TORONTO — Simon Thibault is on a crusade to prevent Acadian culinary culture from disappearing.
In his new book, “Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food” (Nimbus Publishing), the Halifax−based freelance journalist explores his roots.
“This is a book about Acadian food, but the root of it is very much in southwestern Nova Scotia, where I grew up,” Thibault says.
“Food is this amazing kind of cultural emulsifier that brings you to other places and other times, and that’s important.”
Acadians came from France and settled in fertile areas of what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, part of Quebec, and part of what is now Maine in the 17th century. They were deported by English conquerors in the 18th century. Some Acadians moved into more remote areas of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick while others fled to Louisiana, where their cuisine eventually became known as Cajun.
When some of the Acadians returned, their land was gone. Their cuisine came to be influenced by what they could grow on land that was not very arable — potatoes, for example. They also had access to fish and hunted animals.
The comfort food known as rapure, or rappie pie, is a popular Acadian dish.
“It’s homely, homey, quaint, but it fed us and sustained us,” says Thibault.
To make it, the home cook rasps potatoes by hand into a pulp, then extrudes the starch and liquid by squeezing them in cheesecloth. The pulp is reconstituted with boiling stock, mixed with poultry, clams or wild game like rabbit, deer or moose, and baked for about three hours until it has a golden−brown crust. The labour−intensive pie, like a casserole, is much easier to make these days because rasped potatoes are available commercially in blocks.
Thibault’s 50 beloved recipes also include tourtiere, soups like chicken fricot with potato dumplings, breads, and desserts like puddings, custard pie, molasses cookies and doughnuts.
He explains the origin of the recipes in a series of essays. He is most indebted to female family members he never really knew.
“My mother gave me this series of notebooks, which were her mother’s, her grandmother’s and great aunt’s and a few other family connections; so turn−of−the−century, handwritten notebooks,” he said in an interview at the recent Terroir Symposium for people in the hospitality industry.
Ingredients were given, but measurements and directions were few and far between.
“These were women and some men who because of their social status or money or everything else had to know how to cook,” he says. “For a layperson who has next to no culinary background, they don’t know how to cook those things because they need instructions, they need directions.”
The method for a recipe for pickled beets, for example, starts out, “Cook beets as usual.”
“You really need things to be spelled out especially if you’re talking about something so ephemeral as culinary heritage because in all of those notebooks there was no recipe for rappie pie, no recipe for fricot, no recipe for how to salt onions, no recipe for how to salt lard or how to render lard. No other information is there. Why? Because you just know how to do it because you watched and the knowledge was passed down.”
Thibault needed to do a lot of adapting and experimenting when it came to writing his recipes.
“Someone says a handful of salt, well, my hand is bigger than my mom’s hand.”
Researching and writing the book was a way to get to know his grandmother, who died when he was four, and pass on his Acadian culinary heritage to the young daughters of his sister, who recently died of cancer at age 43.
“They love to cook. I taught the eight−year−old how to make pie dough. She’d never made pie dough and it was pie dough from my book,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter what your age. To give someone the capacity to be able to do something they didn’t think they could do, to feed themselves in that kind of way is great. Even just myself, the first time I cook a recipe and it works the first time I get so frickin’ excited. It’s like tasting a high.”
Lois Abraham, The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press, 2017