Since my Grandmother Theo passed I have been tasked with the preparation of Tourtière, a classic Québécois meat pie made to mark my most favourite and, the most important celebration of the holiday season, Réveillon. My families matriarchal French Canadian roots run strong and as a result I possess no pre-memory of Tourtière. Its taste, texture and essential nature have always been with me and are imprinted on my gastronomic DNA. As a result, I’m sure of what I like and for its preparation I turn to the Grand Dame of Québécois cuisine, Mme. Jehane Benoit. Only once, in the swell of worshiping a new culinary idol from French Canada, did I veer from it with disastrous results. Diversion is always a risky endeavor with anything imbued with this type of history and importance. No commercially made pie can satisfy me and only Jamie Kennedy at ‘Gilead’ in Toronto prepares a Tourtière I deem excellent. Each year, I make it precisely the same way finding deep comfort in the rote of this practice. Each year my family marvels at the tenderness of the lard pastry (mandatory for meat pie) and coos and sighs while eating in a way that fills me to the brim with love.
I’m currently in the throws of our next tradition. This marks the second year that we will ring in the New Year with an Indian feast. I’m little more than a novice in this, but Indian cooking is a real passion. Every aspect of preparing this meal brings me pleasure including the shopping, which takes me to some of my most favourite small Indian grocery stores. While shopping, I suppress an urge to follow after store patrons inquiring about all the foreign and unfamiliar ingredients. I secretly long to be invited to dinner, thinking this would be the key to unlocking some of the delicious mystery of Indian cuisine. I possess enough knowledge to understand that regionalism is at work in this cooking, as it is with so many other great world cuisines. That adds to the complexity and quite possibly the futility of my desire to know completely.
Left to my own devices, and so as to expand my budding repertoire, I create a menu that includes several new dishes to be served alongside familiar and much loved offerings. Spending time in my kitchen preparing this elaborate and exotic meal is the perfect antidote to the cold and dark that mark late December in Toronto. So as not to be exhausted or full from cooking, I stagger meal preparations over several days completing all vegetable dishes a day in advance of the feast. I love a variety of vegetable offerings and this year have settled on Smokey Spicy Eggplant, Potatoes with Onion and Tomatoes (sunshine bright from turmeric), and Spinach Dhal made with green split peas, fresh grated coconut and curry leaves. Even James, who lacks some of my lavish enthusiasm for food, gets excited about the eating that heralds the New Year.
I like this juxtaposition of old and new food traditions that marks the week between Christmas and New Years Eve. Like so many of you, it is the meals that act as the important markers of time. Strip them out of the holiday season and times passage becomes little more than numbers on the calendar. Seasonal substance owes much to the sustenance on offer at the table. For some dishes there is a long familial umbilical cord binding me to their practice and for others there is little more than the silk strand of new practice that will mark time in a delicious and memorable way.