Tourtiere: ‘There is no Christmas without pork pie’

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A tourtiere, or pork pie, made by Precille Boisclair at West Street Market in Biddeford. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

SANFORD — When Lucille Dutile Masure and her classmates from the St. Ignatius High School Class of 1952 get together for their monthly lunch in December, the conversation inevitably swings to holiday preparations.

They talk about the presents they’re giving, the places they’re traveling and, of course, the tourtiere they’ll be baking.

“There is no Christmas without pork pie,” Masure says.

Recipes for the savory tourtiere, or pork pie, have been passed down through generations of Franco-American families in Maine. For many, the smell of the meat seasoned with cinnamon, allspice and cloves simmering on the stove is as much a sign of the holiday season as Christmas trees and Santa Claus.

Families that moved from Quebec to find work in Maine brought with them the tradition of serving pork pie during reveillon, the feast that follows midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Though few still celebrate reveillon, pork pie remains a holiday favorite for many families and a link to their Franco-American heritage.

Plus, as anyone who loves pork pie will tell you, nobody doesn’t like pork pie.

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“Starting on or about Thanksgiving through New Year’s, that delicious aroma of pork pies baking in the oven is a Pavlov moment! Alert Hallmark!” Masure wrote in the memoir she published this year.

Masure, now 83, remembers clearly the festive Christmases of her childhood in Sanford, when men and women would wear, respectively, tuxedos, evening gowns and corsages to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Families filled St. Ignatius Church, adorned with red and green decorations, and listened to the homily in French and English. The air was fragrant with incense and electric with the joy of the celebration of the birth of Christ.

After Mass, Masure’s family would return to their house on Shawmut Avenue, where her mother, Lauretta Cote Dutile, would serve pork pie and homemade piccalilli. Her father, Wilfred Joseph Dutile, would play the piano, with others joining in with their own instruments.

They’d celebrate until the wee hours, when the adults returned home in time to set presents under the tree before their children woke.

MULTIPLYING BY PIE

A tourtiere, or pork pie, made by Precille Boisclair at West Street Market in Biddeford. The market sells the ready-to-bake pies for $13.99. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

When Precille Boisclair, now 78, was a child in Biddeford, she would return home from Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. Joseph’s Church to have a late supper of pork pie. But it was New Year’s Day when pork pie was the centerpiece of the spread her mother, Antoinette Simard, set out for family who would stop by during the day.

Next to the pork pies were pickled beets, coleslaw, relish, pastries and icebox cookies that Boisclair has never been able to replicate. Antoinette Simard, a homemaker who immigrated from Canada at age 2, made it all from scratch, often with her daughter by her side.

“When she would cook, I had to know what she was doing,” Boisclair said.

Precille Boisclair married Raymond Boisclair in 1960 and in 1962 they bought the West Street Market from his father, who had opened the store in the former Guinea Road School. The young couple ran the store together, adding aisles of groceries where their children played while she ran the register and he cut meat at the deli counter.

One summer around 1975, they used extra pork from the deli to make a bunch of pork pies. Customers couldn’t get enough and would recognize the smell of baking pork pie the second they walked through the door.

“My goodness, it started and it just didn’t end,” she said. “When my husband was alive, we were like 10 people working on them.”

They would start making pies in September, freezing them as they went along. In the early years, they’d make 700 to 800 pork pies by Christmas. Soon it was 3,000 in a year and the year after that, when they baked even more, they just stopped counting. The phone rang off the hook with people placing orders.

Ray and Precille Boisclair would cook the filling using 60 pounds of meat at a time, simmering it in multiple pots on the stove. They made a few changes to her mother’s recipe, perfecting their own by cutting in a little ground beef and changing the spices. She admits the spices aren’t the traditional ones, but she keeps her mix a secret.

Boisclair has written down all her recipes for her children, but she has yet to pass them on. For now, pork pies are her domain.

“I’m the only one who makes them because I want to make sure they’re done right,” she said.

Raymond Boisclair, known for his constant smile and a laugh that filled the room, died in 2013. Precille Boisclair has slowed down in recent years and makes fewer pies, but she still goes into the market, now run by her children, many evenings to bake pies and fill the freezer case tucked against the wall near the self-service coffee station. She sells the pies for $13.99 each and packages of cretons – a French-Canadian pork spread commonly served on toast – for $2.99.

She’ll bake pork pies for holiday meals with her own family, but is already looking forward to making crepes on Christmas morning, just as she always does.

IF MEMORY HAD A TASTE

Masure, who still lives on the street where she grew up, frequently gives talks about the memoir, “Growing up Franco-American (with no black patent-leather shoes)”, she published earlier this year to honor her family history and to help preserve Maine’s Franco-American culture. Most people who come up to speak with her after the talks tell her they identify with her descriptions of life as a first-generation American, the journeys of her grandparents and the meals she grew up eating.

Masure’s grandparents, Elmire Beauchesne Cote and Joseph Cote, moved to Maine from Quebec with their children in 1912, traveling 400 miles by train and arriving at “Little Ellis Island” in Lewiston where many immigrants were processed. He went to work in the mills, and she ran a small grocery store.

Masure spent most of her childhood in Sanford, where her mother stayed home with the five children, and her father owned Dutile’s shoe store.

Masure’s mother served meals that were common among Franco-American families. She often cooked a piece of pork or beef on Sunday, then served leftovers in various forms until Thursday, at which point everything left in the fridge was baked in a pie crust. On Fridays the family ate fish, and on Saturday it was baked beans and hot dogs.

“My mother was an incurable romantic. She would wake you up to the fragrance of warm cinnamon cake, drawing the shades to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning.’” Masure said. “My father was a scientist. Dad told the truth. But they shared the same values.”

This Christmas Eve, Masure and two of her four brothers will gather at her home to celebrate together. On the center of the table, she’ll place a small vase of flowers her mother always had in their home. Her brother will bring pork pie baked using their mother’s recipe, and they’ll sing “Go Tell It On the Mountain” as a prayer before they eat.

Then they’ll sit for hours, reminiscing.

Lorraine Dutile Masure, 83, grew up in Sanford as a first-generation American and still makes her French-Canadian mother’s traditional Christmas pork pie recipe. Masure lives on the street where she grew up. (Portland Press Herald photo)

LAURETTA COTE DUTILE’S RECIPE FOR TOURTIERE (PORK PIE) OR CRETONS

We’ve copied her recipe card exactly as written.

  • 2 pound ground pork
  • 2 medium onions
  • Some water
  • Cook slowly 1.5 hours. Take off fire. Add:
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 6 slices bread cubed
  • 1 teaspoon each pepper, salt, cinnamon, allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • Beat all together.

For pie, put in pie shell and top with crust. Bake 30 minutes at 450 degrees.

For cretons, spread on buttered toast.

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