In search of Franco-America (and its food)
Cajun cooking is world famous. So why isn't the food of their northeastern cousins?
It began with everyday observations: the electrician was a Favreau and the plumber a Garneau; the drugstore was called Desjardins, the butchers Tetreault and Bisson, and my elderly neighbor, Zim Legasse, spoke with an accent more Yves Montand than Ricardo Montalban.I distinctly remember going to the supermarket one Sunday and finding the aisles crowded with well-dressed, mostly older, mostly diminutive couples, all speaking French. I looked out over the parking lot searching for the tour buses, then back at all these people doing their shopping and noticed not only that some of them had grandkids in tow who called them memere and pepere - grandma and grandpa - but that the fellow bagging their groceries was doing just fine holding up his end of la conversation. I realized simultaneously that they were not tourists but my neighbors, doing their shopping after church just like my grandmother did, and that my ignorance about all of this needed some serious attention.
With a background in food writing, I was naturally curious about what and how they ate, too. As an ethnicity, Franco-Americans don't seem to have made much of a mark on the wider culture, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the near invisibility of their cuisine. Today, in southern Maine where I live, if I look hard, I can find a very few of their foods for sale at the market- salmon and pork pies, boudin and grilling sausage, maple syrup products, salted herbs, ployes buckwheat flour, salt pork, and smoked ham hocks. Curiously, these are scattered around the store and not in with the other "ethnic" foods, as if the ingredients of their cooking had disappeared into the background as well. Where are their Paul Prudhommes and Jacques Pepins, their restaurants serving up the traditional foods? What happened?
Kristin Langellier, a University of Maine professor who studies Franco-American ethnic and cultural identity and who is herself of French heritage, gave me a few ideas. "Well," she told me, "[Franco-Americans in Maine] came here by moving over a border rather than by crossing an ocean, and that makes their immigration story less visible. It's not like the Irish and the Potato Famine or Ellis Island and the people coming over to America to escape poverty and hunger."
Of course, immigrants bring their culture with them, and often the most visible, accessible part of that to their neighbors is their food, which is why we don't question the presence of Indian, Chinese, Thai, or Italian restaurants in even the smallest of Maine towns. Everybody knows Cajun, but why aren't we more familiar with Franco-American cuisine? I asked.
"It's a real interesting contrast," Langellier noted, "between the New England and the Cajun French." It might have something to do with the fact that Cajun culture, and its food along with it, has taken in both more embracing and more exotic influences from Creole and African-American cultures. So, basically, Franco-American cooking was somehow less sexy than the flash and dash of pan-blackened this and "kick-it-up-a-notch" Cajun-spiced that?
Langellier wasn't ready to go that far. "When you look at this food," she pointed out, "one of things that distinguishes it is the use of salt pork, a lot of stews and soups. They have some meat in them, they're comfort food, and they feed a lot of people, with a kind of farmhouse or rural working-class quality to them. The food is not distinguished by being strongly or sharply spiced, not a lot of garlic, but lots of onions and leeks."
When I spoke with Raymond Pelletier, associate director of the University of Maine's Canadian-American Center, he added another twist. "You have to make a splash to be recognized, too, and that runs absolutely counter to the grain" of French New Englanders, he said. He described a culture where parents taught their kids "not to speak out, not to be splashy, not to draw attention to yourself," a culture where you spoke French and ate French at home, with family and friends, but behind closed doors.
As we talked, Pelletier went on to lovingly and in great detail describe the pork or chicken pot pies (tourtiere), stews with the fat dumplings, called peperes, and the other foods of his mother's Sunday dinner table, leaving me hungrily contemplating the dearth of places where I might go to taste this food. In search of recipes, I began interrogating other friends and acquaintances more closely, finding that almost every Franco family had at least one or two dishes from their parents or grandparents that they prepared every year, usually for the holidays. There were the cretons, but also countless variations of the pork pie, ham and pea soups, a kind of shepherd's pie called pate chinois (Chinese pie), and braises, stews, and roasts prepared with a distinct Franco accent.
Where might I go to taste this food? The consensus of opinion was that, short of waiting for the various summer festivals or driving to Madawaska, my best bet would be to invite myself over to my Francophone neighbors' houses for dinner. But there was one local chef who had established a name for himself serving up the food of his youth, first at Cafe Uffa!, recently re-opened on Bridge Street in Westbrook as The Frog and Turtle.
As we sat over coffee one afternoon, I explained my quest for Franco-American food, asking him to sum up its essence. James Tranchemontagne is jovial, roly-poly, as down to earth and unpretentious as his food. He chuckled, which he does frequently, and took a deep breath.
"You don't open a French-Canadian woman's refrigerator in Sanford or Lewiston," he said finally, "and not find a tub of cretons." This is the rustic, long simmered pork pate whose recipe follows. "Everyone was poor, most came from farming, and dishes like that, they were a way for people to feed their families using all the trimmings, all the scraps. I'm all French on both sides. My pepe, my uncles - they're all butchers or farmers who owned butcher shops. When they brought out a side of beef, they took out the chops and roasts, stripped out the steaks - all the good stuff got sold at the market. What was left, that was your London broil, your shanks, the neck meat, beef cheeks, tongue, tail. What do you do with the rest? It's what you call cauldron cooking. If you cook something long enough, it will be edible. The second step is to make it flavorful. With a joint or a piece of tough muscle, you slow roast it, braise it."
On The Frog and Turtle menu, Tranchemontagne's Franco dishes, though many and various, don't call attention to themselves with fancy descriptions, their origins hiding in plain sight. "We make a lot of our own charcuterie," he says, "like duck sausage and chicken and duck liver pates, those pork cretons, braised pork shank, stew with dumplings, pork loin with baked beans. On the menu, I try not to write everything in French. We don't use words like galette and confit. We say 'cheese' and not fromage. It's a gastropub."
