For me, the power of Christmas, and the true spirit of it, is beautifully wrapped up in O. Henry’s masterful short-story “The Gift of Magi.” In this story first published more than a century ago, O. Henry beautifully shows the power of giving and the gift of sacrifice. It’s a story and that I now read to myself, or someone special, every holiday. While it has become my tradition, it is not a tradition handed down to me or even one learned. It started with my reading that story and my being touched to tears … and it is a story I’ve read ever since with the same affect. The story is moving to me and my heartfelt gift has been to share it with others.
Traditions all have to start some place but rarely are those that are most meaningful started with the purpose of becoming a legacy. They’re born of a moment, a moment that becomes a memory so cherished that we choose to repeat it again and again hoping to once again recapture that ‘first.’
In my experience, some of our strongest and most deeply symbolic traditions revolve around food, the power of sharing it with others on a momentous day, and those rituals we associate with the Christmas holidays. Not surprising, then, Christmas food traditions are often even stronger.
What you may count as strange, though, is that I don’t really have much in the way of strong Christmas traditions. As I headed to university, my parents divorced and most of my family Christmas traditions ended as well. When I married for the first time, my then-wife and I created our own traditions and we included many of her family traditions in ours because, living in the same city as her parents, her family was an important part of our lives. So I learned to make olive cheese balls, shortbread, brandied cherries, Christmas pudding, rum balls and many many other delectable treats. Living abroad – especially in China where we were actually expected to work on Christmas day – traditions were challenged. When I divorced, traditions were again lost. And so my life has continued with what seems like a constant absorption and creation of traditions whilst continually letting go others. In a word, I’ve become resilient – and, in a phrase, none too attached to family or Christmas traditions. It may, in part, explain why “The Gift of the Magi” had the opportunity to take root in my life as a tradition all my own.
So, like a voyeur of sorts, I’m anticipating the many choice experiences and recipes and traditions that others will be sharing as part of their December contributions to this project: Christmas cakes, tarts, puddings, cookies, libations, turkeys and geese … and pies will surely abound. For a person who loves food, Christmas is indeed the most wonderful season of the year.
As a result, in choosing to share a food that is both a Christmas tradition and local to my region (past or present), I was left with no shortage of opportunities for inspiration – yet with no clear lineage to one dish or another. Thus I chose to take inspiration from my present: my home and my chosen partner, Anne (who is French Canadian), to create something traditional and local … but in the spirit of my appropriation of a tradition not my own, I chose to create something new. Whether it becomes a tradition, remains to be seen….
Enter the tourtière, the traditional French-Canadian meat pie that ranges from Northern and Eastern Ontario (including Ottawa) all the way across Quebec to the Gaspé and beyond. That represents a geographically big part of this country … and it makes tourtière a very traditional and very Canadian dish. It’s also a dish that is traditionally made around Christmas and eaten before or after Christmas Day, depending on the family’s religious practices. It could very easily be argued that tourtière is the French Canadian version of the North American turkey, the English goose, or the Polish carp.
There are as many versions of tourtière as there are French-Canadian regions in this country. I won’t therefore get involved in the debate as to which region owns the best or most traditional version. Not only am I not French Canadian and so my opinion doesn’t matter much, but the opinion I do hold is that the dish adapted to the different regions based on what meat was most accessible and available in that region. Some include venison; some pork; some veal; some beef and many include a blend of two of more of the above. Most have some blend of ‘sweet’ spices in them that may include cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, or allspice – and another large segment includes savoury herbs like thyme, savory, and sage. No matter the recipe, though, it is still a meat pie.
The world has changed, however, since the first pioneers of this country made a pie that would fill, satisfy, and warm the home. We actively debate the need for and the quantity of meat and saturated fats in our diets. We acknowledge and understand the power and importance of other nutrients from co-called super-foods and ancient grains in our environment. And many are choosing if, or when and where, wheat gluten shows up in their diets. Vegetarians, vegans, locavores, those with celiac sensitivities, and ethical consumers abound. Food nutrition and conscious consumption are commonplace today. And traditional diets are being challenged and reinvented.
So, as part of my recent contribution to the Canadian Food Experience Project, I headed out on a quest to reinvent tourtière and create a vegetarian version. Some might argue that I did so because I’m a shit disturber (I know: very un-Christmas language). Why would I do such a thing when, after all, I’m not a vegetarian nor do I even have gluten sensitivities? However, as evidenced by my CSA challenges the past few years, I am increasingly becoming a conscious consumer and I have always endeavored to eat a well-rounded diet. As I wrote yesterday, I’m a very happy and content omnivore. I like my meat and especially love all things pork; I relish my fruit and veggies; I can’t live without dairy; and I crave my carbs and grains. And, as much as I love traditional tourtière, I can’t eat a ton of it because I find it to be too much meat beyond a slice or two. But, more than anything, I wanted to create a version of the dish that anyone can eat. The recipe was posted here yesterday – where I explain the substitutions I made in my drive to create a healthy but untraditional ‘meatless’ pie.
In making this rendition, I am acknowledging that traditions will change; that each of us needs to create out own; and that Christmas traditions should be about inclusion, not exclusion.
The warmest Christmases of my life have been when I’ve most acutely felt isolated and been confronted by the loss of tradition. In those moments, it has always been friends and their families that have opened their hearts and homes to me to share with me their own traditions.
In giving up the meat from this symbolic and important pie, it reminds me that in every space there is an opening and in every sacrifice there is a gift of love.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all ….
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.