Tourtière is a simple dish, a pork and beef pie brought to Rhode Island by immigrants from old Quebec. No one has ever suggested any of the ingredients have an intoxicating effect. Yet when served up in a Woonsocket luncheonette — especially in December — a slice can spark the same sentimental reverie as a shot of Irish whiskey.
"The smell from the oven always makes me think of Christmas," says Carol Kane, owner of Paul's Family Restaurant, the kind of neighborhood place where customers are greeted by first name and the specials board features meatloaf and baked beans. "I learned the recipe from my meme, my grandmother. It's something passed down in your family."
In Quebec, the hearty pate in pasty crust is a staple at les reveillons, the all-night parties held on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Four or five decades ago — before the age of liposuction and Jenny Craig — it was also part of the holiday celebrations in most New England mill towns, which were destinations for French-Canadian immigrants during the region's manufacturing heyday. With the passage of time, however, most of those places have forgotten the ritual cuisine. It survives here, no doubt, because of Rhode Islanders' deep devotion to lunch counter comfort foods, from New York System wieners to coffee milk to chow mien on a burger bun.
The list of basic ingredients is brief — ground pork, ground beef, diced onions, a few scoops of mashed potatoes, pie crust and seasonings — but variations are endless. The old school uses only pork, no beef. Iconoclasts add ground veal. Crushed saltines occasionally replace potatoes. You can even omit the crust, and serve the filling as turkey dressing. The seasonings are those often found in holiday dishes and can include clove, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, or sage. When meat pie is served in a neighborhood diner, the regulars are transformed into foodies, ever ready to argue over this or that recipe.
There's even debate over condiments. "Some folks ask for brown gravy, and we'll serve it that way," Kane says. "But if you're a true Frenchman, meat pie calls for ketchup."
It's a special all year in Woonsocket, along with meatloaf, stuffed cabbage, and liver and onions. But cravings for the dish soar in December, and eateries and neighborhood markets do a brisk business preparing pies for customers to serve at home during the holidays. This month they'll sell several thousand. In addition, some families make dozens of small tourtières to pass out to friends in lieu of the usual cookie tins. Cut all of the pies baked in Woonsocket into eight slices and you've got enough to stuff at least half the mouths of the city's populace.
The tourtière has made local diners a destination for out-of-towners. "We have customers come by from the Kingston area," says Jesse Frenette, whose family owns the Castle Luncheonette. "That's 40 minutes away. They'll stop in here looking for meat pie, and they'll order two slices so they'll have some to bring home."
At Barbara's Place, a favorite neighborhood spot on North Main, owner and chief cook Bob Atstupenas predicts he'll sell more than a hundred pies before the new year begins. "You can't buy it at a supermarket," he says. "And that's a big reason why people love it, because it's not assembly-line food. My wife and I make every pie we sell."