I am amazed at home cook’s ability to transform the ordinary into extra ordinary. There is proof of the importance of this in our traditional foods, which are celebrated locally, regionally and internationally. Look at almost any ‘traditional’ feast food and at its roots are ordinary ingredients. Whether the approach is to add ‘special’ ingredients (more valuable, scarce, expensive) or by the processing of ordinary ingredients differently, the result is beyond ordinary.
My Mother’s Cookbooks has many examples of the innovation and creativity of home cooks, most represent cooks coping with adversity. Poutine Râpée, a dish found most commonly in the recipe collections of Southeastern New Brunswick Acadian families is a wonderful example. It appears in the collection because of my friends the Melanson family of Amherst, NS.
The area we now call Atlantic Canada is the traditional home of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Mi’kmaq; Beothuk; Passamaquoddy, St Lawrence Iroquois; and Innu peoples. Over generations of interaction the Aboriginal peoples of the region, developed relationships which permitted them to live peaceably, interact and share resources.
Ida Richard Melanson’s was born Aboujagane, Westmorland County, New Brunswick about 1878. Ida’s Richard family were among some of the earliest Acadian settlers to the region, starting in Port Royal (now called Annapolis Royal, NS) the earliest European settlement in Canada.
Port Royal located on the Bay of Fundy would be come home to an industrious group of farmers primarily of the Southwest region of France. French traders would also build settlements from Cape Breton to the Gaspe and of course beyond to Quebec. The French government and settlers alike sought to developed peaceful relationships with the native peoples, while fostering cooperation and trade.
A testament to the relationships which developed, is the oral history that it was at the invitation of their Mi’kmaq neighbours that the eldest sons of five Port Royal (including the Richard family) families moved northward to the shores of the Cumberland Basin to settle in an area called ‘Menoodeh’ (now Minudi, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia)1.
The French Colonial period in Acadie saw farmers reclaiming saltmarshes, cultivating a variety of crops, establishing orchards and taking advantage of an abundance of fish and wild game. By all reports the diet of Acadians of the time was generally plentiful and varied. Winter demanded storage, preservation and planning to assure adequate vegetable to balance the more plentiful fish and game.
During the period, the prosperity of Acadia grew, with close ties to their First Nation Allies and relative peace it brought, shielding them from the broader geopolitical issues including France’s war with the British.
Both Acadians and First Nations people suffered at the hands of relentless Empire building by European nations. Britain’s reign of terror which began after the Treaty of Utretch, culminated with the fall of Fort Beausejour and the expulsion of Acadians in 1755 is an outstanding example.
The lives of many settlers were precarious for the first few years after settlement. For Acadians the threat was real and on going. British authorities and local settlers emboldened by the Colonial world view were unwilling to afford even the most basic rights. Many Acadian families existed on a scarce diet of potatoes, salt pork, fish, molasses and tea. Potatoes were one of the few crops the poor soil and cool damp climate supported. Molasses was a cheap and readily available because of triangular trade. Locally caught, salt/smoked fish made its way as cheap protein for sugar plantation slaves and indentured workers(including deported Acadians) in the West Indies.
Elizabeth Lorette Babcock was born in Upper Sackville, as a child Lizzie and her family lived in both Upper Sackville and the community of Dupuis Corner, Shediac Parish, Westmorland County, NB. It is not entirely clear the reason, it is possible their movement was related to work in the fishing industry. Subsistence farms at the edges of prime farming areas were common and required off farm work. Lizzie’s father Phillipe returning to his home area for work fishing or in processing fish is very likely. Eventually, the family would settle in Upper Sackville, on a farm near that of the Babcock family.
The history of Poutine Râpée is unclear, made of just two ingredients, both of which were eaten daily, it is the process which transforms them in to feast food. I can only imagine the originating cook whose deep desire to serve something different to their family, their love and dedication reflected in the multi -step process. Poutine Râpée has become associated with holidays, Christmas particularly, in many Acadian homes. Made of a mixture of raw grated and cooked mashed potatoes formed into a ball about the size of an orange, around a 1 inch ball of ground salt(soaked )pork. The potato dumplings after several hours of cooking in simmering stock, can be served in two ways. A savory version is served with salt and pepper, the sweet with molasses, brown sugar or maple syrup.
