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“Ragoût de boulettes” & other cross-cultural tid-bits (#126)

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It’s a Francophone holiday tradition in Québec and for Francophones elsewhere in Canada to have Ragoût de Boulettes as one of the main dishes at Christmas.

  • Ragoût = ragu or stew.
  • boulettes = meat balls

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There are different ways to make it, and each family seems to have their own recipes.  I’ve seen it made with only pork, or with only beef, or with a combination of poultry and pork, as well as with dark brown sauces, lighter dark sauces, white flour sauces, not spicy and meaty, or a even a bit spicy.   It’s even eaten as far south as Louisiana, where it can be quite spicy, ragoût cajun de boulettes.   Making it can be quite a big process – it can take hours to let it simmer.

But yesterday, I had a bit of an interesting experience with ragoût de boulettes.

These trips back to Alberta are always super busy…  If I’m not doing things with friends and family here in Vegreville, I’m usually running back-and-forth to Edmonton every day or every second day to see friends or family in and around Edmonton (even though the Vegreville-Edmonton drive is 110km each way).  And then there’s the 6.5 hour drive to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which I usually try to sneak in for a quick two or three day visit to see my grandparents and extended family.  And then there’s the 5 hour drive down to Calgary and a couple more hours’ drive into the Rockies which I’m doing with visiting friends from Ontario!  Phew!  Need to find time to breath (and fill the tank at the very least!)

Needless to say, the holiday season always sees me doing a lot of driving.

Yesterday I made the drive into Edmonton to see my best friend.  His mother is Franco-Albertaine, and they always had the traditional Ragoût de Boulettes for Christmas.

Since I was stopping at a well-known warhouse-style supermarket chain on the edge of Edmonton on my drive in to see him, I phoned and asked if he wanted me to pick up anything for him, such as ground pork, etc.  He said “Absolutely not!  There’s absolutely no way i can use supermarket-processed meat in the recipe… it can only be fresh local meat, fed by local farmers, with nothing added”   I was kind of surprised.  I asked him what the difference was… and he simply answered “I’ll show you when you get here.”

(Coincidentally, while I was in the supermarket, I overheard two couples inside chatting in French with a Falher accent — an accent of the Francophone region of Alberta around Peace River in the Northwest of the province.  You’ll recall I mentioned this accent in the accent series.  Since it’s rare to hear a Falher French accent in the Edmonton area (versus a central-Alberta French accent), I eavesdropped for a couple of moments while in line [bad me].  Both couples were in Edmonton to spend the holidays with family who moved from Falher, and they randomly bumped into each other at the supermarket.  Hey, I know eavesdropping is bad… but the many different accents in Canadian French have always fascinated me).

Anyway… no sooner had I got my best friend’s house, than he said “let’s go”, and we hopped in his truck to go to the butcher shop.

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He said his family’s ragoût de boulette goes back generations, and the taste has to be EXACTLY how is tasted many generations before — before supermarkets even existed — or it wouldn’t be right.  That was an interesting statement, so I asked him what he meant (and even though I’ve known him for many years, I never really knew about the specifics of his ancestor’s roots, going back several generations).  Like many Franco-Albertain families, his great-great-grandparents came to Alberta from other regions of North America.  For example, here in Vegreville, the original families (who are still here), such as the Tétreau, Houle, Poulin, and Létourneau, came to Alberta from Kansas (at that time, 130 years ago, there were still many Franco-Americains in the US, and a good number were re-congregating and settling Alberta).  Others came from Eastern Canada (particularly Ontario and Québec).   My buddy’s great-great-grandparent’s family were actually Franco-Ontariens who settled the region Northeast of Edmonton – eventually forming part of Alberta’s Franco-albertain heritage.

He said the ragoût de boulettes recipe his family still makes goes back to their original Ontarian roots (Francophones have been in Ontario for 400 years, even before Anglophone culture in Ontario).  My buddy says the recipe his family uses has remained essentially unchanged for many many generations… with each generation trying to make it as true-to-the-original as they can.

He refuses to make his family’s Christmas ragoût with supermarket meat.  He says supermarkets use additives and “gas” the meat to make it last longer (just as supermarket wholesalers “gas” bananas so they keep longer).  But this treatment alters the taste, and adds a slight “ammonia” taste to it.  I had never heard of this with meat (but I had for bananas).

Anyway, he checked up on his special lean-lean ground pork order at the butcher, ensuring everything was going to be delivered to him on time.  His extended family is quite large, and they’re going to be travelling from all over Alberta tomorrow to meet in Medicine Hat.  Everyone in the family has been assigned a different dish to make, and my buddy was assigned the all-important ragoût de boullettes this year… so he can’t mess it up.   I tagged along as we drove around the city to look for containers big enough to put it in for his 6.5 hour drive down to Medicine Hat.  He has a long day of cooking ahead of him today.

The next post I’ll talk about what things are eaten in Québec (and Francophone families in general across Canada) for Christmas.   Tomorrow, the 24th, is a big day on the calendar for Francophones and food!  Will see you tomorrow.


Little side comment on all this “driving” stuff I mentioned (but if you’re from the Prairies, you’ll already know exactly what I mean):  

The following is something that might be of cross-cultural interest to Francophones readers of this blog in Québec.  It’s  an interesting quirk that people from the Prairies are always driving somewhere, all the time.  You saw me mention above how much long-distance driving many of us routinely do (with me using the example of driving all over the place during the holidays, my buddy driving almost 7 hours to Medicine Hat for the holidays, etc.)… and from what I saw yesterday on the highways and freeways… all of Alberta and Saskatchewan seems to be on the move!

