MSS-025-A Celebration in Food: the French-Canadian Tourtière

Episode 025-December 2, 2014

The Christmas season is a time for friends, family, and great food. Perhaps the single most familiar French-Canadian food associated with this celebration is the tourtière, or French-Canadian meat pie. Today’s guest delivers an in-depth look at this tasty treat.

In Language Tip #25 we’ll discuss the history of Christmas in Canada as we review holiday words with which you may be familiar. If you’ve lost the language of your ancestors, these are words they would have heard throughout the season. But first, what’s coming up in the French-Canadian world?

French-Canadian News

There’s only one activity taking place this month by participating societies:

Vermont Genealogy Library, Colchester, Vermont-

Note: Please shoot me an email if you come across a dead link on any of the Maple Stars and Stripes pages. I will make corrections ASAP. The PRDH website just completed a re-design and most links were broken, but all the links should be working now. Thanks for the heads-up, Julie.

Language Tip #025- Mots de Noël (Christmas Words)


Le retour de la messe de minuit

Le retour de la messe de minuit. Artist: Massicotte, Edmond-J., 1875-1929. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1993-209-5.

Chronology of Christmas in Québec (per The Canadian Encyclopedia):

  • 1641- The First Nations celebrated Christmas. Father Brébeuf composed a Christmas carol [chant de Noël] for the Huron Indians called ‘Jesous Ahatonhia,’ or ‘Jesus is born.’ In this story, Father Brébeuf adapted a few items to fit into the native culture: Jesus lay in a lodge of broken bark wrapped in rabbit skins with fur pelts offered as gifts by hunters instead of wise men.
  • 1645- Early pioneers celebrated Christmas by attending Midnight Mass [messe de minuit]. They sang Christmas carols [chants de Noël] brought over from France and watched the procession of the Christ child to the manger [crèche].
  • 1781- North America’s first Christmas tree [l’arbre de Noël or le sapin de Noël] was decorated with fruits and lit with white candles in the home of the Baroness Riedesel in Sorel, Quèbec.
  • Early 1800s- Christmas was hardly celebrated.
  • 1870s- For the English Canadians and the upper class of French Canadians, Christmas became more secularized.
  • Late 1800s into early 1900s- Christmas takes on the appearance we are familiar with today. It is a blend of French, English, American, and other influences.
  • Today the season counts Christmas markets, choirs, and horse-drawn sleigh rides as festive entertainment. After midnight mass [messe de minuit] on Christmas eve, families return home for the Christmas feast [réveillon] to break their fast. The feast most likely includes some variety of the French-Canadian meat pie [tourtière] as well as a Yule log [bûche de Noël]. Everyone awaits the visit of Santa Claus [ Papa Noèl or Père Noël], and on Christmas Day, they enjoy visiting with families and friends.

Christmas words

A Celebration in Food: the French-Canadian Tourtière

Although my mother made a ground beef and ground pork mixture for stuffing the turkey, most French-Canadians go one step further and bake that mixture in a pie, called a tourtière. The tourtière has become the culinary symbol of the holiday season for many.

Our guest today is Juliana L’Heureux, a Franco-American columnist with the Portland Press Herald of Portland, Maine. Juliana has covered the topic of Franco food in general and tourtières specifically many times in the blog she produces for the newspaper.

Topics covered with Juliana:

