A grandmother's journal. A gateway to the resurgence of Acadian cuisine.
'There's this constant state of retrouvaille ... a need to find one another again.'
Imagine a museum filled with artifacts of deep significance to living Canadians.
As part of CBC's What's Your Story campaign, we're inviting Canadians to tell us about the one object they would submit to our collection of national treasures, and how it connects to their perspective on Canada.
On National Acadian Day, Deborah Reid brings us the story of a very special notebook, started by Rosalie Comeau and inherited by her grandson, Simon Thibault — a Halifax-based journalist and food writer.
"I didn't know this notebook existed when I was growing up," says Simon Thibault. "When I started doing research for my cookbook, that's when my mother gave it to me."
Thibault is referring to a handwritten kitchen journal from his grandmother Rosalie Comeau. In the 1920s she studied home economics at a school in Trois Rivières, Que. Her textbook, Manuel de Cuisine Raisonnée, was also part of the gift.
For Thibault, the two books were a gateway to a deeper connection with his ancestors and Acadian heritage. These homely family treasures became a source of inspiration for his cookbook, Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food.
"I knew the notebook was important," says Thibault. "But I didn't realize how essential it would be to my cookbook until I started cooking from it."
Grandma's good instincts
In the kitchen, he began by cooking Rosalie's recipe for scalloped cabbage.
One of the first hurdles was translating her shorthand. Rosalie had good instincts for how a recipe should come together; she didn't need to record the method.
"The instructions weren't generous," says Thibault. "They were mostly quotients and ratios, and the only time there were any directions was if the recipe came from someone else."
So when the cabbage called for "une sauce blanche," a white sauce, with no further directions, it was his mother Jeanne who remembered Rosalie making it from her school textbook. Of the rich, creamy vegetable gratin, Thibault says, "I completely fell in love with this dish. It's the simplest thing, and you can season it any way you want; summer savory is a classic flavouring for New Brunswick Acadians."
Thibault's family has lived in the rural area that's known as Clare, N.S., for more than 200 years.
They're part of an Acadian diaspora in the Maritimes that includes settlements in P.E.I, New Brunswick and Maine.
"Because they were dispersed, there's this constant state of retrouvaille among us" says Thibault. "A need to find one another again."
At Thibault's cookbook launch in Clare, an elderly man approached him in tears because "he remembered my grandmother making these things," says Thibault.
In plumbing his past, he's opened floodgates of emotion for other Acadians.
Rosalie is a kindred spirit, a familiar matriarch, and Acadians are hungry for this kind of cultural feast. He's also acutely aware that Rosalie's notebook contains knowledge that's in danger of being lost.
I completely fell in love with [scalloped cabbage]. It's the simplest thing, and you can season it any way you want- Simon Thibault
"It's a repository of information that could have easily dissolved into the ether," says Thibault.
There were classic Acadian recipes, like rappie pie, missing from Rosalie's notebook. The "pie" is a beloved, rustic casserole that's baked until golden and bubbling and made from grated potatoes cooked to a mush along with stock and meat from a stewed hen.
"There are a lot of recipes, especially well-known ones, that were not written down," Thibault laughs. "Those are the things you would absolutely show your children and grandchildren how to make."
In weaving his approach with his grandmother's, Thibault was thoughtful.
"The notebook was both a blessing and a curse," he says. "It would have been so easy to be cutesy and folksy and limit the cookbook's potential as serious and worthy of an audience outside of Atlantic Canada."
Thibault abstains from that kind of nostalgia, setting his sights instead on connecting with an audience keen to discover Acadian culture.
It would have been so easy to be cutesy and folksy and limit the cookbook's potential as serious and worthy of an audience outside of Atlantic Canada.- Simon Thibault
He doesn't hesitate to add his imprint, adapting the recipes to suit a modern palate. Rosalie steamed her apple pudding, but he knew the cooking method was challenging.
"I didn't want to teach people how to jerry-rig something," says Thibault. So he baked it instead but is quick to point out that a slather of her brown sugar sauce is still essential to its pleasure. In rhubarb conserve, he reduces the sugar — once an important source of calories for hard-working rural people — to appeal to changing tastes.
Like so many women of her age, Rosalie kept a record of the things she liked to cook for her family. Out of this handwritten collection of recipes, Thibault crafts a delightful tribute to his grandmother.
"The part I appreciated the most was getting to know her in a very nourishing manner," he says. But that's not the half of it, because Thibault's cookbook is a kind of physical manifestation of retrouvaille — a deeper kind of homecoming.
It's a generous and heartfelt expression of pride and connection to his heritage, and it's no surprise that his cookbook's been lovingly embraced by Acadians.
Serves 3 — 4 as a side
This recipe was one of the first I tried to make out of my grandmother Rosalie's notebooks. Beneath the list of ingredients (it was one of the few that contained instructions), was a note saying, "This can be done with any vegetable."*
Unfortunately, there was no recipe or directions for the white sauce mentioned in the recipe.
I was gifted Rosalie's manuel de cuisine by my mother a few years ago. The cookbook was one of the few books she brought with her from her time in Trois-Rivières. The manuel is more than just a cookbook; it's a guide on how to stretch a budget, how much nutrition can be garnered from various cuts of meat and so much more.
My mother recalls that her mother often made "une sauce blanche" for dishes: a roux-based white sauce. The white sauce found here is very similar to that found in Rosalie's manuel, with a few additions to give it a bit more flavour.
The best kind of cabbage for this recipe is one that will keep its shape when cooked, such as hardy winter white cabbages. Check farmers' markets or your local grocer for cabbages that are good for pickling as they tend to stand up well to this preparation.
Tip: The great thing about this dish is that you can season your white sauce in all sorts of ways. Traditionally the sauce would be made very plainly, with the nutmeg listed below or summer savoury, but feel free to play around with dried herbs such as thyme, rosemary, toasted caraway seeds or even a small amount of grated hard cheese. Fresh mushrooms sautéed in the butter (before you add the flour) would be great as well.
1 small cabbage (roughly 1 pound)
1 1/2 cups white sauce
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoon salt
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
pepper to taste
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons summer savoury
1 1/2 cups whole (2%) milk
- Remove the core from the cabbage. Cut the cabbage into strips.
- Add the cabbage to a large bowl, preferably glass or plastic. Drizzle salt on top. Mix thoroughly. Add enough water to cover the cabbage and allow to soak for about 30 minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 375 ̊F.
- Make the white sauce by heating a skillet or sauce pan over medium heat. Add the butter to the pan and sprinkle in the pepper and flour. What you want to do here is cook out the raw flavour of the flour. The butter and flour will combine easily, so make sure you keep stirring it around in the pan to ensure it doesn't burn. Cook and stir for about two minutes.
- Add the salt, summer savoury, and milk. Turn down the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often to ensure that the flour dissolves completely into the sauce.
- Drain the cabbage and place in a baking dish large enough so that the cabbage covers the bottom. Don't worry if it's a little bit snug in there.
- Pour the sauce over the cabbage and mix well to ensure that everything is well coated.
- Cover with bread crumbs. Dust it all with nutmeg.
- Place in oven and bake for 25–30 minutes, or until the cabbage is cooked. It should be soft but still yield slightly to a fork.
- Serve immediately.
* If you are using another vegetable, cooking and salting times will vary. Use your instincts and your sense of taste.
Excerpted from Pantry and Palate by Simon Thibault
Text © 2017 Simon Thibault. Photography © Noah Fecks.
All rights reserved. Published by Nimbus Publishing