Here on the Prairies, people feel driving 100, 200 or 300 kms is no more of a drive than what 20 kms would be to someone in a large city like Vancouver, Montréal or Toronto.  Because distances on the Prairies are so large, and families and friends are so spread out across all three Prairie provinces, if you were to lose your car, you would feel like part of your body has been amputated (it’s kind of how many people might feel if they lose their cell-phone or an internet connection).

People on the Prairies will happily drive two hours for a dental appointment.  I even know people who drive one hour, one way, across the countryside as part of their daily work commute.  Even when I lived in China and Lebanon for many years, I made sure I had my own vehicles at all times (I would “feel” strange without it), and I drove everywhere around China and the Middle-East (In the very early 2000’s, I even shipped my car from Canada to China in a container… people in Eastern Canada thought I was crazy… but people in Western Canada understood my “born to drive” disposition).   It can be quite the decision to have a vehicle in a far-away land where they don’t speak your language, and the culture and road conditions are very different.  But I figured that if I were to do it, I might as well go all out and push it to the limits — taking advantage of everything and every place there is to see.   To do otherwise would go against my nature (I’m from the Prairies after all 😉 ).

When I think of it, my vehicles have seen so many places, and they’ve all wracked up so many miles, that I’m even a bit taken aback when I stop to think about it.   I’ve done huge road-trips with them, driving from Islamabad, Pakistan to Beijing, China in one one trip, from Istanbul to Saudi Arabia in another, all over West Africa, and around India, in the Caucuses from Armenia to Georgia to Azerbaijan in one trip, renting a jeep for an off-road week-long adventure across the Mongolian desert, staying with nomads in their camps and night… and everywhere in between.  But bottom line, culturally, I don’t think I would have had the urge to do these things had I not grown up on the Prairies where there is such an ingrained “rural driving” culture — with a natural “urge” to get out there and “just drive it!”.   As a Westerner who grew up on the Prairies… I think driving is in our blood.

This same best friend I spoke of above, did a number of these road trips with me.   We once took a 3000km road trip together in my car across China (exploring little villages, forts, and temples likely never visited by foreigners before), and we did another road trip together across Uzbekistan, Khazakhstan, Kyrzyzstan and Tajikistan together.  And that doesn’t count our countless road trips in Canada we made together when we were a lot younger.  That’s how you know you’re best buds!   Best memories in the world!! (literally).

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Driving through the “Northwest Frontier Region”, Security forces, Pakistan

A.15Me & “the tank!“ (nick name for my truck). Highest border crossing in the world (Pakistan-China, 5000m).  300 metres higher, and would need oxygen tanks (was already out of breath just walking from the truck to take this pic).

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Drive to Northern Georgia

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Passing people in moments like this on the more remote drives make make trips like this so worth it.  You see lifestyles which either don’t exist anymore, or soon will no longer exist anywhere.

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Afamia, Syria… is was one of the most fascinating countries in the world.   Was so happy I could drive all over Syria when I did, before the war broke out and everything was peaceful and safe.  It used to be one of the friendliest and safest places in the world.  I still can’t believe what’s happening.  Seems surreal watching it now on the news.

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Driving past traditional houses in remote regions of Tajikistan – a style of home which has not changed for 4000 to 5000 years.

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Nope… can’t drive any further… end of the road at the Chechnya-Georgia border.

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Made it to Dubai… looooong, straaaaight drives across the desert.

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People say Alberta’s oilsands are “dirty”, but then you pass something like this on your drive across Azerbaijan!!  Yup… those are fields as far as you can see, filled with pools of crude oil all over the place.   Alberta’s oil is lookin’ pretty clean all of a sudden!  I think the disgusted look on my face says it all.

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My buddy taking a pic of me (leaning on the bench to the right) in Samarkand (that was quite the drive… ever have to line up at a gas station for an hour due to gas shortages?)

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Driving across Southern Lebanon to Shebaa Farms

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Driving across Bhutan… You feel like you’re driving through the clouds when you’re high up in the Himalayan passes.

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One of the last “pit-stops” on the road in Armenia before crossing the Georgian border in the next few hours.

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Driving across Oman

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Made it to Varanasi, India… sitting on the boat in the Ganges at sunrise — one of the most surreal experiences 

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Pit-stop & time for a photo along the Karakorum (one of the world’s most remote “highways” — at least it was a highway for the few portions when it was paved).

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Made it to the Taj!

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This was one of my first road trips… my car which I originally shipped in a container from Canada to China in the early 2000s… exploring ancient walled cities in rural China (this trip was with my buddy mentioned in this post).

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Driving across the border into Togo Left, made it up to Burkina Faso, right

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Arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan… checking out the city and doin’ the must-do “Almaty pose”

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Yup, this is actually the national highway across Northern Tajikistan, from the border from Uzbekistan, to Penjikent, down to the capital, Dushabe.   My brain was rattling for days after this drive.

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Very flat, long (but interesting) drive to Bukhara, Uzbekistan

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Not exactly a car, but a camel still is a vehicle for many people around the world — so I’ll take it!

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I love the irony in these two photos… these two photos were actually taken the same day — taken in the morning on right in Lebanon as we were driving over the high snowy mountain passes, and then later in the afternoon in the middle of the desert on the Homs-Baghdad highway in central Syria (sometime in 2007 or 2008).

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The Chitral Valley in Pakistan.  Was lucky I could drive it when I did… wouldn’t be able to get anywhere close to it today.

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This is another one of those moments that make it all worth the effort.  I would never see something like this again.

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My gear in the back of the jeep we rented and drove off-road across the Mongolian desert… living with nomads along the way.   Right:  a nomadic herder.

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Catching wild camels with nomads in Mongolia.  Filling up the jeep when and where you could.

Bottom line:  You’d never ever be able to see and do most of these things if you’re the least bit apprehensive about driving… so just get out there and drive !  (Good to be from the Prairies… gives ya the driving guts to do’er!)

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