Monday, September 1, 2014

Food & Family: In Memory of Frenchie

Last Monday, Camille "Frenchie" Babine, my father-in-law, passed away. and would have turned 96 years old in October. However, no matter how old you are when you pass, life is still too short.

For the last twelve years, Frenchie and Marjorie, his wife, have lived in my home and I've never once regretted opening my doors to them. Born in Nova Scotia, Frenchie was always quick with a smile, a man who enjoyed simple pleasures, from old time country music to puttering outside in the yard. He placed dozens (though it seemed like over 100) of bird houses in the back yard, and enjoyed sitting outside, with a beer or glass of wine, watching the birds settle in. And he was a true family man, with six children and numerous grand children and great-grand children.

Frenchie was well known in the family for making bread and rappie pie, both items which he had been making for much of his life. When making his homemade bread, he didn't use a recipe and never measured the ingredients. He hand-kneaded the dough, a strenuous process, and his bread was as good as found in any bakery. In recent years, he'd had some difficulty in the kneading, but had been teaching other family members how to make the bread, so that the tradition continued in the family. Even on his final day, he talked about making bread.  

Another family tradition, cherished by Frenchie, is rappie pie, a traditional Acadian dish. Though its origins are murky, it may have made its first appearance in Nova Scotia around 1755 when the Acadians were deported. There are a few legends though that it's creation may actually extend back to the 1500s. Frenchie ate and made rappie pie for most of his life, bringing the tradition from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts, sharing it with family and friends.

Rappie pie is a made from grated potatoes or in French, "patates râpées." The French word râper means "to grate." Thus, that became transformed into "rappie" pie. Once the potatoes are grated, most of the water is removed. This used to be done by squeezing the potatoes in a cheese cloth, a laborious process, so that it took two to three days to make rappie pie. Then, broth would be added along with meat, onions and pork fat to make a casserole type dish. There are a number of variations on this basic recipe, some people using different types of meats or even seafood like clams.

People may top their rappie pie with butter or molasses, and there is an old adage that the English use butter and the French molasses. Some people may top their rappie pie with other items, such as even ketchup, but that is much less common. It used to take Frenchie, and usually a couple family members, a couple days to make rappie pie, and the making was a festive occasion, often involving much drinking. Nowadays, it is easier and quicker to prepare as you can buy frozen packets of potatoes where the water has already been removed.

Frenchie's rappie pie was absolutely delicious, a special treat for all. Seven years ago, after I posted online a photo of his rappie pie, I was contacted by the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture--Food Safety. They wanted to use my photo to assist in teaching their provincial food and meat inspectors in a food processing training course on regionally significant products produced in facilities they inspected. They told me that they hadn't seen such an appealing rappie pie in a very long time, a nice honor for Frenchie's hard work. Looking at the photo of the rappie pie above, would you be able to resist it?

As making rappie pie was a special occasion, it was decided to transform it into an annual family event, a time for everyone to gather together outside of the usual marriages, christenings and other formal family functions. In fact, we ended up holding these gatherings two to three times a year, inviting all of the family, from great-grand children to cousins, and many friends as well. They were informal occasions, with plenty of delicious food and drink (including plenty of wine). I have many great memories of these gatherings which were held in my backyard.

We were able to catch up with each other, to chat about what was new in our lives. We laughed and joked, smiled and sang, ate and drank. At times, Frenchie and other family members would break out their musical instruments, especially guitars, and play. They were joyous occasions, centered on rappie pie, and brought our family closer. We'v expanded these family gatherings and now even hold an annual Soup Day, where various family members make a soup to bring to the event, so that we can end up with maybe a dozen of more soups, stews, and chowders. And there is always homemade bread too.

During the last several years, Frenchie shared the secrets to creating rappie pie with other family members, ensuring that this family tradition would not fade away. No one may yet make a rappie pie as good as Frenchie, but that is a matter of time and experience. What is most important is that it is the locus of our family, an excuse for us to gather together. Though we may meet during more formal occasions, it isn't the same as an informal gathering for rappie pie. More people need to establish similar traditions, to strengthen familial bonds, allowing food to become a centerpiece that brings everyone together.

We will all miss Frenchie, though his memory and the traditions he began will live on. Our family gatherings will continue, with both rappie pie and homemade bread, and we'll always raise a glass in Frenchie's memory.

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