I still remember my first Christmas present from my mother-in-law, a bulky stainless steel roasting pan one and a half a feet all the way around and eight inches high. It looked like a huge square box without a cover.
“You said you wanted to try making a rappie pie,” she said, looking at me through her glasses with obvious worry that she’d given me an unsuitable present.
My husband had requested the meal repeatedly, but as a (mostly) Anglophone, I’d never made one. And his mom made the best.
I’m a native Nova Scotian, and because I live in an area heavily populated with Acadian French, rappie pie, or rapure, is a common delicacy.
The Acadians have a tradition going to midnight mass on Chrismas eve and following it up with fresh from the oven rapure ( a dang heavy dish at 1 am if you ask me, but they do stay up later and yarn/yak and have a few drinks) Then the kids open their presents and go to bed with full bellies knowing they can sleep in on Christmas morning.
It’s a wonderful tradition, one that is dying in some sense because many French have married English and have become anglified into the English traditions. I’ve Anglified my French husband, andI thought I should at least be able to make him a rapure when he craved it.
Like most delicacies, it doesn’t always look appetizing to folks who have come from away. Like my Scottish relatives who visited a few summers ago.
“What’s rabid pie,” is about as close in dialogue as I can come to their response when asked if they’d like to try some. We set about trying to describe the dish and failed miserably.
“It’s made mostly of grated potato and meat,” we explained, leaving out critical details.
An old-fashioned rapure is prepared by first grating raw potatoes and then removing the liquid. My mother-in-law once piled the mash into a pillowcase and used the spin cycle of her washing machine to pull out the moisture. I don’t even want to envision how she managed before that.
The moisture is then replaced with a meat stock boiled with a hefty dose of salt and onions. The most common meat is chicken (although some add hare, beef, clams, or pork: truth is: any meat will do.) My mother-in-law assures me that before the days of packaged chicken, they spent hours harvesting poultry, then scalding the newly-deceased bird to enable easier plucking of its feathers. I couldn’t help wondering how the dish ever became a favorite; so much work went into the preparation process that I could imagine the cooks waving off orders for a Sunday afternoon meal.
Then the potatoes and meat and seasoning are baked for three hours. The result? A shiny, glutinous dish, that if you’ve done the job right, sports a thick crust on the top tasting suspiciously of browned potato chips. It deftly avoids apt description and it just as stubbornly refuses to look appetizing in photos. In fact, its mere appearance has turned away many would-be eaters. But the aroma: Ah. You can’t beat it.
Rappie pie is a regional pleasure. Even the closest city 300 kilometers away, has no concept of its existence.
Family who have moved away ask relatives to bring them the potato, now nicely packaged by the local company who sells pies for takeout, and those family members have to deal with customs at the airport. Imagine bringing a block of white mushy substance onto a plane these days.
My first pie could have been laid piece by piece into a fortress. My second had no taste. My most recent? Ambrosia. My most recent attempt leaves its pan to sit empty, soaking in suds as a testament to my success.
In fact, I’ve gotten good enough at the dish now, that I can invite friends over.
But I still can’t outcook my mother-in-law’s pie. Some things are just best left to Mom.
What Christmas food traditions do you have? I’d love to hear about it.