Friday, January 8, 2010


My friend Maggie in Illinois is a Canada girl, raised in the Wonderland of snow and sparkling Christmas lights. We exchange little conversations, confidences, recipes, and my heart leaps when I see her name on the mailbox. She is a woman of expert wordsmithery, owner of a bountiful vocabulary and wielder of a verbal arsenal which delights and amazes, with a wit and an exquisite turn of paragraph which linger and haunt.

We discuss our childhoods---not too dissimilar considering our far-apart raisings, though few of our own Winters offered snow, and hers seemed to be lived in a white-sculpted Kingdom of Chill. She mentioned her childhood quest for just the right Christmas cards, chosen lovingly to fit recipient and a child’s budget. She, too, coveted the glitter-sparkled snowflakes and stars and bright ornaments which graced the covers of the "good" cards. We both readjusted our sights to the plainer cards which our small allowances could afford.

She also sent me the recipe for her Tourtiere, a lovely double-crust meat pie, traditionally baked for Christmas Eve, and eaten after Midnight Mass, after the trek home through the snow and the twinkling stars. It’s very much like our family’s Shepherd’s pie, rich and redolent of onion and good gravy, and has a shiny top crust that is brushed with an egg wash to make it gleam. A Tourtiere pan even has a special little stand-on-feet to give it the proper elevation and to hold it in the place of honor on the table.

Our usual meat-pie pan is of a humbler, more Southern sort:

The usual accompaniments to a majestic Tourtiere are baked beans, a spicy relish similar to our family recipe for ChowChow, and pickled beets, which we always have in the fridge.

And so I replied:

What a lovely taste of far-away Canada, especially for a Hot-Christmas Southern child who also spent the days before Christmas in swaying, knee-knock hours in Woolworth's, gazing longingly at the too-expensive glitter-stars of unattainable glory. Closer to our level were the cards with Braillish sprigs of pine, pressed a little higher than the paper, with the bleed of the green not-quite-hitting the marks. Year after year we sighed and settled for the lesser ones for parents, Grands, teacher.

I've always loved the IDEA of the late-night church-going, the Reveillon---the long-drawn "yohhnn" on the end repeated with my mind's fish-lips and nasal inflection of an imaginary tres chic French accent. Just the thought of the return from Mass to a festive table, the candle-lit crunch through the midnight snow---try conjuring any of THAT from a sixty-degree, adamantly-green, WAY-Baptist small town, whose sidewalks were barely extant in the daytime, and whose parental insistence on just-dark bedtime on Christmas Eve precluded anything but the most brief of suppers. Midnight awakenings, perhaps, but only for breath-held listenings and the squinting for that first chink of releasing daylight.

And I love the recipe, the reasons, the history---I've been meaning to make one for months, since I read the article on the how-to and commentary, and have also been murmuring the name from time to time, “Tourtiere, Tourtiere,” tasting the savory syllables on my lips in lieu of the actual WORK of the thing. I have the squatty pan, the recipe, the several alternatives for the pastry.

Plus, any good Southern cook can take a couple of pounds of ground beef/pork/veal/lamb and work miracles, even sans Cream of anything.

Our short Christmas season was reserved for almost every moment, with guests, meals, celebrations, more guests, a whirlwind trip for visits down South. Iron-cold January will be the season to visit the local mercado for lard, to sift the flour, measure the salt, and get my chilly fingers into that malleable mass. I’ve not the “hand for pie-crust,” but still I try.

Pickled beets, I have. Showboat beans will need to suffice, though they fall far from the mark of your deep-crock, long-simmered beans with their hunk of pork and the hours in the oven; ours will be laced with onion, peppers, brown sugar, growing tender and sweet beneath their lattice of bacon in the wide baking pan.

There will be chowchow, as much a staple on our tables coffee and salt, and beet pickles---both relishes put up in the heat of last-Summer’s kitchen. And some snowfly night, Chris will come home to a Maggie-meal, I promise---more to myself than to you, I think. Thank you for the precious gift of a family recipe.


Maggie McArthur said...

Rachel, I'm so touched you remembered that piece, and your praise of my writing verges on fulsome (bring it on! :-) )

One of the best things about my Christmas Eve was coaching my daughter through her tourtiere-baking in sunny LA. After the first two calls I answered every ringy-dingy "Tourtiere Hotline." I initiated a Skype video conference just as her guests were walking in -- her tourtiere was prettier than mine.

She and John were counting on leftovers for lunch. It didn't work out; their three guests, even with the baked beans and pickled beets sides ate the whole thang. In LA. In 75 degree weather.

As I said, it made my Christmas Eve. And now Honor has made it successfully the family tradition will live on in glittery glammy LA.

racheld said...

What a lovely epilogue!! Thank you so much for dropping in, Maggie, M'Dear!

What better Kvell than seeing one of your children do something you've taught them---better than you do.