Bates College Head Baker Mercedes Thayer fills the pie while demonstrating how the staff makes their French Canadian holiday meat pies in late November. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

LEWISTON — At Bates College, people know Christmas is coming when the aroma of fragrant French Canadian tourtières – savory meat and potato pies with warm seasonings like clove and allspice – comes wafting out of the dining commons kitchen.

Every year, the Bates kitchen makes about 125 holiday tourtières to freeze and sell at cost – $12 for a 9-inch meat pie this year – to faculty, staff and students. It’s a cherished campus tradition that dates back close to 50 years. And while the number of meat pies the kitchen crew produces is a fraction of the roughly 1,800 meals they cook daily, the stakes are high.

“I think if we were ever to stop making them one year, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” laughed Michael Staffenski, assistant director of culinary operations at Bates. “People just love them. And if for some reason they’re not good, you hear about it.”

Staffenski cringed as he recalled a few years ago when the filling was drier than usual because cooks forgot to add back rendered fat to the pork and beef filling. And in 2018, the cooks added mashed potatoes to the filling instead of diced.

“With the mashed potatoes it was creamier, which may have been nice for some,” Staffenski said. “But for others, it was not our meat pie. We heard about it.”

Lewiston is a city rich with French Canadian heritage and influence. Plenty of Bates staffers who grew up in the area were raised with generational meat pie traditions in their own families. They know their tourtières, and the Bates version gets their enthusiastic stamp of approval.


“The Bates meat pies, I hate to say it, but they’re just as good, even better than my grandmother’s,” said student shuttle driver Ernie Ashton. “Don’t tell my Grammy that.”

“What I like about it is the community gets so fired up about it,” said Christine Schwartz, associate vice president of dining conferences and campus events. “When they come pick the pies up, they’re all excited. I’ve never had anybody say flat out they didn’t like it.”

A freshly baked slice of tourtiere, or meat pie, from Bates. For almost 50 years, the dining staff has been making the pies at Christmas time to sell to students, faculty and staff. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Mary Rice-DeFosse, a Bates professor of French and Francophone studies, said French Canadians in Quebec and New Brunswick and Franco-Americans in New England have enjoyed tourtières during the Christmas season for hundreds of years. Often, families would eat meat pies following midnight Mass on Christmas eve, part of the all-night French celebration of réveillon.

She said the tourtière tradition stretches back to the 18th century, though some food historians say it may have started as early as the 1600s. “Pork filling is most typical for meat pies, because November is the slaughtering month, when the pigs get slaughtered,” Rice-DeFosse explained.

The Bates version uses both pork and beef, another common approach. Rice-DeFosse said beef may have been introduced to meat pie recipes in the 20th century as it became more widely available to consumers. “These pies have evolved over time,” she said.


Tourtières were historically made with whatever was most available. Salmon might be the pie filling for families living on the coast, while game or fowl might go into pies for families based in the woodlands.

Rice-DeFosse isn’t a fan of pork, so she uses ground turkey in her own meat pies, which she spices with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. She said while there are no hard-and-fast rules about what goes into a meat pie or how it’s cooked, secret ingredients and techniques abound.

“One of the secret ingredients that I’ve found out about is that some people will cook the meat in wine instead of broth or water,” she said, noting that she simmers ground turkey in dry white wine when she makes her own filling.


Schwartz said the meat pie tradition at Bates likely dates back to the 1970s. The school started with a recipe from Roy Benard, the former assistant director of dining.

Around 1989, Schwartz said the Bates kitchen switched to a recipe from Jean Cote, a now-retired dining services staffer. The switch to Cote’s recipe – used every year since to this day – generated a fair amount of good-natured controversy back in the day.


“The original recipe didn’t have allspice in it, and Jean’s does, but we made the move,” said Schwartz. “It was very bold at the time.”

Just like folks who love chili are always ready to throw down over what kinds of spices and meat should go into it, or whether or not to include beans, tourtière fans eagerly debate the “proper” or “best” ingredients and cooking methods, or even how to eat it.

“There is one school of thought that says you always eat it with ketchup,” Schwartz said. “The traditionalists would say that is a renegade thing to do, that you never eat it with ketchup. And that, within our own operation, used to be a bone of contention.”

In the Bates kitchen, staffed by many people from French Canadian backgrounds, “there was always a ton of controversy over whose meat pie was the best,” Schwartz recalled. “What was the proportion of pork to beef, what kind of potatoes did you use? Were they cubed, sliced or mashed? What spices did you use? I mean, everybody had their own secret to the best meat pie.

“The debate was always centered around whatever the spice was and how the potatoes were mixed in,” Schwartz continued. “But they wouldn’t tell you what their (secret) spices were.”

“The recipes are often a family secret,” Staffenski said. “The thinking is, ‘This is not meat pie because it doesn’t taste like my meat pie.'”



The family ties of tourtière recipes helps account for the strong partisanship, and also the lure of the dish in the first place.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia built into that food,” said Bates head rowing coach Peter Steenstra. “It reminds people very much of a bygone era, of grandparents and how grandmothers would debate who had the best pie.”

“This is a city with a very Franco-American history,” Rice-DeFosse said. “I think the Bates tradition is a way of honoring the history of Lewiston and Auburn, and their deep roots in Frenchness.”