I know from Ida’s family’s stories that Poutine Râpée was a feast food from her kitchen. I can not say for certain that Lizzie served Poutine Râpée to her children but it is entirely possible.
2 parts Raw finely grated potato
1 part cooked mashed potato
Ground salt pork
Flour for dusting the surface
1) Combine potatoes and mix well
2) Gather a portion of meat and form into a 1 inch ball
3) Gather a portion of potato, form into a ball and press the meat into the center, assuring the potato completely surrounds the meat.
4) Roll prepared balls in a small amount of flour
5) Place balls in a large part of simmering stock or water and simmer gently for 11/2 hours.
Ida Richard Melanson
Born: 2 Feb 1881, Haute Aboujagone, Westmorland County, NB
Died: 23 June 1968, Amherst, NS
Parents: Aldolphe Richard and Marie Richard
Married: Edmond Melanson, 2 Feb 1904, Springhill, Cumberland County, NS
Ida was born 3rd in a family of at least 6 children born to Adolphe and Maria Richard. Sometime between 1901 and 1904, Ida left the farm to seek work in Springhill, Cumberland county, NS at the time booming mining town. Ida like many other young farm women sought employment as a domestic, choosing a location which family and friends had already settled. Ida met and married in 1904, Edmund Melanson, a labourer from the Memramcook Valley, NB. During the early part of their marriage, Ida and Edwin returned to his home area in Memramcook to start their family.
Childhood mortality rates during the late 1800s in New Brunswick were grim, and is reflected in Ida’s experience. Ida and Edmund faced the loss of at least 6 children, 2 sets of premature twins as infants, a girl named Mary who died of pneumonia at 11 months and a girl named Ellurey who died of whopping cough at almost 4 months. Despite this loss they managed to have and raise a family of at least 6 other children.
Around 1914, the family relocated to Amherst, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia where Edmond was a grocery merchant. Their home located on Foundry Street was surrounded with family, Edmond’s Melanson family and eventually several of their children purchased or built homes on the same street. Ida and Edmond would live among family on Foundry street until their deaths, Edmond in 1964, Ida in 1968.
Elizabeth Ann Lirette Babcock
Born: 27 October 1871, Upper Sackville, NB
Died: 19 Dec 1956, Amherst, NS
Parents: Phillip Lorette and Rose Ruth McPhee
Married: David Purrington(Purnt) Babcock 12 Oct 1888 in Amherst, NS
Lizzie was born second eldest in a family of 12 children, the family lived in her father Phillip’s home area of Cap Pele, NB and her mother Ruth’s home area of Upper Sackville, NB
The decision for the Lirette family to move to Sackville parish is not immediately clear but the complexity of raising a family in what would at the time would have been seen as a ‘mixed marriage’ would not have been an easy one. Discrimination and intolerance against those of French heritage was further complicated by religious intolerance. Being Roman Catholic in a community which was predominately Protestant would have added an additional layer of difficulty.
After her marriage in 1888, Lizzie and Prunt settled on the Babcock family farm a short distance away. They would raise their family of 7 children on the Babcock farm. Prior to her death Lizzie moved to Cornwall Street in Amherst, NS to live with her youngest son Bill and his family.
More of the lives of the Babcock, Lirette and McFee families will appear in the next blog, stay tuned.
Explanations and Resources:
- Minudi, Cumberland County, NS located on the Cumberland Basin began the settlement by Acadians leading to the eventual founding of Beaubassin.
- Burnt Church indigenous Settlement – 1928. Located on Miramichi Bay, the village got its English name after British Col. James Murray was sent in in 1758 to destroy the Acadian settlements in the Miramichi area. He reported that, “On the evening of the 17th September, in obedience to instructions, embarked the troops, having two days hunted all around us for the indigenous and Acadians to no purpose, we destroyed their provisions, wigwams and houses. The church, a very handsome one built with stone, did not escape.” According to Place Names of Atlantic Canada, written by William B. Hamilton, it was this incident that resulted in the English name of Burnt Church.
- History of Acadie – Canadian Encyclopedia https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/history-of-acadia
- Acadian History – https://acadie.cheminsdelafrancophonie.org/en/historical-capsules/