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Québécois meal after New Year’s mass included tourtière – and Canada Dry

December, 2010

Food brings us together. Religion often separates us. What happens when the event calls for both? My first New Year’s mass was an opportunity to observe and enjoy what until then were foreign rituals.

I had been friends with the Archambaults for several years. They had a son my ago, Jean-Pierre, and our families had chalets in the Laurentians. We often skied together.

One New Year’s Eve, they invited me to a midnight mass at the beautiful St. Sauveur church, built more than 150 years ago.

As a nice Jewish boy growing up in Montreal, I was familiar with churches even as a young teenager. In 1881, Mark Twain, giving a speech in Montreal, remarked that he couldn’t throw a brick in this city without hitting a church window. In the 1950s, it was still a city of hundreds of churches with pews filled every Sunday.

I was familiar enough with ritual to know that one often knelt to pray, which was not done in synagogues, and that during the service I might be asked to contribute some change as a basket was passed around. I knew that at the end of many services, those wishing to receive the priest’s blessing would be offered the blood and body of Christ, a transubstantiation through wine and a wafer; I knew I would sit in my pew while this was going on.

At that time, I assumed that Judaism was eminently rational. I would learn later how much symbolism and mystery it retained. But for a kid barely into his teens, a Catholic church was literally awesome. I was looking forward to hearing prayers and hymns in Latin and French, to the exotic smell of freshly burning incense, and to the warmth of the community.

I wasn’t prepared for the holy water in a fount at the doorway. As we walked in, the Archambaults put their hands into it. I did too, clutching the quarter I had prepared for the offering but not knowing when that would be. Perhaps this was where I was supposed to leave the money?

Had I somehow baptised myself? What was going on? When I removed my hand and waved it about, people looked at me. Not only was my gesture completely unfamiliar (where did this lad come from?), but somehow I had plucked a quarter from the holy water and they wanted to know how I had done that. The youngest Archambault wanted to know if there were any more. After mass, our midnight meal was traditionally Québécois. I remember in particular tourtière meat pies warm from the oven, served with homemade ketchup, and an insanely sweet sugar pie.

The adults drank wine and beer; the kids got pop. I was handed a bottle of Canada Dry. The label was marked Kosher le Pesach – Kosher for Passover. Somehow, this kosher soft drink had made it from one season – Passover is in the spring – to the following winter. I was the only one who could read the Hebrew lettering. No one could remember when it had come to the house. Who buys cola 9 months old?

I looked out the window to a clear, cold night. It was a New Year’s Eve, une fête québécoise et Catholique; and God was giving me a wink.

A late night winter’s meal

Let a slow oven work its magic. Preheat to 300F/150C. In a large pan or pot, brown lamb shanks (one per person) in a little olive oil or butter – takes about 10 minutes. Add a half cup of beef or chicken stock or white wine mixed with a crushed clove of garlic, a teaspoon of favourite herbs (thyme, parsley, herbs de provence), and a half-teaspoon each of salt and freshly grated pepper.

Cover the pan and put it in the oven. Cook a half cup of lentils or navy beans per lamb shank. Boil for two minutes, cover and remove from heat for an hour. Check occasionally and add more hot water if necessary. Drain, add water to cover and an onion studded with a couple of whole cloves. Add a dash of salt, clove of garlic and a bay leaf.

Simmer slowly (do not boil) for an hour, until they are tender. Add more water if necessary. Remove from heat. Let the lamb continue cooking until tender. Add the beans and liquid, and cook, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven for 30 minutes before serving to let the meat reabsorb the liquid. Serve with a baguette and salad.



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