast until crisp, then give it to us as a snack – YYYUUUMMMM!!!
After, she put everything that was in the stock pot through a colander or sieve. She reserved the stock for later use. Now came the real tough part: making the Rapure. First thing Ma and I did was to peel 20 pounds of spuds. After they’re peeled, we put them in a large pot of cold water. At this point, your fingers start to get to sore (don’t forget, I was only 12 at the time). OK, finally, all the taters are peeled and in the cold water. The next step is to grate all of them. Now is where it becomes interesting. We’ve only got one grater so we take turns grating. You have to use the finest grating edge. Nowadays, I use a food processor so instead of taking 2 hours to grate, I can usually do it in 30 to 45 minutes.
Here’s the fun part. While grating 20 pounds of potatoes by hand, after awhile, you tend to grate your own knuckles.
Ma always said that this was the "Je ne sais quoi" of Poutines and Rappée pie. You literally put part of yourself into the mix. I always remember walking around with skinned knuckles for the next couple days.
Now, if you think this part was tough, the next step would qualify as an exercise for Navy Seals. You’ve got to squeeze as much water out of the Rapure as possible for the Rappée pie because you’ll be replacing it with an equal amount of fowl stock. Ma used strong linen dish cloths to do this. I tried using terry cloth but as I squeezed, I’d get a blowout – not strong enough. Anyway, you’d take a teacup full of Rapure, dump it into the middle of the dish cloth, fold all the corners up and squeeze like hell. You couldn’t cheat either because, after you squeezed out the water and dumped the remains into a bowl, Ma would test the mix, and, if it wasn’t dry enough, you’d have to put it back into the cloth and squeeze some more. As a kid, I would try to cheat a bit because, at this point, every major muscle group in my body was begging for mercy.
"Tommy, that’s not dry enough. Put it back in the towel and try again. Hey, Joey, David, and Marianne, stop snickering. You think it’s funny, Joey? Tommy, give the towel to Joey and let him do it for awhile. That’s enough, stop that fighting or I’ll knock you all into the middle of next week!" (Ma’s favorite expression).
Having exhausted our muscles as well as our tempers, the squeezed out Rapure was covered with the same cloth we used to squeeze and put it into the fridge overnight. This process also gave the Rappée pie its distinctive color – dirty snowball gray.
Oh, I forgot to mention, I think, that, if you think it was anal to this point, it got even more pronounced. The next day, we spread out the Rapure in a baking pan about 20" by 10" by 3" deep. Ma would then bring the fowl stock to a boil and keep it that way through the process. God help you if you let the stock stop boiling. As I stirred the Rapure with a large soup spoon, Ma would ladle boiling stock into it. She said that this would partially cook it. It became so soupy I thought "how would this solidify?"
Then we’d take pieces of cooked fowl and placed them in the middle of the soupy mess. Ma always cooked the fowl to death because of the fear of Salmonella in those days. I now use turkey meat and only flash cook it before I add it to the mixture (after all it’s going into the oven for an hour). I want the meat to be tender (my contribution). When ready, the pan went into the oven at 325° for at least an hour. Oh, I almost forgot, before going into the oven, you drip melted butter on top of the mixture to give it a great tasting crust.
When you take it out of the oven, cool it a bit, cut into squares and serve with dark brown sugar.
Now, let’s consider Poutines, my personal favorite. You make the Rapure the same way as for Rappée pie but you don’t kill yourself squeezing all the water out of it. And, you don’t have to reserve the liquid; you just dump it. Anyhow, you make equal amounts of Rapure and mashed potatoes. It’s important that after the potatoes have boiled for 20 minutes or so, you must strain the water out, put the potatoes back into the pot, put them on a high heat burner, and steam them. It’s like the old fashion way of making popcorn where you shake the popper constantly as the popcorn pops. In this case, you first shake the pan of potatoes over the burner for less than a minute to get most of the residual water out of it. Then you mash the potatoes and add a little salt & pepper if you like but nothing else; no butter or milk. Cover the Rapure with a moist cloth as we did with the Rappée pie Rapure, cover the mashed potatoes with plastic wrap after they’ve cooled sufficiently, then refrigerate both until the next day, again to give the Rapure it’s distinctive gray color.
Meanwhile, you take salt pork (I usually use 2 packages, more about which later), bring it to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for an hour or so. Then, cool it off, cut off the rind and cut the rest into cubes the size of dice. Refrigerate.
Next day, the fun begins. To go off on a tangent for a minute, making Rappée pie as I mentioned earlier is relatively easy compared with making Poutines. Poutines are more difficult because you simmer them at a low boil for about an hour and they have a propensity to fall apart and turn into inedible mush. If you follow what I do – ANALLY – you’ll rarely have a failure.
First, take the salt pork, Rapure, and mashed potatoes from the fridge and set aside. Meanwhile, cover the working area with wax paper and sprinkle copious amounts of flour over the surface. I also put a cup or so of flour in a bowl on the side. Next, mix the Rapure with equal amounts of the mashed potatoes. Then, take part of the mixture and form into a ball the size of a regular snowball or smaller. Dig your finger into the snowball to create a cavity. Then, take 5 or 6 pieces of salt pork and squeeze it into the middle of the ball, and then reform the ball. Now comes the most crucial part and the secret to keeping Poutines together during the simmering process. Grab a handful of flour and spread it onto the Poutines using the same technique as you use in making a snowball. Then, set it down on the wax paper and repeat the process until you’ve used all the mixture. Next, I flour them all a second time. During this process, I’ve brought a large pot of water to a boil.
Flour the Poutines once more (3 times in all) and ladle them gently into the boiling water. Reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer (not boil) for about an hour or so. Then remove them to a serving plate (they look like hell… but OOHH the taste) and serve with brown sugar (I usually put the brown sugar in small custard bowls).
On a tangent here,save any leftover Poutines for the next day. You slice them up the thickness of bread, sauté in light olive oil or butter and, again, serve with dark brown sugar. Yum!
To conclude, my way of cooking Rappée pie differs from ma’s in this respect. I use a stock made from turkey instead of fowl. I also make the stock with a "Mire Pois", i.e. chunks of carrot, celery, and onion. Oh, and of course, a clove or 2 of garlic. I mentioned earlier I had used 2 packages of salt pork. Whatever's left over from the Poutines, I sautée the salt pork pieces until golden brown and, when the Rappée pie is ready to serve, you sprinkle liberally pieces of the salt pork onto the top of the pie. Any leftovers pieces are usually stolen and eaten before we sit down to eat. That’s why I always buy at least 2 packages (I may even go for 3 in the future).
The only difference between my and ma’s Poutines is that I use 5 or 6 pieces of salt pork in the middle of the ball. She used 3 or 4.
So, there you have it. I’m not sure if these recipes will survive the generations because of their labor intensity, but, with the advent of food processors and some clever ingenuity in finding or inventing a way to squeeze the water from the potatoes, Poutines and Rappée pie will continue to stimulate the educated palate.