It's Christmas Eve in rural Quebec, and festive appetites soar. And so, despite the subzero Canadian cold and the five-foot-high snowdrifts obscuring the curves in the road ahead, Claire Morissette, a 39-year-old social worker; her husband, Serge Bélanger, a furniture designer; and their children, Véronique, 5, and Geneviève, 9, are in their Ford station wagon driving as fast as they dare to the home of Claire's mother, Cyprienne Morissette, with visions of dishes to come dancing in their heads. Claire dreams of the warm, fragrant, classic pork pie called tourtière, which she'll devour as if it were going out of style. Serge imagines slow-roasted pork, a seductive hunk of flesh so defiantly, deliciously fatty that its juices drip recklessly down chins. And as for Véronique and Geneviève, Grandma's triflelike bagatelle—a splurge of whipped cream, white cake, Jell-O, and strawberry preserves—beckons them on.
All 24 members of the extended Morissette family are assembling tonight at the clan's stately patrimonial home in St-Georges, about 55 miles south of Quebec City, for Le Réveillon, the Christmas Eve whizbang, pull-out-all-the-stops French-Canadian holiday celebration that makes other holiday observances look like chance encounters. They are coming to escape the weather (tonight it's 10 below), to attend midnight mass, and to bask in sentimental old family stories and create raucous new ones. But most of all they are coming to eat till they nearly burst and to marvel at the energy of 73-year-old Grandma Morissette as she moves—scratch that: flings herself—through the kitchen, doting over every bubbling, hissing pot like a mama cat dispensing equal licks to all her newborn kittens.
"She has only two speeds at this time of year: asleep and 78 rpm," Claire says, as her turbopowered mother—just call her Mother Christmas—ladles melted butter over a roasting turkey, then swiftly spins to pepper a steaming cauldron of pea soup. "Sometimes we have to tie her to a chair to keep her from moving."
Christmas blasts in like a big brass band in St-Georges, the unofficial southern capital of the farming region of La Beauce. No wonder. Good times came late to the French settlers who, for nearly three centuries, have harvested this harsh yet fertile land of spruce trees, chilly rivers, boulder-strewn hills, and maple groves—at just under a hundred thousand acres, the world's largest concentration of maples. Lured from Normandy, Île-de-France, Poitou-Charentes, and Brittany to work as tenant farmers on huge tracts owned by seigneurs (aristocrats who oversaw the area for the French monarchy), these original immigrants were devout Catholics who sought milk and honey but instead encountered floods, isolation, and winters so long and brutal that many froze to death. La Beauce, with its brooding vistas of the northernmost reaches of the Appalachian chain, was not—is not—green, gentle France.
But, thanks to God's grace and pure Gallic ingenuity, a hardy handful of these pioneers survived. And for their descendants, life's rhythm isn't very different. Many can still be found raising dairy cattle and harvesting the sugar-rich maple sap that flows during spring thaw, the products of which find their way into many local dishes, including soups, stews, and desserts. Most still speak the same rough-and-tumble French dialect, as different from Parisian French as Brooklynese is from the queen's English. And most still cope with winter's icy howl with a relaxed shrug and a simple "Ah, c'est l'hiver"—only now, of course, there's central heating. As Roger Carette, the mayor of St-Georges, sees it, "Beaucerons have long overcome great odds. We know we can survive on our own. It's been our habit for centuries."
Another long-standing habit has been to embrace food as a hallowed member of the family. Yes, life can be bitter, but it tastes so much sweeter when there is rich fare to be consumed. And what rich fare it is: the region's winterproofing stews, roasts, and casseroles are meant to provide nourishment for the entire day. But mealtimes in La Beauce aren't just about delivering fuel—about work and no play. There are whimsical flourishes that brighten the table, such as fruit preserves and the homemade wines served by Gisèle Bolduc, a retired home-economics teacher from St-Georges, especially during the holidays. Crafted from produce abundant in the warm months (beets, blueberries, chokecherries, currants, and dandelion flowers), such meadlike bottlings were once a regional staple; these days, only a few people still bother with them. Bolduc's wines, made from recipes handed down for generations, add a sweet rush of history to the Christmas season—and summon up summer, too: the dandelion bursts with the warm sunshine of morning; the chokecherry is a brambly afternoon stroll; the beet, a crimson sunset.
"We make a feast of everything here," says Carette. "When the river overflows, we eat. When someone's barn burns down, we eat. And when Christmas comes, we really, really eat." Noella Vachon, president of a Ste-Marie farm women's group and something of a patron saint of local cooking, agrees. "During the holidays, everything is white and quiet," she says. "It makes us feel special—and like feasting a whole lot."
North along the Chaudière River, which winds through La Beauce like a lazy gray snake, on the fringes of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village called Vallée-Jonction, the Nadeau family, dairy farmers for two generations, is also deep in Réveillon ritual. A lunch for a large family gathering is being served in the cozy farmhouse kitchen—picture a 1945 Frigidaire ad—of Paul-Émile Nadeau and his wife of 50 years, Thérèse.
The meal begins with a quick, whispered prayer and warming bowls of soupe au pois, made of dried yellow peas that have been allowed to retain their pearly shape and enlivened with herbes salées, a salt-preserved herb-and-vegetable mixture that gives a green kick to Quebecois soups and stews all winter long. Then Madame Nadeau, with her elegantly farm-worn hands, bears to the table a golden roast turkey; a simple salade de choux (a quick coleslaw lightly dressed in sugar, vinegar, and oil); and a spate of pint-size pâtés à la viande (meat pies similar to tourtières) that have been deeply seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. So fork tender are their light, lard-based crusts that each pie—accompanied by pickled beets and thick, sweet dabs of homemade red and green ketchups (the red made from ripe tomatoes; the green, from unripe ones)—is as easy to eat as candy.