Wednesday, December 26, 2018

At the Holidays, Pass the Traditions Please!

"Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can't even describe, aren't even aware of."  --Ellen Goodman


For the uninitiated, tourtiere is a meat pie made from a pie shell filled with pork or veal or beef, that sometimes also includes potatoes and other vegetables. It's traditionally eaten at Christmas and New Years by French-Canadians, those up north over the border in Quebec, and by folks who immigrated down into New England, as my relatives did in the early twentieth century. So this week I'll enjoy, maybe even make for myself, this most traditional meal, use the recipe that was passed down to me from my Mom who got it from her Mom who got it from great grandmother, Memere.

I love tourtiere because of its simplicity. Just five ingredients--a pie shell, browned pork, cinnamon, salt and pepper.  I love how the spices infuse the pork, married to the freshness of crumbly fresh baked pastry. But why I really love tourtiere is tradition: the fact that when I eat it, in a mystical way, a profound way, I get to sit at the holiday table with my late grandfather again, who every Christmas day celebrated his holiday with a slice of that pie and a side of sweet pickles.

For me it isn't Christmas, it isn't the year's end unless I partake of tourtiere. That's my tradition, one among many traditions that mark the holidays for me.

There may be no more tradition filled time of year than right now. Traditions around food: toll house cookies, fat laden eggnog, black eyed peas, fish on Christmas Eve, maybe a big roast on New Year's Day. Traditions around decorations: some love "tasteful" white lights and a single spotlight illuminating a perfect wreath on the front door. Others go big: an oversized blow up Santa on the front lawn, a red and white visage so large and bright it can be seen from space. Traditions around faith: the holy quiet of a silent night with candles in hand or the lighting of the menorah around the family table, that holy object passed down from one generation to the next.

In a world that can feel as if it is changing so fast, too fast, traditions give humans a place to stand in this life, to depend upon even as so much else comes and goes, fades away. What's trendy today is so often passé tomorrow. Tradition gives us a place to reconnect with our cultural and familial roots, to remember where we came from and those who sacrificed to get us to this place. Tradition remind us that we are a part of a story--a faith story, a family story--so much bigger than ourselves, a story that began long before us, and, God willing, will continue after we are gone. Thus in my religious tradition, the story of the Christ child we celebrate and remember each December is more than 2,000 years old, ancient, yes, but trustworthy too, having survived the test of time. 

Not all traditions are meant to be carried on unthinkingly, unquestioned, or uninformed. In my house one of our childhood "traditions" was that of my Mom having to do essentially everything to make the holiday happen. By Christmas Eve she was always exhausted.  That's one tradition we've thankfully let go of. We all chip in to help now. In the past our holiday was so much more about gifts: giving and receiving. But now?  It's a gift to just be with each other.  That's a great new tradition.  So too the best traditions must be embraced by the next generation, made their own.  Hopefully one Christmas day I will sit at my niece's holiday table and eat a slice of tourtiere that she made.  But that's up to her.

I cannot imagine this life without tradition. Can you?

As Tevye, the main character in the play “Fiddler on the Roof”, proclaims, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” So go ahead: admire the delicate glass ornament on the tree, the one that came from Grandma. For fifty years it's marked this day in December. Return to your faith, and hear again the old, old story, one that still speaks to a world in desperate need of peace on earth and goodwill to all people.  That seems to never change.  Introduce the youngest to tradition: invite them to be a part of an unbroken chain of memory and life.

And that tourtiere?  Line a pie plate with pastry dough, hand made or store bought. Brown a pound and half of fresh ground pork, adding 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 3/4 of a tsp. of salt, an 1/8 of a tsp. of black pepper and a cup and a half of water. With a slotted spoon fill pie shells and add a little of the juice from the meat. Cover with the top crust. Cook at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Optional: add sweet pickles as a side and pork gravy.  YUM!   

Happy holidays. Happy traditions too.



1 comment:

  1. I made it for the first time this year and it was a huge hit! I don't have a family recipe as my grandmother died before I was born and while my mother always talked about it, she never made it. I plan to make it every year now as I actively work on learning more about my French-Canadian family who came to work in the mills in 1916. I used pork, cinnamon, clove, savory and beef stock instead of water. Ask Ben! He and his father in law were squabbling over the left overs. Happy New Year!