Hump Day: Determined to succeed at poutine râpée to honour Acadian heritage

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

Last weekend, I went through a rite of passage that many of us with Acadian blood coursing through our veins have gone through: trying to make our first batch of poutines râpées on our own — and failing miserably.

These large meat-filled potato dumplings have been a staple of Acadian households in Southeastern New Brunswick for years. Because making them yourself is so labour-intensive and so hit-and-miss for newbies like me, many of us have resorted to buying them. Luckily, there are some great commercially made poutines around!

There are many restaurants, grocery stores and corner stores in the area that sell them on a daily basis. If you want a poutine any day of the week, you just have to know where to go or who to call. There are always some available — even more today than there were years ago when if you didn’t make them yourself you likely wouldn’t be having some anytime soon unless you pre-ordered some for weekend delivery to a few select corner stores in the area.

With the holidays and colder weather here, many Acadians’ tummies start growling for those bland potato dumplings which we reportedly adapted from a recipe passed on to our ancestors by German settlers who were our neighbours. Somehow over the years, many Acadians started eating them with sugar (white or brown) or molasses, despite the meat inside. Oddly, the salt pork filling and sugar go together quite well.

Non-Acadians who eat the delicacy (yes, I think they’re a delicacy!) either don’t like them or can’t stomach eating them with sugar, preferring more traditional potato-related condiments such as ketchup (oh the humanity!), mustard (reaches for an air sickness bag), sour cream (not so bad, but still…) or even hot sauce (eeesh!). I’m a white sugar man, myself.

I’ve mentioned before that I run a Facebook group the focuses solely on poutines râpées. I’m crazy, you say? Who would ever join such a group, you ask? Well, nearly 1,600 people, just so you know! It’s quite incredible. Most are from the Metro Moncton area and Massachusetts, but there are also several from other parts of Canada and the U.S. and even outside North America.

I’ve read posts from desperate Acadian descendants who want people to ship poutines to them — some from as far away as California, Alberta, Missouri and Florida. People are making them all over, too, even in North Dakota, New Mexico and Texas.

It’s wonderful to see that Acadian culinary traditions seem to be going through a resurgence thanks to technology. Group members share recipes and tips through posts, photos and videos, and are more than happy to give advice to anyone wanting to try to make them on their own.

On the weekend, I started to feel quite humiliated that I run a Facebook group about poutines râpées and I’ve never tried making them on my own (not counting a batch made with 90 per cent of the work done by a friend a decade ago). So, I decided to try making a solo batch with my own bare hands (washed, of course).

While I attempted to take a few shortcuts that a few swore by, my experiment didn’t work very well. At one point, I had nine poutines bobbing gently in the water in a large pot. I thought I had succeeded and was quite proud of myself. After all, I was coming off going to church two weeks in a row (surely, I was in line for a miracle!) and named every poutine after a relative in Heaven as I dropped them into the pot, as per tradition. Again, I believed that the combination of going to church and naming each poutine after someone in Heaven would guarantee me a successful first solo batch.

For the first half hour, everything went swimmingly. I went on the computer for 10 or 15 minutes, then returned to the pot to check on my nine little miracles. I took the cover off and — once the steam cleared — saw that only corpses remained: nine naked meatballs just bobbing up and down in the boiling water. The potato mixture had completely disintegrated away since I’d last checked. It didn’t even fall off in chunks. I mean it completely disintegrated! There was nothing left but nine meat balls made up of chopped unsalted pork belly and salt pork.

I looked up into the air and whispered a little “Sorry, everyone!” to all the poutine-loving relatives I’d shamed. But then again, ruining your first batch of poutines is practically a rite of passage, as I wrote at the beginning of this column. Until you get the proportions of grated potato and mashed potato correct, you’re bound to ruin a batch or two. Then you have to worry about how much salt to add. Then how much meat to buy. Then there’s the size of the pot and how hard the water is boiling. And don’t even get me started on the amount of water to squeeze out of the grated potatoes.

Making poutines râpées is not an exact science, unfortunately. Even the type of potato you use can turn your Acadian feast into a “Let’s order pizza!” kind of evening. (Superior and Russets are the better choices, by the way.)

In these days of exact recipes, the poutine râpée prides itself on being a bit contrarian. It’s all in the technique and perfecting them comes from experience. You need to get your hands in there and feel the textures. But I’m telling you right now, you ornery bland potato dumpling, I’m going to perfect you if it’s the last thing I do. If I have to hand-grate a 50-pound bag of potatoes on Christmas Eve, I will prevail!

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