  • 1) Juliana is not a French-Canadian; however she is married to one. She grew up in Maryland, studied the French language, and became a registered nurse. She and her husband moved to Maine, his home state. She became enchanted with the French-Canadian culture.
  • 2) Juliana has been writing the Franco column for the Portland Press Herald for 27 years. She saw the position as a way to “fit in” with the locals.
  • 3) Juliana mentioned that she is happy to write this column because very little is known about the Franco culture even within the Franco-American neighborhoods, a sentiment shared by Susan Pomasko in episode 23 who discovered that most of her Franco students knew nothing of their ancestry and culture.
  • 4) Juliana first wrote about her mother-in-law’s tourtière and offered to send out the recipe by snail mail if readers sent along a SASE. The post office was inundated with requests. The readers sent along stories not so much about making a tourtière, but more about the feelings and emotions surrounding the tourtière. These stories were put into her tourtière collection at
  • 5) Juliana discovered that there were several variations of the tourtière. Southern New Englanders tends to make them with sage, savory, and Bell seasoning. In northern New England, tourtières tend to be a bit spicier with a Caribbean flavoring from cinnamon and cloves.
  • 6) She then told us about the beginnings of the tourtière. It was named for a type of bird, a tourterelle, which would eat the settlers’ wheat. So they shot the birds and, not wanting to waste them, cooked the birds into meat pies. When the birds were hunted to extinction, the colonists then substituted wild game and pork.
  • 7) The tourtières were traditionally eaten on Christmas morning after the midnight mass.
  • 8) The use of different spices or the way the tourtière is prepared can give clues as to where in Québec a family originated.
  • 9) Juliana prefers to spice things up by serving her tourtières with a variety of relishes. Besides the traditional ketchup, she suggests serving it with beet relish, pickle relish, green tomato relish, a bit of horseradish on the side, some tart cranberry sauce, cranberry sauce mixed with a bit of wine vinegar, hot mustard, ginger curry sauce, or diced radishes. Be creative and sample!!
  • 10) Juliana feels very strongly that everyone should write their tourtière recipe as part of their family history. A terrific idea!
  • 11) The meat mixture used as stuffing for the turkey rather than a pie mixture is called ‘du forte’ meaning ‘very strong.’
  • 12) She recommends a cookbook called A Taste of Québec by Julian Armstrong which has been published in three editions. [See all three editions in the Maple Stars and Stripes Boutique, page 6 under ‘Books.’] It highlights recipes particular to various regions of Québec.
  • 13) If you’re ever in Saint-Georges, Québec (up Rt. 201 from Skowhegan, Maine), check out the big grocery store that’s like a European market. It has a section with bagged tourtière spices of all varieties. Great for gift packages!
  • 14) If you are in Biddeford, Maine, during the summer, check out their La Kermesse Franco-Americaine Festival. If you’re in the mood for tourtière, visit the railroad car called ‘The Home Kitchen.’ Hundreds of tourtières disappear quickly, so get yours early!


L'Heureux tourtière

Courtesy of Juliana L’Heureux

Contact Juliana

Juliana can be contacted through her website or at juliana [at] mainewriter [dot] com.

More about Tourtières

Tourtière Recipes

Here are enough recipes for you to make a variation of the meat pie each year for a couple of decades:

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5 comments on “MSS-025-A Celebration in Food: the French-Canadian Tourtière

    1. Sandra Goodwin

      Suzanne-After reading your article, I got out my 1814 French dictionary (the oldest one I have) and it, too, gives the definition of ‘tourtière’ as ‘a pan, a baking pan.’ My post-1873 one gives a definition of ‘a pie-dish.’ So I wonder when the definition shifted?

  1. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville

    Very interesting, Sandra. I became aware that the reference to a “type of bird, a tourterelle” was an “Urban Legend”. Émile Littré: Dictionnaire de la langue française (1872-77) defines TOURTE.1 (tour-t’) s. f.
    1. Se dit, dans quelques provinces, d’un pain en forme de disque. Une tourte de pain bis. Une tourte de pain blanc.

    2. Pièce de pâtisserie, dans laquelle on met des viandes, du poisson, etc. et qu’on sert chaude.
    He includes a second definition: TOURTE.2 (tour-t’) s. f.
    Nom spécifique, pour certains auteurs, d’un pigeon, dit vulgairement tourte et tourterelle de la Caroline ; c’est la colombe carolinienne (Amérique) de certains auteurs, la colombe marginée de Latham, LEGOARANT.

    1. Jean-Richard Pelland

      De tourte et -ier ; du latin chrétien torta, ‘genre de pain rond’ ; du latin classique tortum signifiant ‘ce qui est tordu’, participe passé neutre de torquere, ‘tordre’.

      I was taught that it was named after the bird, tourte or tourterelle, and that they used to make pies from them. In Canada, the tourterelle meat was replaced with pork, veal and beef or wild meats such as moose or venison. I don’t know if this is fact or fiction. The roundness of the pie might in itself be the root of its origin. Of course, French lexicographers are not always good at describing the realities of French-speaking North America. I remember Le Petit Robert describing an érablière as a ‘plantation d’érables’, which seems to suggest nice tidy rows, rather than a natural growth of maple trees.

      Jean-Richard Pelland

  2. Jean-Richard Pelland

    With regards to Christmas and New Year’s, my family’s Happy New Year is always ‘bonne heureuse année’. New Years is also associated with la bénédiction du Jour de l’An, where the father or a paternal figure blesses the family and asks that the Lord look over them in the upcoming year. Also, in French Canada, Santa Claus is often associated with la Fée des Étoiles. I am not sure that there is an equivalent for this in anglo-cultures. Last, the Epiphany or la Fête des Rois is celebrated with a cake that has a pea (I think a coin used to be used) in it. The person who gets the special slice is king or queen for the day.

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