Got Cretons? If You’re in Acadian Country, You Better

Every couple of weeks restaurant owner Keith Pelletier and his mother, Odette, pack 16 pints of a homemade meat spread into containers and deliver it to an area senior citizens home. There, it’s served by tiny ice cream scoop at breakfast.

Moving into a senior community often involves surrendering some freedoms, but the elderly residents of Fort Kent, Maine, won’t do without their cretons, a savory spread made of ground pork, onions, and spices that’s typically smoothed onto toast and eaten as a breakfast food. It’s one of the many aspects of life in this corner of Maine that’s steeped in generations of Acadian French culture. Keith Pelletier’s restaurant, Dolly’s (started by his mother 27 years ago), is one institution that’s helping to keep Acadian culinary culture alive.

In the St. John Valley of northern Maine, a dialect known locally as Valley French is still quite common. Madawaska, population 4,000, is over 80 percent francophone. Yet as the population ages and assimilation takes its toll, French is heard less and less, and the future of the region’s traditions is uncertain. But food traditions are often the last to die—and they still hold sway here.

Acadian-map

It’s tempting to chalk up the French found in northern Maine to “spillover” from nearby Quebec, but the history of French in this valley is more complex. The string of towns along the St. John River in Maine was once hotly contested by France, England, and the United States.

Beginning in 1755, many of the Acadians—those descended from French colonists of the region—were forcibly deported. Some fled to Louisiana, where Acadian stews became gumbos, and bland sauces sprang to life with cayenne pepper. Others fled into the thick woods of northern Maine to wait out the political turmoil. When it was over, they emerged with their culinary traditions intact. Thick stews, meat pies, and ployes remain mainstays of Acadian culinary culture.

Today, the secrets of Acadian cooking can still be found in the kitchens of some old-timers, and a couple of mom-and-pop restaurants in the valley have been trying to introduce Acadian dishes to a new generation.

Here are three Acadian dishes that cling to hearts and palates in Maine’s St. John Valley.

Cretons: “It’s a delicacy,” Judy Paradis, a former state legislator who dines at Dolly’s often, says of the spread. The meat in the creton is simmered over a long period until tender and stirred constantly.

Ployes: Ployes are pancakes made from locally grown buckwheat, which sparkles yellow in the fields during the autumn harvest time. Some white flour, baking powder, and salt are added. “Every person who cooks them has their own different variation” Keith Pelletier says. The color of the ployes can vary according to the type of buckwheat used. The grill fires up at Dolly’s beginning at 9 a.m. most mornings and doesn’t stop. Popular ways to enjoy ployes include savory spread with cretons or soaked in maple syrup and spread with butter. Brown sugar is also a popular topping.

View post on imgur.com

Tourtière: Imagine surviving a harsh, long winter in the hinterlands of northern Maine. You’re going to want carb and protein-packed comfort food. Enter tourtière, essentially a meat pie packed between two crusts. It looks kind of like shepherd’s pie. Though it makes the menu as a special at Dolly’s on occasion, it’s too labor-intensive to be offered regularly. Word of mouth spreads fast here, so when it does make an appearance, so do the old-timers in droves.

Picture of a slice of traditional pork meat pie Tourtiere from Quebec

Slice of traditional meat pie Tourtiere. Photograph by Elena Elisseeva, Alamy

“We slice potatoes and use a nice beef, very thinly sliced, [and] cook the meat with the onions, and after we add all the potatoes that we slice, a tiny bit of gravy, salt, and pepper. Sometimes we add mushroom,” Odette Pelletier says.

Other Acadian dishes that are popular at Dolly’s and elsewhere in the valley include graham cracker pie and haddock served in white sauce. And as one elderly Acadian lady advises: “Never put noodles in your chicken soup, always dumplings.” But Acadians aren’t immune to mainstream food.

“Wow,” says Keith Pelletier, “when I introduced a cheeseburger basket to the menu with fries, that sold like hot cakes,”

Make that sold like ployes.

 

Kevin Williams has written for The Washington Post, Al-Jazeera and National Parks Magazine.  His specialty is Amish culture. Kevin Williams is editor of the Amish culture website, Amish365.com. Fnd him on Twitter.

Comments

Comments (9)

  1. Memere (May 13, 2016)

    My parents and I were born in Maine, my parents in Van Buren I in Lewiston. They spoke French , I understand a lot of it but I do not practice enough to be fluent, I can get by. Every time we went to visit our relatives we would eat Ploye until our eyes would practically bulge. The buckwheat is not the same flavor here in the northwest as back east. My cousin ordered the buckwheat from back east. The last time I made Creton was when I was caring for my father for four months. We had great fun working together sharing stories and laughing it took us all day, but oh so worth it. YUM!! I guess all families have a “Family Recipe” some people just do not like it, which I can not fathom. Oh well, my gain. When my father and I drove the east coast together, we ate at Dolly’s. The French was so much fun to hear again, and if I had stayed longer I probably would speak it again. I understand it more than I speak it. I was told it was a Old French (Acadien?) Any way I love Ploye and my youngest sister just happened to recently say she would like to make it with me, she moved here three months ago. I was re-living my trip with my dad and it brought a smile and a tear, but great memory. He was almost 88 when we took our trip of memory for him, he was still a good traveler, we had a great and special time together. So many Aunts, uncles, cousins and lot’s of French. Thanx for the trip.

  2. Jill pelletier englert (May 15, 2016)

    Having grown up in northern maine from an Acadian decendant mother, I find this article extremally interesting. my mother cook all the dishes that the article said the Acadian culture cooked. my mother`s ancesters also escaped thru the woods and settled in the backroad s of frenchville.

  3. Marie (May 15, 2016)

    God I wish I had that stuff here where I live now. I do miss that stuff.. Best food ever. I loved in Fort Kent , Maine add a child.

  4. Bernadette Plourde Rodrigue (May 16, 2016)

    I was brought up eating Ployes & Cretons. My parents had a flower & saw mill on Market Street in the 50’s. They milled buck wheat flower. We ate so good. The making of Cretons was past on to my oldest sister Theresa Plourde Voisine. Now that she passed away in January my niece Norma Lajoie Gurekovich of New Britain,Ct is carrying on making Cretons,Tourtières & Ployes for the French in that area. Plus she sends some to my brother & I here in Waterville,Maine.

  5. Shardell (May 16, 2016)

    How can I get a recipe for Creton from a real French Canadian ?
    I love it but don’t know how to make it.

  6. Adrienne Nogue (May 16, 2016)

    We are from Sask. So we can’t go eat your Creton,’s would you share your recipe with me Thanks

  7. Bernadette Walker (May 16, 2016)

    I am originally from New Brunswick and these kind of food bring joy to my palate.

  8. Frank Colby (May 16, 2016)

    It’s been three years since I’ve been at home can’t wait to get there I’m going to stop by your restaurant you’re getting famous all over the Southwest.

  9. Nicole Saunders (May 17, 2016)

    Was born in Edmundston New Brunswick Canada, moved to Madawaska Maine as a child. My grandmother made ployes and Creton! Love it then and continue to do so. I visit Madawaska every year and eat @ Dolly’s many times during my stay. The meat pies were made by my Aunt Gemma from Quebec. She would make them for me as a child when I spent my summers there. She also taught me how to make brown sugar pie. Delicous and very fattening. I’ll always will remember my growing years in Northern Maine.