Chinese Pie Is Not Chinese Food, But New Year’s Day Is Special for French Canadian-Americans

Chinese Pie or Pâté chinois is a French-Canadian version of shepherd’s pie that at one time was so popular that it would appear on school lunch menus in French Catholic parishes and even some public schools in Greater Lowell. The origin is not certain and may be related to Canadian railway workers who picked up the recipe from Chinese rail workers in the 19th century or it could trace back to China, Maine, where immigrants from Quebec concocted their own brand of the local shepherd’s or cottage pie. You can buy ready-to-eat portions of Chinese Pie at Cote’s Market on Salem Street in Lowell, one of the last outposts of Franco-American food-making in the region. Among French-Canadian Americans, January 1 has traditionally been an important day with attendance at church services and family gatherings based on an old French custom of the family elder giving a blessing to children and exchange of small gifts. In my family, there was always an “open house” at somebody’s place on that day. The phrase “Bonne et heureuse Année” is the New Year’s wish for a good and happy year. New Year’s Day is a state holiday in Massachusetts thanks to former Lowell state representative Henri Achin (served 1912-37), who took up the cause of French-Canadian mill workers and got the bill passed in 1917. Working on New Year’s Day had caused a cultural conflict among the people with roots in Quebec’s French Catholic culture. — PM


Chinese Pie

Make sure your son knows about Chinese Pie, Pâté chinois, baked by your hundred-year-old mémère for her French-Canadian clan trooping home to a winter kitchen warmed by supper and love. She opened her window in Lowell, while you, in your wife’s homeland, surveyed the South China Sea. Its brilliant water didn’t speak to you as fluently as did the winding roads you ran at Christmastime. Racing up and over the glacial mounds, a roll of land that seems to shrink, you responded to the contours within which you were formed. Tell your son about that special dish, a kind of shepherd’s pie, layered with mashed potatoes, canned corn, and hamburger. Who knows who named the concoction? Scholars say French-Canadian settlers in China, Maine, copied a local baked dish and named it for the town. It may be a crass old joke like a Chinese home run over the backstop or mean something all mixed up, or maybe it’s self-parody. In 1881, a politician labeled the Massachusetts French “The Chinese of the Eastern States—industrial invaders, not a stream of stable settlers.” Attacked for their loyalty to culture, Francos counterpunched, and the next report was kinder. You can order Pâté chinois in Montreal, the only recipe the emigrants sent back.

—Paul Marion (c) 2006 from What Is the City?


3 Responses to Chinese Pie Is Not Chinese Food, But New Year’s Day Is Special for French Canadian-Americans

  1. Roland Vallerand says:

    Pate Chinois was a common dish when I grew up and I have made it several times.