How they Made Rappie Pie in 1965 is a narrative story I’m developing for an audio vinyl/digital work. The story is told by Tante Claire and Grand-pére Anselm. The setting is Christmas Eve 1965 in a village somewhere in L’acadie. It recounts how rappie pie was made in the time before frozen rappure was available and how the sacred meal of the Sang-Mêlés Acadien came to be.
Tante Claire begins:
“This is a story from more than fifty years ago. Its Christmas Eve and the whole family have gathered at Grand-père Anselm’s house to make the rappie pie before going to midnight mass.
Everybody is there as you can see, Grand-père, Grand-mère Louise, Uncle Georgie, Uncle Matt, Uncle Paul, Tante Louise, Tante Yvonne, Tante Catherine, my cousins, Gerald, Mark, Donny, Louise and me, Claire, I’m back home for Christmas from nursing school in Halifax. The little ones are next door with Tante Louise á Melbourn, they’re too young to stay up for midnight mass.
We should all be fasting before communion tonight, but the temptation is too strong at Christmas time so we will all have to confess on Tuesday. Père Michael will laugh when he hears all our confessions, everyone in the village will be guilty of this transgression except Tante Genesta.
It’s 5 o’clock. After a big junk of fruit cake and a glass of rum the men will start peeling and grating the potatoes, tonight they will be making rappure as far away as Halifax and Dartmouth and even in Montréal. As usual Uncle Georgie must be reminded about grating potatoes with a cigarette in his mouth. The men laugh and stories go round about grating accidents from the old days and of blood in the rappure!
Do you see the wonderful large potato grater? My uncle Paul made that. He teaches industrial arts at the vocational school in Yarmouth. With such a grater the men can grate the potatoes in no time at all. They have a big job peeling grating and squeezing 20 pounds of potatoes. Meanwhile the women and girls are busy in the kitchen preparing the rest of the ingredients. Grand-mère will cut the two chickens into parts. This takes great skill. Poor Tante Yvonne gets to chop the onions and I will cut the pork fat into small squares.
As the potatoes are grated the pulp is placed into a squeezing bag. The men will take turns squeezing out the starchy potato water. This takes great strength, it’s a job for a fisherman or farmer, but city men can do it as well. My brother-in-law, a fireman in Halifax can squeeze the bag as good as the men around home. Removing the starch from the potato pulp is the secret to making rappure. The squeezed pulp is put aside into a bowl until all twenty pounds of potatoes are grated and squeezed. The squeezing bag is made from two strong tea towels sewn together and some are quite old. Grand-mère’s squeezing bag was sewn by her grand-mére back in the old days.
When the potatoes, chicken, onions and pork fat are prepared we put half the squeezed potato pulp into a large plastic pan then pour boiling water on it and mix it carefully into a smooth paste with a potato masher. Because the potatoes change from year to year there is no fixed amount of boiling water to pour onto the potato pulp, you must learn by doing it. It‘s important while mixing the rappure that the potato pulp is made very hot or partially cooked, so you will pour more than one pot of boiling water over it. You can either salt the boiling water or salt the rappure to taste in the mixing pan, but remember the pork fat adds salt, you must be careful either way. We like to eat our rappie pie with lots of butter, so It’s important to get the salting right. You can always add salt, but you can’t take it away.
When the first half of the rappure is mixed, it’s poured into a large well buttered baking pan, we use a full-sized turkey roaster. Fill it just under half-way. Then we place the chicken parts over the rappure and sprinkle the finely chopped onions over the chicken. Not too many onions just enough to lightly cover the layer of chicken, then dab in the little bits of salt pork. Then we take the rest of the potato pulp, mix it up in the same way and pour the remaining rappure over the chicken in the roasting pan. Be careful not to over fill the pan, as chicken fat and pork grease may overflow while cooking and start a stove fire. Leave at least two inches free at the top. I’ve heard of unfortunate people who put their rappie pies in the oven, went out to midnight mass and came home to find their houses on fire.
The rappure is now ready for the oven. It will take about four hours at around 400 degrees. What a great relief it is have the rappie pie in the oven, everyone lends a hand with the clean-up. Now we have time for a game of crib and some Christmas records before we go to mass.
Fortunately, it’s a warm night, calm over the bay and only a little snow on the ground so we will walk to church. This gives the men a breath of fresh air and helps them compose themselves after all the hard work, lively conversation and rum. Occasionally some men will not make it into the church, Pére Michael will take note of this and gently remonstrate with the offenders after mass on Christmas Day when the whole village crowds the church. Père Michael will visit many families on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, he’s a good man and an honoured guest in every home.
