You Are What You Eat? Identity and Tradition in Your Holiday Dish

by a.l. castonguay

For those who observe it, Christmas is the event on the calendar.  Even if you yourself never go to church or are a profound unbeliever, it is hard getting around the festivities, family obligations, and food that demand attention.  It’s the time of year when certain types of foods and behaviors are expected and when the word tradition gets bandied about. 

It’s traditional that we do x, it’s traditional to have y, etc.

For me, it’s the time of year when I set aside 1-2 days for making tourtière, a meat pie native to Quebec.  You must eat it at this time of year; otherwise the universe is just not rightChristmas (and sometimes New Year’s) would fail to happen without this holiday tradition.

What goes into my traditional tourtiere.

What goes into my traditional tourtiere.

But what makes something traditional?  Is it the precise recreation of an object that your great-great-great-grandparents would have recognized? Is it the performance of a certain action or behavior?  Or is it the observance or recognition of a past event long gone from everyday memory?

I suspect that we do a combination of all three, but with extra emphasis upon the precise recreation of an object or behavior. In particular, I think (though cannot prove it) that this is most apparent when it comes to food. Think of the language used to describe family recipes or a treasured dish: guarded, just like so-and-so used to make, handed down, traditional. Learning how to make one of these familiar dishes is an art, sometimes even a lost art, depending upon the culinary skills of current family members.  Whoever keeps the tradition going earns a special place at the holiday table.

But why food?  What is it about the combination of food, tradition, and the act of recreation that makes such a potent mix?  Perhaps it has something to do with the ways in which we define ourselves as people.  As politically charged as language can be, I actually think that it’s not as strong of an identity tool (or for that matter, barrier) as it is sometimes made out to be.

After one has swapped one language for another or even religion, food can still be used as a cultural marker.  Here one goes out to a Chinese food restaurant, not a restaurant.  Simply saying “a restaurant” without an adjective implies that it’s your food or rather, the food belonging to the cultural norm. Therefore, to preserve one’s original food and to buck the societal norms (even if only for a holiday) is a way of shaping one’s identity.  It is a way to add a qualifier, if you will, to your own definition of “human”.

Are We What We Eat?

So if food is the conduit, then there must be added emphasis upon how it is prepared and consumed by members of that group.  If anyone could make and eat a dish, then food, like language, might cease to be a strong differential.  So what could happen?

Well, we could be exposed to certain behaviors from family members which are then internalized as “traditional” behavior regarding food preparation and consumption.  If one’s relatives always ate a dish a room temperature, it’s quite likely that you’d think this is the “traditional” was to eat such foods. Such behavior could even be reinforced by religious traditions, which often stress the importance of faithfully following all steps, no substitutions accepted, thereby  adding a supernatural dimension to it all.

Thus the importance of precisely preparing a dish becomes a test of belonging; only when you get it right are you a real member of the group. If the food was only for the observance of a past event or if cooking was more of a performance then recreation, it seems rather unlikely that we’d have so much sniping over the way food is prepared around the holidays.  It would be more about taste and presentation, two things highly valued in present fine dining, than the fact that Aunt Margie baked something “incorrectly.”

Yet despite all this emphasis upon the correct recreation of dishes and foods around holidays, the dishes themselves are not impervious to change.  What may have been a treat a few generations ago is now regarded as questionable.  So it is highly possible that the “traditional” dish that one spent time preparing is about as “traditional” as when it was first introduced.

Which brings me back to my own holiday food traditions.

I found out that my traditional tourtières were indeed traditional, though not in the way that I thought.  According to the anthropologists on staff at the Montreal Gazette, the style of the pie, as well as the seasoning, corresponds to certain regions in Quebec itself.  The shallow, ground meat dish pie comes from Montreal, the deeper, mixed diced meat ones come from the Sanguenay, fish pies from the Gaspé, etc., though all are classified as tourtière.

Interestingly though, the pie that we enjoyed did not correspond to where we originated from (at least on my father’s side). If geography really does play a role in pie style, then we should be eating a deeper, cubed meat version or even the multi-layered cipaille native to eastern Quebec and Kamouraska, where a number of (recent) ancestors came from.

Kamouraska & the St-Laurence River

Kamouraska & the St-Laurence River

However, I don’t seem to be the only one who noticed that a family tourtière style was off.  By that token, if food is indeed a conduit for cultural identity and heritage, then somewhere along the way we changed.  Somehow, the “Montreal-style” became our style.

This could be because the bakers who made them here in the United States only made the Montreal version and sold it as tourtière, which, after a few generations made it the staple.  It could be a factor of ingredients; it’s hard to make a pie out of cubed moose, venison, and other game when living in a city.

Taste and texture could also be factors.  When I was younger, I remember having a pie-off with my father and his version of tourtière not only had different seasoning but it also had bacon and other ingredients.  It was certainly quite a production – but when it came time to eat, it tasted too “busy”.  He never made it again and now we eat my version instead.

Given all these possible factors, I’ll probably never be able to figure out what the “traditional” tourtière was for my family but in the end, it doesn’t matter.  The version I make is now the “traditional one” and the way in which I do everything, from the spices I use, the length of time I simmer the meat for (never less than 2 hours!), to the crust made out of lard, has become “traditional.”  Moreover, I certainly would have to fight the urge to sniff “you did it wrong” if anyone deviated from my recipe which I believe strongly illustrates my earlier point that it is in the perceived correct recreation of an item that allows for an expression of identity.

Yet I’d also like to think that not everything rides on the correct recreation of a dish. In the end, one learns to be content with the attempt at preserving tradition, not the faithful recreation of it. I know I’d be fairly happy even eating a prepared tourtière from the freezer section at Christmas – so long as there was still ketchup around to squeeze on top.  After all, you have to draw the line somewhere; otherwise it’s just not traditional.

Don't care what you say, this is the *real* way to eat  tourtière.

Don’t care what you say, this is the *real* way to eat tourtière.