A gastropub? That sounds a little fancy, I suggested.
He laughed again. "No, no! Gastronomy is the study of food and pub means local and fun. Put them together and you have a great neighborhood place where you can try some different things. We like simple. When I was a kid, in the winter, my mom would go out and make snowballs, bring them in and pour lots of maple syrup over them for us - a poor man's sorbet. I'd do it here but the health department would have a fit!"
Tranchemontagne didn't go to culinary school but apprenticed with various chefs from the age of seventeen. When he got the chance to open his own restaurant, much of the inspiration for his menu he found in the traditional foods he learned from his mother, Jackie. Her family came from La Beauce, south of Quebec City, emigrating between the wars. Her mother was one of thirteen children, and her father's first job in Maine was as a traveling butcher, selling meat door to door. "I always liked to cook," she told me. "I would come home from school and start the dinner when I was a girl. James, even as a boy, he was always interested in what was going on in the kitchen. When he was older, he'd take my recipes and embellish them. Of course," she finished, the teacher casting a wary eye on the student, "in my day we didn't waste anything. For the tourtiere, well, every family had their own way [to make a pork pie]. That's the way my grandmother did it, that's the way my mom did it, and that's the way I do it. You had baked beans every Saturday night and soup every day, nothing fancy, real meat and potatoes cooking."
More than a few of the Tranchemontagne family favorites - homemade doughnuts as well as the baked beans and pork dishes - have turned up on James' menus, and I was curious what Jackie made of those dishes she'd raised her family on at fifteen or twenty dollars a plate. "I think it's outrageous," she said, laughing, "but people sure do seem to enjoy them."
"She feels a little cheated," Tran-chemontagne added later, "that these meals she cooked for her six boys and her husband, well, I'm taking them and making a profit on them!"
While Tranchemontagne's loyal customers enjoy the comforting cuisine, well-prepared and ably served, they seem to have realized that there's another ingredient in the dishes. "This food is also about generosity and sharing," he told me, "big families all around one table, kids, mom and dad, grandparents, lots of noise."
Hopefully, there are enough other Desjardins and Thibodeaus, Ouillettes and Heberts out there still making memere's tourtiere the way she did, their sons and daughters in the kitchen at their side, so that this food, however simple and unpretentious, survives to sustain another generation.
Tranchemontagne and his wife, Heidi, have already started doing their part. On the way out the door after my last visit, I looked back to see the two of them trying to corral their year-old son, Logan, who was crawling around the kitchen covered in equal parts flour and confectioner's sugar, leaving blobs of doughnut dough in his wake.
The following recipes are adapted from The Frog and Turtle, a gastropub. 3 Bridge St., Westbrook. Dinner 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday to Monday, closed Tuesday. Brunch Sunday, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. 207-775-3380.
Sunday Morning Doughnuts
1 cup granulated sugar
31/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
4 cup all-purpose flour plus more
1 cup whole milk
3 tbsp. melted butter
6 - 8 cup lard or neutral fat for frying
garnishes: confectioner's sugar, cinnamon sugar, maple syrup, simple chocolate glaze.
- In a large bowl, sift together granulated sugar, baking powder, salt, and flour. Separately, beat eggs thoroughly, then stir into dry ingredients. Add milk and melted butter, mixing just until incorporated. Do not overmix.
- Roll out dough on floured surface into a rough circle the size of a large pizza, about three-quarter inches thick. Cut out rounds with a three-inch pastry ring, removing holes with a one-inch ring. Or make crullers by rolling the dough scraps between your palms into three snakes five inches to six inches long and then braiding them together.
- If you don't have a tabletop fryer, use a four quart heavy-bottomed saucepan filled with enough oil at 375* so the doughnuts can float easily. Fry several at a time, flipping when bottom side is nicely browned and waiting for the oil to return to temperature between batches. Blot finished doughnuts on a paper towel.
- Garnish with a shake of confectioner's sugar or cinnamon sugar (one part cinnamon to three parts granulated sugar), a drizzle of maple syrup, a simple chocolate glaze (quarter pound of semi-sweet chocolate chips melted and whisked together with a third of a cup of heavy cream and one ounce of unsalted butter in a double boiler).
Cretons: Traditional Franco-Canadian Pork Spread
2 lbs. ground pork, 80 percent lean
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 small yellow onion finely diced, about 3/4 cup packed
2 small cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. fresh ground black pepper
1/4 - 1/3 cup pure pork lard or duck fat
1 qt. cold water plus extra if necessary
- In a heavy bottomed four-quart saucepan, melt the fat at medium heat. Lower the heat, add the onion, and cook three minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking until the onion is translucent but not brown.
- Raise the heat to medium and add the ground pork one-third at a time, sauteing until cooked through but not browned. Break up larger clumps with a wooden spoon. Add the spices and salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
- Add water until it covers the creton by about an inch and adjust heat so the mixture just simmers, covering the pot the first hour and checking every quarter-hour to see if more water is necessary. After one to two hours, there will be no water left and the creton will have the consistency of a pie filling or loose meatloaf. If it is still soupy, continue simmering.
- When cool, pack into ramekins for individual servings if desired. At the restaurant, a small ramekin arrives at the table on a larger plate surround with various garnishes. These may be cornichons and confit-ed onions with grainy mustard or slices of hard-boiled egg, red onion, and olives, even an apple-peach chutney. And, always, plenty of good, crusty bread.
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French