Tonight Grand-père Anselm will stay home and watch the rappie pie as he’s too infirm to walk and can’t hear what the priest is saying anyway. It’s 10:30, the church bells are ringing so the whole gang go out to Christmas Eve mass leaving Grand-père Anselm alone in his rocking chair. The big wall clock ticks loudly as he dozes quietly, then unknown to us the children dressed in their pajamas come into the kitchen. Grand-père is startled and a little confused. “What are you doing here, you’re supposed to be with tante Louise?” Young Dominique the leader of the pack speaks for the group. “Tante Louise is asleep. We could smell the rappie pie Grand-père, can you tell us a Christmas story about the old days?” “Well perhaps,” Grand-père concedes, “but you must go right to bed after I’m finished.” Yes grand-père we will,” the other children nod in agreement and gather around their grand-pére.
Grand-père Anselm becomes reflective, “Let me tell you the story of how our rappie pie came to be. Once upon a time there was a place called L’acadie or Acadia, that’s where we live now in the western part of Nova Scotia Our first ancestors came here from France. They were soldiers and fur traders. Our grand-père Charles de la tour was a baron of New France and governor of Acadia. All those men married native women and soon our families started to grow. Each and every one of us here today have more than one native grand-mère. Our native cousins were called the Souriquois back then, now they are the Mi’kmaw. The Souriquis were a good and kind people, they shared their blood and land with us and taught us how to hunt in the woods and fish in the inshore waters. That’s why the Acadien are now the best fishermen in the Maritimes.
Everything was going well for the Acadien, but then a war broke out between our grand-père Charles de la tour and his rival Baron Charles d'Aulnay for control of the fur trade in Acadia. Charles d'Aulnay defeated Charles de la tour at Fort Saint Jean, which caused grand-père de la tour to escape to Québec City and regroup his forces. While he was away Baron d'Aulnay brought over men and women from France to settle the area they call Grand Pré. These people were the Acadians, they are different from us. They kept to themselves and disliked and distrusted the old Acadien families because we had native blood. It was an uneasy time in Acadia, but not long after Baron Charles d'Aulnay died mysteriously in a canoe accident. With Charles d'Aulnay gone, grand-père de la tour got the blessing from the king of France to return to Acadia. The Acadien rejoiced to have their leader back, but over in England the British king was making plans to take Acadia and Canada for his own. The British already owned the American colonies, that’s down in Boston and New York and they wanted the rest of North America. So they sent ships over with soldiers and set up the town of Halifax as their base. The mixed blood Acadien and the Souriquois fought the English at Halifax, but the British were too strong with help from their American regiments.
Old Charles de la tour was now dead, but his family lived on through the d’Entremont, the Muise, the Dion, the Pothier, the Surrette and many more. In 1755 during the great expulsion they didn’t wait around to be put on ships and sent to the United States like d’Aulnay’s Acadian’s at Grand Pré, they got their families together and walked across the Tantramar marsh, that’s up in New Brunswick, into Canada where they lived for many years.
Well, on that first Christmas away from home the Acadien had very little, only what they could carry away with them; clothes, blankets, cooking pots and basic tools to build shelter. As Christmas Eve approached our Acadien grand-mère’s were troubled because they didn’t have flour to make a Christmas Eve pie. What would happen they wondered if there were no pie to eat after the village came together for midnight mass. Our grand-mère’s had for a long time made starch for the men to strengthen their boat sails. This starch came from grating potatoes and squeezing out the starch water. The potato pulp left over went to make small pancakes or was fed to the pigs. It must have occurred to our grand-mère’s to make a large pie from the potato pulp which would form its own crust like a big pancake. So the recipe was set, 20 pounds of potatoes, 2 chickens, 2 onions and pork fat. Enough to feed the whole family and more.
Then as now making the rappie pie is a big job. We make the rappie pie on Christmas Eve with all its hard work to remind ourselves how at one time we lost our homes and our country but held on to our families and tradition and eventually came back to our sacred land here in L’acadie”.
“The young children are entranced by grand-père’s story. Dominique the oldest of the group is moved, a tear streaks down his warm red cheek. “Thank you grand-père for telling us that story. I will always remember it.” He kisses grand-père and the other children kiss him in turn and go back to Tante Louise’s where they will sleep well tonight.
We are back from mass by 12:30 on Christmas morning. Before we have the rappie pie Christmas presents will come out of hiding and be placed under the tree. So many presents, the tree is lit up and the house smells of spruce and rappie pie. It is all so grand. By 1 am the women will begin to dish out the rappure. As you see the men and boys sit around the kitchen table and the women and girls sit in the living room to eat. I like lots of rappure and little chicken on my plate with plenty of butter. Some people eat cranberry sauce with their rappure, but not around here. We all agree this year’s rappie pie is the best one we’ve ever made.”