Steenstra has been getting the Bates meat pies for 15 years, ever since he got married; his wife was raised in Madawaska, on the New Brunswick border. The first year he bought one, he and his wife took it up north to visit her family at Christmas.

“My mother-in-law liked it so much, and she was very impressed that the college was producing something so authentic,” Steenstra said. “Ever since then, I’ve been buying four every year.”


Yet the same year, he also discovered that he had a gluten intolerance, so that was the last time he was able to eat a whole slice of meat pie, crust and all. “Sometimes I scrape the crust off and have a couple bites of the filling, because it is that good,” Steenstra said.

Ashton has been buying the Christmas tourtières for the 20 years he’s worked at Bates, and said he’ll order four this year to give to his family and neighbors.

He recalls being a young boy in Lewiston, visiting his grandparents in their downtown apartment. “Everyone knew they were making meat pies when they did it,” he said. “The smell of meat pies would be all over the building, and it’d linger for two, three days.”

“It’s comfort food, for sure,” said Lewiston native Tammy Caron, a senior visual designer in the Bates communications office. In the past, Caron would order as many as 12 meat pies from the Bates kitchen, and she half-jokingly suspects she was the reason the kitchen limited orders in recent years to no more than six pies per person.

Caron’s mom is French Canadian and made tourtières herself when she was growing up. Now, Caron brings Bates pies to her mom, who doesn’t cook as much anymore, and since LaCasse’s – Lewiston’s landmark French bakery that used to sell holiday tourtières – closed in 2004.

“It’s just great to know you can get these wonderful homemade pies that taste better than a lot of the commercial ones out there,” Caron said.



Despite lavish praise from meat pie enthusiasts, the dish is not for everyone. Schwartz is a vegetarian from Virginia who didn’t know anything about tourtières until she started at Bates 27 years ago. “It’s not really my cup of tea,” she said, noting that the dish can be polarizing.

“It’s either one way or the other, you love it or you don’t. Meatloaf is polarizing, and this is like eating meatloaf with a crust on it,” she said, adding that seasonings like pungent cloves and sage turn some people off instantly.

Staffenski has come to love the holiday meat pies over the 12 years he’s helped bake them, noting that his team will make this year’s batch over two days in the middle of December, so they’re ready for pickup at the Bates kitchen by December 19. “I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s meat and it smells like the holidays. How can you go wrong? That allspice is such a holiday spice. It smells like Christmas.”

While there may be eternal division over what exactly makes for the best tourtière, people at Bates hope the meat pies can help foster unity this year, given the tragic shootings in Lewiston in October.

“I hope that it’s helpful this year in particular, when Lewiston has gone through so much,” said Mike Rocque, an associate professor of sociology at Bates, whose extended family has French Canadian roots. Rocque has bought the holiday tourtières for the last six years, and even has pictures of his two sons in high chairs feasting on meat pie.


“It’s a way to celebrate Lewiston’s uniqueness and cultural ties in a positive way,” he said. “I hope people are a little bit more appreciative of what we have and who we are. And I think that will do a lot to help heal the community going forward.”

“For us, these milestones and traditions all seem more meaningful this year,” Schwartz said. “Having been part of this community for a long time, for me this year is even more important than ever. We’re all just trying to seek normalcy. There’s a lot of comfort in that.”

A freshly baked Bates tourtiere. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


The recipe Bates uses for its annual holiday meat pies comes from retired dining services staffer Jean Cote. You will need a kitchen scale to make it. The filling cooks for four hours and then must cool before you fill the pie shell, so plan accordingly. Or you can make both the pie crust and filling ahead and roll and fill the pie shell when you are ready to bake the pie.

Yield: One (9-inch) pie, 8-10 servings



7.5 ounces pastry flour

4.75 ounces shortening

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup very cold water


1 lb. ground pork


5 ounces finely ground 80/20 ground beef

Generous 1/2 cup diced onion (1/4-inch dice)

1 teaspoon salt, divided use

3/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons water

12.5 ounces diced, peeled potatoes


1 ½ teaspoons rubbed sage (optional)

3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3/8 teaspoon allspice

1 egg, well beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash

To prepare the pie dough, combine the flour, shortening and salt in a stand mixer bowl with the paddle attachment. Mix until the shortening is broken into small pieces. Add the cold water; continue mixing just until blended, being careful not to overmix. Set dough aside.

To prepare the filling, combine the pork, beef, onion, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and water in a large pan; simmer over medium-low heat for 2 hours. Strain most of rendered fat liquid from pan, reserving some to add later if needed.


Stir in the potatoes, spices and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer the meat mixture an additional 2 hours. You are looking for a chili-like consistency. Add additional reserved fat, if needed, to achieve that consistency. Remove from heat and let cool.

Form the pie dough into two (8-ounce) balls. Roll each ball into a 10-inch circle. Place one circle in the bottom of a pie plate. Top it with the tourtiere filling; brush the egg wash around the edges of the bottom pie dough shell.

Set the top crust over the filling. Trim the top and bottom crusts as needed and crimp around the edges to seal. With a paring knife, score three small slits into the center of the top crust to vent the pie as it bakes.

When you are ready to bake the pie, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Brush top crust evenly with egg wash. Bake the pie for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.