Al’s Place in Woonsocket serves up Tourtière, a French-Canadian style of meat pie, in a tiny one-room diner, with a few red stools lining the counter. Roland Gagne sits at one of those stools, remembering Christmas dinners from his childhood.
"It’s an old fashioned tradition. I’m French and grew up here in Woonsocket, and my family always had meat pies," said Gagne.
Gagne stops by Al’s whenever he gets the chance, though he now lives a couple towns away. Sometimes he'll order a slice of the meat pie for lunch.
"It's not quite like a meatball, but it’s meaty and it’s a flavor. You have to try it. That's the best I can describe it."
Al’s Place sells about 500 meat pies between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, all made from scratch by owner and head chef Al Bernier. To keep up with the holiday rush, Bernier stocks the pies by the dozen in a freezer at the back of the diner.
"And I have some at home also. I got like maybe 50 to 60 pies at home in a freezer just like this one," said Bernier. "We'll sell a lot this weekend, and I'll be making more."
The details of Bernier’s recipe are a closely guarded secret that began in his grandmother’s kitchen. He explains that he's been refining his own technique for decades.
"I started when I was a kid about 14, 15. I worked in a restaurant helping out. And then I started making them and selling them from home. Then I tried to make them better from the ones that were there before, and that's how I got the reputation I have with my meat pies."
I’ve never tried Tourtière, so Bernier’s daughter, Michelle Cote, serves me a slice. The pie has a golden, hand-scalloped crust enveloping a thick filling of finely ground beef and pork. Cote also brings me a small bowl of dark brown gravy.
The pie is tasty, and the crust is nice and flaky. On Cote's recommendation, I also try it with dab of ketchup, which brings a note of sweetness to the dish.
"The French way is ketchup," said Cote. "Most people eat it that way."
Cote's husband, Rodney Cote, also grew up eating meat pies, although is mother mixed potato into the filling.
"My mother would make her own, and it was totally different from what my father-in-law makes, " he told me. "I can’t say I like one better than the other, but my father-in-law’s meat pie is more famous than my mother’s was."
How famous is his father-in-law’s meat pie? Well, Cote says people come from Maine, New Hampshire and even Florida to get them.
"They move from Woonsocket down south to Florida, and when they come and visit, they actually take a cooler and take back 9, 10 pies," said Cote. "They want their friends to try it out in Florida, so they travel."
The meat pie traveled to Woonsocket with French-Canadians, who sought jobs in the city’s textile mills starting around the mid-1860s. Many of them came from the province of Quebec, explains Anne Conway, who runs the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket.
"Very much from the small villages," said Conway. "We hear a lot of St. Hyacinthe, St. Ours, Sorel. It was very much word of mouth, so people knew there was work."
At one time, the number of French speakers in Woonsocket grew so large Conway says you had to learn French if you wanted to work in a mill. By 1920, 70 percent of the population was French-Canadian, which made Woonsocket the most French city in the United States.
Today, Conway estimates about 40 percent of Woonsocket residents still claim French-Canadian ancestry. And the tradition of theTourtière appears to be going strong. A cookbook in the museum's gift shop has not one, not two, but a dozen different recipes for the dish.
"I like to put cloves and allspice," said Conway, describing her family's recipe. "And I like to throw in an onion. I like to put fresh parsley in my meat pie, but it’s very much of a spicy, clovey taste."
On Christmas, Tourtière is often eaten as a side dish with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. But diner Roland Gagne drops a bombshell at Al's Place when he orders his meat pie with red sauce.
"I’m usually very unusual. I do things out of the ordinary," said Gagne.
Server Michelle Cote is a bit skeptical at first and offers to put the tomato sauce on the side.
"No, no, no, no. Put it right on it," Gagne told an incredulous Cote. "I love that stuff."
When the slice arrives, steaming hot and smothered in red sauce, Gagne couldn’t be happier.
"That’s the way to have it! See that? That’s excellent," Gagne said smiling. "You oughta try some."