November 16, 2012 by LeVoyageur
Living in Northern Michigan, the countryside of southern Cheboygan County, we were never far from wildlife. In a mile or two we would be well inside the Pigeon River Forest, a place my father never tired of driving and walking. The elk herd there was an elusive sight but on a few occasions, when we least expected it, we saw one of those massive animals, something you never really grow accustomed to. Yet the herd became strong enough at various points in time to allow limited hunting in some years.
For our family, living in the country meant living life with the rhythm of the seasons. Our French Canadian forebears had long been accustomed to ‘wild harvesting’ mushrooms, berries, leeks, sap, nuts, etc. My generation and that of my parents was no different, and perhaps even more so in the 1970’s when the value of self-sufficiency resurfaced in America after the welcome prosperity and conveniences that came out of post-WWII industry.
Hunting and fishing were very much a part of this rhythm, especially dominating Fall and Winter in ways that perhaps only high school football could eclipse. Hunting in particular was a time of seeing old friends and relatives, getting outside for a good long walk, a look at unadorned nature before months of snow would blanket the landscape.
Deer season was the highlight of the hunting season. With it came the excitement of preparation, the anticipation of guests from out-of-town, and the possibility of game. Not every year saw a deer being brought home. That was in fact, a lucky year. There were many years, some may remember, when game in Michigan was much more rare that it is today.
If a family member brought home a deer, it meant a freezer full of venison for the Winter. The chance to take a deer meant getting up before dawn and heading out to a favored hunting spot, often in the freezing cold and snow. But it was all part of the experience, which I know continues to be so important for many people across Michigan today.
But to a large extent, in our family at least, actually bringing home a deer every year was beside the point. Just as important was the rest of the season: the buzz it created, the church full of mass-goers in red and black plaid, the sight of lucky hunters with their trophies strapped to their cars.
In my own experience, I was not much of a deer hunter. I much preferred the experience of hunting birds. This was an opportunity to walk in the woods on a warm Fall day. If the potential take-home was smaller, it was offset by the more leisurely pace. If no birds materialized, it was still a nice walk in the woods and time spent with family or friends.
Beyond opening day, beyond the hunt itself, it was what came later in the days of hunting that was perhaps the most special time for hunter and non-hunter alike at our house: lunch. And in our family, there were particular meals that we could count on during deer season and throughout Winter whose smells and tastes linger long in the memory. My mother was a very good cook, and her versions of family recipes were always appreciated by everyone around the table.
Two of those meals were widely prepared in our extended family, recipes that came down through our French Canadian ancestors, that helped defined the seasons for us: tourtière and glissants. Tourtière (French Canadian meat pie) in particular was a deer season favorite. Traditionally this was a dish that many French Canadians would eat after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Our mother made it during deer season as well, and instead of Christmas, it was a New Year’s Day staple since we usually didn’t make it to the midnight service.
Tourtière is made of ground pork and beef, simmered with onions, potatoes, and sage then mixed with bread before being baked in a pastry shell. It is a handy food that can be prepared ahead and served with pickles (in our case, homemade bread and butter pickles) and reheated as the house filled up with hungry hunters. Tourtière is hearty food, warm and filling – a perfect end to a day in the cold, and a perfect way to bring a whole group together.
Glissants (we pronounced it glee-sahns) were served throughout the Winter and were often a special request for those with Winter birthdays. Glissants are a kind of slider, a thick homemade noodle simmered in chicken broth – nourishment for body and soul. They can be eaten as a rich soup, or if you want to ‘gild the lily,’ they can be used as a gravy over mashed potatoes. This is not a low-carb food! The beauty of glissants is not just in the taste, but also in the simplicity of making them.
Tourtière and glissants are two great meals, but they are also tradition – part and parcel of the experience of hunting, holidays, and Winter that made life special for us at home on the edge of the Pigeon River Forest. The passage of time being what it is, many people may have only had these foods while their French-speaking mémé still sat at the head of the table. Many French Canadians in Michigan have lost these great traditions, or if they are still eaten, they may not even be aware of their origins!
They are still made in our family, recipes passed down from generations of Michigan-born French Canadians, Franco-Ontarians, and immigrants from Quebec. Food is so much a part of culture, it defines as well as nourishes us. In the case of tourtière and glissants, they are truly soul foods, linking us to earlier generations. They help animate the holidays and mark the seasons. That is what tradition is all about and tourtière and glissants are two culinary traditions that have long been part of Michigan life.
FAMILY RECIPES (In Word format)
Links to other recipes